O’Donovan notes – Calendar 7: the diagrams are not for amateurs, sorry.

c2000 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

It is now more than a decade since I pointed out, for persons then involved in Voynich studies, that while the calendar diagrams’ central emblems use a visual language near-enough to Latin conventions, the diagrams themselves do not.

Given the enormous optimism, self-confidence and positivism one finds in Voynich writers working outside their areas of special competence – and which is surely needed to address so problematic a manuscript in the absence of prior studies – I expect my opinion will be unwelcome that any correct reading of these diagrams (if not of their written labels) will need specialist knowledge at a level we associate with such names as David A. King, Elly Dekker, and the late David Pingree and Paul Kunitzsch – Kunitzsch’s death in 2020 ending one of my own long-held hopes for this study.

The diagrams raise a number of highly technical issues which only a deep grounding in the history of medieval astronomical texts, tables and charts can clarify. Many of those issues will be invisible to a general reader and amateur theorist, especially any misled into thinking that all one needs are “two eyes and commonsense” and some computing skills.

I had hoped to avoid pouring such cold water on enthusiasts who enjoy guessing or who have confused traditionalists’ repetition of old theories with statements of fact.

I include this post so that my silence may not mislead readers of this blog into thinking that I believe the Calendar section expresses nothing but the habits of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.

Whether we consider the ninth century, the twelfth century, the mid-fourteenth century, or the early fifteenth century, astronomical knowledge involved wider and more complex interactions than the usual historical summaries suggest.

It is more than a decade since I realised that there is an inherent conflict between the iconographic information provided by the Calendar’s central emblems as against the diagrams as such.

Take, for example, the long-enduring assumption that each of the calendar’s anthropoform figures represents a day (or night), or that each star in each diagram does so. The stars, and the nymphs have been counted by various writers over the years – in publications, as in conversations to mailing lists and forums. Most recently, I understand from one amiable forum member, Anton Alipov has counted them again and shared his results at voynich.ninja.

The rhyme everyone knows today was known in medieval Europe by the ninth century. In modern English it runs,

Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.

All the rest have thirty-one, excepting Februrary alone

which has 28 days clear, and twenty nine in each leap year

Even if we were to treat the doubled months as split months and count their stars together, still the tally must read (according to the copy I’ve been sent)

  • March: 29 or 31(?)
  • April: 30 [As 15+15]
  • May: 30 [as 15+15]
  • June: 30
  • July: 30
  • August: 30
  • September: 30 [and one extraneous star]
  • October: 30
  • November: 30 [and one extraneous star]
  • December: 30

The logical question to ask (one would think) is where and when we find calendars of comparable design, ones lacking any evidence of intercalation?

That has never been the response made in the past.

Those unable to contemplate the possibility of non-Latin character for the manuscript’s contents (or who can imagine it, but find the idea preposterous) have veered off and created alternatives – often by inventing imaginative-hypothetical theory-patches mis-represented as the fruit of historical logic. The basic traditionalist position is that if the manuscript’s content doesn’t look Latin, or act Latin, then it jolly well ought to, and really does “underneath it all” and/or that the author/draughtsman got it wrong, poor thing. 🙂

It must be understood that the “all-Latin-Christian-European” theory-narrative IS the traditionalist theory because the study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, William Newbold and William Friedman – began by assuming it an autograph composed all at once by a thirteenth century Englishman, or by some other European male important enough to figure in Europe’s story of its own intellectual advance to the mid-twentieth century.

Especially for the Friedmans (and thus for Mary d’Imperio) even to suggest the content included “foreign” matter was offensive, because to them the foreign implied the inferior and unimportant.

Added to this was the theory that the written text should prove to be a consistently-spelled and neatly grammatical plain-text because without such standardisation (as they thought) encryption and decryption became impossible. That it was an encrypted text of ordinary prose or poetry was the cornerstone – the non-negotiable element – in the theories they created.

For the time of Roger Bacon, Scot et.al., that meant in practice assuming the text written in one of the liturgical languages and given their bias – it meant Latin, English or German, none of which is indicated by the usual statistical analyses. The same assumptions and prejudices so common in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries are why Panofsky’s recognising non-Latin elements – presumably in the manuscript’s layout and drawings – was not taken seriously by the Friedmans and by Mary d’Imperio was imagined mediated by some Latin figure. Hence the references to Ramon Llull and anachronistic allusions to a consciously Christianised Cabala.

As so often, Voynich theorists have attempted to assert a section’s meaning, or a drawing’s meaning, though paying scant attention to the form given an image or section – as we’ve noted recently in discussing the series of emblems used as centres for the Calendar diagrams.

Inherited bias, within the traditionalist theories, seem to me to explain why a hundred years and more have passed without any Voynich writer asking, and seeking to understand even the simplest of questions about this section: such as “Why do the central emblems not form a zodiac sequence, even of just these 10 months?” Or “What kind of calendar might have 30-day months for every month from April to December, inclusive?”

The larger questions about calendars and the history of astronomical works are not within the brief of an iconographic analyst; what we can address is the curious choice of emblems to fill these diagrams and why they present such an odd mixture of zodiac-like and non-zodiac like forms.

I would add another question – why do they include forms which appear in some cases compatible with images found in England and in France over the period from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, but with other emblems unattested in Latin works until the mid-fourteenth century?

I’d point here not only to November’s crocodile but to the history of the Arcitenens type. The Parthian type with its goat-legs appears early, in the work of one Anglo-Saxon monk who also worked in France, and as a fully human figure in the 9thC, but it was not the form preferred thereafter in Latin manuscripts’ representation of the 12 zodiac figures and seems to disappear soon after from the Latin sources.

