The Voynich Manuscript

Last Updated: 15/09/18

Date Location Words
April 1983 Mill Valley, CA 4376

[Forest Noises]

Faustin Bray: Greetings, this is Faustin Bray for Sound Photosynthesis, Brian Wallace is recording, and today we have the good fortune to talk with Terence McKenna. He has chosen a subject that has been interesting to him for quite a while, and, um, the title of this tape is "The Voynich Manuscript."

Terence McKenna: What I'd liked to talk about today and, uh, what's brought me to the edge of my chair recently is, uh, the Voynich Manuscript, which is something that, uh, though I had read in occultism fairly deeply, and in alchemical literature and that kind of thing, I had never heard of this until about a year and a half ago, and uh, a friend of mine, Ralph Abraham, who's a mathematician at Santa Cruz, began pushing this at me, mentioning this encoded manuscript that, uh, people were interested in trying to figure out what it said, and since I had never heard of it I dismissed it, uh, I assumed that he was misinformed uh, or that if this thing existed I surely would have heard of it. But, uh, eventually I tracked down the references that he gave me, and I discovered a very curious cul-de-sac, uh, in the, uh, history of ideas.

First of all, it is a manuscript. That means it's written in long hand; it's not a printed book. Only one copy is known to exist. It's at the Beinecke Rare Book room at Yale, and it was deposited there by the estate of mister Alfred Voynich, uh, when his wife died. The Voynich Manuscript, here are the known facts: It was, it first appears in, uh, 1586 at the court of Rudolf the Second of Bohemia, which if you know that court and that period, this was the 'Mad Rudolf of Bohemia'. This guy was surrounded by astrologers, alchemists, cryptographers, all the intellectual foment of occult, protestant Europe was centered at this court, and, uh, into this situation comes an unknown person, a courier, who sells this manuscript to Rudolf for the equivalent of, uh, fourteen thousand dollars, thirteen- three hundred gold ducats, which is an enormous amount of money to pay for something like this, and, um, it was in his possession. It's encoded, it is not written in any known alphabet, it is written in, what scholars call, Voynich Script, of which this manuscript is the only known example in existence, and part of the problem of the Voynich Manuscript has to do with locating instances of Voynich script somewhere else. It's over 275 pages long, it has 100, over 150 color illustrations of plants in one category, what appear to be astrological diagrams in another category, and then completely unclassifiable set of images which seem to be, basically, little naked ladies bathing in strange fountains, or perhaps dissected flowers, or, it isn't clear what it is.

Uhh, the emperor would not have paid so much money for it if he hadn't been convinced that, uh, there was something going on with it. He had cryptographers at his court who were very adept at decoding manuscripts. None of them were ever able to make any progress with it. When his court collapsed in the incident of the Winter King and Queen of 1619, uh, the manuscript passed to his botanist, a man named Marci, and at his death, it passed, uh, to an unknown party who owned it for 20 years, and the next place where it's picked up is in the library of Athanasius Kircher, who's one of the great polymaths of, uh, the 17th century, and a man who himself worked on artificial languages and synthetic languages. And he, uh- letters exist of his inquiring after this manuscript and eventually it came into his possession, but there's no mention of it in any of his known work on artificial languages. At, uh, a-a-around 1635 he decided to join the Jesuit Order, and, uh, gave all his books to a Jesuit college south of Rome, where this book apparently sat on the shelf at the next, uh, what is it, 230 years, uh, until 1906 when Mister Alfred Voynich bought the entire library, a rare book dealer, shipped it back to Brooklyn, and in going through this stuff came upon this manuscript.

Um. Now, what's so great about a book which nobody can read? Well first of all, it's very unusual, books which no one can read. Codes, immensely powerful methods exist for breaking codes because this is a matter of military intelligence and, uh, defense, uh, concerns, and, uh, very sophisticated, uh, computer techniques exist to analyze any supposed piece of code and extract meaning from it, determine whether it is in fact encoded language or not, whether you can tell what it says or not. And the Voynich Manuscript has become a kind of conundrum of the intelligence community. Retired intelligence officers take it on, and attempt to crack it. In fact, one of the best books written about the Voynich Manuscript is called 'The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma' by Mary D'Imperio and it is only available from the National Security Agency Central Security Office, Fort Meade, MD; this is what your tax dollars are being spent for is to decode this 400 year old manuscript.

