‘Pharma’? – getting the goods.

WE’RE CONSIDERING whether Baresch was being realistic in supposing matter now in Beinecke MS 408 had been collected – or could have been gathered no less than two hundred years earlier – from ‘eastern parts’.

So far, we’ve seen that it was certainly possible for a person to travel between the western Mediterranean and China before 1440.

As for plant-products, some eastern plants appear regularly in Europe’s antidotaries by the ninth century.

Riddle’s survey of early medieval Latin antidotaries remains a valuable study. He comments:

From a list made of the substances, the following are those appearing in eight or more recipes (The number of times per recipe is in parenthesis): aloes (15), ammonicum (11), amomum (9), apium semen (10), cassia (12), ciminum (8), colofonia (14), fenuogrecum (10), libanus (12), Unum (11), mastice (16), murra (17), piper white-, long-, and black- (33), petroselinum (17), picea (10), scamonia (14), storace (13), terebentina (17), and zinzibar (8).

An examination of the identities of these drugs reveals a startling fact: most can only be found in the orient. Though it is impossible always to identify each according to the exact plant species, one can be fairly certain of the family or, at least genus.

  • Amomum is an aromatic shrub said by Pliny to come from India, Persia, and the Aral Sea region and presently attributed to Persia and the Aral Sea region.
  • Ammonicum, a salt, is ammonium chloride and apparently associated in antiquity with the oracle Hammon in the desert regions of Africa where ammonicum is found. Both Pliny and Galen note its use in early medicine, but it is known to have been manufactured in the late middle ages from the distillation of the horns and hoofs of oxen.
  • Aloes, employed extensively in ancient medicine, is found in south Africa but mostly in India where there exists a variety of species. Medicinal aloes is a resin described in the Materia Medica of Dioscorides.
  • Cassia, probably a product of cinnamomum pauciflorum nees*, is said by Pliny to be the “skin” of a shrub, and it is known to be found only in the far east.
  • Crocus is simply the Latin and Greek form for saffron, an oriental product.
  • Libanus, or frankincense, is a product of the orient, though one variety of the tree bearing this gum is indigenous to the Somalia region.
  • Murra, or myrrh, remembered along with frankincense as two of the Magi’s gifts, is the gum resin product of commiphera myrrha, found only in Arabia and Abyssinia.
  • mastice or mastic, a resinous exudation obtained from the lentisk plant, is presently grown in the entire Mediterranean area though evidence shows that in antiquity and the middle ages it was imported from the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Pepper, of course, is a product of the far east, a fact widely recognized in antiquity.
  • Scammony [derived from the plant convolvulus scammonia].is found only in the eastern Mediterranean area especially Asia Minor.
  • Storace or storax, widely employed in ancient medicine, comes from Asia Minor, Syria, and the far east.
  • zinziber or ginger [described by many ancient writers], is a native to the warm parts of Asia.
  • The remaining substances, apium semen (parsley seeds), colofonia (a resin product), ciminum*, fenogrecum (or fenum Grecum, a plant), Unum (flax), petroselinum (rock-parsley), picea (various forms of pitch), and terebentina (terebinth) are all found in western Europe. Thus, the evidence from this typical antidotary of 9 th century Europe discloses a large use of eastern products which had to have been imported. That is to say, the drugs were imported if the manuscripts of recipe literature were in actual use.

In the same paper, Riddle comments on his various sources saying (e.g.):

A manual for traders, composed possibly in the 11th century or even earlier, lists ambergris along with camphor, musk, aloes, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. (Kitāb al-ishārati ilà mahāsini ‘t-tjāra (Cairo A. . 1318), as cited by T. W. Arnold, “Arab travellers and merchants, A. D. 1000-1500”, Chapt. 5 of: Arthur Percival Newton, Travel and travellers of the middle ages (New York 1926), 93-4..

We know that the monks of Corbie in the 9th century planned to buy the followingmap Corbie France herbs and spices at the market: piper, ciminum, gingember [ginger?], gario file, cinamomum, galingan, reopontico, costus, spicum, mira, sanguinem draconis, indium, percrum, pomicar, zedoarium, styrax, calaminta, apparment, thyme, gotyumber, clove, sage, and mastick.”

To bring to the local market of Corbie such substances as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, galingale and cloves, and what may have been the true ‘dragonsblood’ of Soqotra, (resin of Dracaena cinnabari),* it was not necessary for the monks to travel east in person, but neither were Muslim traders so welcome in medieval France and England.

*After submitting, in 2009, an article identifying the chief subject of folio 25v as Dracaena cinnabari –  formerly described as Dracaena draco – I learned that Edith Sherwood had earlier offered an identification as the western Dracaena(s) from Morocco and the Canary islands. One of these is now called ‘Dracaena draco’.  As so often, botanical nomenclature has a long, confusing and irresolute history. The line is very easily blurred, in Voynich writing, between modern use of Linnaeus’ categories – which is the basis for modern botanical descriptions – and the ways of seeing which applied in ancient, medieval and non-European communities three centuries and more before Linnaeus was born. 

