O’Donovan notes #8.4: folio 67v-1. Peripheral motifs.

approx. 2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I had intended to introduce this part by tracing the history of different systems and styles for describing asterisms on the moon’s path, beginning with the Roman-era ceiling in Denderah and continuing to the fifteenth century, but considering how many posts would be needed to do the topic justice, and illustrate it, I’ve decided not to exhaust my readers and so will keep to a period from about the twelfth century to the early fifteenth.

I’ve described these four as peripheral, because they are not essential to the diagram’s description of cardinals and intercardinals but duplicate the four cardinals. They read as if they were additional commentary or astronomical scholia. Were it were not that these stars’ faces are drawn in just the same way that the faces of South and North stars are drawn inside the circuit, one might suspect them of being a late addition.

The four are fairly well-informed and contain some telling details.

The whole page, turned north-up, would appear as shown (below), but since it was designed South-up, I’ll address the South emblem first.


(detail) folio 67v-1. Sulba, Sulbar

The first point to be taken from it is that this ‘South’ motif was not drawn by any untravelled medieval Latin scholar unless he or she had access to an informant with wider knowledge of the world.

Why? It marks South by a group of four stars most probably those we now call ‘Crux’ but which even for Ptolemy were just part of the Centaur constellation and were not recognised by Europe as a separate constellation or asterism until after the time of Faras (1500) Corsali (1516) and of Magellan’s voyage (1519), i.e. at least three generations after the Voynich bifolios were inscribed.* The modern list, and description, of the constellations was decided by an 1880s conference of European astronomers.

*this is not the place to dilate on my reasons, but I suspect that the Voynich manuscript was among those stolen by Guglielmo Libri (d. 1869), perhaps even from the Medici villa in Fiesole, the town where Libri had a house to which he returned to die. I think it was then given by Libri’s noble executor to Fr. Peter Jan Beckx who was resident in Fiesole from 1875, only returning finally to the Villa Mondragone in Rome in 1895. I made the mistake of publishing a scrap of that research at voynichimagery so by now its echo may perhaps be found in some other Voynich site as an ‘idea’ (i.e. re-presented without proper attribution, without evidence or evidence of preceding research). I cannot empathise with Voynich pilferers, but perhaps Libri would.

For those who moved overland or sailed the seas east of Arabia, this constellation was as well known as were the Ursae in the Mediterranean, and for similar reasons. As it wheels around the southern Pole, Crux serves to indicate that point and to mark the night-hours. With no star occupying the South point (as Polaris does the North), Crux is all the more valuable to wayfinders. It had anciently been visible to more northerly latitudes, but again precession had taken it below the horizon over the centuries, and it was not visible to medieval Latin Europe.

India knew Crux as ‘Sulba’ and the Arabs as ‘Sulbar’.

More detail in

When first publishing the summary of research into folio 67v-1, I included a good deal of historical, cultural and comparative iconological matter for these peripheral motifs, but since this series is meant as a demonstration of analytical method, I won’t repeat it all here.

I would, however, emphasise strongly that an analyst’s opinion must wait on the balance of evidence acquired by investigation – not start with an impression, mis-represent the impression as ‘opinion’ and that ‘opinion’ as theory, let alone use that theory to limit the nature and range of research undertaken.

Unfortunately, as you’ll see by reviewing past and present-day theoretical Voynich narratives, precisely that sort of theory-driven approach has hardened into a presumed norm, and has permitted traditionalists to rationalise the manuscript’s disobligingly opaque drawings and assert them all “nice and normal European really” waving aside all stylistic differences by simply imagining that some medieval Latin figure was so affected by aberrant mentality, or by a a desire to be original that s/he rendered the majority of this manuscript’s images illegible in terms of a European visual language.

One is often obliged to ask of a given Voynich theorist if they have ever read so much as a history of European art.

To this day, as for the last century, a Voynich traditionalist begins by saying in effect, “Presuming that all the content in this manuscript is an expression of western Christian culture and written texts….’ The analytical approach starts by asking ‘Where and when do we find evidence of such forms and informing ideas as are preserved in the drawing under consideration?’