Okay, um, Voynich script. The most sophisticated computer analysis shows that the manuscript definitely is, uh, a language. There is meaning, the occurrence of prefixes and suffixes, certain internal rules of grammar have been identified, but, uh, the meaning has eluded all comers. And it- and several people, if there were more time we could go into people whose whole careers have rested on their supposed decoding of it. A man named, uh, William Newberry in the 1920s claimed a complete decipherment and it was later exposed to be a sincere but misguided mental derangement that contributed to his belief that he had decoded. Other people have made attempts but all of them- none are convincing, and so this is where the matter rests: one edition of this, of this, manuscript exists; it's never been decoded.

My idea about it is that, um, to understand the Voynich manuscript you have to understand the career of John Dee, who was, uh, the greatest Magus of the Elizabethan age, the court astrologer of Elizabeth I of England, the man who had more- he had the largest library in England. Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir William Sidney visited him to see his collection of books. He wa-, he, uh, wrote on the elements of Euclid, he wrote books on navigation and astronomy, but he also was an occultist and into secret codes; he was also an intelligence agent. He had been at the court of Rudolf the year before the sale is alleged to have taken place. He and his friend Edward Kelley, and, uh, they had bruited it about that Roger Bacon, the 13th century English monk, was the greatest astrolo-, uh, greatest alchemist of all time, and they had really made a flap about Bacon--(swallows) in Prague at the court of Rudolf. Then, a series of alchemical experiments where they had promised the emperor to make gold and had failed caused them to be to exiled to Treblona. So they were in Treblona when this alleged sale of this manuscript took place in Prague.

Now, all occult codes in Europe are based, or, at that time, were based on the work of one man, the Bishop of, uh, uh, Johannes Trithemius of Sponheim who wrote a book called the 'Stenographica' [sic. ' Steganographia'] which was published in 1535, and in it he explained numerous methods drawn from Roman sources and his own imagination for composing codes and encrypting messages, and all of the, uh, occult codes which follow are based on this. Dee hand copied, uh, a manuscript of the 'Stenographica' [sic. ' Steganographia'] when he encountered it in Paris. He was involved with a series of Angel contacts where he elaborated a language called Enochian, which like Voynich, is not written in, uh, characters of the English alphabet but has a peculiar set of characters unique to itself. Over 3000 words have been defined in Enochian, first through Dee's, uh, uh, spirit contacts and later the Golden Dawn took it up and further expanded it. But in Dee's diaries which are deposited in the British Museum there are 93 pages of encrypted material which are columns of numbers, and uh, I believe that, uh, uh, to eliminate the possibility that Dee was the author of the Voynich Manuscript the encoding methods of this material in his diary need to be computer analyzed and then compared to the Voynich material.

The other possibility, which still involves Dee, is, uh, this person I mentioned, Edward Kelley, his companion of many years. Kelley's entrée- Kelley was a man of the lower classes, a much younger man, a scoundrel by all accounts, and his entrée to Dee was he came to him with a book, which was in code, which he had claimed to have found in a, uh, crypt of a, uh, looted Catholic monastery in Wales (this was, uh, during the period just after Henry the 8th's break with Rome), uh, which- and he called this book "The Gospel of St Dunstable" and Dee worked on the decoding of it, but we lose sight of that book, and no known copy of it, no copy of it exists, so far as we know. But Arthur Dee, John Dee's son, in his diary, talks about how, in the period before Dee and Kelley went to Europe, his father spent a great deal of time studying a book which was covered all over with hieroglyphics. An-, and, uh, I believe e-uh... one of two things. I mean, this is what seems reasonable to me, that, uh, that either Dee or Kelley ponied up a phony manuscript, which they sold into the court of Rud- , because they were poor there's no question about it, I mean these guys had come to the end of their ropes. I believe only, John Dee is the only man who could have produced the Voynich Manuscript if it's contemporaneous with him. Either that, or, there is actually some truth to this strange story about Kelley bringing a book to Dee, uh, that he had found in Wales, and in that case, Welsh, and computer analysis of Welsh, and looking at Welsh as the possible basic text of the Voynich Manuscript should be done, and this has never been done.

