As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.
However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.
Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.
I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible
The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.
As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.
Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested. It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)
The miracle of life preserved within death.
The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.
Even today, in Afrikaans, plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch. Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.
Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.
A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.
For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language; Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac, former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.
From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.
That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct. Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are ‘like rue’.
Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis, brought as replacement from Arabia.
(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).
C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.
Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below. In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives. Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.
From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.
More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.
This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.
It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.
What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.
However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’. Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.
As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.
It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.
It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself. One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs. How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.
(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).
In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.
In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed. In this, I may be in a minority, but it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’. However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.
Back to the Balsam.
Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries, ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.
I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.
Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree. The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed. Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.
Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).
Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.
The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct** due to over-working and a flood.
The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.
So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi. What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.
C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.
** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.
I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.
O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.
All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.
Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.
Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice: ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..
Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.
A certain uniformity in several emails and in comments I’ve not given the ok suggests some crowd-mood (twitter?). So I’m adding a bit about bestiaries, or more exactly, versions of the Physiologus.
The gist of all those recent comments went along the lines …
You should look at this image/these images.
It’s/they are from French/German/Spanish/Italian/Scottish/New World manuscript/s, so stop complicating things. Simple logic should tell you the Voynich is French/German/Spanish/Italian .. etc
It’s always good to know where manuscript was manufactured.
It says very little about a manuscript’s content, meaning, sources or, ultimately, any ‘national character’ for text or image.
That won’t be news to medieval historians today, I trust, nor that we don’t imagine a place of manufacture means any manuscript’s content must express any local indigenous ‘nationality’ defined as ‘no external influence’ – but such assumptions pervaded the earlier Voynich writings in a time of heightened nationalistic feeling and social Darwinist theories. The attitudes have persisted in Voynich studies to the extent that many Voynich writers still imagine the aim of Voynich research is to claim for all elements of the manuscript a single local national-cultural identity defined overtly or implicitly by its exclusions.
It troubles me that, in pursuit of that aim, and for want of better knowledge, theorists taking that line have resorted increasingly over the past decade to asserting that by simply amassing more pictures of munching goats, or four-footed Scorpios than anyone else, their theory must triumph and everything in the Voynich manuscript be deemed exclusively French, imperial-German-ish, Spanish, Italian, New World or.. whatever.
The superficial use of images, especially, makes a travesty of art- and textual history and of iconographic analysis, making such mis-use something I am inclined to resent.
Medieval history, and iconographic analysis have both come a long way since the nineteenth century and contrary to popular belief, pictures deserve serious and detailed investigation.
This post isn’t for people who know better; it’s for Voynicheros over-exposed to old and unfortunate habits, who have gained an idea that the aim of Voynich research is to stick a ‘made in…’ label on Beinecke MS 408.
Below are two among the many images sent to me recently after I’d posted about the Roman ‘Hell hound’. The first was asserted ‘French’ by the correspondent – it is actually from a manuscript made in Cambrai. Cambrai did not become part of France until 1678.
The second was asserted ‘German’ though made in Admont, in a Benedictine monastery which was, or soon became, a Cluniac abbey. Admont was not then in Germany, but in Austria.
It was easy enough to find the sources from which those images came, I’ve added their details. Since both those crocodile-hound-demon images come (of course) from what is usually called a Bestiary, not from anything like the Voynich ‘calendar’ fold-in, I’ve made this post about bestiaries and the Physiologus because it offers yet another example of transmission into Latin Europe of matter originally formed in the eastern Mediterranean, and probably in Egypt, around the 1st-2ndC AD, but in this case arriving in the form of texts already Christian and dating from the 3rd and/or the 4thC AD.
But first, a checklist of features which any claimed ‘match’ for the November emblem must account for, either within a preferred image, or by analytical commentary upon it.
Associated with November only.
Tail ‘looped’ or ‘lashing’.
associated with a human head or skull
Skull given hat of outdoor/non-courtly type.
head with elongated and flattened snout – as were the heads of both hound and crocodile in art of the older eastern Mediterranean and specifically in Egypt.
Neither of those claimed ‘matches’ from bestiaries scores well. Neither writer supplemented their image with informed commentary on it – which might have made up the difference. Bestiaries were not texts designed to teach astronomy or astrology or even natural history.
That aside – in what sense are those images French or German given that one comes from a manuscript made in thirteenth-century Cambrai and the other from an abbey in fourteenth-century Austria?
We call it ‘Latin Europe’ because western Europe was united, until after 1440, by a common religion and a common language for its education, diplomacy and liturgy. In the same way, the Byzantine sphere was united by Greek language and by Greek Orthodoxy, and the world of Islam too by religion and by use of Arabic.
That meant you could travel anywhere within each of those linguistic-religious zones, attend worship and learn from scholars without being immediately made to feel an outsider.
At the same time, Europe consisted of a patchwork of shifting territorial and linguistic spaces, while the ordinary person’s horizon was so narrow that anyone living outside their own village was a ‘foreigner’.
So you have medieval western Europe simultaneously unified by a language and a single religious culture – Catholicity – and at the same time so fragmented that the idea of a national identity simply didn’t exist as we would think of it today. A person belonged to the place they were born, and was defined by the vernacular tongue which they spoke in the market-place and in everyday life. Your ‘nation’ was that language.
For those living on the mainland, ‘national’ allegiance, as duty to a given king, was also fluid.
Your town’s land-lord might now be the pope and your taxes go to Rome; the next year the town might have been taken by the king who lived in Paris, and your taxes now went to him; five years later, the city might be sold, inherited, gifted or taken in war by the king of Catalonia, and that’s now where your taxes went and he was now your king-landowner.
England’s physical separation from the mainland (the ‘continent’) made it something of an exception but it was still true that ‘England’ was whatever land was possessed at a given time by the English king, and similarly for France and the various smaller states nominally ‘owned’ by a western emperor. The land-lord might forbid a person to travel, and a cleric be forbidden by bishop, abbot or Rule, but there was no general prohibition. If you had the means, you could travel.
There were networks which connected across territorial boundaries in other ways. I’ve already shown how those of Francesco Datini stretched from the Red Sea to the Black Sea and to England, while he (a man of Prato) lived for 30 years in papal Avignon. He wasn’t “an expatriate” he was just living in a different part of the same region – Latin Europe.
Again, when Michael Scot went to Toledo to study, he shared the language of Latin with other scholars there, and similarly when we was in French territory or when he went to serve the king of Sicily, who then held the post of ‘Emperor’. No no-one would have dreamed of describing Scot’s time in Sicily as service to a ‘foreign government’, or imagined that his being an ordained Catholic priest was evidence of disloyalty to England or to Sicily. Whether his book had been manufactured first in England, in Spain, in Italy or in Sicily such attribution can only be of the book-as-object; if the person charged with adding illustrations came from the same place or another one, we might describe the style of drawing as English, Spanish, Italian or Sicilian, but such terms, used by libraries and art historians, are geographic referents and not claims about the manuscripts being the expression of an exclusively-defined, blood-and-soil sort of ‘national character’.
