If you’ve been wondering why Cipher Mysteries has been so quiet for a few days, it’s because my PC has been out of order (the old power supply died, *sigh*). But it’s now working again, no thanks to Corsair (boo).

Though this is good, it unfortunately also means I now have a lot of catching up to do, so I shall continue to be subdued for a few days while emails get replied to and everything slowly eases back into some kind of normality.

In the meantime, I thought you might like this: a song by UK indie band Fanfarlo called “Harold T. Wilkins, or How to Wait a Very Long Time“. It was used in the (2010) film “Going The Distance”, if you were unfortunate enough to end up watching that on a plane.

If you don’t know who Harold T. Wilkins was, why, you’ve missed out on sooooo much: he wrote about allegedly lost pirate treasure (particularly Captain Kidd’s), lost Atlantean civilizations, what we now call cryptozoology, and UFO conspiracies… but all more than 40 years before the X-Files. And to my eyes, he seems to have made up a large part of everything he wrote. In short: 50% bad journalist, 50% bad Erich von Daniken. Which is… an interesting mix, you might say.

Fanfarlo also released a pretty good acoustic all-in-one-tiny-room version of the song here, though (purists look aside) the bass guitar did look to me as though it was plugged into an amp.

The Voynich Manuscript meets “Tuvan throat singing layered on top of Swiss yodelling“? How could anyone resist the 9-minute-long vocal octet “Such sphinxes as these obey no one but their master” by Steven Gorbos, and performed by ‘Roomful of Teeth’. Listen, marvel and enjoy! 🙂

Incidentally, the page notes that “The Beinecke Library at Yale, where the manuscript has been part of the collection since the 1960s, gets regular requests from individuals wishing to ingest pieces of the manuscript (or, in some cases, just lick), inspired by a belief in its healing properties.” Now, not a lot of people know that (I for one certainly didn’t).

PS: people sometimes ask me if I make some of this stuff up. The mundane truth is that nobody could make it up, not even me – it’s way too scary.

PPS: I should make it clear that I myself have not licked (and have no plans to lick) the Voynich Manuscript, not even the strawberry-and-Oreo-flavoured pages in the middle of the herbal section.

Over the last few days here at Cipher Mysteries, I’ve had all kinds of ups and downs with the website, mainly to do with excessive levels of spam (which triggered account suspensions, etc). Anyway, I’ve now turned all the security dials to 12 (Spinal Tap must have got it wrong, because 11 apparently wasn’t high enough) and have added yet more Heath-Robinson bodgery to the webmaster scripts and configurations: fingers crossed it will make a positive difference. And I’ve finally got outgoing mails working again (how annoying was that?!), *sigh*

Regardless, it’s spring cleaning time: that is, time to clear out my short term collection of Voynich cultural mini-links, some of which you might even like. Arty Voynich appropriators first:-

‘Modestly’ (Anne Corr) is offering a 32-page hand-made book comprising images from the Voynich Manuscript. She says:-

There are eight folded pages each with four illustrations printed onto a lovely textured watercolour paper chosen for its excellence in print quality and longevity. I have used a coptic stitch with a faux leather cover, finished with a faux leather tie. It certainly gives the impression of a medieval book.

I hope she’s talking about her own book: as if we haven’t got enough trouble with Voynich theorists who similarly claim that the Voynich itself “gives the impression of a medieval book.” *shakes head, sighs*

Rather less obviously crafty is New Zealander Baron’s Selection, who (virtually) offers T-shirts via Zazzle themed around “Philosophy, Politics, general ‘intellectual’ stuff.” One is called Voynich #1 T-Shirt (f67r1), and the other Voynich #2 T-shirt (Scorpio).

Incidentally, I once won a big box of promo T-Shirts for suggesting that the right question for the answer “Above a grocer’s shop in Grantham” was “What was the setting for Ben Elton’s ‘Inferno’?” All of which was a very long time ago indeed, however you try to slice that particular gala pie.

And now we move on to Voynichian musicians.

