How to Voynich – O’Donovan notes. #1

Over the years I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408, one of the more knotty problems has been the level of technical and specialist language I should use when publishing online. People as young as 8 years old and as old as 80 have commented on posts or sent emails. Some have been such eminent specialists in their own field that I’ve responded by asking if they’d be kind enough to give me their thoughts and any advice, because it would be ridiculous to pretend I know as much they do about some particular issue. Comparative historical studies of eastern and western pharmaceutical practice, for example.

Against that, some who’ve contacted me are people who left school before they were 18 years old and have spent their lives in business or in a trade and tend to feel a bit prickly about being referred to academic studies. They have no interest in the details of some tradition in drawing and don’t want to pay for Brill publications, or subscriptions to journals or to JSTOR.

Some have been led to think that, in any case, any critical science is easier than the pragmatic sciences, deemed ‘hard science’. So they assume that ‘anyone can have a go’ at this manuscript and its pictures – though they’d never suggest that a chemistry lab, a craftsman in furniture, or garage mechanics should allow ‘anyone’ to walk in and have a bash at it.

Given the emphasis I place on information from non-Voynich studies as reality-check, some readers may find it surprising that in my opinion most people, regardless of age, have the potential to add something of lasting value to our understanding of MS Beinecke MS 408.

This series of posts is for mainly for novices and for ‘Voynicheros’ who want to do worthwhile work.

The key is not to over-reach. It is that failing, more than any other, which explains why this manuscript’s study is still in its infancy after more than a century. People with neither training nor natural skills have constantly presumed to assert this, or that, about the manuscript’s date, place of manufacture, its pictorial or its written text, to ignore the opinion of specialists in relevant fields, and to invent their own historical-fictions as Voynich ‘theories’.

So my first point is that you should first know and then work within limits defined by your practical skills.

Don’t be tempted into areas where you have no formal training and where others could tell you (and will sooner or later) that you have less objective competence than you might imagine.

As a rule of thumb, levels of competence can be described in terms of method.

Anyone with a practical hobby knows, just as well as any scholar or scientist knows, that before a person becomes competent they must have a solid foundation of knowledge and good grasp of practical method.

A person has to be able to do things the (or ‘a’) right way, and also be able to explain why it IS the (or ‘a’) right way.

This is true whether you’re talking about loading, cleaning, storing or carrying a gun, or making a french-polished table, or mixing cement, or preparing an historical essay or performing a scientific experiment in the lab. First principles matter. Method matters.

The typical Voynich ‘method’ adopted by ambitious types, since 1912, just isn’t right for the task at hand. We don’t need another story illustrated by erroneous visions of the manuscript, its written or its pictorial text. We need to understand the real thing.

The reason my name is to be part of the title for this series of posts is to make quite clear that their observations and guidelines are the result of my own observations of the manuscript and the curious history of its discussion since 1912.

I’ve spent more than a decade working on the manuscript, myself, and came to it armed (if that’s the right word) with formal training, decades of experience, practical work and a bit of what could be called teaching, but which I think of as training apprentices. I thought I’d be able to produce a fair evaluation of the images within a couple of weeks. That was in 2008. It’s not an easy subject and, frankly, most of what you’ll find online and in ‘Voynich’ writings is .. how shall I put this .. not demonstrably true.

The great gap between ‘Voynich studies’ and other fields of study is that Voynich writers have often shown a surprising ignorance of even the basics in subjects about which they pronounce opinions. Some have not only shown ignorance of the basics of (say) palaeography, but very determined ignorance. You find people who have no Latin, and who can’t be bothered studying medieval society and history, yet they expect to be heard when they propound theories about the manuscript’s being in Latin and produced here, or there, by one imagined ‘author’ or another.

If a person wants to become a mechanic, they know that if all else fails there’s a manual they can consult. It’s objective information. They don’t start by creating an imaginary vehicle, and then argue that the specs. for that imaginary vehicle are more valid than those of the actual car they’re supposed to be working on. But since 1912 and especially in recent decades, Voynicheros have begun by inventing a theory and then arguing, in effect, that if the real manuscript offers objection to the theory, that the manuscript is wrong.

No, I’m not kidding. They get away with it, to greater or lesser degree, because there’s no body of solid, reliable observation for Voynich studies. There’s a lot of solid information about history and manuscript studies outside ‘Voynichland’ but Voynicheros seem rarely to understand why they should consult it. Luckily a few more specialists are now applying their knowledge to this example.

In chemistry, you have as your foundation the history of chemistry, its textbooks, and then ISOs and Standard Methods. In art history, apart from individual opinion, you have centuries of records and commentary which provide a reliable basis from which to begin your own investigation of some specific picture or, in this case, the images in one specific manuscript.

But there is almost nothing so solid within Voynich writings to serve as a foundation for people wanting to contribute to the study.

On the excuse of ‘theory’ or some other substitute word for ‘fiction’ Voynich writers have being saying, and getting away with saying, things that are simply untrue for a century. Since there’s no way to do a reality-check for most assertions within Voynich studies, the only option is to turn to the mass of external information about history, manuscripts, languages and so on.

Of course there are Voynich wiki articles, and ‘wiki fandom’ online. There are Voyich papers published through academia.edu. There personal websites where a theorist simply collects what they please from what others have said about the manuscript. The best known of sites like that is managed by Rene Zandbergen. It’s called ‘voynich.nu’ and Zandbergen adopts a tone that suggests the site should be regarded as authoritative. Many treat it that way. But readers should realise that Zandbergen is an amateur and a theorist. Just as any other individual does who writes online, he puts out what he chooses. So when you see some comment made there which sounds as if it’s reporting scholarly consensus – such as “this is not generally accepted”, you need to translate that, because it very often means something closer to “I, Zandbergen, don’t like/want/accept it.”

In scholarship, however, ‘generally accepted’ implies that, as a result of various specialists’ independent work in a field for which they are qualified, the results of another scholar’s work find general acceptance. People working independently find that the newcomer’s results are commensurate with their own, as products of their own labours and years of professional training. Independence in such cases really matters; otherwise, the sort of ‘consensus’ you get is that of one unit, like a lobby-group.