A vital element in exploring the textual and iconographic lineage of a given manuscript are the monastic networks. Take the Cluniac abbeys for example. Here’s a partial map showing how all Cluniac abbeys were connected to what is called the ‘mother-house’ of Cluny.
The Benedictine Rule and Cluniac Reforms are essential reading in medieval history, including the history of medieval art.
If a Benedictine abbey adopted the Cluniac reforms, certain important changes occurred which impact on the history of manuscript production and illustration.
Benedictine monks were noted for their book-copying, but when the reforms of Cluny came into effect, the reforms saw Cluniacs largely enclosed, and silent monks, and the Benedictine emphasis on learning and book-production gave way to an emphasis on religious observance and ritual. As a result, Cluniac libraries are typically small, although Cluny itself amassed a very large collection of manuscripts. Since every Cluniac monastery was independent of secular control – owing allegiance only to the head of the western church and to its mother-monastery in Cluny – so any gifts from those sources would see greater artistic influence from France and from Italy than from another nearby Austrian monastery, if the latter was under a different monastic rule.
Pilgrimage and War
People went to war for gain. Some for spiritual gain, some for spoils and many for both reasons.
People went on pilgrimage as a kind of group-tour and like those who went with swords, they too might bring back something they considered valuable – a holy relic or fabric, even a copy of some saint’s life – ornamented in foreign style. Knights weren’t noted for their interest in scholarship, but it was perfectly possible to bring back some book on a subject in which the knight and his fellows were interested – astronomy, astrology or medicine. His cousin might be a monastic and glad to have the book to copy and to illuminate in something like the ‘holy land’ style.
That’s a hypothetical example of how images and/or texts might pass from east to west. The ‘Bestiaries’ are a much more concrete example.
“What about the Bestiaries – duh?”
That’s how one of the recent correspondents ended their email. 😀
And it sounds ‘logical and commonsense’ so long as you don’t know much about ‘the bestiary’.
That field of research is sufficiently complex and fraught, even among specialists in that one area of manuscript studies and medieval studies, that most of us tend to stand aside and let the specialists debate. It’s a subject where the calm and measured tone of scholarly discourse develops a certain sharpness.
The first problem is that English scholars have tended to treat their Bestiaries as a collection of interesting pictures, where every other stream of study treats the work primarily as the study of its written texts. That is – texts, plural.
What is well and widely known is that moralising animals is an eastern custom and that the text that first influenced the Christian world, was the use of moralised animal types in a work called the ‘Medicine chest’ or Panarion, written in Greek by a Christian polemicist and based on another – the Physiologus – which is thought by most to have been composed somewhat earlier in Alexandria.
Here’s Mermier’s neat summary, lightly edited.
We do not know where the Physiologus was composed; however it seems probable that it was begun in Alexandria during the second (or the the third) century AD. … Hommel gives some reasons for locating the Physiologus in Alexandria: these include the mention of the “landkrodil” the “Ichneumon,” and the “Ibis,” the mention the description of the Onager … and the mention of birds, beasts, … What is the Greek Physiologus? Basically … the description of beasts [real as well as] fantastic, used to illustrate points of Christian doctrine.
Guy R. Mermier, ‘The Romanian Bestiary: An English Translation and Commentary on the Ancient Physiologus Tradition’, Mediterranean Studies , Vol. 13 (2004), pp. 17-55.
One has to refine that description a little. because using moralised beasts to add colour to Christian preaching and teaching really only took off after a book known as the Panarion put them to that use. If your eyes glaze over at the sight of non-Latin names, I might say that Epiphianus adds a great deal more insight to the ‘November’ page of the Chronography of 354 – as we’ll see later.
This is from a wiki article:
Epiphanius used [the] Physiologus in his Panarion and from his time numerous further quotations and references to the Physiologus in the Greek and the Latin Church fathers show that it was one of the most generally known works of Christian Late Antiquity. Various translations and revisions were current in the Middle Ages.The earliest translation into Latin was followed by various recensions, among them the Sayings of St. John Chrysostom on the natures of beasts.
Precisely because the Physiologus as we know it of it developed as (a) a specifically Christian moralisation (b) probably originated in Alexandria and (c) came relatively late into the Latin west that I’ve deliberately begun my tracking elements in the Voynich ‘November’ emblem from the 1st-2ndC AD and, while still focusing on Alexandria, demonstrated a differentand earlier line of east-west transmission to illustrate the reality of east-to-west transmission of both images and the knowledge informing images found in medieval western works.
Readers might like to know that copies of the Physiologus are very widely distributed, though not everywhere illustrated. To provide a balance for the sometimes myopic focus on Latin Europe, the Physiologus conference held last year in Paris, didn’t include discussion of the western bestiaries. This is from the Conference website:
The Physiologus was translated from Greek into Latin (twice), Ethiopian, Armenian (from Armenian into Georgian), Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Old Slavonic (and from it into Old Russian), [it] was widely spread throughout the Christian world. Western Bestiaries derive from the Latin version, but they were not discussed in the conference.
And if we turn to the Latin versions, this might give you some idea of how complex the issues are. This comes from a paper by a modern scholar. Do take time to absorb it.
The earliest surviving manuscripts of all the Latin Physiologus translations (ia-ic) and of at least two of the pre-twelfth-century Latin bestiaries come from what is now France, or else from just over its borders in other Romance-speaking areas: France/Catalonia (2b) and France/north Italy (2c). All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire. Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east, but both the Aviarium (3b) and H bestiary (4c) are continental compositions. Even though it deals exclusively with birds, the Aviarium’s inscribed quest for a bestiary partner seems to have exerted a pull on manuscript production across the whole of Europe; it is copied with several English second-family bestiaries as well as, on the Continent, with B-Isidore, Dicta Chrysostomi, and the H bestiary. Conversely, the English redactions grouped as Transitional and second-family give rise to continental copies, and the H-type of B-Isidore seems to have influenced the composition of H.
Sarah Kay, ‘The English Bestiary’, the Continental ‘Physiologus’, and the Intersections Between Them’, Medium Ævum , 2016, Vol. 85, No. 1 (2016), pp. 118-142
England’s being an island gives a little more validity to the idea of a bestiary image having a ‘national’ character, and that’s so for imagery in some English manuscripts, but the important point is that the reason for the Latin translations was to aid religious teaching.
Epiphianus and Chrysostom are two of the important figures. Neither was native to western Europe. They were eastern and Greek-speaking Christians. Epiphianus himself explained why he wrote his ‘Medicine Chest’.
I am drafting this Preface … to explain the “Panarion”, or chest of remedies for the victims of wild beasts’ bites. It is a work in three Volumes and contains eighty Sects, which answer symbolically to wild animals or snakes.
Frank Williams, (trans.), The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I (Sects 1-46) Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Brill, 2009) Introduction, p.xx.
And here’s part of his long diatribe about one of those religions which he calls heretical ‘sects’.
