Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

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

Previous two:


David Pingree

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

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

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

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

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

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

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

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

Things were different six centuries ago.

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

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

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

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

Other points:

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

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

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

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

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


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

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

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

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

re planets…2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manilius in the west

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

B. Astronomical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


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

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

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

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

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

edit (6th December 2019).

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


Stars above 5c: Proportion and desire in folio 70v

Header: image from “The LIghts of Canopus” ( Anvār-i Suhaylī) Walters Museum.(p.310 of the Museum’s pdf).

Previous two:


For those who’ve just arrived..  In addition to discovering why G. Sergius Orata –  who flourished in Campania c.95 BC – should be imagined ‘oriental’ by a fifteenth-century French translator, and his artist, this series of posts has pursued three other themes in parallel: the first, that any impression Orata’s ‘bodies in baskets’ are ‘a match’ for the Voynich month-diagrams is ill-founded; the second, that Orata’s depiction as ‘oriental’ was not due to whimsy and third – that should this line of enquiry intersect with the time and/or place from which the month-diagrams first emerged, that fact should be evident from the appearance of similar imagery – allowing us access to the context and informing ways of thought for the month-diagrams.

In an extremely minimalist way – or, if you like a simplistic one  – we are mapping entanglements; not only within chronological periods but between them.

The first, temporal, line has been drawn: from Italy in Orata’s time (early 1st C BC) until monotheism had effectively replaced polytheism throughout lands adjacent to the Mediterranean and to as far north as Constantinople (early 5thC AD).    At each stage, I’m cross-referencing with contemporary names and texts known to at least a few persons in fifteenth century Europe – because by c.1438 the content now in the Voynich manuscript had been copied and the text block bound in a (somewhat anomalous) Latin style.

Leaving aside for the moment the month diagrams’ central emblems, we can be sure that the audience for which the rest of them was first made had not been medieval Latins (western European Christians) – because:

(1) a century’s efforts to find any comparable images, visual or verbal, in the Latins’ corpus, or to explain the diagrams in those terms, has invariably failed.

An extraordinary amount of material has been generated on the subject of the central emblems, but has not  advanced our understanding of the diagrams’ purpose or of ‘Voynichese’..so far as I have been able to discover.  As ever, if you know better, do leave a comment.

(2) The diagrams include features out-of-keeping with Latin European practice.  An obvious instance is the way the tiered figures in folio 70v are depicted as if their shoulders and arms were broken or boneless. This had never been explained by any Voynich theory of which I’m aware.   The general habit has ever been to wave off such disparities from a  Latin norm  with some such confident (if  imaginative) assertion as that the draughtsman was mad, immature or  ‘mediocre at best’ etc. Few seem to realise that such assertions raise still more questions unaddressed – such as  “if one scribe’s work was poor, why was he/she not replaced?’.

*Beneath such assertions are unexamined assumptions which would surely embarrass those Voynicheros as much as they do external specialists, were the former conscious of what their assumptions imply.

(detail) folio 70v

In any case, is plainly untrue to say that the draughtsman who produced the diagram we have on folio 70v was incompetent or mediocre.

You need only consider our paradigmatic example (left) and the scale to which it is drawn to see that. (see detail at right)

re Scale

I sometimes think the Beinecke would do well to provide an option which allows readers to overlay the digital pages with a measured grid.
I can only show relative proportion here, but opening the image in a new tab on your tablet or laptop, or taking a ruler to the facsimile edition if you have one, will let you do the calculations. I make it that the detail measures approx. 20 mm x 25mm. (0.8 inches x 0.99 in)


The  torso is drawn with an elegant economy, and sureness of line, with delicacy and mastery of technique as of form.   Consider the scale within which he has achieved this drawing.   And yet, entirely competent as he was, the same draughtman rendered the arms and shoulders ‘boneless’.

In one sense, this example has betrayed him, by revealing his level of skill and the fact that – had he wished – he might have drawn the whole figure in a way satisfactory to the classical tradition and to late medieval Latin Europe.  And it  isn’t just the torso which shows his ability.  Look at the figure’s left-hand side – at the neck;  the muscle is beautifully realised where it meets the clavicle,  with just a single surely-placed touch of the pen.  (To be technical about it, that’s the sternocleidomastoid muscle). The drawing doesn’t imply medical learning; just a sure hand and eye.

He could surely draw.  He could draw. in miniature scale, in a way distinguishing flesh from bone and bone from muscle below that flesh; he could draw a female body in proportion – something which monastic artists and others often found difficult to do, even if the figure was clothed.

That’s the point: he didn’t want to make a ‘realistic’ figure.  In fact, (still exempting the central emblems in the month-diagrams), there is within the whole of this manuscript and despite evidence that more than one draughtsman worked on it, only one detail   (at the top of folio 80r) which might be considered the ‘realistic’ depiction of any living thing. And even that enslaved and shamed figure might represent a city, or a people, or (among other possibilities) the name – not the form – of the ‘chained woman’ constellation* rather than any individual persons.


Since I first set out my reasons for considering the ‘bathy-‘ section’s ladies to represent both star-and-place,  in the context of a practical handbook, Koen Gheuens first accepted my opinion in general, but explored it in terms of mainstream Latin textual traditions, chiefly Aratus and the Aratea and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and taking each figure or group to represent a constellation where I had thought each a single star or asterism.   Others following the same line (after 2011) have rarely acknowledged these precedents, some claiming ‘the idea’ a sudden one of their own for which they provide no evidence of preliminary studies, nor post-inspiration work in justification. Others remaining silent, newcomers reading the ‘inspired’ person either credit him/her with its origin, or again repeat the supposed ‘idea’ without mention of any source.  In this way, yet another opening door is slammed shut rather than investigated further, and the matter becomes so utterly fog-bound, that the persons who produce a seminal study may well find that, just a few years later, they are accused of imitating the imitators.   This now-regular pattern in ‘Voynich studies’ is why the  ground-hog-day fog expands; the study as such devolves or turns endlessly in circles, and  why  a revisionist approach becomes ever more urgent. I might add that Andromeda is not the only possible astronomical association, either.

Think about it.  The fifteenth-century copyist didn’t wish* to draw the figures in folio 70v as the likeness of living beings.

*It is difficult in English to describe an action without ascribing or implying volition to a specific subject.   In fact, I don’t  assume this individual had  – or that he hadn’t – complete autonomy, nor that the figures’  distortion originated with him, or with the present copy, though in both cases, the possibility exists. The point is (a) that there must be a reason for it and (b) it is not a custom of the medieval Latins.  

A paradox like this is pleasing to the provenancer and iconographic analyst because intention is always revealing of environment –  physical,  intellectual, social and often too, linguistic.

