For a while, I got into the habit of picking up Voynich-related blog updates via’s convenient Blogosphere Reader. However, I always knew that this was icing rather than cake (i.e. it wasn’t really the right way to do it), and that I should instead get round to configuring my own RSS feed reader to do all that kind of stuff directly. (I also wanted to be able to find a way of translating RSS feeds.)

The route that I would mainly be using to pick up RSS feeds was via my mobile on the morning or evening commute: and so I chose, which works well both as a desktop site and as a mobile site. (There are plenty of other RSS readers besides Feedly, so feel free to choose whichever one works best for you.)

One nice thing about Feedly is that it allows you to export and import a list of feeds, which lets you share them easily with others: and so if you fancy setting up your own set of RSS feeds, here’s a an OPML file containing my current set of Cipher History RSS feeds for you to get started with.

To load this in Feedly…
* save the above OPML file onto your machine (i.e. “Save As…” from your browser)
* click on [+ Add Content] at the bottom left of Feedly’s interface
* click on the [Import OPML] item that pops up
* navigate to (and select) the OPML file you just saved out
…and off you go.

If you’ve logged in to Feedly via Google, the feeds you’ve added in your desktop should also automatically appear in Feedly on your mobile. Which is nice.

Translating RSS feeds

The above setup works well and straightforwardly for reading English RSS feeds in English. Sometimes, however, you may find yourself wanting to track blogs in other languages.

For example, despite having been to Hungary a couple of times (and liked the country very much), I know that I am fairly unlikely to suddenly acquire a desire to learn Hungarian (or probably any Finno-Ugric language, to be fair): and yet I would very much like to track Benedek Lang’s consistently interesting cipher history blog.

It used to be the case that you could use (the now discontinued) Google Reader app to achieve this extra translation step. However, there is (currently) a handy way of achieving the same basic result via Google Script, as described on Amit Agarwal’s Digital Inspiration website.

However, Amit’s script didn’t quite do what I wanted, so I updated the web app code to also route each RSS entry’s web link via Google Translate: here’s a link to my updated version of the Digital Inspiration script. The only practical problem is that (as you already know if you use Google Translate to translate web pages) the style sheet can often get lost in transit, which means that the translated page is often not as pretty as it probably should be: but at least it’s in the language you wanted.

If you have other cipher history blogs (English or non-English) you think ought to be on this list, please let me know, and I’ll add them to the list and update the OPML file.

I’ve had the Zodiac Killer Z340 cipher on my mind for the last few days. Though I’m still finding it hard not to draw the conclusion that its top and bottom halves are two different ciphertexts (joined together for reason(s) we can only hazily guess at), what has drawn so much of my attention is a quite different class of statistical observation: letter skips.

Letter Skips

The most (in)famous example of letter skips was the Bible Code, made famous by Michael Drosnin’s (1997) book The Bible Code. However, this was merely one in a long line claiming that the Bible is not only the literal and exact Word of God, but is also an implicit encipherment of all manner of unexpected occult statements and prophecies. To get to these secret messages, all you have to do is read every nth letter, modulo length(Bible): and then, if you hunt through the vast swathes of near-random junk that emerges from that, you’ll eventually discover words, phrases, and proper names that couldn’t possibly have been known millennia ago when the Bible was first written down.

There have been plenty of mathematical and statistical dismissals of the Bible Code, almost all of which reduce to the simple argument that if you search enough random letter sequences for long enough, you’ll find something that sort of looks like text. And so when Drosnin huffed that “When my critics find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, I’ll believe them”, his critics took it literally as a challenge. As a result, we now have lists of numerous Drosnin-style letter-skip ‘predictions’ in Moby Dick, along with a ‘prediction’ of Princess Diana’s death [thanks to Brendan McKay].

From which the moral unavoidably seems to be: be careful what you wish for.

Generated Coincidences

At the heart of the Bible Code lies a simple sampling fallacy: which is that if you perform a long enough series of arbitrary statistical analyses on the text of any given document, you will (eventually) uncover things in it which superficially appear extraordinarily improbable.

