Seriously, it's not an RPG supplement
October 24, 2014 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has just released brand new scans of the Voynich Manuscript. The entire collection is available in JPEG and TIFF, and the new scans look pretty nice. The Beinecke's main page for the Voynich (previously) gives a high-level overview of what the Voynich is, but René Zandbergen's site is probably a better place to start. Just want to poke around? Try the Voynich Manuscript Voyager, which lets you zoom in and bookmark any location in the book. Or the Voynichese Query Viewer, which provides visual search results. And don't forget the text, which the Voynich information browser provides in your choice of transcription. posted by bigbigdog (30 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hey, ancient Jibrovian. Haven't seen that for a while.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 1:16 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm actually not entirely sure that it isn't an RPG manual. Some of those "cosmological" sketches look like D&D's Great Wheel cosmology!

I wonder if Gygax was familiar with the Voynich MS.
posted by shvaughn at 1:34 AM on October 24, 2014


(I'm only half serious.)
posted by shvaughn at 2:02 AM on October 24, 2014


I've always been fascinated by the Voynich Manuscript. My personal favorite theory is that it was written by Edward Kelley as a hoax or partial hoax (he may have believed that he was a medium and could channel spirits/angels). Later, he fabricates some story about its origin and sells it to Rudolph II for a small fortune.

We know he was connected to Rudolph II and claimed to transcribe messages from angels. He also had made claims about converting metals into gold and had his ears cut off for forgery.
posted by justkevin at 2:36 AM on October 24, 2014


These new scans are absolutely gorgeous. Thanks so much for posting this.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 2:37 AM on October 24, 2014


Could well make it easier for Stephen Bax's attempt to decode the manuscript by identifying plant and star names. Clearer pictures means easier identification.
posted by cthuljew at 4:49 AM on October 24, 2014


I think Friar and the Cipher also mentioned that as a possible origin, justkevin. I've believed it to be a Roger Bacon creation.
posted by dr_dank at 5:12 AM on October 24, 2014


I think that it's the ur-Codex Seraphinianus. At least, it scratches that same sort of itch for me.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:19 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's odd to me that there doesn't appear to be any high-quality facsimile print edition of the Voynich MS. I would totally buy one. It would make a good companion to my copy of the Codex Seraphinianus.
posted by slkinsey at 5:20 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


slkinsey just said what I came in to say: I really want a facsimile of this book. I imagine it would be a bit tricky to publish; the manuscript has so many painted images and several multi-page fold-outs, the printing would have to be specialized. But it's one of those things where the physical act of browsing seems like it would be so much more satisfying than looking at pictures on screen.

As to what it is, I'm torn. On the one hand, it'd be awesome to be alive when the Voynich manuscript is deciphered. On the other, I like the idea that this thing could be an enigma forever.
posted by graymouser at 5:51 AM on October 24, 2014


I'm seriously interested in the Voynich manuscript, to the extent that I've done research on it. It deserves more and better attention as it has carbon dated to the early 1400s, wiping out a lot of the bad old theories. It definitely isn't a hoax by Edward Kelley, and it isn't an original manuscript by Roger Bacon (though it being a copy is still a possibility). If anybody is interested in getting into the Voynich manuscript in a serious way, they should trawl through Rene Zandbergen's site, but also read Mary D'Imperio's An Elegant Enigma (the "the NSA" link) for a good history of decipherment attempts.

I'm not sure how new these scans are, because we've had pretty good ones for at least two years now. Maybe they're even better ones, but I've not heard any news that a new scan was happening. For those who want colour facsimiles of the Voynich manuscript, such things definitely are available. You just need to poke around the internet a bit more.

Could well make it easier for Stephen Bax's attempt to decode the manuscript by identifying plant and star names. Clearer pictures means easier identification.

Bax's theory isn't all that good. It's very "naive" in the sense that he guesses what word should be in the text based on the drawings, guesses what string of characters might represent that word, and then guesses how those characters can be made to fit a version of the word he's looking for. Note that he's already identified values for something like more than half of the characters and yet still says he only has a handful of plant names. With the amount of text there is in the manuscript, Bax should be able to read strings of several words by now but hasn't offered to do so.
posted by Thing at 6:10 AM on October 24, 2014 [11 favorites]


For those who want colour facsimiles of the Voynich manuscript, such things definitely are available. You just need to poke around the internet a bit more.

Decent-quality professionally printed/bound facsimiles? I am aware that there are people who will charge money to make color prints of the scans.
posted by slkinsey at 7:47 AM on October 24, 2014


Surely this higher resolution scan is the the thing we need to finally unlock the code!

