Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:

 

David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at voynich.nu I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through academia.edu)

 

Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?

 

Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for Vat.gr. 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)

and

There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)

 

For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast   ..so, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.

 

So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.

 

  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript Vat.gr.1291.

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in Vat.gr.1291 folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.

Libra

In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That Vat.gr.1291  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at voynich.nu.  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..

 

Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad

Chorography..

I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.


edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.

 

Skies above: elevated souls Pt.1 (moral character)

About the ‘ladies in baskets’ on folio 70v-i….(cont.)  

So far, the research had identified certain  environments where we find the same informing ideas; where, for example, it was not considered  odd  to liken the stars to a series of baskets, and where it was equally acceptable  to speak of the stars as a ‘conclave’ of some kind, but one outstanding problem which must be addressed before we go further is  that of perceived moral character.

‘Good women’.

That the month-diagrams should envisage the heavens’ denizens as mainly females, and show a good number of those unclothed presents a blank opposition to the mores of medieval Latin Europe.

The heavens were understood to be a destination assigned only to the good – and no  ‘good woman’ was depicted in medieval Latin art unclothed and (to use Panofsky’s expression) “shapely”.

Even the constellation of Virgo was normally to be found dressed by then, and when one of Gemini’s twins was depicted as a unclothed female (at least until 1440) she was meant for a sexless, or a married woman, or as the temptress Eve – who according to some popular traditions was never accepted into heaven. (Dante side-stepped the issue and does not specify Eve’s location in the circles of heaven, purgatory or hell, unless it be directly below those ‘four holy stars’ he saw as he emerged from the underworld. I do not think Par. 32.4-6 means Eve, but the Magdalen – cf  Purg. 28.93-94 … but that’s all by the bye).

It wasn’t only Latin tradition which defined, by default, any unclothed ‘shapely’ female as less than moral; the same was true in most communities of the medieval Mediterranean (and no, I’m not forgetting the diagram in Vat.gr. 1291).

It was that discrepancy between the Voynich drawings and the usual (Wilfrid-Friedman) narrative which led me to doubt the ‘Latin author’ idea very early in my acquaintance with Beinecke MS 408.

Naturally I had begun, as most do, by supposing there must be some original body of solid study informing ideas contained in the Beinecke catalogue description, and the sources everywhere recommended, but this matter of the ‘ladies’ led me to enquire further and to the conclusion that the usual theory had no solid foundation, only elaborate superstructure, and that this had been the case since 1912. I am only speaking of interpretation given the images and the quasi-historical narratives.

The usual flaw in them has been to presume correct some assumption or other, and to select images, or add commentary less to explain the images themselves than to convice a reader that the theory is plausible.  This is why discussions most often focus on points of ‘similarity’ while ignoring as irrelevant all the points of difference.

One of the best comparisons for the month-diagram’s tiered figures that I have seen was Ellie Velinska’s, as I’ve said before.  Among more recent offerings has been that included in a post by  JK Petersen from a manuscript which he cites as  ‘Darmstadt c.1390’.

I have not been able to locate that manuscript, but found another illustration of the same kind at the Courtauld Iconographic Database (here) and will later reproduce a detail from it.

The image illustrates a parable from Matthew Ch.25, verses 1-16, the last two verses stating the story’s moral and beginning “You are to be the light of the world…’.

Here is another illustration of that same parable, and from yet another copy of Speculum Humanae Salvationis ( Brit. Sloane MS 361, folio 44r).  Note that the ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ maids (a term often rendered as ‘virgins’) are given simple dress, but the  five  ‘wise’ maids are placed in the higher register and crowned while the five ‘foolish’ maids are assigned the lower level.

Those lamp-bearing maids are always ten in number in these illustrations  –   another point of difference from the Voynich month diagrams.

In still another copy, made somewhat later in the fifteenth century, the moral message is expressed more forcefully. The picture says, in effect,  “either carry the Christian light or stoke the fires (of hell).” (Brit.Lib. Harley ms 2838),

Differences:

  1.  these ‘maids’ are always neatly dressed and coiffed
  2. they are never  in baskets, tubs, or buckets,
  3. In  images of this type they always carry ‘lamps’ of a contemporary sort:  apparently of coarse pottery, cup-shaped,  and when provided with a hand-grip, evidently designed to set in a sconce or (if without hand-grip) to be set on a flat surface.  Illustration (right) from the Corsiana ms copy of the Spec.Hum.Salv., courtesy of the Courtauld Iconographic Database.
  4. The flames are never depicted without a lamp.
  5. The flames are never depicted as flowers or as stars
  6. The flames are never ‘tied’ to the maids by a stem- or string.
  7. The figures’ bodies are never shown deformed or with ‘boneless’ limbs.