The cosmopolitan traders who passed easily through areas of diverse religious jurisdiction during the earlier medieval centuries included Nestorians, Radhanites and Jews,  groups whose networks extended far into the east, and who were content to ally in business with local merchants and middle men regardless of race or creed –  as documents of the Cairo geniza attest clearly for the India-to-Mediterranean region.*

*today, the Radhanites are said to be Jews, and were so classed by the Muslim rulers for purposes of taxation, but the earlier historical evidence suggests this might not have been the case and some medieval Jewish comments insist that they were only ‘messengers of the Jews’. This blogpost isn’t the place to explore the question.

apothecary Circenster 4thC gifWithin the Islamic empire, however, the itinerant Indian merchant-physician was also a well-known character, appearing in the Arabian nights as a stock character before the 12thC, and still so common a sight in the nineteenth century that it was in that guise Richard Burton lived in Egypt and travelled towards Mecca. We are yet to see a comprehensive study, in English, of the debt which Mediterranean countries owe to southern India and Ashoka.

Half-way Houses: Fonduk and Apotheca.

Baresch’s letter of 1639 1637 includes the following passage:

Regiones orientis adijsse, ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos, partim ex monumentis librorum, tum etiam ex conversatione cum peritis artis adeptos, indeque reportatos, talibus notis in libro eo defodisse.

Neal translates this, “He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script”.

I won’t presume to correct Neal’s translation, but note that in medieval Latin, ‘thesauros’ meant not only a ‘treasure-house’ – as it did in classical Latin – but also now a commercial warehouse in which goods were kept and so organised that any item could be brought forward with ease. To the Greeks, the warehouse was an ‘apotheka’. To the practical traders working from Cairo, Alexandria or Tunis, storehouses meant the warehouse-complexes termed fonduks in Arabic. Each fonduk included many store-rooms in which goods being imported, or purchased for export, could be held securely. A favoured city, such as Venice or Genoa, might be granted use of one or more entire fonduks.

But there was a metaphorical sense, too, in which medieval Latins used the word ‘thesauros’ – to describe the memory’s ‘stored treasures’. Altogether, these diverses senses in which the Latin term had been used might have later affected Baresch’s understanding of just how matter now in the manuscript had been (or could have been) gained.

Writing almost two centuries later, Baresch envisages ‘thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos‘ as ‘treasures’ of Egypt’s medical learning, where it might been ‘the learning of the storehouses’. One bought or sold goods for their practical applications, and (as Flood says),* medical uses were among those for which ‘oriental’ plants were traded. It’s just a thought.

*passage quoted in the previous post.

The equivalent Greek term for a warehouse – ‘apotheka’ – had also shifted in meaning. Here again, Riddle

The best illustration of trade in drugs is exemplified in the derivation of the word apotheca or apothecary. The Byzantines had local depots, called àποθηκαι, in the main harbors and road termini of the Mediterranean area. Just how or when the word changed from a general depot to a dispensory of drugs is unknown, but some clues can be found. An edict of Frederick II, regulating medical activity, referred to apotheca apparently in the sense of a store house for drugs. During the 13th century, at least, the word apotheca comes to have the specialized meaning of the modern word. The very fact that the word for an import-export house came to be associated entirely with the meaning “drug-store” demonstrates vividly the relation between trade and drugs.

  • John M. Riddle, The Introduction and Use of Eastern Drugs in the Early Middle Ages’, Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, Bd. 49, H. 2 (JUNI 1965), pp. 185-198.

What I’d like to point out in this context is that

  1. The ‘leaf and root’ section’s unusual format finds few parallels in the west, but we’ve noted (in the previous post) two commercial documents, the one an illustrated invoice from fourteenth-century France by an Italian businessman, and the other the style of Chinese ‘Bencao’ herbal texts which were also employed as ‘forme’ for bills of lading and for the purpose of inventory and taxation.
  2. Artefacts represented in the ‘leaf and root’ pages display details characteristically ‘oriental’ (as I’ll show in the next post) and may represent the forms in which particular goods were presented, purchased, carried and/or stored.

The ‘Spice Islands’ –

As late as October 8, 2019, a blog devoted to the history of the ‘Spice Islands’ titled a blogpost “The first appearance of the Spice Islands on a world map – the Atlas Miller (1519-1522).”

The author’s definition of ‘world map’ allows him to claim the sixteenth century map a ‘first’ but in point of fact those islands had appeared on three notable worldmaps centuries earlier, viz. al-Idrisi’s twelfth-century world-map; Abraham Cresques’ great worldmap of 1375, and in specifically Latin European cartography, the Genoese ‘eye-map’* of 1457.

* Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena – shelf-mark C.G.A.5.b.)

Cresques’ worldmap refers to ‘Jeylan’ (Ceylon) as an important source for eastern spices, though in reality it was another trading hub trading not only in Indian, but in Arabian, Himalayan and far-eastern ‘spices’. Soqotra was another eastern mart of that that kind.

The earliest of the three is Al-Idrisi’s world-map. Al-Idrisi is also credited with a compendium of plants in which each was provided with a detailed description and its name in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Berber and Arabic, predating by a century the Clavis sanationis – popularly known as the ‘Synonyma’ – composed by Simon of Genoa and which was then presented to Pope Nicholas V (1288), commended by Roger Bacon and soon required by the faculty of the University of Paris to be held by every registered apothecary.