This is directly relevant to a lot of the Zodiac Killer code-breaking discourse because, broadly speaking, it is exactly what has happened there: diligent statistical enquiry has yielded not only millions of strike-out tests, but also a large number of (superficially) unlikely-looking patterns. And so the question is: if you perform a hundred different statistical tests and one of them happens to yield a pattern that only appears in one in two hundred randomised versions of the same document, have you (a) found something fundamental and causal that could possibly explain everything, or (b) just generated a coincidence that means nothing?

Sadly, there is no obvious way of telling the difference: all one can do is nod sagely and say, in the words of a great 1970s philosopher…


Transposition or “Tasoiin rnpsto”?

As should be plain as day from the above, I too view Bible Code letter skips as complete nonsense, and reserve my inalienable human right to cast a similarly cool eye over the impressive panoply of Zodiac Killer cipher observations, each of which may or may not be a generated coincidence.

Even so, utter disbelief of the specifics of the Bible Code shouldn’t mask the fact that the kind of statistical tests that are used for letter skips share a significant overlap with the kind of statistical tests that help reveal periodic ciphers and transposition ciphers.

Hence evidence of a letter-skip period in the Zodiac Killer Cipher should not be automatically put to one side because of the test’s association with hallucinatory Bible Code letter-skips, because evidence of a periodic effect could instead be pointing towards one of many other phenomena.

And there is indeed strong evidence of a period in play in the Z340, as first discussed by Daikon and Jarlve in 2015. Daikon examined the number of Z340 bigram repeats at different periods, and found a significant spike at period 19 (this really is noticeably larger than the other periods).

Here’s what these period-19 bigram repeats look like (was this diagram made by David Oranchak?):

Having then performed 1,000,000 random shuffles, David Oranchak concluded that this period-19 result had a “1 in 216” chance of happening. Which is good, but just a smidgeon short of great.

Incidentally, it’s easier to see these bigram matches if you rewrite Z340 in 19-wide columns (this diagram also probably made by David Oranchak):

More tests revealed all manner of similar periodic results that may or may not mean something: but I’m interested here specifically in the period-19 result.

Period-19? So what?

When he constructed the Z340, the Zodiac Killer had previously seen his Z408 cipher not only printed on the front page of newspapers (which surely pleased him), but also very publicly cracked (which surely displeased him). And yet his Z340 cipher closely resembles the Z408 in so many ways that it seems a fairly safe bet to me that his later cipher system was nothing more than a modification (a ‘delta’) of the earlier cipher system rather than something wildly different.

Hence I’ve long suspected that if we could somehow work out what the Zodiac Killer thought was technically wrong with the Z408 cipher system, then we could make a guess what his delta to the Z340 system might be.

Even though the Z408 presented all manner of homophone cycles, it wasn’t these that gave the game away to Donald Gene Harden and Bettye June Harden of Salinas. Rather, they made a number of shrewd psychological guesses (that the most likely first word a psychopath would write was “I”, and that the plaintext would include the word “KILL” multiple times), and used repetitions of “LL” as cribbed ways in to the message.

(As an aside, I struggle to believe that Bettye Harden genuinely guessed from scratch that the first three words of Z408 would be “I LIKE KILLING”, as has been reported. Instead, it seems far more likely to me that she had already worked for several hours on the cipher before making such an inspired guess.)

And so it seems most likely to me that the Zodiac Killer conceived his delta specifically as a way of disrupting the weakness of doubled letters (specifically doubled L), but without really affecting the rest of his code-making approach. And as always in cryptography, there are numerous ways this could be achieved:
* removing the second letter of all doubled letter pairs
* adding in new tokens for specific doubled letters (e.g. use ‘$’ to encipher ‘LL’)
* disrupt the order of the letters (i.e. transpose them) so that ILIKEKILLING becomes IIEILN LKKLIG etc

I’m therefore wondering if his cipher system delta was some kind of period-19 transposition. But – of course – people have already checked for the presence of straightforward period-19 transposition, and have basically drawn a blank. So if there is a period-19 ‘signature’ arising from some kind of transposition, it’s a little more complicated.

But if so, then what would it look like?

A three-way line dance?

