O’Donovan Notes #13e
The author’s rights are asserted.
(updates – references added again – 2nd May 2023.)
The effect on Voynich studies of a ‘meme-law’ opposing the usual duty to acknowledge honestly both precedents and sources has become as pervasive as it it is erosive.
Among its other negative effects is the misdirection, misinformation and waste of newcomers’ time and energy; an encouragement of plagiarism and that endless re-invention and re-‘discovery’ of matter already done that Pelling once called the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’.
Ironically, Rich Santacoloma – a researcher of high ethical standards – fell for the notion that “to credit precedents is unnecessary” only to find that refusing such information to newcomers had resulted in a seminal study of his own not being noted and duly credited.
In that case, we were both fortunate in that a person who read both Rich’s work and mine was able to bridge that gap, when it came to precedent studies for a drawing on f.77r.
I’ve already linked to Rich’s post, and reprinted my post in earlier parts of this ‘Darius and Asanath’ series. With those as foundation, let’s hope future writers will be able to build more rather than re-inventing the same matter.
- Rich SantaColoma’s ‘Elements’ post – (2010) re f.77r
- Analytical study – D.N.O’Donovan (2011-2012) re f.77r
- Papers by Darius Lorek (some with Sebastian Lorek) are accessible as pdfs at https://enspace.net.
What results from newcomers’ being denied information about precedent studies, or deliberately misinformed either by omission or mis-attribution is well-illustrated by considering two posts written as recently as 2019 and 2020 by a writer known only as ‘JK’ Petersen. He was attempting to address the same drawing earlier commented on by Pelling (2006), then identified by RichSantacoloma as describing a system of elements (2010), and then provided an analytical study by the present writer – in a longer version in 2011 and a shorter version in 2012. I have re-published the shorter version earlier in this series.
Normally, a newcomer to any study in the critical sciences expects to begin by surveying what has been said before, weighing opinions and evidence adduced, and finally seeing whether they can add something to what has been contributed before.
The prevalence of that Voynich ‘meme-law’ against providing information about precedent studies (especially ones which do not support a preferred theory) meant that ‘JK’ was left to start from the beginning and giveen the false impression that the ‘elements’ thing was some nebulous group-think notion, without any reasoned argument behind it. He was also left supposing that he had been the first person to notice that there were not ‘4’ but ‘5’.
And so, almost a decade after publication of the foundational studies, ‘JK’ is evidently unaware that Santacoloma had interpreted the drawing as an image of the elements, or that a full analytical study had been published the following year. For ‘JK’ it’s not any result of reasoned argument, but a vague, unattributed ‘idea’. The difference, of course, is that one is, and the other isn’t, a research-conclusion relying on verifiable evidence. That is what is lost when precedents are not honestly credited.
So ‘JK’ wrote:
The VMS image at the top of folio 77r is often interpreted as the four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). But there are five pipes, not four. I did find one medieval representation with a fifth component in the center called null, and some conceptions include a fifth “element” as spirit, aether, or void, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose the diagram might represent elements.JKPetersen, ‘Fire and Ice’ , voynichportal (blog), 27
Unaware of Santacoloma’s essay, and left ignorant of the relevance of certain Greek terms, ‘JK’ tried to explain that drawing by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Bk 15) from which, of course, the critical terms are absent.
In following year, ‘JK’ tried again, this time attempting to use the drawing on f.77r to manufacture support for an ‘alchemical Voynich’ theory – one found in d’Imperio’s book but unsupported by any specialist in the history of alchemy or of Europe’s alchemical imagery. Nonetheless, it has become an idée fixe for some Voynich theorists.
Evidently also left in the dark about the reasoned objections against an ‘alchemical Voynich’ theory JK’s post entitled ‘Torre Filosofica’ (6 February 2020) moves away from trying to explain the drawing itself, and towards a more imaginative-persuasive approach. He signals the shift towards imagination with a ‘Maybe…’ :
“I have never been completely convinced that these pipes were meant to be earth, water, air, and fire. Maybe [sic!] they represent various outflows of alchemical heating and condensing processes“…
Whether this is truly a new thought sprung only from his imagination, or not, one cannot be certain – but JK cites no precedent and credits no previous author as having suggested anything of the sort about that drawing on f.77r.
The rest of his ‘Torre…’ post is simply an attempt to persuade the reader to accept the alchemical idea, using various drawings from Latin works which add nothing to our understanding of the drawing itself – not its details or disposition of elements, nor its style of drawing.
‘JK’ once said plainly, when asked, that he felt no obligation to cite any of the sources he used, nor to give due credit to precedents in Voynich studies – so if he was a victim of the ‘blanking’ habit, we must consider him a complicit victim.
Certainly, his readers are very often left without the means to test, check, or follow up things said in his posts. They are constantly presented with such statements as:
“Many alchemical images have been related to the VMS in one way or another over the decades. Not surprisingly, since many alchemical manuscripts are enigmatic and highly symbolic.