5,6 For they [the Orphites] have a real snake and keep it in a basket of some sort. When it is time for their mysteries they bring it out of the den, spread loaves around on a table, and call the snake to come; and when the den is opened it comes out. And then the snake—which comes up of its own accord and by its villainy—already knowing their foolishness, crawls onto the table and coils up on the loaves. And this they call a perfect sacrifice. [5,7] And so, as I have heard from someone, not only do they break the loaves the snake has coiled on and distribute them to the communicants, but each one kisses the snake on the mouth…
[Makes the snake’s pose rather less threatening, don’t you think?]
As for Epiphianus..
EPIPHIANUS – Born … Palestine, between 310 and 320 (but according to Bartolocci, in 288); died at sea in 403. Epiphanius is supposed to have been born of Jewish parents and to have embraced Christianity in his sixteenth year. …. After passing four years in Egypt in a monastery, Epiphanius returned to his native village, founding there a monastery … became abbot. In 367 .. elected Bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus … attaining celebrity on account of his opposition to Origen.. Epiphanius was a teacher and friend of Jerome. Suspecting Chrysostom of favoring the followers of Origen, he went to Constantinople to denounce the .. bishop, and died on his way back to Constantia.
Of especial interest to Jews, owing to the information it contains on Jewish, Gnostic, and Judoæo-Christian views, is hisΠανάριον, [Panarion] an account, written in 374-376, of eighty heretical sects.
The moralised ‘beasts’ were vivid figures – verbal or visual – intended to assist preaching and polemic. Epiphianus’ remedies were, need I add, religious and not physical.
In connection with the Old Icelandic Physiologus, Marchand has a made a point which Voynicheros should take seriously, and says it much more nicely than I expect I would. First he explains why the text’s sections should be differently described – so bear with that part:
We know, with Saxo Grammaticus, that the Icelanders in the Middle Ages “account it a delight to learn and to consign to remembrance the history of all nations, deeming it as great a glory to set forth the excellences of others as to display their own.” and to the lore of Christianity they gave particular attention. … I would propose replacing the division presently used by the following, based also on the types of text: 1. Physiologus-A, [consisting of] five allegorical interpretations of animals; 2. Physiologus-B, [consisting of] fifteen treatments of animals and their allegorical significance, the Physiologus proper; 3. four treatments of animals in the Bible; 4. a spiritual interpretation of the rainbow. The first two of these [sections] have received exhaustive treatment, but the last three have scarcely been touched upon in the literature on the Old Icelandic Physiologus. The reason for this neglect is, of course, simple lack of interest, but it is also because we medievalists in general neglected patristic exegesis in our preparation and scholarship, so that we are just not prepared to deal with such matters.
James W. Marchand, ‘Two Notes on the Old Icelandic Physiologus Manuscript, MLN , Vol. 91, No. 3, German Issue (Apr., 1976), pp. 501-505.
And that’s also true for many contemporary historians of medieval art and cultures.
The whole history and culture of western Europe until and after 1440 was informed and united by a religious culture; from proverbs to popular songs, inn-signs to coats of arms, misericords and portraits of kings. If you are averse to studying the texts and beliefs of medieval Latin Europe, you simply are not equipped to read its images accurately – that is, as they were intended and were understood when and for whom they they were made.
Whether or not, the moralised ‘beast’ of the Voynich November emblem took its form from some version of the Physiologus, Its head is drawn with a long, flattened snout as Egyptians drew the head of a crocodile and of hunting hound, of Ammit and of Anubis.
As we’ve seen, Epiphianus lived in Egypt for some time.
The image which my correspondent called ‘German’ comes from a section of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek CLM 6908 described in the holding library’s catalogue as not from the ‘animal description’ section but from “the Dicta Chrysostomi version of the Physiologus’ [text]“.
Important for the Latin versions, John Chrysostom had spent most of his life in Antioch – another eastern Greek Christian.
JOHN CHRYOSTOMOS. Born and received a classical education in Antioch… met bishop Meletius. Withdrew into a more ascetic life… In 397 AD , unilaterally chosen by the emperor in Constantinople to become head over the Greek orthodox Church in Constantinople… soon alienated an increasing proportion of the court and populace, despite an initial favour from those attending his sermons and homilies. Finally, condemned and communicating with Rome from his place of exile, he sought – and gained – support from the western (Latin) church, but to little effect apart from widening the breach between the religious of Rome and those of Constantinople. Chrysostom died in exile in 407 AD.
So, once again we begin from the Greek-speaking east of the earlier centuries AD and the line of transmission becomes Egypt.. [Alexandria?]… with texts transmitted via the Byzantine world into the Latin west ..
An eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript (not a copy of the Physiologus) is now in the British library. One marginal image suggests that confusion of the forms for representing scorpion and crocodile occurs there so early, and before the Physiologus’ first Latin translation in which such a confusion occurs.* Here (below), the Greek inscription tells us it’s a scorpion, though most readers now would read the image as a curious effort to draw a crocodile.
*so far as I’m aware. Also, my gratitude to Joann Huinker, for noticing omission of the phrase: ‘in which such a confusion occurs.’ It is not known when the Physiologus was first translated into Latin; it is another of the topic on which specialists differ, and I’ve no intention of guessing which of the confidently-stated dates is ultimately correct. We may say it was known in a Latin version for several centuries before Charlemagne.
No-one knows how or when that particular Byzantine manuscript came to England though a case has been made for its belonging to, or with, one still the monastery of Mt. Athos.* I’d suggest the equation is ultimately a result of forms given protective amulets invoking Selqet,** whose scorpion was not rarely made deficient and is replaced by a sundisk in the figurine now in the Louvre (right).
*Jeffrey C. Anderson, ‘The Palimpsest Psalter, Pantokrator Cod. 61: Its Content and Relationship to the Bristol Psalter’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers , 1994, Vol. 48 (1994), pp. 199-220.
**also: Serqet, Selket, Serket, or Selcis. The Louvre uses Selkis.
Physiologus in 14thC Austria – (“Fürstenfelder Physiologus”.
Known as the “Fürstenfelder Physiologus”, BSB CLM 6908 might as validly be described as The Admont Physiologus, or Abbot Englebert’s Physiologus.
It is believed written and possibly illustrated by the monk named Englebert. (b. 1250 – 12 May 1331).
In what sense was he ‘a German’?
Born in Austria, in Admont, he gained his earlier education there and his higher education in Prague and in Padua, before spending time in Salzburg and then becoming appointed Abbot in Admont. Englebert opposed the imperial Ghibelline claims, though wrote a poem on the occasion of Rudolf I’s coronation. He appears to have been influenced also by the thought of Duns Scotus, an influential teacher who had been born in Scotland and lived most of is life in England. It is said that the Abbey of Admont, previously Benedictine, became a Cluniac under the next Abbot, Giselbert, after Englebert retired in 1327. Adopting the Cluniac reforms could be predicted to lessen Admont’s earlier emphasis on scholarship and manuscript production, as we’ve said.