Melbourne music producer Andrei Eremin has recently put out a track called Voynich Manoeuvre. I actually quite like it, but it has got a certain 9pm-in-a-Shoreditch-restaurant vibe to it that’s hard not to notice: music to drink overpriced urban cocktails to. But perhaps that’s the point, I don’t know.

Anyway, Arcadia Studios TV has a YouTube interview with Nelson Rebelo of rocking Portuguese underground band The Voynich Code to promote their debut single ‘Antithesis’: here’s the official video for it. The guitar lick at about 4:19 is quite cool, though the whole band then goes into a sequence where they all look they’re playing air guitar, even though most of them are holding guitars. Which is a bit odd.

All the same, my son points out (correctly, it has to be said) that Antithesis is hard to distinguish from the awesomely dark the Lego Movie Batman song, though The Voynich Code’s version possibly still gets the vote (by a whisker). But feel free to make up your own mind, pop pickers! And that’s just the first verse… 😉

Finally: some proper Voynichian miscellany.

Was the (15th century) Voynich Manuscript written in the (1987-vintage) conlang Lojban, perhaps through some kind of trickery involving Leonardo da Vinci and time travel? You know the answer already (I can only hope), but though this April Fool’s Day paper was inspired both by Talbert and Tucker and by Stephen Bax, the way it deciphers “penis” and “darseBar” surely combines technical correctness with historical mastery in a way that the preceding three authors can only dream of emulating in the future. Enjoy!

Despite The Dorabella Cipher‘s brevity, its link to composer Sir Edward Elgar (who wrote it) has brought it a cult following over the years. Like other unbroken ciphers, it has appeared as a mysterious motif in TV plays, novels, and even recently in a children’s book (The Orphan of the Flames).


At first sight, it looks to be merely a straightforward simple substitution cipher of the kind that pen, paper, and an agile mind should crack relatively quickly. But what is mystifying is that even though Elgar apparently used precisely the same pigpen-like (3 sets of 8 orientations each) cipher alphabet elsewhere in his writings and notes, the letter-for-symbol replacements he used there make no sense when applied to his Dorabella Cipher. The key seems to match the lock, but doesn’t open the gate.

Moreover, given that the ciphertext’s statistical distribution sits awkwardly with those of natural languages, code-breakers’ numerous attempts to shoehorn their preferred substitutions into the cipher’s three short lines come across as clunky and false (at best). Worst of all, I’m sorry to say that even prolific cipher-solver Tony Gaffney’s ingenious and elegantly-structured decryption failed to please pretty much anyone apart from him.

However, the upside to all that grim cryptanalysis is the indisputable truth that Elgar messed around with language quite a lot, typically in a playful and mischievous way. In general, he loved subverting the rules of language, speech and music, which arguably culminated in his famous Enigma Variations, which some people like to call ‘musical cryptograms’ because many lightly parody (for example) various close friends’ speech and laughter rhythms.

Yet what has long tipped my own judgment against the Dorabella Cipher’s being a cipher of any sort is that by 14th July 1897 (the date of the note), Elgar (who wrote the note) hadn’t known Dora Penny (to whom or for whom the note was written) very long at all; and they never communicated in any kind of cipher before or after that date. But even so, my opinion was no more than a hunch, based only on various modern references on Elgar’s life I’d read… not very satisfactory, but that’s how these things tend to go.

Anyway, having spent far too long reading and relying on secondary sources on this particular cipher mystery, a few weeks ago I decided to instead go right to the source of the story – Dora Penny’s book “Edward Elgar: Memories of a Variation” (I bought a copy of the 1946 second edition, which has rather more information about the Enigma Variations than the first edition), written under her married name “Mrs Richard Powell”.

What I read there only served to strengthen my historical argument against The Dorabella Cipher’s being a cipher at all. Elgar and Penny first met on 6th December 1895, and the cipher was only the third letter Elgar ever wrote to Dora (if indeed, as she points out, it is a letter at all). (Also, he only started calling her “Dorabella” in 1898, so there’s a case to be made that its name isn’t chronologically accurate… oh well!) From all I could see, it would defy common sense if he had sent her something written in an deliberately intractable cipher: no matter how much of a fascination he personally had with such things, cryptography of any sort was not a discussion subject the two friends seemed to have shared at all.