Nonetheless in its old Pan-like form it reappears in one Jewish manuscript* that the holding library dates to the 15th-16thC, and whose chief text is the Six Wings of Immanuel Bonfils of Tarascon (1300 – 1377). And the same manuscript has a prawn-nosed lobster for Cancer. I cite the example only to show that history – including the history of images and forms – is no simple “forward-march”.

*On this see first: Gerrit Bos, Charles Burnett and Tzvi Langermann, ‘Hebrew Medical Astrology: David Ben Yom Tov, Kelal Qaṭan: Original Hebrew Text, Medieval Latin Translation, Modern English Translation’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society , New Series, Vol. 95, No. 5 (2005), pp. i, iii, v-vii, ix, 1-61, 63-121.

image is not to be copied or re-used.

Alfonsine Tables.

The part played by Jews, including Jews from French-speaking regions, in the translations made for Alfonso X of Castile is another subject unsuited to amateurs and speculators, for it is still debated by scholars who may fairly be described as eminent specialists in that field. When such scholars as Pingree and Mercier are unable to agree about transmission of the Persian Syntaxis or Byzantine reception of the updated version of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, the issues can hardly be resolved by less well-informed writers – yet such matters must impact on how one explains the extraordinary number of stars which seem to be referenced by the Voynich calendar.

Alipov’s recent count gave a total of 299 figures of the star-holding type (he calls them ‘nymphs’) and a total of 297 stars – presumably including some he describes as extraneous (ornamental?).

I call the number extraordinary because any survey of astrolabes and other flat representations of the heavens, produced before 1440 (and more realistically to 1350 AD), generally include between 17 and 30 stars, with 50 being an unusually large number. Similarly, one does not find in the Latins’ calendars, breviaries or books of hours from which so many Voynich writers have taken their zodiac images such things as star-tables or lists, nor do their months consist of mostly of 30-days.

From time to time, since Jim Reeds’ mailing list was opened, individual researchers have tried to raise the matter of the lunar calendar and the lunar asterisms known as lunar mansions or as towers – only to have the topic submerged, ignored or bulldozed under some determinedly Eurocentric theorising – typically focussing on the Picatrix in pretty much the same way that “southern and Jewish” has been transmogrified by theoretical narratives about Ramon Llull and Christianised Cabala.

Illustrations in copies of the Aratea may add red dots to mark stars, and Elly Dekker, in 2010, published a paper on the Leiden Aratea* which shows it referencing more than 600 stars by the red dots with which its pictures of the constellations are adorned. How much work was required to identify those stars, her paper shows plainly enough an although I include here one table [Table 3] from that paper, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that no use should be made of it to invent or patch a theory – at the very least the trouble should be taken to read the paper in full and realise just how much expertise is required even to identify stars embedded in an illustration of a constellation.

Leiden Aratea (Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek MS Voss. lat. 4° 79) – produced in the first half of the ninth century for the court of Louis the Pious (814-40). It is not a typical work of that time, but an exceptional one – in its size, artistic quality and content. It contains images of forty-two constellations as we count them now, and the Pleiades.

*Elly Dekker, ‘The Provenance of the Stars in the Leiden “Aratea” Picture Book’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes , Vol. 73 (2010), pp. 1-37. Accessible through JSTOR.

While respecting the level of scholarship needed to attempt an accurate reading of the Calendar diagrams, we may continue to investigate the central emblems which – I’ll say again – do not appear to me to agree well with the character and content of the diagrams proper .

Two more passages worth thinking over before we turn to those manuscripts I’ve been promising (one very early semi-Christian calendar, and Oxford Bodleian MS Douce 313).

Both these passages (below) come from papers by Raymond Mercier, a former editor of the Journal for the History of Astronomy.

The first relates to the ninth-twelfth centuries; the second to the early fifteenth century.

In the first Mercier notes a curious instance of alteration/adjustment in a twelfth-century Latin text, apparently attempting to harmonise the Christian with the Jewish calendrical system, while at the same time back-dating it to the ninth century. The author of the tables he mentions – Luhot ha-Nasi – was Abraham ben Hiyya, known as Sarasvorda , who was born in Barcelona c.1070, and who died in Narbonne or in Provence in 1136 or 1145AD.

In this second passage from one of Mercier’s papers, he is speaking of events which occurred close to when the Voynich quires were made (1405-1438).

I would add, as a simple matter of fact, that the Persian New Year began in March, and we learn from Ibn Majid, a fifteenth century navigator who knew his stars, that the eastern mariners counted their sailing year from the date of the Persian New Year. It was important to count one’s days on those eastern maritime routes, because if wrongly calculated, the monsoon winds on which their navigation relied might be misjudged with disastrous consequences, physical and economic.

additional note (13th October 2022) on the moveable date of that Persian New Year relative to the Julian calendar, and the Arab navigators’ practice of counting their days pp. 361-2 in G.R. Tibbett’s English translation of the ‘Kitāb al-fawāʼid fī uṣūl ʻilm al-baḥr wa-al-qawāʻid’ of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi, the translation published as Arab Navigation Before the Coming of the Portuguese…etc. Any reader who is particularly keen to have the information but not quite so keen on the book’s price is welcome to email me and I’ll type those two pages.

O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.1

c.3500 words

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.

The author’s rights are asserted.


It should not come as much of a surprise that the series of diagrams we call the ‘Voynich calendar’ has not found any counterpart in the art of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe. Nor, if also considered as a series, has the sequence of its diagrams’ central emblems.

