O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.1

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.


It should not come as much of a surprise that the series of diagrams we call the ‘Voynich calendar’ has not found any counterpart in the art of western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe. Nor, if also considered as a series, has the sequence of its diagrams’ central emblems.

It remains possible that some day there may found a work of Latin (i.e. western European Christian) origin in which there is comparable series of month- diagrams, presented on such a fold-in, beginning with March, following March with two segments each showing a goat, and then two segments showing bull-like forms, and which also includes a Scales of the same unusual construction, two lobsters for ‘July’ and a quadruped with a whip-like tail for ‘November’ – but none has been found yet during the century and more since 1912.

An analytical approach meets divergence from any theoretical norm not as if it were a social gaffe, politely to be ignored, but as a sign of potentially valuable information. In this case, we hope the information gained might ultimately assist those still wondering where and when they should look for whatever language or dialect (if any) informs the written text.

The major flaw in a widely promoted ‘central European-Ruolfine-German’ theory is that it takes as axiomatic too many of the old guesses, including the guess that although the series of central emblems in the Voynich calendar does not form a zodiac, or any coherent segment of one, it may be treated as if it did.

The analyst’s approach says rather, ‘Well, since it isn’t a zodiac, why isn’t it, and to what purpose was it made which has it differ so obviously from that theoretical model?”

If that were our present question, it would require considering the entire series – the central emblems included with their diagrams – but at present we are investigating the degree to which astronomical, historical and cultural information we’ve gained from diagrams in other sections of the manuscript does or doesn’t chime with information offered by the calendar. For the sake of the exercise, therefore, we will concentrate on just two of the central emblems, those overwritten with the month-names for November and for July.

From the earlier two analyses* it was concluded that those are most likely to have been brought into a Latin environment between the mid-thirteenth to later fourteenth centuries AD with one showing a greater proportion of its drawing compatible with the visual language of medieval Latin (western Christian) Europe than the other. Asian influence was recognised in both.

*of the diagrams on fol. 85r and fol. 67v-1.

Our now considering a couple of emblems from the Voynich calendar is done to test whether those astronomical emblems do, or don’t, say the same.

For newcomers, let me emphasise that any formal analytical study must treat the whole of any drawing or series: in the calendar that means both diagram and central emblem – no conclusions being valid which cherry-pick. However, this being an exercise and demonstration of research-method, we may use these two as example of how to progress through a work, piece after piece, testing and reconciling opinions gained from one item against those which follow, to build a cumulative study.


Our attention having already been drawn, and repeatedly, to the south-western Mediterranean, the fact that the Voynich ‘calendar’-emblems were over-written with month-names in a dialect or language from that region, or linked directly to it by contemporary networks, makes it reasonable to begin there.

Below is a map showing entanglements between the relevant linguistic regions – those most densely coloured red – during the thirty years between 1358 AD to 1372 AD. It is not a maritime chart, nor a political map, nor does it map textual stemma. It illustrates the commercial network of trade and correspondence for one trading house while the Italian founder was resident in papal Avignon. I apologise for the map’s poor quality; it is as it appears in the source..

Francesco di Marco Datini was born in Prato, near Florence. His knowledge of commercial maths’ method and practice being most likely gained in Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school* in Florence. Between regions speaking Catalan, Judeo-Catalan, Occitan (most often posited as providing the calendar’s month-names), goods and people travelled chiefly in the ships of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia.

*For more, and references, see earlier post, ‘Consider… Maths & memory Pt 1‘, voynichrevisionist, (January 13, 2022),

Edit: August 9th. The paragraph’s last sentence was poorly expressed. Please read: ‘Between regions… the ships in which goods and people travelled were predominantly those of Genoa, of Venice and of Catalonia’.

Routes – controlled by Venice – blue; by Genoa – red.

It was also in the context of the new abaco schools – dedicated to commercial maths, geometry, practical astronomy and navigation – that use of Arabic numerals was fostered in Latin Europe, and that simpler ‘4’ shape for the numeral – a form similar to one of the Voynich glyphs – was disseminated. Its earliest known instance occurs in 1375, in the great rose-gridded worldmap commissioned for the court of France from a Jewish master named Abraham Cresques’, a resident of Majorca.

As I first pointed out a decade ago, there are discernable points of connection between Cresques’ Atlas, early Genoese cartes marine in that new, rose-gridded style, and the Voynich map, but the last (as I concluded) comes of older and different origins, its final recension when Latin-compatible details were added, dating to about 1350 AD.

In Cresques’ work, the zodiac constellations are represented as a fairly standard series, but they do reflect a habit which we’ll see again, by which crab and scorpion are suggested related, or akin to one another. The same attitude is reflected by the zodiac in the Occitan manuscript, made about fifty years before (see header), – but that characteristic is not found in the Voynich calendar.