I expect that some of my readers having prior studies in one of a number of external disciplines will already have felt an eye-widening moment.  By all means – feel free to anticipate the direction these posts will take, though others must wait while the historical material unfolds just as it did when I did the research – almost a decade ago now.

As I revisit the logs, I’m checking sources and  include more recent references where I think them likely to be more useful.   Some issues and themes on which little had been written in English in 2008 have received more scholarly attention since then.

All clear?  Very well, let us proceed..

Artemis Phosphoros.

POMPEY was prompted to compare Lucullus to Xerxes because they both knew that Lucullus’ creating a new, sheltered arm of the sea imitated the remarkable natural features which made the Golden Horn a source of riches to Byzantion.  Similarly, the ‘praying/imploring boy’ – an ancient statue – stood near  natural oyster beds supposed inexhaustible off the east coast of Pera, and Pliny mocks G. Sergius, given the cognomen ‘Orata’ for his interest in oysters.

But a place was also known by its presiding deity who was, in a sense, the embodiment of that place and inhabitants: in something of the way that a king in Europe could say ‘I am France’.

Artemis Phosphoros with ‘mild Aphrodite’ were Pera in that sense, the coins showing her paired with fishes or with a Syrian star and crescent.  (The tyche of Syrian Harran with its unique sign for ‘North star’ is shown (right).

She who ‘brings to light’* – Artemis Phosphoros  – shared certain features with the Syrian goddess (for whom no simple equation existed within the Greek or the Roman Pantheon).

*older peoples believed that an object was seen when rays emitted from the viewer’s eyes ‘grasped’ it; this led on the one hand to fear of being captured by the rays of an ill-intentioned person or deity (the’evil eye’) and on the other to a perception that one who ‘brought to light’ did so by dispelling the barrier hitherto lying between an object and the beams from one’s eye, as it were drawing the thing from below its cover.  Thus, the translation ‘bringer-to-light’ is to be preferred to the easier ‘light bearer’.

That Artemis was regularly ‘identified with/assimilated to’ the Dea Syria in sites of the eastern Mediterranean in Hellenistic times, and to as far as the Persian Gulf, is well known.  In the east, she is sometimes described simply as ‘the Lady’ [η κυρια]; at other times described as Phosphoros. References are many and easy to find, but just as examples for date and range:

“Hierapolis-Bambyce was the single most important sanctuary of Atargatis and Hadad in Syria and… the Syrian Great Goddess incorporated Artemis/Diana as one of her many manifestations.” Nicholas L. Wright, ‘Seleucid Royal Cult, Indigenous Religious Traditions, and Radiate Crowns: the Numismatic Evidence’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2005), pp. 67-82. (p.78).

[at Failaka] on the beach to the east of the fortress, [the structure] has been partly destroyed by sea erosion. The sanctuary was dedicated to Artemis and can dated to the first half of the second century BC” Abdullah Saud al -Saud, ‘Central Arabia during the early Hellenistic period, with particular reference to the site of al -‘Ayun in the area of al -Aflaj in Saudi Arabia’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1991) p.52, citing  (Callot et al. 1987, 37 -45).

In this post I’ll summarise those aspects of the Syrian goddess’ cult echoed in Pera and by the deeds of those fish-breeders of Naples.  After that, we may at last turn our backs on Orata and that fifteenth century French manuscript, moving on to the month-diagrams’ iconography and meaning.

Dea Syria – Hierapolis and Pera

As a rule, the older Greeks and Romans expected the same divinities would be worshipped everywhere and would differ from their own only to the degree that, for example,  Athena Parthenos differed from their Athena Agelêïs. Classical texts may ignore the foreign god’s native name and just translate it as they might translate any other foreign word by its nearest equivalent. This practice brought non-classical figures into the west with classical names attached, leading various later writers to wild errors, including Seznec whose opinions on the derivation of all gods from the Greek, Roman or Egyptian is to be regretted.

But when it came to the Dea Syria, no simple equation presented itself.  Her attributes and associated deities or epithets remain a subject of scholarly research and discussion today, but for our needs, the description of her image in Hierapolis* will do.

*Hierapolis  was also known as Bambyce and later as  Marbug. mod. Manbij. Coins have ‘Hieropolis’ – on which see Hierapolis’  in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (Vol. 1).

Writing in the 2ndC AD, the treatise’s author said:

“While the overall effect is certainly that of Hera, she also has something of Athena and Aphrodite and Selene [the Moon] and Rhea [‘that which flows’] and Artemis and Nemesis and the Fates” (De Dea Syria §32). Compare with the image below. 

  • H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa (1980) see esp. inscriptions and notes p. 117-118
Fish pools.

At Hierapolis and elsewhere were pools of sacred fish. The best known today is in Edessa, whose traditions were not derivative of Hierapolis’ but cross-referenced them.

The point I want to emphasise here is that customs and ideas native to, or deeply embedded in, a region and its peoples survived for millennia in pre-modern times and did so regardless of time, war, ruling powers and theologies.  Edessa’s pool offers a fine illustration in point.

Recent archaeological studies have shown that Edessa’s fish-pool has been a focus of religious belief for about ten thousand years.

A couple of centuries after the tract De Dea Syria was written and whose author understood reverence for such pools an aspect of the Syrian godess’ worship, Edessa had become a major Christian centre and a station on the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. In the 380s AD, a pilgrim named Egeria passed through and was provided with a fully-developed Christian explanation for the same pool, an explanation she duly recorded.   Another three centuries on, Edessa was part of the Arabs’ empire, and a modern writer sets out its current explanation:

“A legend, originally Jewish but taken over by the Muslims, tells that the evil king Nimrod wanted to punish Ibrahim [Abraham], and threw him from the citadel into the fire. The fire, however, changed into a pool of water and the logs of wood into fish, which are venerated until the present day by Sunnites and Shi’ites alike.”  (Livius.org ‘Edessa’)

The pool of Edessa, Syria.

Egeria also visited Harran.

Edessa’s pool according to Egeria [sometimes wrongly as ‘Etheria’].

The vital part is in bold. I add more for those interested.

I came, in the Name of God, at the fifteenth milestone [of the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem] to the river Euphrates, of which it is very well written that it is the great river Euphrates [Genesis 15:18] for it is huge and, as it were, terrible, for it flows down with a current like the river Rhône, only the Euphrates is still greater. And as we had to cross in ships, and in large ships only, I waited there until after midday, and then in the Name of God I crossed the river Euphrates and entered the borders of Mesopotamia in Syria.


Then, journeying through certain stations [of the Pilgrimage], I came to a city whose name we read recorded in the Scriptures–Batanis,[Bathnae in Osrhoene] which city exists to-day: it has a church with a truly holy bishop …. The city has a teeming population, and the soldiery with their tribune are stationed there.