My final piece of observational jigsaw in today’s reasoning chain is that the Z340 ciphertext is apparently arranged in groups of three lines. FBI cryptanalyst Dan Olson famously commented that…

Lines 1-3 and 11-13 contain a distinct higher level of randomness than lines 4-6 and 14-16. This appears to be intentional and indicates that lines 1-3 and 11-13 contain valid ciphertext whereas lines 4-6 and 14-16 may be fake.

…though note that this mixes up observation (the first sentence) with his best-guess inference (the second sentence). What I’m instead taking is that Olson’s observation more generally implies that lines are somehow grouped together in sets of three BUT with a spare line added in between the top and bottom half.

So, the overall line grouping sequence of the Z340 appears to be:
* top half: 1-1-1 2-2-2 3-3-3 X [a spare line with “cut marks” at either end of a fake line]
* bottom half: 4-4-4 5-5-5 6-6-6 X [a spare line with ‘ZODAIK’-like fake signature at the end]

Hence – putting it all together – I’m now wondering whether there is a period-19 transposition in play here BUT arranged in groups of three lines at a time. In which case, the symbol sequence for each set of three lines (3 x 17 = 51) might well look like this (where 01 is the first symbol of the plaintext, 02 is the second symbol, etc):

* 01 04 07 10 13 16 19 22 25 28 31 34 37 40 43 46 49
* 47 50 02 05 08 11 14 17 20 23 26 29 32 35 38 41 44
* 42 45 48 51 03 06 09 12 15 18 21 24 27 30 33 36 39

This transposition arrangement would yield both the period-19 effect and the groups-of-three-lines effect: and might also go some of the way towards explaining why lines 10 and 20 function differently to the other lines.

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I also strongly suspect that the top half of the Z340 and the bottom half of the Z340 are separate ciphertext systems, and so any solving should be attempted on the two halves individually, however inconvenient that may be. 🙂

I haven’t tested out this new transposition hypothesis yet: but it’s definitely worth a look, wouldn’t you think, hmmm?

Here’s a link to a nice little piece on the Voynich Manuscript that came out today in classy American online magazine Vox. Though clearly triggered by Nicholas Gibbs’ recent TLS non-theory, the article steers well clear of presenting it (or indeed anything else) as a Voynich solution or explanation – and praise be to the Cipher Gods On High for that small mercy.

Unusually, Vox’s mission – to engage with newsworthy subjects and explain them really clearly – is almost Reithian. In these online days (where journalism so often ends up thinner than the paper it’s printed on), this is an approach that’s so brutally old-fashioned it’s close to subversive. Whatever next – shock jocks touching on deeper truths that no-one dare name?

It may sound a little shallow, but I was actually very pleased to find my words used to close the article: that “The evil beauty of the Voynich manuscript […] is that it holds a mirror up to our souls”, i.e. all the while the Voynich Manuscript’s secrets remains uncracked, it seems we will always have to endure people peering into its haruspicious sheen and seeing exactly what they want to find. Oh well! 😐

I’ve had a dissatisfying, rubbish day today: but given that every day I’ve previously had that involved some kind of interaction with Stephen Bax had been a bad day, perhaps there should be no element of surprise involved.

Bax To The Future

In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, there are at least ten reasonable arguments I can see (even if I happen to disagree with all of them) for a linguistic reading: what frustrates me so much about Bax is that the arguments he puts forward aren’t any of them (or even close to them). Hence he inevitably finds the best form of defence is attack: and given that I’m just about the only person not fawning over him, guess who gets attacked?

Frankly, I’d rather stick flaming needles under my fingernails than experience any more of his wit, wisdom, and whatever in the absence of any effective moderation: so goodbye to it has to be, sorry.

Doubt With The Old

Of course, Bax himself isn’t the root cause of all this: the real problem is that almost all genuine Voynich experts seem to doubt the depth of their confidence in what they know, and so choose silence over confrontation, no matter how foolish the provocation or how malformed the argument.

Yet even though I’ve been saying for over a decade that we now do know enough to take a principled stand against Voynich pseudoscience, pseudohistory, pseudolinguistics and enigmatology, it’s been a long wait for anyone to show any kind of solidarity with this point of view.

