Mystery Handwriting in 500-Year-Old ‘Odyssey’ Copy Deciphered

A sample of the mysterious handwriting found on the pages of a 1504 copy of Homer's ancient Greek poem "The Odyssey" - University of Chicago Library
A sample of the mysterious handwriting found on the pages of a 1504 copy of Homer’s ancient Greek poem “The Odyssey” – University of Chicago Library

The University of Chicago Library has finally managed to solve a mystery surrounding some unrecognizable handwriting found in a copy of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey, dating from 1504.

The library ran a competition with a prize of $1,000 for whoever could decipher the handwritten scribbling found on the margins of pages in book 11 of The Odyssey, but nowhere else among the twenty-four volumes.

M.C. Lang, the person who donated the particular Homer collection to the University of Chicago in 2007, suspected when he acquired the book years ago that the strange, unidentified script was a form of 19th-century French shorthand, as French words were interspersed with the mysterious script, but lacked evidence to prove his case.

“We didn’t know why the annotations were only on these pages — that is something we hoped to find out more about,” Alice Schreye, an assistant university librarian and curator of rare books at the University of Chicago Library, told NBC News on Monday.

“Mr. Lang wanted a conclusive identification with evidence and sample translations, which is why he generously offered the prize award,” she mentioned, and added: “The prize was for the first person who identifies the script, provides evidence to support the conclusion, and executes a translation of selected portions of the mysterious marginalia.”

The curator also announced that the contest would be closed, as a winner had been declared, with the results and translation to be published soon. She didn’t reveal, however, whether or not Lang’s suspicions were found to be correct.

The Odyssey, about the wanderings of the hero Odysseus after the Trojan War, was composed by Homer in the 8th century B.C. and is a sequel to The Iliad, Homer’s other famous ancient Greek epic poem.