Caution: on the web there are many altered and edited images purporting to be from Cresques’ Atlas (also described as the Catalan Atlas). Some are over-written with large, white geomantic figures. Another that I’ve seen paints over, with gold, all the inscriptions that in the original are written in Hebrew letters.

By the early fifteenth century, when the Voynich quires are thought to have been inscribed, the finest ateliers and illuminators in this part of Europe were producing images of Crab and Scorpion in forms we might call ‘classic’ and which will be immediately familiar to a modern reader. Paris was still the intellectual capital of Europe, and Italy increasingly the artistic and literary capital of Europe, while other regions were still to come into full flower.

The new commercial ‘4’ for the numeral would not appear in Germany until after 1440 and in works produced from Germany and central Europe, forms were still employed – for Scorpius especially – which had been used in the south-western Mediterranean as much as four hundred years earlier, and which there had been largely superseded by the early fifteenth century.

Below is the ‘November’ page from a manuscript created in Burgundy within the same date-range as the Voynich quires’ vellum (1405-1438 AD). Its Crab was painted at some time between 1412 and 1416, though parts of its ‘November’ page were completed only between 1435-1489. The ‘November’ page looks like this.

Limbourg Bros. Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry 1416 AD.

Its Scorpion is recognisable as you see; and so is its Crab.

Unlike the Voynich calendar, these monthly diagrams show constellations extending across adjacent months, as astrological signs do, but which the Voynich month-diagrams do not.

Another difference, if a predictable one, is that this high-status and high-end work, despite its being made a quarter-century after Cresques’ Atlas, retains the older and by then conservative form for the numeral ‘four’.

What this indicates is that if – and we emphasise that if – the hands which wrote the Voynich ‘4o’ were accustomed to writing the numeral as ‘4’, it is unlikely that the manuscript was composed first in central Europe or by members of Latin Europe’s social or scholarly elites.

Further evidence of the work’s being used by and for persons of lesser standing is the fact that the month-names are inscribed in a southern vernacular dialect or language rather than in Latin.

On the other hand, it was during the period presently of most interest to us (1350-1430 AD) that use of a regional vernacular for literary compositions of all kinds was becoming not merely more popular among a few educated people but was becoming a hot political issue.

Initially fostered by the popularity of Occitan-speaking troubadores, as their popularity waned, a political movement arose which would ultimately develop into modern nationalism, with its less pleasant twin, active xenophobia.

The Italian Brunetto Latini had written his most famous work in the French vernacular, but Dante’s Cantos had the greater and more lasting impact over the period between their completion in 1320 and the end-date for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum (1438 AD).

Varieties of Occitan were spoken not only within the borders of what is now modern France; it was also spoken in parts of Italy and according to a wiki author (who provides no reference)

The first part of the name, Occ-, comes from Occitan òc and the expression ‘langue d’oc’.. is an appellation promoted by Dante Alighieri of Occitan by the way of saying “oui” in Old OccitanCatalan; as opposed to the “langue de si” (Italian) and the “langue d’oïl” (“yes” in Old French).

*Dante’s son was another student of Paolo Dagomari’s ‘abaco’ school.

So, the frame within which the evidence offered by the Voynich calendar may now be explored means that wherever it was copied in the early fifteenth century, the probability is it was a region where Occitan, Judeo-Catalan etc. were understood. For the form(s) given its emblems for November and July – supposing they are intended as astronomical emblems – we cannot look to works first composed in fifteenth-century France and Italy unless the copyist’s intention was to reproduce faithfully forms found in some much older work. The Voynich ‘November’ beast is no expression of fifteenth-century fashion.

It is easy enough to resort to imagination (aka theory) to explain why, if it is an astronomical emblem, the November figure does not present the form of a scorpion. We might imagine :

  • that the copyist had no idea what a scorpion looked like.
  • that the copyist had no means to discover how one should represent the constellation Scorpius,
  • that he had been struggling to understand Aratus in the original Greek and mis-interpreted αὐτὰρ ὑπ᾽ αἰθομένῳ κέντρῳ τέραος μεγάλοιο σκορπίου to mean not, “the great beast, [the] Scorpion” but “the great beast [whose name is] Skorpios” – and so drew his idea of ‘a great beast’.

And given the history of astronomical learning in medieval Latin Europe and the long, confused history for transmission of Aratus’ Phaenomena, the last might easily be accepted as plausible.

But imagination-as-theory is embedded in traditional Voynich method, so let’s leave it aside and begin working from physical evidence and the historical and cultural context.

What sort of works might have caused images of this kind to be included in the fifteenth century manuscript by persons who, it would seem, understood the dialect or language in which these month-names are written? What did they know about stars?

Astronomical or Astrological?