So I'm saying a further advance in Voynich studies logically demands an analysis of the codes in John Dee's diaries in A True and Faithful Relation, and analysis of Welsh in relationship to the known internal grammar of the Voynich Manuscript and, uh, there are other angles, uh, on it. Ummm. Let me think. For instance.

FB: What would you like to do with it?

TM: Well, I would like to know what it says, uh. At first it sounds very mysterious, and you actually reach out towards the idea that the reason the Voynich manuscript can't be read is because it is not in code at all. It simply is in a non-human language. It's like an object from another dimension which just, you know, here it is. It cannot be decoded because, uh, the bridge is too great. But I- another possible problem is: perhaps modern people, modern cryptographers who deal with codes are over confident of their ability to break any code. Perhaps there is just some weird, quirky, way in which this code is composed that it would forever elude your effort to decoding. I mean, for instance, what if, somewhere there exists a set of grids which, if laid over the pages in a certain way, caused the part of the Voynich script which could then be subjected to normal methods of, uh, decoding and would quickly reveal its, uh grammar...

FB: [unintelligible] and it's um...?

TM: Yeah...

BW: What does it look like?

TM: What does the Voynich Manuscript look like? it's a small book, ten by seven inches and probably about two and a half inches thick. These, uh, these water color drawings are extraordinarily, uh, peculiar. I mean especially for that period because all herbals, of which there only about 50 or so in existence at that time, were, uh, a, uh, drew from a common pool of imagery which went back to the herbals of Dioscorides and that kind of thing. There was a very limited pool of images in the European mind at this point in time, and yet the Voynich Manuscript is utterly unique. it's completely peculiar. And the way-

FB: What are the ingredients of the inks and the...?

TM: Ah, well, none of this has been looked at and should be looked at. This is another thing: Chemical-, a chemical attack on the manuscript itself should be mounted. See, Newberry [sic: 'Newbold'], the guy who advanced, uh, a, uh, decipherment in the 20's, he believed, because a letter accompanied it, that said it was a Bacon manuscript, Roger Bacon, and this also points at Dee because Dee was under the patronage of the Earl of Northumberland, and he, uh, looted a number of monasteries where there were large Baconian libraries, and in fact Dee had 53 Baconian manuscripts in his possession, in- cataloged in his library at Mortlake. Only 41 of those texts are known to exist in any form at all today. His library was burned while he was in Europe. It was burned by a mob incited against this wizard, and, uh, uh... hi- so it may-, but-, so Newberry [sic: 'Newbold'] believed, then, that it was a Baconian manuscript, but-

FB: Boy, Bacon gets in there everywhere-

TM: -but when you look at it it's obviously 16th century. Everything about it marks it, and Bacon, of course, was 13th century, so it's clearly... It- There are many other angles, I mean like, Dee is implicated-

BW: [Unintelligible]

TM: -in the Rosicrucian conspiracy. He was definitely involved at the very beginning. His book, 'The Hieroglyphic Monad', served as a model for the two primary Rosicrucian documents, the Fama and the Confessio, which were released secretly, uh, in the early 17th century. And uh, it all was coming from central Europe, from Bohemia, and uh, Prague, uh, the court of Frederick the Elector Palatine of Bohemia, and this guy Rudolf the Second of Bohe-, of uh, of Bohemia.

This court- these were the alchemical courts, these were where the alchemical presses were operating and the uh, this Protestant alchemical enlightenment was taking place that the coming of the Thirty Years' War and the collapse of the Winter King and Queen obliterated this hope. This is a very complicated moment in, uh, European history.

FB: Collapse of the Winter King and Queen?

TM: Yes. This is an incident- you see Frederick the Elector Palatine of Bohemia, who was the patron of all these alchemical presses and alchemists, wedded, uh, the daughter of James the First of England, whose name was Elizabeth, and he, uh- this was around 1615, and he thought that by wedding the daughter of the king of England that he was getting a nod from the king of England to go forward with this, uh, protestant alchemical revolt. Actually, James' plan was to wed one of his sons to a, uh, Hapsburg Spanish Catholic empress to balance it out, and he was appalled when, uh, when, uh, Frederick the Elector began to move on this alchemical revolution.

