O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.3

c.2600 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Warning – readers uncomfortable with the fact of Egyptian influence in late Roman culture and earlier Christianity might want to brace themselves.

SHORTCUT – Throughout this investigation of the November and July emblems, our aim is still to answer one question: ‘Do the Voynich calendar’s central emblems display influences similar to astronomical details noted for folio 85r and folio 67v-1? Readers impatient with process might prefer to know, now, that the bottom line is “not exactly”. Those more demanding – please read on. 🙂

BACKGROUND – (Summary of Pts 1 and 2 for newcomers). To skip this, start from the ‘Note’ manicule below.

SO FAR, considering various forms for Scorpius in medieval works from Latin Europe, Lippincott’s survey included examples, from western manuscripts, of a few non-classic forms for Scorpius. Those given a ‘beast-like’ form are associated with just three sources: first, the Roman-era ‘Poeticon Astronomicon‘; then the early medieval and English ps- Bede’s De signis caeli, and finally copies of thirteenth-century works by the Anglo-Norman Michael Scot. Concerning the last, however, and as Edwards observed, the four principal manuscripts are all from Italian scribes and “probably made in Bologna” where Scot is known to have studied and been residing in 1220.

  1. Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS nouv. acq. lat. 1401, parchment, fols. llr-128r P – “the earliest copy we have; it can be dated fairly certainly to 1279.
  2. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 10268, parchment, fols. lr-146r. which initially Edwards “dated on palaeographic evidence to 1279” but further research and consultation led him to amend that to “the style of script.. c.1300.. Virginia la Mare… illustrations characteristic of Bologna 1300-1310.’
  3. Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS f. iii. 8, parchment and paper, fols. lr-126v. The paleographic evidence dates it to the third quarter of the fourteenth century.
  4. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 266, paper, fols. 1r-222v – dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Edwards also notes that “the most distinguishing palaeographic characteristic is a Niccol? Niccoli hand on folios 53r to 65r”.

Another copy, now in Scotland, has been commented on by Eleonora Andriani, who rightly remarks the importance of Edwards’ work.

  • “The comprehensive nature of Michael Scot’s work has attracted contributions from a number of scholars, drawing significantly on the Prohemium, the first edition of which appeared in 1978 as a doctoral thesis by Glenn M. Edwards.” Eleonora Andriani,(2019) ‘A Neglected Witness to the Liber introductorius of Michael Scot’, Giornale Critico della Filosofia Italiana, Settima Serie Volume XV, ANNO XCVIII (C), Fasc. III. The article is now accessible through academia.edu.

Parameters – Temporal and Geographic

With some reservations (see image, below), our temporal range becomes ‘ps-Hyginus to Scot’ or, c.2ndC AD – c.1228 AD.

from the ‘M’ source – made in Italy, probably Bologna, c.1310.

From the same basis, and now taking into account the Judeo-Catalan, Occitan, Norman-English (etc.) posited for the inscribed month names, our geographic range sets its upper boundary approximately at the Via Francigena, one of the oldest routes of western Europe and which existed in Hyginus’ time as it does today. It can be said to begin from Santa Maria di Leuca, in the ‘instep’ of Southern Italy and passing through Rome, to continue through to Canterbury in England. Within the maritime context, we have already a practical map of entanglements for the fourteenth century in Datini’s pattern of trade and communications, illustrated earlier, and this allows an extension of our northern line to include the Adriatic and Venice by sea and then, through the Veneto, again to the via Francigena.

NOTEre SCOT in FREDERICK’S SICILY.. Some online articles badly over-emphasise Frederick II’s genetic inheritance over what we know from the historical evidence, namely that his character, attitudes, inclination and actions were formed by his dedication to Sicily, his kingdom by birth and an inheritance through his mother’s line. To suggest that he was in any sense but the most formal a ‘German’ is a mistake – and to speak of him as “Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – evidently following Burnett’s idiosyncratic practice – creates an entirely wrong impression. He was Frederick II of Sicily. The primary sources make very clear that Frederick’s upbringing, sympathies and cultural alignment, as well as his inheritance, made him consider himself above all, a Sicilian and Sicily’s king, though it is reasonable to say that his earlier overt antipathy towards his German connections, and specifically to his uncle, reduced as their efforts to acquire the kingdom were abandoned and, later, when practical diplomacy gradually required more frequent contact with German princes after Frederick was crowned emperor of the west.

These parameters are, of course, for the purpose of tracing the lineage of the ‘November’ emblem alone, not the entire contents of Beinecke MS 408. Even so, it would be a very long study to thorough track, map and document images in that range – even just images of Scorpius or more narrowly still, Scorpius in western Christian zodiac series. Limiting the range to its very narrowest – to no more than western manuscripts’ depiction of the 12 zodiac constellations – is a large enough task and on that, Lippincott and the ‘Saxl’ project labours still.