It has become a widely prevalent habit, if an unfortunate one, to describe any knowledge of the stars as either astronomy or astrology, but the distinction is inappropriate for our purposes and for the period of interest to us now.

To observe that different constellations along the ecliptic occupy the mid-heavens in turn through the year is not astrology, It is simple observation of fact.

To mark the months by twelve of those constellations and call the twelve the zodiac is not astrology either. It requires no more than observation, without need for any knowledge of mathematics or of astrological methods. The labels themselves are not ‘Scorpio’ and ‘Cancer’ but ‘November’ and ‘July’.

In the same way, navigation by the stars is arguably the oldest human science, older than the first cities, and older than mathematics as a formal discipline. So too, it is not astrology to say that in November, when a certain constellation rises to eventually occupy the mid-heavens at night, ships should not venture far from shore. That’s the fruit of common heritage and observation.

When you invent a character for that constellation, one which has it looking at the ships with a hostile expression, that’s still not astrology; its popular lore. Associating a star or constellation with a place on earth can be, but is not necessarily, astrology either. As our default term, then, we use ‘astronomical’ keeping ‘astrological’ for cases where that purpose is clearly expressed by the internal evidence.

So – even granting, as a first possibility, that all the central emblems in the Voynich ‘calendar’ depict constellations which lie along the ecliptic – zodiac constellations – it cannot be presumed from that alone that the series of diagrams, or the series of its central emblems, had astrological purpose – unlike those split-month images we see in the  Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, illustrated above.

Indeed, we have had the opinion of two scholars, independent of each other and of Voynicheros’ influence – at least then – who have stated plainly that the diagrams in the Voynich ‘calendar’ are not astrological charts*.

*for details see earlier post D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (February 9, 2020)

In this same connection we remind readers, that shortly after publication of his great study’s* second volume, Fritz Saxl was asked by John Matthews Manly, who sent him copies of pages from the Voynich manuscript, to comment on them. Saxl replied, as so many eminent specialists have done when asked to apply their knowledge of medieval Europe’s history and art to this manuscript, that nothing struck a familiar chord.

  • Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters. Vol. 1, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1915, Vol. 2, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1927, [Vols. 3 & 4, Meier, Hans, and Bober, Harry, and McGurk, Patrick.]

Lippincott’s ‘Saxl’ Project: hunting the November beast.

Led by Kristin Lippencott, the ‘Saxl Project’ is again concerned with collecting and grouping zodiac images, making pdfs of the material available through Lippincott’s website.

The Saxl project – Led by Kristen Lippincott and run jointly with The Warburg Institute, University of London. It has also benefitted greatly from previous collaborative research, which was carried out with Dr Elly Dekker of Utrecht University, between 1997 and 2007.

Among images collected to illustrate Scorpius are a few which show it drawn more like a lizard or a warm-blooded beast than a true scorpion. For us, at present, it matters less where these manuscripts are now or even when they were made, than the textual sources which were being copied in them, and Lippincott’s taking note of those sources (as most Voynicheros’ efforts have not) shows the source-texts are just three, all of which were known to some, at least, in Latin Europe before c.1350 AD.

One is a work written by a Roman of the pre-Christian era. The other two are medieval works written by Englishmen – one of whom never left England and rarely travelled beyond his monastery, and the other of whom studied in Paris, in Toledo, in Italy and at the Norman-Sicilian court.


The Roman-era work is a primary-school level ‘crib’ called the Astronomicon Poeticon. It is popularly, if doubtfully, attributed to Gaius Julius Hyginus (c. 64 BC – AD 17). The first of the Englishman is Bede, whose authorship of De signis caeli is also widely doubted today, but the work itself is reasonably ascribed to the period in which he lived (673- 735 AD).

Only the third source is securely attributed and dated. That is Michael Scot’s Liber Introductorius, completed in 1228.

Scot is best known today for the time he spent in the Sicilian-Norman court, but Scot brought to that court what he had learned earlier, including proficiency in Arabic and in Hebrew, both of which were commonly spoken in the Sicily of his time. Scot’s studies included mathematics, astronomy and natural history. Together with Andrew the Levite, he had already translated in Toledo the text of al-Bitrūjī’s de motibus celorum.

  • ‘Critical Edition of the Latin Translation of Michael Scot by Francis J. Carmody’, review by Marshall Clagett, Isis, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Sep., 1953), pp. 280-281.

There has been little scholarly attention devoted to the iconography of Scot’s Liber Introductorius, and influences from older North Africa have been largely overlooked, as has his list of ‘Berber’ star-names and the full range of sources from which Scot worked. Apart from those still well-known, Scot refers to – but here let me quote Edwards:

Scot … mentions other authors [in addition to the most widely known] … such as the Tacuinum of Cleopatra, Isidore, Bede, Ambrose, “Alexander the Great,” Empedocles, Euclid, Hermes, Haly, loanton and Nemroth, Rasis, and Macrobius. He mentions the Tables of Toledo as being especially useful. He cites Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, Plato, Pliny, Cato, Galen, Jerome, the Sybil, and John of Spain.

