Eve at Skepticamp: The Origins of the Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV

June 22, 2011

Last weekend, Eve gave her talk about the origins of a dirty words. Her journey into the seedy side of etymology was prompted by a number of glaring mistakes she encountered on skeptical sites. Her exact words, I think, were, “FUCK!”

Here is the video, which is the size of a house (a 314MB .m4v).

You can also listen to the mp3 podcast version, which is more hamster-sized.

This talk is explicit and NSFW, but it’s totally ok to listen to it in front of children, especially strangers’ children.

And a special thanks to Mark Ditzler at Abrupt Media for putting these together.


Skepticamp Atlanta: Live, Online, All-Nude!

June 10, 2011

Oh well, 2 out of 3 is not bad.

Tomorrow, Atlanta Skeptics are leaving the bar (for once) to put on a two-day online extravaganza: Skepticamp 2011: This Time It’s Personal. We will be streaming live on the Internet, so you may be able to see my talk or Eve’s talk. I’ll be doing a bit about my visit to the TruthCon at 1:00PM Eastern, while Eve will go at 1:30 and will be talking about the history of profanity.

I am embedding a widget linky doodad below, but in case that does not work, you can click on this link to get to the live web stream. Remember to ask questions in the chat and to introduce yourselves?


    Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.


Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!

*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.



Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

Teh Oxford Lolcat Dikshunaree

April 25, 2011

Lolcats have taken over the Bible, so is it surprising that they’ve invaded the most famous dictionary in the English language? They really need their own multi-volume dictionary–Teh OLD (Oxford Lolcat Dikshunaree).


Fingerprints of the Norse Gods

April 14, 2011

I’ve been reading Graham Hancock’s unnecessarily lengthy tome Fingerprints of the Gods (hey Graham, if I wanted to read a travelogue, I’d’ve bought a travelogue: get to the point). It’s been slow going because every couple of sentences, my eyeballs roll into the back of my skull, and I have to wait for them to return to their normal position before continuing.

As I was reading, I began to get an idea for a blog post: I would write a parody in which I traced suspicious parallels between Mesopotamian, Mesoamerican and Old Norse mythology. Perhaps I’d begin with Hancock’s discussion of the Babylonian god Marduk‘s conquest of the chaos monster Tiamat:

…[A] great plan of world creation began to take shape in his mind. His first move was to split Tiamat’s skull and cut her arteries. Then he broke her into two parts “like a dried fish,” using one half to roof the heavens and the other to surface the earth. From her breasts he made mountains, from her spittle, clouds, and he directed the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to flow from her eyes. (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s source is the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, pp. 60)

He compares Marduk to Quetzalcoatl, who

in his incarnation as the creator deity, took the role of Marduk while the part of Tiamat was played by Cipactli, the “Great Earth Monster.” Quetzalcoatl seized Cipactli’s limbs “as she swam in the primeval waters and wrenched her body in half, one part forming the sky and the other the earth.” From her hair and skin he created grass, flowers and herbs; “from her eyes, wells and springs; from her shoulders, mountains.” (Hancock p. 144. Hancock’s sources are Adela Fernandez, Pre-Hispanic Gods of Mexico, p. 59 and Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs, p. 177)

Well, one can hardly miss the parallels to Ymir, the primordial giant in Old Norse Mythology. Ymir was formed in the thawing ice of Ginnungagap, the great void that lay between the extreme heat of Muspelheim and the extreme cold of Niflheim.  A male and female were formed from the sweat of Ymir’s left armpit, and one of his legs sired a son on the other. These were the first frost giants (Snorri Sturluson, Poetic Edda, Gylfaginning, ch. 5). Odin and his brothers Vili and Ve killed Ymir:

When he fell, so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household. The giants call that one Bergelmir. He, together with his wife, climbed up on to his wooden box, and there they kept themselves safe. From them come the races of the frost giants….” (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 7)

ZOMG! A flood that destroyed an entire race, except for just enough individuals to replenish the race! Hancock goes on and on about flood stories. It doesn’t really matter how dissimilar they are. If they involve floods (and sometimes even if they don’t), they have to be related in some way.  But wait, there’s more! After killing Ymir, Odin and his brothers created the world using bits of his body:

They took Ymir and they moved him into the middle of Ginnungagap and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones. They made stones and gravel from the teeth, the molars and those bones that were broken.

