O’Donovan notes #13d – Darius and Asenath Pt 2

The author’s rights are asserted.

(The post went over 1500 words before getting to the astronomical matter, so that will be Part 3)

BEFORE going further down the ‘Asenath’ rabbit-hole, let’s remember that our aim isn’t to decide if Darius’ ideas about the written text are justified, but whether his ideas about this drawing are reasonable, well documented and sufficient – on balance.

His comment of 18th April said:

The first words on the right, below the pipe, read: ‘Asenath and the tree of descent generation…’.

so it would seem he interprets the unformed wood as Asenath’s genealogical ‘tree’ but his comment has ignored the shapely female supporting figure on the left, while asserting that on the right was meant to represent Asenath “…touching the living water [which is] in the strict sense, honey.”

He said nothing about the five extrusions from that unshaped wood, nor about the motifs associated with each. So is he really trying to explain the drawing as formed of its component parts, details and stylistics?

He may have said more on those things elsewhere – I’m still waiting for details of where his research is available. But another of the comments he addressed to me at ciphermysteries (April 20th) makes it is difficult to avoid the impression that he hasn’t spent any time learning how this sort of work is done. He wrote,

“You also mentioned the contents should reflect a particular cultural tradition or milieu. I think they are inventions, and we don’t necessarily need evidence of tradition for every invention. ..The scribes in this manuscript were very innovative..”

This ‘innovative’ catch-cry sounds awfully like a kind of sensible-sounding-but-irrational sound-bites that have circulated around the back corridors of Voynich studies, now, for at least 20 years.

It is hardly more than a nicer variation on the old, old, old, old ‘blame the artist/author’ refrain. Earlier versions would have that scribe, ‘author’ or ‘draughtsman’ (Darius’ says ‘scribes’) as mad, incompetent, careless, a child, amazingly devious, deliberately obscure and so on. Now we add the near-meaningless “innovative” to that list of non-facts used about the drawings.

One of the things that becomes a constant throughout the history of Voynich theory-making is that so few theorists have ever said – in more than a hundred years that, ‘I can’t understand these drawings because I don’t know enough’. (which helps explain why the very same individuals who blamed the imagined ‘artist’ or ‘artist/author’ also claimed with extraordinary confidence, but relying chiefly on imagination, without much evidence adduced, that one drawing or another was ‘obviously’ supportive of their preferred theory.

How that bizarre situation arose, and why it persists, is to be considered in later posts in this ‘Opening the Iris’ series.

[note – 23rd April. Some helpful readers sent comments that showed I hadn’t been clear enough, in what follows, about the distinction between customs and attitudes likely to affect fifteenth-century Latins’ creation of new images as distinct from copying ones gained from older or foreign works. I agree that I failed to be clear about that, so have added another illustration and a few extra words to avoid confusion.]

An ‘Innovative’ 15thC European image?

In the ‘Asenath and Joseph’ story there are four major characters Asenath, an Egyptian of high social rank; Joseph. one of the most revered of the Biblical patriarchs; an unnamed heavenly messenger which in some traditions is identified with the archangel Michael; and as a minor figure Asenath’s father, an Egyptian priest.

If the drawing on f.77r is imagined first created in the fifteenth century, and for the VMS, the question becomes where in medieval Europe before 1440 would any of those three major characters be envisaged and drawn as unclothed and/or ugly persons?

Europeans’ fixation on a universal hierarchical ordering of all things made it impossible that they would omit the usual tokens by which the viewer could read the characters’ social rank. (Copying older material might also see it altered to suit, and usually does – see how many of the Vms’ calendar figures were daubed with pigment to make them look ‘decent’ )

In the late fifteenth-century painting shown below for example, Asenath is shown dressed in typically Latin style of the time – that is, arrayed in clothing of the latest fashion and of richest fabrics (silk velvet with cloth-of-gold braid), though with a form of necklace which suggests a curio brought direct from Egypt, and headwear that is supposed to look a bit exotic but is basically what everyone of comparable rank wore when, and where, the painting was made.