Glenn Michael Edwards, ‘The Liber Introductorius of Michael Scot’, thesis (PhD), University of Southern California, 1978.

What this tells us is that, whatever the source of the astronomical information embodied by the Voynich calendar’s diagrams, the emblems used to fill the centres – and particularly November’s ‘beast’ – come from a source already known to Latin Europe before 1350 AD but which may not be a classic text or even one extant today.

We also have the example provided by diagrams in the astrological Libros del Saber to show that astronomical-astrological diagrams might later have central emblems added or created for them by later copyists. To paraphrase an earlier comment*: Diagrams in copies of the ‘Libros..’ differ from copy to copy, as one might expect, but the difference is so strongly pronounced in their central emblems that one has the clear impression each copyist was obliged to find exemplars for these details himself.

*made in connection with Panofsky’s assessment of the Voynich manuscript, as reported by Anne Nill, that “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript, [our manuscript] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”

So at last the parameters for researching these two emblems are defined. Our initial focus will be on a period between 1350-1438 AD. We begin from the regions in which Occitan was written and understood. We do not presume astrological purpose. We allow for the possibility that the central emblems were added to, not obtained together with, their diagrams. We know there is a high probability that the central emblems, at least, were gained from some older source already known in the Latin sphere by no later than 1228 and possibly much earlier… and so now, to work.

Scorpius – ‘Labours of the Months’ series, Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine,  Vézelay (constructed 1120- 1150 AD). From its foundation until 1280 AD, the Abbey of Vézelay was affiliated with Cluny, of Burgundy. Founded in 910 AD, Cluny became the centre of an order of monks extending from England to Spain.

Postscript – Michael Scot and the Munich [M] source:

Speaking of an important Italian ms now Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Ms CLM 10268, Edwards remarks that in the margin of folio 125C is a horoscope by Bartholomew of Parma, dated 1287, and that this “presents a terminus ante quem for the exemplar, since the paleographic evidence does not support so early a date for this manuscript”. He goes on to say of this source, described as M without quotation marks:

The script is a compact Italian book Gothic, the letters being quite square. The “M” is made of three very sharp minims, and the “A” tends to form two loops, with the top of the letter almost touching the bottom loop. M in addition uses both the upright and the uncial “D”. These are characteristics of the last quarter of the thirteenth century, but the use of the looped rather than the upright final “g” is indicative of the early fourteenth century.

In view of the fact that Italian hands changed so slowly, it is difficult to place them with accuracy. Yet the style of script will justify an ascription of the date to circa 1300 more readily than to any other. I have attempted to push back the date of the manuscript to 1287, and discussed the matter with Virginia de la Mare, Assistant Keeper of Western Manuscripts for the Bodleian.
In her view, the decorations and colors used in the illuminations are characteristic of those executed at Bologna from 1300 to 1310 and cannot justifiably be ascribed to an earlier time.

Glenn Michael Edwards op.cit. pp. x-xi.

O’Donovan notes #8.6 – peripheral ‘North’ in fol.67v-1.,

c.4000 words

Note – [27th July] wordpress had kindly let me see images that I’d lazily just copied-and-pasted from my earlier work. Apparently they were not allowing anyone else to see them, which is reminder to me not to take the lazy way in future. If any are still invisible to you, leave a comment or email me.

The author’s rights are asserted.

The ‘T-0’ issue

Those determined to maintain the old Eurocentric narrative have encountered a major difficulty in the fact that there is no evidence of Catholic forms and themes despite its having been the core about which western literacy developed.

It is therefore understandable that a traditionalist whose aim is to find or create support for that Eurocentric Wilfrid- Friedman narrative or some variation of it, will feel inclined to leap on any evidence of input from the Latin west. Despite there being quite literally hundreds of drawings and details in this manuscript that have no counterpart in medieval Latin Europe’s visual vocabulary, the existence of just one Latin practice may well be flourished as proof-positive that everything in the manuscript is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture and an assertion of Latin gate-keeping over anything which is too obviously ‘foreign’.

One nicely problematic instance is provided by the peripheral north emblem on folio 67v-1.

Biblical Noah, his three sons and Isidore’s little sketch.

Latin Europeans had included together with specifically Christian writings (Gospels, Acts, Epistles), many books of Jewish law and teachings to become their Bible, although few Latins read the Jewish works other than in Latin translation and very, very rarely consulted the Jewish commentaries of which most Latins seem to have remained ignorant.

