Another interruption – sorry.

I’ve been asked by a certain scholar to provide another example of the interaction of literal with mnemonic elements in the Voynich plant pictures. This is one of the earliest I published – through a ‘Blogger’ blog where, for about three years, I published research-summaries before switching to wordpress.

Originally published in 2010 for a ‘Voynich’ audience then entirely and quite fiercely Eurocentric, I should be less terse if publishing now. By 2012 I did at least feel comfortable enough to publish more detailed information in two posts to voynichimagery, but here I’ll begin by reprinting that original post from 2010. The identification of Myrobalans as the subject of folio 22r* is the result of original research by the present author and had no precedent to that time in any Voynich author’s work. This is indicated in what follows by an asterisk added to the folio number.

The author’s rights are asserted.


D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A plant: Myrobalans folio 22r*’, Findings (blogger blog) July 26th., 2010

I should like to begin by recommending this link at muslimheritage, and in particular its reference to al-Dinawari’s work.

Al Dinawari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari. He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language.  

al-Dinawari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC ce – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments notably among them.

This is the original work, not a later one called in translation the ‘Essence of…’

I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe,* work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.

*the sole pre-occupations of the Voynich community in 2010.

The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is that it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is most interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.

.. I have already tried to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose is evident within these drawings: that they were not meant to be – as Pliny put it – ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the environment in which the drawings content had been first formulated.

Concerning such drawings,  and the mnemonic type generally –  in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, and I’d (yet again) recommend all Voynich researchers read her Book of Memory as a cure for relying on an impression that medieval people had simplistic ways of thinking about the world..

I read the image on fol. 22r* as such a structured representation of the Myrobalans spp., with mnemonic elements included in the drawing. The nature of the mnemonic elements as well as the accuracy of the typically literal details in these plant-group images strongly suggest first origins in a region where the plants grew and not in mainland Europe.

In detail-

The form given these stems in the lower part of the plant is not unusual as it may seem to readers expecting to see an image produced in Latin Christian Europe.

If, instead, if you look at them as a product of the spice-routes which brought eastern plant-products into the Mediterranean you find a similar form alludes to Buddhist associations for the Myrobalans.

Below, for example, you see the same form as we here see given the stalk or stem of the plant in folio 22r* being echoed by the object which is commonly found with figures of the ‘healing Buddha’, where it is always held in the figure’s left hand.

To people in those regions, accustomed equally to the plants’ form and to Buddhist imagery, the formation given the lower stems in this drawing would be instantly evocative of the myrobalans as healing plants, especially with a ‘threefold’ way being associated with both Ayurvedic medicine and the Healing Buddha. I’ll speak of the medical Triphala below. The ‘threefold’ way of Buddhism is usually described as consisting of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

In the Tibetan tradition, for example, as we see from the figure (below) the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, as a sprig – seen on the figure’s right – terminating in just such threefold cluster.

For modern Europeans, religious imagery is generally perceived as compartmentalised – occupying a niche independent of, and separate from, daily human activity and interactions, but in earlier centuries, whether in Islam, in the east, or in mainland Europe, religion was ‘nationality’ and indistinguishable from ordinary daily life and culture. Thus, to allude to conventions of religious art in a given region – in this case the region the plants grew – was not necessarily a religious comment or even a sign of religious allegiance in cultures as accepting of diverse religious views as much of the eastern world was.

In this case, an existing connection between iconography of the Healing Buddha and myrobalans made it natural, in regions where the plants grew, to use a device of that kind a as a memory-prompt.

The classifications and descriptions used by modern botanical science often differ from the perceptions of older peoples and it is the latter which inform the groupings seen in the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

The three plants particularly referenced in this drawing as the ‘Myrobalans’ group are those we call now call

 Terminalia belerica, ‘Belleric’ myrobalans in medieval European works. Proper name in Indian tradition – Bibhitaki. Western writings sometimes call this the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.

Emblica officinalis. Called Emblic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Amla or Amalaki
Terminalia chebula. Chebulic myrobalans. Proper name in the Indian tradition – Haritaki.

Returning now to folio 22r* and moving upwards we have the curiously down-turned pods characteristic of Terminalia belerica.

The drawing is not coloured perfectly but, considered only in terms of the line-work, its basic form is good.

