O’Donovan Notes #13b – an illustration.

Someone who read the previous post commented (at a different blog-site) that he couldn’t understand how I got the idea that any drawings in the Voynich manuscript were of non-western Christian origin. So I thought I’d provide an example of analytical method and show why, in the case of a diagram on folio 77r, the primary document itself obliged me to turn away from the traditionalist ‘all Latin Christian narrative’ – not because I had any theory, but because the testimony of the primary document has highest priority.

The analytical method requires constant reference to texts, and so a few of those I consulted are referenced here.

I have never felt a need to invent any theoretical narrative to explain the manuscript. Such tales have always – ever since 1921 – been advanced before any verifiable evidence, maintained in defiance of clear opposition from the primary document, and vastly exceeded the verifiable evidence when urged upon the wider public. In view of what follows I might say that I do not have a nice, simple ‘Manichean’ story for you, either.

For what follows, the core is the basic analysis published in October 2012.

When I first shared my study of that diagram, in 2011, and identified the drawing’s subject as a 5-element system, I was unaware that Richard Santacoloma had already said he thought the drawing showed a system describing the elements.

Though perceptive readers will soon realise that my work can owe nothing to his, not in methodology, nor sources, nor conclusions reached, I’m happy to say that his perception of the diagram as referring to elements was good.

It is always good to have two workers come independently to comparable conclusions about a problematic item.

To that core – my post of Oct 25, 2012 at 6:00 PM, I have added other notes and comments that were published later in posts or additional comments at Voynichimagery, the ongoing research further refining, and with regard to one detail correcting the basic analysis.

To compensate for the original post having been issued within an unfolding study, I’ve re-written one sentence, and a couple of clauses which became unclear without the post that preceded or was to follow.

I hope readers won’t find it too confusing that I now shift back and forward between that basic analytical commentary of 2012 and the subsequent amplifications.


The short story [October, 2012]

In my opinion, this represents a 5-element system, but not one that includes ether as a separate element.


Note added to the 2012 post. re Richard SantaColoma and his ‘New Atlantis’ blog. (March 30th 2013)

  I first wrote a post about f.77r in 2011. Later in that year – in May 2011 – I heard that Rich Santacoloma had earlier suggested the diagram was a reference to the elements, though he supposed then, and still does, that the system will be the European one.  I left a note on the original post about that difference between our opinions and mentioned his views, but I did not, and do not .agree with his idea that the manuscript shows the western system – for reasons that should be clear from what follows.

Today Rich added a few comments here [i.e. at Voynichimagery] expressing a desire to have my post link not just to his web-page as  I had done, and still prefer to do,  but to his blog. [note added 2023 – the website raised a warning notice today], Since I’m well-known for adding ‘update’ notes to my own blogposts, I’m happy to do as Mr. Santacoloma asks, so here is the link he prefers. It is dated February 10th., 2010.

From the content of my own analytical study (below) I hope readers will be able to see that it owes nothing to Mr. Santacoloma’s writing, but is a product of the present writer’s experience and reference to non-Voynich-centred scholarship. .

On the matter of ‘5 elements’

Many other [i.e. Non-European] systems are five-element ones, including the Chinese ‘5 agencies’, the Hindu, the Turkish, and more. These are no less deserving of consideration among the range of comparisons to be considered, given the various other items of evidence we’ve seen so far that have indicated a non-European origin for a given drawing’s first enunciation.

Once more in this diagram there appears to be influence from the Hellenistic period reflected in their style.

For the Greek terms and for the clear distinction between the system shown in folio 77r and that which applied in the Latin west, I’ve decided to start by referring to Isidore’s text* – chiefly for its parallel use of the Latin with the Greek terms but also to avoid alarming readers who may feel thei comfort-zone ends with medieval western Christian Europe.

*Isidore of Seville, with whose Etymologiae my readers had become familiar by 2012.

On the interaction between Hellenism, Dualism and regions beyond Europe after the 3rdC AD, readers must wait for a subsequent post.

My first post about this drawing on f.77 [in 2011] included much comparative vocabulary that I omit here [i.e. in October 2012].

Ether one of the elements? – no.