It remains possible that some day there may found a work of Latin (i.e. western European Christian) origin in which there is comparable series of month- diagrams, presented on such a fold-in, beginning with March, following March with two segments each showing a goat, and then two segments showing bull-like forms, and which also includes a Scales of the same unusual construction, two lobsters for ‘July’ and a quadruped with a whip-like tail for ‘November’ – but none has been found yet during the century and more since 1912.

An analytical approach meets divergence from any theoretical norm not as if it were a social gaffe, politely to be ignored, but as a sign of potentially valuable information. In this case, we hope the information gained might ultimately assist those still wondering where and when they should look for whatever language or dialect (if any) informs the written text.

The major flaw in a widely promoted ‘central European-Ruolfine-German’ theory is that it takes as axiomatic too many of the old guesses, including the guess that although the series of central emblems in the Voynich calendar does not form a zodiac, or any coherent segment of one, it may be treated as if it did.

The analyst’s approach says rather, ‘Well, since it isn’t a zodiac, why isn’t it, and to what purpose was it made which has it differ so obviously from that theoretical model?”

If that were our present question, it would require considering the entire series – the central emblems included with their diagrams – but at present we are investigating the degree to which astronomical, historical and cultural information we’ve gained from diagrams in other sections of the manuscript does or doesn’t chime with information offered by the calendar. For the sake of the exercise, therefore, we will concentrate on just two of the central emblems, those overwritten with the month-names for November and for July.

From the earlier two analyses* it was concluded that those are most likely to have been brought into a Latin environment between the mid-thirteenth to later fourteenth centuries AD with one showing a greater proportion of its drawing compatible with the visual language of medieval Latin (western Christian) Europe than the other. Asian influence was recognised in both.

*of the diagrams on fol. 85r and fol. 67v-1.

Our now considering a couple of emblems from the Voynich calendar is done to test whether those astronomical emblems do, or don’t, say the same.

For newcomers, let me emphasise that any formal analytical study must treat the whole of any drawing or series: in the calendar that means both diagram and central emblem – no conclusions being valid which cherry-pick. However, this being an exercise and demonstration of research-method, we may use these two as example of how to progress through a work, piece after piece, testing and reconciling opinions gained from one item against those which follow, to build a cumulative study.


Our attention having already been drawn, and repeatedly, to the south-western Mediterranean, the fact that the Voynich ‘calendar’-emblems were over-written with month-names in a dialect or language from that region, or linked directly to it by contemporary networks, makes it reasonable to begin there.

Below is a map showing entanglements between the relevant linguistic regions – those most densely coloured red – during the thirty years between 1358 AD to 1372 AD. It is not a maritime chart, nor a political map, nor does it map textual stemma. It illustrates the commercial network of trade and correspondence for one trading house while the Italian founder was resident in papal Avignon. I apologise for the map’s poor quality; it is as it appears in the source..

Francesco di Marco Datini was born in Prato, near Florence. His knowledge of commercial maths’ method and practice being most likely gained in Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school* in Florence. Between regions speaking Catalan, Judeo-Catalan, Occitan (most often posited as providing the calendar’s month-names), goods and people travelled chiefly in the ships of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia.

*For more, and references, see earlier post, ‘Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1‘, voynichrevisionist, (January 13, 2022),

Edit: August 9th. The paragraph’s last sentence was poorly expressed. Please read: ‘Between regions… the ships in which goods and people travelled were predominantly those of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia’.

Routes – controlled by Venice – blue; by Genoa – red.

It was also in the context of the new abaco schools – dedicated to commercial maths, geometry, practical astronomy and navigation – that use of Arabic numerals was fostered in Latin Europe, and that simpler ‘4’ shape for the numeral – a form similar to one of the Voynich glyphs – was disseminated. Its earliest known instance occurs in 1375, in the great rose-gridded worldmap commissioned for the court of France from a Jewish master named Abraham Cresques’, a resident of Majorca.

As I first pointed out a decade ago, there are discernable points of connection between Cresques’ Atlas, early Genoese cartes marine in that new, rose-gridded style, and the Voynich map, but the last (as I concluded) comes of older and different origins, its final recension when Latin-compatible details were added, dating to about 1350 AD.

In Cresques’ work, the zodiac constellations are represented as a fairly standard series, but they do reflect a habit which we’ll see again, by which crab and scorpion are suggested related, or akin to one another. The same attitude is reflected by the zodiac in the Occitan manuscript, made about fifty years before (see header), – but that characteristic is not found in the Voynich calendar.

Caution: on the web there are many altered and edited images purporting to be from Cresques’ Atlas (also described as the Catalan Atlas). Some are over-written with large, white geomantic figures. Another that I’ve seen paints over, with gold, all the inscriptions that in the original are written in Hebrew letters.

By the early fifteenth century, when the Voynich quires are thought to have been inscribed, the finest ateliers and illuminators in this part of Europe were producing images of Crab and Scorpion in forms we might call ‘classic’ and which will be immediately familiar to a modern reader. Paris was still the intellectual capital of Europe, and Italy increasingly the artistic and literary capital of Europe, while other regions were still to come into full flower.

The new commercial ‘4’ for the numeral would not appear in Germany until after 1440 and in works produced from Germany and central Europe, forms were still employed – for Scorpius especially – which had been used in the south-western Mediterranean as much as four hundred years earlier, and which there had been largely superseded by the early fifteenth century.