Departing thence, we arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of saint Thomas [the Apostle to India]. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other [customary] things … were done; we read also some things concerning saint Thomas himself. The church [Hagia Sophia, destroyed around the middle of the 12thC AD] there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and [I made]...a three days’ stay there. Thus I saw in that city many memorials, together with holy monks, some dwelling at the memorials, while others had their cells in more secluded spots farther from the city. Moreover, the holy bishop … received me willingly and said: “… if you are willing, we  will show you all the places that are pleasant to the sight of Christians.” Then, …. he led me first to the palace of King Abgar, where he showed me a great marble statue of him… Then the holy bishop said to me: “Behold King Abgar, who before he saw the Lord believed in Him that He was in truth the Son of God.” There was another statue near, made of the same marble, which he said was that of his son Magnus…. Then we entered the inner part of the palace, and there were fountains [better: ‘springs’] full of fish such as I never saw before, of so great size, so bright and of so good a flavour were they. The city has no water at all other than that which comes out of the palace, which is like a great silver river.

Then the holy bishop told me about the water, saying: ” At some time, after that King Abgar had written to the Lord … the Persians came against the city and surrounded it. And straightway Abgar, bearing the letter of the Lord to the gate, with all his army, prayed publicly. And he said: “O Lord Jesus, Thou hadst promised us that none of our enemies should enter this city, and lo! the Persians now attack us.” And when the king had said this, holding the open letter in his uplifted hands, suddenly there came a great darkness outside the city before the eyes of the Persians, as they were approaching the city at a distance of about three miles, and they were so baffled by the darkness that they could hardly form their camp and surround the whole city about three miles off. So baffled were the Persians that they could never afterwards see the way to enter the city, but they surrounded it and shut it in with their hostile forces, at a distance of about three miles, for several months. Then, when they saw that they could by no means enter, they wished to slay those within the city by thirst. Now that little hill …over against the city, supplied it with water at that time, and the Persians, perceiving this, diverted the water from the city and made it to run near that place where they had made their camp. And on that day and at that hour when the Persians diverted the water, the fountains which you see in this place burst forth at once at God’s bidding, and by the favour of God they remain here from that day to this. But the water which the Persians had diverted was dried up at that hour, so that they who were besieging the city had nothing to drink for even one day; which thing is plain to the present time, for no moisture of any sort has ever been seen there from that day to this. So, at God’s bidding, … they were obliged to return to their own home in Persia. Moreover afterwards, as often as enemies determined to come and take the city, this letter was brought out and read in the gate, and straightway all enemies were driven back by the will of God. The holy Bishop also told me that the place where these fountains broke forth had previously been open ground within the city, lying before and below the palace of King Abgar..but after these fountains had burst forth here, then Abgar built this palace for his son … so that the fountains should be included in the palace.

Moreover the holy man … took us also to the palace which King Abgar had at first, on the higher ground.

CHARRAE’ (Harran; Haran; Roman Carrhae)

Then, after three days spent there, it was necessary for me to go still farther, to Charrae, ..where holy Abraham dwelt, as it is written in Genesis when the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house, and go to Charran (Gen. 12:4).  … I saw the bishop of the place [who] took us at once to the church, which is without the city on the spot where stood the house of holy Abraham; it stands on the same foundations.

A interesting commentary on Eastern (Syriac) Christian symbolism, in language, art and architecture:

  • Andrew Palmer and Lyn Rodley, ‘The inauguration anthem of Hagia Sophia in Edessa: a new edition and translation with historical and architectural notes and a comparison with a contemporary Constantinopolitan kontakion’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 12, (1988)  pp. 117-168.

Another Edessa exists in northern Greece.

The difference between the Greeks and the ancient Syrian worshippers, was that while the Greeks show no aversion to eating fish, even fish from the holy pool, the ‘Syrians’ abhorred fish-eaters,  as several authors attest. And – as in Pera – the chief deity is associated with another figure, an aquatic hybrid – what the Romans would call a ‘monster’.

Texts and notes.

In the words of Xenophon,”…. to the river Chalus. That river is a hundred feet broad, and is stocked with tame fish which the Syrians regard as gods, and will not suffer to be injured.”

The author of De Dea Syria speaks of this aversion more in terms of Phoenician beliefs and their fish-tailed figure, whose name he translates as ‘Decerto’.

“I have seen the semblance of Derceto in Phoenicia, and a wonderful sight it is ; one half is a woman, but the part which extends from the thighs to the feet ends in a fish’s tail… The effigy, however, which is at Hierapolis is a complete woman. The reasons for this story are plain to understand ; they deem fishes holy objects, and never touch them. Of birds they use all but pigeons for food; the pigeon is in their eyes sacred.”

The translators add: “other famous Syrian shrines of Derceto were at Carnion and Askelon”.


Half-fish; half human

The image (below, right) shows such a figure as that described by the author of De Dea Syria as Phoenician.  It is given a border that could be described as ‘lilywork’ – but it comes from Cambodia where it is now part of Buddhist belief and named ‘Soma’.  Within the Hindu pantheon, too, there is an equivalent figure (Matsya) , honoured only in a few centres all of which were anciently, as well as later, centres of foreign trade and residence adjacent to the eastern sea.

In the research earlier shared online, I mentioned Matsya but not Soma in treating a detail on f.79v and explaining Kircher’s dependence on Baldeus for his image of Matsya within own China Illustrata.  Today, Matsya has been mentioned by other Voynich writers using the same illustrations as I did so there is no need to repeat them here. However, I had not mentioned the figure of ‘Soma’ and no other Voynich writer has done so yet, as far as I’m aware.  If you know better, do leave a note so that I can quote the precedent. In none of these cases, however, is there any suggestion of the ‘horrible monster’ and I do not think such character attached to the Phoenician figure whom others called ‘Decerto’.

Perhaps here I should add that Mediterranean traders – including some Europeans (chiefly Genoese) – are known to have been resident in India and southeast Asia by the late thirteenth century.  Contemporary accounts suggest the enclaves were well populated, on the same routes by which eastern ‘spices’ and gems had been entering the Mediterranean world from before the Roman era. A painting found in Pompeii shows what is undoubtedly a piece of bamboo, used as a garden stake.

Decerto as monster.


For Decerto see also Metamorphoses, Bk. 4.32.

Pliny, the quintessential Roman,  describes her as  ‘monster’.  For the Greeks, the re-born Dercerto presented an equivalent for  sea-born Aphrodite or, as would later be recorded (by Nonnus, in the 5thC AD), for ‘monstrous’ Keto as mother of  ‘Astris’. (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 26. 350 ff.)