So was Englebert working from his memorised texts – and had they been learned in Admont, in Prague, in Padua, or Salzburg? Was he working from an exemplar, and if so, from where had that come. As Kay says,
All three pre-twelfth-century texts – Dicta Chrysostomi, B-Isidore, and Theobaldus — are also thought to have arisen in France (2a and 2b; 2c with less certainty). They were then diffused to the east and west [of Latin Europe], the preponderance of B-Isidore copies being made in northern France and England, the majority of those of Dicta Chrysostomi and Theobaldus in France or the Empire.Most of the major developments of the twelfth century took place in England, whence they spread east [-wards within Latin Europe],
And how like the Voynich image is Englebert’s crodile .. not enough for anyone to claim them self-evident ‘matches’. One must also ask if Adelbert Admont’s Englebert , a deeply scholarly fourteenth-century Benedictine monk, would have copied a diagram filled with unclothed female figures at all? And in precisely what sense is even the manufacture of BSB CLM 6908, let alone its text or its images fairly described as ‘German’?
Having set our chronological limits as c.2ndC AD- 1230 AD and a northern geographic limit at the line of the via Francigena (though including, by sea, the Adriatic),* we’re not seeking a similar form for Scorpius as constellation, so much as a lineage for its character – perceived nature – as expressed in the ‘November’ emblem in Beinecke MS 408. We take this course because there is no known representation of Scorpius, whether as a constellation or as sign, in such a form in any western manuscript, just as no equivalent series for the Voynich calendar’s has yet been found.
*Our reasons for doing so were explained in earlier parts of this series.
By default, considering the quality of fifteenth-century images of Scorpius in western manuscripts, we assume that any figure first created there between 1405-1438 would attempt to depict the scorpion literally and superficially, while what we have is a figure ‘moralised’, emphasising its inner character. (see previous post). The exception, in fifteenth-century Europe, would be if the exemplar was one sufficiently old, or sufficiently foreign, or of such perceived importance that its images were copied closely rather than ‘improved’ as was usually done.
How much older and whence it might have come do matter, because those things may shed light on where, and when, our manuscript’s written text was first given its form.
We’ve recognised a consistent character for representing Scorpius as ‘beast’: that of the deadly and ‘devilish’ marauder, or to use a phrase attached to Antares in the later version of the Toledan tables: ‘tendit ad rapinam‘.
Now, I hope, understanding that moralisation, the form which was given Scorpius-as-beast in 12thC Vézelay will no longer seems so bizarre, even if it’s not quite the form we’re seeking.
Throughout what follows, the key is the line of transmission: from eastern origins into the west. This will become another constant for moralised, non-literal, forms expressing Scorpion-character, in western medieval works.
Egypt and Rome 1st-2nd C
When the ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written as a school ‘crib’, Egypt lay under Roman rule, with the small and still detested* Christian communities living alongside traditional Egyptian cults, Hellenistic cults, Roman cults, synthesised Roman-Egyptian and Roman-Greek forms, and from the 3rdC AD, also with Manichaean communities.
*detested by imperial Rome.
But while attempting to eradicate that annoying Christian cult, Rome was busily accumulating riches, both material and intellectual, from conquered eastern peoples. Interest in Egypt, and in Egyptian cults, was high.
Some Roman emperors continued the Ptolemies’ support of jackal god cults, even representing Herm[es]-anubis..
And while that is certainly true to some extent, the Roman-era figure from Kom el-Shoqafa (shown at right) does not (pace Venit et al.)show Egypt’s loyal and kindly guide of souls, Anubis, It is a form for that other – the one who pierces on the one side and strikes with the other.
The Romans in Egypt were not always well-informed and since the spirits of their own dead simply lived ‘underground’ the whole matter of Anubis-or-Ammit* apparently passed them by.
*On the vital figure called Ammit, see Part 3.
Whether the Romans realised that the Kom el-Shoqafa figure is no ‘Anubis’ is another question, but one which need not detain us.
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, coins minted for Alexandria show a better understanding, though still when the ‘Chronography of 354’ was made (or so it would appear), the Romans still associated Anubis, rather than Ammit, with their rite opening the Gate(s) of Hell,
Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Egyptologist from whom Athanasius Kircher would gain much, was among those who copied a late copy of the Chronography,
For us, now, opposition between Anubis and the Scorpio character can be reduced to a simple ‘good guide on the upward road’- Anubis; versus ‘bad’ down-dragging Scorpius.
Scorpius = South.
In a general, less loaded sense, Scorpius has been associated with South and this was evidently common knowledge by the 4thC AD, when the Babylonian Talmud is generally believed completed. Because the connection is recorded there, it can be considered common knowledge among Rabbinical Jews everywhere during the centuries to follow.
The Rabbis taught: “If one comes to make a town square, he must make it as the square of the earth, i.e., the north must be towards the north of the earth, the south towards the south, and his signs shall be: the zodiac of the capricorn in the north and that of the scorpion in the south. “Michael L. Rodkinson (trans.), The Babylonian Talmud ( Vols. 1-10), 1918 p.130.
The Scorpion in early Christian writings.
In Christian tradition, South was the direction of Hell. Egyptian influence and ideas affected Late Roman thought, but Egyptian influence in early Christianity was more, and more direct. It came not only through formal text and preaching but, as it were, ‘from the ground up’; after several thousand years, Egyptian beliefs had permeated and informed popular culture in much of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed its formal religion had developed from them. Many of those ideas were to be consciously re-cast and re-explained in Christian terms, while other became part of ‘unofficial’ lore in Christian thought and art. In some cases, too, early Christian thinkers actively attempted to fuse older Greek, Egyptian and Roman ideas, from a conviction that all pre-Christian knowledge had been a well-intentioned but necessarily dim apprehension of truth, to be understood in other terms once the perfection of understanding came to human kind – as they thought – after Christ’s teaching. One then finds Orion sanctified as great angel’ and as Christopher; a holy female dog (probably symbolic of Isis-Sirius) re-defined as a female St. Guinefort and honoured as far as Gaul, and re-interpreted later by Renaissance Italians to become a male and martial figure… and so on.
But about the scorpion itself, no-one had anything positive to say.
Writings of the early Christian Fathers, still read and respected today, have the scorpion a type for those who mislead the Christian, imperiling their souls. Sometimes the figure is used neatly, as when the scorpion’s sting is likened to the heretic’s pen; sometimes less felicitously as when one writer urges his listeners to regard the truth as an egg, falsehood as a scorpion, and to behave like hens.
But ‘scorpion’ meant ‘bad’. It meant South. It meant ‘trespass’ and ‘transgression’, losing the ‘right Way’. These ideas could be embodied in forms other than the ordinary scorpion’s – in the form of dog, or a demon, or as some other creature which lurked and snatched, carrying the body or the soul downwards. And to this day, In English, ‘going west’ and ‘going south’ are euphemisms for death, loss and destruction.