Below is the ‘November’ page from a manuscript created in Burgundy within the same date-range as the Voynich quires’ vellum (1405-1438 AD). Its Crab was painted at some time between 1412 and 1416, though parts of its ‘November’ page were completed only between 1435-1489. The ‘November’ page looks like this.

Limbourg Bros. Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry 1416 AD.

Its Scorpion is recognisable as you see; and so is its Crab.

Unlike the Voynich calendar, these monthly diagrams show constellations extending across adjacent months, as astrological signs do, but which the Voynich month-diagrams do not.

Another difference, if a predictable one, is that this high-status and high-end work, despite its being made a quarter-century after Cresques’ Atlas, retains the older and by then conservative form for the numeral ‘four’.

What this indicates is that if – and we emphasise that if – the hands which wrote the Voynich ‘4o’ were accustomed to writing the numeral as ‘4’, it is unlikely that the manuscript was composed first in central Europe or by members of Latin Europe’s social or scholarly elites.

Further evidence of the work’s being used by and for persons of lesser standing is the fact that the month-names are inscribed in a southern vernacular dialect or language rather than in Latin.

On the other hand, it was during the period presently of most interest to us (1350-1430 AD) that use of a regional vernacular for literary compositions of all kinds was becoming not merely more popular among a few educated people but was becoming a hot political issue.

Initially fostered by the popularity of Occitan-speaking troubadores, as their popularity waned, a political movement arose which would ultimately develop into modern nationalism, with its less pleasant twin, active xenophobia.

The Italian Brunetto Latini had written his most famous work in the French vernacular, but Dante’s Cantos had the greater and more lasting impact over the period between their completion in 1320 and the end-date for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum (1438 AD).

Varieties of Occitan were spoken not only within the borders of what is now modern France; it was also spoken in parts of Italy and according to a wiki author (who provides no reference)

The first part of the name, Occ-, comes from Occitan òc and the expression ‘langue d’oc’.. is an appellation promoted by Dante Alighieri of Occitan by the way of saying “oui” in Old OccitanCatalan; as opposed to the “langue de si” (Italian) and the “langue d’oïl” (“yes” in Old French).

*Dante’s son was another student of Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school.

So, the frame within which the evidence offered by the Voynich calendar may now be explored means that wherever it was copied in the early fifteenth century, the probability is it was a region where Occitan, Judeo-Catalan etc. were understood. For the form(s) given its emblems for November and July – supposing they are intended as astronomical emblems – we cannot look to works first composed in fifteenth-century France and Italy unless the copyist’s intention was to reproduce faithfully forms found in some much older work. The Voynich ‘November’ beast is no expression of fifteenth-century fashion.

It is easy enough to resort to imagination (aka theory) to explain why, if it is an astronomical emblem, the November figure does not present the form of a scorpion. We might imagine :

  • that the copyist had no idea what a scorpion looked like.
  • that the copyist had no means to discover how one should represent the constellation Scorpius,
  • that he had been struggling to understand Aratus in the original Greek and mis-interpreted αὐτὰρ ὑπ᾽ αἰθομένῳ κέντρῳ τέραος μεγάλοιο σκορπίου to mean not, “the great beast, [the] Scorpion” but “the great beast [whose name is] Skorpios” – and so drew his idea of ‘a great beast’.

And given the history of astronomical learning in medieval Latin Europe and the long, confused history for transmission of Aratus’ Phaenomena, the last might easily be accepted as plausible.

But imagination-as-theory is embedded in traditional Voynich method, so let’s leave it aside and begin working from physical evidence and the historical and cultural context.

What sort of works might have caused images of this kind to be included in the fifteenth century manuscript by persons who, it would seem, understood the dialect or language in which these month-names are written? What did they know about stars?

Astronomical or Astrological?

It has become a widely prevalent habit, if an unfortunate one, to describe any knowledge of the stars as either astronomy or astrology, but the distinction is inappropriate for our purposes and for the period of interest to us now.

To observe that different constellations along the ecliptic occupy the mid-heavens in turn through the year is not astrology, It is simple observation of fact.

To mark the months by twelve of those constellations and call the twelve the zodiac is not astrology either. It requires no more than observation, without need for any knowledge of mathematics or of astrological methods. The labels themselves are not ‘Scorpio’ and ‘Cancer’ but ‘November’ and ‘July’.

In the same way, navigation by the stars is arguably the oldest human science, older than the first cities, and older than mathematics as a formal discipline. So too, it is not astrology to say that in November, when a certain constellation rises to eventually occupy the mid-heavens at night, ships should not venture far from shore. That’s the fruit of common heritage and observation.

When you invent a character for that constellation, one which has it looking at the ships with a hostile expression, that’s still not astrology; its popular lore. Associating a star or constellation with a place on earth can be, but is not necessarily, astrology either. As our default term, then, we use ‘astronomical’ keeping ‘astrological’ for cases where that purpose is clearly expressed by the internal evidence.

So – even granting, as a first possibility, that all the central emblems in the Voynich ‘calendar’ depict constellations which lie along the ecliptic – zodiac constellations – it cannot be presumed from that alone that the series of diagrams, or the series of its central emblems, had astrological purpose – unlike those split-month images we see in the  Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, illustrated above.

Indeed, we have had the opinion of two scholars, independent of each other and of Voynicheros’ influence – at least then – who have stated plainly that the diagrams in the Voynich ‘calendar’ are not astrological charts*.