The Jewish law and writings were also read by Muslims and quite apart from the written tradition, popular tradition itself throughout the near east maintained that after a great flood, none had survived on earth save Noah, his three sons, their wives and such creatures as were taken into the Ark.

Among Latins, however, the habit was to ignore Noah thereafter, and suppose that the world had been divided between- and re-populated by the three sons: Ham occupying Africa; Shem Asia and Japheth, Europe.

That notion was believed, quite literally, by European Christians to as late as the seventeenth century. It was also the origin of the ‘T-O’ diagram of which various Voynicheros have made much, and the earliest example of which comes from a copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.

T-O diagrams were always oriented with largest area of the three always Asia, and always separated Asia from the rest of the world by a line drawn directly along a North-South line.

So there’s a first problem.

This isn’t how the apparent ‘T-O’ diagram is drawn and aligned on folio 67v-1. Instead, the line is drawn at forty-five degrees from that North-South line. Again, I’ve turned the page north-up for readers’ convenience, and shown the European ‘T-O’ diagrams as they were drawn – East up (upper register) and then turned North-up (lower register).


As you see, this emblem in the Voynich manuscript can be described as a ‘T-O’ not because the underlying drawing shows the circuit divided in that way, but because of how the pigments have been added. And here I want to emphasise the detail and precision with which one face of the four has been drawn.

FIG. 2

It would be very helpful to know whether the lines marking this circle into three were laid down by the draughtsman-copyist or were a decision made by the overseer-painter(s) whose presence is evidenced in many of the manuscript’s drawings.

So now what do we have here? Was the emblem designed as a ‘T-0’ or has the painter thrust ‘T-O’-ness upon it? Short of spectral analysis I could not offer any opinion save ‘unproven’. (I have checked the reverse using the Beinecke scans and in my copy of the facsimile edition but while what one sees is certainly interesting, and the circle itself is clear, the lines of division are again defined by the pigment, not the underlying drawing.

FIG. 3

And neither the drawing itself, nor the pigments explain why the division between Asia and the rest of the world has been differently defined: that is, not by the simple North-South division we find in the Latin T-O diagrams. It’s another instance of why these peripheral emblems do not seem ‘native’ neither according to the Arab, nor to the Latin context.

Of course, there are numerous examples of a four-fold division of the heavens and of the earth, including diagonal divisions which were most natural (for example) in the ornament given a dome. Here’s one from Byzantine-influenced Sicily during the 12thC.

FIG. 4 Cathedral_of_Cefalù Sicily ca. 1150 A.D

Another drawing from the 12thC correlates another type of fourfold division with the tripartite division of the circle.

FIG. 5. “This manuscript contains a collection of fragments from England and France in the 11th and 12th centuries. It consists of the sorts of materials that were studied in monastic and cathedral schools in this period, including works on philosophy, theology, logic, cosmology and computus (the calculation of times and dates). Appropriately, a picture of a lesson also appears .. (f. 126r). It shows a teacher instructing a group of students about the world, signified by the disk he holds. One student counts on his fingers, another takes notes on a writing tablet, and a third studies a booklet.” The manuscript is one which had been in the library of St.Victor, one of a number seized during the Revolution and which are now in the BNF, sequentially numbered.

and then, from late in the fifteenth century, we find a divergence appear – a traditional ‘T-O’ in a manuscript written in humanist script, versus one written in a “neat, mercantile script”.

FIG. 6

The first example comes from a copy of Gregorio Dati’s ‘Sfera’, described by the holding library as:

A navigational treatise in the form of a poem, with numerous illustrations and maps, written in Pesaro on 7 August 1484.”

Boston Public Libary. The manuscript has not been digitised at the time of writing.

The second comes from another copy of the same work, described by the holding library as

Manuscript on paper .. of Gregorio (or Leonardo?) Dati, ‘La Sfera’. This rhyming treatise (ottava rima) is divided into two parts: 1) a treatise on astronomy; 2) rules for navigation and the determination of the position of the sea.

Yale University, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. This manuscript has been digitised. A detailed description and bibliographic record was created by BPL staff based on description by Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis.

It will be recalled (by those who read the posts about dissemination of a ‘4’ shape for the numeral) that introduction and dissemination for that ‘4’ shape occurs in just this same environment (mercantile, computing and navigational) and, further, that the numeral in that form is recorded as early as 1375 – again in a map using the ‘rose-gridded’ style of the new maritime charts.

This great map by Cresques, a Jewish cartographer in Majorca, at a time when none but Genoese and those Majorcan-Jewish cartographers were producing such charts for the Latin world.

More, in that same work we find confirmation that there was a belief then prevalent among the Jews that world after the flood had been divided into four parts, not three, with Noah’s portion being western north Africa where he re-planted the vine – that is, the grape-vine.