We have to judge what is done by its quality, not the number of people who find it easy to believe – easy because they have not the means to form any objective judgement of their own.

Zandbergen cheerfully admits that his field of professional expertise is in engineering and his Voynich work a hobby consisting chiefly of encouraging others, maintaining a network of personal contacts and having material from various other people’s work selected and collected for re-presentation in his website.

His chief interest has been in creating a plausible story for what happened to the manuscript between when it was made (c.1404-1438) and when Wilfrid Voynich first saw it.

But as for you, or Zandbergen, or me – the limits of a person’s skills are the limits within which they can, or can’t make valid qualitative judgements.

That’s why I think it essential, if any contribution is to be worthwhile, that people work within the limits of their real abilities.

Because I am utterly unqualified to decide what is, or isn’t, valid when it comes to claims about the manuscript’s written text being in Latin, or Cuman, or Nahuatl, whether enciphered or not in cipher, I offer no opinion about such things. There are others involved who do have formal training and experience in comparative linguistics and cryptology, so why dig my oar in unless a proposition is obviously contrary to what I know of history, archaeology, comparative cultural norms and iconology.

So, first item of the O’Donovan Guide.

You want to contribute something to a better understanding of Beinecke MS 408?

  1. Know your strengths.
  • What are you good at doing?

If you can’t be honest about this, you can’t produce worthwhile work. Bluffers may succeed for a while, and in Voynichland they last a lot longer than they would elsewhere. But in the end, they are no help because people who pretend to have skills and knowledge they don’t have are sooner or later discovered, and thereafter their name is mud, and everyone who has relied on their assertions is adversely affected. Build on unstable ground, and sooner or later the house cracks.

Your strengths don’t have to be spectacular. As an example of how a very simple skill can prove solid and genuinely valuable, one Voynichero whose name is hidden behind the pen-name ‘VViews’ has been producing item-counts, such as the number of ‘people’* drawn in the manuscript, how many people with shoes on, how many beast-like forms.. and so on.

*‘anthropoform figures’ would be the preferred technical description in my discipline, because one must first determine whether the first enunciator (the person who first gave this form to the informing idea) intended these figures to be understood literally, or as embodiments of myth or of inanimate things, or of  abstract qualities and so on. Calling the figures ‘people’ implies literalism and skips several important stages of analysis).

If you think that making lists of that sort was a trivial job, think again. (One of these days I may explain the message that was carried by a figure’s being represented shod or unshod in medieval western art). If correct, (and I expect they will prove to be pretty well right), Vviews’ count-lists have already improved my own work. He notes that four such figures are shod, and I had noted only two: the Archer and a figure on folio 80r. So – thank you Vviews. No, seriously, it’s valuable work and needs an ability to maintain concentration even when the work is utterly tedious and miscounting very easy.

So, start by making a list of the things you are really – objectively- good at doing.

Nothing about personality. You may think you’re brilliant, or not very clever. You may think your only real skill is P.R. The main thing here is to be absolutely realistic about your practical abilities and formal training. So if you know lot about music, its theory, history or technicalities, include that. It may or may not prove relevant, but the subject has cropped up from time to time and your existing knowledge means you would find it easier to do the research, and produce a balanced opinion, if a question arose about western and eastern music, or the specific forms of music written to accompany (say) the Romance poetry of medieval France.

So now, having made that list of your practical skills – cross off whatever you are good at doing but don’t enjoy doing.

Voynich research is a long-haul task and there’s no need to find yourself bored to the point of nausea half-way through.

In the next post, I’ll provide a checklist of sorts that you can run through and, I hope, define the area(s) in which your real skills are most likely to lead to a real contribution.

MOST IMPORTANT. Contrary to what is often thought, you do not have to begin with a ‘theory’, let alone a new theory.

The important thing is to have a desire to contribute something solid and reliable to the ongoing work.

Too many Voynicheros, since 1912, have aimed to leap to the top of the pile with a flimsy theory as some ultimate solution to the Voynich ‘problem’. The problem isn’t the manuscript. The problem is to reach a valid understanding of its form, materials and its pictorial and its written text.

Since the manuscript is no more a theoretical object than is a car, or a table, it doesn’t need a theoretical-fictional story invented for it.

On the other hand, if your talents lie is breaking ciphers, consider the formation of theoretical models part of standard method. 🙂

Voynich research is work. It’s a job which, for most, is not engaged for pay. What it needs are people who can do something useful and do it well.

So well, in fact, that they produce ‘steps’ solid enough for others to use as the basis from which to begin their own efforts. Think in terms of making an independent contribution, not becoming a drone, nor attempting to ‘own’ the study. Voynich club, not Voynich factory.

Take as your model Captain Currier.

He spoke once about the written text’s qualities, from his own observation as a qualified and experienced cryptologist. Just one contribution, made half a century go, but it remains rock-solid as far as I know. (Any cryptologist like to comment on that?)

Don’t suppose any aspect of this manuscript ‘easy’. Just as you’d need much more than a hammer to make a watch, you need more than two eyes and guesswork to rightly read and contextualise pre-modern imagery; more than a dictionary to make a translation, and more than a talent for fiction to make Voynich history. In the long run.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched

Preamble:

Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

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

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’

https://www.sciencehistory.org/books-of-secrets-writing-and-reading-alchemy

Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched

 

Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.

 

Skies above: 6b Due (pro-) portion.

Header: detail from an item of north African red-slip ware, dated 5thC AD.

Two previous:

This series so far

Taking the ‘March’ diagram on folio 70v-i as paradigm, we have seen that the ladies’ ‘boneless’ arms and shoulders are the result of transmission through a community with attitudes different from the original maker’s.   The time-range in which shapely female figures are found whole and unclothed within the Mediterranean world is limited to a period  between   c.3rdC BC to c. 5thC AD –  after which they do not re-emerge within the art of western Europe until a couple of generations or more after the period (1404-1438) when the Voynich manuscript was made.  It follows that the figures’ first enunciation had occurred during the earlier period and within the stated limits, if we  accept as working hypothesis their first enunciation occurred in lands adjacent to the greater Mediterranean (that is, including the Aegean and Black Sea).

