What are, if any, the most plausible mythical origins and legends surrounding the unreadable book also known as the Voynich manuscript? What do legends, folklore or myths have to say as to what is actually believed to be contained in this historical document?

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-Samogitian book dealer who purchased it in 1912. Some of the pages are missing, with around 240 remaining. The text is written from left to right, and most of the pages have illustrations or diagrams. Some pages are foldable sheets.

The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. The manuscript has never been demonstrably deciphered, and the mystery of its meaning and origin has excited the popular imagination, making it the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has been independently verified. In 1969, the Voynich manuscript was donated by Hans P. Kraus to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


2 Answers 2


Since the V.M. has been extensively studied, as far as its physical properties go, I don't think much can be said for "mythical origins" of the book. It's known to be old and most likely made in Europe somewhere. A reasonable chain of ownership has been established for at least some stretches of the book's existence. Its origins and history are thus more mysterious than mythical.

As for the contents, I'm not so sure I'd consider any of the supposed translations to be matters of either mythology or folklore as such so much as, to borrow a phrase, "aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense".

  • Knowing its history doesn't mean it can't be mythical. George Washington became mythical while still in living memory
    – b a
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 20:49
  • 1
    Certainly legendary! But to the point, I don't think V.M. has attained the critical mass, if you will, to have accreted much viable folklore around itself.I mean, the semi-legendary stories I've read about it in the past, are probably more or less true. Particularly the one about its connexion to alchemy.; it seems that one of the owners was, indeed, an alchemist!
    – elemtilas
    Commented Apr 26, 2020 at 21:28

All "mythical origins and legends surrounding " the VMs that I know of have the same degree of plausibility, that is, absolute zero. All of them are of modern make.

  1. I believe the first recorded legend is the presentation of the ms. by then-owner Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, in a letter dated 1639, as a compendium of "treasures of Egyptian medicine" collected by some gentleman in his oriental "quest for true medicin" (quoted from Ph. Neal's translation, here; all my science about this & the following letter is from his Voynich site, here). The priority relies on 2 very plausible conditions: If the letter is authentic & if the document it describes is really the same book we dub the VMs.

Given that Baresch was striving to entice the famous author of the Prodromus Coptus into studying a copy of his ms., I cannot judge the extent of his sincerity in alleging an Egyptian origin. As an alchemist he must have known the stylistic conventions of the VMs do not match those of Hermetic diagrams in mediaeval mss, which would be all he'd ever met by way of hieroglyphs; on the other hand he may have interpreted some of the diagrams, as I did, as illustrating Moses' cosmogony (Gen. 1-2), and he must have recognized the Zodiacal signs & the (European) calendar months for what they are.

  1. Then, we have a letter from Marcus Marcii to the same Father Kircher (1665) translated here, asserting Emperor Rudolf owned the book before Baresch, having paid 600 ducats "to the man who presented it". Marcii then adds the opinion of a Dr. Raphael, "tutor of the King Ferdinand", who "thought the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman": the latter legend was widely circulated by W. Voynich in his promotional efforts for his ms. I think that contrary to us, the 17th C. did not question the attribution of De Mirabili Potestate Artis et Naturae & other alchemical treatises to Bacon.

Whoever received the 600 ducats is anyone's guess. The notion that it was John Dee has no other ground, I think, than a mention in his diaries that he obtained roughly this sum once, while in Prag. I am pretty sure he did not explicitize the reason for the payment. (Check this).

  1. Then, we have the claim by W. R. Newbold (publ. 1928) that, according to his partial decipherment, Roger Bacon had invented the telescope and drawn a schema of the Andromeda galaxy in the VMs; I think Jacques Bergier was the first to surmise in print that the anachronistic technology could be of extraterrestrial origin (Les livres maudits, 1971).

Some yrs ago I submitted to the VMs mailing list a much less, ah, aethereal conjecture: the diagram represents the Earth before the Biblical Creation. The supposed galactic bulge is actually the shapeless & void Earth; the arms, eight gusts of the Ruach Elohim blasting the Heaven and the waters above, off the tohu bohu & unto the eight compass points. Of course, I interpret the other diagrams of the folio as the 6 days of Creation, and the preceding folio as a map of Eden. In Newbold's defense, he likely had only photostat reprints of the VMs to work with, and may have missed the thin "T-in-O" signature of the pristine Earth: I recall it was not visible in my copy of Les livres maudits; I noticed it while browsing Mr. Davies' indispensable site, which all the links I provided to VMs pages h-ref.

  1. There is also a sidestream theory in Voynichology that will not slake in spite of its utter impracticality, which raises it to legendary status: that the whole thing was a fabrication by W. Voynich himself. The only factual basis of this legend is that Voynich was less than ingenuous in his account of the discovery of the ms.; it meets the same objections as the notion that the VMs script consists of glossolalia, compounded and amplified with the results of the radiocarbon dating, with his life-long inability to direct researchers to whatever prior art inspired him and, top and foremost, with his life-long inability to reach the desired end of the whole rigmarole: to sell the ms.

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