In the third panel (above) I’ve turned Asenath’s ‘idols’ upright. You see that both are given footwear, and while one is dressed only in a loincloth, the other wears trousers. (If you open the image in a new tab, you’ll get one much enlarged.)

Europe 15thC – who may be shown unclothed?

Depends what part of Europe you mean. Material copied from antique sources might be copied exact, or altered in certain ways, and copying itself creates change in the air and appearance of an image. But given that Donatello’s David is unlikely to have been made before our manuscript was, the options are few when it comes to newly-envisioned drawings and paintings.

If you think about the main characters in the ‘Asenath and Joseph’ story, I’d say that none could have been represented unclothed in medieval Latin art before 1440.

Not Joseph, certainly. He was a prince in Egypt and in medieval Europe a prince-was-a-prince and that was that. Not Potiphar either. He was a priest, even if of a foreign deity. Nor Asenath because she was not a ‘wicked woman’ and the bible says nothing about her going swimming or bathing, so no excuse there either for breaking the rules of western image-making.

Holy angels and archangels (the sort given halo/nimbus) are never shown naked in western Christian art, but as early as the second quarter of the fourteenth century, Ambroglio Lorenzetti comes close to making such an image when he depicts an allegorical ‘Security’ as an airy figure, winged, barefoot and near-enough to naked. The figure carries a scroll promising safety for those who conform to the rules and a hanged man as promise to those who do not.

detail from Allegory of Good Government. Painted 1338-40 by Lorenzetti, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

For someone to try making an argument that the drawing on the top of f.77r was first created in early fifteenth-century Latin Europe to represent persons from the Asenath legend, and whether positing the fifteenth-century draftsman a Christian, a Jew or a converso, would be to have the whole weight of art-historical and comparative cultural studies against them. Their best bet would be to say, if insisting on a theory of first enunciation in Europe during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, to argue that the drawing’s supporting pair are meant for abstract or allegorical figures.. as indeed we have said they were, though not attributing their first enunciation to the fifteenth century. Of course then the theorist would have to explain why they didn’t look ‘nice’ by fifteenth-century Latin standards.

The Legend of Asenath and Joseph

Accepting that the Voynich manuscript as we have it was mostly put together either in Latin Europe (and probably the south-western part), or elsewhere under Latin auspices, the antiquity and wide knowledge of the Asenath-and-Joseph legend means that the the written text on f.77r might indeed, as Darius say, refer to that story but be a version of the tale dated any time between the 2ndC BC – 15thC AD.

Scholars believe that the text known as the ‘Legend of Asenath’ was first composed in Greek, during the 2ndC BC – 2ndC AD after which we find versions in various other languages and with different degrees of elaboration.

Readers who turned immediately to the wiki article ‘Asenath’ will have found a very good article, and one as yet untainted by gratuitous Voynch-isms.

They will have seen that while Asenath- texts have a long history, that history remains subject to scholarly debate.

The oldest extant version, so far as we know, is in Syriac and its form is due to a Christian editor-author.

We also find that the Christian versions (and Darius’ version would seem to be one of those) make of the Biblical story, a story of religious conversion, but the Jewish versions don’t – so that’s an important cultural marker.

As one modern writer has rightly “there is not a word in the Torah about Aseneth … converting ..”.

The Syriac version we have – the oldest so far known – was taken from a monastery in Egypt during the nineteenth century as is now in the British Library (Oriental Manuscripts department, Add MS 17202) which dates the ‘Asenath’ part to the sixth century and the volume overall to the seventh.

So far, we have nothing remaining from versions that might have existed between the 2ndC BC and the 6thC AD.

Given that Georg Baresch believed the material in Beinecke MS 408 had come from “eastern parts” and contained matter from Egypt – which is why he says he wrote to Kircher in response to the latter’s appeal – so is it possible that Darius’ reading of the first words on f.77r might be reasonable, but it might also reflect a version of the Asenath legend written anywhere from 2ndC BC to the fifteenth century and in a form most like the Greek, the Syriac, the Hebrew.. or any number of others.


What we don’t find in any of those versions I’ve seen – and I’ve not seen them all – is any suggestion of a ‘family tree’ for Asenath.

