Skies above Pt 6a: Adding and removing layers

Header.  details from an Apulian terracotta, showing ten-rayed star; seven-rayed ‘star-flowers’, sun of night as fire-basket; clothed female figures.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art,. Dated third quarter of the 4thC BC;  inset – detail from an Attic krater, black figure ware.  Rape of Cassandra by Aias (Ajax) before the image of Athena.  (Met. Museum of Art, New York. Dated 6thC BC).

Two previous:


ALREADY, by this stage, a possible explanation had presented itself for the apparently deliberate avoidance of representing living things too realistically/literally.  The logs show that after noting a second exception (on f.116v)  I moved on to two more questions after putting notes in the margin to remind myself where to pick up later this matter of the  ‘boneless’ ladies** 

** vis: “Job 31:22.   Ezekiel 27:19; 29:6; 40:5-8; 41:8, 16-19.”

The two subsequent questions were 1. “Why female? why unclothed?” and 2. ‘why baskets? – March diagram. Significance?’. 

In fact I treated the second matter first, but will reverse the order here.  


“Why female? Why unclothed?”

Initial jottings:   ok. in Egypt.  Earlier Gk examples but in Mediterranean chiefly from c.2ndC BC. vide Pompeii; North Africa… Syria;  Black Sea, northern India and further). Western revival late – Renaissance latter half 15thC [cf. Panofsky and keeper of mss]. Female still  later.  Venice-Florence. .  

It was evident to me that the ladies’  first enunciation could not have occurred in an environment that was monotheist, aniconic or anti-iconic, nor within Latin Europe until a couple of generations later than the Voynich manuscript had been made.

It was equally clear that at some later stage they had been affected by such an environment. Logically, this indicated an impact during the period of transmission from when depiction of unclothed females might be of the generic sort (in the Mediterranean c. 2nd C BC – 5thC AD) to Europe where, early in the fifteenth-century, the present manuscript is thought to have been made but where depiction of unclothed female forms was still relatively rare and of ‘shapely’ ladies very rare indeed. Just as Panofsky observed in 1932. 

It not difficult to imagine a context in which an astronomical diagram of this type might have been first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe. But  I should think that imagination would be its only support.

So by lifting aside the intervening accretions (that is to say, the chronological strata), the figures in the month-diagrams can be seen again as shapely ladies with arms and shoulders whole, though without the still-later overlays of dress and heavy paint which a number of the deformed bodies now bear.

That the Voynich ‘ladies’ were originally unclothed, and their covering due to a relatively late sequence of additions is quite clear, the stages are exemplified below by details on folio 71v-ii.

In the first stage some additional lines were drawn,  details of breast and groin omitted or erased, and the body covered by a light wash. (below, left)

Heavier pigment was then applied, unevenly and not in all diagrams nor in every case.  The example (below, right) is again from f. 71v-ii. 

It seems to me that this heavier pigment which is consistently applied for the central emblems, was applied to the ladies as much in an effort to cover up their boneless limbs and ‘normalise’ the body as it was to render them more modest. 

 (The head wear is not peculiar to the western Mediterranean,  nor to the medieval centuries). 

But what this must imply is that the copy upon which those ‘improvers’ worked already showed the ladies with those boneless limbs – and so that the work had only recently entered their own horizons if the work was indeed done within western Europe.  In Latin Europe the usual practice was to eliminate or ‘correct’ images inconsistent with Latin customs or theology, and within a short time – an act of translation as the copies were made. 

In some few other folios we do see efforts at improvement/translation of the drawings per se, but it is noticeable that when such changes are very marked – as where a ruler was taken up to draw elements in the ‘bathy-‘ section – that hand does not remain present long.  The implication in that case, and where such details occur in other sections of this manuscript, is that the aim was to reproduce with near-facsimile exactitude, matter gained from one or more exemplars.  And then these drawings were ‘improved’ as if now under other guidance. The first wanted a precisely copied work; the other (whose effect is seen only in these month-diagrams) wanted something less awkward-looking.

Overall, I can only conclude that our present copy can be no original composition, nor any traditional product of medieval Latin culture.

Other items to be considered in connection with these figures (as I noted in the log) are that:

  1. the star-flowers may have seven points;
  2. a faint trace of ‘roses’ appears even in that altered figure from the ‘light April’ diagram. 
  3. ( certain of the baskets are drawn with a side-seam and in the detail from f. 71v shown above left, the basket might have two side-seams. A person doesn’t imagine such structural elements for an object if every object of that type they’ve ever seen lacks them.  So here the inclusion of a seam in the drawing is another technical detail, and another limiting factor, and all the more if these ‘baskets’ really came waist high: for ancient and medieval peoples say about 2’5″ (c. 62-63 cm).  [As it happened, that detail proved important]. 

