O’Donovan Notes #13c – Opening the Iris. Darius and Asenath.

c.1800 words.

The authors’* rights are asserted.

*D.N.O’Donovan and a Voynichero who writes as ‘Darius’.

(Additional para added 21st April).

The current series of posts here is concerned with the reasons that Voynch studies has, for a century, maintained a vision of the medieval world that was outmoded by the 1970s and badly out of date today.

Widening the intellectual horizon also means considering more opinions than our own, so in this post I’ll consider the ideas about that drawing on f.77r whose analysis is found in the post before last.

A couple of days ago, a Voynichero who writes as ‘Darius’ wrote (April 18th., 2023)

“…on the right side of folio 77r, a particular figure is depicted: Asenath, who represents her conversion by touching the ‘living water’. In her case, it was in the strict sense honey brought by the archangel Michael, so as a symbol of this, she is often shown with a bee on her cheek. The first words on the right, below the pipe, read: ‘Asenath and the tree of descent generation…’. This does not relate to any early ‘quantum theory’, but is most likely about the story of Joseph and Asenath.
You will encounter this again and again… the best phantasy and historical knowledge won’t be able to reveal the true meaning.
” – Darius

Sounds like total rubbish, doesn’t it?

But is it? I try not to rely on ‘believe/don’t believe’ attitudes.

I make a habit of remaining unconvinced of any ideas and theories for which evidence is not offered. From the “wise-men-and-elephant” model, I also maintain a practice of staying unconvinced that just because evidence supports one opinion, we mightn’t find on closer study that another opinion – seemingly opposed to the first – won’t prove on closer study to be complementary rather than oppositional and that an understanding of both mighn’t bring us closer to the truth than either of them alone.

In Voynich studies, however, this effort to reached a balanced assessment often means having to begin by searching for whatever information might underpin a given theory; Voynicheros habitually behave as if the aim of research were to have a personal notion/guess/’theory’ believed rather than that it contribute something reliable to the study of this difficult medieval manuscript. I don’t know about you, but when someone says ‘Who are you going to believe?’ my instinct is to reply ‘what have you got?’

So what must be done now is to take each of Darius’ assertions and see whether there is anything that might support them, using physical and textual evidence (if any can be found at all).

In that recent comment of his, Darius offered no evidence whatever for any of his assertions, and no reference to anywhere he might have presented a reasonable argument for them, so we shall have to try and make a case from evidence in his favour before trying to offer a balanced opinion of their worth. A person who not only believes, but says in public that historical knowledge can be of no use in researching an historical document is already below par.

1.‘The figure on the right’.

Darius’ reading the right-hand figure as a female, when that on the left-hand side is so obviously a more womanly type seems a little odd. Perhaps when Darius wrote ‘right-hand figure’ he had meant to write ‘left-hand figure’ for, as anyone knows who has worked at the same time from texts written left-to-right and those written right-to-left, such slips become quite common.

But in that case, one has to ask if we should suppose the same when Darius’ says “The first words on the right, below the pipe, read: ‘Asenath and the tree of descent generation…’. Does he mean “the first words of the sentence immediately below the pipe?” or not. In that case, the words would be…

Or should we suppose that Darius means to suggest that he reads Voynichese right-to-left?.

At the risk of doing him an injustice, we’ll take his assertions at face value.

That means he reads the right-hand figure in the diagram as a short-haired and flat-chested female, and not (as I read it) as an ungendered or modestly-drawn male figure.

According to Darius, then, it is that figure he thinks “represents [Asenath’s religious] conversion by touching the ‘living water’ “.


The name ‘Asenath’ is our first suggestion of any cultural context for Darus’ theory.

Asenath names the wife of the Biblical patriarch Joseph, by whom he had two sons, the first named Manasseh and the second, Ephraim. None of them was ever baptised, of course.

The Biblical text also tells us that Asenath was the daughter of an Egyptian priest named ‘Poti-Phera’ in the city of On. We are not told which Egyptian deity he served. Genesis 41:50-52.

ON (city) ŏn (אֹ֖ן, אֹֽון; pillar-city), capital of the thirteenth nome of Lower Egypt, about six m. NE of Cairo and three m. N of modern Heliopolis.

The Bible’s patriarchal narratives describe lineage from the male line, yet in Judaism as we know it today, lineage is defined by matrilineal line. That is, to be a defined as a Jew by birthright you must have Jewish heritage on your mother’s side.

This apparent contradiction between the biblical texts and Jewish custom was one important reason for the attention paid to Asenath by medieval Jewish scholars and by popular legends. The problem was solved not by creating a ‘religious conversion’ story, and much less by imagining a Jewish ceremony of baptism, but by deciding that Asenath’s mother had been Jewish, and that Asenath herself carried a kind of birth certificate in the form of a talisman.

For a summary of extra-Biblical sources, see Ginzberg’s summary in Vol. 4 of his Legends of the Jews (Vol. 4 pp.170 ff.)

Should we regard Darius’ ideas as the result of a theory that the drawing on folio 77r is of Jewish origin?

In favour of this idea is that Jewish scribes typically avoid creating a drawing that may provoke base emotions in the reader, whether greed or anger or lust; one finds nothing of the lewd even when figures are shown unclothed – whether these are Biblical figures such as Adam and Eve, or others such as the pair in Gemini.

On the other hand, Darius’ next assertion seems to deny a Jewish origin for the drawing. He speaks of “living water” as part of religious conversion – a peculiarly Christian or proto-Christian allusion and ‘conversion’ rite.