NOW…:

I move on to those parts of the research investigating the reason for, and meaning expressed by, setting these ‘shapely ladies’ with their flower-stars, or star-flowers, within what appear to be highly ornamented baskets placed – not altogether equally- around the circuit(s) of the month-diagrams.

I’m aware that a majority of Voynicheros are best acquainted with Christian Europe’s medieval art and history, so have deferred discussion of ‘Artemis women’ for the time being to begin instead with the late 4th-early 5thC AD,  Augustine, and north Africa.  In this post, too,  I’ve included a deal of historical-comparative material for readers who have had little exposure to comparative historical studies, or cross-cultural histories of iconology.

Adding even a little of  that comparative material made the post very long indeed – as long as a 20-page report – so I hope readers will forgive me if I don’t do the same in later posts – and if I  allow some weeks to pass before posting again.

 

§1. North Africa 4th-5thC;

links to the eastern Mediterranean; Mutual beliefs and images.

The header for this post shows a detail from a piece of  North African red slip ware*  dated to about the fifth century, and possibly made during Augustine’s lifetime.** It was discovered in Metz, in northeastern France.

*called ‘terra sigillata’ or ‘-sigilata’ in the older way.  ** Augustine was born in 354 AD, and died in 430 AD, before the Vandals invaded.

When Augustine was born and throughout his youth,  north Africa was (contrary to what you will read in the wiki article) a backwater of the Roman empire, over which Rome exercised little direct control, and it was yet to be invaded by the Vandals and Alans, which latter event would occur in  439 – almost a decade after Augustine’s death.As we have seen, polytheism was still alive and moderately well. To judge from the  perceptions of an admittedly jaundiced and xenophobic Rutilius Namatianus, the Christian monks who maintained the classical literary traditions later were as yet rarely seen. He speaks of just one group, on an  “ill-kept isle full of men who shun the light. Their own name  for themselves is a Greek one, “monachoi” (monks)… What silly fanaticism of a distorted brain is it to be unable to endure even  blessings because of your terror of  ills?”  (Rutilius Namatianus: de Reditu suo I.440ff).

  •  Augustine’s environment – see this site, for an overview but allow for that author’s pro-Christian bias e.g. “In some of the same [dark] corners, old local pagan cults could still be found”. In fact, Augustine’s father maintained the older Phoenician religion and did so without any fuss made by his wife or by his son, though the wife plainly preferred her own, Christian, religion. It is evident that Christianity was not yet “the dominant religion” of the area.  On the political situation and cultural mix, though, the essay is good.

The population about Carthage was a mix of Berber and Roman military, remnants of the original Punic population and a large Jewish population. Manichean and other forms of Christian belief had reached so far from centres in the eastern Mediterranean and informed the views of large, but not yet predominant number in the population. An influx of Roman refugees from the Goths, and  food shortages after a disastrous tsumani in 365 AD had changed the earlier social, religious and economic environment while Augustine was in his teens.

Though the detail in our header is clearly no expression of Christian beliefs, it might well be captioned by quoting from a text which Augustine also quotes in his City of God:

And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and many of the just as the stars forever.

(Daniel 12:1-3)

That passage was actually first composed in Aramaic, and in the eastern side of the Mediterranean, during the 2ndC BC – the time when Sergius Orata built his fishponds.  The Book of Daniel is a work of Jewish religious literature, but Christianity  adopted it with many other Jewish works and so it was translated into Latin, and used thereafter throughout the Christian possessions – and so known to Augustine.

We needn’t suppose the book of Daniel known to the potter.

Like the author of Daniel, and like Augustine, the potter refers to ideas widely prevalent and of great antiquity, but which Augustine will express through a lens of Christian interpretation.

No element in the pot’s ornament was an invention of the potter’s.  Not the ‘fish’-like shape of the baskets, nor their being suspended on a rippled line, nor the evident maturity of the angelos’ figure, nor her costume.  It is what they (still) signified for persons of that time; and more,  the antiquity of those ideas  which – as well what they look like – elucidates what we see on folio 70v-i.

At the religious level, the image on the fifth-century AD pot is derived from older ideas about Artemis, her character/s and cult/s but what I want to emphasise before we go further is that a modern reader must consciously demolish that wall which today we imagine to exist between the ‘business of religion’ and that of daily life.One also needs to abandon the idea that the secular ‘business of living’ is something which is necessarily better for being conducted without reference to ideas once universal among humankind.What we find in the earlier history of humanity is not best described as ‘superstition’; it was rather a view of the world in which the everyday and the numinous intersected; where human action was an echo – and one observed – by deity, much as children’s play imitates and is overseen by the parental eye.The microcosm was less something distinct from the macrocosm than its reduced expression. In modern terms we might speak of symbolism and metaphorical imagery, but it is important to understand that in the ancient world, a string of ‘fish-lights’ was not simply one poetic metaphor for the stars; it spoke volumes about cosmic order, the presence of the numinous in everyday activities – even fishing or hanging suspended lights.The old woman who came from none-knew-where might be – not a metaphor for Artemis or Athena – but actually Artemis or Athena.There was no mutual ‘wall’ against the gods and people; it was a barrier only one-way.And as Jonah, St.Paul and many others learned to their peril, it was the ‘god who travelled just below the hull’ to whom would be consigned any who went on board ship in a state the Christian would describe as sinful.Since it is part of my aim in this post to show just how older polytheistic concepts survived and were translated into Christian expressions in art, I’ll illustrate this example too even though it is tangential to our present subject.The illustrations below are (once more) those used when I first introduced this matter to Voynich studies in posts to Voynichimagery.In the fifth century AD, as we saw in the previous post, a living polytheism co-existed side by side with the same Christian authors whose ideas  re-worked, as much they opposed, the older ways of seeing.Those Christian authors and the verbal and visual images contained in their texts continued to be read in Latin Europe throughout the medieval centuries and still in the early fifteenth – when interest was rising among a few in finding and reading un-edited texts from the pre-Christian world.  It was at this time, probably in mainland Europe, that the Voynich manuscript was made in the form we have it. So far, the internal evidence of the month-diagrams (with folio 70v-i as paradigm) suggested  first enunciation in a range from the 3rdC BC- c.5thC AD.Futher research limited that range – as you’ll see – but to suppose such pre-Christian works or ideas could not be copied in early 15thC Europe is to quite misread the history and temper of those times.Gibbon says that Cosimo de’ Medici, (1389 – 1464) brought in his ships  loads of spices and manuscripts together. At that time Tunis, Constantinople and the Black Sea ports were the chief entrepots of the spice trade.