Two other books credited to al-Idrisi were about pharmacology, and medicine, but so far I’ve not found mention of any extant manuscripts.

For a first reference to the Jewish works of this type, see below.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – open access.

  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. *highly recommended*

  • Savelsberg. Bos, Hussein, Mensching (authors), Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance).

  • “Only ten manuscript copies of the Book of Roger currently survive, five of which have complete text and eight of which have maps. Two are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, including the oldest, dated to about 1325. Another copy, made in Cairo in 1553, is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, acquired in 1692. The most complete manuscript, which includes the world map and all seventy sectional maps, is kept in Istanbul”. (source – wiki article)

Genoese ‘Eye’-Map. and another traveller – Niccolo de’Conti

For this map, the original essay at the Henry Davis’ site cites a study by G.H.T. Kimble for recognising three distinct influences in it, apart from the western cartes marine namely, the Classical, the western Christian and the Arab. Of these Kimble said that only the Arab influence is strong, and that it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.

However, in what appears to be an increasing tendency within certain central European faculties towards regression to the old Eurocentric default,* a recent essay published online (to which I won’t refer readers) claims that the ‘eye-map’ relies for much of its content on information delivered to Poggio Bracciolini by by Niccolò de’ Conti (c. 1395-1469).

*In the same way, in another paper from the same central European university – one fast gaining a reputation for ‘white washing’ European history – it is asserted that Abraham Cresques’ worldmap was influenced by no more than a couple of western Christian sources chiefly Marco Polo and Oderic of Pordenone.  The author of that paper offers no evidence, and makes no attempt to provide specific textual comparisons, his assertions defying both reason and the informed, detailed commentaries by earlier specialists whose better-informed and better-documented opinions have traced the literary sources referenced by Cresques’, finding that they refer, among other sources, to the ‘Alf Layla wa Laya’, to Ibn Jubayr’s travels and to others accounts of foreign parts such as that by Bejamin of Tudela who moved between centres of the Jewish diaspora.

Niccolo de’ Conti was a Venetian who lived and traded in the east for a quarter of a century, finally returning to Italy in 1439. During his lifetime in the east, de’Conti had married an Indian wife and by the time of his return had a large family by her. She may have been a southern Indian Christian, of the ‘Community of St. Thomas’ – traditionally said to have been founded from Egypt in the 1stC AD. The literature, religious images and history of this church was eradicated by the western church through the agency of the Portuguese, a new legend then created and still maintained by which which all Christian churches of southern India were asserted founded from Syria in the 3rdC AD. Little material evidence remains now to support the older tradition.

At some stage, de’ Conti had adopted Islam and as penance for that ‘heresy’ de’Conti was obliged to “deliver the narrative of his journey” to Poggio Bracciolini.

Whether this was done orally or whether it included surrendering other documents, is not known, but from that material Bracciolini then created a bowderlised and gentrified narrative in which de’ Conti is made a socially elevated ‘traveller’ – more or less a passing tourist – and his 25 years’ residence and life in eastern trade reduced to cursory and uninformative survey of ‘foreign marvels’.

It is evident from other sources of the time, that de’ Conti could not have spent a quarter century in the east as ‘a traveller’ of the sort Bracciolini makes him, but was an resident trader.

I’m not particularly inclined think that Beinecke MS 408 is Bracciolini’s copy of matter delivered to him by de’ Conti, but the possibility has to be noted, and it would at least offer an explanation for a text whose hand is said to be ‘humanist’ appearing in a manuscript whose layout and images are anything but characteristic of Latin Europe, let alone of the Italian renaissance.

I also doubt that de’ Conti could be the chief source of information for the ‘eye-map’ of 1457, because while certainly drawn in the style of the western cartes marine, it includes an image for Canopus+Crux which has it half bull and half fish. A ‘bull of the sea’ was one way to describe a master mariner and Canopus is the chief star of the once enormous ‘ship’ constellation, but in terms of the image qua image, the combination of bull and ‘fish’ is ancient in India. The example shown below was carved in Bharhut, in an early house established by Buddhists for the shelter and care of foreigners..

The idea of mariners as ‘sea-bulls’ was apparently not wholly unknown to the Mediterranean. The following is said (by Charles Singer) to copy an image in a fifteenth-century English manuscript but he offers no references. As I read its details, this image represents the ‘ship of the world’ as allegory of the universe.

  • A list of nine notable foreign traders, emissaries and visitors to India before 1450 is given here.

So now, having established that there is nothing in the historical record to oppose Baresh’s view that a ‘traveller’ might gather material from ‘eastern/oriental’ parts before 1440, we can turn to analyse the drawings in the leaf-and-root section, while keeping in mind that Baresch’s intention in using terms like ‘oriental’, ‘Egyptian’ or of thesauros remains uncertain.

What magic? Where magic? 5c: Green stars (67v). Initial observations.

Two prior posts

These three green stars in folio 67v surely can’t be meant literally; there are no stars which appear deep green to the naked eye. So  we must look at other ways of thinking about stars and about colours to understand what ideas inform this diagram.

Before doing that, there are some preliminary points to be addressed.