A further question: Was the star itself identified only with the centre of these flower-like forms? To take the example of the aster, was it identified only with the disk flowers –  while the ray-flowers (‘petals’) were supposed… rays (Lat. radii)?  Implications for Q.20?


Why ladies?

The question  arises because, if the material had been transmitted through a community averse to realistic depiction of living things, surely they might have just omitted the ladies altogether, at very least from the month-diagrams. On the other hand, if their way had been informed by an idea that it was only a realistic or ‘workable’ likeness which was prohibited then the form itself and not the subject-matter was the focus of that prohibition.  In other words, their view was not that ‘you shall not make an  image in the likeness of any thing’ but ‘you shall not make an image as the likeness of any living thing’. So long as it did not actually imitate a living thing, you could make, or keep as many images as you liked.  This is also an attitude that speaks to an earlier time, when it was not uncommon to believe that a physical image and a living thing, both, had their animation or soul from the stars.  The soul was the star-soul, and it was drawn down into a perfected body – hence at birth.  Death saw that soul return to whence it came.  Something of this ancient belief remains today in the location imagined for a heaven of souls.  But there isn’t time to explain so much here, except to say that within the Mediterranean this idea was at least as old as the pyramids in Egypt.

That the figures weren’t omitted, but merely distorted might also, or alternatively, imply that the information was perceived as so important that only superficial changes were permitted.  Supposing them simply astronomical types in some sense, however, isn’t enough.  We have the model provided by some Hebrew- and Arabic-inscribed astrolabes to prove  that astronomical types could well be omitted without altering content.  But if each represented a personality (cf the Jerusalem Astrology, Sortes Sangalensis,  or the late ‘angels of the day’ in Agrippa) then they might be irreplaceable.  Or if each also was the token of a place and important for that reason when the original had been made.   But then why associate the stars predominantly with ‘ladies’?   One obvious possibility is that link of star-and place; with the tyche or other ‘patron’ – and some of the ladies in the month-diagrams and the bathy- section do wear battlemented crowns – technically ‘mural crowns’.  (This last was a matter which  I investigated a few months later than the work being discussed now. After I’d published some of my conclusions on that point, Koen Gheuns kindly cited my work when considering the same). Other Voynich writers have since referred to the same illustrations.

Below is a detail showing a star-holder, from an instrument probably made in Diyabakir, east of the Mediterranean coast. It was made during the lifetime of Roger Bacon and of an embassy which came to Europe representing both the Mongols and the Church of the East (‘the Nestorians’).  Diyabakir had been long been one of two major seats for the Nestorian patriarch (=pope), and remained so until 1402, when possession of the city and its surrounding lands was summarily handed over to the  Aq Qoyunlu  (the ‘white sheep’ Turcomans).   Eastern Greeks had  the astrolabe by c.200 BC



The ‘March’ diagram (f.70v) and the ‘classical nude’.

Reconsidering the ‘ladies’ on folio 70v as if with limbs restored to  “classical” form, the Mediterranean world provides only a  limited period for first enunciation of such figures and effectively excludes Greek art of the classical period – or rather that of indigenous origin.

Such a usage is commonplace in the Near East in the person of Astarte or Tanit, as well as in Egypt where it is quite normal for a fully frontal naked female to display her charms, but not in Greek art. In the 6th century [BC] it is only in extremis that women are portrayed naked or semi-naked, but this rule is broken in the case of hetairai, notably in two-dimensional art. Not until the end of the 5th century BC does mature female nudity begin to be emphasized.By contrast, it [was] acceptable in the minor arts imported from outside Greece to show the naked female form…

  • Alexandra Villing, ‘Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt’ paper published by the British Museum.

While the Greeks happily drew male figures without clothing, there are very few exceptions to the rule that the female body is clothed, whether it represents a divine or a mortal being. Four exceptions are (i) Aphrodite (ii) Cassandra (ii) bathing women (iv) heterai. We see no multiplicity of unclothed female forms depicted in these cases.

The Kneeling Bather.

Robert F. Sutton, Jr. has argued that in Greek art true ‘nudes’ occur from the  5thC BC with the type he calls the  ‘kneeling bather’.  However, as you may be able to see from the examples shown below, certain of his illustrations appear to show instead a  figure dressed in a short, wide-necked garment of about knee-length and even in these cases the loins are effectively covered.