“[Cosimo] … corresponded at once with Cairo and London; and a cargo of Indian spices and Greek books were often imported in the same vessel.” Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I quote from Volume IV of the ‘Chandos Classics’  edition published in four volumes in London by Fredrick Warne & Co, in 1883.  (p.454).

§2. Lights along the Margin

§2.1 the rippling line. 

Neither is the potter’s setting those lights on such lines, nor with such spacings, an act of artistic license. Intelligent order was the very definition of the Greek term kosmos.. And that was his subject. The boundaries ordained by the divine were the definition of cosmic order – and the rippling line here signifies a boundary of that sort.

Here, as in other folios which depict the ‘ladies’ – though not in the month diagrams – we find employed the rippling line that signifies a cosmic, and divinely ordained boundary: as between the earth proper to humankind and the sea;  as margin between earth and those  higher heavens whose boundary only the gods might cross embodied and yet  live – unless the human body had been made immortal.Even when referring to the earth itself this line may signify a boundary between the land proper to humans and that uninhabitable or unknown.As late as the fourteenth-century, the author of the Muqaddimah could speak of the far southern part of the earth as a region in which nothing could live or multiply.Roman maps, like the Voynich map and various medieval maps,  make that southern boundary of the human domain a ‘rippled’ wall. I cited this same example (above, right) among others, when treating the Voynich map in detail – the first time it had been provided with any clear definition or any detailed systematic commentary.My conclusions proving unsupportive of any theory then circulating, the results were initially ignored or presumed another theory-driven narrative; efforts to create more Eurocentric-friendly versions began about eighteen months later – late in 2012.As so often the same illustrations, and many of my sources and my findings were re-used, but without reference to their source or the historical and technical commentary which had given them point.Omission of the present author’s name, in such cases, also prevented others from weighing the opinions of the original study against  later efforts.In the case of the fifth-century artefact, we are looking at the boundary between earth and waters – those of the world below and of the heavens.  When used in this sense the rippled line is customarily described as the  ‘cloudband’ and in that way (if not accurately in every instance) it has been applied to details in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery since the early 2000s. I have been quite unable to credit the person who first contributed this insight to the study – for which again we must blame that pernicious habit of re-using others’ work without due credit given from the first. This has become a systematic error in the study – and as we all know, system error creates error exponentially.
 the terms ‘wolkenband’ and ‘nebuly line’ in Voynich-related writings:

 

Nineteenth-century historians of art, even when writing in English,  littered their essays with terms adopted from other European languages, in a way that seems pretentious today if a viable alternative exists.  For ‘cloudband’ English writers often used the German, ‘wolkenband’.  The habit faded after the first few decades of last century and is not employed today unless you’re writing in German or describing certain types of traditional eastern rugs – in which latter case it remains the technical term.  Oddly enough, though, its use came to be a habit in Voynich studies and by 2010 a number of Voynicheros had developed the idea that employing the German term ‘wolkenband’ supported a theory of the Voynich manuscript as in some sense a unique expression of a Germanic culture.

That proved an idea difficult to shift, and as late as 2017 when I closed Voynichimagery, few seemed to have accepted information, historical notes or illustrations I’d provided to explain this was not so.  I daresay some still use the motif to support a theory of that sort. It has always puzzled me that so few who speculate and theorise about history or image-making appear to doubt their impressions even to the point of checking them against a text-book on these subjects.  One sometimes has the odd sense that many imagine this manuscript to be a virtual, or theoretical object existing on a plane of existence otherwise unoccupied, and which might, therefore, be known only theoretically, much as theologians understand the afterlife.   Some few reacted to the argument over terms and implications by inventing another word entirely, though a neologism vaguely related to medieval heraldry, as ‘nebuly line’. This new – indeed, unique – usage proved remarkably popular among some of the online ‘Voynich community’, and certainly did away with any need to check or quote histories of art, in which no such term will be found.

 

§2.2.   Survival and transmission.

Depiction of the cosmic boundary (and its lights) in the older way would survive through the Roman, into the Christian era and its art.  The Byzantine version of angelic warriors is known well enough, but the following instance is a consciously ‘antique’ image painted in the fourteenth century, and in Padua, by Menabuoi.  As it had always done, from as early as the Babylonian era, the rippling line marks the boundary between the world of men and that alien to him. It is here the ramparts of heaven.  Part of the reason for its re-introduction and the form it takes there, was due to contact with Asian artefacts received though lands to the east that had already inherited a comparable custom. I hope readers will forgive my not elaborating  that matter here.A still more remarkable example shows the limnal angeloi in an unmistakeably Asian or Indo-Asian form (and colour). The detail (below) comes from  the Rohan Hours,  made between 1418 and 1435 in France,   a manuscript that is in all other respects  impeccably ‘Gothic’. The rippling ‘cloudband’ is there, although difficult to see clearly at this scale.

(detail) Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS. Latin 9471 f.159r

§3. Margins, proportion and Cosmic Order

Other works, first enunciated in the eastern Mediterranean, alluded to beliefs comparable to those expressed by the image on the fifth-century pot, whose rippling line is hung with ‘basket-lights’ of equal weight and regular (if not entirely equal) spacing.  As alternative expressions for the underlying beliefs, we may continue to take passages from Jewish works known to Latin Europe, e.g.