I therefore note with great interest that Rene Zandbergen has recently – after a decade of Rich SantaColoma’s incessant possibility-based argumentation – put up a page dismissing the modern hoax theory. This is, in my opinion, a huge milestone in Voynich discourse: but whether Rene or others will follow up with similarly comprehensive rebuttals of Rugg, Bax et al remains to be seen. When all you can see are vipers, where’s theriac when you really need it?

Dead Drunk On The Beach?

Cipher Mysteries readers will probably see a lot in common between the above and what passes for debate in The Somerton Man world. Even the straightforward disproof of the whole microwriting claim seems to have been overlooked by all the loudest shorts at the poolside: so please excuse me if I sip my Camilla Voodoo elsewhere.

Anyhoo, given that most historical-cipher-inspired songs seem happy to look no further than the Voynich’s surreality, today’s aural treat-ette for you all is a song from South London’s own JerkCurb called “Somerton Beach” (review here), where the wobbly guitars try to capture a kind of alcoholic pre-death haze. Which is nice, if oddly apposite, though I couldn’t easily explain why.

Here’s the evidence that the Zodiac Killer is alive and busy with a spray can in Cyprus, visual documentary evidence to which only the most obtuse could possibly object:

And if you think that’s the most ridiculous and/or foolish cipher theory you’ve encountered in the last seven days, you obviously haven’t been paying much attention. 🙁

The appearance of Nicholas Gibbs’ Voynich theory in the current Times Literary Supplement “Autumn Fiction Special” issue (and what deliciously outrageous irony that placement is) has caused all manner of mayhem behind the scenes here at Cipher Mysteries mansion.

Not only has my (frankly rather tired and uninterested) blog response to it been unexpectedly heavily Tweeted, his theory has also “inspired” a number of Wikipedia editors to enthusiastically bodge references to Gibbs into the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page. Which is, as just about everyone here would be happy to point out, close to a crime against common sense.

But it’s not really their fault: it turns out that there’s a much bigger problem at play here.


As a responsible (though far from regular) Wikipedia editor, I thought I ought to try to offer some kind of balance to the worst excesses of this sudden wave of pro-Gibbs enthusiasm: for example, by removing a reference to Gibbs that had been added to the very first paragraph. *sigh*

But then yet more Wikieditors kept popping up, not unlike Gremlinized versions of Whack-a-Moles or Lernaean Hydra heads, continually inserting yet more references to Gibbs from Smart-Ars Technica or whichever other secondary media source they happened to have just surfed their way to.

Annoying as that is, they’re just the surface symptoms of something that cuts far deeper. The issue here is that in very many ways they are absolutely right to add it in: the piece in the TLS does indeed – by Wikipedia’s very exact standards – make Gibbs’ theory notable. And this causes it to transcend from the mundane world of self-published “OR” (Original Research) into published (and hence notable) work. And anything notable is fair game for inclusion in Wikipedia: indeed, if it is relevant and “notable”, there is arguably a stronger case for inclusion than exclusion.

So it turns out that these Whack-a-Mole editors are indeed actually doing their best to pursue the whole Wikipedia ‘Project’ precisely as it was intended. Can you therefore blame them for doing something that seems quite nonsensical to researchers? Well… no, not really, mad as it seems.

The First Problem With Wikipedia

Perhaps the above should make it clear one of the things that is going wrong here: that the entire Wikipedia project is nothing more than a parasitic encyclopaedia, relying on the world’s knowledge being recycled into it via fact-checked external media, such as (in this case) the Times Literary Supplement. Without the fact-checking stage being done by the media, Wikipedia would be worse than useless: this is because it has no intrinsic quality control, only enforcing measures of notability which themselves depend completely on someone else (normally in the media) paying for the fact-checking stage. Wikipedia does not check facts, it checks published sources: its editors (largely) do not know things, they know how to verify the notability of sources.

So: what happens – as seems to have happened here – when a story goes to press without even the faintest semblance of fact checking? As should be obvious, the Wikipedia editors turn the page content into a credulous extension of the idiot media that put the story out in the first place. It’s “notable” and publicly visible, so what is their alternative?