Trying to ‘match-the-image’, across all media, within our geographic and temporal limits as one would have to do, could only be an exercise in futility when no western (Latin Christian) equivalent is known for the Voynich ‘calendar’ series or for this creature as a form for Scorpius.

So… instead, we trace the ideas which have informed the ‘November’ emblem. That is – ideas about the astronomical Scorpius, about the scorpion’s nature and/or about the month of November.

Three points to keep in mind: First – this November beast is a quadruped, shown as a single figure; 2. It faces the Scales, not the Archer. 3. It was not given the body of a scorpion.

(detail) Voynich ‘November’ beast.

Here is how crab, fresh-water ‘lobster’ and scorpion were being drawn in northern Italy in c.1440.

Our task, however, is not so nebulous as one might expect, for ps-Bede, and Scot have England in common and if the source for the 2ndC ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was ultimately Hyginus, then Scot and he may have Iberia and Italy in common. On the other hand, if Hyginus’ birthplace was Alexandria and not Iberia, as some argue, then we have full circle, because Egypt and Alexandria were major centres in which early Christianity had flowered and from which the Latin west gained its model of communal monasticism and scribal culture,* continuously trading goods during the medieval centuries – first through Jewish- and then through Italian agency.

*As one modern Benedictine from a community now based in Egypt puts it “St Anthony, St Paul the Hermit and St Pachomius are household names for any Western monastic.”

Nor do we forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s contents to be, in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’.

CONSTANTS.

To begin, we define a few constants to keep the investigation steady, and highlight evidence of transmission independent of local forms.

The easiest to identify is the reason for the skull’s inclusion – an association between November and death.

1.November – month of the dead (first constant)

In the Roman world and in western Christianity, November was the month of the dead.

In pre-Christian Rome, on November 8th, the ‘the mundus pit’ was opened, for the last time of three.*

With the lifting of the lid, which was regarded as the Gate of Hell, the spirits (manes) of the underworld emerged and could roam the streets of the city. The day was ‘holy’ (religiosus): no public business could be transacted, no battle fought, no army levied, no ships set sail, no marriage take place etc.

*scholars debate whether it was one stone or two; the other two occasions were on August 24th. and October 5th.

When Rome adopted Christianity, November remained the month of the dead.

Christianity just re-explained things. The Byzantine Church made the same date the feast of f ‘The synaxis of the holy archangel Michael and all the angelic powers’; the Russian Orthodox Church calling that day’s feast “Synaxis of the Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, Jeremiel and the Other Bodiless Powers”.

Western (Latin) Europe, however, changed the date to November 2nd, calling it ‘All Souls Day’, and preceding it with the happier ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1st.*

*’All Hallow’s Day’ meant ‘all saints’ day’ with ‘All Hallow’s Evening’ the vigil, on the night of October 31st. But things later became a bit confused in some places, and the result has been that the modern ‘Halloween’ is celebrated in October and is about ghosts and ghouls, rather than remembering the dearly departed in heaven. There is no equivalent in the present day Coptic liturgical calendar today. The Hebrew calendar has one feast, a joyful one, in November. The Muslim liturgical calendar is based on the lunar year.

Here’s the month of November in the late-Roman Filocalia or ‘Chronography of 354’. (Don’t get excited; our November beast isn’t Anubis).

2.The Unchanging Stars. (second constant)

Our second constant is provided by the stars.

We know stars can newly appear in the sky and others vanish, but ancient and medieval peoples spoke of the stars as eternal and unchanging, the night sky as the God-given template of what had been and was to come, containing markers for ‘times, and seasons and years’.

That the figure we call Scorpius should be imagined crouching by a set of Scales at the point where the Milky Way – as a lucent road – rises from the horizon is easily understood …. it does. This (below) is what a northerner sees today in November.

That road doesn’t just rise towards the north; it also takes one down below the horizon towards the south. Lying by that road at the point of crossing from the horizon, the great scorpion was seen as an dreadful attacker in wait.

From the earlier medieval period, we have evidence that Christianity in some places retained a popular belief in that ‘road’ as the one along which one might ascend towards heaven or, alternatively, fall to the fires of the south. It’s well known that ‘south’ was the direction of the Christian Hell and South or South-west associated with Scorpius – not only by who knew how to practice astrology.

A conception of the Milky Way as ‘Road to heaven’ would not survive in the west beyond the later medieval period except for a proverb about the route to Santiago but in a manuscript copied in England in c.960-1000 AD* the whole of that celestial Way between Heaven and Hell is drawn, like an itinerary, in registers. Its having an astronomical ‘template’ is obscured by the fact that the figures are rendered in almost-orthodox Latin Christian forms.

That manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian MS Junius 11) was made in Anglo-Saxon England, yet a majority of its illustrations point to origins in a body of star-lore less than perfectly compatible with orthodox Christian theology and iconography.

  • Leslie Lockett, ‘An integrated re-examination of the dating of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11’. Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 31 (2002) pp. 141–173. [JSTOR] The astronomical basis for the images has not been widely recognised, the study of indigenous astronomies rarely intersecting with the history of Christian Europe.

In older Egypt, where the idea of ascent to the north is very old indeed,* it was initially only the king who ascended to enjoy eternal rest in that ‘island’ in the northern sky, among what they saw as the ‘sea of reeds’. The later, Christian, idea would accept that firm foundation in the north of the sky, but following Augustine define it as a ‘City of God’ into which all approved souls would be welcomed but to which Michael or other angels had to carry them.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

Before being permitted to rise up from the horizon, though, the soul’s virtue had to be assessed – and that’s where the ‘Snatcher’ becomes involved.

Weighing the Soul.

The scene is portrayed like this in the Egyptian funerary texts and art:

I expect most readers know that a jackal-god named Anubis was the Egyptians’ guide for acceptable souls (‘hearts’ in Egyptian thought) but for hearts found wanting – ‘hearts too heavy’ as the Egyptians saw things – a different fate lay in wait.

This quadruped wasn’t worshipped, only feared. Its name was Ammit. Its nature is expressed by combining elements from the most voracious, most relentless, swiftest and fiercest of beasts that drag down their prey – crocodile, hunting hound, the lion and the hippopotamus.* Egyptian art, like Egyptian names, may use elements adjectivally, combining them much as we might combine the names of colours to express e.g. a ‘blue-green-grey.’

“The hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest land mammal, according to the BBC. They kill around 500 people every year, twice as many as lions kill.”

You saw, in that first illustration of the weighing, how Ammit was shown, as intent as any hound, waiting for the word of command before snatching away the imperfect heart-as-soul.

Here’s another expression of the scene, making clear that Ammit waits on a figure whose Christian equivalent would (much later) be the ‘Recording Angel’.

Now, it’s a curious thing that while the ‘croucher by the Scales’ became a well-known item in western Christian art and is echoed in the formal literature, folk memory of a ‘judging and recording Angel’ did not. It was transmitted unofficially, so to speak. There is not a single mention of ‘the recording angel’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and to find an example of depiction in Christian art, I’ve had to turn to works made in nineteenth century America!

On the other hand, the Scales and dreadful ‘snatcher who drags down’ would become a common trope in western Christian art and part of the west’s formal theology.

Here we see the scene, in Christian terms, in a manuscript made in Spain about a century after the Anglo-Saxon image of the sky-road, and little more than a century before Michael Scot would travel from England to Toledo.

Trying to keep these posts under 3000 words, I’ll pause here – but I think we are now on the way to defining a third constant – the nature of the beast.

3. The Nature of the Beast (third constant)

grasping/snatching; devourer of human beings, their hearts/souls; attentive only to its master’s command; immune to all deterrents.

Below, a preview of one illustration from the next post. This shows a drawing made of a figurine found in south-western England during the eighteenth century and dated to the 1st-2ndC AD, a period when Egypt, England and Gaul were all under Roman occupation and when ps-Hyginus’ ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written. Notice the spotted hide, here covering only the upper body -just like Ammit.

Postscript – the ‘Beast of Gévaudan,

There is no reasonable link between that figurine and a beast which was to trouble France about fifty years after the figurine was found and drawn in England, yet the animal’s description is uncannily apt and worth repeating.

The unidentified animal called the ‘Beast of Gévaudan; Occitan: La Bèstia de Gavaudan, slaughtered 500 people within three years, and across an area about fifty miles’ square. The few who survived an attack (only about 50) described it as: “the size of a calf, a cow, or, in some cases, a horse. It had an elongated head similar to that of a greyhound, with a flattened snout, pointed ears, and a wide mouth sitting atop a broad chest. The beast’s tail was also reported to have been notably longer than a wolf’s, with a prominent tuft at the end ….”

Modern rationalisations have supposed it “an unusual form of wolf” or “from a hound cross-bred with a feral dog”, or “a beast brought from elsewhere”. Some have suggested, with more reason, that it may have been a specimen of the Australian Thylacine, now extinct, but which certainly could have been carried to France in the eighteenth century. The difficulty is that the Thylacine does not – no more than does a wolf – have a tuft at the end of its tail. And stories of a great ‘Hell hound’ are reported in England, too, to as late as the eighteenth century.

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