The older imagery (usually described as Greek) shows a female measurer of stars and waters, effectively patron of navigators.

Her tokens were the oyster(?)- shell (as loḥ), the knotted measuring cords as strings of pearls, and the rod as measuring (‘back-‘) staff. [Sorry to get technical without providing more detail] Her motif was the triangle of stars, indicating those used to determine the position of the southern celestial Pole and more generally consignment to the underworld, the region below the surface of land and sea.  The last motif, formed of three dots, appears with its original implications in images of the Hellenistic and eastern Roman world, surviving even in one or two early medieval western Christian works – and is used in its original sense of ‘South/Under’ on the Voynich map. (left, bottom register).

As a sign for the sea-ways, too, the ‘ivy road’ was to survive (or revive) in later medieval Europe, not as the ornamental ‘ivy border’ which actually represents Byrony, but in a true (often white-on-blue) style and in consciously ‘antique’ works of the Italian renaissance copyists.

Otherwise, the three-dot motif was employed in post-classical works as repeat pattern, first as token for the night sky and later as purely decorative element.

I first explained the foregoing when treating the different direction-emblems in the Voynich manuscript – first in  post to ‘Findings’, and later at Voynichimagery.

I add here (above) a few of the  illustrations I used then.  Perhaps in this present context, their significance may be clearer.  The second image (left, middle register) is a syncretistic figure of Cleopatra, incorporating emblems of numerous female deities worshipped in Egypt’s Late Hellenistic environment.  The signs include  those for Demeter, Isis and Aphrodite and, in my opinion, for that figure the Greeks called Artemis Phosphoros.

Demeter was the Greek patron of grain; Egyptian Isis was identified with Sirius, the second brightest star in the heavens and the brightest visible to all the Mediterranean,  while Aphrodite had been born from the sea-foam. The figure in the upper register is often termed ‘Scylla’ but this is also a translation, the deity being older than the Greeks and probably of Semitic origin. It is possible I suppose – though I’m not inclined to think it – that this figure was the original type for the Voynich ‘mermaid’.

I trust that the foregoing has demonstrated plainly enough why contemporaries who knew of Lucullus and Orata’s making fish-pools and a ‘new Byzantion’ in Campania, took it to imply an oriental character in those men, something viewed with distaste by staunch Romans such as Pliny .  And, whether intelligently or accidentally, the fifteenth century French painter rightly envisaged  Orata so.But there is no evidence that Orata had any interest in running a public bath-house; all the evidence is that his only interest, verging on obsession, was with sea-food.

I think we may now leave G. Sergius Orata in peace, having (I hope) dissuaded Voynicheros from efforts to link his  fish-pools and hot-water ‘baths’ to Vitruvius, and so turn without those misleading ideas to consider the month-diagrams anew.

phase added to clarify. 28th Sept. 2019

Skies above 5b: Star and basket

Header: detail from Madrid [ms] VITR/26.2 image/page 30.  Ionannes Scylitzes, [Synopsis historiarum] (1126 – 1150?).. 

Two preceding:



Précis of previous post.

The depiction of C.Sergius Orata in a fifteenth-century French manuscript provides him with seemingly inappropriate ‘oriental.Asiatic’ dress.  In the previous post, I argued that this was no arbitrary decision on the painter’s part and, further, that while the immediate cause was a misreading of  Pliny, it  owed something too to a broader impression among Romans of that era  (1stC BC – 2ndC AD) that an ‘oriental’ character affected certain men in Campania  engaged in large-scale fish-breeding – and all the more when it involved building large pools or a re-working the landscape in a way evocative of Byzantion, renowned for its abundance.

Byzantion’s coins reflect its reputation with an emblem of ‘two – or more – fishes’.

Fish ≈ Star: ‘Oriental’ character in Byzantion.

British Library Cartographic Items Cotton MS. Vespasian a.XIII.art.1

The drawing (left) is dated to 1422 which, as most readers will know, is near enough to the mid-point of the radiocarbon range (1404-1438 AD) obtained by the University of Arizona from samples of vellum taken from the Voynich manuscript.

portrait of Isabella of Castile from Rimado de la Conquista de Granada. Painted 1482-1502.  Note retention of that custom traditional in Iberia and in Byzantine art of putting bright ‘roses’ in the cheek – a custom also present in the Voynich month-diagrams.

In that linked article about the radiocarbon dating, a caption describes the date range (1404-1438) as “the beginning of the Renaissance”- an unfortunate addition to the scientific matter.  “The Renaissance” is not a chronological epoch with a set date as beginning and end, and to employ it in connection with the Voynich manuscript’s date-range was ill-advised.  Whether or not the scientists (or article-writer) knew it, to use that term for those years is to imply the content and imagery in the Voynich manuscript was first formed in Flanders, France or Italy.  Though such ideas are part of certain speculative theories,  they are not a matter of fact.  Even by the end of that range – 1438 – the  term ‘Renaissance’ is to be applied  with care, and on a case by case basis, if describing objects. images or script.   What  one writer might call a work of the  ‘early French Renaissance’ – such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – another  writer (perhaps better informed) would describe as  ‘late International Gothic’.   The image at right, for example,  is described as a ‘product of the Spanish Renaissance’ but still carries more of the medieval Spanish than what is generally envisaged as ‘Renaissance’ style.  It was painted between 1482-1502. 

Pace Pelling and others – the mages in the Voynich manuscript are not expressions of  ‘Renaissance’ style – not in attitude to depiction, nor admiration for the human form, nor drive towards literalism, nor use of perspective, nor techniques of drawing.  No matter when he lived, the first enunciator was unaffected by the ideas and practices of the European ‘renaissance’.

The drawing shows Pera (north/top) and Constantinople (south/below) as they appeared in 1422 when the Florentine Franciscan,  Cristoforo Buondelmonti, visited the region, the account of his travels entitled Liber Insularum Archipelagi (“A Book on the Islands of the Archipelago”),.

  • Thomas Thomov, ‘New Information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Drawings of Constantinople’, Byzantion Vol. 66, No.2 (1996) pp..431-453.


IN the days when Orata, Strabo and Pliny lived, Byzantion used a second emblem on its coins as  alternative – effectively as synonym – for its ‘two fishes’, and this other certainly implied at that time a connection to  ‘oriental’ ways. It was formed as a Syrian star on a crescent. As you see from the insets (left, above), the motif continued to be used and to carry significance for the city  long after its Christianisation.  But – as we’ll see again in speaking of fishpools in Syria – a practice may survive changes of rule and of religion.

 Syrian Stars.