Well, then, when Rudolf of Bohemia, the guy who bought the Voynich Manuscript, when he died, uh, there, he, there was actually a set of German princes who, by election, would choose his successor, and they chose Frederick, and his queen Elizabeth, the daughter of James, and they moved from Heidelberg into Prague and ruled in the Winter of 1619 and 20, but by May of 1620, uh, uh, the Hapsburgs had mounted an army and they lay siege to Prague, and uh, Frederick was killed, she fled, it was actually an amazing moment in European history. Michael Maier, who is one of the great alchemists of that period, died in the streets of Prague in that siege, and one of the young French soldiers in this Hapsburg army was the 18-year-old Rene Descartes, off soldiering and sowing his wild oats.

This is the period out of which this manuscript emerges: a period when secret societies were rife across Europe; when John Dee was spying for the throne of England and, at the same time, pursuing his own peculiar interests in angel communication and astrology and Kabbalah and, uh, all these things. And, um... the Voynich Manuscript is indicative of this paradoxical state of mind and of the, uh, the uh, really peculiar and now nearly incomprehensible sort of world view that these people had. And it would be very interesting to know what it says. I mean it looks very promising. After all John Dee was, uh, definitely the preeminent intellect of his time and the fact that he may have faked this to pay the bills, uh, I would bet that even at that there is sense embedded in it somewhere. But the key is Dee, and Dee and the lines of research which study of his life would suggest, the Welsh angle, the diary codes, all of this.

FB: Are you pursuing it?

TM: I'm advising a group of people in Santa Cruz. Computer people, and just interested people, and my voice is one of, uh, several. But, uh, definitely it's one of the great oddities of human thought, and not much heard of because it simply is, uh, an elegant enigma.

FB: And so concludes the interview with Terence McKenna in 1983. Since that time, a book composed of interviews by Terence and various other people, including this one, called "The Archaic Revival" has been put out by Harper Collins, and in that book he continues on with the, um, research that's been done about the Voynich Manuscript, and he writes, on page 182, of that book, The Archaic Revival:

"And there the matter rested until 1987. It might have rested forever but for the questing curiosity of one man. Enter Dr Leo Levitov, author of "Solution of the Voynich Manuscript", a man who claims a complete understanding of the dynamics of Voynich and translation of the manuscript. He gives us good news in his subtitle: "A Liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis." Levitov's thesis is that the Voynich is nothing less than the only surviving primary doctri-..., document of the great heresy that arose in Italy and flourished in the Languedoc until was ruthlessly exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade in the 19-, no: in the, uh, 1230s. Very little is known about the beliefs of the Catharite faith and all the knowledge that we do have of it is secondhand, obtained from the records of the inquisition, whose task was the destruction of the Cathar society. Levitov's translation, if substantiated, would throw new light on the puzzling rise and extermination of the greatest here- heretical challenge that the Roman church ever faced.

There are a number of problems with Levitov's notions, but there are also triumphs. He makes several startling claims that he supports very well. The little women in the baths who puzzled so many are, for Levitov, a Cathar sacrament: the Endura, or death by venisection, cutting a vein in order to bleed to death in a warm bath. The plant drawings that refuse to resolve themselves into botanically identifiable species are no problem for Levitov, actually there is not a single so-called botanical illustration that does not contain some Cathari symbol or Isis symbol, he quotes. The astrological drawings are likewise easy to deal with: the innumerable stars are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle.

Levitov's strong hand is translation. He asserts that the reason it has been so difficult to decipher the Voynich Manuscript is that "it is not encrypted at all, but merely written in a special script, and is an adaptation of a polyglot oral tongue into a literary language that would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read." That is a quote. Specifically a highly polyglot form of the medieval Flemish with a large number of old French and old High German loan words. Good, so now we know.

