O’Donovan notes #13f. Afterwords and implications – f.77r.

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.3000 words 2nd edition – c. 1500 words

Readers who’ve followed these posts about the ‘Elements’ drawing know that I reprinted that study (here) because one reader asked my reason for turning away from the traditional theory which presumes the Voynich manuscript wholly an expression of western Christian European (‘Latin’) culture.

This post has two parts. Part 1 is about the importance of asking “What led you to think…” and I’d encourage readers to leave Part 2 until they’ve had a few days to mull over the content of Part 1.

“For what reason… ?”

Asking a researcher “For what reason did you first come to think this-or-that” is perfectly sensible, but can a little risky in Voynich studies because the answer may prove as unnerving for the questioner as for person they ask.


f.77r – mixed influences.

Returning to that drawing on f.77r, some readers who know that we do not presume all the matter in the Vms has a single origin or that all the content was first composed when our manuscript was made will have been less surprised than others at learning that the diagram’s informing ‘word’ was Greek – and if the first maker intended the supporting pair to be read as anabibazontes, probably an older rather than later form of Greek.

Into this we brought an eastern 5-element system, and the figure of Mani.

If that seems confusingly pluralistic because you’ve assumed a monoculture, just consider the range of the old Hellenistic empire, and especially that part of it (in southern Mesopotamia) where Mani would ne born so much later.

He was born in Ctesiphon, a town which served as the Parthian capital but which lay opposite the old Seleucid capital called Seleucia-on-Tigris.

When Mani was born, the whole region (colored pink in the following map, below) was under Parthian rule, but was soon to be taken by the Sasanians.

Of the Sasanians we’ve had reason to speak when researching forms of container seen in the ‘leaf and root’ section, and again in relation to the ‘stepped’ mural crown seen in the Voynich calendar – I leave aside here several questions about details drawn in darker ink.

adjacent sites – the Hellenistic capital, Seleucia-on-Tigris and the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, in which Mani was born.

Some historians, but not all, hold that Ctesiphon was the centre from which the Radhanites traded as far west as the Rhône valley and as far east as China. I’d also repeat, here, that the twin cities mark approximately the limiting line for the deadlier type of horned vipers, Cerastes so well memorialised, in the Voynich manuscript, on folio 43v.

(Analysis and commentary for the viper-detail here).

we find the word for the Cerastes in some Latin wordlists, but no accurate drawings of it to my knowledge and the snake is not found in the European continent. The drawing on f.43v is very well informed by knowledge of the snake’s appearance, habitat and habits.

Combined Greek-and-Eastern influence.

The next and obvious question is why anyone resident in late medievaal western Europe would care to copy such material, but even superficial acquaintance with the mindset of that time will understand that while we might speak of a ‘revered antiquity’ they really meant it.

Information which was older was considered better – less attenuated or corrupted by repetition. And the older it was, the better. The Italian ‘Renaissance’ moved the boundaries to include pre-Christian Greek and Roman (‘pagani’), but essentially retained the same attitude.

So on the basis of ‘antique and Greek’ it might be wanted, but when financial interests add to the mix, interest increased exponentially.

Latin presence in Egypt was fairly constant throughout the medieval centuries but for the medieval period, Latins attested in what is now Iran, Iraq or southern India refer almost entirely to Italian city-states and in that part of the world, almost exclusively to people from Genoa and Sicily. The Venetian, Marco Polo is an outlier.

Pecuniary interest and a keen interest in matters maritime. combined with that fixed belief that the older the source the more valuable its information is one reasonable explanation for both the variety of styles we find in the drawings and the overview of its subjects.

follio 13r. Identified by D.N.O’Donovan as the ‘Bananas group’ (Findings 2011). Since then some researchers have insisted and others denied that Edith Sherwood should be cited as precedent. Whatever the case, the identification was offered twice by that year.

About the time that I think that most of the contents now in the Voynich manuscript emerged (or just possibly re-emerged) in western Europe (c.1330AD-1350AD) we have already seen a situation where Egyptian traditions in Christian devotion and in medical learning were highly regarded -as we’ve seen; we have also seen an instance of one tax-list being given to an Italian by an official overseeing import and export duties in Cairo, and the Voynich plant-pictures’ showing plants that were (as Baresch had known in 1639) exotics whose form remained unknown even to contemporary 17thC German botanists. The example of folio 13r reminds us that we should not presume medicinal value and, further, that even while few Europeans knew the appearance of the living plants, products and materials gained from plants growing as far as south-east Asia were traded even as far as western Europe during the medieval centuries: initially via such entrepots as Cairo and Damascus then through Laiazzo and – after c.1290 through the Black Sea . On the trade in eastern plant-products I cite Riddle’s seminal study once more, though a great deal more has been done on the topic since the 1960s.

*John M. Riddle, ‘The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198. Matter in that paper most recently quoted in my Voynich posts September 4th., 2021.

The Voynich manuscript’s drawings offer so many evidences of non-Latin origin for – the very least – some of the pictorial content, that one regrets the way proponents of one or another theory have tended to ignore or deny all matter unsupportive of a given theoretical narrative.