Having made it clear enough, I trust, that I’m not keen on theorising and am very keen on maintaining the usual ethical standards in documentation, I’ll also say it is good to sometimes take a break from the real work and muse for a while about what different people have said and thought.
I don’t call this weaving theories but indulging in “what if”s, including “what if I’m mistaken and that other person is right …”.
I have asked “what if the drawing on 77r were about European alchemy?” and laid out, in imagination, a research-plan that might put that possibility to the test.
The first stage would be to consult a few among the reputable Dictionaries of alchemical symbolism. I’d be looking for “wood not formed in any way” provided with 5 labelled protrusions. (see post of April 6th for details),
Then, I think, I’d turn to the scholarly sources – books, journal articles, academic papers and so on – to see what they might have to say about the evolution of alchemical studies and imagery – in the western sphere certainly, but also in the eastern and I’d follow up those writer’s footnotes about illustrated alchemical mss made earlier than 1440 AD.
All the while, of course, keeping in mind that Erwin Panofsky was right, pretty much, when he said that ‘shapely’ unclothed female figures don’t appear in the art of western Christian Europe before the Italian Renaissance – a bit late for the Vms. Panofsky doesn’t seem to have known works of Ambroglio Lorenzetti, though – that ‘humanist’ before humanism, who died in about 1350 AD of plague and whose figure for ‘Security’ was included in the previous post. As far as I can discover it has never been mentioned before by a Voynich writer, but do please correct me on that if you know better.
It was in that same ‘what if…’ mood that I began thinking through possible ramifications of Darius’ explanation for the first line of written text on f.77r.
Let me say here – yet again – that when it comes to Voynichese I am the most adamant agnostic!!
I have no opinion about whether the written text is enciphered or not, nor about what language (if any) might underlie the present written text. I have never found any argument about Voynichese a final word, and experience has shown that unless some impartial external specialist offers an opinion, one is wiser to believe no Voynichero’s […claim about the text’s underlying language]. May 9th – italicised phrase to clarify.
Darius’ remarks about Joseph and Asenath had seemed to me to have no particular relevance to the drawing (reasons given in earlier posts).
On the other hand, musing about it did begin to show ways that there might – just possibly might – be less a direct sort of connection, and that alone was a new and interesting possibility. We are all used to presuming that drawings must be simply illustrations of whatever writing lies near it.
One can imagine less direct links. Say, the elemental ‘wood’ evoking the idea of the ‘family tree’ which Darius says is referenced by that first line of written text.
Another tangential link might be to the 12 tribes ..but here I should backtrack for readers who haven’t read the earlier posts in this series.
Briefly – certain Greek terms proved helpful in understanding how the five elements are shown emerging from what is drawn as ‘wood not shaped in any way’ – to use Isidore’s phrase. To understand the order and relationship in which the drawing presents them, the closest parallel I found was a passage in a fifth-century copy of Mani’s Kephalaia, where he lists 5 ‘elemental’ worlds in order. That order best agreed, in my opinion, with what is seen in the Voynich drawing:
I’m not saying Mani invented his ‘five elements’ system; nor can I say that the fifth-century Coptic copy accurately reproduces the order in his original (3rdC AD) work.
It’s also possible that Mani tweaked some commonly-known system to suit his own theology. So I’m not arguing that the contents of the Voynich manuscript are ‘Manichaean’ in any sense of the word. It may be so but my evidence can’t be said to support an argument of that sort.
What I do say is that if we equate the order of Mani’s 5 ‘elemental’ worlds in that later copy of the Kephalaia with what is present in the drawing, we have the best match that I found from a fairly wide-ranging and theory-free investigation.
So now – a link to Darius’ reading of the Voynichese..
That copy of the Kephalaia is written in Coptic, (a language in which Athenasius Kircher was passionately interested), but the language in which Mani first composed six of his seven known works was Syriac – and Syriac is a language in the family of Aramaic languages.
Darius holds that Voynichese is Biblical Aramaic. I did ask him if he had considered Syriac, and he replied with his reasons for rejecting it. ( April 12, 2023).
Still, it is interesting that the linguistic path taken by Darius, and the path of iconographic analysis which I take, should have brought us both to the early centuries AD, and to languages (verbal and visual) used then in the eastern Mediterranean.
Darius was to provide a longer, if still raw reading of that first line:
“Asenath and the tree of descent generation leafage consents to/accepts to discharge also (from) the Nile law and the bat oath/vow.”
adding notes (asterisks mine)
* The word “leafage” is often used to refer to descendants (see doc “And his leaf shall not wither”). *The second to last word most likely is a “bat” as a synonym for someone who worships an “idol.” This usage can be found in Isaiah 2:20…
Anyone who has done translation work will surely appreciate how the raw word-for-word stage rarely makes much sense; a second stage sees that raw translation rendered in terms more idiomatic.