Though the Gospel text speaks specifically of oil in the lamps, Orthodox imagery could depict the light as a rush or taper.  The example shown (below, left) is from a mural in the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Pec. And in this case again the ‘wise’ are envisaged as ennobled by their acceptance into heaven.

The thinking behind this Orthodox imagery can be explained conveniently by quoting a passage from Chrysostom’s eighth homily on I Thess. He is  speaking of the same theme: Christ’s return at the end of days:

And upon the coming of an affectionate father (i.e. the deity), his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain [shut] indoors.

 I have cited Chrysostom over others because he was a native of Antioch; his period of greatest productivity was the third quarter of the fourth century AD, and thereafter his writings were widely disseminated and as well known by medieval times to the Latin as to the Orthodox churches. All thought (and think) very highly of Chrysostom, but I confess I cannot warm to the man.

On anachronism: When attempting to elucidate a medieval religious image, care should be taken to avoid anachronistic sources. Ideas widely disseminated today under the rubric ‘Christian’ may not have been part of the medieval Christian way of thought before 1440.

More

Some are positively antithetical to the norms of both western and eastern Christianity to that time. For example, a version of the Bible recently issued by an American fundamentalist sect omits passages and episodes they consider incompatible with their vision of Christ as a military figure and ‘fundamentalist’ in the modern American manner. Their text thus uses for the word ‘disciples’  a term specific to the military and excludes an episode from the Christian gospels in which Christ refuses to sanction the stoning of a woman taken in adultery… and so on.

In other cases, a post-medieval source is to be avoided simply because it is flawed.  I regret to say that the King James’ Bible (1611) is in this category, despite its being so widely and deservedly revered for the beauty of its English. The Revised Authorised version is more widely used today.   In my own work I have found most reliable (since the 1980s) the NIV interlinear bible. It was produced by a co-operation of well respected Biblical scholars of the Christian and the Jewish faith.  Its comments and scholia thus unite modern historical research with the long tradition of religious commentary proper to each of those faiths, and it presents, line by line in parallel with the offered translation the original texts in their original languages.  It does not include certain books, known as the Deuterocanonicals  which were everywhere accepted in medieval Europe to 1519 and included in all bibles until the publication of Luther’s Bible in 1534. To explain various visual and verbal allusions in earlier manuscripts and art, the Deutos are needed too.

There are neither lamps, nor tapers, depicted in the hands of the Voynich figures –  male or female, clothed or unclothed- in the month diagrams. Nor are their bodies depicted in a way commensurate with medieval Latin conventions, nor those of Orthodox Christian art. There is nothing in the depiction of their bodies to suggest they were designed to convey any Christian message. 

The Voynich “lamp” on folio 8ov.

The nearest we have to a lamp’s depiction is a type of horn-‘lamp’ on folio 80v – another of the ‘ladies’ sections.  I have already  compared it with Hellenistic and later images in the analyses published at Voynich imagery – and from a post of 2016 reproduce the image of the coin (below, centre). It is not a ‘cornucopia’, but it is a horn.

 

So – once more the imagery directs us away from medieval Latin (western European) Christian culture and, by way of earlier, and eastern Christianity, to the pre-Christian period.

Bearing in mind that there are many more than ten, or twelve ‘ladies’ in the tiers of each month-diagram in the Voynich manuscript, we should not expect any easy correspondence with the usual depictions of the zodiac, or anything of that sort, but an image first brought to notice by Dana Scott (so far as I can discover) as been so constantly re-presented since then – rarely with proper credit given – that it must be considered here.  The diagram in question is on folio 9r Vat.gr. 1291, dated to the eighth century by some scholars, and to the ninth by others.