That view of the world’s division after the flood was widespread among the Jews, many believing that North Africa had been the original promised land.

Readers may also recall that it was from the south-western Mediterranean and chiefly from North Africa that the new Hindu-Arabic numerals and related forms of calculation were first encountered by Latins, brought to Europe by merchants who encountered them being taught in specifically commercial schools (called ‘abaco’ or ‘abacus’ schools by Latins) of which to that time Latin Europe had none. The numerals and the development of merchants’ “calculation schools” spread in tandem and the students – both adult merchants and their sons – were more interested in practical skills that served their own practical needs than in the theoretical and academic style of the universities.

The convention of separating ‘commercial’ from ‘academic’ streams in education would in fact continue in the western education (or more exactly systems of education in the European sphere) well into the twentieth century.

I am not suggesting that any part of the Voynich text copies Dati’s Sfera – apart from other considerations, that easily-memorised school-text was not produced until August of 1484 – but what it contains was certainly known earlier and it is in the same environment of practical, commercial and navigational knowledge that the peripheral emblems on folio 67v-1 fit best.

What I would suggest is that the diagram might have been meant to have four divisions, not three and that the ‘overseer’-painter has attempted to exercise a form of censorship-as-correction to bring this diagram into line with the ‘official’ forms of traditional Latin scholastics gained from Aristotle and/or Sacrobosco.

As to the stars we find here, they are ones vital to navigation within the northern hemisphere.

What follows was first explained by me in 2012, met by silence – as again when I re-presented the information for the new audience in 2017. Since I find no reason to change my identification and explanation for the four stars and their role in signalling ‘North’, I see no reason not to offer the information to a still more recent and more engaged audience. This is taken from the version published in ‘Ring-o’-Roses Pt 2-ii of 2′ (last updated in 2017), and details as I expressed them in ‘Crux and Ursa Minor in the Voynich manuscript’, voynichimagery.

FIG. 7 – Square inc ‘Brothers’ – Ursa minor

Preliminary comment:

As I said, when first explaining this North emblem … it seems so very long ago now, but perhaps that impression is magnified by the ensuing silence … the reference here is to  Ursa minor, whose β and γ stars  were widely known by terms such  as the ‘Guards’, or ‘faithful ones’, for their continually patrolling the perimeter of the north, circling about the  Pole and serving as a reliable means to mark the watches of the night, guide the traveller, and allow  determination of the Pole star’s position when it is obscured.[1]

[1] all the above has been explained in more detail in earlier posts.  e.g. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘fol 67v-i ~ chronological strata’,  (first published April 6th 2012; re-printed with minor edits through voynichimagery.wordpress.com October 18th., 2012).The last five years’ work [2012-2017] has refined my reading of various drawings in this manuscript, but I find no reason to alter the explanation provided for this detail from folio 67v-1, and though I no longer think (as I did in 2012) that we must invoke the Armenians as middle-men, it remains a possibility.

South of (below, beneath, under) the Pole star… Polaris and β Ursa Minoris.

FIG. 8 Ursa minor – constellation

Ursa Minor as ‘Phoenicians’ marker of the Pole.

It is important, here, to recall that classical Greek and Roman navigators had not used Polaris, or Ursa Minor to determine the point of the northern celestial Pole.

Thus Manilius

The top of the Axis is occupied by constellations well known to hapless mariners, guiding them over the measureless deep in their search for gain. Helice, the greater [-Bear], describes the greater arc; it is marked by seven stars which vie with each other in radiance; under its guidance the ships of Greece set sail to cross the seas. Cynosura [the lesser Bear] is small and wheels about in a narrow circle, less in brightness as it is in size, but in the judgement of the Tyrians it excels the larger Bear. Carthaginians count it the surer guide when at sea they make for unseen shores.

  • Manilius, Astronomica 1.294-302. (1st C. AD)

while Edwin Brown points out that the distinction became a proverbial one:

It became a literary topos that the Greeks guided themselves by the Greater Bear, the Phoenicians by the Lesser … And Gundel is surely right in giving this Phoenician practice as the primary reason why “the majority’ ‘ according to the Eratosthenic Epitome call the Little Bear Phoenice.

Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402

and so ‘Poinike/Phoenike/Phenice’ etc. also became labels for Polaris, while Cynosura became a common term for its constellation, Ursa minor.    But that name for Polaris also deserves a reminder for readers that the label by the North star in folio 68r-1 is, in my opinion, meant to read with the same sense.

FIG. 9 (detail) fol 68r-1.  The North Star.
FIG 10

It is not certain that the Phoenician mirror (detail illustrated right) meant to represent the Dioscuri, but this large ‘compass’-star means they may represent the ‘Guards’ of Polaris who then, as now, could assist those at sea in finding the position of the Pole if that star itself was obscured and for counting the hours of the night watches.