In Christian literature itself, ‘living water’ is mentioned in two passages from the Gospel of John, completed 90 AD–110 AD. (see John 4: 10 and 7:37–38)

Association of that concept of ‘living waters’ with Christian baptism occurs rather later, and refers to those passages as the rite’s theological justification. . .

John 7:38 purports to quote the Tanach, but no such reference is found there. Nearest suggestions are Is. 44.3, Zach. 13.1

To complicate the picture even more, Darius seems arbitrarily to turns the waters of baptism into honey (!) and imagines that honey carried to the Egyptian-Jewish wife of Joseph by the archangel Michael.

Can we make any coherent historical sense of these various parts of Darius’ comment?

3.“Michael the Archangel?”

‘living water’. ‘… honey brought [to Asenath] by the archangel Michael..

Perhaps honey plays, or played, some part in older Jewish ceremonies, but if so I don’t know which ones and of course Darius feels that adducing evidence is unnecessary. One is simply to take his assertions on faith.

This we cannot do.

Baptismal water.

For a Christian baptism, any clean water will do – at least in the Latin (western Christian) medieval church.

So far as I know, honey was never part of that sacrament, though the formally-sanctified baptismal water had a little olive oil and oil of balsam (or substitute) added to it.


A very early custom. by which sweets formed of milk and honey were given to newly-baptised adults in token of becoming ‘newly reborn’, is last recorded in the Latin works of Jerome – Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus – who died in 420 AD.

What we do find, if we’re looking for something relevant to the patriarchal period and Joseph’s marriage to Asenath, is that pre-Christian Egyptian marriage contracts include the annual allowance made by the groom to the bride. These are usually a number of coins and measures of basic foodstuffs such as oil and grain, though one contract includes mention of twenty-four hins (32 pounds) of honey a year.

Some examples of these marriage contracts were published in 1924, in the Museum Journal of the University of Pennsylvania.

Within the corpus of popular Jewish legends, we do find that honey brought by an angel signals the end of Asenath’s period of penitence and acceptance of her as a suitable wife for Joseph. (Ginzberg’s account Vol.4 p.173 here)

‘Baptismal Honey’?!

Where Darius gets the ‘baptismal water is honey” idea, though, I cannot discover, and an all-western-medieval-Christian-Jewish story seems very difficult to justify as an explanation for the diagram on f.77r.

Darius’ further connecting the Egyptian-Jewish Asenath to Christian baptism/conversion, then linking the waters of baptism to honey and finally introducing the archangel Gabriel Michael reads as pure anti-historical nonsense if you posit a western Christian context, but is less so if we turn away from Europe towards the eastern side of the Mediterranean.

There, we find that Michael was envisaged as a physician and not merely as a martial angel. The angel who brings honey to Asenath in Jewish legend is not named at all, but like Elijah ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot.

We do find some instances in eastern Christian legend of Michael’s being closely associated with waters, the most interesting of those examples taking us again to Egypt, though now to a period about the 1st-3rdC AD.

The Christians of Egypt placed their life-giving river, the Nile, under the protection of St. Michael … on the 12th of June, when the river commences to rise, they keep as a holiday of obligation the feast of St. Michael “for the rising of the Nile“, euche eis ten symmetron anabasin ton potamion hydaton.

‘Michael, the Archangel’ – Catholic Encyclopedia

which tells us, among other things, that Michael was being associated now with the great figure of Orion and/or with Sirius, effectively translating into Christian terms that much older Egyptian festival which began the Egyptian year.

Egypt 1st-3rdC, perhaps.

The 1st-3rd centuries was a fascinating period, one of multi-cultural intellectual growth and exchange in Egypt. Streams of scientific and of religious thought and questioning were mixing, mingling, and cross-fertilising. We’ve already seen, in researching numerous others of the Voynich drawings, that Greco-Egyptian culture or what is termed Greco-Roman Egyptian culture has proven relevant in learning to read a number of the drawings that include unclothed figures.

However, in trying to find some context for Darius’ assertions about the drawing on folio 77r, it’s important not to forget that Darius himself offered nothing to justify his ideas, and it may be that he rejects every item we’ve offered as possible support for them.

For some of his ideas, I can find nothing in support.

Water = Honey =Bee-cheeked Asenath?

I can find no evidence for Darius’ idea that folio 77r shows water being turned into honey; nor for his idea that the right hand figure on folio 77r has a cheek adorned with a bee.

Here’s the supposedly ‘bee-cheeked’ face.

What is drawn is just a line and four dots, with a bit of wash. Together these make the ‘blush’ on the figure’s cheek.

Whether the four dots carried any deeper significance in the draughtsman’s mind I cannot say, but I find none.

I suppose if pressed to offer some deeper meaning there, I might compare them to the form of a lyre, or to that of the letter ‘shin’ in Aramaic or in Hebrew. I add an example from one of the Dead Sea scrolls since they suit the date-range of 1st-3rdC AD fairly well.

Do I think the four dots are meant for ‘shin’?

No. At best a very slim chance.

Do I think the first maker expected his audience to see a bee there?

No. At the scale the fifteenth-century copyist was working and despite having very good hand-eye co-ordination, we see he had difficulty even drawing the figure’s eyes.

I’d say that Darius’ bee is pareidolia brought on by excessive confidence in a theory.

And there, for now, I must rest Darius’ case or, to be more accurate, the case we’ve made on behalf of a Voynichero on record as saying “the best historical knowledge won’t be able to reveal the [drawing’s?] true meaning.”

No reference or evidence in proof provided for that idea, either.

In the next post, we’ll consider whether Darius’ assertions might suit the astronomical-elemental aspect of that drawing from f.77r.

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