…With the blood that gushed freely from the wounds, they made the sea, and by fashioning that sea around, they belted and fastened the earth. Most men would think it impossible to cross over this water.

…They also took his skull and from it made the sky. They raised it over the earth and under each of the four corners they placed a dwarf.

…[The gods built a fortress wall to protect the world from the giants.] As material for the wall, they used the eyelashes of the giant Ymir and called this stronghold Midgard…. They took his brain, threw it up into the air, and from it they made the clouds. (Snorri, Gylfaginning, ch. 8 )

In my parody, I was going to ask a lot of rhetorical questions that began “Is it simply a coincidence that…?” and “Or is it perhaps possible that…?” Then I’d note the big fuss Hancock makes over Mesoamerican gods who are described as white and mention all the works of art that he identifies as “clearly” representing bearded Caucasians. Heck, you can’t get much whiter than Scandinavians and still have melanin, and their gods are generally depicted as bearded. Finally, I was going to mention the Mayan god Votan, whom Hancock describes as “pale-skinned, bearded and wearing a long robe” (p. 103). Hey, Wotan/Woden/Odin/Oðinn was pale-skinned and bearded and often wore a cloak. If only this Votan fella was one-eyed. Could this possibly be a coincidence? (yes, yes it could).

I was saddened–for many reasons–to learn that people have seriously made this argument (see here as well as Votan link above). So, I plowed on with my reading, when, lo, I came across the following in a chapter called “The Many Masks of the Apocalypse:”

There is one ancient culture that perhaps preserves more vivid memories in its myths than any other; that of the so-called Teutonic tribes of Germany and Scandinavia, a culture best remembered through the songs of the Norse scalds and sages. The stories those songs retell have their roots in a past which may be much older than scholars imagine and which combine familiar images with strange symbolic devices and allegorical language to recall a cataclysm of awesome magnitude. (Hancock, p. 204)

Yay! Hancock made the Norse connection! I’m not sure why he thinks that the roots of Old Norse mythology may be much older than scholars imagine, except that he thinks ALL old cultures are somehow much older than we imagine. In a lengthy indented quotation, Hancock describes a Norse apocalypse in which he sees similarities to Mesoamerican, and ancient Iranian stories, among many others. All these stories involve cold and dark. In the Norse version he recounts, a giantess gives birth to a brood of wolves sired by the giant wolf Fenrir, son of Loki. One of the wolves devours the sun. The disappearance of the sun brings about a period of intense cold and brutality (known as fimbulvetr, awful or great winter). Fenrir escapes from his bonds. The world tree Yggdrasil is shaken violently; mountains split. “Abandoned by the gods, men were driven from their hearths and the human race was swept from the surface of the earth. The earth itself was beginning to lose its shape. Already the stars were coming adrift from the sky and falling into the gaping void” (Larousse, p. 279 qtd. in Hancock, p. 205). The fire giant Surt sets the earth alight; then the seas and rivers overflow; however, an undisclosed number of people survive, enclosed within Yggdrasil. They are the progenitors of a new race of men.

Now, in reading Hancock, I’ve found some odd things about the way he uses and cites sources. Of course, many of his sources are of an extremely dubious nature (Velikovsky and Sitchin, to name two). But one thing that concerns me is that when he’s recounting mythology, he often does not cite primary sources (or translations of primary sources). In some cases, I suppose, the primary sources may not be accessible, or they may not have been translated into English. But in some cases, for one indented quote, he will name more than one source, at least one of which is not a primary source. This has led me to suspect that he is picking and choosing information that fits his ideas. His presentation of the Norse material confirmed my suspicions. Both the Poetic and Prose Eddas have been translated into English several times and are easily accessible. Hancock does not quote from a translation. He again quotes from the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. And I found the quotation odd in a number of ways. For one thing, there are some bits I don’t remember–for instance the dwarfs trying to find entrances to their underground dwellings–but perhaps I just missed or forgot those bits.