*for details see earlier post D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (February 9, 2020)

In this same connection we remind readers, that shortly after publication of his great study’s* second volume, Fritz Saxl was asked by John Matthews Manly, who sent him copies of pages from the Voynich manuscript, to comment on them. Saxl replied, as so many eminent specialists have done when asked to apply their knowledge of medieval Europe’s history and art to this manuscript, that nothing struck a familiar chord.

  • Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters. Vol. 1, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1915, Vol. 2, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1927, [Vols. 3 & 4, Meier, Hans, and Bober, Harry, and McGurk, Patrick.]

Lippincott’s ‘Saxl’ Project: hunting the November beast.

Led by Kristin Lippincott, the ‘Saxl Project’ is again concerned with collecting and grouping zodiac images, making pdfs of the material available through Lippincott’s website.

The Saxl project – Led by Kristen Lippincott and run jointly with The Warburg Institute, University of London. It has also benefitted greatly from previous collaborative research, which was carried out with Dr Elly Dekker of Utrecht University, between 1997 and 2007.

Among images collected to illustrate Scorpius are a few which show it drawn more like a lizard or a warm-blooded beast than a true scorpion. For us, at present, it matters less where these manuscripts are now or even when they were made, than the textual sources which were being copied in them, and Lippincott’s taking note of those sources (as most Voynicheros’ efforts have not) shows the source-texts are just three, all of which were known to some, at least, in Latin Europe before c.1350 AD.

One is a work written by a Roman of the pre-Christian era. The other two are medieval works written by Englishmen – one of whom never left England and rarely travelled beyond his monastery, and the other of whom studied in Paris, in Toledo, in Italy and at the Norman-Sicilian court.


The Roman-era work is a primary-school level ‘crib’ called the Astronomicon Poeticon. It is popularly, if doubtfully, attributed to Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BC – AD 17). The first of the Englishman is Bede, whose authorship of De signis caeli is also widely doubted today, but the work itself is reasonably ascribed to the period in which he lived (673- 735 AD).

Only the third source is securely attributed and dated. That is Michael Scot’s Liber Introductorius, completed in 1228.

Scot is best known today for the time he spent in the Sicilian-Norman court, but Scot brought to that court what he had learned earlier, including proficiency in Arabic and in Hebrew, both of which were commonly spoken in the Sicily of his time. Scot’s studies included mathematics, astronomy and natural history. Together with Andrew the Levite, he had already translated in Toledo the text of al-Bitrūjī’s de motibus celorum.

  • ‘Critical Edition of the Latin Translation of Michael Scot by Francis J. Carmody’, review by Marshall Clagett, Isis, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1953), pp. 280-281.

There has been little scholarly attention devoted to the iconography of Scot’s Liber Introductorius, and influences from older North Africa have been largely overlooked, as has his list of ‘Berber’ star-names and the full range of sources from which Scot worked. Apart from those still well-known, Scot refers to – but here let me quote Edwards:

Scot … mentions other authors [in addition to the most widely known] … such as the Tacuinum of Cleopatra, Isidore, Bede, Ambrose, “Alexander the Great,” Empedocles, Euclid, Hermes, Haly, loanton and Nemroth, Rasis, and Macrobius. He mentions the Tables of Toledo as being especially useful. He cites Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, Plato, Pliny, Cato, Galen, Jerome, the Sybil, and John of Spain.

Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978.

What this tells us is that, whatever the source of the astronomical information embodied by the Voynich calendar’s diagrams, the emblems used to fill the centres – and particularly November’s ‘beast’ – come from a source already known to Latin Europe before 1350 AD but which may not be a classic text or even one extant today.

We also have the example provided by diagrams in the astrological Libros del Saber to show that astronomical-astrological diagrams might later have central emblems added or created for them by later copyists. To paraphrase an earlier comment*: Diagrams in copies of the ‘Libros..’ differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced in their central emblems that one has the clear impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for these details himself.

*made in connection with Panofsky’s assessment of the Voynich manuscript, as reported by Anne Nill, that “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [our manuscript] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”

So at last the parameters for researching these two emblems are defined. Our initial focus will be on a period between 1350-1438 AD. We begin from the regions in which Occitan was written and understood. We do not presume astrological purpose. We allow for the possibility that the central emblems were added to, not obtained together with, their diagrams. We know there is a high probability that the central emblems, at least, were gained from some older source already known in the Latin sphere by no later than 1228 and possibly much earlier… and so now, to work.

Scorpius – ‘Labours of the Months’ series, Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine,  Vézelay (constructed 1120- 1150 AD). From its foundation until 1280 AD, the Abbey of Vézelay was affiliated with Cluny, of Burgundy. Founded in 910 AD, Cluny became the centre of an order of monks extending from England to Spain.

Postscript – Michael Scot and the Munich [M] source:

Speaking of an important Italian ms now Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Ms CLM 10268, Edwards remarks that in the margin of folio 125C is a horoscope by Bartholomew of Parma, dated 1287, and that this “presents a terminus ante quem for the exemplar, since the paleographic evidence does not support so early a date for this manuscript”. He goes on to say of this source, described as M without quotation marks:

The script is a compact Italian book Gothic, the letters being quite square. The “M” is made of three very sharp minims, and the “A” tends to form two loops, with the top of the letter almost touching the bottom loop. M in addition uses both the upright and the uncial “D”. These are characteristics of the last quarter of the thirteenth century, but the use of the looped rather than the upright final “g” is indicative of the early fourteenth century.