By some – principally those deriving from the Babylonian tradition – the stars were regarded as evil. By others, the stars were worshipped. Those influenced chiefly by Egyptian tradition regarded the stars as living creatures, at this time often termed ‘angels’ or messengers by Greek speakers, with ‘northern’ increasingly identified with the good. The question of whether the stars were alive, or ensouled, was still an active one, pondered by Christian Origen, early in the 3rdC. (Origen 185AD-c.253 AD)
Almost three hundred years later, Alexandria was still one of the three most important Christian centres, along with Antioch and Rome. Having earlier travelled, himself, to collect books in Egypt, Gregory the Great found himself elected much against his will head of the western Church. As western pope he wrote to the pope of Egypt (= Coptic patriarch) saying:
[Peter] himself exalted the See [of Rome] in which he deigned even to rest and end the present life. He himself adorned the See [of Alexandria] to which he sent his disciple [Mark] as evangelist. He himself established the See [of Antioch] in which, though he was to leave it, he sat for seven years.
from the letter of Pope Gregory in Rome to Eulogios, Patriarch (=Pope) in Alexandria, Feb. 13th, 590 AD.
Greek, Roman and Egyptian traditions thus informed the development of early Christian culture, even while most of the Christian bible consisted of Jewish historical, prophetic and religious writings.
Within Europe itself, however, the Roman eradication of older cultures had been thorough, and after the fall of Rome and subsequent upheavals, Christianity itself would create medieval western Europe’s intellectual and social structures, with Latin as its lingua franca and the Roman imperial era as its formal foundation. Roman atrocities were forgotten; Roman baths and laws remembered. Officially.
But the peoples subjected to Roman invasion and occupation in the west, had not entirely forgotten the Romans’ living counterpart for Ammit – gigantic ‘hell-hounds’ which, in their hundreds, were used as advance shock-troops, ‘openers of the way’ in another and horrific sense.
The great black dogs were famous as Roman war dogs; trained for a specific purpose on the battlefield their savage temperament and imposing looks increased the horrors and terrors of war. They were armoured and were trained to charge while carrying buckets of burning oil like paniers on each side. At night they served as guards around a Roman encampment.
from a commercial website
And they really did devour ‘human souls’ – fed on human flesh not always dead before it was delivered.
Those hounds’ training and uses are detailed in THIS four-minute video, very well researched, and enthusiastically pro-Roman. Check you get its first 40 seconds.
Here again, the 2nd C figurine included at the end of the previous post, one among a number recovered in south-western England late the seventeenth century, (the original figurine is now lost).
When that figurine was found, English antiquarians were not looking for evidence of Roman barbarity, nor of influence of Egypt in later Rorme. They were seeking evidence of imperial Roman and Viking-Norse influence, and so they called such figures ‘wolf-gods’,
For convenience, that tag is maintained by modern archaeology, though no-one who has seen a wolf can be unaware that wolves have a plumed tail, not one with a lion-like tuft or as a whippet’s – and no-one made armour for wolves!
Those elements are clearly seen in other examples for the type , as Durham has shown, and one from Wales makes the connection clear between such hounds and the Christians’ southern Hell. Note here the ‘blood-thirsty‘ tongue, the thickened/armoured neck, the over-curled ‘scorpion’ tail, and in this case too the body armour denoted by the same convention as used in nicer-looking images made in Rome.
As you see from the examples (above, left and centre) the animal’s tail could be represented as a coiled whip. This is the hound who pierces from the front and has its ‘lash’ behind – like the scorpion and also like that figure from Roman-era Kom al-Shoqafa.
An artist’s reconstruction, from written sources, of the gigantic hound (now extinct). The artist has the ears cropped and the tail docked, as was done in theory, though archaeological finds show it was not always done, or done so thoroughly.
Compare that last illustration with the following detail from a copy of Beatus’ Commentaryon the Apocalypse, where a beast – specifically identified with Rome – carries a human dead as trophy. Here again, the skin is covered by a grid, as were the Roman figurines and as a crocodile skin is – but in this case represented by dots, like the armour given the Southbroom figurine and many representations of Ammit.
Memory of the relentless, armoured ‘hound from Hell’ permeated very deeply into the folk-memory and art of the south-western Mediterranean, and Britain. The following paired figures date to the 12thC and were made for the church of the Benedictine Abbey of S. Sever, in the Landes, an Occitan-speaking region in far south-western France.
Here we see the character in two forms, one with two legs and the other, four. The first has a head more like that of a crocodile, and the other more like a dog’s, the latter having its ‘scorpion-like’ over-curled tail and thickened, armoured, neck and in his case its uncanny, shining eyes, The other wears lamellar armour, its demonic nature expressed by an unnervingly wide ‘crocodile’ grin.
Next post – medieval Iberia.
During the 2ndC AD, a text was composed in the eastern Mediterranean, in Greek, that would later be counted part of the Christian canon. It is known by the Greek term ‘Apocalypse’.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, six hundred years later, a Spanish monk known as Beatus of Liébana was to write a Commentary on that text, and among remaining illustrated copies of that Commentary is one made during the twelfth century, in the monastery of Silos. Other copies were made for related monasteries of the same, Benedictine, order – including S.Sever.
In the next post we’ll see, in images made for the Silos Beatus (or: ‘Silos Apocalypse’) yet another instance, within our stated parameters, of how matter gained from the eastern side of the Mediterranean was presented for a western (Latin-) Christian community. We will find that this constant idea of ‘scorpion’ nature – tendit ad rapinam – is shown manifest in angels, men, and in four-footed creatures. Here’s one instance, as preview.
Wrong month; no human head or skull – but here’ the Scorpius-hound with coiling tail from the Winchester Psalter- and the terrified figure fleeing for her life.
edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.
Warning – readers uncomfortable with the fact of Egyptian influence in late Roman culture and earlier Christianity might want to brace themselves.
SHORTCUT – Throughout this investigation of the November and July emblems, our aim is still to answer one question: ‘Do the Voynich calendar’s central emblems display influences similar to astronomical details noted for folio 85r and folio 67v-1? Readers impatient with process might prefer to know, now, that the bottom line is “not exactly”. Those more demanding – please read on. 🙂
BACKGROUND – (Summary of Pts 1 and 2 for newcomers). To skip this, start from the ‘Note’ manicule below.
SO FAR, considering various forms for Scorpius in medieval works from Latin Europe, Lippincott’s survey included examples, from western manuscripts, of a few non-classic forms for Scorpius. Those given a ‘beast-like’ form are associated with just three sources: first, the Roman-era ‘Poeticon Astronomicon‘; then the early medieval and English ps- Bede’s De signis caeli, and finally copies of thirteenth-century works by the Anglo-Norman Michael Scot. Concerning the last, however, and as Edwards observed, the four principal manuscripts are all from Italian scribes and “probably made in Bologna” where Scot is known to have studied and been residing in 1220.
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS nouv. acq. lat. 1401, parchment, fols. llr-128r P – “the earliest copy we have; it can be dated fairly certainly to 1279.
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 10268, parchment, fols. lr-146r. which initially Edwards “dated on palaeographic evidence to 1279” but further research and consultation led him to amend that to “the style of script.. c.1300.. Virginia la Mare… illustrations characteristic of Bologna 1300-1310.’
Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS f. iii. 8, parchment and paper, fols. lr-126v. The paleographic evidence dates it to the third quarter of the fourteenth century.
Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 266, paper, fols. 1r-222v – dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Edwards also notes that “the most distinguishing palaeographic characteristic is a Niccol? Niccoli hand on folios 53r to 65r”.
