O’Donovan notes – Calendar ‘November and July’ Pt 5. November concluded.

c4000 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

I want to finish treating the ‘November’ emblem, so this is long-ish.

THE BEAST that we see as the November emblem is another of those which formed the figure for Ammit, the ‘croucher by the scales’ – the crocodile. The head is especially well-realised and although it is possible the beast was drawn from life, a propaganda-war between Rome and Egypt, between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD means that around the south-western Mediterranean, as in the eastern, realistic images of crocodiles were available in enduring media – coins, reliefs, mosaics and in earlier times no doubt murals.

Or. of course, you could see them in Egypt. If you had no ship of your own, pilgrimage ships crossed the Mediterranean in Spring* (wars permitting), dropping their pilgrim-passengers in Alexandria or in a friendly port further up the eastern shore. Christian and Muslim pilgrims and Jews made the journey across for reasons of religion and of community. We owe many valuable records of medieval life and practice to them.

R.J. Mitchell, The Spring Voyage: The Jerusalem Pilgrimage in 1458, (1964) has survived the decades to remain still a valuable introduction to this subject.


To keep research focused, it’s a good idea to re-visit the list of research questions every now and then, It keeps research on track, and as the investigation answers one and then another, the list grows shorter, which reduces the ‘mazed’ effect. Some questions may be unresolvable.

Overall, our questions about this image were:

  1. Is it a Scorpion?
  2. Was it intended to be a scorpion?
  3. If so, what caused the error? If not, why is it here?
  4. Why ‘November’?
  5. Explain form – spots, head-shape, four legs, upright, looping/lashing tail.
  6. Other details? – skull and ‘hunter’s hat.
  7. Significance issues:-
  8. Is the drawing primarily here for its significance or as ornament?
  9. Is it an astronomical figure, as has always been supposed?
  10. Iconographic lineage:
  11. Place and time of first origin (= first enunciation) in this form?
  12. Transmission-lines?
  13. First instance in the Latin west?
  14. Associated texts – any identifiable?
  15. Is the lifted forefoot significant?

To be clear: this beast is no degraded form for a scorpion, nor a mistaken attempt to draw a scorpion. It is, and was meant to be, a crocodile and is drawn rather better than most crocodiles were in the medieval Latin west before 1440. The head, in particular is very well drawn.

If, as has usually been imagined, this is a figure for Scorpius, why the substitution?

There are a few – very few – examples of a ‘crocodile constellation’ for Scorpius that have been noticed in Latin works made earlier than 1440. One is certainly, and the other apparently from France, and dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. The first is from BNF ms lat. 3718, which is a collection of excerpts whose common theme appears to be medical astrology, though this image comes from a section which is simply presenting the form of a constellation. The constellation drawings’ section [De duodecim zodiaci signis eorumque effectibus…).

After finding this image in the Warburg Database, an online search showed it among the many references provided in Marco Ponzi’s meticulously documented essay of 2017, where he says it had been mentioned earlier by Darren Worley, though (if I interpret him correctly) Ellie Venlinka is to be credited with first introduction to Voynich studies.

*Marco Ponzi, ‘The VM Zodiac as a pictorial cycle: a comparative analysis (by Marco Ponzi)‘, stephenbax.net Feb. 17th., 2016.

BNF ms lat.7351 is attributed to Northern France. The holding library provides (1) the Manuscript’s full description; (2) digitised version. (3) List of persons named ‘Pierre of Dacia‘ – named as the manuscript’s author. By the fifteenth century, according to the holding library, it had come into the possession of Louis de Bruges.

The rest of its constellation figures are generally of Late Roman style and no other is like any of the Voynich emblems.

The next example is more problematic. I can only say that JKPetersen indicated that the image, as single sheet or as manuscript originated somewhere in the general vicinity of Paris or that the holding library is in the general vicinity of Paris. Mr.. Petersen gives a mid-fourteenth century date for it. I find the drawing style – not the subject-matter – reminiscent of that we find in a penitential Book of Hours which, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, was made in 1317 for Queen Jeanne the Lame by a monk of St. Denys.

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day. It incubates its eggs on land, the male and the female taking turns to guard them.

Etym. XII. 20

The first example tells us that a recognisable ‘crocodile’ might serve as a figure for Scorpius. If the second example were also made in northern France about the same time, the context in which it appears could be informative, but all one can say is that the type apparently derives from a work representing constellations in a Late Roman style, that precedent having entered, emerged in or re-emerged in northern France during the first half of the fourteenth century, and that having been employed a few times in northern France was not used thereafter.