(The scans now on the Beinecke site are more bleached-out than were the earlier ones, incidentally fading signs of the vellum’s inferior finish, and making  these stars look blue-grey).

67v green stars full gif

Johannes Klein once said:

“there are actually one to [a] few “stars” on the night sky that appear green and are so described in ancient literature .. One star, however, stands out as it was already described as green by ancient authors that is Zubeneschamali, or Beta Librae in modern terms. Being the brightest star in the constellation Libra, maybe it is drawn at several folios.”

– -Johannes Klein, comment to Stephen Bax’ site,  July 23, 2014 – 2:15 PM.

Klein did not specify which ancient author/s he meant, nor provide any secondary source and I’ve not found the reference yet. If you know, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Hinkley Allen has β Librae ‘pale emerald’ and (p.277) quotes William Thomas Webb,

“in the heavens deep green, like deep blue, is unknown to the naked eye”

  • Richard Hinkley Allen, Star Names: their lore and meaning.(various editions).

Hinkley Allen is still the most accessible source in English, though must be cross-checked against more recent and scholarly studies as e.g. those by Paul Kunitzsch, David A. King, David  Pingree, Tsvi Langermann or Otto Neugebauer, though Neugebauer is not without his biases.

Modern astronomers describe β Librae as a blue dwarf, while admitting (with a faintly grudging air) that  to the naked eye it does look green-ish but is the only star which does.  

That might explain one green star but the diagram has three.

Klein then suggested, reasonably, that they might be the same star repeated.  On seeing his comments, a few months after he’d written them, I decided to repost some research-notes earlier posted in my old blogger blog, ‘Findings’. (reposted to voynichimagery 22nd November, 2014). I’ll include a little of that material later.

So – why green stars on folio 67v?

‘Just for fun’ ?

It is true that Latin scribes were sometimes self-indulgent, so it is possible – just possible – that the scribe was tired of drawing the same forms and made some stars green just for a change.  It’s possible, but it cannot be proven, and the revisionist’s default must be that there’s a reason for what is there in front of you, on the page.

Purely decorative? Again, this is possible, but we cannot begin with such an assumption, and if it were to prove a purely decorative design, then historical analysis must take a different path.  It remains a second-last resort,  the ‘arbitrary’ being last of all.

Classing the diagram – divisions.

Exploring the technical, astronomical reference, the first step  is to define what type of diagram this is.

It includes an image of sun and stars, so we may begin with the hope that it speaks to such things – in which case, the number of its divisions should announce the type of diagram it is. This is a practical way to determine type for any technical diagram that conveys astronomical or astrological information. 

Not unexpectedly, the Voynich diagram is not unambiguous. The diagram’s outer border, though broken into sections, is incomplete to our right and our left so that while we might extrapolate to obtain a theoretical number of divisions for that border, it will be better to use something that is on the page – like the lines of written text. This gives 17 divisions for the circuit. Not an easy, predictable, ’12’ or ’16’. And just to make things more interesting still, the Voynich diagram has these radial divisions, as you see, unequally spaced.

One division (to our right) is actually double the size of those opposite it – where two of the three green stars are.

f 67v unequal divisions detail marked

As ever, one may not meddle or try to ‘fix’ information provided by the primary evidence.

If those unequal divisions irritate, it is something to investigate – not to ignore, arbitrarily to ‘correct’ ‘adjust’, or rationalise.

#Rule No.1 – Don’t mess with the evidence!

A mathematical average (360°/17) will tell us nothing useful, because the divisions are unequal on the page and our initial position – as ever – is that what is there is what was meant to be there. Movement away from that position must be required by a preponderance of clearly contrary evidence.

If the diagram pre-dates manufacture of our present manuscript, the number of divisions may be informative on its astronomical reference, but won’t necessarily explain why they are now painted green, so those questions must be separated.

I’ll leave aside, for the moment, the fifteenth-century scribe’s painting three stars green and concentrate on the number of 17, and unequal divisions of the circuit.

The diagram could be a schematic diagram, or it might refer to a planisphere projection, but that number of 17, in combination with unequal distribution, and combining the stars with a sun(?!) evokes for me description- but not a formal representation – of some form of sidereal compass. To speak generally, a sidereal compass describes a circuit or compasso of the navigator’s stars and though widely known by mariners of the eastern sea – called there ‘the Great Sea’- one fifteenth-century navigator, Ibn Majid, says was otherwise known only to his ‘brethren’ the original ‘barbary’ men of Africa’s north-eastern shores, near Sicily. It may be from them that Michael Scot, in Sicily, had his ‘berber’ star-names. No-one has yet identified the dialect.

However – mariners used the circuit of stars in navigation, but some eastern mariners, including the Arabs, also took the names of seventeen of those stars/asterisms to name their compass-card’s 32 points. On the card, those points are equidistant, but in practical astronomy it wasn’t so.

To illustrate, I’ll show a different example, the Caroline islander’s sidereal compass. This again names the 32 points using just 17 stars. One for each Pole, and then the east (risings) for each of 15, and the settings for those same fifteen on the west. Thus 2+ (15×2) =32.

stars mariners Carolinian unequal divisions

More of this ‘sidereal compass’ possibility later.