  • Robert F. Sutton, Jr., The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance.(2009). Includes a section entitled ‘Female Bathers And The Emergence Of The Female Nude In Greek Art’. 

Otherwise, the ‘untainted’ nude is usually dated from Praxiteles’ execution of his now-lost Aphrodite of Cos.  (I won’t include the controversial Ludovici throne).


The ‘tainted’ naked woman: Helen and Cassandra types.

Where Greek imagery does show a female naked, the implication is of a reduction in social status and/or moral standing.. or that the woman is bathing as preparation for marriage. The usual subjects are Helen (later of Troy) or Cassandra, who was raped by Aias (Ajax) in Athena’s sanctuary.  A woman was considered degraded by rape almost to the status of slave-prostitute. Volition had little bearing on that perception. And despite Augustine’s spirited theological argument to the contrary in his City of God (composed in the 5thC AD), the same ideas were characteristic of medieval Latin Europe.

In the first of the two examples shown below, you also see a characteristic that will later become rare, where figures are drawn with exaggerated buttocks but calves extremely slender: almost bone-thin.  Just a couple of images of Akhenaten and some statues recovered in Kiev ((10thC AD terminus ad quem) show comparable practice, but in the Egyptian and Kiev examples, the persons are clothed.

The Roman era saw Roman goddesses generally clothed, though a number of  Greek and foreign deities and ancillary figures (such as the Karites or Charites and followers of Dionysos) were divested of their garments, and we find various examples of the frankly pronographic within some frescos in Pompeii. Of the deities Aphrodite/Venus remains the exception to that general rule against full frontal nudiry.

The next image (below) dates to the 1stC AD, and is from Pompeii.  It shows a scene which by then had a long history in Mediterranean art, and with which many of the Roman military would be familiar.  After a ten-year siege, the Greeks entered Troy. At left, Menelaus reclaims his wife by raping her. The gesture of clutching a woman’s hair expresses both contempt and aggressive sexual desire and is maintained as a convention in art from the older Greek tradition.  On the right, the aged Priam watches helplessly as Aias (Ajax) rapes his daughter, Cassandra, within Athena’s temple.  The Romans believed their own capital city had been founded by the Trojans.  As you see, the form here given Cassandra’s body has much in common with the conventions of medieval Latin art  – a long slender torso and small, high-set breasts.

Erwin Panofsky rightly noted in 1932 that ‘shapely ladies’ do not appear in Latin art before c.1450. Even by that time,  the ‘renaissance’ movement involved only a small number of artists in a small region of Europe.  In that sense, the older historians of art were justified in considering the Renaissance a sixteenth-century phenomenon in art as distinct from a revial of interest in classical texts.

Michelangelo and Raphael are credited, for example, with having “initiated the practice of making preparatory studies of the nude prior to painting the figure fully clothed, in order to better understand the underlying structure of the body.”.   The opposite has occurred in the Voynich manuscript, where the clothing is added to obscure the drawing’s points of divergence from a perceived norm,  presumably the medieval Latin.   Michelangelo was not born until perhaps fifty years and more after the Voynich manuscript was made. He was born in 1475 and Raphael  in 1483. Both reached their maturity in the sixteenth century.

It is entirely usual – it has been usual for decades – that comparisons offered for imagery in the Voynich manuscript date to as much as half a century later than it was made.

As with a cat who brings only the mouse-tail, the evidence adduced to support most Eurocentric Voynich theories is  too slender, and too late.


Aphrodite: the nude bather type.

Even the Greeks’ Aphrodite was usually provided some covering until the time of Praxiteles’ remarkable work. But we cannot explain the ‘ladies’ in the March diagram as a multiplicity of Aphrodites. More to the point, there is no link between Aphrodite and the star in the Greek tradition, and in the Roman tradition only via their equation between Aphrodite and Venus.

But…to cut the longer story short for the benefit of my readers…  we do find Artemis  associated with a circle of lights, and with a sequence- and a circle- of moving women.

Just so, the stars form a series and a circle of lights.. and in this case  of women.

Artemis and her women.

a type for Artemis phosphoros

Their being depicted unclothed indicates, in my opinion, that we have either the usual Roman attitude to the gods of conquered peoples, or the different attitudes expressed by art of the Hellenistic east, and particularly  what emerged among Greek, Carian and Ionian on the eastern border of what had been the Persian empire, but which Alexander reached and settled.

I’ll return to that eastern sphere later.  In the next post I’ll look further at the ‘women of Artemis’.