 “Thou hath disposed everything according to measure, number, and weight. (Wisdom 11:21).

or again

 “When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a boundary to the face of the depths: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth.”    (Proverbs 8:27-29)

in relation to this idea of cosmic order see e.g.,

  • Evgeny A. Zaitsev. ‘The Meaning of Early Medieval Geometry: From Euclid and Surveyors’ Manuals to Christian Philosophy’, Isis, Vol. 90, No. 3 (Sep., 1999), pp. 522-553

 

3.1 …  Angelos, limnatis and phosphoros. 

Exactly that same perception of the cosmos is reflected in images of Artemis that once stood in the temple of Ephesus, but first I should clarify the relevance here of Artemis’ character as Phosphoros, because I want to suggest that fifth-century image of the angelos with her line of fish-basket lights explains an otherwise enigmatic reference in  Greek writings to  ‘phosphorai’ a matter that I consider directly relevant to the ‘unclothed souls’ of folio 70v in their baskets and with their stars on strings, like flowers on stems.

Artemis-Angelos

 

Artemis Limnatis: ‘Lady of the Boundary/Marshes/Harbour’ –

Another of Artemis’ titles and which saw her as protector of those who travelled the ways of earth and of waters.  She was especially beloved in Crete.

 

 

Note: Shimmering lights upon the margin.

 

‘Phosphoros’ (Gk. Φωσφόρος). This term is often taken, correctly, as referring to the planet Venus as ‘morning- and evening star’, and though the 5thC potter’s theme is surely ‘Phosphoros’ I do not think he understood in the older way the difference between the dawn star by that name, and Artemis’ when given that epithet.

To her, I think , it is better understood as closer to its use in describing Hephaestos, or Hecate – with the second of whom Artemis was regularly associated.

 

3.2 Fire in the darkness: the fire- ‘basket’.

The common theme in uses for phosphoros is of ‘light in the darkness’; the difference being that with the Dawn star the darkness is dispelled utterly, where the epithet’s use to describe Hephaestos and Hecate, and (I believe) Artemis as phosphoros suggests rather the idea of light gleaming within the enveloping darkness.    A fire contained – a glittering or shimmering light which alleviates something of that  darkness and draws one to it.

Iron itself was known earliest in the form of meteoric iron and many ancient peoples regarded it as the material of the stars and of the heavens  from which they saw it fall .  Despite the fact that iron rusts, it was still identified with the immortal and eternal in ancient and classical art. The standing type of iron fire-basket we call a brazier, but there was another type, which was suspended.

As so often, here, the sources which elucidate imagery are not written works or theological treatises, but the materials, activities and objects of everyday life.  It is these which record things the literate might consider trivial, and where we see how a given community saw the interaction and intersection of mundane activities and divine action.

 

3.3. The suspended ‘fire-basket’ / ‘fish-basket’.

There was another sort of ‘basket-light’, one employed in night-fishing and –  like Artemis – its virtue lay in drawing prey out from below cover – in this case the cover of water and of night.

Below is shown, first, the artefact as illustrated in a Byzantine copy of Oppian’s Haleutica and then by a physical example recently recovered from a wreck off Dor.  This is how the ‘sun of night’ – the light of the afterworld is seen on many ancient artefacts As a ‘sun’ criss-crossed with lines as of basketry.   And just so Artemis, as –phosphoros “draws forth to sight from its cover”.  Note how the illustrator of the Greek manuscript equates the net, too, with the shape of a basket.

πυρευτική – fire-fishing. From a copy of  Oppian’s Halieutica, a didactic poem written in Asia Minor c. 177–180 AD. .  

More….

NOW – to see how this activity is mirrored in the ideas informing the fifth-century artefact illustrated in our header, and how the mundane and supra-mundane mirrored one another, imagine the scene from that  manuscript (detail above, top register) as it would have appeared in life, and from the shore. The darkness has descended; the string of small fishing boats now invisible save for their basket-lights, moving gently in the swell as their suspended lights sway in the breeze.  The boats are  strung along an uneven line off the coast, each allowing a reasonable distance to the next, and all with those glittering, iron, ‘fish-baskets’ shimmering in the dark.

When the flood waters receded, … Astraea felt so sorry that she wept, and her tears. hitting the earth, turned to star-flowers (asteriskos). Sea=aster.

How natural to see their reflection in the dark waters below as parallel to the shining lights which shimmered in the night sky above. And just so the string of ‘asteriskos’ – sea-asters – gleamed along the margin between earth and sea to guide the seamen safely to shore.

These rippling lines of lights are  metaphors of the margins – of which Artemis was again patron – as Artemis Limnatis. And it was the virginal Astraea who was credited with creating the  asteriskos.

 

§4. The Cosmic order – the Artemis of Ephesus and north Africa.

The Christian Gospel of St.John is thought to have been composed in Ephesus, , and Christ’s mother to have died there, these things occurring almost contemporary with the presentation, by Rome, of a statue to the Temple of Ephesian Artemis.  It is believed a close copy of the old temple’s ancient cult-statue of which the original had probably made of cedar wood. Pausanias (4.31.8) counted Artemis’ temple one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Hadrian would later build another temple to Artemis-Diana in Ephesus, and place a second version of the statue in it.  The differences between them are significant, as we’ll see and indicate that first enunciation of the Voynich month-diagrams is unlikely to have occurred after the 3rdC AD.

The gift was made shortly after the eruption of Vesuvius and should be considered less an act of magnanimity than of appeasement, Rome’s “total eradication” of Carthage being something of which even the Romans were later reluctant to speak.

It is the earlier statue – or some details of it – which explain those ideas which, ultimately, inform the ‘ladies and stars in baskets’ in the Voynich month-diagrams, by way imagery extant from 5thC north Africa.

