Consider this.. for James (brief note).

about 1230 words

My thanks to James Barlett, the first of my correspondents to protest that I’d been “a bit quick” in the previous post, and (as James put it) “tossing out meaningless phrases like ‘star measures.’ “.

Re-reading the post from James’ point of view, I see his point, so  for James and other who like details, I add this short post.

Charts of the ‘rose-gridded’ type are not ‘mappamundi’ but navigational charts –  as Datini’s agent understood, and the person who described Cresques’ Atlas for the Bibliotheque nationale.

Such charts are a product of the surveyor’s arts, but when it comes to navigation, the ‘surveyor’ must survey not only his horizon, but what is above it.

 Sidereal navigation was not an art widely known in the medieval Mediterranean – at least not to the level it was practiced by Polynesians and, thanks not least to them, to some among the Arab mariners  in the eastern seas – or, as Majid sometimes calls them collectively, the ‘great sea’. 

‘Surveying the sky’ was an art which Majid and his fellows did know and he counted among those ‘fellows’ certain of the piratical mariners of the north African coast, the original ‘Barbary men’. This part of north Africa is of considerable interest to us since, as we’ve seen, it was there that Leonardo of Pisa first gained his basic knowledge of calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals; one of our earliest of the rose-gridded cartes marine was also made in Tunis and pre-dates the earliest extant examples from Genoa or from Majorca, and in the same region Kabbalism was widespread.  

At one point, Majid compares himself (and the north African navigators) to the ordinary Mediterranean seamen,  whom he groups together as ‘Egyptians’, and says:

“they [the ‘Egyptians’] are not able to do these things nor can they understand what we can do, although we can understand what they do ..they have no qiyās measurements,* no science and no [navigation] books only the ‘compass’ and a number of “miles”, neither do they use “star fetterings”. We can easily travel in their ships and upon their sea …

They acknowledge that we have the better knowledge of the sea and its sciences and the wisdom of the stars in the high roads of the sea.” (p.121).

*qiyās. Pole altitude measurements. In the story of Marco Polo, we are told that the Arab mariners of the eastern seas had good charts and in the account of his sailing up the eastern coast of India, the height of the Pole Star above well-known ports is given.  As Tibbetts says, in recounting these things (p.6) “we can be quite certain that qiyās measurement was practiced by the navigators of the Arabian sea in his day”.  Determining the position of a port or other landmark by reference to the star which ‘stood’ over it is, of course another instance of corresponding star-and-place positions.  On land, a similar practice was well known to the desert Arabs and also informs the story of Jesus’ birth in the Christian gospels. This was a practice more ancient than astrology, and quite independent of it, though chiefly known to those who crossed the trackless wastes of sea and sand.

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese: Being a Translation of “Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi”.  Originally published with maps and charts in 1971, in London, by the Royal Asiatic Society. My copy included four charts: The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden; the Arabian Sea, including part of Somalia and of the Persian Gulf; India and the Bay of Bengal; a sheet containing two charts – the East African coat and the seas of South-east Asia. Compiled from the Arabs’ navigational texts.  


Qiyās is one of those ‘star measures’ I was thinking of. 

It’s not entirely true that Mediterranean mariners knew nothing of the navigational stars.  They used two other stars in Ursa Minor to determine the position of the Pole star if sight of it was obscured,  and to tell the hours of the night. And of course they knew Orion, whose setting nominally ended the Mediterranean sailing year, and the Pleiades and Bootes, by the aid of which Odysseus says he sailed home, eventually, from Troy.  But in medieval times they did indeed, as Majid says, have to rely on their wind-compass and measure the distance from one place to another in terms of the following wind which would – in theory – take a ship directly from the one place to the other.

Majid’s navigation was more like the surveyor’s art, and his tools were cousin to those used by the surveyor – a rod or ‘wood’ and a length of knotted cord.  These had been the land-surveyors’ tools from memory out of mind, and certainly from the time of dynastic Egypt.   The ‘rod or pole’ measure of the navigators was much shorter, of course, but it was also a standard measure. The same was true for the knotted cord.  

kamal Ifland

The measuring rod is depicted in a Mozarabic manuscript, where a correlation is made between the earthly and the heavenly vault, and the ‘angelic measures’ are tacitly equated with those who worship the deity on earth as in heaven.   While I don’t suppose the monk who made this image knew very much of navigation, but it should be recalled that Spain was not part of the Latin domains in earlier centuries. Before and even after the Muslim conquest, parts of Spain and north Africa remained part of the Byzantine empire, just as Muslim Spain remained initially closely connected with the Caliphate in Baghdad. Notice the form of these ‘star flowers and dots’ which are meant to represent the fields of stars. (cf. ‘Compostella’).

celestial measure rod Silos Apocalypse

Correlating celestial and terrestrial ‘rule’ by the measures of the pole,  or rod can be expressed in diverse ways.  

If I were to explain in detail why the term ‘kav’ relates so well to this mesh of ideas, I’d probably have to begin by explaining that many words in the shared vocabulary of medieval Mediterranean mariners did not originate with Latin or even with Greek but have been maintained from remote antiquity and some terms are clearly from ancient Egyptian, including terms as basic as ‘cabin’ and ‘governor’. 

Majid had his reasons for  saying that the majority of Mediterranean mariners were ‘Egyptian’.

But if you simply imagine that ‘rod or pole’ as a long, hollow reed, then you may better appreciate the underlying idea which those varied associations for the ‘kav’ carry in ordinary usage, and in kabbalah.

Here is evidence of the surveyor’s rod and knotted cord in antiquity: ‘measuring the fields’. 

surveying earth and heavens Pharaonic Egypt


Any reader wanting to go deeper into any of the points I’ve mentioned is welcome to email for the references. I won’t add them here; they’re not part of a Voynich research bibliography.



for Voynicheros still unconvinced by the detailed explanation offered earlier* about the ‘Voynich archer’ and his hat alluding to Spain, here’s another illustration from the 10thC Mozarabic manuscript, the Silos Beatus. (* through voynichimagery).

Michael Beatus Hell headwear hair scales

The curious position of Michael’s legs is not (as it would be if in a later, Latin, manuscript) a sign of heterodoxy but rather of an obduracy in the face of temptation.  The fallen angels were, after all, his natural brothers.  Here, as in the vocabulary of Byzantine art, wild hair signifies a wicked and untamed character.  

I’m not sure if this is enough to satisfy James that there was more to my mentioning star-measures than just tossing words about, but I hope it will do.

One thought on “Consider this.. for James (brief note).

  1. I trust that Voynich studies has moved beyond the notion that Egypt vanished into the mists of legend the moment Pompey or Caesar stepped onto Egyptian soil. For the pre-Roman era etymology of ‘cabin’ and ‘governor’ you don’t want an ordinary etymological dictionary but a specialist glossary – oh, and of course, Gardiner.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.