There are manuscripts that defy our technological progress — books composed of undecipherable languages and unknown symbols. Some authors thwarted discovery, while other scribes and their books are simply artifacts from a forgotten culture. These mysterious texts have roused the imaginations of scholars and amateur historians, but they remain an enigma. Here are ten cryptic books that continue to confound researchers. These obscure gems open up a world of intriguing possibilities.
There is a 600-year-old book written in an unknown language, containing peculiar illustrations of unknown species (plant and animal). The Voynich manuscript, discovered in 1912 and named after the book dealer who acquired it, contains chapters on herbs, biological systems, astrological and astronomical passages, and fantastical oddities — at least we think, because no one has been able to decipher its 240 pages.
The Voynich has frustrated and fascinated code breakers and armchair historians, who have come up with a number of hypothetical explanations. Some believe the entire work is a fabrication. Army cryptographer William F. Friedman concluded that the Voynich was written in a constructed language, while others see it as a piece of outsider art that was composed during a trance. A popular theory about the Voynich being decipherable only under a microscope has yielded no answers. The book’s bizarre marginalia — such as the drawing of a corpse holding its stomach that New Yorker writer Reed Johnson mentioned in his article about the appeal of the Voynich — teases the imagination further still. The Voynich remains an unsolved puzzle — and a symbol of wishful thinking.
Reclusive artist Henry Darger created an elaborate mythology surrounding a battle between child slaves and vicious overlords that was realized in a 15,145-page saga called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The Codex Seraphinianus is another deeply personal compendium that recalls the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Luigi Serafini’s fantastical text is a roadmap of its creator’s imagination — 360 pages of flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods that exist only in Serafini’s head. The text, composed in a manner similar to automatic writing (during the late 1970s), is unintelligible, but Serafini wanted to create a work that conveyed the sense a child has when they are presented with books they aren’t able to read.
A Hungarian count donated the Rohonc Codex to the country’s Academy of Sciences in 1838, but the 448-page text, containing 87 crude illustrations, can be traced back to the 1700s. Pictures of military battles and religious iconography populate the manuscript — Christian, Pagan, and Islamic symbolism. Scholars have suggested the book’s cryptic script could be early Hungarian, Hindi, and even a syllabary alphabet similar to Chinese. All of the research may be for naught since a number of scholars believe the work to be a hoax by Transylvanian-Hungarian antiquarian Sámuel Literáti Nemes. (Will a director please use this name for their next movie villain?) The rare book dealer is infamous for his convincing historical forgeries.
It’s been 45 years since the Zodiac Killer first terrorized the Northern California area, taunting the press with coded messages. Of the four ciphers supposedly sent by the serial killer, only one has been solved — a complex 408-word cryptogram (misspelled), in which the murderer talked about making the victims his slaves in the afterlife. Nice guy. Despite a list of potential suspects, the Zodiac murders — and letters — remain unsolved to this day.
Treasure hunters have scoured the Bedford County, Virginia area since the 19th century, searching for buried gold, silver, and jewels. The Beale Papers are ciphers that reveal the location of over 60 million dollars in treasure, said to be squirreled away by Thomas Jefferson Beale. He entrusted the text to a friend before he died, and James B. Ward made them public in 1885. Only one of the codes has been cracked, revealing details of the riches and their location, but scholars doubt the authenticity of the papers. No record of a Thomas Jefferson Beale has ever been found. Ward, a Mason, is suspected to be the author. Edgar Allan Poe (a cryptography enthusiast) was also on the list of potential scribes, due to his connection to Virginia and his short story The Gold-Bug — about a secret message that leads to buried treasure. Historians have since ruled him out.
Alchemist, occultist, and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee had ownership of the Book of Soyga until his death. It was thought to be lost until the 1990s, when two manuscripts were located in the British Library and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library under a different title. Dee sought the help of spirit medium Edward Kelley to uncover the significance of the 16th-century magical text. The angel Uriel supposedly revealed to the men that only the archangel Michael could interpret the book. Later, writer Jim Reeds cracked the code used to create the 36 tables of letters found within, but the collection of incantations, names, and backwards writing remains a mystery.
Is the Dorabella Cipher a love letter written by a 40-year-old married composer to a girl in her 20s? Edward Elgar and Dora Penny were friends for life, but an 87-character, three-line cipher sent to Penny by the musician in 1897 could hold a deeper meaning. Reportedly, Penny was never able to translate it. Some believe it’s shorthand for a musical composition. Several convoluted translations have surfaced over the years, but most of them resemble nonsense poems — which is yet another theory about the popular mystery.
Believed to be a ritual calendar, the Liber Linteus has a somewhat morbid history. A Croatian official in the Hungarian Royal Chancellery purchased a female mummy from Egypt during his travels. He displayed it in the sitting room of his home, even removing the linen wrappings at one point. After his death, the mummy was donated to the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, where a lengthy inscription was found on the cloth, estimated to date back to 250 BC. The codex contains 230 lines and 1200 legible Etruscan words — hymn-like passages and names of gods. The mummy itself was identified as Nesi-hensu, the wife of Paher-hensu, a tailor from Thebes. Scholars have never been able to decipher the entire text due to a language barrier.
We know that the Ripley Scrolls, named after English author and alchemist George Ripley, are copies of an original 15th-century text. The works contain strange illustrations and poetic passages referencing the elusive philosopher’s stone — aka magical realness that only Harry Potter understands, which is why the scrolls remain a mystery.
Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyám wrote thousands of poems, many compiled into The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Numerous translations have added widely different meanings to the text, ranging from mystic interpretations to devoutly religious (Islamic) symbolism. Scholars can’t agree on the authenticity of the collection, clouding the works further. Francis Sangorski, one half of London bookbinder company Sangorski & Sutcliffe, created a stunning bejeweled binding for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám that took years to create. It was lost during the sinking of the Titanic. Sangorski drowned weeks later, leading many to believe that the book itself is cursed. Take that, James Cameron.