As distinct from the Mesopotamian custom of depicting a star with eight rays, or the invariable practice of the Egyptians in having a star of five points, the most usual custom in Syria was to have a star of six points.  This customary regional distinction was never part of Latin thought, but may appear in Latin works when a text or an object is closely copied  from some older and non-indigenous work – whether at one or more remove.   In any case, the six-pointed star on these coins for pre-Christian Byzantion was consciously ‘Syrian’.

In the 12thC AD illustration shown in the header, the message was that the person being crowned was secondary ruler of ‘all below the moon’ – in other words, of matters mundane, though simultaneously elevated to serve as the ‘shield’ of those below him and to become an intermediary between humanity and deity.    For other proposals see:

  • Christopher Walter, ‘Raising on a shield in Byzantine iconography’, Revue des études byzantines Vol,33 (1975), pp. 133-176.


IN earlier times, the crescent shape could evoke any number of well established associations – the physical moon, of course,  and various deities such as Isis, Selene or the Roman Luna. But it would have suggested, too,  the horns of a bull, and that ’round  ship’ which served throughout the classical Greek and Roman periods as the quintessential cargo-vessel for people or for goods.

To depict the ’round ship’  then became a convention  of  Mediterranean art, and in this way its form survived in both Byzantine and Latin works to as late as the fourteenth century.  To envisage the night skies as the shield of the world, or as a sea on which the moon and stars sailed were other natural metaphors, none exclusive of any other. In Egypt, the ‘star-ship’ was envisaged instead as a shallow-draught reed-boat.*

*The ’round ship’ was developed by the Syro-Palestinian seamen over the period from 1500BC-1200BC, the design proving so practical it remained in use for at least two millennia more than three and a half thousand years.

Artemis with Aphrodite at Pera.

Of the two coins shown (above, right), the earlier  maintains Hellenistic style, and pairs the  ‘star-on-crescent’ with a deity.  In this case we may identify that figure with one or both of those worshipped at Pera until at least the second century AD.  If you missed the previous post, that precinct lay at Bolos, on the eastern side of Pera.* and though dedicated to Artemis Phosphoros, it was where ‘mild Aphrodite’ was honoured too.   The cult was active during Claudius Ptolemy‘s lifetime.

* Bolos “on the east part of Galatea (Pera)” according to Richard J.A.Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-by-map Directory, Volume 1  Map 53. Key p.801.

  •  Stella Chrysochoou, in her paper ‘Ptolemy’s Geography in Byzantium’ (academia.edu} comments on the fact in Byzantium from the ninth century to the twelfth “there was a tendency to comment on the writings of Strabo and Ptolemy jointly, treating them as complementary to each other other.”

Just in passing, here, I’ll mention that when the earlier of those ‘star in crescent’ coins was made, Ephesus in Asia minor was still showing on its coins  the type of ornate baskets known as ‘cistophorus’ or ‘cista’.  The type was first disseminated from Pergamon, and issued between c.170 BC  until 140 BC  – which overlaps with (e.g.) the composition of PolybiusThe Histories. When the Voynich manuscript was made, Polybius’ work was known to only a few among the literati of Florence – but among them was  Leonardo Bruni. For more on that last matter see e.g.

  • Gary Ianziti, ‘Between Livy and Polybius: Leonardo Bruni on the First Punic War’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 173-197.
emblems on two coins for Tralles in Lydia. (BC 155-145).
Cistophoric tetradrachams

The cistophorus (Ancient Greek: κιστοφόρος, kistophoros) was a coin of ancient Pergamum. It was introduced sometime in the years 175–160 BC at that city to provide the Attalid kingdom with a substitute for Seleucid coins and the tetradrachms of Philetairos.”

Scholars in classical and ancient studies may not need the next two posts.


For the convenience of Voynicheros I’ll be treating as briefly as possible the equation of Artemis Phosphoros with aspects of the Syrian goddess, before turning to mentions of Artemis with  kanephorai and then tracking in outline the shifting sense and significance  of  kan[e]on and kaniskos –   those objects into which  were placed a variety of things for the continuing protection of a city.  The outline will  cover (lightly) the centuries from the pre-Roman period to the fourteenth century. Thereafter, we turn to re-consider the implications of the so-far unparalleled combination of star (aster), ‘string’, patterned container and anthropoform figures in the Voynich month-diagrams, found chiefly in its ‘March’ diagram.




The following should have been listed in the previous post:

  • Thomas James Russell, Dionysius (of Byzantium), Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC Until the Foundation of Constantinople (OUP; 2017). The two ‘Hierons’ see p. 41
  • on the eastern and greater ‘Hieron’ see Alfonso Moreno, ‘Hieron: The Ancient Sanctuary at the Mouth of the Black Sea’, Hisperia, 77 (2008) pp. 655-709.

Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

Two previous:
Header illustration: (left) detail of Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement; (right) page from Newbold’s notes.

Wilfrid Voynich didn’t mean to start the ‘theory war’ but he did.

He was an expert in attributing a manuscript as an object to its proper region and period,  but  had no sense of the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The only type of provenance he practiced was the ‘type 1′ sort.

That discrepancy introduced the first, initially minor, distortion in others’ perception of this manuscript because he created a ‘history’ for it which lacks historical rigor, which adduces no evidence from the primary document, neither form nor materials nor informed commentary on its content – and refers only to such historical facts as might lend colour to his  ‘chain of ownership’ story. This attitude provided a model – and a very bad one – for how the manuscript should be approached.

Over time the practice of separating the manuscript from a narrative espoused in advance of research and then imposed on it,  would splinter the study into its many mutually incompatible simulacra: one informed by a tale of early Scandinavia, another of sixteenth-century Germany, a third  of seventeenth century Prague, a fourth of Renaissance Italy, a fifth of the ‘New World’; one occult, another cultic, another pragmatic and so forth, with none sufficiently well founded to disprove any other.

Pushing a pet theoretical narrative has now become, for most Voynicheros, the unifying theme for their tours through history and their sole reason for being involved in the study  – to the point where for anyone to say that an observation is the end-result of research into one or another question raised by the primary document  is to meet with open derision, scepticism or incomprehension – though rarely with enquiry – from those who are not primarily focused on analysis of the text’s written part. What passes for ‘Voynich studies’ has become a sort of social-media version of reality tv, where boos and hisses drive out one unproven theory while mass acclaim serves as if, alone, it were equal to  scholarly endorsement.

While this most crucial issue of myth-creation is treated in this post by taking an example originating in the 1920s, the same phenomena which saw its survival till (a least) 2015 are still in operation today and few of even the most widely adopted Voynich ‘histories’ and ‘theories’ have any more validity than did the ‘Bacon telescope’ story.  I know that, at some stage, I’ll have to provide would-be revisionists with more recent examples of persistent Voynich flummery, but I hope readers will understand that critiquing current Voynich theorists isn’t something I look forward to doing and as illustration of how fiction becomes ‘theory’ becomes canonised myth, this example will do very well.

The ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth – and the ‘nebula/galaxy’ fantasy: 1920s to   2012 (and, alas, beyond).

Dedicated Voynich theorists today are far more defensive-offensive than Wilfrid Voynich was, and less willing to admit – as he freely did – that the basis for their ‘theory’ is no more than   some  ‘gut instinct’.  Voynich said openly enough that this is the only reason he described the manuscript  an autograph by Roger Bacon.  The rest of his fantastic ‘history’ as a largely imaginary chain-of-ownership novella simply followed from that first ‘instinct’. In fact, he also had in his favour a recognition affirmed by other specialists in medieval manuscripts of the time, that the volume presents as a manuscript of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

Since today we know the vellum is dated later, the conclusion would seem fairly obvious that the present volume reproduced material from some one or more works made (if not first composed) during that earlier period.

The radiocarbon dating, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, finally disposed of any suggestion that the Voynich text was hand-written by Roger Bacon, but the idea that the material might have been from some work composed by, or copied by Roger Bacon has never been disproven – it was simply elbowed aside as theorists jostled for online popularity via the specious, and implied, idea that if Bacon didn’t inscribe this manuscript, it couldn’t contain material derived from Norman France or Norman England of Bacon’s time.

Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

William Romaine Newbold’s paper of 1921 also has Roger Bacon’s biography central to its narrative, and for no better reason than does Wilfrid’s, but  Newbold was not wholly dependent on Wilfrid’s imagination, nor his own.

Newbold’s chief source, as he says, was Brewer (1859)*; though had Newbold instead read Bridges’ study (1875) his own narrative might have been less flawed.

The two historians, Brewer and Bridges, wrote less than twenty years apart, but they stand  on opposite sides of a scholarly watershed.

* in an edition of 1900, as Newbold says in his paper (p. 433 n.1).

Brewer’s ‘Life of Roger Bacon’ is a work of the Regency/Georgian era,  full of sensibility, empathy and adverbs.   By contrast, Bridges displays already that combination of judicious evaluation, precision in detail and ‘backbone’ which became the hallmark of England’s great Victorian dons.

  • John Sherren Brewer, Rogeri Bacon Opera quædamhactenus inedita. London : Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1859.  Vol. I. containing I.–Opus tertium. II.–Opus minus. III.–Compendium philosophiæ. (Bacon’s biography is included in the Preface  pp. xi-lxxxiv).
  • John Henry Bridges, The ‘Opus majus’ of Roger Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. Vol.1, Introduction § 1. ‘Bacon’s Life’ pp. xxi-xxxvi.

Since we are here concerned with the effect of ‘canonised myth’ upon the manuscript’s study, I’ll take the ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth, which had existed already in 1875, was then taken up and applied by Newbold to  argue that the image on folio 68v* was Bacon’s drawing of a spiral galaxy. (see left)

*folio 68v(part) is the latest description of  this image by the Beinecke Library; the same was earlier described as folio  68r, and/or 67v by various sources, the additional ‘1’ or ‘i’ being informal).

This notion that Roger Bacon invented the telescope was immediately  embraced, then, by the first wave of ‘Voynich researchers’, who soon began repeating as if fact Newbold’s notion that Bacon had seen, and now drawn, a spiral galaxy.  It was a ‘Voynichero’ notion that was to endure despite all reason and argument to as late as 2015 when I saw to my astonishment that it had survived  even Norm Sperling’s thorough debunking of 2012 and was on the verge of joining the list of “canonised myths which you may deny only at your peril”.

However.. here s the more cautious passage direct from Bridges’ biography of Bacon (1875). You will note that here is no complete rejection of the ‘Bacon telescope’ notion but no over-confident assertion either.  It is from this germ that  Newbold would subsequently seek support for his interpretation of many images in the Voynich manuscript, including that on folio 68v.

Bridges had actually written:

Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses [Roger] Bacon had a clear comprehension.  He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo.

In 1614, four years after the invention of the telescope, Combach, professor of philosophy in the University of Marpurg, published this great work of Bacon, ‘viri eminentissimi.’ It would be interesting to know whether the allusion in the Novum Organum (lib. i. 80) to the work of an obscure monk (‘ monachi alicujus in cellula’) has reference to this work. The Cogitata et Visa was written before Combach’s edition was published ; but examples of the Perspectiva were numerous, and it can hardly have been unknown to Francis Bacon. In any case it must have been known to Descartes, to whose epoch-making researches on Dioptrique it assuredly contributed a stimulating influence. This at least they have in common, that light is looked upon as correlated with other modes of propagation of force through the Ether.

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

  • John Henry Bridges, Obituary, from The Times (-of London), Tuesday, Jun 26, 1906; pg. 14; Issue 38056. Explains that Bridges’ work was not well received.

And – though still ignorant of Bridges – Newbold says in his paper delivered in 1921:

The telescope has extended the range of vision far out into the depths of space; the microscope has revealed the existence of the unimagined realm of the infinitely little …That both of these indispensable instruments were known to and probably discovered by Roger Bacon, and that by their means he made discoveries of the utmost importance, the Voynich manuscript puts beyond the range of reasonable doubt. (p.432)

  • William Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.

As would so often happen, a Voynich ‘theory’ was soon opposed by arguments informed by fact and reason  only to be ignored.

For example, James Stokley’s paper of 1928 plainly denies that ‘Bacon telescope’ myth – denies the idea in itself AND  in the context of Voynich writings, but his essay had no more power to influence the general run of Voynich ‘fans’ and Voynich writings than had any previous effort… or indeed any subsequent effort to halt the popular practive of inventing some Wilfrid-style ‘history’ and call it a  ‘Voynich theory’.

  • James Stokley, ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 14, No. 386 (Sep. 1, 1928), pp. 125-126+133-134.

Perception of the poor manuscript is so chronically distorted by the invention, and unthinking adoption of such myths that a single popular tale of this sort can prevent any advance of the manuscript’s study for decades.

That so many of these ‘canonised myths’ still prove resistant to both evidence and reason and proponents’ still respond with personal hostility rather than intelligent debate shows how far Voynich studies has descended to the level of  social-media’s quasi-religious association-by-common-biases.

But to continue the history of this particular theory’s resistance to fact and reason…

Eight years after Stokley’s paper of 1928 had been published, a reasonable-sounding paper was published by Edward Lutz, who had clearly done a fair amount of reading, though not with any critical eye.

Lutz repeats and even illustrates the story of Bacon’s supposed ‘telescope’ and though it is clear that he relied largely on Newbold’s paper of 1921,  it is also clear that – unlike Newbold –  he was not ignorant of Bridges’ work.  We know this because Lutz added a quotation from Bridges below his own imaginative depiction of that mythical ‘Bacon telescope’.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.