Avoidance can approach such determined rejection that it seems akin to a sort of fear-based or allergic reaction. This fear of the East is a constant within d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, and its continuation and increasing strength was noted in 2002 by Jorge Stolfi, when he wrote:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi, Sun, 3 Mar 2002 (read the conversation).

It would be easy for an ingenious mind to invent some story having the material first come to England or Paris, there be taken up by Roger Bacon, and so ultimately carried to Prague by some messenger – all to add color to that scrap of rumor Marci declined to endorse – but I see no reason qhy we should do so.


I’d feel uncomfortable if I failed to let readers know that, though I have no evidence for it, had the drawing been uncoloured, I would have been inclined to identify the motif on the left with ‘smoke’ and the right-hand detail (below) with water. I should have thought so not only by their relative proximity to one Supporter and the other, but because that on the left is given flame-like termini while the other resembles more nearly the motif used below the right-hand Supporter. But, as I say, I can offer no historical-textual evidence for it.

A correspondent’s comments.

Marnee Klein has emailed to say:

Why don’t you answer criticisms of your own opinions?” – simple answer is that as far as I can recall I’ve only ever seen two criticisms or corrections from Voynicheros which were about my research. Otherwise, remarks made to my face have been personal attacks – ad.hominem comments.

(May 9th. ) re-reading that paragraph, I see I wasn’t quite fair. Since 2009, there have been times when some query or post-comment from me received a civil response that focused on the manuscript and its study. The names that come first to mind are Rich SantaColoma, Don of Tallahassee, Philip Neal, Julian Bunn and Koen Gheuens, the second-to-fourth in particular

There are exotic plants and animals in Italian herbals, so the snake proves nothing. Marnee, I wonder if you’re thinking of Brit.Lib. Sloane MS 4016?

It includes the picture of an Arabian camel, and images for a number of serpent-types. One might even be argued (though not too successfully) to be a horned serpent. But all those snakes are drawn in a way not exactly formal, but formalised to suit the aesthetic taste of a mid-fifteenth century patron. Compare its striving for a literal but superficial ‘likeness’ for the camel with the Vms’ half-stylized but information-rich image of the Cerastes, which embodies what must be first-hand knowledge – from that drawing you learn the Cerastes’ habit of curling into a depression in the sand; that it seems no different from the colour of the sand; that all you’ll see (until it strikes) is one eye, its horns and its long ‘nose’ – and of course the fact that it doesn’t lie in a straight line.

The sort of person who needs that level of information is someone travelling roads where one or other type of Cerastes occurs because it would strike the rider’s mount and in desert areas, to lose your mount could mean death.

The Vms drawing is information-dense and nothing like the neat, pleasingly-arranged snakes in Sloane 4016 whose date, in any case, is quite late in terms of the Vms vellum – 1440 AD.

Thankyou, Marnee for taking time to write to ask those questions, and for giving me permission to include your name here.

For fun, from the Sloane herbal, here’s how the artist imagined a wall (in Cairo) built to guard plants of the rare Arabian balsam.

2 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #13f. Afterwords and implications – f.77r.

  1. My reference to Cerastes’ lying in the path or road might seem a bit obscure, so here’s that part of the analytical post again (from voynichrevisionist (blog), Feb. 13th., 2022).

    ..any description of Cerastes will repeat:

    The horned viper hunts by hiding under the sand (leaving only its horns, eyes and nose exposed) and striking at what comes close.

    Pinney’s account is more detailed, and his book – though not without its flaws – remains a valuable ancillary reference. On this point, he writes:

    .. older works have it classified as Cerastes hasselquistii, a desert species with a very toxic venom. It is relatively small .. and as pale and sandy as the desert it thrives in..They hide in the sand, in depressions such as those made by the hoofs of camels and horses, and if a man or some animal steps into such a hollow it strikes without provocation, and its venom can kill within half an hour, making it as deadly as a cobra.”

    Roy Pinney, The Animals of the Bible: the natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible with a collection of photographs of living species taken in the Holy Land by the author. pp.174-5. First edition 1964.
    for those wanting Pinney’s biblical references to this type of snake, he cites Genesis 49:17, Job 20:16 and, in works of Christian origin, Acts 28:3.


  2. About Pinney’s reference to Acts 28:3 –

    that passage is problematic because there is no evidence that Malta ever had a population of venomous snakes. An article on the question appeared in the Times of Malta ( 19 February 2014) discussing the pros and cons of various legends and hypotheses to explain the reference in Acts, before concluding that

    ” In fact the most dangerous true viper species in Europe does still live on the island of Melita. It is however not modern Malta, but an island in the Adriatic Sea, today known as Meleda or Mljet.

    Furthermore, until recently [that] island was so heavily infested with the notorious horned viper Vipera ammodytes that a predatory mongoose was introduced on the island in 1910 to control the snake population.”

    Stephen Mifsud, ‘Which viper bit St. Paul in Malta?‘, Malta Times, 19th Feb. 2014

    In the case of V. ammodytes, the description as “horned viper” refers to a ‘horn’ on its nose. There are none on the head.

    Nor, though commonly called a ‘sand viper’ are sandy places its normal habitat. As the wiki article says, V. ammodytes primarily inhabits dry, sparsely vegetated, rocky hillsides.
    It’s not the snake on f.43v.


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