Dark Realms Magazine - Issue 21

Mystical Manuscripts: Ancient Texts of Secret Knowledge

Ancient scrolls full of spiritual wisdom, enigmatic volumes imprinted with forbidden lore and magical rites. The world's civilizations are based on an array of famous and bewildering manuscripts that have instructed people on how to live and what lies beyond death. These manuscripts have become the Bible, the Koran, and the sacred texts of other faiths. But history is also filled with lesser known but no less fascinating and sometimes ominous texts that confound scholars to this very day.


In ancient Egypt, rolls of papyrus illustrated with magical spells and incantations were often placed in tombs in order to protect the deceased as he ventured forth into the unknown land of the afterlife. These scrolls, many of which date from around 2400 BC, became known as The Book of the Dead in the 19th century, when a German archaeologist, Karl Richard Lepsius, published the collection of the approximately 200 scrolls under that name.

Many of these texts were found in the Pyramids, but many were also found in the tombs of more humble Egyptians. These scrolls were prepared by scribes, who created a small industry by selling them to individuals as standard "equipment" for burials. The Egyptian afterlife was fraught with all sorts of perils and tests, from judging gods to vengeful spirits, so the spells and formulae contained within the scrolls were viewed as necessary information or passwords for the deceased to use to survive on his new plane of existence.


In nearby Israel, a series of less fanciful but no less important manuscripts were discovered in caves near the Dead Sea by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. Subsequently dubbed The Dead Sea Scrolls, these papyrus, leather and copper texts were generally attributed to fundamentalist Jewish monks called the Essenes. The 400 often fragmented scrolls contain versions of all the Hebrew books of the Bible as well as such material as poems, songs, prophecies, horoscopes and historical accounts of battles. There are even portions of formal curses and apocalyptic writings that foretell the coming of the Jewish Messiah. In particular, one fragment from the 1st century BC reads, "For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor," a passage interpreted by Christian scholars as foretelling the coming of Jesus.


Another intriguing religious manuscript from the early Judeo-Christian era is The Book of Enoch, which many scholars believe has had a substantial influence on the development of Christianity. Dating back to 175 BC, the Book of Enoch predates the writing of the Old Testament. The first 36 chapters of the manuscript tells the story of Enoch, a scribe who claims to have been visited by fallen angels known as The Watchers, who have lived on earth and produced offspring with mortal women. The Watchers tell Enoch that they have contacted him to act as their voice to petition God on their behalf so that they may be judged fairly by some authority separate from the vengeful Lord. Unfortunately for them, the petition is dismissed by God and Enoch is told directly by Him that their eternal punishment will stand.

The Book of Enoch is one of the earliest documents that delves into the nature of fallen angels, more commonly known as demons. These angels came down from Heaven and not only mated with humans but taught mankind how to use tools and weapons. Eventually these newfound powers made mankind arrogant and corrupt, and soon tribes of men were fighting one another in an orgy of godless destruction while the good angels in Heaven watched in dismay. To punish the fallen angels, many severe torments are meted out by God and the good angels. For example, God decrees that one of the Watchers, Azazel, be bound at the hands and feet and "cast into darkness, and make an opening in the desert, which is in Dudael, and cast him therein. And place upon him rough and jagged rocks, and cover him with darkness, and let him abide there forever."

Several other concepts from The Book of Enoch, such as the final judgement, the resurrection and the coming of the Messiah, were later adopted by Christianity, however, unlike other Judeo-Christian texts from the era, the book itself was not ultimately included into the canon of the Bible because it was considered heretical by the early Christian church. Enoch, it seems, experienced God directly, a method highly valued by the so-called Gnostics of the time. The Gnostics believed that direct communion with God was preferable over having a bureaucracy like the church dictate to people what to believe. Unsurprisingly, Gnostic teachings were viewed as a threat to church power, and texts like the Book of Enoch were banned from Christian teaching because they fed Gnostic beliefs.


Other examples of strange manuscripts have surfaced throughout history, some even more enigmatic than ancient religious and spiritual texts. One such document is the so-called Voynich Manuscript, a bizarre and so far indecipherable 16th century book named for Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who came into possession of the manuscript in 1912.

The Voynich Manuscript is a 240page book written in an unknown language and filled with odd illustrations and diagrams. The numerous pictures of unknown plants, plant components, solar systems and nude women have led scholars to believe that the book is divided into sections dealing with herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological and pharmaceutical topics. There is no way to confirm this definitively, however, because the mysterious language or code in which the manuscripts text is written has befuddled even the top cryptologists of the US and British governments. Even noted linguistic historians have been unable to decipher a single word. Writer James Finn theorized in 2004 that the manuscripts text is actually Hebrew written in a purposefully distorted manner, much in the way the elaborate, intricate serifs and flourishes of medieval Gothic printing have made books like the Gutenberg Bible difficult for modern eyes to interpret. However, the Voynich Manuscripts text is by far more impenetrable than even heavily stylized written languages, and no one has been able to offer even a tentative translation of the text.

The authorship of this strange volume has been attributed to several possible candidates, including famous Franciscan friar Roger Bacon and John Dee, the mathematician and astrologer for Queen Elizabeth I. However, no real evidence to support these or any other authors has surfaced. A more compelling question than who wrote the Voynich Manuscript is what the purpose of the book is. No persuasive theory as to the book's intent has come to light, leading some researchers to claim that the manuscript is little more than an elaborate hoax.

However, if the manuscript is authentic, the information contained within may document lost scientific knowledge of the Middle Ages—during which time it was considered heresy to practice scientific experimentation. To avoid severe punishments such as imprisonment or death, alchemists often recorded their findings in code. Because many of the plant species illustrated in the Voynich manuscript are unknown, as is the language and alphabet of the text, some have theorized that the book may be a surviving remnant of a lost civilization, such as the fabled Atlantis.


Another strange but considerably more intelligible manuscript is the text known as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or "Poliphilo's Struggle for Love in a Dream." Printed in 1499, this anonymously written volume chronicles the dreamlike wanderings of a character named Poliphilo (whose name means "lover of many things" in Greek) as he seeks out his lost love Polia. Along the way he encounters many odd characters and gets involved in various elaborate adventures, illustrated in nearly 175 intricate woodcuts.

The text of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is written in a strange Italian- Latin hybrid full of concocted words based on Greek and Latin roots. There are even Hebrew and Arabic words in the text, and at times the author invents entirely new words. While the authorship of this work has not been definitively established, the first letter of each chapter spells out the Latin version of "Brother Francesco Colonna dearly loved Polia," suggesting that the author was Francesco Colonna, a Dominican monk who resided in Venice in the 15th century. The ultimate meaning of Poliphilos dream journey is not known, but the work has captivated centuries of readers and scholars. In 2004, for example, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason published a thriller, The Rule of Four, which concerns two Princeton students who attempt to decipher the true meaning of the manuscript, and their efforts unwittingly uncover a dark, murderous conspiracy.

Much of the great wisdom of the ages has come to us from ancient scrolls, arcane manuscripts and mysterious volumes of mystical lore hidden in caves and forgotten libraries. Many of these bizarre texts rival Lovecraft's fictional Necronomicon in their strangeness, and many confound us to this very day with their impenetrable secrets. Perhaps the greatest tragedy that can befall a civilization is the loss of its accumulated knowledge. When the great library in Alexandria, Egypt was destroyed by the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD, an untold quantity of the world's ancient secrets were lost forever. One can only wonder how very different our modern world would be had those secrets survived to guide the development of mankind.