Tabula Picta: fol.5v (Mnemonic devices – 1).

For readers who haven’t seen the preceding posts for this series, I should say again that in publishing material about this image, I reversed the usual process and began where I would normally have ended – with my conclusions and plant-identifications. The usual way was for posts to summarise stages of ongoing research, studies of the plant-pictures starting with a point-by-point parsing of the image per se, before embarking on the work of establishing its historical and cultural origins against a background gained from external scholarly studies – technical, historical, scientific, literary, cultural, comparative-iconological and sometimes even archaeological. As one passes the piece of a jigsaw over the background of a half-finished puzzle, so one passes a problematic image over a wide historical and cultural ‘background’ to discover where and when it originally belonged. It is my custom to approach an image by first assuming that what is on the page is there for a reason, and my task is to understand it. To begin by presuming that if I cannot immediately read an image the original maker must have been ‘wrong’ seems to me unlikely to produce any useful result.

By 2017, regular readers had had eight years’ exposure to that format and had become familiar with some of the constants, so in this last study (treating folio 5v*) I felt I could discuss the image in reverse – first stating my conclusions and then moving backwards though the research notes, and by showing how each detail in the drawing relates to every other and its ‘groundplan’, as well as with the historical record and evidence, that I could help others admire the first maker(s) skill as I had come to do, and to appreciate that these drawings are not text-dependent “illustrations” but each was designed as a stand-alone record – a tabula picta. I realise that when read today, in isolation, this study for folio 5v* may seem arbitrary or theoretical in parts, but I trust that the brief commentary and selected references given in this case as footnotes may counteract any such impression.

D.N.O’Donovan, 20th. Feb. 2022.


what follows is taken from posts in the series ‘Clear vision’, first published through Voynichimagery in 2017.

The author’s rights are asserted.

I wish it were possible to explain as elegantly as the original presents it, the intellectual ‘ground-plan’ for this image, each of its nested details expressed with that  lucidity which has each relate to every other by the first enunciator’s initial  ‘flash’ (as Kitto put it) but which, for me, was understood only as the conclusion of the drawing’s investigation. I’ve expressed it as: “Protectors of the ship.”

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.5v

Since I cannot hope to explain it so effortlessly as the first maker did, I’ll start by offering two quotations:

Liber clings to the high elm” – Isidore, quoting Virgil.

when Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, the storm suddenly subsided and stars appeared on the heads of the Dioscuri.”

And now we must go the slower way, de cap à pied; my aim now to illuminate for readers, as the description unfolds, something of the exceptional quality of mind which informs so many images now in Beinecke MS 408.


Swaying with a delicate balance on the height is a flower/star-hatted figure shown with lower limbs  ‘bent around’ – this is one of the Twins: the Dioscuri or Tindaridai [1] as the Greeks called them, and here the first and immortal brother Polydeuces is associated with Liber, as was done in the mysteries of Samothrace. [2]

The form given the lower limbs alludes, simultaneously, to virtu in the elm (the bowyer’s treasure), and to the egg from which the pair had been born, and to the lower of two lunar asterisms in the constellation of Gemini,  which constellation is associated with these Twins. By the Arabs, that same group of stars forming part of Gemini is called “the bent, or turned around” and is a recognised manazil. For the fifteenth century we have Ibn Majid’s testimony to that fact. [3]

Here too we have the first clue to the plants’ identities, and the plant-group’s principal member – for as the figure appears bow-legged [4] and as Liber “clings to the high elm” [5] so elm-wood’s being famously pliant had it sought-after by bowyers. Bent, it did not break.

In medieval as in ancient times, the archer was a ship’s chief defence, so bow and arrow were another attribute of the Dioscuri.[6]  This first figure’s balancing as if in a high wind,  seeming to hold fire (fire-sticks) in its hands reminds us too that Liber’s harmless ‘lightning'[7] was ever a good omen for the storm-tossed ship, when all other lights were extinguished:

Leaping on the peaks of their well-benched ships,
brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays,
bringing light to the black ship
in the night of trouble.
from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, trans. Alexander Nikolaev.