In view of the fact that Italian hands changed so slowly, it is difficult to place them with accuracy. Yet the style of script will justify an ascription of the date to circa 1300 more readily than to any other. I have attempted to push back the date of the manuscript to 1287, and discussed the matter with Virginia de la Mare, Assistant Keeper of Western Manuscripts for the Bodleian.
In her view, the decorations and colors used in the illuminations are characteristic of those executed at Bologna from 1300 to 1310 and cannot justifiably be ascribed to an earlier time.

Glenn Michael Edwards op.cit. pp. x-xi.

O’Donovan notes #8.5 folio 67v-1 questions outstanding.

c.1000 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

(additional illustration – 22 July 2022)

There are questions about the drawings on folio 67v-1 which are yet to be investigated. I thought some readers might be champing at the bit, by now, tired of being told how, and why, to do non-theory-driven research and impatient to try out the analytical approach for themselves.

As ever, the pattern for work of this sort, investigating problematic images of unknown cultural origin, begins by asking (not by inventing, imagining, guessing, presuming or theorising) – questions of that ‘where?’ and ‘when?’ sort. So-

  • Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars as circles or, if you prefer, as simple un-filled dots?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of providing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations?

Taking our main example as the four stars forming the peripheral ‘West’ emblem and which I’ve identified as tail-stars in Scorpius (remembering they could be drawn facing left or our right, and both are found in copies of al-Sufi’s Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib…*

  • A copy dated 1260-1280 AD, and suggested made at Marāghah (Iran) can be seen as British Library MS Or 5323. Other copies in Britain include Brit.Lib. Or 1407 ( Brit.Lib. IO Islamic 1407), Brit.Lib. MS Add 7488, (IO Islamic). The Bodleian library holds a copy as Marsh 144.
the yellow circles in the centre detail are my posited identifications for the four stars used to form the emblem on f.67v-1.

Below – Scorpius in a thirteenth-century copy of al-Sufi’s text, completed in 964 AD from knowledge of Hellenistic astronomy and the natural astronomy of the Arab traditions. Al-Sufi’s observations were made in Isfahan at a latitude of 32.7N° and included star-magnitudes – information not always agreeing with Ptolemy and not always accurately copied in later versions.

It may assist to have the stars’ descriptions according to the Greek-letter system no longer used by formal astronomy.

Valuable for historical research and normally difficult to access, is

N.B. the downloadable spreadsheet courtesy of John P. Pratt, whose name should not be omitted if making use of his work.

To add to the researcher’s challenges, the relevant manazil is sometimes found as ‘Shūla’ not ‘Shaula’ and while some important primary sources such as al-Biruni, and some conservative secondary sources such as Savage-Smith form that manazil of just two stars – lambda ( λ ) and nu (ν ) Scorpionis– other sources differ in their naming and/or the number of its component stars.

al-Biruni himself says that the two stars λ and ν are known as H’arazah, ‘the joints of the vertebrae’.

Illustrated copies of al-Sufi’s book show many more stars than two for the end of the tail, and a fifteenth-century eastern navigator, Ibn Majid, says of this manazil – which he knows as ‘al-Shūla‘ – that its component stars:

.. are all small stars, the smallest being of the sixth magnitude and the brightest of the fourth.. (p.109)

If you should find, from the balance of evidence you uncover, that you identify here four different stars of Scorpius from those I’ve nominated (see above), then by all means say so, and lay out the path which brought you to that conclusion.

Here’s one hypothetical alternative:

The best evidence will date to before 1440 AD or reflect habits and traditions demonstrably in place before then.

Marginal sources and notes that may assist.

If you looked at the astrological list of manzil that I mentioned and linked in the previous post, you may have noticed that the manazil is there named ‘Shaula’ but only one star is listed for it. By any criterion other than those which might apply to western astrology, that is wrong. It may have been the habit of some astrologers to represent the manazil by just one star. It wasn’t the custom most writers in Arabic or in Persian, nor the understanding of the eastern pilots such as Ibn Majid.

Jobes makes a passing reference to a comment made by Chilmead* about λ Scorpionis, as ‘It is also called Schomlek, which [Joseph?]Scaliger thinks is read by a transposition of the letters for mosklec, which signifieth the bending of the tail’.

  • possibly in his translation of Hues. See Brit.Lib. Addit. MS. 31429. ‘A learned Treatise of Globes both Celestiall and Terrestriall . . . written first in Latine by Mr. Robert Hues … Illustrated with notes Inr lo. Isa. Pontanus, and now lately made English … by John Chilmead, Mr. A. of Christ Church in Oxon.,’ London. I have not sighted the original.
  • Gertude Jobes, Outer space : myths, name meanings, calendars from the emergence of history to the present day (1964). Use with caution. I regret being unable to add further details, still having my notes but no longer having the book.

To transpose letters in order to avoid speaking a detested or prohibited word, especially a name, is familiar to us from Jewish religious texts but I understand it was also sometimes practiced in Arabic works. For all I know it may have been done by other religious communities, though I would not expect to find it in the west, nor among the Greeks. If we may accept that Scaliger cites some source for his information, then I should say it more likely that ‘Schomlek’ avoided some vernacular form as *S3h-mlk. I should not mention this except that it could prove relevant to the form of cap you see given one of the stars in that detail from folio 67v-1.

In any case, the cap is a last detail which may, or may not, ever be rightly understood and setting that aside, here are the questions likely to shed light on the origin, date and intended purpose for the four peripheral emblems:

  1. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars (not sun and moon) as circles or, if you prefer, as un-filled dots?
  2. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  3. Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations as apparently intended by giving one of the figures headwear? Is it done by reference to colour, magnitude, the star’s name, a particular legend, or by some other criterion?
  4. Is there any gender-differentiation apparent? If so, can you identify a language in which the the gender assigned these stars’ accords with their representation?