It doesn’t do to allow a possibility to take hold and become a theory before other reasonable possibilities are tested. Most important, now is the question of the diagram’s orientation.

#Rule No.2  Never assume the answer’s already something you know. 

manicle elegant lone right NoteThis might be a good moment to remind readers that what is in this post is from my own research,  is limited by that research, and any conclusions are  those I draw from that information. Other and better insights may yet be offered, so if any reader decides to repeat something from this post, the passage should be quoted directly, the introduction of this data and opinion to Voynich studies attributed to me and their own readers allowed the freedom to check out that data and opinion for themselves, so to judge my conclusions.   That’s what citing precedents and sources is all about – respecting a reader’s right to be more than a ‘believer’.  As someone else said,

“In Gd we trust – all others must bring data” – Dr.Mike (‘medlife crisis’ vlog), quoting one of his teachers.


As an initial guess, I’d posit here that, as with the Voynich map’s flame-haired sun-emblems, this face is to be understood as moving and looking towards the west.

Even so, there are two likely options:

First, that the gaps in the border to left and right were intended to signify those ‘gates’ though which the sun, moon and/or stars were variously imagined to pass into, and to leave, the visible sky.

green stars f.67v

Alternatively, we might take it that the sun’s ‘line of vision’ as its line of movement, in which case an approximate path for its passage would run:

green stars f.67v marked E-W tentative

NOTE re ‘vision’ – Unfocussed eyes: I note in passing that while northern peoples presume the sun benevolent, it is otherwise for peoples who know the sun’s savage heat.  Depiction of a leonine or feline sun whose eyes are unfocused is an old tradition in harsher regions, a tradition that survives even today among the ivory-carvers of Benin.  The ‘unfocused eyes’ for the sun, in folio 67v, is one of numerous indications that the image had its first enunciation in an earlier and other context than fifteenth century Europe. Examples below: {left) feline sun with artificial beard – Phoenician ivory, found at Nimrud. dated c.8thC BC.; (upper right) messenger as winged representative of the king-god’, probably Phoenician. Again from Nimrud. (right, below) modern ivory of traditional form, from Benin in Africa’s north west. I first presented these images as illustrations to a series of posts published through ‘Findings’, the first published on July 30th., 2010).

ivory unfocused eyes predator sun

A couple of years later, in treating the origin and evolution of the month-folio’s August emblem, I mentioned the custom again (voynichrevisionist, October 29th., 2012), noting that a faint remnant of that ancient graphic tradition of a feline sun survives in one thirteenth-century coin, described as from ‘Thamarra’. By the thirteenth century, in an Islamic context, this was no more than a traditional motif.

coin of Thamarra gif

‘Thamarra’ – In Wolf’s commentary on Eusebius’ Onomasticon (1971) Notes. pp. 76-252 Wolf mentions that on the Madaba Map there is a Thamara located as suggested by Eusebius, and that the Tabula Peutinger has a Thamaro 52 or 53 miles from Jerusalem while Ptolemy’s list (V, 15, 5f) has a Thamaro about 55 miles distant. The Notitia Dignitatum (74:40) has a Tarba and (74:46) a Thamarra both of which have a [Roman] garrison.

Orientation (resumed).

In the diagram on folio 67v, the artificial beard might be more consciously deployed to refer to the mid-heavens – the time of the sun’s strongest heat – by analogy with man’s greatest strength. between the infirmities of the newly born infancy and late old age.

While we’ve not yet tested either of those first tentative observations about an ‘east west’ line, if the second option survives testing, we might then posit further that the ‘pointer’ flame/lock is meant to indicate a North point, though that meant astronomical or magnetic north for the fifteenth-century scribes or intended user, it is much too soon even to guess.

f.67v pointer-lock of sun hair

But if it were to be proven to point ‘North’ we might then say with some confidence that all three of those green stars should be found south of the sun’s path. For someone in the northern hemisphere, that would mean ‘far below’ Polaris.

Comment: – I’ve often felt sympathy with d’Imperio when she describes the manuscript as an ‘elegant Enigma’. The drawings are elegant in conception, yet their analysis must so often be approached like this, from several individual guesses, each of which must be tested individually against the objective historical data, and then against all the rest, and then by comparison to what has already been learned from other studies of the primary document, until each of the working guesses is  either discarded or found to ‘click’ into place and open out the original maker’s intention. 

Because as I’ve said, this post is  original and I can cite my sources but (alas) take refuge in no precedent, I’m including information about my method and samples of the data, too. I cannot avoid the post’s being long but I will précis as much as possible.

Cultural cues/Peculiarities – false hair and sun-of-night.

False hair and ‘serpentine’? locks.

You might have noticed – though in 2010, I couldn’t learn of anyone who had done before – that the sun’s face looks as if a female, or for a young male, has been given an artificial hair and beard.   These flaming locks (of hair?), are bound into a twisted cord, passing around the chin and over the crown of the head.

f67v-1 Green stars 16 or 17

 Only the two serpentine locks seem to be original/natural, one of the two looking far more like a serpent than the other does. (Caput draconis of Leo?) (Agathos daimon?)