In some cases, the answer may be indeed ‘medieval Christian Europe’; in others, a combined influence (as we saw with folio 85r), and in many there’s no trace of Latin influence at all. A compilation derived from more than one source of non-European origin and supplemented after c.1350 by a few additions in western style would seem to me a reasonable assessment overall, but again I’m speaking of fomat and images. I have no opinion on the script except to say that it appears to me that the way the ‘4o’ glyph is written indicates a hand already accustomed (as few were before 1400) to writing the numeral ‘4’ that way.

Like the difference between a doll’s house and a real house, so a Voynich theory tends to be purpose-made and nicely organised so long as you suspend your sense of perspective and proportion. An analytical study will have its flaws, but (so to speak) when you turn the taps, there’s water in the pipes. The analyst must – unlike the theorist – refrain from a final opinion until after subjecting research-conclusions to a rigorous and quite hostile cross-examination.

About the South-emblem, for example, the cross-examination would include such questions as: Why this astronomical cross? How do you know the maker didn’t mean to refer to the cross of Cygnus? What about the ‘cross’ sometimes identified with Orion? What about that ‘false cross’ mentioned by Ibn Majid and described so in modern astronomy?” “Why can’t they be meant for northern stars since you say ‘South’ in the Voynich map is marked by a circle?”.. and so on. If you don’t seriously stress-test your initial conclusions and consider both pro’s and con’s, your final opinion will be un-balanced by definition even if (predictably) nicely consistent with your initial impressions.

Crux (left) and the false cross (right) in the southern hemisphere.

One must also see things from the point of view of someone who is blinkered by devotion to a theory or affected by some such misconception as that any allusion to stars must either be about astrology or about mathematical astronomy.

I feel fairly confident that someone out there, alarmed by this allusion to Crux and its being incompatible with their variant of an all-European theory, will begin hunting through theory-friendly sources for something to assert is an alternative explanation. They might look for some astrological system which linked stars to the directions. It is well to have done the same.

If – more likely when – a theorist produces a contrary view, then regardless of what you might think about the critic’s Voynich theory, don’t ignore any supporting evidence. It’s all about evidence, after all, and – this is important – their evidence might be better than any that you’ve considered so far. If later re-using that person’s information, an analyst should feel able to acknowledge the person who was kind enough to bring that evidence to notice. As I said earlier – this sort of work needs an almost insatiable intellectual curiosity combined with a level of disinterest practically impossible for the theory-afflicted. I feel most sympathy for those marginal readers who, like Nicodemus, desire to know but dare not admit to knowing [Voynich-] heresy. 😀

Concerning transmission of this material into the west, it is interesting to note that in a Genoese map of 1457, we find a combined image for Canopus+Crux after the custom of India and the mariners of the eastern seas. Its form is related to the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’ as I explained when first introducing to Voynich studies the subject of Europe’s earliest rose-gridded cartes marine and their relevance to this study (2012-14) .. but I’m running too far ahead .. Next motif..


(detail) f.67v-1. Sting of Scorpius. Ar: Al Shaulah
(detail) f.67v-1 inscription for the sting of Scorpius.

The maker’s choice to mark ‘West’ shows that they were not by birth and upbringing heirs to the near eastern cultural traditions and star-lore, nor by training an eastern mariner.

This is because the proverbial ‘west’ marker was the Pleiades, and the proverbial ‘East’ marker, Orion, even though in purely astronomical terms (as in classical legend), it is the Scorpion from which Orion seems to retreat, backwards.

This opposition of Orion and Scorpius is what one sees on a globe or in the night sky in the right season, Any person unaware of the older and long-traditional sayings among eastern peoples would, understandably, suppose them an obvious pair, but his not being native to that environment is made evident again by another and more subtle ‘error’ – in attempting to define the east-west opposition in terms of the lunar asterisms or manzil, he has got it very nearly, but not exactly right. He has just counted the series and divided by two, making his ‘west’ not only part of Scorpius but the wrong stars of that constellation, the stars composing its sting and the manazil called in Arabic al Shaulah. But even in those terms, it’s only nominally right; the right manazil would have been the star of the Scorpion’s heart,

  • Looking around online today (15th July), I see a useful list of the lunar mansions on a site devoted to astrology – here.
  • Another astrologer, P. James Clark, has a blog called the ‘Classical Astrologer’ and his post – here – provides a useful discussion of the lunar mansions as they were represented by the Picatrix and so came to inform notions held in western Europe about the manzil.