Larousse is available for free online. In consulting it, I noticed that Hancock has altered wordings here and there (or perhaps there is some variation in versions of Larousse: his page numbers don’t match mine, either). These alterations are trivial. A much bigger problem is that Hancock has omitted large chunks of the story without using ellipses. The story Hancock is recounting is that of Ragnarok, the doom of the gods. What Hancock has omitted from the story is…the doom of the gods. He doesn’t mention Odin, Thor, Frey, Tyr or Heimdall. He doesn’t even mention Loki who is the leader of the “bad guys” and the father or ancestor of some of the monsters (Fenrir and the other wolves and Hel, goddess of the underworld).

That’s a hell of an omission. Now, it could be argued that he left out those bits to save space, and it’s the other elements, the ones that relate to the fate of the sun and the earth, etc., that are most pertinent to the discussion. I don’t buy it. I think it allows him to skew the story. He follows the quotation with the comment, “The new world this Teutonic myth announces is our own” (p. 205). This statement is simply untrue. The events described haven’t happened yet. While Larousse recounts the story in the past tense, Snorri Sturluson uses the present tense in the Prose Edda. Vǫluspá (the Prophecy of the Seeress), from the Poetic Edda, tells the story partly in the present tense, but it is clear that it describes events that have not yet occurred, since the seeress is addressing Odin, who is still alive (his death is foretold in the poem). Hancock adds: “Needless to say, like the Fifth Sun of the Aztecs and the Maya, it was created long ago and is new no longer” (p. 205). Again, this is not true. Ragnarok doesn’t parallel the beginning of the Fifth Sun, the beginning of the present age. From Hancock’s point of view, it would fit with December 23, 2012, the catastrophic end of an age (again, according to Hancock’s view).

This is some impressive cherry-picking. The story of Ragnarok is not obscure. It always refers to a future apocalyptic event. Now, granted, since the stories were told or recorded by Christians, one could argue that the Teutonic gods had died, but not in some world-destroying cataclysm that somehow relates to a real event we don’t seem to know about. They were simply supplanted by a new religion. Most of the myths Hancock discusses do concern disasters that happened in the distant past, but not all myths can be forced to tell the same story.



Hancock, Graham. Fingerprints of the Gods. New York: Crown, 1995.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Tr. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. New York: Crescent, 1987. http://www.scribd.com/doc/2176365/New-Larousse-Encyclopedia-of-Mythology.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2005.

Vǫluspá. Poetic Edda. Text with translation by Henry Adams Bellows available here.

Is the Voynich Manuscript the Product of an Alien Intelligence?

February 19, 2011

Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”

Already wrong, but I’ll get there.

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.

According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.

It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section,  biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”

A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.

In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!

Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.

He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!

As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which  he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:

The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:

Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…

If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:

Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.

But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.

In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.

It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.

By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.

In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.

Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).

The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!

A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)

A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.

Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at physorg.com, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!

On vellum.

In the 15th century.

The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”

Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.



Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.

Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.

Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.

Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.

Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.

Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up

January 27, 2011

I’m suspicious of literary theory, and, as you might imagine, this is a problem for someone in my profession. A lot of criticism is grounded in philosophical positions that seem to me unproven and possibly unprovable. This, of course, is not their problem, but mine. Nonetheless, I would very much like to single out one school of literary theory and beat it savagely as a warning to other schools of theory. I am talking about psychoanalytic literary theory.

The purpose of psychoanalytic theory has always eluded me. I mean, as far as I can tell, even what constitutes the object of psychoanalytic critique is in doubt. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim (and publish, fer cryin’ out loud) that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him.* I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed. Why is it so hard for literary theory to jettison Freud?

My personal objections to Freud stem from his misunderstanding of memory, which was very important to my dissertation on the memoirs and fiction of WWII combat veterans. The model of memory that Freud employs is pretty much at odds with everything that we know about how memory works from empirical studies. Central to psychoanalysis is the idea of repression, that traumatic events get displaced, forgotten from the conscious mind, but can still exert influence on the conscious life. Memory is, to Freud, similar an object that gets tucked away in the attic of memory, one which the analyst and patient must dislodge and bring to light. The memory is whole and essentially unchanging.