And yet what we see does so resemble an enciphered cryptogram, a paradox which ultimately gives it its place at the Cipher Mysteries top table: for it really ought to be a simple cipher, but it surely is not one. And I find it hard not to hear Elgar’s voice saying to Dora Penny exactly what he said to her about the Enigma Variations (one of which is ‘hers’) – that surely she “of all people” would be able to unwrap its central mystery, its hidden themes. Wouldn’t his cipher, too, be steganography – hidden in plain sight?

As to the content of the note, I don’t believe that the newly married Elgar would have sent Dora Penny, for all the fun they had together (going out to the races, seeing Wolverhampton Wanderers, reading maps, flying kites, etc) a love letter. So in all probability, I think that what we are looking at here is a three line note or letter from him to her, in broadly the same joking and playful manner that he adopted in his other letters to her (though probably not as Byzantine in lexicographical complexity as later letters would become), regardless of the particular manner in which that effect is achieved.

The only other clue I have to offer is that in July 1897, the Elgars were living in a house called “Forli” (named after the talented Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forli, who incidentally gets mentioned a few times in Elizabeth Lev’s rather good The Tigress of Forli) in Malvern in Worcestershire. And so I wondered whether “Forli” and/or “Malvern” might be effective as cribs into the cryptogram, for Elgar would typically head even very short notes with his current address (several of which are charmingly reproduced as inserts in Dora Penny’s book). OK, it’s not quite “HEILH ITLER” at the start of Enigma messages, but you gotta work with what you’ve got, right? 🙂

And so with all these fragmentary clues in mind, I stared and stared and stared at the Dorabella Cipher, trying to see what Elgar (mistakenly) thought Dora Penny would see straight away. And then I stared somemore. After a (fairly long) while, here’s what I noticed:-


Essentially, I suspect that Elgar was so certain that Dora Penny would know what he would be saying in a short note that all he felt he needed to do was to write the general form of the words (even presented in the form of a ciphertext-like medium) and she would still be able to ‘read’ them. [Unfortunately, this proved not to be true!] So, I believe that what we are looking at could well be more like Elgar’s improvised steganographic attempt at a mind-reading trick than a traditional ciphertext per se. Such a process would (probably) produce something like what we see: a non-mathematical stegotext that fails to have the kind of rigorous statistical profile that “proper” ciphers would.

I’m the first to admit that it’s far more of a wobbly observation and a loose speculation than a rigorous proof: but what I’m proposing is that the Dorabella Cipher could turn out to be a quite different class of object from that which code-breakers have been trying (unsuccessfully) to crack. It’s not the end of the road here, but it might possibly be the very start of one… hopefully we shall see! 🙂

If you happen to like both technical-minded heavy metal and cipher mysteries, I might possibly have a hot tip for you (thanks to Phil Strahl’s blog). Otto Kinzel has released an album on Bluntface Records called “I want to report a murder”, where every track is based on features or events in the Zodiac Killer cipher case.

Kinzel has even done a 7-minute video of the title track “I want to report a murder”: but you might want to to skip past the first atmospheric 1 minute 28 secs of video intro and get with the metal…

PS: if you’re reading this as an email & the video didn’t get embedded, here’s the direct link to the video on YouTube. Enjoy!

Slowly but inexorably, the Voynich curve is a-changing: as the meme continues to extend its two-way taproots into mainstream culture during 2011, more artists and novelists are seeing its unreadability and inscrutability as sources of neo-postmodernist inspiration. Simultaneously, discussion of the manuscript is sprawling into many different languages and cultures (such as Romanian, according to Google Trends): yet these forays are typically only for bloggers to plant a brightly coloured flag on top of the Voynich iceberg, rather than exploring the vast volume of cryptographically frozen material beneath.