Liber’s “lightning” which medieval Europeans called St. Elmo’s fire.

Just so, this flameless light is still today sometimes called “harbour fire” though more often St.Elmo’s fire -he being the patron of Formio, named Hormiae (good harbour) by the Greeks.

(detail) 5v

Another form of ‘need fire’ comes again from the elm; made by its wood as fire-drill[8] often miscalled a ‘dowel’ and traded into Egypt from long before the Romans’ advent. [9]. 

The figure’s hands are formed as if twirling small fire-sticks  and (though this last may be co-incidental)  are drawn overall in a way suggesting the pomegranate flower – the Phoenicians’ emblematic ‘lily’. (for the Tindaridai as of Phoenician origin see n.2 infra).

On folio 5v*, the pair’s being provided with their star-flower topped caps [10] tells us that the first enuciator was perfectly familiar with the older forms of image.  As you see from two examples shown below, this is how the Dioscuri are portrayed during the later phase of Hellenistic rule in the Mediterranean. The faithfulness with which ancient forms are preserved in this manuscript is remarkable.

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol.5v*
coin of Dioskourias, Colchis c.105- 90BC.
(detail) coin  Antiochus IV (175 BC- 164 BC)

The second century BC, when those coins were made, is also the date of composition for the earliest among those eastern Greek works from which passages would be taken and included in matter for the  Anicia Juliana codex. In that, one also finds a type of ‘template’ having features in common with some botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408. (This point had already been considered in detail in an earlier essay posted through Voynich Imagery on 23rd June 2016).


Distance between the two head stars of the constellation Gemini (α and β Geminorum), served as a standard measure among navigators of land or sea, and was reckoned as an ell’s length –  that is, the length of an average clothyard [arrow-] shaft and of a weaver’s beam. In astronomical terms, today, the distance is 4½° and is thus equal to one version of the older, and eastern, mariners’ formal “hand” measure.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.5v*
Dioscuri as defenders of the ship and its cargo. (Antiochus I (324/3-261 BC). ‘Every journey begins with one pace’?.

Above, this motif on a Hellenistic coin.

(added note, 15th Feb. 2022. Notice how easily the image on that coin of Antiochus might be correlated with the constellation of Gemini, simply by translating our ‘up’ as ‘fore’ and our ‘below’ as ‘aft’. Read thus, the arrow-shaft is easily equated with Gemini’s head-stars and the ‘bow-and-legs’ with its lower asterism. At present I’m exploring the question of what such a custom might imply for our interpreting gestures given anthropoform figures in other sections of the Voynich manuscript. The ‘finger’ and ‘hand’ were formal units of measure in much of the older Mediterranean world, attested from the time of Pharaonic Egypt to the fifteenth century.)

In folio 5v*, the relative distance between the two stars, and the slight difference in elevation between them is indicated effortlessly and again reveals the first enunciator’s complete ease with these ancient and technical matters – that is, with the Greek context; with the Hellenistic forms; and with allusion in parallel to botanical, cultural and astronomical matter. This is no medieval Latin’s effort to form mnemonics from book-learned Greek. I cannot do other than date its first enunciation to the Hellenistic period and -cultural context.

In terms of the Greeks’ units of measure, the arrow-shaft length was approximately 30 inches – the Greek ‘step’ or   haploun bēma (ἁπλοῦν βῆμα), from which we may have our ‘weaver’s beam‘. Two ‘steps’ made the  pace.  The usual width of medieval cloth (and of those weavers’ beam) was about 28 inches. The Arabs also called the asterism formed of α and β Geminorum “the ell-length” (al Dhira’) and it was also a manazil.

This effortless quality in these Voynich images is why to describe them as ‘illustrations’ – as if ancillary to, and dependent on some accompanying written text – is wrong. They have primacy over written text even in the manuscript that we have and they are formed as stand-alone recorders and aids to recall. That’s why I call the image on folio 5v* – using Latin – tabula picta.  