The motif is well known from Egyptian evidence, and then (as shown above) from Syria and/or Phoenician north Africa, but had no place in Greek art before the Hellenistic era, nor later in Roman art..

The only two locks which seem to escape from under that band of artificial ‘flaming’ hair may refer to the Hellenistic appropriation of the ‘horns of Amon’. The example below from a coin made for the first Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy Soter I  who was believed by Latins of medieval Europe to have composed  Claudius Ptolemy‘s works.

coin Ptolemy ! vestigal horn-serpentine late 4thC -early 3rdC BC

The reference becomes relevant to study of Beinecke MS 408 not least because we have an early, direct testimony from a person who had the manuscript in the earlier part of the seventeenth century, who studied it for years and who went to some lengths (including contacting Athanasius Kircher and sending him carefully copied excerpts) as to his belief that the matter in the manuscript had been gained from someone who travelled to ‘eastern parts’ and collected the matter from ‘ancient Egyptian’ documents, monuments and teachers.  Baresch’s comments have sometimes been read not as emphatic “It is certainly conceivable…” but as hypothetical “it is certainly conceivable..”.  I take the former reading, but for reasons we can’t spare space to explain here.  Time and again, however, the manuscript’s content offers Baresch support. This is one instance.

Another possibility deserves mention, though, as interpretation of those ‘sidelocks’, because it offers a direct connection to the simpler forms of container depicted in the  Voynich manuscript’s ‘leaf and root’ fold-outs. Fold-outs like this do not occur in Latin manuscripts before ours, and not for many decades afterwards.

I’ve called the two ‘side locks’ serpentine thinking of the pair which are seen in Egypt, but which were described in the Greek world as the ‘agathos daimon’ and the kakkodaimon. As older deities did, these later became identified as ‘demons’ and mentioned in magic.  The ‘daimon’ was not a ‘demon’ to the Greeks or to the Egyptians.

The type appears on some cities’ coins during the Hellenistic and then the Roman era, and chiefly on  those for Tralleis in Asia minor where they are seen in association with a type of container variously described in modern studies as a cista, cista mystica, capsa or simply as an offering/tax collection ‘bucket’, depending on specific use. 

photo (below) coin of Tralles, 2ndC AD.   left: serpent and cista (‘cista’ like ‘capsa’ also described a tax-collection bucket). (rightagatha daimon and kakkodaimon – a pair gained from older Egypt. photo Courtesy wildwinds.

coin cysta mystica Tralleis 2ndC ce reduced

Containers of the same sort were are seen (as ‘capsa’) holding papyrus scrolls – reminding us that in earlier times the serpent’s significance was not of evil but of ‘wisdom’ and ‘know-how’.   A later coin from Tralleis, while under Roman rule.

coin Lydia Tralleis 2ndC wheatlid obverse Byzantine style

and below, similar images made during the Roman period but before Christianity became an official religion of the empire.

capsa Pompeii(left) Herculaneum (right) 1stC AD

above. (left) cista (as capsa) in painting from Pompeii; (centre) reconstructed, from Herculaneum. (right) in the form of a 3rdC ‘tax-bucket’.

Quite apart from the implication of those ‘serpent-of-wisdom’ sidelocks, the false beard informs us that the image now on folio 67v was not first enunciated by Latin of medieval Europe.

However, since we know that the diagram was of interest to at least one fifteenth-century person, very possibly European, then that constant purpose is the most important question. What did that fifteenth-century user believe the diagram described? What did he or she (and it was probably a ‘he’) make of the bearded sun, and its being set in a diagram apparently about the night sky? Why green stars?

Might the ‘seventeen’ lines of text describe seventeen brightest stars in the zodiac?

(I saw no reason for such a ‘zodiac’ or ‘luni-solar’ diagram within the context provided by the diagrams adjacent to that on folio 67v, but if you’d like to test the possibility, here’s a link which might help).

“Sun of night”

The diagram on folio 67v seems technical, but its stars are linked with a leonine ‘sun’ and not with the moon so we appear to have what could be described as a night sun.

Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘sun of night’ is off the board as reason for this diagram. He wouldn’t be born for another half-century after the Voynich manuscript was made.

On the other hand, Agrippa’s ‘occult’ studies were pursued in Toledo where, as Luigi Pulci attested in the early fifteenth century, traditional north-African and Islamic customs deemed ‘magic’ by Latins, were being openly taught and demonstrated. What Agrippa would later study in Spain, many others already knew when the manuscript was copied.

This made it worth considering another possibility. Though it proved a dead-end, this may save another researcher’s wasting time.

I considered whether the stars on folio 67v mightn’t relate to the series of lunar mansion stars in some way, and possibly via the ‘dot patterns of geomancy, but though some medieval Latin manuscripts refer to asterisms by drawing a few dots within a border, there’s no ‘seventeen-fold’ system which applies either to the 28 manzil or to the geomantic ’16’- so far as I could discover.