..and theorists think pictures are easy: ‘two eyes and commonsense-aka-imagination’. 🙂

O’Donovan notes #8.3a: folio 67v-1 (the centre – turned North-up.)

c.2000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

The central part of the diagram is now turned so that our posited East is to the viewer’s right, because most of my readers will find a north-up orientation more comfortable. It is not done because north-up is a ‘proper’ orientation. Like the diagram on folio 85r, this was designed South-up.

(detail) folio 67v-1.
Yale, Beinecke Library MS 408

Now, in the highest and the lowest position, you see two more flower-like forms, each showing a circular face without the sun’s leonine corona.

To a modern way of thinking, the natural complement for the sun is the moon, so it might be tempting to imagine, without any better reason, that these details may speak of the moon’s rise and -set.

(details) folio 67v-1

In the normal way, a researcher would have to investigate that possibility should it arise, but since this is only a demonstration of method, I’ll save readers’ time by saying that, in this diagram, the simple circular faces refer to stars, and this secondary pair will be treated in full later, along with the four peripheral drawings (see previous post.)

Here I note that second pair refers again to the lotus, though perhaps not the flower named ‘lotus’ by modern botany.

Whereas the pair used for the places of sunrise and sunset show the sun emerge from the petalled ‘cup’ but sink in the west into a flat surface, those for North and South distinguish the two elements differently. The East-West pair might possibly refer to the flower we call Lotus today (Nelumbo spp.) and in which the seed-pod is visible as elevated, flat-topped object

Nelumbo nucifera. The sacred lotus of Buddhism.

Names given N. nucifera in about 20 eastern languages – see here.

The second pair (north and south) instead show South surrounded by petals while North emerges from what appears as if it were a cloud of stamens. The distinction made, in both pairings, is between whether the heart has its outer covering, or not. This isn’t a purely iconographic distinction: it reflects a certain way of seeing, and perhaps knowledge of both the Egyptians’ lotus and that we now call Lotus (Nelumbo spp.)

When the petals of N. nucifera fall, the flat-topped pod is clearly seen, but with the Egyptians’ blue lotus, a waterlily, (Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea), what one sees are just the stamens.

For a summary of the Egyptian imagery and its associations – see here.

Not native to Egypt, the pink Lotus was first introduced, it is thought, during the period (6th-5thC) when Egypt was part of the Achaemenid Persian empire, whose eastern border co-incides with the western limit of that flower’s natural range “from central and northern India (at altitudes up to 1,400 m or 4,600 ft in the southern Himalayas, through northern Indochina and East Asia (north to the Amur region)”.

Achaemenid Empire

Within the Mediterranean Nelumbo nucifera could be seen in Egypt even before the establishment of Alexandria and thereafter seen by trader-travellers as well as by residents of the country.

It is perfectly possible, that whoever first made the diagram on folio 67v-1 might have know all three types – that is, the Egyptians’ native waterlilies known as lotus, both the blue and the white, and this pink Lotus. In my opinion, though it is not perfectly clear, the original maker probably meant the ‘east’ and ‘west’ in folio 67v-1 to refer to the Nelumbo, but those for North and South the Nymphaea.

Here, I’d emphasise yet again as antidote to popular conceptions of history that during the centuries between when Julius Caesar claimed Egypt and the mid-fourteenth century, the forms and sense of older Egyptian iconography weren’t locked in the mists of time, nor was all memory of their meaning lost. It is a surprise, but a pleasant one, to see for example that in Exeter Cathedral a thirteenth-century carving shows, semi-translated into Latin forms, two Egyptian ‘ba-birds’ and to realise that some Egyptian tour guide has explained to an Englishman, that it signifies a person’s ‘soul’. So here we see, in medieval England, the pair of soul-mates. This carving isn’t part of the Cathedral’s formal ornament but adorns a misericord, an area that individuals were free have carved into pretty much whatever image or design they pleased.

misericord. Exeter Cathedral. 13thC

(Another shows an elephant better-realised than many manuscript illustrations of the time).

Returning to folio 67v-1, the thinking behind inclusion and omission of petals reflects a world view very different from our own, and very different from the customs in medieval Latin Europe; this drawing isn’t ‘speaking European’ at all.

Ephemeral covering – perceptions of the flower.

For us, and in general for the Europe’s iconographic tradition, a plant is principally identified and defined by its flowers.

Once the petals fall, we tend to regard that plant as past its peak in every sense. We cut the ‘dead heads’ from the rose-bush, empty the vase and say to visitors that they should have seen the garden last week. Because such is our everyday custom, I expect most readers will consider it obvious and commonsense that a flower is better with, than without its petals. But this isn’t the sense intended by this drawing, and our assumptions were plainly not those which inform the Voynich plant-drawings either, save for a very few such as the violas on f.9v.

I’m not speaking here of scientific botany in the modern sense, though anyone who has been asked to collect specimens will know that the flower is required.

Our assumptions and priorities are not universal, and were not those of even some among the older Greeks.

For Theophrastus, as for most agricultural communities, the things which defined a plant were those which endured and remained constant. He considered petals an ephemeral set of leaves, a passing stage in the fruit’s formation and defined a plant by its habit, leaf-shape and fruit.

Pointing this out is no tacit argument for Theophrastus as ‘author’ of matter now in Beinecke MS 408, but shows that even scholars might understand the rural and non-elite workers’ point of view: that a plant’s fruit and seed were what mattered most and then what other practical value it had – as timber, fibre, fodder, dye-stuff, scent, medicine, toxin and so forth.