Hence one big problem with Wikipedia is that where the media omits to do fact checking, Wikipedia can quickly end up looking really, really stupid. But have you not noticed that media fact checking is these days going the way of phrenology and phlogistons?

The wider-angle picture here is that the future of the media – increasingly under pressure from online newsfeeds – is only going to get dumber and ‘dumberer’: its dequality ratchet leads only in a downwards direction. And so the less fact-checking that happens, the worse Wikipedia will get. The case of Nicholas Gibbs’ theory should make this completely clear, albeit in an edge-case kind of way.

The Second Problem With Wikipedia

Arguably, though, the second problem with Wikipedia is much worse: which is that Wikipedia is only successful when it tries to map the known. In cases such as the Voynich Manuscript where the majority of the topic is to do with the unknown, there is no sensible way Wikieditors can decide what should be included or what should be left out. And without any way of deciding the topic boundaries, a kind of thermodynamic page decay sets in: the page just accumulates stuff indefinitely. Honestly, what kind of sad sack would read the current Wikipedia Voynich page from start to finish, as anything apart from a cautionary tale of how not to structure information?

In case you’re wondering, deep domain experts are rarely welcome as Wikipedia editors: and this cuts to the core of what’s going on here. As currently defined and steered, Wikipedia cannot offer a useful guide to the unknown. It is not about original research, or really about any research at all: it’s about mapping the cultural inflow of knowledge mediated via the shabby and slow mirror of media reporting.

If all of that strikes you as a horrible, (small-c) conservative, and superficial epistemology to be building such a large knowledge-based enterprise on, I can assure you that you’re really not alone.

The Third Problem With Wikipedia

Finally: in the case of subjects where there are an almost unimaginably large number of parallel (and only vaguely overlapping) theories, Wikipedia’s neutral point of view pretty much demands that all them should be visible. I’ve suggested numerous times that everything speculative or theory-based about the Voynich Manuscript should be broken out into one or more completely separate page(s), but this too kind of defeats the Wikipedia mindset, which is more about balance-through-primary-inclusivity than trying to evaluate or manage out rubbish theories. It turns out that even forcing a division between theory and non-theory is too fundamentally judgmental for the Wikipedia project to countenance.

And so the issue here is that where you are dealing with uncertain topics, theory inclusivity almost inevitably devolves into theory shopping lists, where the most glib and flippant YouTube theory can end up being listed alongside the most comprehensive and in-depth historical hypothesis. Wikipedia editors aren’t there to judge, they’re there to avoid having to judge: and the more theories that get proposed, the bigger the hole that not-judging digs those pages into.

And yes, there are now hundreds of Voynich theories.

What’s the “Birth” bit, Nick?

People sometimes conclude that I’m cross with Wikipedia, but that’s not really true at all. Rather, I’m cross with myself and the entire research community for not offering an alternative to Wikipedia. The work we do and the communities we form are served badly (if at all) by Wikipedia, because the two worldviews are almost entirely complementary – researchers try to create knowledge out of uncertainty, while Wikipedia recycles knowledge that the media try to pass off as certainty.

The last few days have made me so angry at my own inaction that I now want to go away and do something really drastic: to build something that empowers people working with the vast worlds of uncertain knowledge that Wikipedia has no business trying to deal with.

And so this is where I am. I don’t want to blog as a primary activity (though I may well, and I’m not planning to get rid of Cipher Mysteries any time soon): rather, I want to build something better than Wikipedia – something that helps people map and deal with difficult and emerging knowledge, rather than forcing them to pretend that neutral-sounding montages of crappy media accounts are good enough beyond a sketchy first approximation.

I want to build a whole way of thinking about and mapping difficult knowledge that doesn’t pretend that real knowledge is easy or certain: it is disingenuous and fake to think that it is.

I want to build knowledge-creating communities that can work together in richer, more interesting ways than antagonistic forums that treat theories as spinning Beyblades in toytown arenas.

I want to help people find ways to tease out difficult knowledge in all manner of subjects and topics, not just historical mysteries: I want to provide a place where a research worldview isn’t alien, but a key to a giant door of opportunity.

