by Daniel Harms


from Necronomicon Website

In the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale lies one of the most enigmatic manuscripts in the world. Classified as Manuscript 408, it is a manuscript of nine by six inches and 235 pages (though some pages may have been lost). Its lettering is unique to the manuscript, and its pages are illustrated with a wide variety of diagrams: plants, nude women in baths, astronomical charts, and other unlikely subjects. The Voynich Manuscript has become the focus of intense scholarship ever since its discovery, and some of the world’s best cryptographers have been attempting to read it for decades.

Over time, the "most mysterious manuscript in the world" has become intertwined with the mythology of the Necronomicon, to the point that many people have hopelessly confused the issues regarding the two. With all the confusion which is already part of the Necronomicon debate, it might help to describe the controversy surrounding the Voynich Manuscript for the first-time reader. [1]

The Manuscript in Medieval Times

The Voynich Manuscript first enters the historical record at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Rudolph (1552-1612) was a weak ruler who allowed affairs of state to fall into disarray until the Hapsburg archdukes threw their support behind his brother (and soon-to-be heir) Matthias. For Rudolph, political concerns were much less important than science and alchemy. His court in Prague became a magnet for learned men including the astronomer Johannes Kepler and charlatans from across Europe, and individuals were constantly rising into and being cast out of the Emperor’s favor. It was in this atmosphere that the Emperor purchased the Voynich Manuscript from an unknown individual for 600 ducats an unbelievable sum for a book that no one at the court could read.

Accounts suggest that the Emperor thought the manuscript was the work of Roger Bacon (c. 1220-1292), a Franciscan friar. Roger Bacon was a great thinker and spent much of his time in the study of philosophy, science, and alchemy. He made relatively few scientific discoveries (though he did investigate the nature of light and proposed gunpowder’s use in warfare), but he is perhaps better known for his steps toward creating a systematic procedure for experimentation. Because of his unusual viewpoints and attacks on fellow scholars, he was often at odds with his superiors, and near the end of his life was imprisoned for reasons unknown. Nevertheless, his works, including the Opus majus, Opus minus, and Opus tertium are considered milestones in the history of science.

Most scholars would agree that the Voynich Manuscript did not originate with Bacon, however. There is no mention of this work anywhere between his time and its appearance in Prague. Bacon might have known something about cryptography, but if the manuscript is written in a cipher which is by no means certain it is a cipher more difficult than any used in the thirteenth century. Some have pointed to a simple encoded inscription in the book that identifies the author as Bacon - but this could have been the work of a clever hoaxer. Other evidence within the manuscript, such as diagrams of what appear to be New World plants, suggest that the Voynich Manuscript was not actually the work of Roger Bacon.

If the manuscript is not the work of Roger Bacon, then who is responsible for it? One likely individual is John Dee (1527-1608), the Elizabethan doctor and magician. Between 1584 and 1588, Dee visited Prague several times as the guest of Rudolph II. Dee himself was interested in cryptography, and had a substantial collection of Roger Bacon’s works in his library. In addition, during his time in Prague, Dee mentions a gift of 630 ducats, approximately that which Rudolph II paid for the book. Some have also said that the page numbering on the Manuscript is in Dee’s handwriting. Thus, it is likely that the manuscript came to Rudolph through Dee.

After its appearance in Prague, the manuscript’s history becomes slightly clearer. Tests revealed the signature of Jacobus de Tepenecz, a botanist and alchemist at Rudolph’s court, on the Manuscript’s first page. It is believed that the Emperor gave the manuscript to de Tepenecz around 1610 (though some suggest that de Tepenecz had the book first and sold it to the Emperor). It then passed through a person or persons unknown
* who left it in their will to the scholar Joannes Marcus Marci (c. 1595-1667).


* Since the publication of our book, the identity of this individual has been confirmed as a mysterious individual named "Baresch".


Shortly before his death, Marci sent the manuscript on to his friend Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher popularized the "magic lantern" (a sort of prototypical slide projector), and was considered an expert on cryptography. He tried unsuccessfully to decode the book, and after his death the Voynich Manuscript vanished until it turned up again in the library of the Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy.

The Rediscovery and the "Deciphering"

In 1912, a used bookseller named Wilfrid M. Voynich found the manuscript along with a number of books bearing the seals of the noble houses of Italy. Voynich was anxious that the book be deciphered, and sent out copies to al number of expert cryptographers who he hoped would provide an answer. Most of them were certain that they could solve the cipher quickly, but all of them were stymied.

The first of many "solutions" appeared in 1921, when Professor William Romaine Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania claimed to have solved the puzzle. The first stage of decipherment, according to Newbold, was to understand that each of the characters was in fact made up of a number of characters from a type of Greek shorthand. These microscopic letters were deciphered, and then subjected to a complicated process involving doubling some of the letters, using pairs of letters to generate new characters, changing those characters into their phonetic values, and rearranging the letters in a sequence to create words.


