O’Donovan notes #8.3b: folio 67v-1. Ancillaries. Everyone translates.

c.1700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

  • this is the second half of yesterday’s post.


These form the last set of four divisions for the central area of the diagram:

Our ‘north-up’ version marks their positions as approximately:

For those working on Voynichese:

Everybody translates.

In Latin Europe, works gained from elsewhere typically had both their written and their pictorial texts translated (as e.g. were those in Ibn Butlan’s Taqwīm as‑Siḥḥathe, known in Latin rendering as Tacuinum Sanitatis). For reasons not yet clear this did not occur with most of the drawings now in Beinecke MS 408, and there are only a handful which show evidence of Latin attitudes and – more importantly – the Latin west’s perception of all creation as an ordered hierarchy. The status of a person, animal or plant in that conceptual hierarchy is inextricable, there, from its depiction – halos, horses, kneeling figures and ruled lines about sums it up unless you’re considering purely technical drawings.

But in the same way that a thirteenth-century Englishman would re-present forms such as this….

detail from Hathor temple Dendera

in way comprehensible to fellow Latins – like this.. :

so did other peoples translate to suit their own community and intended audience. The diagram on folio 85r translated some, but not all of that drawing’s information, as we’ve seen.

The most adaptable were the Phoenicians – but keeping to our ‘east-and- west’ theme, you see (below) how two portraits of Ptolemy XII (117 – 51 BC), ruler of Egypt, are formed to suit, respectively, the Greco-Roman and the Egyptian visual languages. The portraits are closely contemporary – both these visual languages were employed in Egypt at that time.

And here again, two portraits of Trajan made during his short reign of just eighteen years (A.D. 98 – A.D. 117) show that one form didn’t simply supersede the other. In both portraits are included many allusive details, yet to modern eyes, I expect, those in the portrait on the left will not disturb or create discomfort while those in the portrait on the right will evoke feelings of bewilderment, whether or not the reader actually understands those in the Roman work. The difference isn’t a result of one visual language being ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’ but simply because the conventions of Roman art are the tradition which came to inform the western tradition, and this makes the first portrait seem comfortable and familiar whether or not a viewer understands its details. It is enough that it ‘speaks European’.

Portraits of the Emperor Trajan.

At about the time these portraits of Trajan were made, the Phoenician Marinus of Tyre completed his survey of the known world – or rather the world known to the Phoenicians.

Fifty years later, give or take a few years, an Egyptian of Greek ancestry and a skilled mathematician named Claudius Ptolemy, would add just a little to Marinus’ work and issue it his own Geography. To be fair to Claudius, he does say that the work is mainly Marinus’:

By his own admission, Ptolemy did not attempt to collect and sift all the geographical data on which his maps were based. Instead, he based them on the maps and writings of Marinus of Tyre (c. 100 CE), only selectively introducing more current information, chiefly concerning the Asian and African coasts of the Indian Ocean.

‘(Claudius -) Ptolemy’- Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I will confess that if I were to dream of the Voynich manuscript’s having a single source (though I’m certain it did not), the Marinus of Tyre would probably be that ideal source.

Let me say, in this context, that the person who writes as ‘Katie Tucker’ has quite misunderstood the significance of my connecting elements in the Voynich map to some in Abraham Cresques’ Majorcan Atlas (known as the Atlas Catala). It is not that work which is the key to the Voynich manuscript but the points of connection I noted between the Voynich map and the works of certain early makers of cartes marine, including Cresques, served to narrow the time and to highlight the region in which the older matter now in the Voynich manuscript had first entered the Latin west. What I said, in fact, was that the key to the manuscript’s collected images, their range and character is encompassed by the Voynich map and in that sense it serves as ‘key’ to the manuscript’s content. I make no claims about the written text.

Readers probably know that between the time of Claudius Ptolemy and when his Geography came to the notice of formal scholarship in Latin Europe, a period of more than twelve centuries elapsed. It was then introduced not from study of the Islamic world’s geographers (who had known Ptolemy’s works for centuries) by because kindly donated by emigrating Byzantine Greeks. So far as I’m aware the first Latin translation of the Geography to be recognised by Latin scholars is that made in 1406 AD. Do comment if you know better.

… Byzantine scholars began producing many manuscript copies, several illustrated with expert reconstructions of Ptolemy’s maps. The Italian Jacopo d’Angelo translated the work into Latin in 1406.