And still, almost half a century later, in her summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to wring meaning from the Voynich text, Mary d’Imperio supposes the long decades’ of excessive western admiration for Roger Bacon  due to some residual guilt among Catholics over the (largely imaginary) ‘persecution of science by the church’, but that cannot be accepted as an adequate explanation for persistence of this “telescope” myth into Voynich talk even into the twenty-first century.

As late as 2015, the present writer was obliged to ask certain readers of her blog voynichimagery to  go and read Norm Sperling’s brief and brilliant post of 2012 in which the whole idea was firmly and –  one had hoped finally – been despatched to oblivion.

Lynn Thorndike would surely have approved of Sperling’s first sentene:

“William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”

Note (Dec.31st.2020).  Checking the link today, I find that Sperling’s original article no longer on the web. I did find it through the waybackmachine, and in the hope of preserving it conveniently for my readers I have now added the text to the end of this post.

When finally laid to rest, any myth may seem quaint and a little amusing but so long as myths are maintained in what should be an area of formal scholarship, they distort perception of the object of study, misdirect research and may positively hamper investigation as believers make their own objections felt towards arguments or scholars opposing such long-lived and well-loved fictions.

Less quaint, more recent, and far less amusing is the social-media PR sort of Voynichero who manufactures support for a speculative ‘history’ by deliberately inserting some item of guesswork into a supposedly objective narrative, and then sponsoring its elevation to the status of  ‘canonised myth’. This abhorrent practice  has largely passed beneath notice within the  ‘mythic’ atmosphere of Voynich theory-wars, but in January of this year, Santacoloma spoke of it in a post entitled, ‘ Birth of a New Mythology’.

With Rich’s permission, I’ve quoted below those of his observations with which I can agree wholeheartedly.  For the rest –  and to avoid the impression that his opinions are identical to mine –   the passages omitted (and indicated by ellipses) can be read by following that link.

I’d like to say here that Rich is among the few who have so far stood apart from the anti-intellectual culture induced by ‘theory war’.  Remaining always civil, Rich appears to place a higher value on common interest in Beinecke MS 408 than on whether a person does, or doesn’t agree with his views about it.   While that rational attitude was the norm in the first mailing list, it is increasingly rare now.

Santacoloma maintains that the manuscript was forged.  I  think, rather, that  what has been ‘forged’ – in a slightly different sense – are the conceptual moulds into which the manuscript is forced, and has been forced by one person after another since 1912.

I don’t expect Rich to change his opinion; I hope he doesn’t expect me to change mine.  We have our reasons.

Note: Santacoloma did not “invent ” the  theory that the manuscript is a forged document. It was among the ideas proposed by William Friedman by the early 1950s, prompting Panofsky’s strong statement to the contrary. Despite this, Mary d’Imperio still treated it as a real possibility.

from Rich’s post:

There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript …. unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in [one] post …

But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them …  but by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate? …

…. In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence …. the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.

….  But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one … its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.

…  Yale publication of the (facsimile edition) book, The Voynich Manuscript,* … was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens … But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality …, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement …  it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways.”

**Raymond Clemens (ed.), The Voynich manuscript, Yale University Press (2016).

[minor edit to replace dropped phrase –  17th April 2019]

That single ‘myth’ was embedded in Voynich studies from 1921 to at least as late as 2015.  What is notable about the way in which it survived so long, and despite informed and detailed opposition is that where the first generations of Voynich writers merely adopted Newbold’s opinion with or without mention of its origin, later generations of the internet-social-media period (post 2004) were content to parrot unnamed and unacknowledged sources. Thus mere gossip was enough – if widely enough repeated – to turn fantasy into something ‘everyone knows’.  History, to be history, has to BE a history of the study’s evolution.  Any Voynich writer who refused to acknowledge his or her sources of information actively corrupts this manuscript’s study.  Most do it these days because, being amateurs in the age of social media, they fear that by admitting their debt to others they may lose the public acclaim on social media to which their whole ‘study’ of Beinecke MS 408 is aimed.


Added December 31st. 2020. Norm Sperling’s debunk re 68v-i.

Today (Dec 31st. 2020) Since I consider Sperling’s summary of the evidence a landmark in Voynich studies – a formal de-bunking of a Voynich myth that had persisted for almost a century by the time he wrote, I’ve decided to reproduce it here – minus its illustrations.

Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012

William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk. The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better. Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn’t know what he was talking about.

While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today’s visual telescopes. It doesn’t even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: “[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected”. Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold’s own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).

The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world’s then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse’s new 72-inch-wide “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral – the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 – with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.

Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon’s time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.

Taken from the wayback page


Next post:

There have been three scientific studies conducted since 2000.  These are:

  • McCrone’s analysis of the ink and a few selected pigments (2009);
  • Radiocarbon dating of four samples of the vellum (2011);  some tables and commentary by Nick Pelling here.
  • Codicological studies whose results were amalgamated and edited to produce the most valuable essay in the Yale facsimile edition:  ‘Physical Materials’ (2016).

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 4. Kabbalah

Header Illustration: detail from a Kabbalist scroll.  Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556)
Two previous:     Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations (
Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2 – (

See also Postscript – added at end of post, 28th. Jan. 2022.

Note 8: … ‘Kabbala’

When Anne Nill wrote to her friend Herbert Garland in 1932 about Panofsky’s viewing the manuscript, she said, “He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

The question has been hanging ever since. I know of no further comment by Panofsky, though something may be buried in the archive of his correspondence.

Elegant Enigma includes a  few paragraphs under ‘Cabala’ in the section titled ‘Collateral Research’, where it is placed between Angelic magic and Alchemy.

Notice d’Imperio’s use of the past tense:

” [Cabala] depended heavily on manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and lists of sacred words and was in general highly ‘verbal’ and abstract in character in contrast to the iconic and ‘visual’ character of other magical [sic!] systems,… the manipulations of Cabala may have inspired at least some cryptographic devices’     (d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma. p.60).

Both her spelling for the word as ‘Cabala’ and her few comments suggest that d’Imperio relied on an article in the  1901-6 edition of   Encyclopaedia Judaica.  If so, she didn’t take to heart its authors’  admonition:

most modern scholars … have treated the Cabala with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychologico-historical point of view; applying the name of “Cabala” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Cabala, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same [religious] roots and elements.

