The author’s rights are asserted.
(edited 15th Sept 2022 – minor typos corrected)
As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.
However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.
Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.
I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible
The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.
As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.
Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)
© D. O’Donovan [
Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested. It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)
The miracle of life preserved within death.
The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.
Even today, in Afrikaans, plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch. Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.
Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.
A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.
For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language; Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac, former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.
From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.
That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct. Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are ‘like rue’.
Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis, brought as replacement from Arabia.
(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).
C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.
Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below. In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives. Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.
From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.
More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.
This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.
It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.
What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.
However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’. Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.
As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.
It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.
It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself. One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs. How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.
(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).
In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.
In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed. In this, I may be in a minority, but it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’. However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.
Back to the Balsam.
Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries, ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.
I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.
Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree. The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed. Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.
Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).
Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.
The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct** due to over-working and a flood.
The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.
So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi. What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.
C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.
** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.
I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.
- Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
- O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
- Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.
All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.
Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.
Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice: ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..
Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.
Not much has changed, has it?
Published Sunday, May 5th, 2013
re-issued, September 14th., 2022