To a few among the literati of medieval Latin Europe, the lunar mansion system was known, but only as a magical and occult system, as represented in a rather garbled version in Latin translations of the Picatrix, but the series of lunar mansions (manzil) simply describes the ecliptic in smaller increments than the simple 12-fold system of month-marking constellations with which the Latin west was thoroughly familiar.

In the world beyond Europe, the series of lunar mansion asterisms served various purposes. It served as a horizontal axis for the eastern navigators’ conceptual grid, among other things. Every mosque throughout the medieval Islamic world had its almanac in which the manzil were included, because the same series marked the periods of the liturgical year as it named the months of those Arabian agricultural calendars mentioned in the previous post.

Anything to do with the stars could be, and was, put to use by fortune-tellers, astrologers and magicians, but it is a major error to imagine that there’s a simple equation – ‘manzil’ equals ‘occult’.

The person who added these peripheral emblems to the diagram certainly understood that Orion should denote East (as we’ll see) but in deciding which lunar mansion should stand for ‘West’ he chose as you’d expect a foreigner would – by taking the opposition literally and by counting the half-way point.

In purely technical astronomical terms, to have these stars opposite those of Orion is ok – as you’ll see if you look at an astronomical globe. But it is culturally just a bit off, even in literal uses – a bit like perfectly grammatical yet non-idiomatic English spoken by a well-educated visitor.

The whole of Orion opposed by the whole Scorpion -yes. That would be fine. But as symbolic emblem for ‘west’ – it should be the Pleiades, often in the form of a cup, and significant of a final victory. (Which of course is the wit in Hafiz’ allusion, earlier quoted.) And in literal terms west should be identified with the Scorpion’s heart-star, al-Kalb (which again, those familiar with Hafiz’ poems will appreciate.)

While I don’t believe that the person who drew these four emblems was a stay-at-home Latin bending over Aratus’ Phaenomena or even Ptolemy’s Almagest, he may have been a traveller from somewhere in the west, or a member of an eastern Christian community or at the very least have known the story of Christ. The Arabic term for Crux is rendered as ‘the beam of crucifixion’ and a person of deceptive or traitorous character was proverbially described, in the near east, as a ‘scorpion’. What argues against his being a Latin, or someone who had seen Crux, is that the drawing gives it four arms of equal length.

For students in search of additional sources, I refer to the listings under ‘Stars and their Uses’ in the page My recommendations. (see header bar).

In Voynich studies, the subject of the lunar mansions has surfaced and sunk again many times, since first raised in Jim Reeds’ mailing list (1990s-early 2000s) but since most Voynicheros have begun by presuming everything in the Voynich manuscript must be the brain-child of some western Christian author, what we’ve seen so far from Voynich writers addressing the topic has been based on the Picatrix (in a very poor thirteenth century version), and by then jumping straight to Cornelius Agrippa’s book published in 1533, and thus almost exactly a century too late to be relevant.

Darren Worley‘s posts and comments to the blog set up by Stephen Bax, did consider the Indian nakshatras, though again with astrology in mind and adopting the remarkably constant error by which Voynicheros imagine the Voynich calendar shows ‘a zodiac’ and the still more egregious error which imagines the purpose of every zodiac’s representation was astrological.

I might mention that there is nothing in any of the Voynich drawings which points to an astrological purpose: the habit of imagining no other purpose could inform drawings that show sun, moon and stars is another by-product of Voynich studies’ early history.

The next two astronomical motifs, next post.


Readers might enjoy Clark’s post about the astrological directions in al-Biruni’s work, though of course al-Biruni was a towering intellect whose report on India’s culture and intellectual history includes far more than their astrology. Still, it is interesting to note that in al-Biruni’s description of astrological directions (as Clark reports), “Cancer is in the centre of the North, Scorpius a point to the left and West [of north].” HIs post includes a diagram – shown north-up and east-left – in which Scorpius is actually left and east of North. Whether the error is in the diagram, or in the translation from al-Biruni, I’ve never troubled to check. In any case, here again, I think al-Biruni’s system for weather-predictions can be crossed off our list of potential sources for the ‘West’ emblem on folio 67v-1.