Another copy, now in Scotland, has been commented on by Eleonora Andriani, who rightly remarks the importance of Edwards’ work.
“The comprehensive nature of Michael Scot’s work has attracted contributions from a number of scholars, drawing significantly on the Prohemium, the first edition of which appeared in 1978 as a doctoral thesis by Glenn M. Edwards.” Eleonora Andriani,(2019) ‘A Neglected Witness to the Liber introductorius of Michael Scot’, Giornale Critico della Filosofia Italiana, Settima Serie Volume XV, ANNO XCVIII (C), Fasc. III. The article is now accessible through academia.edu.
Parameters – Temporal and Geographic
With some reservations (see image, below), our temporal range becomes ‘ps-Hyginus to Scot’ or, c.2ndC AD – c.1228 AD.
From the same basis, and now taking into account the Judeo-Catalan, Occitan, Norman-English (etc.) posited for the inscribed month names, our geographic range sets its upper boundary approximately at the Via Francigena, one of the oldest routes of western Europe and which existed in Hyginus’ time as it does today. It can be said to begin from Santa Maria di Leuca, in the ‘instep’ of Southern Italy and passing through Rome, to continue through to Canterbury in England. Within the maritime context, we have already a practical map of entanglements for the fourteenth century in Datini’s pattern of trade and communications, illustrated earlier, and this allows an extension of our northern line to include the Adriatic and Venice by sea and then, through the Veneto, again to the via Francigena.
NOTE – re SCOT in FREDERICK’S SICILY.. Some online articles badly over-emphasise Frederick II’s genetic inheritance over what we know from the historical evidence, namely that his character, attitudes, inclination and actions were formed by his dedication to Sicily, his kingdom by birth and an inheritance through his mother’s line. To suggest that he was in any sense but the most formal a ‘German’ is a mistake – and to speak of him as “Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – evidently following Burnett’s idiosyncratic practice – creates an entirely wrong impression. He was Frederick II of Sicily. The primary sources make very clear that Frederick’s upbringing, sympathies and cultural alignment, as well as his inheritance, made him consider himself above all, a Sicilian and Sicily’s king, though it is reasonable to say that his earlier overt antipathy towards his German connections, and specifically to his uncle, reduced as their efforts to acquire the kingdom were abandoned and, later, when practical diplomacy gradually required more frequent contact with German princes after Frederick was crowned emperor of the west.
These parameters are, of course, for the purpose of tracing the lineage of the ‘November’ emblem alone, not the entire contents of Beinecke MS 408. Even so, it would be a very long study to thorough track, map and document images in that range – even just images of Scorpius or more narrowly still, Scorpius in western Christian zodiac series. Limiting the range to its very narrowest – to no more than western manuscripts’ depiction of the 12 zodiac constellations – is a large enough task and on that, Lippincott and the ‘Saxl’ project labours still.
Trying to ‘match-the-image’, across all media, within our geographic and temporal limits as one would have to do, could only be an exercise in futility when no western (Latin Christian) equivalent is known for the Voynich ‘calendar’ seriesor for this creatureas a form for Scorpius.
So… instead, we trace the ideas which have informed the ‘November’ emblem. That is – ideas about the astronomical Scorpius, about the scorpion’s nature and/or about the month of November.
Three points to keep in mind: First – this November beast is a quadruped, shown as a single figure; 2. It faces the Scales, not the Archer. 3. It was not given the body of a scorpion.
Here is how crab, fresh-water ‘lobster’ and scorpion were being drawn in northern Italy in c.1440.
Our task, however, is not so nebulous as one might expect, for ps-Bede, and Scot have England in common and if the source for the 2ndC ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was ultimately Hyginus, then Scot and he may have Iberia and Italy in common. On the other hand, if Hyginus’ birthplace was Alexandria and not Iberia, as some argue, then we have full circle, because Egypt and Alexandria were major centres in which early Christianity had flowered and from which the Latin west gained its model of communal monasticism and scribal culture,* continuously trading goods during the medieval centuries – first through Jewish- and then through Italian agency.
*As one modern Benedictine from a community now based in Egypt puts it “St Anthony, St Paul the Hermit and St Pachomius are household names for any Western monastic.”
Nor do we forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s contents to be, in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’.
To begin, we define a few constants to keep the investigation steady, and highlight evidence of transmission independent of local forms.
The easiest to identify is the reason for the skull’s inclusion – an association between November and death.
1.November – month of the dead (first constant)
In the Roman world and in western Christianity, November was the month of the dead.
In pre-Christian Rome, on November 8th, the ‘the mundus pit’ was opened, for the last time of three.*
With the lifting of the lid, which was regarded as the Gate of Hell, the spirits (manes) of the underworld emerged and could roam the streets of the city. The day was ‘holy’ (religiosus): no public business could be transacted, no battle fought, no army levied, no ships set sail, no marriage take place etc.
*scholars debate whether it was one stone or two; the other two occasions were on August 24th. and October 5th.
When Rome adopted Christianity, November remained the month of the dead.
Christianity just re-explained things. The Byzantine Church made the same date the feast of f ‘The synaxis of the holy archangel Michael and all the angelic powers’; the Russian Orthodox Church calling that day’s feast “Synaxis of the Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, Jeremiel and the Other Bodiless Powers”.
Western (Latin) Europe, however, changed the date to November 2nd, calling it ‘All Souls Day’, and preceding it with the happier ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1st.*
*’All Hallow’s Day’ meant ‘all saints’ day’ with ‘All Hallow’s Evening’ the vigil, on the night of October 31st. But things later became a bit confused in some places, and the result has been that the modern ‘Halloween’ is celebrated in October and is about ghosts and ghouls, rather than remembering the dearly departed in heaven. There is no equivalent in the present day Coptic liturgical calendar today. The Hebrew calendar has one feast, a joyful one, in November. The Muslim liturgical calendar is based on the lunar year.
Here’s the month of November in the late-Roman Filocalia or ‘Chronography of 354’. (Don’t get excited; our November beast isn’t Anubis).
2.The Unchanging Stars. (second constant)
Our second constant is provided by the stars.
We know stars can newly appear in the sky and others vanish, but ancient and medieval peoples spoke of the stars as eternal and unchanging, the night sky as the God-given template of what had been and was to come, containing markers for ‘times, and seasons and years’.
That the figure we call Scorpius should be imagined crouching by a set of Scales at the point where the Milky Way – as a lucent road – rises from the horizon is easily understood …. it does. This (below) is what a northerner sees today in November.
That road doesn’t just rise towards the north; it also takes one down below the horizon towards the south. Lying by that road at the point of crossing from the horizon, the great scorpion was seen as an dreadful attacker in wait.
From the earlier medieval period, we have evidence that Christianity in some places retained a popular belief in that ‘road’ as the one along which one might ascend towards heaven or, alternatively, fall to the fires of the south. It’s well known that ‘south’ was the direction of the Christian Hell and South or South-west associated with Scorpius – not only by who knew how to practice astrology.