I want to treat research as the intellectual, cultural and economic powerhouse it exactly is, and to support it in ways that make what we currently do look like cavemen banging rocks together.

I want to build things that will make every kid on the planet want to be a researcher, to grasp that what we don’t know infinitely exceeds what we do know, and that knowledge doesn’t have to be passive, recycled, sham knowledge – basically, that the future is waiting for us to do better.

Right now, geekiness is cool but research is uncool: I think our culture has this arrangment back to front. Really, research is something everyone should do: research should be how we habitually deal with uncertain and difficult topics in our lives, not just in academia.

More than anything, I wish I could be in a situation where I can write down the above – all of which I consider to be a fundamental set of values – without it sounding like a manifesto. Because as of today, it really feels like I’m the only person who thinks the above in anything like a joined-up way: and more than anything I want that to change.

In August 2016, I spent a day at the British Library trawling through many of its palaeography books (as I described here). What I was specifically in search of was examples of handwriting that matched the handwriting in the Voynich Manuscript, along with its marginalia.

As mentioned before, the document I found was Basel University Library A X 132: it’s a Sammelband (anthology or collection), with sections copied from a number of different medieval authors. The section I was most interested in (dated 1465) was fol. 83r through to fol. 101r.

With a little help from Stefan Mathys (thanks, Stefan!), I ordered some pages, along with some from the start and end of other sections, just in case the same scribal hand reappeared and included a little biographical information about that scribe. I’ve just begun writing this up as a paper (heaven knows that so little of any authority has been written about the Voynich, so I want to do this properly): but as I was going through, I noticed something interesting that I thought I’d share separately.

One of the extra sections I asked for began on f202r: and I must admit to being surprised to see an oddly familiar piece of marginalia there. Recalling the tiny marginalia at the top of the Voynich Manuscript’s page f17r…

…now look at the tiny marginalia at the top of A X 132’s fol. 202r, a “vocabularij hebreicus et grecus” (according to this):

The listing remarks that f202r is covered in “Stegmüller, Rep.bibl.6,93 Nr.8665”, i.e. Friedrich Stegmüller, Repertorium biblicum medii aevi, 11 vols. (I don’t believe that volume 6 is online, but please let me know if you manage to find a copy.)

Have you found any better matches than this?

A tip of my monkey’s uncle’s Susquehanna hat to Derek Abbott for today’s cipher history link: a new Voynich theory by Nicholas Gibbs in the Times Literary Supplement. Gibbs explains the circumstances that brought him to the Voynich Manuscript:

I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research. A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a com­mission from a television production company to analyse the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators’ theories.

however… all the descriptive part of his solution seems to have been culled from those parts of commentators’ reading lists that caught his eye, but then vaguely linked together into a sort of fairly unconvincing-sounding narrative. The only linguistically technical part of his “solution” in the TLS is given in tiny letters in the following image, which you can make out if you click on it and squint:

Note that the image is marked “p16_Gibbs1.jpg”: which seems to imply we have a book to (sort of) look forward to. Errrm… hooray.

I could list a whole load of things that are wrong with this, but I’d be typing all night on a TL;DR post and nobody would care. *sigh*

I posted here a few weeks ago about whether the Cisiojanus mnemonic might be in the Voynich zodiac labels, and also about a possible July Cisiojanus crib to look for. Since then I’ve been thinking quite a lot further about this whole topic, and so I thought it was time to post a summary of Voynich labelese, a topic that hasn’t (to my knowledge) yet been covered satisfactorily on the web or in print.

Voynich labelese

Voynich researchers often talk quite loosely about “labelese”, by which they normally mean the variant of the Voynichese ‘language’ that appears in labels, particularly the labels written beside the nymphs in the zodiac section. These seems to operate according to different rules from the rest of the Voynichese text: which is one of the reasons I tell people running tests on Voynichese why they should run them on one section of text at a time (say, Q20 or Q13, or Herbal A pages).