What d’Imperio calls  ‘word-manipulation’ and thinks the mark of a magical system owed most to Abraham Abulafia, a conscious rationalist and follower of Moses Maimonides (who is sometimes called the ‘arch-rationalist’). Maimonides’ thought was – and still is –  respected across the religious and sectarian divides.  Of him, the  Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:

“through his “Guide of the Perplexed” and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna … [Maimonides] exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and Duns Scotus.”

speaking of perplexity, and though off topic, I’d like to mention a paper I’ve just seen online:

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The Ciphers in Book iii of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, (DRAFT: 26 March 1998).

‘Voynich’ thoughts and Kabbalah

detail of miniature in a Greek Kabbalist manuscript.       Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ottieni. courtesy Lehigh University.

An online search for ‘Voynich’ plus ‘Kabbalah’ turns up nothing to help us understand Panofsky’s remark.  It may seem harsh to say that nothing said so far about the Voynich manuscript and Kabbalah has been other than trivial – but see for yourself:

  • In 2009, Pelling mentioned (here) that Pater Castell saw the  sephiroth in  one of the botanical drawings (Pelling’s illustration).
  • In 2013 Donald Goodell began a thread on the arch.net mailing list managed by Rich Santacoloma.  See that thread here.
  • A conversation was begun some years ago in the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘  but – as so often – the talk soon veered  back to its contributors’ chief interest: the nobility and seventeenth-century Prague.
  • On July 5th., 2015,  Marco Ponzi left a comment on Stephen Bax’s site, citing an image from a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic Greek text. (It was Ponzi’s find, but a detail from the same diagram can be seen above).   Darren Worley soon provided the picture’s caption, “Influence of the moon on reading the signs of the cabala (kabbalah), miniature from the Cabalistic treatise, Greek manuscript, 16th century…etc.  Ponzi doubted the caption’s accuracy, but  I’m assured it’s correct.
  • Jan.26th., 2016, a thread opened on the forum ‘voynich.ninja’.  The subject was actually Jules Janick’s published theory (with or without his name mentioned). The exchange followed the usual course.

Otherwise, Arthur O. Tucker‘s co-author, Jules Janick has made most of the general idea, pulling into Tucker’s ‘New World Voynich’ narrative the late and Christianised style of Kabbalah, knowledge of which he attributes to the missionaries.  However, in overlaying  the tree of Sephiroth on the Voynich map, Janick failed to notice that the quarter he designates ‘North’ is marked clearly with the rising sun which signifies East.

Texts and resources

(detailBrit.Lib. MS Or 11791 f.8v ‘Perush Sefer Yetzirah’ cf.  Brit.Lib. Add MS 26929.

As readers will realise, we are still entirely at a loss to know what about the manuscript or in it, could have led Panofsky to say he thought there was some influence from Kabbalah.  Of course, he might not have expressed himself as definitely as Nill reports, but hers is the only account we have.  He might simply have been musing…’Spain or somewhere southern’… Jewish… thirteenth to fifteenth century… could well be some influence from Kabbalah..’  We don’t know. The whole question is still, effectively, unexplored.

Any reader inspired with determination to solve the problem, one way or another, might like to begin with  Sefer Yetzirah, (‘The Book of Formation’ (or: ‘- Creation’) which is the earliest and perhaps best known of works described as Kabbalistic, though in this case the description is debated.

“Composed in (c.200 BCE – c.200 CE). Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah.”

– from the Sefaria site‘s introduction to the parallel Hebrew/English text.

  • British Library MS Or.11791 Parchment codex.  Commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah (14th-15thC).
    The Library recommends the following article – and so do I.

The catalogue entry for another volume highlights the need to forget parochial thinking. The various hands are described:

Script (summary): Spanish and Italian semi-cursive script;  Italian semi-cursive script of the 15th century;  Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Spanish semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century. 

For the  total novice (as I am), a couple of easy first meetings with Kabbalist thought:

  • George Robinson, ‘Kabbalah in Spain‘, (undated online article). Sub-title reads, “From the 13th through the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of most major kabbalists.”
  • A modern orthodox rabbi,  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, explains Kabbalah for modern believers –  youtube video.
  • An article by Ephraim Rubin which looks like a very solid introduction to the Zohar.  published as a blogpost at Kinkatso & Co.

See also:

edited from the original.
  •  Joseph Dan, ‘Gershom Scholem’s Reconstruction of Early Kabbalah’, Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (Feb., 1985), pp.39-66.
  • Hartley Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 111-138.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: Preliminary Observation’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51 (1988), pp. 170-174.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah’,  Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, Commemorating the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Maimonides’ Death (2004), pp. 197-226
  • Shaul Magid, ‘From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden’, AJS Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997), pp. 37-75.
  •  Daniel Jütte, ‘Trading in Secrets: Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge’,  Isis , Vol. 103, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 668-686. (This paper includes the discursus on Abramo Colorni – regarding whom see N.Pelling, ‘Abraham Colorni’s Cryptography…’ ciphermysteries, (Feb.9th., 2019).
  • The Zohar – first edition published in Mantua 1558-60 is in the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section.  (Sefer ha-Zohar, 3 volumes, Mantua, 1558-60 )


Postscript – 28th. January 2022.

I should like to acknowledge the courtesy of Koen Gheuens who wrote to let me know that about six months ago, a Voynichero called ‘Carey’ approached him, citing the same manuscript which I used here for my header and invited him to join her in creating a theory about the Voynich map.  Koen only much later thought to check – as a scholar does – to see what precedents there might be for associating that same source (Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556) to images in the Vms and on noticing this post, maintained the same scholarly approach by writing to ask my thoughts.   One appreciates such courtesies all the more for their rarity in the online ‘Voynich’ world.

For readers who might care to know the same, I’ll share two thoughts:

first.  Yes, I did see points of comparison between Brit.Lib. Or 6465 and details in the Voynich map – which is why I included a couple of details from it in the post.  BUT that scroll was made at least eight generations after the last recension of the Voynich manuscript, and about a century and a half after our present copy was made.

Brit.Lib. Or 6465  is dated to1556.

Secondly, to suppose that any viable ‘Voynich-Kabbalah’ storyline could be developed by any persons without the essential preliminaries – that is, the necessary languages and study under a scholar specialising in medieval Jewish religious thought and writings – is an idea more informed by self-confidence than by reason.  Kabbalist studies were not casual reading; it was recommended only for mature adults (over 25) who would by then have had not less than thirteen years’ prior study in religious texts and commentaries- in Hebrew, in Aramaic and related dialects, and in such Jewish dialects as Judeo-Occitan or Judeo-Catalan etc.

That said, if Koen Gheuens and ‘Carey’ (f.) are keen enough to take the topic seriously – and far more seriously than d’Imperio did – I hope they’ll find a suitably qualified Jewish scholar to provide a detailed and well-informed opinion before publication.

Next post:  Salomon and Liebeschutz