This may seem like an overly complicated process (as many cryptographers later agreed), but his methods of decipherment were overshadowed by his results. Newbold announced that the Voynich Manuscript showed that Bacon had a vast knowledge of facts believed to have been discovered only recently, such as the spiral nebula of Andromeda and a process for creating metallic copper. The discovery was seen as a breakthrough in the history of science.

Newbold died in 1927, and his work The Cipher of Roger Bacon was published in the following year. After the euphoria had worn off, many scholars expressed their doubts as to the decipherment. The foremost of these was John M. Manly, who demolished Newbold’s claims in an article in the Speculum, a journal of medieval studies, in 1931. Manly began by pointing out that the supposed Greek shorthand was actually the result of the fading and cracking of the manuscript’s ink. He noted that even if these characters had existed, Newbold’s system of rearrangement made it possible to generate hundreds of possible translations for each text. The texts which Newbold had "deciphered" contained a number of historical inaccuracies, and most of them seemed to be no more than a product of Newbold’s imagination. With this announcement, most of the support for the decipherment vanished.

As the years have passed, more possible solutions have emerged. Joseph Feely arrived at his "decipherment" by guessing at what the labels to the pictures might mean, and then hypothesizing an abbreviated medieval Latin was used to write the book. Leonell Strong claimed that the book was a gynecological textbook written in Middle English. Robert Brumbaugh claimed to have reached a solution that explained some of the labels on the illustrations, but failed to decipher the main text, leading him to conclude that most of the book was fraudulent.


One of the most recent examples of these efforts was Leo Levitov’s Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A Liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy. Levitov believed that the book was a manual of the Cathars, a heretical Christian sect destroyed in the 13th century. Instead of being a cipher, Levitov claimed the book was actually written in a polyglot tongue of which we have no other records. In the end, all of these solutions rested on shaky methodology and highly creative readings of the "deciphered" text, and as a group they tell us more about human nature than the Manuscript’s contents.

Voynich passed away in 1930, and his widow held the Manuscript until her death in 1960. It was briefly held by its co-owner, A. M. Nill, who sold it in 1961 to the bookseller Hans P. Kraus. Kraus was unable to find a buyer for the Manuscript, and deposited it at the Beinecke Rare Books Library. The manuscript still attracts a great deal of attention. Even after years of effort by cryptographers, we cannot even say what language it might be in. Some claim that large parts of it are random, and that only a few passages mean anything at all. Others believe that it is an attempt at an artificial language, or an elaborate work of art. Most cryptographers who have dealt with the Voynich Manuscript believe that it does have meaning, however, and it will have no shortage of prospective decipherers in the future.

Colin Wilson, the Voynich Manuscript, and the Necronomicon

The link between those two mysterious manuscripts Voynich’s book and the Necronomicon - was first hypothesized in the Cthulhu Mythos fiction of the English author and critic Colin Wilson. Wilson had been treated Lovecraft quite critically in his book The Strength to Dream, and wrote his first Mythos novel, The Mind Parasites, in response to August Derleth’s challenge to write such a book. Wilson wrote relatively few Mythos stories, but most fans regard his tales as classics in the genre.

The first time Wilson mentioned the Voynich Manuscript was in his short story "The Return of the Lloigor", published in Arkham House’s Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. The protagonist of "Return" is Professor Paul Lang of the University of Virginia. A literary acquaintance of his asks him to acquire a photocopy of the Voynich Manuscript, which is being kept at the University of Pennsylvania [2]. While Lang is making the copy, he meets a photographer who has taken a color photo of the manuscript.


The professor notices that some faint lines are now showing up, and he commissions photographs of the entire manuscript, filling in the areas where the ink has worn away. He soon discovers that the book is written in Arabic or rather, Greek and Latin written in the Arabic alphabet. (A glance at the characters from the Voynich Manuscript will show that this is impossible, but as this is fiction, Wilson can be allowed some leeway.)


When he finishes, he finds that he has discovered that the book was written by a "Martin Gardener" and is both "a complete scientific account of the universe" and "a typical mediaeval m nge of magic, theology, and pre-Copernican speculation" [3]. I leave you to guess its title.

Professor Lang has no knowledge of the Necronomicon, and is surprised to learn that Lovecraft supposedly invented it. He notes that there are elements in the Voynich Manuscript in common with the fiction of both Lovecraft and Arthur Machen (a real-life Welsh fantasy writer and a crucial influence on Lovecraft), and hypothesizes that they had seen another copy of the manuscript at some point in their careers. He is unable to find out anything about Lovecraft, but learns that Machen may have seen such a manuscript in Lyons or Paris, where it was held by a circle of French Satanists. For reasons that are unclear, Lang decides to look for this manuscript in Melincourt, Arthur Machen’s birthplace. After he arrives in Melincourt, the story takes its leave of the manuscript as it tells of the professor’s battles against a species of psychic beings known as the lloigor.