[this might be good point to take a break, have a cup of something and remember to breathe.. 🙂 ]



Foreign deities, Christian Fathers, and Augustine’s  City of God (5th and 15thC AD).


Some years after the research was done that I’m tracking again now,  Ellie Velinksa wrote a blogpost ( Sept. 1st., 2013. ) in which she focused on a fifteenth century French version and translation of  Augustine’s City of God (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11).  Taking a detail from its fol. 435 (above) she suggested that those  tiered figures offer a comparison for what we see in the Voynich month-diagrams, or more exactly those in which the figures are plain and unclothed.  The Hague ms was made half a century after the Vms’ radiocarbon dates of 1404-1438. The Hague ms is dated 1475-1480.What it shows is more that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and even in a work produced by a master in France,  the medieval body is still the norm. with its long torso, waist not emphasised and  small, high-set, round (‘apple-shaped’) breasts. The detail selected by Ellie illustrates Augustine’s explaining the irrationality of astrology and the inconsistency of the different systems.It happened that in September 2013, while I was explaining for my own readers a certain technique (‘sieving’) used to find useful comparisons for works about which some certainty already existed, I cited the following image from a text composed c.1430.  It is fairly described as both English and French as the following details explain.

from ‘Medicine and Physiognomy from 14th to Early 16th Century’ (2004).  The passage quoted below is also available in French, translated by  Marilyn Nicoud and Nicolas Weill-Parot for Médiévales, No. 46 (2004/1) pp. 89-108.

Roland was of Portuguese ancestry through his mother. He appears for the first time as a student in the registers of the University of Paris for the academic year 1419-1420. After completing his studies, he became a medical master in 1424 and dean of the faculty in 1424-25 and 1427-1430 during the English occupation. His presence in Paris in the 1430s is evidenced by several indices, the most significant being his participation in 1436 in a dispute over the days of the year 1437 favourable to phlebotomy [blood-letting] and administration of laxative medicines. From 1436 to 1442 he was regent master, and died at an uncertain date in the 1470s (1470-1477) . Among the treaties attributed to him  is a manual of Aggregatorium sive compendium artis arismetice . The latter borrows long passages from Jean de Murs’ Quadripartitum numerorum and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Oresme’s Algorismus proporcionum , so it can hardly be considered an original work. He also wrote a work on geomancy which is novel in several respects, particularly the place that Roland grants astrology in that context. His Physiognomy was one of many works which were compiled or translated by the French members of the house of the Duke of Bedford, from already existing texts. Many of these translators or compilers were graduates of the University of Paris and they probably used the funds of the Louvre library. Roland dedicated the  Reductorium phisonomie to Duke John of Bedford in the early 1430. His work has survived in three manuscripts of the fifteenth century and a copy of the seventeenth century.

This reminds us that the nearest comparison from a European work for the Voynich plants’ style of drawing occurs in a medical manuscript made in England between 1375-1425 Brit.Lib. Sloane MS 335)  and that for the first half-century of its study, the Voynich manuscript was also believed to have been written in England by the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who had also studied in Paris.


In the excitement of finding something similar to the images of Beinecke MS 408 in works produced in Latin Europe, it is very easy to overlook the many and obvious differences between the style of the one and of the other.  The Hague manuscript even more than Roland’s work employ a different palette, shows clear evidence of ruling out and – unlike the Voynich images – manifest the usual patterns of western Christian ideas about the world and its organisation.


On a personal note, Ellie has a good eye and one wonders what she might have discovered had she not come to the study with a ‘European-Christian-Duc de Berry’ theory, which limited the range of her work from the beginning.  She has surveyed only medieval Latin manuscripts in her work, as again in her hunt for ‘dotted stars’ (September 9th., 2013) and so remained unaware that the custom had an unbroken tradition through several thousand years, even in the Mediterranean.  Just by way of example, I’ve shown in the header a detail from ceiling of ‘dotted stars’ in a recently-uncovered tomb from pre-Ptolemaic Egypt.


Augustine and polytheism in the 5thC AD

While Augustine lived, the Mediterranean’s polytheistic heritage was still a living culture, one with which he was entirely familiar having converted to Christianity only in his late maturity.

Augustine was a north African, Phoenician by descent. After having been interested in Manichaeism, which was then a widespread religion across the southern Mediterranean including Byzantine north Africa, Augustine became a Christian as his mother had long wished he would.  A thousand years before the Voynich manuscript, he composed a work entitled The City of God. In fifteenth-century Europe, its message gained renewed point; those complaints voiced by Romans of the 5thC AD about the loss of Rome to barbarians were being paralleled by the Byzantines now seeking refuge in the Latin west.  In each case, there was a suggestion that the city had been lost because the older ways in religion had been abandoned.