A conception of the Milky Way as ‘Road to heaven’ would not survive in the west beyond the later medieval period except for a proverb about the route to Santiago but in a manuscript copied in England in c.960-1000 AD* the whole of that celestial Way between Heaven and Hell is drawn, like an itinerary, in registers. Its having an astronomical ‘template’ is obscured by the fact that the figures are rendered in almost-orthodox Latin Christian forms.
That manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian MS Junius 11) was made in Anglo-Saxon England, yet a majority of its illustrations point to origins in a body of star-lore less than perfectly compatible with orthodox Christian theology and iconography.
Leslie Lockett, ‘An integrated re-examination of the dating of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11’. Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 31 (2002) pp. 141–173. [JSTOR] The astronomical basis for the images has not been widely recognised, the study of indigenous astronomies rarely intersecting with the history of Christian Europe.
In older Egypt, where the idea of ascent to the north is very old indeed,* it was initially only the king who ascended to enjoy eternal rest in that ‘island’ in the northern sky, among what they saw as the ‘sea of reeds’. The later, Christian, idea would accept that firm foundation in the north of the sky, but following Augustine define it as a ‘City of God’ into which all approved souls would be welcomed but to which Michael or other angels had to carry them.
R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.
Before being permitted to rise up from the horizon, though, the soul’s virtue had to be assessed – and that’s where the ‘Snatcher’ becomes involved.
Weighing the Soul.
The scene is portrayed like this in the Egyptian funerary texts and art:
I expect most readers know that a jackal-god named Anubis was the Egyptians’ guide for acceptable souls (‘hearts’ in Egyptian thought) but for hearts found wanting – ‘hearts too heavy’ as the Egyptians saw things – a different fate lay in wait.
This quadruped wasn’t worshipped, only feared. Its name was Ammit. Its nature is expressed by combining elements from the most voracious, most relentless, swiftest and fiercest of beasts that drag down their prey – crocodile, hunting hound, the lion and the hippopotamus.* Egyptian art, like Egyptian names, may use elements adjectivally, combining them much as we might combine the names of colours to express e.g. a ‘blue-green-grey.’
“The hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest land mammal, according to the BBC. They kill around 500 people every year, twice as many as lions kill.”
You saw, in that first illustration of the weighing, how Ammit was shown, as intent as any hound, waiting for the word of command before snatching away the imperfect heart-as-soul.
Here’s another expression of the scene, making clear that Ammit waits on a figure whose Christian equivalent would (much later) be the ‘Recording Angel’.
Now, it’s a curious thing that while the ‘croucher by the Scales’ became a well-known item in western Christian art and is echoed in the formal literature, folk memory of a ‘judging and recording Angel’ did not. It was transmitted unofficially, so to speak. There is not a single mention of ‘the recording angel’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and to find an example of depiction in Christian art, I’ve had to turn to works made in nineteenth century America!
On the other hand, the Scales and dreadful ‘snatcher who drags down’ would become a common trope in western Christian art and part of the west’s formal theology.
Here we see the scene, in Christian terms, in a manuscript made in Spain about a century after the Anglo-Saxon image of the sky-road, and little more than a century before Michael Scot would travel from England to Toledo.
Trying to keep these posts under 3000 words, I’ll pause here – but I think we are now on the way to defining a third constant – the nature of the beast.
3. The Nature of the Beast (third constant)
grasping/snatching; devourer of human beings, their hearts/souls; attentive only to its master’s command; immune to all deterrents.
Below, a preview of one illustration from the next post. This shows a drawing made of a figurine found in south-western England during the eighteenth century and dated to the 1st-2ndC AD, a period when Egypt, England and Gaul were all under Roman occupation and when ps-Hyginus’ ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written. Notice the spotted hide, here covering only the upper body -just like Ammit.
Postscript – the ‘Beast of Gévaudan,
There is no reasonable link between that figurine and a beast which was to trouble France about fifty years after the figurine was found and drawn in England, yet the animal’s description is uncannily apt and worth repeating.
The unidentified animal called the ‘Beast of Gévaudan; Occitan: La Bèstia de Gavaudan, slaughtered 500 people within three years, and across an area about fifty miles’ square. The few who survived an attack (only about 50) described it as: “the size of a calf, a cow, or, in some cases, a horse. It had an elongated head similar to that of a greyhound, with a flattened snout, pointed ears, and a wide mouth sitting atop a broad chest. The beast’s tail was also reported to have been notably longer than a wolf’s, with a prominent tuft at the end ….”
Modern rationalisations have supposed it “an unusual form of wolf” or “from a hound cross-bred with a feral dog”, or “a beast brought from elsewhere”. Some have suggested, with more reason, that it may have been a specimen of the Australian Thylacine, now extinct, but which certainly could have been carried to France in the eighteenth century. The difficulty is that the Thylacine does not – no more than does a wolf – have a tuft at the end of its tail. And stories of a great ‘Hell hound’ are reported in England, too, to as late as the eighteenth century.
Much that has turned up in this ‘Notes’ series has directed us towards the south-western Mediterranean for our present manuscript’s exemplars, but this ‘November’ emblem from the Voynich calendar presents an objection to any easy assumption that the ‘calendar’s’ central emblems originated there.
For one thing, no-one living within a couple of days’ walk of the Mediterranean, south of Constantinople, is likely to have been ignorant of a scorpion’s form.
The zone in which scorpions are still found today.
(Above) – adapted from a modern distribution map showing incidence of scorpion envenomation. I have removed regions unknown to Mediterranean peoples before 1440 AD.
As for to the coast’s Occitan-Catalan speaking regions – that’s just where scorpions are still most numerous.
Italy’s scorpion species are divided into Adriatic and Mediterranean species by the Apennines, which form the peninsula’s spine.
The most deadly Mediterranean species, however, is ‘the scourge of Egypt’, the golden or ‘five-barred’ scorpion (Leiurus quinquestriatus)* which alone is regarded as likely to cause death. It occurs in the eastern Mediterranean.
*Link – VAPA guide, giving details of the species with illustrations and modern distribution map.
So, should we suppose that the ‘November’ emblem wasn’t first made in the south-western part of the greater Mediterranean?* Should we suppose that it might still have originated in that region, but that whoever included this emblem for ‘November’ had a different aim in mind? If the last, what sort of associations had Scorpius, scorpions and/or the month of November for persons living earlier than 1350 AD? Research is the only way to clarify such questions. Theorising just won’t do.
*’greater Mediterranean‘ – all the waters from the Black Sea to the straits of Gibraltar, inclusive.
Our research parameters (see previous post) let us begin from the first half of the fourteenth century.
And our first comparison, from the Occitan context is a ‘no-match’.
In the Occitan manuscript noted earlier, thought to have been made in Toulouse – beyond the ‘scorpion zone’ – the tail is really quite well drawn, and the image includes a feature seen in most Latin images of this constellation – a line of dots along the spine or tail. Yet its head is drawn quite unlike the scorpion’s and the whole doesn’t resemble the emblem given the Voynich ‘November’ diagram.