All of which is to say that hit counts count for little: if you’re looking to dig up interesting stuff on the Voynich Manuscript, Google is now only rarely of any use (and don’t start me on Bing, we’d be here all night). Which is of course a shame, but I thought I ought to point it out anyway.

Regardless, here’s a sporadic unreality check for you, broadcast live and direct from the often-moribund world of Voynichiana: all the VMs news that’s fit to deny. Enjoy!

(1) Klaus Schmeh has been busy (presumably) finishing up his upcoming book on cipher mysteries (and more on that when it arrives). To help prepare the ground for that, he’s done a number of 10-minute talks on the VMs in German, including this one on YouTube from Science Slam Ulm which even included a number of Powerpoint visual jokes, and a more crypto-oriented presentation from Science Slam Bochum. Oh, and also at Science Slam Hamburg, Muenster, Ulm, Koeln, etc. Unmissable stuff, if you happen to be a German-speaking Voynichophile (and you weren’t already in one of the audiences).

(2) “Baroque pop” band Borrowed Beams of Light have released an album called Stellar Hoax, apparently inspired by the Voynich Manuscript. More on that here.

(3) Zbigniew Banasik’s Manchu Voynich theory has been partially revived (if not yet actually resuscitated), with a Reddit post by ‘daruka’.

(4) Sad news: the Voynich Monkeys archive of the main Voynich mailing list has apparently eaten its last banana. Is anyone planning to step forward to produce a new Internet-accessible archive? It’s not as if anything of great consequence has been posted there in the last few years (ducks beneath large plexiglass screen, winking to camera), but its absence is a bit of a shame, all the same. 🙁

(5) Meanwhile, a Japanese Voynich researcher continues to repost interesting emails from the early (and far more productive) days of the Voynich mailing list, not really sure why. For me, it’s an odd feeling to find your own emails randomly popping up on the Web some eight years delayed, rather like the start of Carl Sagan’s Contact. Does anyone happen to know what’s going on in Japan, Voynich-wise?

(6) And finally… no plans for a Voynich Summer 2011 pub meet as yet, sorry! I’m currently holding down three jobs simultaneously, which (mathematically) would seem to leave me roughly -40 free hours each week. Hence the recent low post rate on Cipher Mysteries! Hopefully this will change for the better soon: but in the meantime, a virtual Voynich toast to you all – cheers!

Here’s another (possibly?) Voynich Manuscript-themed musical composition on YouTube you probably haven’t heard of. The notes that go with it say:-

Circle: N-tone
Album: Side material “FLOW”
Artist: ziki_7 [Dust_Box_49] (which seems to be some kind of Japanese musical fanzine?)
Original: ヴワル魔法図書館 (which is Japanese for “Voile, the Magic Library”, whatever that means)

Make of it what you will – it reminded me in places of semi-ambient computer game soundtracks circa 2001, which I don’t think is a completely bad starting point. Enjoy! 🙂

Rather than spam your (no doubt already dangerously close-to-overfilled) inboxes with a stream of inane posts about edgy Japanese musicians producing conceptual albums inspired by the VMs’ illustrations (e.g. …

Limited edition Merzbow (Masami Akita) pressed on lime green vinyl, a work inspired by the plant illustrations in the Voynich manuscript, in a bootleg style cover.

…), Cipher Mysteries will be gently snoozing through most of this year’s silly season, and I cordially suggest you do the same!

You know, it really is about time the Next Big Thing happened in the VMs world (and I don’t mean the radiocarbon and ink papers finally being published in a proper journal). Why hasn’t some tenacious Yale art history student picked up on the codicological mystery of the Voynich Manuscript’s marginalia and done a proper spectroscopic analysis of them? Why hasn’t anyone really gone looking for a mid-15th century abbot (for who else would have their own scriptorium, producing documents for him to sign?) not too far from Savoy and called something not too far from “Simon Sint…”? The closest I’ve found so far is Abbé Simon du Bosc (who died in 1418, but was an abbot in Northern France), but probably isn’t much of a match… oh well! =:-o