Between Ephesos and the Libyo-Phoenician (Punic) people of north Africa  were ties so ancient that even the Greeks believed that they predated their own arrival in the Mediterranean. To that time, too, archaeologists believe the original temple of Ephesos belongs.  When it was built, it overlooked a harbour, already reduced to a marsh by the 2ndC BC.

This first of these Roman gifts was made soon after the underworld’s eruption through Vesuvius had claimed the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the lives of thousands. One phenomena observed was that the sea withdrew from the land, but did not then return – no tsumani. The message seemed to be that Poseidon could not advance, but Demeter might take from his domain what the Romans had taken from hers. Though the Romans saw Ephesian Artemis as a ‘Diana’ she was understood to equate with their Juno Caelestus (‘queen of heaven) in Ephesos.  In fact, she appears to have been the deity governing order in the kosmos, including the underworld, and had much in common (as we’ll see) with Tanit, the chief deity of Carthage.

I’ll illustrate this point, and also the endurance and survival of certain ancient ideas, by considering a couple of  details from that statue.

 

§4.1 The ‘crown’ – heavenly City.

These architectural style employed for the top storey – the eternal mansion – of the crown in the first statue presented to Ephesus is of classical Greek and Roman type; it is all the more interesting, then, to find it is not that depicted so in the ‘Caedmon’ manuscript,  where the full scheme is found in Christianised form.  The detail shown below (centre and right) show some evidence of influence from Armenian and Byzantine art, but are clearly a reflection of that ancient and long-enduring vision of the kosmos as a floating tower, just as anciently as represented in Ephesus.The arca had a range of meaning, but essentially a self-contained ‘world’. It was often used in the conceptual and symbolic sense and might allude to memory or to the chest of books in which wisdom was preserved; it served in Egypt as an early symbol for the heavens in which each star ‘sailed’ and in the early Christian church as an image for the gathering of elect souls, the ecclesia. In the centre detail (above) we see  the elect admitted into that ‘crew’ bound for the heaven-haven.   That this is intended as part of a cosmic scheme is evident from its full depiction in the same codex.In these case,  the ‘angel of the gate/harbour’ retains its ancient importance, whether called ‘the butler or the mourning woman’ in the habit of the old Egyptians, or as the angel at the gate of Paradise, or as Peter in Christian terms.In fact the chief figures, above and below that here made  Christ, describe particular stars and constellations and their traditional lore.  These images from Oxford, Bodleian Junius 11 are most reasonably explained as descending ultimately from the first phases of Christianisation in the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa.The angel receiving the peacock feathers as ‘palms’, for example, is Orion, whose ancient role as marker of the crossing over is retained even now in Islamic terminology, millennia after it actually marked the vernal equinox.It appears that in the full-page (above) Christ is  being identified with Sirius, the ‘triply bright’ though in other Christian works he becomes Orion.   A number of errors in the Junius version (above) are plainly due to euphony – as in ‘sole’, ‘sole’ and ‘soul’… but I digress. Enough to say that the woman bound to the fires below is no longer a well beloved Persephone or Demeter but perhaps the type for Sekhmet-Nut-Tanit.  It  is rightly placed (as ‘Eve’) in Julius Schiller’s astonishingly well informed  ‘Christianised Heavens’, published by Cellarius in the 17thC.  Most have supposed Schiller invented his imagery but it is, just as he says, only ‘Christianised’. One would love to know his sources.  His fallen angel is indeed the ‘Lucifer’ – Canopus.

 

§4.2 the ornament: Suspended lights

As you see (below) Artemis’ adornments include  what may have been a silver crescent; then a net of pearls, drawn up at each side from which are suspended a series of pendants, eight being visible.  Their form is (I think intentionally) multivalent.  They are easily likened to the fish-shaped basket-lights  we see in the African red slip ware (see header).  Equally, they can be read as a line of figures, dancing with hands held high; or as figures winged, and again as deep vases of fire. All these motifs are compatible with what is known of Artemis’ cult/s and character/s and there is no need to choose one and suppose it ‘the‘ reading.  Religious perception (as distinct from theology) is inherently poetic.

1st century CE Roman copy of the cult statue of the Temple of Ephesus. now in Museum of Efes. photo wiki commons

Now, when we turn to Carthage before the rise of Rome, and to those regions under its influence, we find that Tanit is the only figure who wears such pendants on a necklace, and that they are first shown in the coins (below, first register) in a form is very close indeed to those of the ‘basket-lights’ depicted almost a thousand years later in that piece of  red north African slipware made in the days of Augustine. As previously noted, polytheism was still very much alive then, and Augustine’s father himself continued to observed the older, pre-Roman religion of the region.

Coins made for Carthage a century later resemble more the form of that necklace on the first Roman gift to Artemis of Ephesus. (below, lower register).

They mark not simply a line between a woman’s shoulders and head; they mark the boundary between the carnal and the intellectual; between the physical earthly world and the realm of the divine as the higher heavens.  So too if formed as ‘hanging basket-lights’, or as winged figures.  It is the boundary between realms which no human may pass in body – unless the body is made immortal.

 

§4.3  Artemis and the circling stars: a Roman zodiac

The Roman rulers’ now (1stC AD) presenting marble replacements for various hallowed objects of great antiquity to eastern temples such as that at Epehsus shouldn’t be imagined apology or regret, but rather as a sort of bribe.  Rome had now begun to fear divine retribution from the many tutelary deities of communities and peoples they had decimated, enslaved, and whose temples had suffered rapine and destruction at Roman hands.

Even more would be spent on replacing a major cult centre of the Phoenicians in Syria, doubtless to persuade those deities, too, to overlook Rome’s ‘total war’ against the Libyo-Phoenicians and others such as the inhabitants of Thrace.

The first of those statues was illustrated further above.

One has to appreciate the very close connection perceived to exist between the underworld, death, and that life represented above all by grain –  which sprang from the same  earth into which the dead were received by those deities below earth – and not so far below the surface of the earth as we might imagine today.  This interrelated set of ideas – of grain and life in return for the dead; of descent of the body and possible ascent of the soul or spirit –  was intrinsic to older perceptions of the world and are – or rather is –  conveyed by these statues of Artemis and again implied (in my opinion) by the ‘ladies’ in the month-roundels.