5 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #8.4: folio 67v-1. Peripheral motifs.

  1. Today, Crux is not visible north of +20° in the northern hemisphere, and it is circumpolar south of 34°S. The official boundaries for the constellation – in terms of modern astronomical science – were defined only in 1930, by a Belgian astronomer. Eugène Delporte.


  2. I’ll mention again here, as I did in posting related matter to voynichimagery that it is necessary to take into account the fact that names for stars, in natural astronomies, tend to shift over time as precession changed the order and position in which a star appeared. Thus ‘jauza’ was initially a description for Orion but over time shifted and was applied to Gemini. The matter is complicated further by the fact that in some cases, both constellations remain known by the same name and so variant forms were used as e.g. jauza’ and jawza. Similarly, among Omani pilots ‘Sulbar’ would come to be applied to alpha Eridani, and appears in that way as early as the fifteenth century. I add this only to save readers troubling to provide what they suppose a correction for matter in this post.


  3. For readers interested chiefly in the history of Europe’s mathematical astronomy – Crux does not appear in the corpus of western mathematical astronomy until the seventeenth century when a Dutch astronomer and traveller, one Frederick De Houtman (1571–1627), learned its Arabic name as Al-Sulbar (‘the beam of crucifixion) and translated it as  “De Cruzero”. A star map of 1624 shows the relevant stars outside the Centaur’s figure but still in the Ptolemaic division; their separation from the chief figure seems to me intended only to show clearly why the older figure was now rightly supplemented by these stars from Ptolemy’s list. However, by reference to that chart, published by Jakob Bartsch (Kepler’s son-in-law), Petrus Plancius has sometimes been wrongly credited with creating it as a new, post-Ptolemaic constellation. Ian Ridpath’s summary of events and his rare recognition of the Dutch astronomer’s role deserves recommendation.
    All the above quoted from D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Folio 67v and precedents’. voynichimagery, January 2nd., 2015. ( Ridpath’s page is here)


  4. Thanks to the generosity of John P. Pratt, readers have access to his

    downloadable translation of Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s star catalog, with stars identified [and also] using modern designations, in standard spreadsheet format.

    There you’ll see how Ptolemy described the stars of Crux – visible to him in Egypt during the 1stC AD, but not to medieval Europe.


  5. Many thanks to Jo Miller, who asks if ‘cross-examination’ practice I speak of has been adopted from Ibn al-Haytham (known to the medieval world as Alhazen).

    No, but I’m delighted to refer to so fine a precedent, coming as it does from a work written in the later period.

    Jo quotes from Ibn al-Haytham’s ‘Doubts Concerning Ptolemy’:

    A person studying with a view to knowing the truth ought to turn himself into a hostile critic of everything that he studies. ..He should criticize it from every point of view and in all its aspects. And while thus engaged in criticism he should also be suspicious of himself.

    the title ‘Doubts Concerning Ptolemy’ translates Al-Shukuk ‘ala Batlamyus.

    Readers who haven’t yet encountered mention of ‘Alhazen’ in their studies, might be interested to know the following, slightly edited from an article in Aramco world.

    [The]13th-century philosopher Vitello and Roger Bacon, both drew upon Ibn al-Haytham when writing their own tomes on optics. Enlightenment-era astronomer Johannes Kepler explicitly credited Ibn al-Haytham when developing his theory of retinal imagery, as did Kepler’s contemporary mathematician-philosopher René Descartes when wrestling with the question of where light lands when reflected off a curved or spherical surface, a puzzle that later became known to mathematicians as “Alhazen’s problem.” Ibn al-Haytham solved the problem using geometry and a study of curved planes; an algebraic solution was not discovered until the mid-1960s. Artists and art historians also theorize that Ibn al-Haytham’s work on optics enhanced the use of perspective in Renaissance art, particularly the paintings of 15th-century artist Lorenzo Ghiberti, who quoted Ibn al-Haytham in his commentaries.

    Source – again courtesy of Jo Miller,
    *Tom Verde, ‘Cairo’s House of Knowledge’, Aramco World, Jan/Feb 2019.


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