Where there's a danger for Levitov is the contents of the translated material. Levitov freely admits from his translation that Catharism is a religion of Isis, is a religion of the great goddess. Apparently he is alone in his belief, although A. E. Waite says in his discussion of the Cathars in 'The Holy Grail' (1961), "the grail mythos is, like the veil of Isis, which no man can rise, rather than tolerate the suggestion that this nightmare fates are behind it." Save for the Waite's lucky turn of phrase, no commentator, ancient or modern, has ever breathed a word concerning Isis in connection with the Cathars. At one point the Cathars became the focus of latter-day occultists, but not even their literature mentioned Isis.

Levitov is almost casual in his presentation of his work, questioning at one point whether now that he has figured out how to translate the manuscript it is worth actually doing. A complete translation of more than 200 pages waits in the wings, a "long, arduous, and possibly unrewarding task." For Levitov, the problem seemed to be one of the solving of the language problem, the larger problems are now raised, if in fact the Voynich is to be seen as a primary source showing the Cathars to be not at all what we have come to think of them. Students of Gnosticism, Paganism, and the Goddess will have to digest this new slant on the role of the Cathars.

As for what the manuscript actually says, it is a gloomy and repetitive work, made partly so by Levitov's decision to present it in a rather raw state, as it's sense requires scholarly interpretation. At its most lyric-, lyrical the translation is quite interesting. So here it is, presented in this book by Terence. "The person who is knowledgeable about aid knows there is only one way to treat agonizing pain, he treats each one by putting them through the Endura, it is the one way that helps death. Not everyone knows how to assist the one with pain. The one who is with death and does not die will have pain but those who have such pain of death need his help. he understands the need, he is also aware that the person who needs help does not know that he needs it. We all know that every one of them needs help and each of us will be available to help." End of passage.

The passage refers to the Cathar sacrament for the dying, a form of euthanasia in which pious Cathars were helped to die by specially trained perfecti. Levitov mentions extensive personal research into the Cathar material but cites none of it. I cannot tell if he was aware of H.J. Werner's 'The Albigensian Heresy', or W. L. Wakefield's 'Heresy, Crusade and the Inquisition in Southern France'. He states that the Voynich Manuscript is the only primary Catharite document in existence; however, A. E. Waite-... his 'Groly-', 'Holy Grail', mentions, quote: "There is fortunately one fragmentary record of Albigensian belief which has survived, I refer to the Cathar ritual of Lyon which is now well known having been published in 1898 by Mr. F. C. Coinbert." End of quote.

Waite goes on to mention that part of the Lyon codex contains, quote: "certain prayers for the dying", unquote. The codex is in Langua...doct [sic: Languedoc]; does it resemble the Voynich manner--, material? We are not told. If Levitov is right we moderns simply overrate the sophistication of our code-breaking machinery and overlook the possibility that the manuscript was not in code at all. Levitov fails to mention the physical manuscript, yet it seems obvious that one of the first steps that should be taken would be to attempt-, let's see... would be to attempt to confirm the 13th-century origin date for the manuscript. If the manuscript was written before 1250, then it is older than was claimed by even the adherents to the 'Roger Bacon' theory of its authorship. Surely it would be possible to determine whether the manuscript was written in the 13th or the 16th century. If it was a product of the 13th century, then my own efforts to see the hand of John Dee in its composition are immediately rendered futile, although it is still quite possible that Dee was involved in the manuscript's finding its way to Rudolf's court.

Until Levitov, most scho-, scholars have been confident in placing the origin of the manuscript in the early 15th century; therefore, Leo Levitov is to be congratulated: he has made a persuasive case and remains modest doing it. Now we need to hear from the experts: the medievalists, the linguists, and the scholars of heresy; for it will be through the consensus and judgement of the community of scholars that Levitov's claim to be translated-, to have translated the world's most mysterious manuscript will stand or fall. So ends this piece on the Voynich Manuscript, page 184 of Terence's book "The Archaic Revival," put out by Harper Collins. This is Faustin Brey for Sound Photosynthesis finishing the Voynich Manuscript tape as we have the information to this day of September 16, 1994. Thank you for listening. If you want to have a copy of this tape, contact Sound Photosynthesis: PO Box 2111 Mill Valley, 94942 in California, or the phone number is 415-383-6712. Thank you very much.

[10 minutes of forest noises]

Unknown Voice: Oh, okay.