View Full Version : Modern astronomical resources to decipher 600-year-old book

2014-Sep-29, 04:41 PM
There's an early-1400s (according to carbon dating) book called the Voynich Manuscript which was found in a bookstore in Italy about 100 years ago with little sign of where it had been before the bookstore acquired it. It's written in an unknown language with an unknown alphabet, and contains many drawings of plants, astrological diagrams, and strange systems of pools & pipes with people bathing in them which might represent some kind of spirits of nature overseeing something for which plumbing is a metaphor, like the flow of energy in nature or the functions of internal organs. Til recently, nobody knew what any of the text meant, and some have suggested that it's not even a language at all but either a code or entirely fake or the gibberish output of a mental disorder. (And some of the plant drawings, as well as the human proportions, are beyond inaccurate and into very sloppy or just freaky.)

However, a linguistics professor in England named Stephen Bax recently got the ball rolling toward actually figuring it out, by using plant names similarly to the way the names of famous people and places were used in the Rosetta stone, since plant names also tend to similarly cross over between one language and another. By starting with plants that had been relatively confidently identified by botanists and whose names happened to have sounds in common in multiple languages, he found words at or near the beginnings of those plants' pages (which is where the plant's name usually goes in other Medieval herbal manuscripts) which had certain symbols in common in the right places, and thus found the likely sound values for those letters. He published a paper about it and put a video about it on YouTube, and opened up his personal website for input from others. Both the plant identifications and the languages it appears to have borrowed from imply that the book was written in southern Asia and only found its way to Europe sometime after being written.

He's turned his attention mostly to the astrological pages since then. I've continued in his original direction, collecting plant identifications which have been suggested over the years but not previously checked for matches in Bax's phonetic scheme and looking up foreign names for them, and I believe I've worked out what sounds most of the remaining letters must represent. If my expanded phonetic scheme is right, then it should be applicable to star & constellation names as well, but it needs to be tested.

One particular pair of pages (https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f68r1_f68r2_f68r3/0.289/0.437/3.00) seems like it should provide multiple opportunities for testing. Other astrological pages in the manuscript depict more complicated diagrams of concepts that are more culture-specific (and we still don't know what culture produced this) instead of just what's actually observed in the sky, but these two pages show simply fields of stars with names attached to individual stars. Each page's field is circular, with the sun at the top & moon at the bottom of one and the moon at the top & sun at the bottom of the other, which I'm hoping means each one depicts the complete celestial hemisphere/dome from the opposite angle of the other, in order to include the full sphere. Does this use of sun & moon symbols seem familiar from other old sources and tell you anything about the orientation of the two hemispheres?

I can get a list of known star names with a simple online search, but a list doesn't show their positions relative to each other, and if I match up names one at a time but their positions are scrambled, then I will have gotten nowhere. Are there any circular depictions of the celestial hemispheres out there showing the names of the brightest few dozen stars? If I could get my hands on them, I could try to see whether my theoretical phonetic transliterations of these Voynichese star names appear to match not just individual known star names but the whole group with geometrical relationships intact.

Also, if anyone more familiar with stars' names & positions than I am wants to try matching them up with the star fields & names on these VM pages for yourselves, I can create images of them with my theoretical phonetic transliterations overlaid onto the images and upload them here, or email them if the size limit here isn't high enough.