Differences:

  1. Nowhere does the Beinecke manuscript depict a chariot; it has no crowned rider, nor indeed any sort of horseman.
  2. None of the Voynich month-diagrams is amenable to twelve’fold radial division, and the number of tiers in folio 70v-i is only two.
  3. The Voynich figures hold star-flowers, often with strings or stems – none of those in this diagram do.
  4. the zodiac in the outer (highest) circle of this diagram shows no close correspondence to the central emblems of the month-diagrams in the Voynich manuscript.

So all it tells us, essentially, is that in the ninth century, somewhere in the Byzantine empire  but probably in Constantinople, an effort was made to render into Christianised form information gained from earlier sources of which some may have had a Christian origin, as the matter of its written text does not.

Point of similarity:

In only one point does it shed any light on images in the Voynich month diagrams, that is, that the bodies of the figures described as ’12 holy virgins’ display some characteristics in common with the way the unclothed female figures are drawn in the Voynich month-diagrams.

Their description as ’12 holy virgins’ is another part of the  effort (largely unsuccessful and short-lived) to re-interpret this pre-Christian imagery in Christian terms.   I suspect the bridge between the 12 female figures and their Christian description depended on the ‘Shepherd of Hermas.

At least they are unclothed. We might fairly describe their limbs as rubbery-looking.  Their hair seems to have been cropped  and this, with the other characteristics, suggests they were originally envisaged as  ‘women of an hour’.

 

Dawn light.

One of the 12  holds an object not unlike the ‘cup-lamps’ in those Latin images shown earlier (e.g. the Corsiana manuscript) and I read it as signifying the hour of dawn,  ‘lighting the Sonne’s return’. It might even be meant for the dawn star, Venus, but I do not insist on it, nor that we see here a flame rather than, say, burning incense.  The object might even be a horn, rather than a small lamp or burner; to decide the issue one would have to see the manuscript itself.

Sources:

Vat gr.1291 has been the subject of much scholarly attention, but most of it has been paid the written part of the text.

Franz Boll described both text and miniatures and although he has been dead for a hundred years, and his work since been emended and many of his guiding theories disproved or disputed, his name should at least be mentioned.   Sources more often cited today include Spatharkis of Leiden University, and Timothy Janz.

 

  • Timothy Janz, ‘The scribes and the date of the Vat.gr.1291’, In Miscellanea Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae, Vol X (2003), pp.159-175* and plates. I-V.
  • Ionannis Spatharakis, ‘Some Observations On The Ptolemy Ms. Vat. Gr. 1291: Its Date And The Two Initial Miniatures’,  Byzantinische Zeitschrift 71 (1):41-49 (1978)
  • ______________, Corpus of Dated Illuminated Greek Manuscripts to the Year 1453, Leiden, 1981.
  • ______________, Studies in Byzantine Manuscript Illumination and Iconography (1996 – collected papers)

 

Voynich stars as guiding lights ‘of the hour’.

There is nothing in the image from Vat.gr.1291 or from the illustrations of the ‘wise and foolish maids’ which allows any inference about the content of the Voynich month diagrams or their labels – certainly not enough to justify suggesting the Voynich labels or text derives the content of Vat.gr.1291 or of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis.

There may be a more general, conceptual, link, and for its linguistic basis the first and most obvious possibility is the [Gk.] horae and false (‘folk’) etymologies attaching to it.

Some slight evidence for a link to Ptolemy’s tables is offered by similarities between the style of drawing for unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’ in the bathy section and Gemini’s depiction in Sassoon 823 (UPenn LJS 057), which latter manuscript  I introduced, noted, hunted out and illustrated at Voynichimagery even before UPenn had catalogued it, or put a digitised copy online.

I have since seen the  reference used by one or two Voynicheros, but always without mention of the  analytical commentary, comparative images and conclusions I provided (or any mention of my name).  The same bad practices and the same culprits have so often abused the generosity of those contributing original finds and research to this study since the early 2000s that one reaches a point where it seems pointless to keep feeding the pigeons.  Partly on my own account, and partly in self-imposed solidarity with the numerous others similarly treated I closed voynichimagery in 2017.

For the same reason, I’ll say no more about my own investigation of the Voynich figures as ‘of the hour’, though I will say the answer requires, first, careful investigation of the range of meaning for an ‘hour’ – the answer is not any simple ’12’ or ’12×2′.