Amongst the many reasons to prefer a book over a file on your e-reader: books have history. Sometimes, the history is obvious and evident. A book might have memories attached to it, or sentimental value. Sometimes, however, the history is weird, twisted, and hidden. There’s an air of mystery to certain books, a thrill of an enigma, a hint of something outside the realm of normality.
Here’s a list of such books, ones that have stumped scholars and titillated bibliophiles. And while there’s plenty to be excited about with ebooks, the mysterious origins of a book are never going to translate to the new format.
The Voynich Manuscript
In the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, part of Yale University, there is a book that nobody can read. Called the Voynich Manuscript, after the book dealer Wilifrid Voynich, who acquired the book in 1912, has proven to be an unsolvable puzzle to scholars, cryptographers, and bibliophiles.
C14 dating on the manuscript’s pages has dated the book to sometime in the 15th century. The text is written in an alphabet that matches no known language, and if it’s a code, then it’s one that has stumped codebreakers and cryptographers for the last 100 years. The book appears to be part pharmacopeia, with illustrations of plants and herbs, part alchemy text, and part cosmological treatise. If it is, as some believe, a hoax, it is an incredibly complex one.
The Book of Soyga
John Dee was a famed Elizabethan scholar, mathematician, astrologer, occultist, and alchemist. He was a consultant to the court of Queen Elizabeth, and — even more impressively at the time — owned the largest library in England, some 3000 volumes.
Dee believed the Book of Soyga, also called Aldaraia by the magician, to have been revealed to Adam in the garden of Eden by God’s angels. The book itself was a 16th century treatise on magic, and about as likely to be celestially derived as this article is (Hint: it’s not). The mystery of this book actually starts after Dee’s death. Dee’s fantastic library had been ransacked during his several years spent on the European continent, and he was forced to sell much of the remaining volumes to support himself at the end of his life. The Book Of Soyga was presumed to be lost until 1994, when the scholar Deborah Harkness discovered two copies, in embarrassingly obvious places: the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The Popol Vuh
In 1701, a Dominican priest named Francisco Ximénez came to a small town called Chichicastenango in Guatemala, which is deep in the territory of the former Quiché nation. There, a parishioner showed him a manuscript, a phonetic text copy of an oral recitation, that had first been created after the conquest of Latin America by Spanish forces. “Popol Vuh” translates to “Book of the People”, and its first lines attest to its creation after the violent colonization.
The book itself details the creation of the world, and explores several other myths. It lay in obscurity for years, until it was rediscovered by Adrián Recinos, and published. People have argued for years over how Ximénez came by the manuscript, if there ever was an original source, and how he was allowed to access it if it was such a closely guarded secret.
The Ripley Scroll
The Ripley Scroll is actually a series of scrolls, so named for George Ripley, a 15th century Augustinian monk from Yorkshire who moonlighted as an alchemist. He spent nearly twenty years traveling through Europe, searching for the secrets of transmutation and immortality, and by the time he returned to England in 1477, some believed that he had found it. It was alleged that much of the money that he gave to the Knights of Malta and Rhodes, to fund their war against the Turks, came from gold he had transmuted from base metals.
The Ripley Scrolls show, in a cryptic series of pictures, how to create the fabled philosopher’s stone. For those not already learned in alchemy (or who haven’t read the Harry Potter books) this stone is the key ingredient in creating the elixir of life, and for making gold out lead. The pictures are accompanied by enigmatic texts, saying such things as “You must make Water of the Earth, and Earth of the Air, and Air of the Fire, and Fire of the Earth.”
The Rohonc Codex
The recorded history of the Rohonc Codex can be traced to 1838, when the Count Gusztáv Batthyány donated it, as part of his library, to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The language it’s written in has a passing resemblance to Old Hungarian script, but has been proved to be a different language all together. Like the Voynich Manuscript, no one has successfully deciphered its text. It’s popularly believed to be a hoax perpetrated by the Hungarian forger and nationalist Sámuel Literáti Nemes, but it has never been proved definitively one way or another.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947, two Bedouin goat-herders literally fell into a cave along the Dead Sea by the West Band in Palestine. There they made an astonishing discovery: fragments of scrolls from nearly 2000 years ago, along with a handful of pottery, cloth, and wood from an ancient settlement, called Qumran. The scrolls are generally believed to have belonged to a Jewish sect called the Essenes, though others argue that they might have belonged to other sects, such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, or Zealots. Nearby caves yielded other treasures, including more fragments of scrolls, parchments, and papyrus.
The scrolls had been hidden in clay jars during a time when the Roman military was actively trying to destroy both Jewish culture and the nascent Christian movement. The archaeological site of Qumran had been razed by Romans in 67 AD, and ash found at the site confirmed that amongst its ruins were other scrolls and books.
Prodigiorum Ac Ostentorum Chronicon
The Prodigiorum by Konrad Lycosthenes, is a strange book, even for this list. It is a collection of omens and portents that spanned the known history of Europe, from Greek and Roman times up to contemporary prophecies. It also described and depicted various creatures, both real and fantastical. It contains accurate woodcuts of rhinoceroses, elephants, camels, and moose, as well as collections of sea monsters and strange human-like creatures, with no heads or faces on their chests. It was published at the same time that Nostradamus was writing his Prophecies, and was an obvious inspiration to his work.
The Red Book
Carl Jung was a famous 20th century psychologist, the founder of the Analytical Psychology movement. He was a student of Freud’s, though he later diverged from Freud’s theories. It was during this time that he began work on what was formally titled Liber Novus, but was known informally amongst Jung’s followers and heirs — and eventually published — as The Red Book.