Or not. After so much casual attention with no progress I'm convinced the Voynich has no intentional content. I fear it's either a fraud or glossolalia.
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on October 24, 2014


LOL at all these people guessing about the origins of the manuscript instead of using Occam's Razor to arrive at the (frankly obvious) explanation: it was a field guide pulled from an alternate universe (populated primarily by humanoids descended from Gigantopithecus blacki) by John Dee, who opened a portal to said universe with the help of standard Machine Elves.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:19 AM on October 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


are there any resources out there for using the VM in an rpg?
posted by rebent at 8:22 AM on October 24, 2014


It was in the Keeper's Companion for Call of Cthulhu (you can see the write-up in the Google Books preview). That makes it part of the Necronomicon and gives +6 percentiles to Cthulhu Mythos.
posted by graymouser at 8:30 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is this site not explaining how the writing works? I've never taken the time to try to really compare it to the script, but the use of three columns of characters with its basic rule-set seems plausible:

http://www.voynich.info/1_complete_deciphering_method/1_1_equivalent_alphabet.html
posted by GreyboxHero at 8:54 AM on October 24, 2014


Not an RPG supplement? I'm printing this shit out and using it for my alchemist's spellbook in Pathfinder.
posted by charred husk at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2014


Is this site not explaining how the writing works?

There are many "explanations" for how to read the Voynich. None of them are credible.
posted by Nelson at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2014


The writing system as jibberish does seem to work from the link I posted though...it doesn't give an exciting conclusion, but does seem to explain how the writing system works (including how it bypasses much of the standard language analysis techniques)....would love to know what's wrong with it if anybody is able to pick it apart.
posted by GreyboxHero at 9:18 AM on October 24, 2014


I think I deciphered the first page! If you use each word's character length as a numeral, take the whole page as a compound number, multiply it by the Golden Ratio and then transcribe each number pair back into letters using a reversed alphabet substitution, it goes like this: Lorem ipsum dolor sic amet...
posted by forgetful snow at 9:29 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]


A fatal error in Bax's theory, and many like it, is that it doesn't account for the structural regularities in Voynich words, of which there are many. As for GreyboxHero's link, and other proposals like it like Gordon Rugg's: they're more compatible with this sort of structure by nature, but they're basically arguments for absence of evidence of meaningfulness and not evidence of absence.

On the other hand, some of the probabilities that come up in the structure are very striking. For instance, if you sort all the words in the manuscript according to whether they contain any letters based on a "c" shape and whether they contain any of the distinctive tall loopy letters (those in the biz call them gallows), you get:

no Cs, no gallows: 24.9%
yes Cs, no gallows: 24.5%
no Cs, yes gallows: 16.8%
yes Cs, yes gallows: 33.8%

which is really quite close to a 3:3:2:4 ratio (and it gets even closer if you massage the data a little and remove some of the words with gallows in the "wrong place"). That kind of clean frequency distribution seems a lot easier to generate by rolling dice than by processing a natural language input.
posted by finka at 11:09 AM on October 24, 2014


Decent-quality professionally printed/bound facsimiles? I am aware that there are people who will charge money to make color prints of the scans.

I understand that a French publishing company made a "coffee table" version, so yes. A good number of researchers have a copy of that edition.

The writing system as jibberish does seem to work from the link I posted though...it doesn't give an exciting conclusion, but does seem to explain how the writing system works (including how it bypasses much of the standard language analysis techniques)....would love to know what's wrong with it if anybody is able to pick it apart.

Well, for a start, he gives three columns of characters and suggests that you pick one from the first column, one or more from the second, and then one from the third. In this way you can generate all (or many) of the words in the text. Not only does the system come nowhere near generating all the observed words, a good chunk of it is positively redundant.

Look in the first column and you will see a character which look like a "4". This character almost only comes before the character in the middle column which looks like "o". Picking any other character in that column will result in a word which is very un-Voynich. Other combinations are also impossible, making much of the table useless at best or positively misleading.

He later suggests that you must exercise "judicious choice" and avoid "unaesthetic situations", but really that means you must know a whole load of actual rules about how Voynich words are made to avoid making bad words. But if you already know such rules, then what use are the columns?
posted by Thing at 11:13 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


A fatal error in Bax's theory, and many like it, is that it doesn't account for the structural regularities in Voynich words, of which there are many.

That's really not a problem with Bax's work. Nor indeed does Stolfi's work speak against it, but instead rules out a number of different ciphers and certain kinds of languages. I understand that Stolfi himself is in favour of a natural language solution.