However, since I mentioned interlocking wheels of the ‘Enigma-machine’ earlier, here’s a thirteenth-century divinatory device in which the lunar mansions (here 28 in number) are correlated with the dot-patterns of geomancy – geomancy being one of the subjects about which Agrippa would later write. d’Imperio also mentions it.

astron and geomacy combined device 13th Mosul Savage SmithFound in North Africa the device is  believed brought from the eastern Mediterranean. Its dials correlate the 16 geomantic figures with sixteen of the twenty-eight lunar mansions. (British Museum, Department of Oriental Antiquities, Inv. No. 188.5-26.1. Detailed analytical studies have been published by Emilie Savage Smith and Marion More.  Illustration above taken from,
  • E. Savage Smith and M.B. Smith, ‘Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-century Divinatory Device – another look’, Chapter 8 in Emilie Savage-Smith (ed.), Magic and Divination in Early Islam. (2004)

In case any reader would like to consider the idea for themselves, here’s a slightly- altered diagram derived from one in that study noted above by  Smith and Smith. In common with the sidereal compass, the system does refer to each asterism twice – at a point of rising and of setting.

stars geomantic notae and lunar manssions correlated dial Savage Smith

Another option. An astrolabe?

On a medieval astrolabe, you might find as few as 12 stars, but the usual number was between 15 and 21, with some few magnificent instruments having many more.  One example studied by Savage-Smith includes 50, but in such a case the only way to identify stars in that diagram on folio 67v would be to locate the specific instrument referred to, or take a guess at the 17 most commonly shown on surviving astrolabes.  It might be worth a cryptographer’s time to try that, but I didn’t think it worth mine. I’ve yet to see an astrolabe with such a  ‘sun-face’ at its centre. 

  • For an overview of medieval instruments – Byzantine, Islamic, Latin – see:
    David A. King, “Astronomical instruments between East and West” (1994), and on Islamic instruments other than globes, David A. King, In Synchrony with the Heavens, I. “Astronomical instrumentation in the medieval Islamic world” and XIIIa “On the favourite astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages”: 1-110 and 337-402.

On the subject modern attitudes to the study of medieval astronomical works, King has this to say in another paper:

Considerable progress has been made over the past century toward the further documentation of the history of Islamic science by scholars of divers nationalities, with fortunately not all of them interested only in transmission to the new Islamic world (mainly from the Hellenistic world but also from Iran and India), or transmission from the Islamic world to Europe (mainly via Spain), but rather in what Muslim scholars did within their own culture between al-Andalus and India, and between Central Asia and the Yemen. 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, and the modern Islamic world is unfortunately barely aware even of that. More recently it has been discovered that some aspects of Islamic astronomy came to Renaissance Italy from Istanbul, with Jews as the principal intermediaries. What is true of ideas is also true of instruments.

  • David A. King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (paper published online Nov.24th. 2018 see davidaking.academia.edu. 

A couple of instruments have already been noted in connection with the Voynich calendar’s month-names:

  • Nicholas Pelling, Curse of the Voynich (2006) pp. 22-3. For the month-names’ being in a form of Occitan, Pelling credits Stolfi and Landini. He brought to notice:
  • David A. King, The Ciphers of the Monks – A forgotten number notation of the Middle Ages. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2001. See also
  • Robert T. Gunther, The astrolabes of the world, based upon the series of instruments in the Lewis Evans collection in the old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, with notes on astrolabes in the collections of the British Museum, Science Museum, Sir J. Findlay, Mr. S.V. Hoffman, the Mensing Collection, and in other public and private collections. 2 vols. (1932).
  • and various works by Emilie Savage-Smith.

Other Possibilities.


As a division of the sun’s year or of the lunar year, seventeen divisions makes no sense practically nor, so far as I have discovered, historically.

Canonical Hours?

Nor does that number of divisions accord with the number of the canonical hours, whether in the earlier or the later Christian centuries, in the Latin or the Byzantine church.  For this point there are many easily-accessible summaries – this wiki article will do.


Since 2010, when I first introduced this matter to current members of the Voynich online community, referring blog-readers to Tibbett’s translation of Ibn Majid’s Fawaidd, a great deal of material has been posted online about the subject and I see no reason to spare so much time explaining it now. There’s is a really superb old-wiki article, available as a pdf, on the subject of the compass-card and its winds.

This following table and commentary comes from a more recent wiki article.

I’ve corrected some of its errors, but it’s good enough as a first stage in research.

‘Kavenga’ was not the term used by the Arabs, but by some mariner-peoples of the Pacific. Interestingly Majid describes himself a a mu’allim kanaka, which does make sense in Arabic, but ‘kanaka’ means both ‘man’ and ‘navigator’ in certain Polynesian languages even today. On links between the two, I again recommend:

  • Michael Halpern, ‘Sidereal Compasses: a case for Carolinian-Arab Links’, Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol.95, No.4 (1986).