Copies of the Aratea have no crocodile constellation for Scorpius or any other figure. Even the Roman-era, Egypto-Graeo-Roman ceiling of Dendera shows the scorpion fairly much as we’re used to seeing it, save a few apotropaic adjustments. (scorpions do not have 10 legs; their bodies do not much resemble the cockroach’s).

One eleventh century Byzantine manuscript, as we’ve seen, hints at equation between scorpion and crocodile, but the work is no treatise on astrology or astronomy and evidently remained in the Byzantine sphere until the sixteenth century.

The manuscript is bound in a 16th-century Byzantine-style cover with thick wooden boards.

A clue to the brief substitution of crocodile for Scorpion in western works may be is provided by the Talmud, on the sense of the Hebrew word livyathan. According to Pinney, the Talmud “accepted the creature as being unquestionably the crocodile” noting that the word has been variously translated as ” a wreathed animal”, “a twisted animal”, and as one “spirally wound” though Isaiah uses it to mean ‘crooked serpent’.

One begins to understand the basis for those convoluted forms given Scorpius in the medieval bestiaries, and the inclusion of a wreath with the November beast in Otranto.

But with all due respect to Pinney, that acceptance is not reflected in our few remaining examples of Jewish calendar series in manuscript art, so far as I’ve found; a specialist may know better.

It is usual for us today to associate the biblical ‘Leviathan’ with a large marine creature – often a whale or a sea-monster – which type is associated also with the constellation Cetus. However, in a footnote to one of his papers, Sela mentions that another name for Cetus was al-timsāḥ meaning literally ‘crocodile’. The term occurs in that sense in a thirteenth century translation into Hebrew of al-Fargani’s Elements, though it is never found in the Arabic Ptolemaic tradition. The term is still current as a place-name in Egypt – Timsah for Buḥairat at Timsāḥ.

  • Roy Pinney, The Animals in the Bible: the identity and natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible (1964) pp. 178-179.
  • Shlomo Sela, ‘Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: A Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation’, Aleph , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2016), pp. 249-365. n.41.
  • Rachel Hachlili, ‘The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art: Representation and Significance’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 228 (Dec., 1977), pp. 61-77. Seminal study, still a stanadard reference.

We can accept, as a possibility, that identification of livyathan and al-timsah with the amphibious crocodile over an entirely marine monster might transfer to Scorpius if the sky-path of the Milky Way were regarded instead as a River-road, and of such a pairing we have an example from the early centuries AD, in Praeneste’s famed ‘Nile landscape’ mosaic.

Praeneste is modern Palestrina, and lies about ten minutes’ drive from Frascati, the town where, in the Villa Mondragone, Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript that is now Beinecke MS 408.

In speaking of astronomical images created in the Mediterranean world, it has to be remembered that the Romans never knew the works of Claudius Ptolemy.

The Romans never heard of Ptolemy

Astounding as that may seem, all sources are unanimous in saying that Claudius Ptolemy’s best-known works were not translated into Latin until long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy is not a ‘Roman’ astronomer or geographer in any meaningful sense. He was an Egyptian of Macedonian descent who happened to live under Roman rule in, or near Alexandria. Because scholars are unanimous on the point, a wiki writer may speak for all.

First, about the Almagest:

No Latin translation was made in Ancient Rome nor the Medieval West before the 12th century. Henry Aristippus made the first Latin translation directly from a Greek copy, but it was not as influential as a later translation into Latin made in Spain by Gerard of Cremona* from the Arabic (finished in 1175).

*Readers should be aware there is reason doubt Gerard of Cremona made even half the translations credited to him, though none doubts he took the credit for them.

According to an online article by Dirk Grupe, which sadly fails to add his references::

Today, three mediaeval Latin translations of the Almagest are known – two made from Arabic and one from Greek. All three translations were produced within the same relatively short period of time during the mid- and late-twelfth century, but each version was made independently from the others, under different conditions and in a different part of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, each of the versions is based on a different source tradition and had varying degrees of influence in Europe.

One was, according to Grupe, made in Antioch by “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” but here one may have reservations. ʿAbd al-Masīḥ [-ibn Isḥāq] was al-Kindi’s pseudonymous title* and ‘Wintoniensis’ is Winchester. That a copy of Al-Kindi might have been gained from Christian Antioch and turn up in Winchester is not unreasonable, and al-Kindi, who worked in Baghdad certainly took his view of the solar system from Ptolemy.