Isidore recognised ether as a rarefied form of fire, but is specific about its position and that it does not contribute to the world below. To that extent it was not regarded to that time, in the Latins’ tradition, as one of the ‘elements’:

The ether is the place where the stars are and signifies that fire which is separated high above from the entire world.”

‘The most potent elements’

details from fol 77r (textual portion omitted).

Isidore then turns to the natural world and begins with the two ‘potent’ elements.

The most potent pair of elements for human life are fire and water, whence those to whom fire and water are forbidden are gravely punished.

Etym. XIII.xii.2

That pair, I think, is probably the reason why we see the diagram proper flanked on f.77r by a female and what appears to be a non-gendered male. (which could be our first indication of religious influence, supposing it alluded to Isaiah 53:8  Who shall declare his generation?” and see Naasseni, in Hippolytus Bk.V

Forms given those two figures’ containers agree, too, with Isidore’s assignments: that on the left appears to be modelled on the wall-sconce or  on glass beakers of a type filled with oil and used in that way – fire.

On the right, the container is formed as a bucket or basket from which falls a mixture of water and potent earth (i.e. life-producing water, like the seed-filled and fertile soil brought by flood. The mechanism of reproduction through seed was not entirely understood in earlier times.) But hence ‘water’.


To further clarify the nature of this pair, I was to add the following quotation with its allusion to the Anabibazontes to a later post, published in October 2016 and entitled ‘On the doorstep [Mongols] and things Manichaean’, voynichimagery.wordpress.com (October 31st., 2016).

A Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia, quotes Mani’s teachings on this point. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to  five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly given that he lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’.

This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets] are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and he Scales belong to the World of Wind,  The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [ule?] or in the flesh.  Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.  The two Ascendants [anabibazontes][9] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. .. [for my reference see the ‘Comment’ posted below this 2023 post]

adding a further comment on November 1st 2016):

Postscript: I may have mis-read the first element motif of ‘wavy lines with scattered dots’. It might – possibly – be meant for Smoke ~ as rising air mixed with burned particles..


returning to the research as published in 2012:

While Isidore’s description of those older Greek ideas is compatible with the diagram as we’ve analysed it so far, overall the maker of the drawing does not appear to have had a conception of the elements identical to the western, and thus like Isidore’s. 

I don’t think the diagram on f.77 is an illustration of the Etymologies  so much as an illustration of some accepted and local ‘5-elements’ system that is being assumed within an education system no less infused by respect for the same classical and Greek sources. Some possibilities will be listed further below.

 Isidore’s regularly referring to both Greek and the  Latin vocabulary, and explaining both, means that the Latin tradition maintained some knowledge of Greek from that time. The Etymologies was so widely used and copied that it is often compared with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and its information being disseminated as standard opinion, it filtered through scholars and clerics to the lay population.

The diagram proper – Primary matter: ‘the wood’

Where we speak of the  ‘basic fabric’ or the ‘building blocks’ of the material world, the Greek term for the raw material of all things was  ΰλη, which – like this diagram – evokes the idea of a tree’s body, unshaped, but from which those elements [Lat. elementum] emerge.  The Greek term was not elementum, but  stoikeia.

(April 3rd 2012- cf. architectural and philosophical associations for terms stoa; stoic)

Isidore says:

The Greeks call a certain primary material of things ΰλη (‘matter’ also ‘wood’) which is not formed in any way.

and he goes on:

 From this ΰλη the visible elements (Lat: elementum) are formed, whence they took their name, [Gk stoikeia: elements] for they agree with [Gk: stoikein] each other in a certain accord and communion of association.

In conception, then, this diagram does seem to reflect an influence from those Greek philosophical terms, though not from the Latin.

At the same time, it includes five elements, not four, and shows fire second from highest which, to judge from al-Biruni’s comments (see below) agrees with the situation in tenth-century Baghdad.

[note added April 7th., 2023. For further information and insights into this issue, I recommend the work of a remarkable scholar whose videos on youtube include ones discussing Baghdad before the Mongols’ destruction of the city late in the thirteenth century. The videos can be found under the site ‘Let’s Talk Religion’. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Here I might say that earlier this year (2023) I have found reason to consider the period of al Ma’mun worth closer attention; not so much for a cartographic project he sponsored, but for a particular system of measures employed.]