Although Voynichese is more regular than we might expect, natural languages do show a great deal of word structure.
posted by Thing at 11:25 AM on October 24, 2014


Well, okay, "fatal error" is overly harsh re Bax, but the mismatch is a severe hit to his theory's likelihood. Yes, the structure is in broad strokes compatible with natural language: indeed it looks a bit like syllables subject to a sonority hierarchy, where each syllable has to increase and then decrease in sonority, i.e. you can't have stranded low-sonority things in the middle. Under that reading, the most sonorous Voynich letter which Bax gives an interpretation to is... /k/! That's completely backwards, phonologically.

Another reason I'm skeptical of Bax is that, wouldn't you know it, a lot of his decodings are very similar to way the same letters are written in the EVA transcription alphabet, even ones that don't (to me) look much like their transcriptions. Bax's "k" is EVA "k"; his "r" is EVA "r"; his "ch" is EVA "ch" with an extra flourish on; his "t" is EVA "d", so just a voicing mismatch, and he even uses it to stand in for /d/ in words like "coriander". Which to me suggests only pareidolia, staring at the EVA transcription and seeing some near-words in there. If you really tried to fit plant names to it honestly from tabula rasa, what're the chances you'd end up so near EVA?
posted by finka at 11:37 AM on October 24, 2014


I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought Stolfi's crust-mantle-core was reminiscent of the Sonority Sequencing Principle! When I read Stolfi's work I knew that the structure he found had to be phonetic in nature, although I am biased toward a linguistic solution. Under his model the gallows letters have to be vowels or approximants (with the script not indicating vowels). Though I like Stolfi's work this conclusion doesn't sit well with me for a couple of reasons.

There are eight gallows letters (assuming that those combined with "ch" are kinds of vowels), which is plenty enough for a complete vowelling of a language. But the ten commonmost words don't have any gallows letters at all! We could explain this by saying that only certain vowels are indicated, which would also work as an explanation for Grove words. If vowels aren't indicated in low stress words (or some other prosodic value) then the commonest words might really not have vowels worth indicating. There might also be a shifting of stress to utterance initial positions--where Grove words are found--thus making initial vowels which were formerly invisible suddenly be indicated with a gallows letter. A very interesting theory!

However, if there really are multiple unindicated vowels along with those shown by gallows letters then the Sonority Sequencing Principle falls flat when applied to Stolfi's model. Furthermore, the insistence that every word is more or less one syllable makes the onsets and codas of those syllables horrendously complex. I respect Stolfi's work but am beginning to see that it must be flawed in some way. I'm working on my own model, but it takes time.

As for Bax, I agree that it is uncanny how his values match up with EVA, which is another strike against him. Also I believe that the gallows letters are somehow featural, meaning that if "k" is a gallows letter, then "t" is likely to be a gallows letter too. Lastly, if I may plug the only piece of work on the Voynich that I've published, I don't believe that EVA "a" and "y" can have the values of "a" and "n" that Bax assigns them. I've written here that there must be some kind of equivalence between EVA "a" and "y", and so such disparate values are highly unlikely.
posted by Thing at 12:07 PM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]




I think this is the French facsimile most folks buy. Don't quote me though.
posted by Thing at 12:59 PM on October 24, 2014


If you really tried to fit plant names to it honestly from tabula rasa, what're the chances you'd end up so near EVA?

To me that actually suggest more a link to other alphabetic/abjad writing systems than it does an obvious misreading on Bax's part. Not to be partisan, but I'm most interested in his extremely cautious and carefully structured approach. Sure, it may turn out to be nothing. But scoffing at it so early in the game seems premature.
posted by cthuljew at 2:57 PM on October 24, 2014


Bax isn't extremely cautious, he makes leaps which suit his needs. He claims that the word "oror" means juniper and has found a cluster of words containing that string on a certain page. On the following page he claims the picture is of a juniper bush. Based on this Bax says that pages should be read two at a time. Even though almost all "herbal" pages in the manuscript have text and a picture of a single plant, the "correct" unit for analysis is two lots of text and two plants at a time. It's a remarkable discovery, especially as it gives him twice as much material to find the connections needed to back up his theory.

Nor is Bax's approach carefully structured. The page with the cluster of "oror" actually begins with the word "poror". Bax disregards the first letter, which is actually reasonable because many initial words seem to have an extra letter attached to the beginning. However, on another page which begins with "kydainy" Bax keeps the initial "k" when reading the plant name. It seems the first letters of words can be kept or disregarded depending on the answer he wants.

If Bax has found any right answers it is more through luck than method. His work is bad and he should feel bad.
posted by Thing at 4:07 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


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