The Voynichese zodiac labels have numerous features that are extremely awkward to account for:
* a disproportionately large number of zodiac labels start with EVA ‘ot’ or ‘ok’. [One recurring suggestion here is that if these represent stars, then one or both of these EVA letter pairs might encipher “Al”, a common star-name prefix which basically means “the” in Arabic.]
* words starting EVA ‘yk-‘ are also more common in zodiac labels than elsewhere
* most (but not all) zodiac labels are surprisingly short.
* many – despite their short length – terminate with EVA ‘-y’.
* a good number of zodiac labels occur multiple times. [This perhaps argues against their obviously being unique names.]
* almost no zodiac labels start with EVA ‘qo-‘
* in many places, the zodiac labels exhibit a particularly strong ‘paired’ structure (e.g. on the Pisces f70v2 page, otolal = ot-ol-al, otaral, otalar, otalam, dolaram, okaram, etc), far more strongly than elsewhere

That is, even though the basic ‘writing system’ seems to be the same in the zodiac labels as elsewhere, there are a number of very good reasons to suspect that something quite different is going on here – though whether that is a different Voynich ‘language’ or a type of content that is radically different from everything else is hard to tell.

Either way, the point remains that we should treat understanding the zodiac labels as a separate challenge to that of understanding other parts of the Voynch manuscript: regardless of whether the differences are semantic, syntactic, or cryptographic, different rules seem to apply here.

Voynich zodiac month names

If you look at 15th century German Volkskalender manuscripts, you’ll notice that their calendars (listing local feasts and saint’s days) typically start on January 1st: and that in those calendars with a zodiac roundel, January is always associated with an Aquarius roundel. Modern astrologically / calendrically astute readers might well wonder why this would be so, because the Sun enters the first degree of Aquarius around 21st January each year: so in fact the Sun is instead travelling through Capricon for most of January.

However, if you rewind your clock back to the fifteenth century, you would be using the Julian calendar, where the difference between the real length of the year and the calendrical length of the year had for centuries been causing the dates of the two systems to diverge. And so if we look at this image of the March calendar page from Österreich Nationalbibliotech Cod. 3085 Han. (a Volkskalender B manuscript from 1475 that I was looking at yesterday), we can see the Sun entering Aries on 11th March (rightmost column):

Note also that some Volkskalender authors seem to have got this detail wrong. 🙁

All of which is interesting for the Voynich Manuscript, because the Voynich zodiac month names associate the following month with the zodiac sign, e.g. Pisces is associated with March, not February (as per the Volkskalender), etc. This suggests to me (though doubtless this has been pointed out before, as with everything to do with the Voynich) that the Voynich zodiac month name annotations may well have been added after 1582, when the Grigorian calendar reforms took place.

Voynich labelese revisited

There’s a further point about Voynich labelese which gets mentioned rarely (if at all): in the two places where the 30-element roundels are split into two 15-element halves (dark Aries and light Aries, and light Taurus and dark Taurus), the labels get longer.

This would seem to support the long-proposed observation that Voynich text seems to expand or contract to fit the available space. It also seems to support the late Mark Perakh’s conclusion (from the difference in word length between A and B pages) that some kind of word abbreviation is going on.

And at the same time, even this pattern isn’t completely clear: the dark Aries 15-element roundel has both long labels (“otalchy taramdy”, “oteoeey otal okealar”, “oteo alols araly”) and really short labels (“otaly”), while whereas the light Aries has medium-sized labels, some are short despite there being a much larger space they could have extended into (“oteeol”, “otolchd”, “cheary”). Note also that the two Taurus 15-element roundels both follow the light Aries roundel in this general respect.

It therefore would seem that the most ‘linguistically’ telling individual page in the whole Voynich zodiac section would seem to be the dark Aries page. This is because even though it seems to use essentially the same Voynich labelese ‘language’ as the rest of the zodiac section, the labels are that much longer (or, perhaps, less subject to abbreviation than the other zodiac pages’ labels).

It is therefore an interesting (and very much open) question as to whether the ‘language’ of the text presented by the longer dark Aries labels matches the ‘language’ of the circular text sequences on the same page. If so, we might be able to start to answer the question of whether the Voynich labels are written in the same style of Voynichese as the circular text sequences on the same pages, though (with the exception of most of the dark Aries page) more abbreviated.