The book had its beginnings in what seemed to be a psychotic breakdown for Jung, starting in 1913. Jung himself referred to the period as a confrontation with his own unconscious. He worked on it for 16 years, while developing his own psychological theories. The contents in the book were produced by using a technique of Jung’s own development that he called “active imagination”, wherein he was visited by a male and female figure, whom he later identified as the prophet Elijah and Salome, who guided him through the process of delving into a collective unconscious.
Jung’s heirs kept the Red Book from being accessed for nearly eighty years, until 2001. It was finally published in 2009.
The Codex Seraphinianus
The Codex Seraphinianus is a book that, according one review, “lies in the uneasy boundary between surrealism and fantasy.” Created by Italian artist Luigi Serafini, the book is supposed to be an encyclopedia of another world. It is written in a a language of Serafini’s own creation, and illustrated throughout by bizarre, color illustrations. There are fish that resemble human eyeballs, complete with eyelashes; bleeding fruit shot through with safety pins; cities cradled in giant oyster shells, suspended about a sea. The language has also proven to be indecipherable, though according to its page on Abe Books, cryptologists have managed to decipher the numbering system.
Though stretching the definition of “books” rather far, the Rongorongo deserve a place on this list. These pieces of wood — some of which were shaped into staffs or statuettes — contain a system of glyphs which have not been able to be deciphered since their discovery in the 19th century.
The arrival of Chilean and Peruvian forces on the island had a devastating effect on the population: slave raiders struck a number of times, eventually abducting or killing about 1,500 people, roughly half the native population. Smallpox and tuberculosis epidemics, some of which were purposely introduced by traders. Others were forcibly emigrated to Tahiti as an enslaved work force. Within a decade, 97% of the population was lost, and there was no one left to translate the glyphs.
The Codex Mendoza
The Codex Mendoza is an extraordinary document with a strange history. It was most likely commissioned by the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in 1616, and was sent to Spain for the king’s perusal. On its way there, however, the fleet on which it traveled was attacked by French privateers, and the codex, along with other treasures that had been aboard, was taken to France. It lay in obscurity for a few hundred years, eventually making its way to the Bodeleian Library in Oxford.
What makes this book extraordinary is that it was a book about the Aztec people, written by Aztec scribes and informants. It is what some scholars call the first “autoethnography”, a biography of an entire people written by members of the group.
Prophecies of Nostradamus
What list of mysterious and occult books would be complete without a mention of the famed Prophecies? This popular book of predictions and prophecies has been a bestseller for over 400 years, rarely going out of print since its initial publication in 1555. At the time, collections of omens and predictions were in high demand. Nostradamus — or Michel de Notredame, as he was known — began his career as an apothecary and plague doctor. Perhaps it was his work in the midst of bubonic plague outbreaks that gave him his particular interest in apocalyptic visions of the future.
The collected Prophecies lay out, in rhyming quatrains no less, predictions of various disasters. Various urban legends and myths about him abound. Claims that he predicted everything: 9/11, both World Wars, the death of Princess Di, the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If an event made headlines for more than a few weeks, rest assured that someone, somewhere, is holding up a copy of Nostradamus’ 400 year old tome and claiming that he knew it would happen all along.
The Nag Hammadi Library
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, a group of books that comprise the Gnostic Bible, sounds like the beginning of a Victorian adventure novel: in 1945, an Arab peasant named Muhammad Ali al-Samman, discovered a clay jar in the deserts of Upper Egypt, which contained 13 books that were bound in leather. He dumped the books at his family’s house while he and his brothers went out to enact a blood feud against another man. Some of the books were accidentally burned in a cooking fire, while the rest were eventually sold on the black market, until they attracted the attention of Egyptian officials, who confiscated several of the books, and housed them in the Coptic Museum of Cairo.
The codices were eventually discovered to be secret sacred Christian texts. The books were created over 1,500 years ago, during the first centuries of Christianity. Some of them had never been mentioned before, in any Christian literature; others had been declared heresy, and banned by the Church. They offer a counter-point to accepted ecclesiastical literature, and have been controversial ever since their discovery.
The Sangorski Edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Is it possible for a book to be as cursed as the Hope Diamond? If so, the Sangorski special edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is. This book is a work of art in and of itself: the cover is bound in leather, features a jewel-encrusted peacock on the front, and is emblazoned with gold leaf. Its designer, Francis Sangorski, spent months designing it, and two years to finish its creation. It’s a legendary book, both because of the elevated artistry of the book, and the tragedies that seemed to follow it.
Sangorski’s original copy sank with the Titanic. Before he could recreate it, Francis Sangorski drowned, six weeks after the ship — with the book — foundered in the Atlantic. Stanley Bray, Sangorski’s partner, spent six years recreating the second copy of the book from Sangorski’s original drawings. The book was then destroyed in the London Blitz. It took Bray another 40 years to finish the next copy, which was donated to the British Library after his death.
The Story of the Vivian Girls
Henry Darger was a typical urban hermit: he worked as a janitor, he lived in a small apartment in Chicago for close to 40 years, never married, and kept to himself. After he died, however, in 1973, his former landlords discovered that Darger was a typical hermit with an atypical habit: he had been writing and illustrating a novel for years, and the tome was more than 15,000 pages long by the time he died.
Bearing the unwieldy title of The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, this epic fantasy was richly illustrated by accompanying watercolors. Girls with wings fly above the strange pastel landscapes, pursued by men with swords and bayonets. The book is rich and disturbing, a supreme example of outsider art.