I think, then, that this diagram on folio 77r is not designed to illustrate Isidore’s text, nor probably any system used in Roman times.

Some points of distinction between the diagram’s form and Isidore’s understanding of the Greek elements system:

Where Isidore explains the Greek stoichaea with an almost anthropomorphic sense of the four elements’ interactions and harmonious relationship, the Voynich diagram takes the term to mean rather that five elements have emerged from that formless ‘wood’  not as living things might, in amity, but as non-living things  equal simply in terms of time and distance: the time of emergence for all being contemporary indicated, I think, by the equal length of these short branchings.

Nor does the relationship of the five match Isidore’s understanding of that amity. Because Isidore’s understanding is that aether has no place in the world inhabited by mankind, it plays no part in his explanation of earthly substances, all of which are formed from the four.

 “Indeed [they] are said to be connected thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire: since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth and [then], in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire”.

Etymologiae XIII.iii.1-6

Now try as I might –  and though I feel fairly certain that the second element from the right is fire and, further, that the elements in the centre of the ‘wood’ and that nearest the fiery principal (not principle) might [at a pinch] between them be interpreted as air and ether, yet no correspondence exists in the drawing to the way in which Isidore himself explains the four elements’ relationship. The diagram speaks to a different scheme, order and relations.

Even if one were to imagine – as Isidore and the western world normally did not – that ether and its radiance (aether) contributed to the composition of the natural world, still the order and relationships shown by the diagram do not co-incide with his.*

*para edited for clarity.

[so now we turn to investigating various 5-elements systems, to see which may be relevant to the Voynich drawings..]

Some 5-elements systems in the east. [This section was much shortened for the 2012 post]

1. Chinese

2. Indian (Hindu)

 3. Islamic

          Al Biruni brought knowledge of India’s  Hindu elements, which he described as being:

 Heaven; Wind; Fire; Water; Earth,

and he says, quite specifically, that none of the Hindu elements equates to the Greeks’ “aether”. The point is relevant point, since in more recent times there has been a tendency to refer to aether in interpreting the term Akasha.

 Writing in the tenth century, he explains in his India:

 “Heaven, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth are the Hindu’s five elements. They are called the mahabuta i.e. having great natures. The Hindus do not think, as other people do, that the fire is a hot, dry body near the bottom of the ether. They understand by fire the common fire on earth which comes from an inflammation of smoke.

The Vayu Purana says, ‘In the beginning were earth, water, wind and heaven. Brahman, on seeing sparks under the earth, brought them forward, and divided them into three parts: the first, Parthiva, is the common fire, which requires wood and is extinguished by water; the second is divya i.e. the sun; the third vidyut i.e. the lightning. The sun attracts the water..”

Sachau, Al Biruni’s ‘India’, Chapter III (v-ix).

4. Manichaean.

Five is a number of fundamental importance to Manichaean systems, including cosmology. A great deal of information about Manichaean thought is available online, (e.g. this site) but for its style of script, I add links to the very important  Cologne Mani Codex, found at Lycopolis in Egypt and a comparative example of cursive script in an early Christian codex [link dead in 2023] from  Oxyrhinchus.[Link dead in 2023]

5. Buddhist

6. Turk

.. and others.


Not mentioned was an important reference which contains a a useful table (p.64).

  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Medieval Manichaean Book Art: A Codicological Study of. Iranian and Turkic Illuminated Book Fragments from 8th–11th Century East. Central Asia, (Nag Hammadi & Manichaean Studies), Stephen Emmel, Johannes van Oort (Eds.), volume 57, Leiden-Boston: “Brill Academic Publishers” (2005).
  • Another I’d recommend for those interested in central European Asian sects and beliefs is Gnosis on the Silk Road.
  • The links between earlier medieval dualism outside Europe and ‘Manicheans’ in later medieval Europe are discussed in a great number of books and papers. For those to whom the whole subject is new, two books in English that are not new but easily found and still respected:
  • Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee
  • Yuri Stoyanov, The Hidden Tradition in Europe: the secret history of medieval Christian heresy.

2 thoughts on “O’Donovan Notes #13b – an illustration.