[wiki article, quote, start]

The “side­real” com­pass rose de­mar­cates names the com­pass points by the po­si­tion of stars in the night sky, rather than winds. Arab nav­i­ga­tors in the Red Sea and the In­dian Ocean, who de­pended on ce­les­tial nav­i­ga­tion, were using a 32-point side­real com­pass rose be­fore the end of the 10th century.[4][5][6][7][8] In the north­ern hemi­sphere, the steady Pole Star (Po­laris) was used for the N-S axis north point; a notional ‘Pole of Canopus’ for the South. the less-steady South­ern Cross had to do for the south­ern hemi­sphere, as the south­ern pole star, Sigma Oc­tan­tis, is too dim to be eas­ily seen from Earth with the naked eye. The other thirty points on the side­real rose were de­ter­mined by the ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions of fif­teen bright stars. Read­ing from North to South, in their ris­ing and set­ting po­si­tions, these are:[9]

NbE“the Guards” (Ursa Minor)
NNEAlpha Ursa Major
NEbNAlpha Cassiopeiae
EbNthe Pleiades
EbSOrion’s belt
SEbEBeta Scorpionis
SEbSAlpha Centauri
SSouthern Cross Kutb Suhail.

The west­ern half of the rose would be the same stars in their set­ting po­si­tion. The true po­si­tion of these stars is only ap­prox­i­mate to their the­o­ret­i­cal equidis­tant rhumbs on the side­real com­pass. Stars with the same dec­li­na­tion formed a “lin­ear con­stel­la­tion” or kavenga [‘sky road‘] to pro­vide di­rec­tion as the night progressed.[10]

A sim­i­lar side­real com­pass was used by Poly­ne­sian and Mi­crone­sian nav­i­ga­tors in the Pa­cific Ocean, al­though dif­fer­ent stars were used in a num­ber of cases, clus­ter­ing around the East-West axis.[11][12]

[wiki quote ends]

Note – In practice, things were a little less simple. Some of the points here named as single stars were employed as a group – an asterism – of which the major star was one. Also important was the system by which a star was ‘fettered’ or conceptually tied to others as if one were forming a geodesic ‘path’ across the sky towards the wanted destination, but the Arabs didn’t speak of that sky-road as the ‘kavenga’.

Inclinations (not conclusions) – So far, I’m most inclined to regard the ‘pointer’ as north-pointing, and the three green stars as three bright navigation-stars of the southern quarter, though there are ones further south than Canopus.

Here’s how the southern circumpolar stars look to someone in the southern hemisphere. (To find Polaris, follow the Milky way past alpha Centauri and then keep going in below the horizon for a fair way. You can’t miss it..

Chambers of the south Crux Sulbar

photo below – page from a copy of one of Ibn Majid’s works. No further information was provided – sorry. Note the manuscript’s size – only 15 lines to the page. Unlike the Voynich manuscript, this shows no evidence of any aversion to ruling out, to ruled lines or to use of the draughtsman’s compass, signs of which are all surprisingly uncommon in Beinecke MS 408.

manuscript Majids

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese: being a translation of Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Nadji.

Postscript: Majid was from the Azd tribe, it is thought, and for the period we’re considering, a south Arabian dialect such as Mahri would not be impossible, though it is now almost extinct.  A script not unlike the Voynich script is also known from early southern Arabia.  It has been found inscribed on palm-leaves and is referred to as zabur –  ‘psalm’- script. However, this script includes an ‘x’ shaped letter as the Voynich script does not.   Since the following is only for illustration, and I gave full details when first posting it to ‘Findings’, I won’t add this to the bibliography. 


Next post : ‘Sun of Night’ in medieval Ireland and Spain. Green stars in medieval France and since I won’t be referring to the Arctic, here are some nice images of the Arctic’s ‘sun at night’ from the ‘Bad Astronomy’ blog.

Though I brought formal training and thirty years experience in a relevant field to the study of this manuscript’s drawings and have gained another thirteen years’ desultory research experience since then I still can’t claim to know enough yet to have formed an all-encompassing ‘Voynich theory’. All I have is an opinion from conclusions drawn from the data so far.

To be continued…

Next post – Ways of seeing: Stars in the Latins’ tradition.

Skies above – not astrological

I’m going to be very brief.

Having tried since 2010 to explain to the ‘voynich community’ that  the month-folios show no evidence of astrological purpose – regardless of what source may have provided the central emblems –   I’m not going to repeat my evidence and reasoning, but will quote two specialists each of whom, just a few days ago, was kind enough to respond when asked if the month-folios resemble any sort of horoscopic chart known to him.

Both men are competent, dispassionate and (above all) independent witnesses.  Neither did they know my view before giving their own.

re –  ‘astrological’ character for the month-folios:

Regarding Beinecke MS 408 – aka the Voynich manuscript, I can say with confidence that the page in question is in no way associated with astrology. There are no symbols that could be interpreted as astrological glyphs, either of planets or signs. Moreover, the numerical values are not in accord with known astrological symbolism; there are no recognizable asterisms depicted, and the female figures have no plausible astrological correspondence. I believe the attempt to interpret the MS from an astrological perspective is flawed and likely to be the cause of more confusion than clarity.

-P.James Clark, specialist in the history of astrology (eastern and western). Maintains the ‘Classical Astrologer‘ blog.

and on the notion that each month-diagram is a  ‘horoscopic chart’.

[the image provided] is not a horoscope in any conventional sense, as a horoscope would clearly show the divisions between both the twelve zodiac signs and what we now know as the twelve houses, as well as planets and their exact positions in the zodiac Also, it would be accompanied by some data of the time, date and place.

Dr Nicholas Campion, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, author of the two volume History of Western Astrology (Bloomsbury)


(Being a revisionist has its moments!)