I think the pods’ being given a scalloped edge is done to indicate that if fruits of T. bellerica are not available the dried fruits of Terminalia arjuna will do.

additional Image – April 16th., 2022

Above those pods are the racemes which I take to be those of ‘Arjuna’ myrobalans. (Terminalia arjuna) though an argument could be made for another.

In the manuscript these racemes are drawn upturned, as if towards the sun – a convention constant in the (non ring-in) Voynich plant- drawings whenever a ‘flowering fruit’ is shown. It is also a convention attested in some relics from early Buddhist India.

And at the top, we have the threefold form of myrobalans which I take to be fruit of the ‘official’ and best of them – Emblica officinalis.

Image added here April 16th., 2022 – from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r’, voynichimagery, June 29th., 2012

Its scientific descriptions are Emblica officianalis and Phyllanthus emblica, and was widely known before the time of Linnaeus as emblic myrobalans, Indian gooseberry, Malacca tree. Its name in the Indian tradition is Amla, from the Sanskrit amalaki.

I read its hollowed fruit as again referring to a dried form – presumably with stone removed. Use of blue to colour it (the living fruit is gooseberry green) is enough to tell us that when dried, this fruit becomes black. Avoidance of colours in the range pink-purple-black is another constant in the Voynich drawings and is so consistent that I’ve described it as tabu on the part of that community which preserved and maintained the matter in these drawings until the time they entered the Latins’ horizons. For the darker end of that range, dark blue is the usual substitute in these pictures. In a number of cases when the purple-black is natural. that part of the plant may be omitted altogether but this wasn’t necessary for folio 22r.*

Emblica officinalis – dried fruits. Additional image – April 16th., 2022.

There is a preparation known as Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalans] which is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems Ayurdedic and Siddha medical tradition. The three fruits are those of Terminalia chebulia, Emblica officinalis (Phyllanthus emblica) and Terminalia bellirica. The seeds. however, were generally used only to treat wounds in ruminants.

Chebulic myrobalans – image added April 16th., 2022
Chebulic myrobalans – detail of a Thai image of the Healing Buddha.

The leaves were omitted from the image on fol.22r* because they were not needed, in this case, to identify the plants wanted, nor did they have any independent commercial value.  

The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years before Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. Tibet did not become officially a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom but it has proven impossible to date the beginning of that trade in medicinal plants for which the Tibetan-India route was so well known in earlier centuries..

More on T. bellerica – as ‘Bahira plant


Additional notes

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r*’ Parts 1 & 2 published through voynichimagery, June 2012.

The roots (on folio 22r*) appear to reflect uses associated with just one among the myrobalans: T. chebula, which both in Europe, and in the eastern medical tradition, was considered less important than the Emblic and the Beleric myrobalans.

T. chebula was noted rather as a source for tannins. These were used as inks, as leather-dyes and in textile work, functions which in Europe were typically by oak-galls and barks….Powdered (immature) fruit, and seeds, from T. chebula  provide a sizing-and-mordant for kalamkari work,  allowing the black dye (kasimi) to be applied without any mordanting agent being added to the ink itself….

According to a recent (2007) draft Standards paper published by the Indian government as a pdf, commercial ink production [still] includes tannin extracted from T. chebula. The same source reports that tannin extracted from the  seeds of T. chebula has been used from time beyond memory as “a tanning agent. for hides and skins. Known as HARRA (Hindi), HIRDA (Marathi), ANALE (Kannada), KADAKAI (Tamil), KARAKKAYA (Telugu), HARITAKI(Bengali)”.

Imported into the Mediterranean.

By not later than the end of the fourteenth century that is, and from at least fifty years before the Voynich manuscript’s vellum’s dating – several kinds of Myrobalans were being imported into Venice and Genoa through Acco and Tunis.

Added note (18th April 2022) – in 2010 I looked no further than the mercantile zibaldoni, it being necessary at that time to demonstrate that materials sourced from the east were relevant to the study of a fifteenth century manuscript which (in 2010) was still widely, and indeed almost universally, believed the work of a contemporary and western Christian (‘Latin’) European ‘author’. Since 2010, I’ve been able to refer, over time and with less ‘flak’ resulting to e.g. the role of medieval Jewish networks and to records of earlier centuries including those of the Cairo geniza. Here I’ll quote from just one study, for its reflecting the earlier medieval usage among the Jews and in Arabic. 

    • Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
    • Myrobalans in Cairo geniza

[back to the 2010 2012 post ..]

In this case, the only use to which they were put by Europeans seems to have been medicinal, though this impression may be due to our lack of documentation more than contemporary Europeans’ lack of information about these plants.

[According to lists in the later zibaldoni] Venice and Genoa imported the top two grades in larger quantities:-

the ‘Emblic’ as they called it (Emblica officinalis) and the ‘Beleric’ (Terminalia belerica) and only in very small quantities two more: the ‘Chebulic-‘ (Terminalia chebula) and the ‘Citron-‘ myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna).

So depending on which of these the reader associates with each level in fol.22r*, it is possible to see the whole images as describing the three grades or four. For example, the husks occupying the topmost position might be read as the ‘top’ grade – Emblic or as those of T. chebula.

My experience of working on these images is, however, that none of them save perhaps folio 1v (cloves) is a portrait of a single plant.



WordPress retains comments for only for 3 years, so I’m transcribing them here.

Note 1 re de-seeded fruits

“Triphala (“three fruits”) is an Ayurvedic herbal rasayana formula consisting of equal parts of three myrobalans, taken without seed:” – wiki. The same wiki article gives the three as: Amalaki (Phyllanthus emblica), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellirica), and Haritaki (Terminalia chebula).

Note 2. topmost section of the drawing serving as memory prompt for Emblica officinalis and/or for the tannin-rich T. chebula, an early treatise in Arabic speaks of the ‘yellow’ myrobalans in a recipe for ink.

  • Martin Levey, ‘Mediaeval Arabic Bookmaking and Its Relation to Early Chemistry and Pharmacology’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 52, No. 4 (1962), pp. 1-79.

A note [n.301] from that paper includes information that may prove helpful for those working on the written text of Beinecke MS 408, so I quote it complete. From various studies it is clear that what is here (below) described as the ‘black and small’ type could as easily be referring to the dried form of E. officinalis as to T.chebula.

301 halilaj. There are four kinds of myrobalan, yellow, Indian (black and small), Chebulic (black and large), and the Chinese (I. B., 2261). Halilaj or ihlilaj comes from the Persian halilah which may come from the Sanskrit haritaki (al-Ghafiqi, 264). The yellow kind is probably Terminalia citrina Roxb. (hara nut). It is a stage in the growth of the Chebulic myrobalans as are the other myrobalans. The belleric myrobalan (T. bellerica Roxb.) is balilaj (al-Ghafiqi 123, Tuifat al-ahbab, 43, 122, 126). Emblic myrobalan, amlaj, is treated by al-Ghafiqi (13). These were unknown to the [western] Greeks but were known early in India (Ainslie 1: 236-241). The “three fruits” of the myrobalan are distinguished as follows: when very immature, it is called Indian, when half mature and still yellowish, Chinese, and when yellow and quite mature, Chebulic. The unripe fruits contain 20-30 per cent gallic and tannic acids and a greenish oleo resin, myrobalanin. The myrobalanins are still sold (Ducros, 13, 14, 15) as intestinal astringents and purgatives as well as tanning agents. According to Ducros, the Chebulic and Indian types come from Terminalia Chebula Retz. while the yellow is from T. citrina Roxb. Al-Kindi knew amlaj, the emblic myrobalan, in musk recipes. Meyerhof 81) says that this is the fruit of Phyllanthus Emblica L., a Euphorbiacea which has no relation to the Terminaliae.

So even that author appears impose modern taxonomic distinctions retrospectively on the perceptions of early medieval peoples – who certainly did regard all these myrobalans as related one to one another.

(where identifications differ from those given by Lev, the difference may be due to differences in the medieval documents, but in cases of doubt, Lev’s identifications are preferred).

Note 3. Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma (13thC) includes myrobalans, but as ‘Emblici’ and ‘Bellirici’.

Emblici et bellirici apud arabes inter mirabolanos non computantur, et ideo vides quod diversa facit capi. Avic. et Ser. et alii quamvis similis sint operationis, amblegi arabice dicuntur.

Note 4. European perspective.

Riddle wrote the seminal study, and is still essential reading. He approached the subject from a study of the western manuscripts dating to what he calls ‘pre-Salernitan’ Europe. Consideration of one 9thC antidotary led Riddle to observe:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper [white, long, and black] (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).
An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient.

John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49,H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your 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.