The image on f.5v* presents as being as effortless in its groundplan’s formation as in its allusions. More to the point, it is so effortlessly conceived. And, as we’ll see, its purpose was not literary, nor theological nor abstract, but absolutely and utterly practical. No medieval Latin Christian first made images like this, and certainly not by pulling bits from text-books, yet any craftsman who knew his trade, if that included the referenced plants, would need the picture explained but once to have it ‘stick’ thereafter no matter where he was from nor what his native language,

What seem to us now ‘literary’ allusions plainly were not so for the first enunciator and his audience, however, but formed part of the daily fabric of life and common culture. Such things as the virtu of a plant, or details from stories of the Dioscuri, were known in common between that first enunciator and his intended audience because of the stories they told; because a people knows its own deities and because daily occupations were rarely learned from books, but from practice handed down within the community from one generation to the next over hundreds, and even thousands of years.

This endurance over time in cultural and practical custom is one of the most difficult factors for any modern, western audience to grasp. Many simply cannot imagine a world where people really lived for millennia by the principle ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

As a whole, the image on folio 5v* is a sort of shopping list of products gained from the plants in this group – it’s not about the Dioscuri, but about the economic and practical worth of plants and matter associated with protection of the ship, a theme they embodied.

But it is significant that the first enunciator knew, or presumed, these hats should be high-crowned and star-topped – exactly as we see them in expressions of the older Hellenistic and eastern Mediterranean.

(detail) f.5v

All the compositional elements mentioned  so far were part of the first enunciator’s “ground-plan perceived in a flash” – to use Kitto’s words again.

There’s nothing heavy, nothing forced or laboured about it, even if readers might find the present writer’s exposition so.

For all its complexity, this image remains simple; its design perfectly lucid. We can only be grateful that the 15thC copyists (and any before them) remained so faithful to the original.

The Dioscuri were the quintessential “Protectors of the ship” because they’d been given authority over wind and waves:

sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrake (Samothrace) and attribute the appearance of the two stars [α, β Geminorum] to the epiphany of the Dioscuri.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 4.43.2

For the ancients, obtaining a ‘fair wind’ meant the difference between life and death.

… to be continued ….



[1] The ‘bent’, ‘curved’ [bow-shaped] or ‘turned-about’ is the description given one star-group in Gemini. It is known to us through the Arabic – see n.3 infra. Just in case the word ‘tinder’ is implied, I note here that etymology evolves, like any other science and while the habit of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etymologists was to derive almost everything in English from Latin or German, the latest view is:  “Old English tynder, related to tendan “to kindle”, from Proto-Germanic *tund- “ignite, kindle.”  In other words though the German, Dutch, Swedish, English and  Norse terms are indeed related, the relationship is far less direct than was once believed and in this case, it might even derive from the Greek. The Tindaridai were, as the image implies, fire-bringers. See also last note below.

[2] ‘Liber’ was identified with both Dionysos and with Polydeuces. For the latter, see n. 7 below. For identification with Dionysos and Phoenician beliefs … Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6. 78 (trans. Rackham) says: “Most people assign to India the city of Nisa and Mount Merus which his sacred to father Liber [here – Dionysos], this being the place from which originated the myth of the birth of Liber [Dionysos] from the thigh of Jove [Zeus].” But the Homeric hymns and other older sources show this an error. The original Liber, the first Dionysius, was Egypto-Phoenician. The first Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, dated 7th-4thC BC has:  “[Zeus] gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoinike, near the streams of Aigyptos…” Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus (trans. Evelyn-White). The ‘first Dionysos’ was Sabazios, or Zagreus. A good online site for the myths and sources are an excellent pair of blogposts at Spacezilotes, a wordpress blog:  “Metis Menis of Dion Ysus (A)  (15th. Feb. 2013) and  … (B), (1st. May 2014).

[3.]  ‘al-Han’a. Thus Ibn Majid: “This rises at dawn after the 221st day of the [Persian] year and it is a windy and good-omened group. It consists of stars formed like the letter n ( ن ) and it is given this name because it is bent round, i.e. its ends come together as the Arabs say hana’at, i.e. some such thing is bent or turned around, meaning that part of it is turned round towards another part. There are no well-known stars in it except one which is called al-Maisān of the third magnitude..’  Kitāb al Fawā’id.. (Tibbetts’ translation pp.88-89). In Ibn Majid’s system, according to Tibbetts,  al-Han’a consists of ε,γ,ζ,λ,δ Geminorum. (op.cit., p. 552).