All these stood higher on the scale of importance, and informed schemes for classifying and defining plants, than did flowers – unless they too had some practical or commercial value.

Religious, allegorical and ornamental use of a flower-motif might influence ideas about some plants – such as the lotus – but overall, and in the diagram on folio 67v-1, the chief association with flower-petals is of immaturity and transience, their absence the later stage of development, endurance and permanence. What endured lay within.

The sun rises young from a flower, but sinks into what appears to be the flat-topped pod(?). The North and South emblems show the transient South star surrounded still by petals, while the enduring and constant North star is free of them. Neither ‘north’ nor ‘south’ show the flat-topped pod of the pink lotus – so I suggest the maker intended here to refer once more to the Egyptian lotus – Nymphaea.

(details) folio 67v-1.
(left) ‘North’ and (right) ‘South’.

There was no ‘South’ star for Medieval Europe,

The star Canopus, referred to as the South star in Arabic and Persian sources, could not be seen any further north than approx 32°N during western Europe’s medieval centuries.

Thus, in 1153 AD, the astronomer Ibn Rushd had to travel south from his native Córdoba in Al-Andalus (37°53′N) to north Africa ito see it, as he was finally able to do in the Berber city, Marrakesh (31°37′48″N). While it is certainly possible – so far – to suggest that the inclusion of this ‘South’ star reflects literary or proverbial allusions, it is not reasonable to suppose it reflects real knowledge on the part of any medieval Latin who had not travelled to that latitude.

Claudius Ptolemy knew Canopus of course, because his work was composed in Egypt in the 1stC AD and he was an Egyptian of Greek ancestry. In Hellenistic Alexandria, Canopus’ acronical rising had marked the feast of the Ptolemaia but precession had been taking it ever-further below the horizon since that time.

The Ptolemaia: the date of this feast’s foundation has been a subject of scholarly debate, but need not concern us. Any reader interested is referred to

  • P.M. Fraser, ‘The Foundation-Date of the Alexandrian Ptolemaieia’, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 54, Issue 3 (July 1961), pp. 141 – 145. accessible online through Cambridge Core.

In those southern regions navigators by land – such as the Bedouin of the Negev and Sinai, and navigators by sea – including Ibn Majid – called Canopus Suhayl, and – here I must correct the wiki article – “because [Canopus] appears for so short a time above the horizon (even) in those regions, it was associated with a changeable nature, as opposed to always-visible Polaris, which was circumpolar and hence ‘steadfast.’

That, precisely, is the distinction which is made between the star of ‘North’ as against ‘South’ in these motifs from the diagram on folio 67v-1.

Having said so much it’s time to do the obligatory reality-check though the historical, literary and archaeological evidence to see whether these sources confirm or deny our reading of the drawing so far. It is easy to force interpretations into a theoretical mould but .. no evidence, no case.

Is there evidence that the circuits of day or of night were ever defined by the stems of four lotus flowers? If so, in what visual ‘language’? When and where are closely similar iconographic conventions found? It is not enough to say that something might be or could be intended by a drawing; one must show evidence of similar ways of seeing and the same iconographic conventions – the visual ‘language’ of a given community and period.

With the ‘west’ emblem from the Voynich map showing that a pre-Roman Egyptian convention in drawing could survive to be in our present manuscript, Egypt is a logical place to start cross-examining our reading so far.

As it happens, examples abound, but I show this one (below) because it was made before the pink lotus (N.nucifera) was introduced to Egypt and because here we also see the four stems offset and are able to appreciate its significance. I’ll speak about the last point in another post.

Many such lotus bowls survive from this early period onwards. Egypt’s iconography and its conventions were maintained almost unchanged for (literally) thousands of years, so readers need not be off-put by the age of that example.

If the reader had gained an impression (not uncommon today) that Egypt’s four-and-a-half-thousand-year culture and all its attitudes and customs evaporated into a semi-mythical realm from the first moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship, I hope that idea will now be laid aside, knowing that (as we saw in folio 85r) not all the manuscript’s content can be ancient and much is unlikely to be of solely Egyptian origin.

On the other hand –

Egypt’s art and traditions did survive Caesar.

… and it is not at all impossible, just as Georg Baresch wrote about the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, that someone might have travelled (at some unspecified time) and collected information from monuments, books and people, even if knowledge of the Egyptian scripts had been forgotten.

One has to guard against confusing knowledge with books, especially for the pre-modern age, just as one must avoiding imagining history as if it were a train of self-contained and mutually-exclusive episodes, one succeeding another. And – need one say it – a modern scholar does not imagine that, in the pre-modern world. a thing could be known to no-one if it weren’t known to a European.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium (2005). For first bringing this work to notice in Voynich studies, the debt owed is again to Nick Pelling. (see here).

The Egyptians’ word for the lotus was sšn, also used for the lily. The Greeks called the Egyptian lotus ‘souson‘, but in the Mashhad Dioscorides we find ‘shushan’ describing a form of Iris – reasonably enough given the sense of ‘Iris’ in the Greek.

Nearly 2000 words, so I’ll break here; the remainder tomorrow.

Postscript – elucidating the ancient bowl.

Spell 148 in the Book of Coming Forth by Day directly associates all four of Horus’s sons, described as the four pillars of Shu and the four rudders of heaven, with the four cardinal- and the four intercardinal points.

O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth (thirteenth – sorry, missed that misprint) century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gain so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 is promising. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possibly also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.


In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.