Fairy-Tale Files: Cryptographer’s Delight

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.

King of the uncharactered, the Voynich manuscript takes cipher sleuthing to velum-unraveling heights. Antiquarian Wilfred Voynich purchased it from the Collegio Romano in 1912, his widow setting in motion a chain of bequeathments prior to its Yale arrival 57 years later. Illustrations provide the codex’s only potential clues—herbology, astronomy, cosmology, or pharmaceutical practices stemming from wherever it originated – while radiocarbon dating gives us a 34-year window (beginning in 1404) during which it was authored. Hoax or not, composer Hannah Lash based a symphony on it, said enigma embarking on writing’s latest permutation, the Twitterverse: @NHSO #Lash #Voynich.

Crypto cookware. What else would you call mysterious inscriptions found on a collection of spatulas and bronze plates in Byblos, Lebanon? Additional stone carvings featuring the unknown alphabet made their way into archaeologist Maurice Dunand’s Byblia Grammatica, a syllabary akin to hypotheses’ greatest hits. Similar writing appears in Megiddo and Egypt, its quasi-hieroglyphic quality alongside symbols possibly affiliated with Old Kingdom hieratic (best described as pharaonic cursive). Using a Phoenician template, the late George Mendenhall offered a series of ambiguous translations such as “Adze that Yipuyu and Hagara make binding…with Miku is the pledge.” These, the kitchen aids that confound.

Crack this code to solve the murder of Australia’s Somerton Man. Cryptograms generally don’t go around hiding in a decedent’s trousers, but that doesn’t prevent the random passage torn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám from turning up in the victim’s pants, the string of letters found in the exact Rubaiyat copy from which the phrase Tamam Shud (‘finished’) was ripped. A 2014 theory applies Morse code: line one’s M equaling ‘message,’ line three’s P standing for ‘priority,’ et cetera. So begins the case’s spy conjecture, its proponents claiming involvement of British warplanes and Bulgarian Airlines, Sofia cloak-and-daggery as ever.