The clearest explanation for the latter use, when it came to be employed by Latin navigators, is offered by E.G.R. Taylor.

FIG 11 from E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven-Finding Art (1971 edition).

For the more on medieval practice in the west, see

  • E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven Finding Art (1971 edition)

for vocabulary used in the Mediterranean:

Alan Hartley, ‘Astronomical Names in the Romance Languages of Western Europe from Late Antiquity to Early Modern Times”, Romance Philology, Vol. 73 No 2, (2019), pp. 507-30 and his website ‘Logotheros‘.

added (2022) for recent research into the Phoenicians of the west

  • José Suárez Padilla et.al., ‘The Phoenician diaspora in the westernmost Mediterranean: recent discoveries’, Antiquity Vol. 95 (384) pp. 1-16.
  • Carolina López-Ruiz, Phoenicians and the Making of the Mediterranean (2022)

However, the easier course is often taken today, using stars in Ursa Major.  The following diagram is not literal.

FIG. 12

The Mediterranean’s ‘Phoenician starand later western navigators.

Taylor mentions that, for the Latin west, the system which recognised ‘the Guards’ was known “at least by the time of Ramon Llull” – once again turning our attention to the south-western Mediterranean, Majorca and North-west Africa during that period of most interest to us in attempting to discover when the matter in Beinecke MS 408 entered Latin horizons. Ramon Llull was born in Majorca and lived from 1232 to 1315/16, contemporary with the first maker of those ‘rose-gridded’ charts in the Latin world. Pietro Vesconte was a Genoese whose work flourished 1310-1330.

By good fortune, a couple of classical works survive whose authors explain why the Pole star gained its name as ‘ Phoenice’.  No such record exists of how its constellation, Ursa Minor, came to be called  Cynosura  and the question had puzzled historians of astronomy and etymologists, both.  Edwin Brown addressed the question once more in 1981, and satisfactorily resolved it, though his paper is not well known, and is all too rarely cited.

  • Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402.

However, since this section of my post is more relevant to an image on another folio in Beinecke MS 408, I omit for the present post (2022) much of what followed.

* * * * * * *

FIG. 13 (detail) folio 67v-1

Identity of stars used for ‘North’ in folio 67v.

While I assume that the single ‘North’ star seen inside the diagram proper should represent Polaris, It might then be considered problematic as to whether the four stars used in the peripheral emblem are intended to refer to Ursa minor or to Ursa major, but just as we saw a trace of eastern influence retained in the diagram on folio 85r (part), so again I believe the Asiatic face signifies eastern influence in content and not just in form.

As I did in the original post, I note again that Hinkley Allen speaks of  β Ursa minoris‘ being known to the Chinese as ‘the emperor’ and the larger of the constellation’s doubled stars (γ1) as ‘the crown prince’. On both counts, however, the paper by Y. Maeyama must be preferred though it requires no alteration of my identifications for these four stars: i.e. that the ‘four stars’ are stars of Ursa minor; do not include the Pole star itself, and thus that the Asiatic face is a personification for β Ursa minoris.

We must differ from Maeyama only on one point: β  Ursa minoris is not ‘adjacent’ to the Pole but directly ‘below’ it, (see FIG. 8, above) so of all the seemingly discordant sources which Maeyama cites, the nearest to what we see here, informing the drawing in f.67v-1, is the dictum from one of the oldest, most respected, and thus constantly repeated authorities, namely Shih Shen (5thC BC).  I reproduce this passage from Maeyama’s paper directly:

What Maeyama concluded from that study of Chinese sources and the Dunhuang star-maps is that the term Thien-i (Celestial unique) was always applied to the Pole star for any given epoch, but Thai-i  refers to  “the unified celestial symbol of the Pole star and the terrestrial emperor, designated to a star adjacent to the Pole star”. [emphasis, present author]. For the last passage I think it more accurate to say “…assigned to a star below the Pole star” – i.e. β Ursa minoris.

We cannot then say that Polaris was unknown to any but the Phoenicians during the Greek and Roman classical eras. In terms of modern astronomy, of course, Polaris (α Ursa minoris) did not occupy the point of North until the 5thC AD, but the testimony of classical writers is unequivocal:  it was certainly no later than the 1stC AD that Phoenician mariners were habitually taking Polaris as Pole star; which practice the Romans saw as some peculiar and semi-religious quirk of Phoenician mariners alone, and saw no reason to adopt themselves.