Just as there are no horses and halos, and very few ruled lines, in the drawings in Beinecke MS 408, so too one does not find animal-headed deities and other hallmarks of Egyptian religion and art in it. What we have seen so far are, clearly, drawings in which is found some influence from attitudes and visual conventions which were long-traditional in Egypt, but which are now seen ‘in translation’, even if the translation is not often into the visual language of the Latin west and even in folio 67v-1 is not very close. The maker of this diagram has dispensed with the two smaller buds the two circular forms and the waters. Differences matter. They are informative.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 is not anything directly copied from some ancient text like ‘The Book of Coming Forth’, but from what we have seen in treating these two diagrams, and the ‘east-west’ emblems used in the Voynich map, a reasonable place to begin seeking explanation of the astronomical emblems in folio 67v-1 is Hellenistic- and Greco-Roman Egypt .

The temple-complex of Dendera has ancient foundations but was being re-built during the period of interest to us now, and from there I had the two Egyptian ba-birds, and the portraits of Ptolemy XII and of Trajan which were illustrated above.

A syncretistic vision of the heavens was made for that temple. It is now in the Louvre and will be a useful first point of reference – though whether helpful or not is yet to be seen.


Ancillaries and the Calendar

Since we’ve mentioned eastern navigators by land and by sea, it seems a place to mention that If these last four elements from the diagram represent winds, the inscriptions would not necessarily be a wind-name. Certainly a wind might be described in terms of its place of origin. but were the diagram’s purpose to serve navigation, for example, then winds might be described in terms of an associated star, or the place to which a ship would be taken if that was their following wind.

To take a hypothetical example – the south-west wind might be inscribed with the wind’s name or with the word ‘Sicily’ or a port in India, if that’s the place towards which that wind would impel a ship. Or it might be associated with the time of year when it dominated a region, or with some event in the agricultural roster or those of bureaucracy or religious observance: months of festival or pilgrimage for example. They might be described by a tag indicating effects on health.

Names given a wind depended on where the person stood, the language in which he learned the names of things, and the origin and purpose of his own learning, so a wind emerging from the south-west might be called ‘the Libyan wind’ by a person in the Mediterranean, but ‘the Ethiopian wind’ by someone living in India. In China, to ‘drink the northwest wind’ means to go without food, to have an empty belly.

And as we’ll see later, there is evidence of Asian (Including south-east Asian) presence* in eastern side of the Mediterranean and to as far as north-west Africa from before the Roman ascendancy to as late as the tenth century AD.

*or perhaps ‘presences’ would be better; I don’t mean to suggest a single settled occupation.

As an instance of other contexts in which winds are recorded – not as posited theory or argument – I might mention Arabia’s traditional agricultural calendars, in which a day may be linked to direction, wind and star without apparent effort and in association with the agricultural roster as such. Many of our extant examples of these calendars show an easy familiarity with the customs and calendars of other peoples – in which they are quite unlike the usual type of calendar in Latin Europe. Here are listings for May 19th-28th in one, as translated by Daniel Varisco from a manuscript whose date ( in our terms, 1405-6 AD) makes it contemporary with the Voynich manuscript’s vellum:

  • First of the thawr rain
  • The select [time] for sowing ṣayf millet
  • The Pleiades are seen in Byzantium
  • Naw’ of iklīl {see note below}
  • Last sailing to Qays [from Aden]
  • Last presence of the balaḥ-date
  • First sowing of millet in the mountains
  • First of Ba’unah for the [Coptic] year 1122
  • Dawn rising of dabarān {al-Dabarān. Varisco notes the entry should read al-fajr bi’l-dabaran}
  • The samūm winds blow

from: Daniel Martin Varisco, ‘A Rasulid Agricultural Almanac for 808/1405-6’. Varisco’s paper was first published in New Arabian Studies Vol.1 (1993) pp.108-123, and was reprinted as Paper/Chapter XV in D.M. Varisco, Medieval Folk Astronomy in Arabia and the Yemen (Variorum 1997).

Varisco refers to R.B. Serjeant less often than our debt to the senior scholar might lead one to predict. Serjeant established this area of research in English-language scholarship and his collected essays in the Variorum edition trace his continuing investigations over four decades, 1954 – 1993. See:

  • R.B. Serjeant, Farmers and Fishermen in Arabia, Variorum (1995).

In sum, for all we know, the inscription for ‘Southeast’ in the diagram on folio 67v-1 might read ‘poisonous wind’ or ‘Sow millet’ or ‘last sailing to Qays’ as easily as, say, Sirocco. The usual romanisation for ‘Samūm’ is Simoom.

This seems a fair introduction to the diagram’s astronomical referents, which we’ll turn to in the next post (or perhaps ‘..posts’ ).

One thought on “O’Donovan notes #8.3b: folio 67v-1. Ancillaries. Everyone translates.

  1. A colleague reproves me, quite correctly, for using the Egyptian ‘face emerging from lotus’ image as if it the original had been meant for human-headed Imsety, whom the Egyptians would not have envisaged as a ‘little sun’ even given an association with Canopus and South. That’s true. More to it, but the criticism is fair.


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