Darius’ phrasing is a little awkward, but that’s what he seems to think the text says.

“The first words on the right, below the pipe, read: ‘Asenath and the tree of descent generation…’”.

Of course it might be a scholarly dissertation on that question which so engaged the attention of Jewish thinkers for centuries and was still worth an article for the Jerusalem Post in 2017.

On Balance…

How much weight should we give Darius’ interpretation of the drawing, compared with other readings offered for it?

Readers might like to see how many other interpretations they can find before trying to rank them.

I’ve referred to the interpretation offered by Richard Santacoloma in 2010, to that by the present author in 2011-12 and I should mention one made still earlier and published in 2006.

In his book (now out of print), Nick Pelling described the unclothed figures as ‘nymphs’ and so as non-physical and allegorical ‘spirits’ of rivers and waters rather than as naked women.

Of the drawing at the top of f.77r he said in part:

For Antipater, the Nymphs turned the axle of the watermill and so embodied the water’s innately powering spirit. I think the same is true here, that the nymphs embody the flow of the water as it passes through…(etc.).

Nick’s book lacks a Bibliography, so I add a reference in which Antipater (of Thessalonika) figures:

  • Donners, K.; Waelkens, M.; Deckers, J. (2002), ‘Water Mills in the Area of Sagalassos: A Disappearing Ancient Technology’, Anatolian Studies, Vol. 52, vol. 52, pp. 1–17 [JSTOR}

For the Legend of Asenath and Joseph, some easily found and easy-to-read references.

  • David Cook (trans.) ‘Joseph & Aseneth’ H. F. D. Sparks (ed.), The Apocryphal Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 473-503.

4 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #13d – Darius and Asenath Pt 2

  1. A very neat article about the Jewish textual traditions for the legends of Joseph and Asenath/Aseneth:
    Angela Standhartinger, ‘Asenath’ in the Encyclopaedia of Jewish Women (last updated June 23rd., 2021).1

    I’m not quite clear about how Darius’ defines ‘Aramaic’ but his reading the text on f.77r of Beinecke MS 408 as associating honey with baptismal ‘water’ in token of conversion – a detail redolent of Christian influence – leads me to mention Syriac, otherwise known as Syriac Aramaic or Classical Syriac ܠܫܢܐ ܥܬܝܩܐ, An Aramaic dialect, Syriac emerged during the first century AD and various early Christian works are written in it.

    During the 4thC AD, there lived ‘Ephrem the Syrian’, a figure of enormous historical influence in the eastern Christianity, especially where Syriac remained a liturgical language. I admit I find him difficult to warm to, but there is no doubt that Ephrem was both a scholar and a very talented religious poet. Some of his hymns are still sung in the Assyrian church today.

    Apparently he wrote an entire history of Jospeph, too, although I don’t know if any of it survives. Mention is made of it in a thirteenth-century Syriac text called ‘The Book of the Bee‘, whose author says:

    “many have written the history of the blessed Joseph at great length, and the blessed Mâr Ephraim [presumably Ephrem?] has written his history in twelve discourses, concerning everything which happened to him from his childhood to his death”.
    (quoted from the English translation by Wallis Budge (1886) – digitised version at ‘Sacred Texts’ website (here)

    In case any reader’s curiosity is aroused here’s a different link from Omniglot.

    NOTE – As far as I can discover, Darius and his co-author are the first persons ever to have linked Voynichese to Aramaic. That makes their work the precedent to be cited, whether later-come persons’ Aramaic-related theories agree entirely, partly disagree or disagree strongly with the Loreks’ translation. Contrary to what the more ambitious or greedy may tell you, it is NOT ‘copyright’ but the study’s integrity which has first priority. For that reason, though copying “with a twist” may evade the copyright laws, it remains dishonest practice. For any ‘Aramaic’ related theory, acknowledgements are due the Loreks.

    I would hope that most of my readers won’t need to be told that; unfortunately there are people in Voynich studies who need to be told it not once, but constantly, because they seem unable to understand the term ‘credit’ in any but financial terms!


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