Being Romans still, the officials of Rome who presented these statues saw no reason they should not also use them to advertise  Roman ideas and dictates.  The second statue is a case in point. The Romans never quite grasped the idea of hubris and had now taken it on themselves to rearrange the cosmic order when they invented a new constellation – Aequitas/Libra.

Apparently unaware, too, that the stars used to mark the lunar path were not identical with those of the sun’s road, they reduced it all to one. Evidently believing (rightly or not) that the pendants had represented the solar path, they replaced them with their then-novel form for the zodiac, placing their ‘Scales’ prominently if not dead-centre.  (below, left). The advantage for us is that it confirms the equation between those ‘fish-shaped’ basket ornaments and stars of the ecliptic.

A copy of this statue too  was found in North Africa, near Cyrene, but shows how diplomacy and tradition might both be accommodated.  The moon’s path has been restored – as a winding ribbon around the necklace, making it now appear less like a net than a wreath.  A small adjustment also allowed devotees to avoid looking at the new-fangled Roman constellation.

Note also the form given the constellation of the ‘Fishes’  – this has them lying parallel and head to head – the same form employed for the ‘two fishes’ coins made for Byzantion, and for Gades, and  which – as we saw earlier – appears in the 12thC Complutense manuscript of the Libros.. Apologies for the blurred centre image ( above, left).

There’s so much scholarly literature now on the subject of ancient and later perception of the heavens, that good work is easy enough to find.  I’ll add just one recent publication:

  • David Weston Marshall, Ancient Skies: Constellation Mythology of the Greeks (2018).

Augustine well understood the older ideas and their vision, while interpreting them through the lens of Christian belief.  Thus, while excoriating contemporary astrologers and Manichaeans, he can still laud the stars themselves as

clarissimo senatu ac splendidissima curia…

Augustine, City of God  V.1.

Since neither Latin nor Greek has a ‘y’ it was difficult to distinguish between a transliterated [Greek]  ‘kyria’ (Lady) and the Latin ‘curia’ (council), and all the more so given Artemis’ earlier role as mistress of the Council’s executive in Athens.  Still, Augustine’s understanding is clear enough: the stars are perceived as a  splendid house of brilliant counsellors.

So – in their bringing  illumination and wisdom to the darkness, the stars suggested comparison with the suspended lights of daily life, and with that idea of  overseeing counsellors, an idea which, incidentally, we have recorded from the time of the Egyptian pyramids.

Association with the Greek Artemis ‘of the Council’ was – as ever –  not merely metaphorical or conceptual but practical and physical.  As Artemis Bouleia and -phosphoros, she was revered in classical Athens where she presided over the various activities of the Council’s executives: the Prytani.  And, to show how well these ideas meld, let me again quote that passage from the Book of Daniel:

And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and many of the just as the stars forever.

(Daniel 12:1-3)

which allows us to move on to the still more practical matters of death and taxes.

 

§5  clarissimo senatu ac splendidissima curia… ”   Artemis –bouleia & phosphoros:…

In a building called the ‘tholos’ – which otherwise describes a beehive-tomb – these executive members of the Council (Boule) were chosen by lot to serve in turn for 36 days – a tenth of the year – as the executive members.  The work of the Prytaneis was formally ‘chaired’ by Artemis as Bouleia, though the ‘senate’ (Boule) and the executive (Prytaneis) were allotted separate buildings.

  • Any reader interested to know more of Artemis at Athens, if they have Italian, is recommended this pdf.

The Tholos stood on the Acropolis, overlooking the potter’s field and market.

Incoming members were required to  pay certain. dues to Artemis and what you see in the centre of the room in the drawing (above, lower register) is the type of container into which such dues or taxes were paid, in coin in this case, but also in goods when the taxes were of that sort.

Similar containers were also used in the following, Roman, period.  When treating Roman tax-collection,  modern scholars may speak of the ‘tax bucket’ or describe them in the older way as ‘cista’ or ‘cistella’ – which last term, as we’ve seen, saw remained in regular use in old English to describe a type of basket.

5.1  Container – ‘Cista’/’cistella’. Due portions

As neatly defined by the and various dictionaries, ‘cista’ is “is a box or basket used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans for various practical and mystical purposes.” – which just about includes everything save small shapely ladies, even allegorical ones.

The Roman tax-buckets were often, if not invariably, made of metal.  Used as funerary urns they  were set on feet and were usually provided with finial ornament.

I first brought this term, and object, to the attention of Voynicheros in 2010 at Findings– citing the examples I’ll use again here (below). I repeated the historical and other notes from my own investigation in a number of posts to  Voynichimagery, my   point being that this Roman, type remained in use to as late as the 3rdC AD but I that I could find none depicted later.  It thus suggests a a possible terminus ad.quem for the simple cylindrical containers in the ‘leaf and root’ section if (and I’d emphasise if) the Voynich month-diagrams (excluding the cenrtal emblems) and that leaf-and-root section were both supposed of Mediterranean origin and near-contemporary in their first enunciation.

Further, I pointed out that if, again, one supposed their red colour true to an original, then a period of not later than the  1st-2ndC AD  was indicated – and for technical reasons I won’t repeat here, though I provided it in brief in those earlier blogposts.

Since then – as so often – one has seen the same images reused by various  Voynicheros, though rarely with any reference made to the present writer’s introducing them to the study, nor to the research and the historical context which gave them point.

Details:

The subject of the cista – with other terms and uses for such objects – was introduced, and then expanded to  ‘Updated: Red containers and esparto’  (Findings, Wednesday May 12th., 2010). That post included details shown below (centre).   The third-century coin (below, left) was introduced at Findings in a post of  Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and again   reprised for the new, wordpress, blog  Voynich imagery.

 

(left) one side of a 3rdC coin, possibly associated with Gordion III;  (centre) – front and reverse of a coin of Ephesus; right – details from the ‘leaf and root’ section of Beinecke MS 408.