Most laboratory findings, however, refute this model of the mind. Memories are not mental objects; they are representations of events reconstructed anew with each remembering, subject to decay and alteration over time. Most importantly for any discussion of Freud, the more traumatic an experience is, the more likely we are to remember it, a process that seems to be governed by stress hormones. Indeed, there is no good evidence for “memory repression” in the Freudian sense. So-called “recovered” memories don’t count, because it is entirely possible to plant memories that are indistinguishable from regular memories–we can’t even in principle distinguish the two. Yikes!

If you think about it, psychoanalysis and literary interpretation have a lot in common, and depending on how far you are willing on how far you are willing to go, they may ultimately be variations of the same process. At a basic level, psychoanalytic criticism allows you to say that “A” equals “B.” That is, it is an exploration of metaphor, an examination of something expressed in terms of something else.  This also underlies an important (and true) assumption of literary criticism, that the “texts” we are examining often mean something more than what they literally say.

Often, however, I think that people run too far with the comparison and mistake the metaphor for the real thing. This is perhaps most prominent in the area of psychoanalytic theory that purports to look at “cultural or social memory,” the shared narratives that knit together large groups of people. A claim that might come out of this area of study would be, for instance, “America has expunged from its national memory the one of the greatest holocausts ever perpetrated by humanity, the displacement of Native Americans.” Academics, in this case, take an inadequate model of the human mind and use it for a metaphor for how societies remember, then they mistake the metaphor for the actual historical process of building up a national narrative. In its more flamboyant forms, what is being repressed, because it is naturally hidden, turns out to be…whatever the academic’s kink is. If it’s imperial conquest, they find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, they’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, they’ll find pandas. When A (the text) is defined and B is perfectly hidden, waiting to be “discovered” or “uncovered” by the theorist, well, you get widely divergent and often silly interpretations. When you are allowed to substitute any word or idea for any another word or idea, hell, you can make anything mean anything that you want! Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

I’m not saying that this might not be a useful exercise in some cases–I glean a lot from the historical research that informs much of this type of literary criticism. I think that the way in which that context is applied does not add much to the actual knowledge about the text the critic is analyzing. I suspect, and this has been said of Freud, that you learn more about the critic than you do about the object of criticism at this point. This in itself, however, has the potential to be a useful poetic, creative, and artistic project in its own right, and I wonder if that is not the one saving grace of psychoanalytic criticism– that it is the artistic synthesis of a creative mind.

But who’d want to read it?

So, what’s the “proper” use of Freud? I think that question is up for debate, but I would use Freud sparingly. Freud transformed all he touched, and I think that it is an important area of scholarship to show the influence that Freud’s ideas had on culture. So, you need to have his ideas in the back of your head (heheh) when surveying the art of the twentieth century, for instance. It would be nonsensical to look at the work of Salvador Dali and not consider the influence of psychoanalysis on his work and the work of other surrealists. Once we mistake his theories for useful models of how the mind actually works (say authors’ minds), however, that’s when we start to misuse him.



*Krims, Marvin Bennett.  The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

Cool Spellings

January 20, 2011

Currently, Yahoo has a story on its front page about Theodore Roosevelt High School in Washington D.C. The school’s sports teams are nicknamed “Rough Riders,” and for the past several years, the basketball team has had the single word “Riders” on the front of its jerseys. Not this year, though. This year the players are sporting jerseys that say “Ryders,” as in The Ryder Cup or Ryder Trucks or perhaps Ruff Ryders, none of which is traditionally associated with Teddy Roosevelt or the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry. The best part of the story is the explanation/excuse that the jersey vendor gave the basketball coach: Ryders is the “cool” way to spell it.

Look, okay, we all know that English spelling is a bit wonky. Granted, traditional spelling gives us an idea of the history and etymology of a word, but it’s kind of a pain. So why not get rid of traditional spelling and give up on the dream of a simplified and phonetically consistent system of spelling. Instead, let’s adopt “cool spellings.” Oh sure, that means that spellings will become faddish and ephemeral. Presumably, language designers will bring out new spelling lines at least twice a year. I think it’s worth it, though. We don’t want other languages to make fun of our frumpy spellings.

ES at Skeptycle Hoomanatees