The weirdest book in the world: codex seraphinianus

In 1981 Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini published what has since  remained in popular view as the weirdest book in history: Codex Seraphinianus. Filled with weird psychedelic illustrations, the book is written in a language that both doesn’t exist and can’t be decyphered (maybe it’s just random gibberish).

The book features all kinds of illustrations, designed in such a way that it looks like if they were made by some naturalist studying extraterrestrial beings and nature. In this psychedelic encyclopedia one can find hand-drawn colored-pencil illustrations of bizarre and fantastical flora, fauna, anatomies, fashions, and foods. Surrealist scenes include bleeding fruit; a plant that grows into roughly the shape of a chair and is subsequently made into one; a lovemaking couple that metamorphoses into an alligator; etc.

Serafini’s undecyphrable alphabet in handwriting, next to a description of some ‘eye fish’ (?). Click for zoom.

The word “Codex” in the title means “book” (from Latin “caudex”), and “Seraphinianus” is derived from the author’s last name, Serafini (which in Italian, refers to the seraphs). Literally, Codex Seraphinianus means Serafini’s book. The title is indeed fitting since the book, which sells for as much as $500 on Amazon, is a veritable trip inside the artist’s mind.

The strange and generally unintelligible alphabet littered throughout the 360 pages long book has given even reputed linguists headaches. Some letters appear only at the beginning or at the end of words, a feature shared with Semitic writing systems. The curvilinear letters of the alphabet are rope- or thread-like, displaying loops and even knots, and are somewhat reminiscent of Sinhala alphabets. The number system used for numbering the pages, however, has been cracked (apparently independently) by Allan C. Wechsler and Bulgarian linguist Ivan Derzhanski, among others. It is a variation of base 21.

The alphabet iself used in the body text however may be completly false and … senseless. In a talk at the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles held on 11 May 2009, Serafini stated that there is no meaning hidden behind the script of the Codex, which is asemic; that his own experience in writing it was closely similar to automatic writing; and that what he wanted his alphabet to convey to the reader is the sensation that children feel in front of books they cannot yet understand, although they see that their writing does make sense for grown-ups.

It took Serafini 30 months to complete Codex Seraphinianus, which is divided into 11 chapters and two parts – first about nature and the second about people. Here are some scanned pages from the book, courtesy of the-dimka.

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  • hda

    This book is marvelous, I want a copy. There is other book just like this, which may have been composed in Italy during the Renaissance (~500 years ago), it’s a work about flora, written in a language that both doesn’t exist and can’t be decyphered. Let me check for the name I dont remember: The Voynich Manuscript. Nowdays rest on Yale’s University

    PS: ‘Codex’ comes from latin ‘codex’, not that word you mention: caudex


  • Moogleboy

    Actually, it DOES come from the Latin “caudex.”

  • Andrei
  • Dennis Bauer

    That was the first thing that came to my mind, the Voynich Manuscript, is this the creator’s take on it?

  • jvandres

    There is a new edition of the book coming out on Oct. 29th, and it is on pre-order from Amazon for 50% off at 75 dollars. That’s quite a bit less than the $500 that it was previously available for.