In fairness to my own readers I must add that I don’t think the passage from Isaiah implies quite what Darius’ suggests.
The verses read:
19 People will flee to caves in the rocks, and to holes in the ground …
20 In that day people will throw away to the moles and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.
It may be that terms such as ‘mole’ or ‘bat’ were used as pejoratives in Isaiah’s world. It seems to me, though, that had Isaiah chosen to say the people fled the sea and desert, rather than to caves and holes in the ground, he would have said they threw their idols to “the fishes and foxes.”
The only way I can reconcile Darius’ raw translation with the drawing is to imagine something like this… the unformed ‘wood’ evokes the family ‘tree’ and then Mani’s linking the ‘5’ elemental worlds to the 12-fold zodiac allows further association of the 12-fold zodiac with the 12 tribes, among whom Ephraim and Manasseh were born of Joseph and Aseneth.
Very, very indirect thinking, but not out of keeping with the tangential thinking that you find in much medieval, and most religious, writing.
Even so, the ‘tribe and zodiac sign’ idea is a dead-end. There has never yet been found early evidence for any particular correlation of tribe-and-constellation. One cannot say even when or by whom such a correspondence was first suggested and as I explained in another comment to Darius (April 20th, 4:55), scholars are still debating the matter.
This matter of Mani, Greek influence, Syriac and Biblical Aramaic returns us yet again in studying of the Voynich drawings, to Egypt.
Our earliest extant copies of Mani’s Kephalaia are in Coptic, and came from there. Our earliest extant copy of the Joseph and Aseneth legend was obtained from an ancient monastery in Egypt, one known as the ‘Syrians’ monastery’, and is written in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Syrian churches and of the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East.
None of this proves Darius’ reading of the Voynichese is correct; it doesn’t prove that any matter now in the Voynich manuscript had come direct from Egypt to wherever-it-was that the quires were inscribed.
What it does show is that my reading of the drawing on folio 77r, and Darius’ reading of the written text are not absolutely inconsistent with each other, and neither is inconsistent with what Georg Baresch said, and what he believed, about the manuscript when he wrote his indignant letter to Kircher in
1635 ( voice transcription fail… should read 1639).
Kircher’ interest in matter gained from Egypt is too well documented to need discussion here.
5 thoughts on “Darius and Asenath (concluded)”
Quote: In following year, ‘JK’ tried again, this time attempting to use the drawing on f.77r to manufacture support for an ‘alchemical Voynich’ theory – one found in d’Imperio’s book but unsupported by any specialist in the history of alchemy or of Europe’s alchemical imagery.
Adam McLean (1998) :”The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one.”
I think the problem with Adam McLean’s analysis is that he relies too much on making a 1:1 comparison with “classical” alchemical symbolism. In my opinion the parallels are more abstract and therefore not so easy to assign. The VMS is (and remains) unique. The imagery in the balneological section is no exception.
Thanks for sharing your views.
In the end, it comes down to reasoned arguments from verifiable evidence.
On that basis, I must agree with Adam – there is not evidence sufficient to support any theory that the Voynich drawings are an expression of the European alchemical tradition.
On the other hand, that persons holding theories about the manuscript as wholly an expression of some regional western European culture have been unable to find much like the Vms under their chosen lamp-post doesn’t necessarily lead us to conclude that the drawings are ‘unique’ but that that the informing theory may need to be re-assessed.
As a supplement, I should perhaps add that I would essentially limit the possibility of an alchemical interpretation in the VMS to Q13. This assumes that the VMS is in principle an anthology.
I’m glad to see you have come to regard the Vms as a collection of matter from earlier sources. The good news is that since that opinion has come gradually to be widely accepted since the early 2010’s – when my saying so met a storm of objection and abuse = you should have no difficulty when saying so. I gather the traditionalists stopped objecting when they found some passing mention of the same possibility somewhere in d’Imperio’s book.
[edit: comment shortened)
erratum: for ‘Athenasius’ read ‘Athanasius’.
Readers may be interested to know that Kircher’s Christian forename ‘Athanasius’ honours a third-century Egyptian Christian (Coptic) scholar-saint and Father of the Church. It’s fun to imagine Kircher’s becoming fascinated with Egypt, its hieroglyphs and with Coptic – as potential key to decipherment – as due to carrying that name. Not an idea worth taking seriously, I think, but certainly fun to imagine that Kircher saw his life as paralleling that of the original Athanasius and hoped to attain a reputation no less august. The first Athanasius had been invited by a bishop to be his secretary and by Sozomenus is described as well educated, versed in grammar and rhetoric, and as having been already, “while still a young man, and before reaching the episcopate, given proof to those who dwelt with him of his wisdom and acumen”.
If the story of Athanasius of Alexandria interests you, the fullest account of both the facts and the various legends, as well as his own writings can be read at