  1. I should have included, too, the reference from which I had that reference to the anabibazontes. Here it is.

    [9] “The anabibazontes are actually quite sober astronomical constructs which have become demonized. Anabibazon is the technical term for the ascending node of the moon’s orbit. Its complementary twin, as it were, is the descending node, katabibazon. In fashioning their additional celestial evil-doers, the Manichees took the first of the pair and duplicated it. Thus we find two “uppers” and no “downer”. Roger Beck, ‘The Anabibazontes in the Manichaean Kephalaia’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 69 (1987), pp. 193-196.


  2. For the linguists.
    The term ‘Anabibazontes’ is not only used in astrological writings.
    It is attested as early as the time of Herodotus (see Histories Bks 1 and 4), Other instances below as listed in LSJ (1940). I’ve taken the entry by copy-and-paste from the digitised version at Eulexis. Note how many of the listed instances come from ‘Philo Mechanicus’ – on whom more after the lexica.

    ἀναβιβάζω was. -βιβάσω Ph.Mech. Beautiful. 97.43 ( svl ); aor. -εβίβασα; — Med., was. -βιβάσομαι, Att. -βιβῶμαι Amips. 30, Aeschin. 2.146; aor. -εβιβασάμην; (see βιβάζω ); — causal of ἀναβαίνω, make to go up, cause to mount , ἐπὶ τὴν πυρήν, ἐπὶ πύργον, Hdt. 1.86, 3.75, X.Cyr . 6.1.53; ἐπὶ τὸν τροχόν, of torture, And. 1.43; κατὰ τὸ ἀκρότατον X.HG 4.5.3 ; metaph , uphft, ἐπὶ μετεωροτέραν ἐπίνοιαν Corn. ND 28. Special uses; ἀ. τινὰ ἐφ’ ἵππον mount one on horseback, Hdt. 1.63, 4.72 , X.Eq. 6.12; ἐπ’ ἅρμα Hdt. 4.180; ἐπὶ τὰ ὀχήματα X. Cyr. 4.2.28. ἀ. ναῦν draw a ship up on land, Id. HG 1.1.2.

    Med[icine]. , ἀναβιβάζεσθαί τινας ἐπὶ τὰς ναῦς have them put on board ship, begin for sea, Th. 7.33; abs., ἀναβιβασάμενοι ib. 35, see X.HG _3.4.10. at Athens, bring up to the bar of a court of justice as a witness, Is. 9.30; — so in Med. , Lys. 12.24, Pl. Ap. 18d; bring forward a fellow-prosecutor, Hyp. Them. 13; used goal. of a culprit, bring up his wife and children to raise compassion, And. 1.148, Pl. Ap. 34c, Lys. 18.24, 20.34, Hypo. Them. 41, Aeschin. 3.7, see 2.146; n/ a Act. , Hypo. Phil. 9. ἀ. ἐπὶ τὴν σκηνήν bring uponthe stage, Plb. 23.10.16, 29.19.2. ἀ. τὰς τιμάς raise the prices, D S. 5.10, cf. POxy. 513.27.

    promote, advance , στρατιώτην Ph.Mech. Beautiful. 97.43; vs. acc. cogn., ἀ. χώραν advance a step, 94.25; — Pass., ἀναβιβάζεσθαι εἰς τιμήν ascend to honour, Plu. Cat. Ma. 16. Gramm., ἀ. τὸν τόνον throw back the accent, AD ysc. Pron. 49.15, s. ; of postpositions, Id. Synt. 308.10. ἀ. τοὺς φθόγγους lower, moderate them, Plu. TG 2. Astron., ὁ ἀναβιβάζων σύνδεσμοςascending node, Ptol. Alm. 4.9, etc ; without σύνδεσμος, Procl. Hypo. 5.105.

    Re “Ph.Mech”. This is Philo of Byzantium. To save readers’ time, I add the basics of his biography for readers’ convenience.

    (Greek: Φίλων ὁ Βυζάντιος, Phílōn ho Byzántios, ca. 280 BC – ca. 220 BC), otherwise called Philo Mechanicus, a Greek engineer, physicist and writer on mechanics. Although from Byzantium he lived most of his life in Egypt, in Alexandria.


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