That argument, and Augustine’s reply, may have led to the work’s renewed popularity among the non-clerical class, but certainly a magnificent copy and translation into French was made in late fifteenth century. The painter is believed the same Maitre Francois who is credited with that image of Orata whose discussion began the present series of posts.

His City of God begins with reproaches to those Romans who, by pretending to be Christians and taingn refuge in Christian churches, had been spared by the Goths during the sack of Rome. Unlike Ajax, these ‘barbarians’ respected the right of sanctuary.  Augustine knows well the classical gods and classical poets.  Nor was he alone among those whose works preserved that knowledge within Latin Europe.

Tatian, an Assyrian Christian who wrote in Syriac, had addressed the Greeks in the 2ndC AD, saying:

Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phœnicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own. Orpheus, again, taught you poetry and song; from him, too, you learned the mysteries. The Tuscans taught you the plastic art; from the annals of the Egyptians you learned to write history;

  In the same century, Clement of Alexandria could discourse on the subject of human sacrifice, mentioning Tauric Artemis as he did:

The Taurians, the people who inhabit the Tauric Chersonese, sacrifice to the Tauric Artemis immediately whatever strangers they lay hands on on their coasts who have been east adrift on the sea. …  Monimus relates, in his treatise on marvels, that at Pella, in Thessaly, a man of Achaia was slain in sacrifice to Peleus and Chiron. That the Lyctii, who are a Cretan race, slew men in sacrifice to Zeus, Anticlides shows in his ‘Homeward Journeys’; and that the Lesbians offered the like sacrifice to Dionysus, is said by Dosidas. The Phocæans also (for I will not pass over such as they are), Pythocles informs us in his third book, ‘On Concord’, offer a man as a burnt-sacrifice to the Taurian Artemis.

The cult of Artemis in Tauris had been known to the Greeks as early as the 5thC BC, when Euripides told the story of Iphigenia in his plays.  Having been saved from becoming a sacrifice at the hands of her father, Menelaus, ‘Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to serve as priestess in the goddess’ temple among the Taureans, where as part of her office she was obliged to sacrifice strangers thrown up upon that shore.  The latter part of her story is in Euripides‘ ‘Iphigenia among the Taureans’ ( Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις)’.

Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine
Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine

Contemporary with that mosaic is the small terracotta figure – findplace unstated – shown below.


In the mid-thirteenth century, still, a temple of some sort stood  on an island off the coast. In c.1245, it was mentioned by William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck), who said:

So we made sail for the province of Gazaria, or Cassaria, which is about triangular in shape, having on its west side a city called Kersona [ancient Chersonesos or Cherson; mod. Sevestopol] … And as we were sailing past Kersona we saw an island on which is a temple said to have been built by angelic hands.

The Tauric Chersonnese is now a UNESCO heritage site).

This might be a good place for images of those figures recovered from Kiev and certainly made before the mid-tenth century AD.

Nor was Augustine, in fifth-century North Africa unaware of how an unclothed woman looked.  Apart from his own experience – he had a long-term companion and several children – but from mosaics and other forms of imagery, of which a remarkable amount has survived until today from the time of Roman occupation.  Here again, however, the proportions of the body are much closer to those of medieval European art than to the Voynich manuscript’s ‘ladies’.

detail of a mosaic. Roman period. North Africa. Courtesy of
naked, nude, un-clothed.  

I don’t describe the anthropoform figures in the month-diagrams as naked, or as nude.  The words carry overtones that I do not think can be applied yet to those figures.

Naked carries an implication of force, and chiefly of male force. A sword is naked, not nude; a body is found ‘naked’ not nude.  Unless the subject is an infant.

‘Nude’ implies a voluntary  disrobing, and a subject physically embodied.   Cassandra is naked; Helen is usually and Aphrodite invariably nude when depicted without clothing.  English doesn’t have a  neutral word for the situation we have here, where clothes may be irrelevant – so ‘unclothed’ will have to do.

The Romans’ interest in ‘shapely’ female forms ended as monotheism rose to dominate the Mediterranean.   A partial exception is found in some astronomical images, and in certain medical works which would emerge, in Latin Europe, from the schools of Paris during the 1400s.  But here again – as almost always – they offer no close comparison to what we find in the Voynich manuscript.  First enunciation of its ‘ladies’ occurred, in my opinion, during the Hellenistic period though derived ‘organically’ from earlier roots – and not necessarily Greek ones.


“They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”.


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’ 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.”  ( ‘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