I am uncertain why Colin Wilson chose to bring link these two books. The best theory is that this comparison involves John Dee. In real life, John Dee may have been the individual who gave Emperor Rudolph II the Voynich Manuscript, and in fiction, he was the translator of the Latin Necronomicon. The only flaw in this hypothesis is that Wilson never mentions Dee anywhere in his story. It is possible that this omission is deliberate, or possibly Wilson had other reasons entirely for his choice.

Wilson returns to the Voynich Manuscript/Necronomicon at the end of his novel The Philosopher’s Stone. Throughout the novel, Howard Lester and his friend Sir Henry Littleway (whose initials can hardly be a coincidence) have been learning to develop their psychic abilities to avoid aging and bring about the next evolutionary step for humanity. As they become more successful, however, they are beset by a series of odd calamities. The two men are nearly involved in an auto accident, Littleway’s brother Roger assaults a girl, and scholars who were previously friendly to the two become hostile. Lester eventually realizes that these mishaps are the result of mental control by beings known as the Great Old Ones. He sets out to learn as much about them as possible, and during his search of mythology and religion he learns of Lovecraft and the Necronomicon.

One night, Lester believes Roger Littleway is in contact with the Great Old Ones. While Roger is resting, Lester asks him where the Necronomicon is. Roger mouths a phrase which sounds like, "The ladder..." Lester concludes that he actually means "Philadelphia", and tries to find which books may be in that city. One of them the Voynich Manuscript seems to be the one, so he and Littleway set out immediately to see it. When they arrive, they meet Professor Paul (now James) Lang’s nephew and follow his suggestions to decipher it. They find that the book is not actually the Necronomicon, but a commentary on it including many passages from the book itself.

The most terrifying aspect of the Voynich Manuscript, however, is not its contents. Lester and Littleway have become adept at psychometry that is to say, psychic reading of the histories of objects yet they can get no reading on the manuscript at all. One day, they attempt to do so in concert, and break through the interference, only to disturb the slumber of one of the Great Old Ones themselves. The two men make it through alive but shaken, and then begin plotting their next move against the Old Ones.

The spread of the "Voynich Manuscript=Necronomicon" rumor may be attributed to two causes. One is the distribution of Wilson’s fiction; "Return" first appeared in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, perhaps the most influential Mythos anthology of all time. The story would probably have attracted little attention if it had been printed in a small-press magazine of limited circulation, as many other Mythos stories have been. More of the credit, however, goes to Wilson’s unparalleled ability to merge together fact and fiction until it becomes nearly impossible to separate them.


Lovecraft himself made wide use of this technique, but Wilson takes it to new heights in his stories. An uninformed reader might believe that the Voynich Manuscript is not real, or that the Voynich Manuscript is really the Necronomicon. Wilson seems to have been aware of the dangers of this, as he states in his introduction to The Philosopher’s Stone that,

"the Voynich manuscript does, of course, exist, and is still untranslated" [4].

The rumor’s power has endured nonetheless.

These two pieces are the only ones of Wilson’s which mention the Voynich Manuscript, yet I would be remiss if I did not mention one more the George Hay edition of the Necronomicon. Colin Wilson was the creative force behind this hoax [5], and the story behind it bears a striking resemblance to these other pieces. The Hay's Necronomicon is supposedly a transcription of an encoded manuscript found in a library in this case, a set of charts of letters made by John Dee.


Through concerted effort, a cryptographer breaks the cipher and discovers that the book is in fact the Necronomicon in disguise. As in "The Return of the Lloigor", it is hypothesized that Lovecraft had access to another copy of the volume, though Hay’s book is much more explicit about how this occurred. As a matter of fact, it is surprising that Wilson at no point mentions the Voynich Manuscript, even though he does bring in John Dee at last. Is he trying to keep the two fictions separate? At any rate, the Hay's Necronomicon and Wilson’s other stories may almost be seen as a complementary pair.



[1] Much of the information in this section is taken from the following books:

  • Brumbaugh, Robert S., ed. The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich "Roger Bacon" Cipher Manuscript. Carbondale, IL; Southern Illinois University Press. 1978.

  • D’Imperio, M. E. The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma. Fort George C. Meade, MD; National Security Agency/Central Security Service. 1978.

[2] I have heard that the Voynich Manuscript was kept at the University of Pennsylvania during the Sixties, but I have yet to find a source that corroborates this information. Wilson probably made this up based on the fact that Newbold was a professor at that institution.

[3] Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. Second edition. Sauk City, Arkham House. 1990. pp. 366-7.

[4] New York, Crown Publishers. 1971. p. 7.

[5] Wilson, Colin. The Necronomicon: The Origin of a Spoof." Crypt of Cthulhu, St. John’s Eve 1984.

Since the publication of our book, the identity of this individual has been confirmed as a mysterious individual named "Baresch".