*pseudonymous … according to Bottini, Laura, “al-Kindī, ʿAbd al-Masīḥ ibn Isḥāq (pseudonym)”, in David Thomas (ed.), Christian-Muslim Relations 600 – 1500: A Bibliographical History.

Similarly, it is undisputed that Ptolemy’s Geography had never been translated into Latin before 1406.

Writers of Byzantine history may presume that, as a work written in Greek, Ptolemy’s master works had always been preserved in the Byzantine sphere, but evidence is wanting and the fact may be that we owe any knowledge of Ptolemy to the Sabaeans of Harran, who requested of an early Muslim governor that they be given their holy books – among them them Aratus’ text, and Euclid’s – which until then were in an Egyptian temple in Alexandria. These Harranians subsequently formed the core of early mathematical and astronomical Arabic studies in Baghdad, from which copies of Ptolemy’s Almagest emerged and circulated in Arabic translation five hundred years after Ptolemy’s death, but it would be another half-millennium knowledge of it reached the Latin-speaking west.

So, while it is true that the Romans’ zodiac had always included the figure of a Scorpion as a scorpion and that the Romans knew Aratus well, it is equally true that they had no single or precise definition of the constellations or the positions of stars, and that independent traditions survived in some regions (if not in the west) despite Roman insistence on uniformity.

However, our assumption that the Voynich emblem is an astronomical figure remains just that – an assumption. Even if that assumption is reasonable, to think it serves as token for Scorpius relies chiefly on medieval and modern ideas about etymology, and to some extent on the often-surprising information retained by early modern makers of celestial charts. Ancient ideas and figures are sometimes preserved in them by being differently clothed or assigned by form or character to newly-invented constellations. The constellation Lacerta is a case in point. It was invented by Johannes Hevelius in 1687, illustrated by a type of lizard which still hinted at crocodile or (for a new world audience) the alligator – the key being that it should be well-muscled and ‘weeping’.

The variant spelling for lizard *lacer-, to *lacro, resembles the Latin cognate for tear (as in ‘crocodile tears’). Isidore writes that “The lizard (lacertus) is a type of reptile, so named because it has arms [cf lacertus, ‘upper arm’]. and later that “In the arms is the brawn of the upper arms (lacertus), and there the marked strength of the muscles is located” and “Some believe that the word for tears (lacrima) comes from an injury of the mind (laceratiomentis); others maintain that it is identical with what is called lakruon (‘tear’) in Greek.”

Isidore’s description of the crocodile reads,

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day.

With the great period of ‘recovery’ which a modern scholar described as ‘renaissance’, Latin Europe discovered a wealth of ancient information more accurate and informed than it dreamed had ever existed. A story of European culture then imagined for itself a history running from Babylonia through the Greeks to Rome and Byzantium, granting ‘Aryan’ status to Arabs for that narrative but omitting Celts, Semitic peoples, North Africans and so forth. Egypt became a land of importance only for its Pharaonic tombs and ancient religion, all of which was imagined ending the moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship.

It wasn’t quite so simple. Beginning from the time of that Cleopatra, the image of the crocodile was used as an esoteric sign, a rallying call to Egypt and its allies to drive out the Roman invaders and more exactly to assist in building (and after Actium, rebulding) an Egyptian navy.

The Romans responded with a campaign of counter-propaganda, disseminated through the most widely-distributed and the most enduring media – coins, mosaics, and reliefs, and they focused on Alexandria and on regions which had earlier supported Carthage or Egypt against Rome.

159-160 AD

In Nimes (right), the Romans had chosen one Celtic tribe, separating it from the loose confederacy of Gallic tribes of that region, and by patronising it and massively re-populating and rebuilding the town, held Gaul. Nimes was so thoroughly re-made that today the city proudly describes itself as the ‘French Rome’. Nimes is in Occitania. Here the crocodile is firmly chained to the palm-tree. ‘Aegypta capta’ reads an inscription on the other side – and this more than a century after Cleopatra’s death.

As in Gaul, so in Spain, in passing through both of which Hannibal had been supported. Here, the Roman mosaic shows Egyptians or Libyans being hunted by their own crocodiles. Both had access to good timber.