[4] ‘bow-legged’ – The term used by the Greeks in pre-Roman times is uncertain. The Roman term blaesus means “curved legs” and while its etymology derives it from the Greek βλαιiσóς, Simon and Steger ( Sudhoffs Arch. [2011] Vol. 95, No.2, pp. 209-221) point out that the Greek does not mean quite the same.

[5] “Liber…”  A visual/verbal pun –  deliberate, I think. So, Isidore quotes Virgil concerning the elm’s bast fibre, writing “Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm“.  I cannot think the medicinal Slippery Elm meant; Ulmus rubra is an American species.  Perhaps Timperly is correct, connecting the word to the Latin word for a book –  initially a type was made of the inner bark (bast fibre) –  though he refers to Europe’s use of the lime tree not the elm, while referring to the Egyptians having used the elm among other trees for the same purpose. I regret being unable to spare time to consult more recent sources on this last point.  (Timperly, The Dictionary of Printer and Printing (1839) p.22.

[6] The elm’s wood bends well … making it quite pliant. …Elm is also prized by bowyers; of the ancient bows found in Europe, a large portion of them are elm. During the Middle Ages elm was also used to make longbows if yew was unavailable. The … trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction (in medieval Europe). – from a wiki article ‘Elm’.

I  omitted other allusions here  though they were probably known to the first enunciator and could be relevant  e.g.,  an inference might taken that the mariner’s entry into the Erythrean Sea was equated at that time with descent into the underworld.  Homer tells us that elms were planted by nymphs over the underground tomb of Eetion, king of Trojan Thebes slain by Achilles; the Metamorphoses tells of the nymph Erytheia becoming an elm (Ptelea); and the Roman Virgil has the spirits of dreams (Oneiroi) perch in an elm at the entrance of Hades.

[7] Liber [Zagreus] was identified with Polydeuces. The connection appears due in the first place to the meaning of ‘Polydeuces’ as “much sweet wine”. Debate continues among scholars over the origin of Liber/Zabgreus as the ‘first’ Dionysos, but opinion tends towards a Phoenician origin and identification in the first instance with Zabazios. As ‘thigh-born’ there may have been anciently a connection to the Egyptian ‘elder brother’ Seth whose reputation as evil is not found until relatively late. The question need not delay us. The point here is that Liber/ Zagreus was famously permitted to play childishly -i.e. harmlessly – with his father’s lightning and the Twins’ ‘need-fire’ was perceived by mariners of the wine-dark sea as again heaven-made, harmless and of good omen; indeed the only fire of which they need feel no fear.

[8] Richen says that “It was probably the toughness of wood which led to the elm being used for production of fire by drilling [in many parts of the older world]” and that the ancient practice survived to recent times in Europe ” as a ritual performance, for the generation of need-fire”. R.H. Richens, Elm, C.U.P 1983   (pp.109-9).

[9] As it is often used, but invariably described in archaeological reports.  The University College, London (here) notes it found in “wide use in ancient Egypt, most often smaller objects such as dowels” with an additional note that it is “tough and durable when permanently wet”. Whether it liked salt-water spray as much, I’ve not determined.

[10] “During the voyage of the Argonauts .. when the heroes were detained by a vehement storm, and Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, the storm suddenly subsided and stars appeared on the heads of the Dioscuri” For the source texts see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. 1, p.1053. online.

Added note – given their close association with Samothrace, it is disappointing that few of its coins refer to them. Two exceptions, as numbered and described by Nikola Moushmov, are:

5676 Apollo’s laureate head right; barley grain behind. Rev. : HΦAI. Burning torch between the caps of the Dioscuri.(Moushmov’s Table XXXIII 21).
5677 Diademed head right. Rev. : HΦAI. Torch between the caps of the Dioscuri and caduceus.

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