Not only Toulouse but other major centres of earlier medieval monasticism and manuscript production in France were outside the scorpion zone – such as Cluny, Cîteaux, and Vézelay – but it wasn’t necessarily lack of first-hand knowledge which made literalism* a lower priority in earlier medieval art.
By the time the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was inscribed (c.1405-1438), there was little excuse for ignorance about the constellations’ forms – not of those forming the zodiac- for that series was being presented in public spaces as early as the period of Romaneque art and architecture (6th-12thC AD), or at least its latter half.
The aim in placing the twelve constellations in churches and cathedrals was to show the whole community how the familiar sequence of activities on the land was in accord with the signs which Gd had provided in the heavens, passing over month-by-month, and which were easily seen at night in a time before external lighting. The series also served to recall to the viewer’s mind, while at their chores, a moralised astronomy explained from the pulpit or the school. It was food for thought and gave the daily round of agricultural work a greater sense of cosmic position, just as monasteries of the communal type were supposed to balance religious observance and meditation with physical work. As the oft-repeated passage runs:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands,
Such series are called ‘Labours of the Months’ and most of the twelve astronomical signs are shown in forms much the same as those we use today.
Here, for example, is Libra from a late Romanesque (12thC) basilica, in Vézelay. ..
Yet, in that same basilica, this is the figure for Scorpius.
It is tempting to shrug off differences from familiar forms by asserting the problem isn’t our own ignorance but that of some imagined ‘artist’ or ‘author’.
But if we say differences are due to whether or not a person lived in the ‘Scorpion zone’ how does one explain the appearance, at much the same time, of a curl-tailed beast in the ‘Labours’ series in Otranto, which lies in the southern heel of Italy and well within that ‘scorpion zone’? This example is important for us, because unlike so many others, this series assigns Scorpius to November as, it would seem, the Voynich calendar does.
It is clear that the Latin world had received more than one model for depicting the constellations.
They need not have come from manuscript illuminations. Images of the 12 constellations were to be seen in textiles, carved wood and stone, even game-pieces – especially from the mid-12thC. They might be copied from antique works in many media, including coins, and the researcher as iconographic analyst must consider the widest range attested within a given historical context.
So, for example, the illustration (right) shows a mid-12thC game piece. It is made of walrus ivory, the carving ascribed to northern France. The Met. catalogue says “Cancer or Scorpio”.
From wherever the models came, one strand reflects a long-enduring vision of the heavens as ‘waters’ above the earth, over which stars sailed and the beasts of the zodiac swam. Many eastern Mediterranean sources (including Homer and the Book of Genesis*) envisage the night sky that way, from millennia before the rise of Rome until long after its empire was gone. In the fifteenth century, for example, one poem by the Persian poet Hafiz begins, ‘The green seas of heaven; the hull of the new moon...’
Kendall and Wallis describe the Genesis 1:7’s ‘waters above the firmament’ as “one of the most vexatious questions of Christian cosmology” and which Bede’s commentary on Genesis explained, following Augustine and Ambrose, by saying those waters were actually solid and crystalline.
Calvin B. Kendall and Faith Wallis (ed. and trans.), Bede On the Nature of Things and On Times, (Translated Texts for Historians Series), Vol. 56. (p.140).
Augustine, Ambrose and Bede notwithstanding, the older idea of the heavens found expression in an eleventh-century mosaic created for San Savino in Piacenza, the twelfth-century charter for whose monastery was introduced to Voynich studies by Reeds as comparison for those Voynich glyphs mis-called ‘gallows’. Here’s the example Reeds cited.
The Piacenza mosaic has lost its Scorpius, but its ‘Cancer’ remains (below). Use of the zig-zag* rather than the wave to denote waters, as we see done here, is quite unusual in Latin Europe but was always conventional in Egypt’s visual language.*
*the same convention is used in other sections of Beinecke MS 408.
Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Vol. 34, No. 2 (1995), pp. 108-125.
It is often forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion; that the model for communal (cenobitic) monasticism was Egyptian, or that the three great centres of Christianity in the earlier medieval period were Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. But I’ll comment on that in a later segment.
Today, we might see Capricorn drawn a ‘goat-fish’ and know that Cancer is a ‘watery’ creature but, as the following zodiac in Byzantine style shows, there existed versions where more beasts were given looping ‘swimming’ tails – including Aries, Taurus, Sagittarius and even Leo. The twins are enthroned on a kind of raft and Virgo is a Mermaid. But it wasn’t whimsy; it was a tradition of non-Roman origin.
The same ceiling shows an innermost band formed at once as foundation-stones and as a scroll folded concertina-style. I won’t digress into the subject of ‘the scroll of heaven’ in western Christian thought, but it is worth mentioning at least that the oldest and distinctively Christian texts were made in that way; by making the scroll into a codex.
Anna O. Funk, ‘From Scroll to Codex: New Technology and New Opportunities’ [pdf] Chapter 2 from her History of the Book: Disrupting Society from Tablet to Tablet. While I think Funk’s approach is a little anachronistic in its pragmatism and the theory’s largely mechanistic-economic vision – by reducing history to a form of ‘business management’ and consequent lack of attention to things that mattered to peoples in the pre-industrial era such as ideology, cultural identification and authority, and while I also regret her over-emphasis on Rome, still her basic historical data is good and has the advantage of being online in chapter-length pdfs.
Two manuscripts made in twelfth-century England, nearly contemporary with the Otranto mosaic and Michael Scot’s lifetime, show an effort made to reconcile the ‘dragon-like’ with the ‘insect-like’ images of Scorpius, while typically retaining Scorpius’ distinctive marker, the line or line of dots marking its spine. In old English ‘wyrm‘ applied to many creatures, from one as small as a mite, through insects, snakes and to something as large as a dragon.
So now, is the ‘November beast’ in the Voynich manuscript no more than a ‘watery’ Scorpius, still with a looping tail, but minus wings? Are we seeing, in this emblem, another effort to reconcile celestial with terrestrial versions for the scorpion?
At this point, of course, one checks developing ideas against the primary evidence – the source whose opinion matters above all others – to see if we have yet understood the intention of this drawing.
And I don’t think we have, yet – chiefly because behind the Voynich beast’s head is a human skull wearing what appears to be a hat of the kind that a huntsman or traveller might wear.*
*rather than a military helmet
If the skull has beencommented on by any previous Voynich writer, please leave a comment below providing details that can be credited. If not, and you repeat the information, don’t neglect to inform your own readers how and where you obtained it.
Clearly, we haven’t yet understood the first maker’s intention, and since the analyst’s task is not to invent a plausible storyline about the manuscript, but to correctly read the images which are here before us, on the page, the process of research must continue.
Part 3 to be published next week.
Postscript – the hat
– not exactly like the Lappavatten hat, but the latter’s date-range is interesting (1310-1440 AD) and that archaeological find, with images showing others of comparable form – and most of which were meant to be worn out of doors – are dicussed and illustrated…
(HERE) well into in a post by johan Käll in ‘The Medieval Hunt‘ blog’, (February 1, 2020). Regrettably, few of the comparative images that Käll offers have been labelled with date and source, so their value is not what it might be for other researchers.