Speculation about ok- and ot-

When I wrote “The Curse of the Voynich”, I speculated that ok- / ot- / yk- / yt- might each verbosely encipher a specific letter or idea. For example, in the context of a calendar, we might now consider whether one of more of them might encipher the word “Saint” or “Saints”, a possibility that I hadn’t considered back in 2006.

Yet the more I now look at the Voynich zodiac pages, the more I wonder whether ok- and ot- have any extrinsic meaning at all. In information terms, the more frequently they occur, the more predictable they are, and so the less information they carry: and they certainly do occur very frequently indeed here.

And beyond a certain point, they contain so little information that they could contribute almost nothing to the semantic content, XXnot XXunlike XXadding XXtwo XXcrosses XXto XXthe XXstart XXof XXeach XXword.

So, putting yk- and yt- to one side for the moment, I’m now coming round to the idea that ok- and -ot- might well be operating solely in some “meta domain” (e.g. perhaps selecting between one of two mapping alphabets or dictionaries), and that we would do well to consider all the ok-initial and ot-initial words separately, i.e. that they might present different sets of properties. And moreover, that the remainder of the word is where the semantic content really lies, not in the ok- / ot- prefix prepended to it.

Something to think about, anyway.

Voynich abbreviation revisited

All of which raises another open question to do with abbreviation in the Voynich Manuscript. In most of the places where researchers such as Torsten Timm have invested a lot of time looking at sequences that ‘step’ from one Voynichese word to another (i.e. where ol changes to al), those researchers have often looked for sequences of words that fuzzily match one another.

Yet if there is abbreviation in play in the Voynich Manuscript, the two syntactic (or, arguably, orthographic) mechanisms that speak loudest for this are EVA -y and EVA -dy. If these both signify abbreviation by truncation in some way, then there is surely a strong case for looking for matches not by stepping glyph values, but by abbreviatory matches.

That is, might we do well to instead look for root-matching word sequences (e.g. where “otalchy taramdy” matches “otalcham tary”)? Given that Voynich labelese seems to mix not only labelese but abbreviation too, I suspect that trying to understand labelese without first understanding how Voynichese abbreviation works might well prove to be a waste of time. Just a thought.

Dark Aries, light Aries, and painting

As a final aside, if you find yourself looking at the dark Aries and light Aries images side by side, you may well notice that the two are painted quite differently:

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces and dark Aries appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

Note that there is an ugly paint contact transfer between the two Aries halves (brown blobs travelling from right to left), but this looks to have been an accidental splodge (probably after stitching) rather than a sign that the two sides were painted while stitched together.

Just a quick visual idea for you to ponder on with regard to Voynich Manuscript page f57v: it’s something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

Back in 2010, I posted a page here discussing astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page f57v, in which I laid out some codicological reasoning why I thought the 4 x 17 = 68 single character ring was actually a 4 x 18 = 72 mark ring, i.e. marks spaced every (360 / 72) = 5 degrees. (I also didn’t explain nocturlabes as well as I should have done, so that’s something I ought to return to soon.)

One other anomalous feature of f57v is the text in the innermost ring, three quarters of which is also made up of single characters (marked in red below). This looks to me as though as though it too might be concealing a string of marks. But on what kind of device would marks only go three quarters of the way around?

So… your Voynich thought for the day is that there is indeed a very specific type of device of great interest in the fifteenth century where the marks only go 75% of the way around: a sundial (or solar clock), which very often only cover 18 hours of a day.

Now, I’m really not saying that f57v is ‘definitely’ a sundial (in the world of the Voynich Manuscript, nothing is ever that easy): but, rather, that the idea that at least one of the text rings on this page might well be somehow connected with a sundial ought (I think) to be considered here.

I don’t recall any other theory or suggestion that explains the curious string of characters on the innermost ring: nor why (for example) it should contain freestanding EVA ‘l’ shapes, even though these hardly ever appear elsewhere in the text, or various other unknown weird characters. My strong suspicion is therefore that these are just random letters added to cover up dots and dashes in the original diagram, and have no actual meaning beyond that.