.. and in Syria, in Emessa, which controlled some of cedar routes, the message of this Roman villa seems to be ‘Try passing, if you dare”. The flower is the Nile’s lotus.

In Italy Italy itself, from the same period, a replica ‘Canopus’ was created, and underneath the crocodile’s concrete casing, you can still see the remains of a corroded bronze original.

.. which brings us back to Praeneste.

One native of Praeneste who lived about the time Claudius Ptolemy was living and in Egypt, was named Claudius Aelianus, better known as Aelian. His native city had been twice destroyed by Romans, and on the second occasion every male was slaughtered and those who remained driven to lower ground while a colony of ex-soldiers was given the upper city in which was an ancient religious site, originally used by Phoenicians and Etruscans, but which was now being made a very grand temple which the Romans called the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia.

Aelian preferred to speak and write in Greek, and one text which he composed we know as ‘On the Characteristics of Animals’. It was never part of the western bestiary tradition, and the earliest instance of his work’s being re-used in any manuscript held by the British Library dates to the second half of the fifteenth century where the parts transcribed have been copied in Greek, The purpose of that compilation is, as with BNF lat.3751 to serve the interests of physicians. (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 6295, ff 65v-73*).

Paper. dimensions 210 x 145. Single column. It is described as of eastern Mediterranean provenance, and having at some time been owned by the Jesuit College, Agen prior to its acquisition either by Robert Harley (1661-1724), or by Edward Harley (1689-1741). The library notes that the manuscript’s fore-edges are each decorated in Cretan style, with two circles linked by an interlace pattern in ink and colour wash.

Aelian says of crocodiles:

I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the sacred crocodiles are tame, and … the Egyptians assert that the aforesaid crocodiles are endowed with prophecy, and adduce the following evidence. Ptolemy (which of the line it was, you must ask them) was calling to the tamest of the crocodiles, but it paid no attention and would not accept the food he offered. And the priests realised that the crocodile knew that Ptolemy’s end was approaching and consequently declined to take food from him. -‘

Aelian, ‘On the characteristics of Animals’ Bk.8.4,ii. The English trans. by A.F.Scholfield (1958).

The Romans of that time were yet to encounter the concept we call ‘cultural sensitivity’ and in Preaneste a relief commemorating the Battle of Actium – the battle which saw Cleopatra’s Egyptian navy destroyed and herself choose suicide over the predictable humiliations and reprisals inflicted on captives, prisoners of war, and defeated peoples by the Romans. The human head you see through the open oars-locker is probably Cleopatra’s and inclusion of Egypt’s prophetic beast an example of Roman wit.

In the following century, the Christian Greek patristic author, Eusebius, sees the crocodile as an agent of divine justice, snatching away the impure soul… Ammit reprised.

Achthoēs … was the most terrible of all the kings up to his time. He cruelly maltreated the inhabitants throughout Egypt .. fell into madness and was killed by a crocodile.

Eusebius, Chronicle. English trans. from one based on a Latin translation of the Armenian translation of the Greek original – courtesy of attalus.org.

 The Roman ‘propaganda war’ which continues from the 2ndC BC to the 2ndC AD, reviving ‘crocodile’ imagery as needed, was interested neither in moral or in astronomical issues, though like everyone else Romans believed one’s fate ‘written in the stars’ and Roman emperors continued to worship Anubis as part of their own version of Egypt’s Isis cult until the 4thC AD.

Within Egypt itself, the religion’s four thousand year history was not erased, even by Rome and crocodiles were still treated as noble souls, were mummified and sometimes worshipped as – so to speak – the ‘guardian hounds’ of the Nile as late as the fifth or sixth century, ceasing only about the time the last hieroglyphics were inscribed in Philae.

This image from Oxychrinchus seems to me to consciously to equate the crocodile, whose head is given a kind of mask, with the form of a galley.

Perhaps this will help clarify:

The point of those illustrations is that if a fifteenth-century European living in Italy or around the south-western Mediterranean, and especially if they were now excited by things antique, could find a good image of the crocodile in various relics of the Roman era, including a bronze statue in what was once Hadrian’s Villa (118-133AD), a few minutes drive from the Villa d’Este.

I admit it makes me wonder whether Georg Baresh’s information had been garbled in transmission – whether the collector of the matter in Beinecke MS 408 had actually ‘travelled east’ or instead to the ‘d’Este’. But that’s dangeously close to morphing into a theory, so I’ll drop it, right now.

