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Purdue and Delaware State professors unravel century-old mystery

The enigmatic Voynich manuscript, undecipherable to scholars for more than a century, is a 16th century Mexican manuscript, according to a new book written by Purdue University and Delaware State University professors.

The discovery, which also identifies the manuscript’s author and illustrator, is a collaboration between Jules Janick, distinguished professor of horticulture at Purdue University, and Arthur O. Tucker, emeritus herbarium director at Delaware State University. Contributions to the book were made by Fernando Moreira, a Canadian linguist, and Elizabeth A. Flaherty, a Purdue wildlife ecologist.

The evidence is contained in “Unraveling the Voynich Codex,” recently released by Springer Nature. Key evidence for the Mexican origin of the Voynich Codex includes identification of Mexican plants and animals as well as clarification of a kabbalah-like map that shows landmarks of central Mexico. 

Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich purchased the manuscript from a Jesuit university in 1912 in Frascati, Italy. The manuscript now resides in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library of Yale University. It once belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, nephew of Philip II of Spain, who allegedly kept the book in his “cabinet of wonders.” The pages are filled with illustrations of plants, animals, astrological signs, bathing nymphs and symbolic language that has been undecipherable.

Researchers previously assumed the Voynich Codex to be a 15th century European manuscript, reinforced by carbon dating of the vellum but not the text. However, the book’s last chapter includes contrary evidence, including the previously ignored botanical and animal information, which identifies the manuscript to be of New World origin.

The authors have identified 60 plants, all of which are indigenous to the New World. They have also identified 12 animals native to the New World including an armadillo, alligator gar, Mexican crayfish, ocelot, jaguarondi, coatimundi and horned lizard. Illustrations of the sunflower and armadillo are viewed by the authors as hard proof of a post-Columbian manuscript.

“Simply put, there is no way a manuscript written on vellum that contains a sunflower and an armadillo could have been written before 1492,” Janick said.

The manuscript includes a map with kabbalah imagery that is centered on the city of Puebla, where the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinia, established the city of Angelopolis as the New Jerusalem in 1530. The map contains four other Mexican cities, Huejotzingo, Vera Cruz, Tecamachalco and Tlaxcala, as well as three volcanoes, Popocatepetl, La Malinche and Pico de Orizaba. 

Janick and Tucker identify the illustrator, Juan Gerson, and author, Gaspar de Torres, based on their initials and names embedded in the first botanical illustration. Gerson, an indigenous Indian artist, painted murals of the apocalypse in a church in Techamachalco in 1562. Gaspar de Torres, a Spaniard born in Santo Domingo, was a medical doctor and lawyer who defended Indian rights and

served as master of students from 1568-1572 at the Colegio of Santa Cruz, where sons of the Aztec nobility trained to be priests.  He was also a grandson of Jewish conversos, which could explain the kabbalah imagery.

The book is written in a symbolic script that has escaped decipherment by the world’s most distinguished cryptologists, including William Friedman. Friedman deciphered the Japanese Purple Code, a diplomatic cryptographic machine used by the Japanese Foreign Office during World War II. Tucker deciphered the symbols using the Mesoamerican names of labeled plants as the Rosetta Stone. Several words, including plants, cities and apothecary jars based on Nahuatl and Spanish words, have been deciphered. The text remains untranslated, but the authors write that it appears to be a synthetic language, as predicted by William Friedman, or possibly a mutually known language used in written communication by Aztec traders.

Identifying the Voynich manuscript as a 16th century, New World text gives scholars valuable information about the culture of post-conquest Mexican society. Few books like the Voynich manuscript survived the Spanish Inquisition.

“Having owned something like this work at the time would have gotten you burned at the stake,” Tucker said. “But it survived, unedited, giving us a rare, unfiltered glimpse of this time and place.”

Janick and Tucker conclude the Voynich Codex is a compendium of Aztec knowledge that is largely medicinal and herbal but includes information on astronomy, astrology and ritual bathing.  The Voynich Codex is of extreme historical importance as it contains seminal information of New Spain unfiltered though Spanish or Inquisitorial censors.

Janick and Tucker are continuing to identify the plants pictured in the Voynich manuscript and plan to continue publishing their findings. 

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