What is seen on the coin of Ephesus (above, centre) is always described as ‘cista’ (kista) or ‘cista mystica’. The two details on the right (in case you missed the earlier posts) are from the Voynich manuscript’s “leaf and root” section, which is commonly – though I think mistakenly- theorised as related to pharmaceuticals.

Once again, but in Athens, we find Artemis’ as ‘Bouleia’, and in that role specifically linked to her epithet ‘Phosphoros’, both directly linked to Ephesos and to the enigmatic phosphorai. ( I hope some readers are beginning to see why I believe the Voynich manuscript not merely interesting, or intriguing, but important.)

from: Homer A. Thompson, ‘The Tholos of Athens and its Predecessors’, Hisperia. Supplement IV: The American Excavations in the Athenian Agora.(1940).

A sizeable fragment of a large stele bearing an inscription in honor of Ephesos and ambassadors from Ephesos of the period 224-196 B.C. was found in 1934 just above the fork in the Great Drain, i. e., ca. 18 m. due east of the front of the Tholos Porch. The inscription was to be set upThe marble had apparently been re-used in a late repair of the Great Drain, but, as pointed out by its editor, it had probably been moved little from its original place.

Artemis Boulaia appears commonly in the inscriptions honoring the prytaneis of the third and second centuries before Christ among the divinities to whom the prytaneis sacrificed before meetings of the Assembly.’ Hence it is reasonable to suppose that her altar stood in the immediate vicinity of the Bouleuterion or Tholos. From the ancient authors it is quite clear that the prytaneis made sacrifices by the Tholos and so we may safely infer that the altar of Artemis Boulaia stood within the Tholos precinct. In the prytany decrees of the second century before Christ Artemis Boulaia bears also the epithet Phosphoros, an epithet which, though occasionally attached to other divinities, is most commonly applied to Artemis.  This being so, and the area being now so closely limited, we need scarcely hesitate to associate Artemis Boulaia-Phosphoros, the Phosphoroi, the altar, and the statue, assigning them to one and the same sanctuary within the Tholos precinct.

We are still in the dark as to the precise status of the Phosphoroi, but we may regard them with assurance as female divinities closely related to Artemis…we have gotten abundant new evidence for one of the minor functions of the Tholos, viz., the safeguarding of a set of official weights and measures.

In one sense, then, Maitre Francois was not entirely mistaken in envisaging a sort of fish-basket (‘cistella’?)  suspended above, nor in giving Sergius Orata ‘oriental’ clothing, nor in having ‘naked souls’ occupy those baskets.  Where he erred was in conflating  Orata’s practical, earthly activities with a specifically religious vision of the stars.  The waters in which the stars bathe, or sail, are those of the cool northern skies or those southern heavens imagined to look upon boiling seas and earth so hot that it could not support life. (And still says the author of the Muqaddimah as late as 1377, the year in which the Papacy returned from Avignon and just two years before after the King of France would receive the marvellous work of a Jewish cartographer of Majorca, Abraham Creques.

Afterword.

To end this series of posts, we need only treat the baskets’ forms and ornament, the matter of Artemis and her ‘ladies’ and the most intriguing questions of all, namely  which of the many three-tier systems for representing the heavens (and associated ideas) is being employed here, and what were the first enunciator’s likely languages and those of the persons who preserved and transmitted the material, making the shoulders and limbs ‘boneless’ at some stage.

Of course, we have no proof that the present text hasn’t also been affected by its last phase of transmission(s). In a worst-case scenario the written text could be no older than the present manuscript and might also – as many have long been believed – been enciphered too.

I had hoped to include some of that in the present post,  but it is long enough.

By this stage, then, I had found a lucid explanation for the manuscript’s association of stars with baskets and for the ladies’ ‘shapely’ appearance, something which had  puzzled Panofsky who like everyone of his time supposed the Voynich manuscript an autograph .

I had, also,  one tentative explanation the figures as a conclave or assembly composed (chiefly, if not only) of ‘ladies’ and if I continued to take as default that first enunciation occurred within the greater Mediterranean, this might be understood as a misinterpretation – at some stage – of a Greek description of the “Lady’s assembly” (mod. Gk: τη συνέλευση της κυρίας) for  “assembly [curia] of ladies”.

It was just a possible explanation of error – but the imagery wasn’t necessarily erroneous. What it did indicate – were it an error and that its reason – a greater familiarity with Latin than with Greek.  Other details in the manuscript had by now limited the initial range for first enunciation from 3rdC BC-5thC AD to, 3rdC BC- c.1st-2ndC AD, but still with the caveat that the ‘ladies’ sections may not have been first enunciated in the greater Mediterranean.

  • Marie-Louise Bech Nosh. ‘Approaches to Artemis in Bronze Age Greece. From Artemis to Diana. The Goddess of Man and Beast’, Danish Studies in Classical Archaeology, 2009, Copenhagen, Denmark. pp.21-36. ffhprints-01056261f

The Book of Daniel has long been a source of controversy, exacerbated by modern – chiefly American – Christian fundamentalism which has flourished notably since the 1950s.  Readers are urged not to rely on publications found online except if they carry the name of a reputable scholarly publisher.  However, for an idea of the arguments, their duration and complexity see e.g.

  • (1898), George A. Barton, ‘The Composition of the Book of Daniel’, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1898), pp. 62-86 (25 pages) and bibliography.
  • (1911) ‘Book of Daniel’ Catholic Encyclopaedia (reprinted at New Advent, online).
  • ‘Aramaic’ Encylopaedia Brittanica, (online). A good brief outline of the spread and variety of Aramaic dialects – though not of scripts.  The text suggests too sharp a division between use of one tongue and another – e.g. neglects continuing use of Aramaic among eastern and western Talmudic (Rabbanite) Jews and the continuing use of Greek as the Mediterranean’s lingua franca well into the earlier medieval period, including by Jews, among whom the revival of  Hebrew as a spoken language apparently dated to c.10thC AD.