A last comment on the ‘Nile Landscape’ mosaic originally in the temple complex of Fortuna Primigenia.

Praeneste’s Nile Mosaic … ..was noticed by Antonio Volsco shortly before 1507; the mosaics were still in place among the vestiges of Sulla’s sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. At that time, the Colonna family of Rome owned the town (mod. Palestina). In the 17th century, Palestrina passed to the Barberini family, who between 1624 and 1626 removed most of the mosaic from its setting, without recording the overall composition, and, after further movements and damage, put it on exhibition in the Palazzo Barberini in Palestrina, where it remains. – Jasnow reviewing Mabloom’s study.

It has been badly messed about – the camel’s hump, for eample, is now upon its shoulder. No other Roman-era version gives the crocodile a face mid-way between that of a dog and of a human.

detail from the damaged Praeneste ‘Nile’ mosaic.

The chief issues concerning the Nile Mosaic are the date and iconography. K. Parlasca posits an Augustan date, while G. Weill-Goudchaux favors the time of Hadrian. Meyboom himself believes that the mosaic belongs to “the last quarter of the second century and, more precisely, from between 120 and 110 B.c.” (p. 19). There is certainly nothing which precludes such a dating. Roman interest in knowledge of Egypt is well documented at this time. ..

From the ‘Book of Faiyum‘ – extant copies date from 332 BC E – 359 AD, Note the styles of hatching and patterning used here.

As I’ve said, this series of diagrams with their central emblems is termed a ‘calendar’ only because the centres are inscribed with month-names. The central emblems don’t form a zodiac but are are among the handful of drawings in Beinecke MS 408 which use a visual language reasonably compatible with the conventions of western medieval art.

They require no date later than the range we have for the vellum (1405-1438)* and more narrowly still, not later than about 1350 or so, meaning that the fifteenth-century copyists appear to have gained much, if not all, of this section from one or more exemplars.

*Please don’t write to ask why the Beinecke Library catalogue entry adds, another two hundred years to that range. The entry was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s by the head librarian but apparently not from any codicological or palaeographical assessments, these having already dated the quires’ inscription to the early fifteenth century.

centre of the ‘Crocodile rota’ in SIgismondo Fanti’s Trionfo di Fortuna. 1527. [private copy]

Sept. 6th. – ‘Primagenia’ corrected to ‘Primigenia’ – the fault entirely due to my appalling handwriting and not the long-suffering typist.


Not only, but not least for its connection to Crete, a page from a late sixteenth century copy of another rarely-mentioned poem about the nature of animals,

Written by Manuel Philes (c.1275-c.1345), it is known as De Animalium Proprietate, and we are indebted to the Cretan scribe, Angelos Bergikios, for knowledge of it, for (as the British library catalogue says) “he made something of a career out of producing lavishly-illustrated copies of this poem for French aristocrats during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.”

Such earlier copies as have been found in the Greek-speaking world appear have no illustrations, but perhaps an illustrated version had existed in Crete. Whatever the case, enjoy Bergikios’ really beautiful script.

3 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes – Calendar ‘November and July’ Pt 5. November concluded.

  1. I am grateful to Michal Tallis for a correction.

    concerning “the translation by “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” ‘

    Tallis says – ‘ that is without doubt a translation from Ptolemy, but as with ‘John of Damascus’ and others, translations were covered by adoption of a pseudonym especially if the translator might follow a religion unacceptable to their audience. Al-Kindi was already acceptable, and even ‘al-Kindi’ was a pseudonym of that kind. But you are wrong about this. The “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” text is certainly Ptolemy’s not any work by al-Kindi”


  2. I see that the wiki article on al-Farghānī says that Christopher Columbus “sailed to North [sic] America”. I understand that is incorrect. During the four separate trips beginning with that of 1492, Columbus landed on various Caribbean islands that are now the Bahamas and the island of the Antilles later called Hispaniola. He also explored the Central and South American coasts. But he didn’t reach North America…. and he never thought he had found a new continent.


  3. 25th September – I have today been told that the other crocodile is labelled in some other post by JKPetersen, as ‘Douce 313’. When I have a moment free, I’ll look up the catalogue entry. In the meantime, I owe Mr. Petersen an apology; apparently he did come to understand the importance of documentation and I think he deserves the credit for having spoken first of a crocodile type in connection with Voynich research.
    Golden rule applies, so in my next post I’ll say this again.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter 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.