The overseer-painter who addressed the detail on folio 67v-1, being apparently without authority – at first – to prevent the drawings being rendered with near-facsimile exactness, even if they expressed forms and ideas opposed to the Latins’ world view, academic traditions, religious beliefs, and conventions in art, has had to be content with overpainting – an act of semi- ‘translation’ that alters the sense of the original but which has also distorted the normal orientation and subject of a Latin ‘T-O’ diagram. The ‘T-O’ was exclusively a description of the physical world. Its imposition here on detail whose content is entirely astronomical attempts to assert that although an Asian king might, in fact, dominate the physical world, the same could never be true of that higher ‘world’ of the northern heavens. As we have seen, however, the Chinese at least, saw a closer link between the two.

That the resulting form (as a ‘T-O’) is oriented neither to the usual East, nor to a other cardinal point, but half-way between two of them is another indication that this layer it was not original to the drawing but apparently imposed on it, and awkwardly imposed at that. I think we may fairly attribute the addition of the pigments – and the peculiar result – to some Latin scholastic.

By the time of interest to us, the ‘T-O’ diagram was far more than what it had been – just schematic diagram of ‘three continents’: it had become for the Latins intrinsic to a highly developed and closely-woven mesh of theological, geographic and quasi-historical ideas. It wasn’t something that scholars and theologians could discarded simply because better geographic knowledge had come along, and I find no evidence to suggest that any idea of the physical world as composed of four continents was known to, or accepted by,  the Latins’ official learning before 1440. I might mention, though, a diagram from an Occitan manuscript dating to c.1350 or so, and which I’ll have reason to refer to again in the next series of posts.

Fig. 14

Merchants and merchant-venturers were more pragmatic than the more sedentary and academic Latin scholars, and what I think we can take from the emblem on folio 67v-1 is that here again we have a drawing of non-Latin origin, brought into that environment by person(s) with open attitudes, wider links and mental horizons, and so conflicting with the ‘official’ learning of scholars and theologians who, like physicians, studied Aristotle and Ptolemy, not works produced for sailors and ‘mere shop-keepers’. As we’ve seen, ‘T-O’ diagrams continued to be produced in formal Latin works for more than a century after the first rose-gridded cartes marine were produced in Genoa and Majorca, and which showed plainly enough that the physical world was not so neatly disposed.

By the time that Dati (or his brother) composed his poem, the era of easy western travel to as far as China had long ended.

Its heyday began after 1291, when Mamluk control over Syria had expelled the last of the foreign occupation forces and the eastern trade which had come through that region was being re-routed through the Black Sea, and Genoa and Venice struggling for dominance in that region. Venice had a certain advantage in the longer term, being included with Byzantine intermediaries as the two great powers – the Mamluks of Egypt and the Mongols – negotiated a working alliance. Latins’ access to the eastern trade via Alexandria fluctuated, being the subject of efforts at embargo and of prohibition by the Mamluks and by European authorities. As so often, the maritime city states put calculation and profit over more theoretical imperatives.

Postscript (July 26th., 2022):

FiG. 15

This post is so long that I’ve decided to omit the summary of research into the history of the type of head-dress worn by the Asiatic figure. It is not a Papal tiara, though it is not impossible that Bonifiace VIII added a second ring to assert primacy over the eastern Byzantine regions and that Benedict XII found his contact with eastern Christians a reason to add a third ring to the papal crown.

I found nothing similar associated with a Mongol ruler, but I believe the type of headdress is one descended ultimately from an older type (attested in ancient Harran and associated with Nabonidus), but more nearly related to forms attested in pre-Islamic southern Arabia and in southern India. The example shown at right (FIG 15) shows a Pandyan ruler. Since those regions were Christianised either directly from Egypt during the 1stC AD (as was the oldest Community of Thomas in southern India) or were Christianised from Syria during the 3rdC AD, it is natural to suspect that the figure in folio 67v-1 may be meant for some eastern Christian (‘Nestorian’) patriarch or for a Christian mongol ruler. I note that the first western Pope who increased the number of crowns on the Latin pope’s ‘tiara’ from one to two was – Benedict VIII, who seems to have done this only after representatives of the Church of the East and of the Mongols had come to Italy, France and England. As to the Mongols’ religions:

During the time of the Mongol empire (13th–14th centuries), [the Mongols] were primarily shamanist, and had a substantial minority of Christians, many of whom were in positions of considerable power. Overall, Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions, and typically sponsored several at the same time. Many Mongols had been proselytized by the Church of the East (sometimes called “Nestorian”) since about the seventh century, and some tribes’ primary religion was Christian. In the time of Genghis Khan, his sons took Christian wives of the Keraites, and under the rule of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Möngke Khan, the primary religious influence was Christian.

wikipedia, ‘Christianity among the Mongols’

The Latin pope’s ‘tiara’.

the following is edited from the entry in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

It is clear from the “Constitutum Constantini” and from the ninth Ordo of Mabillon (ninth century), that for this first period the papal ornament for the head was a helmet-like cap of white material. There may have been a trimming around the lower rim but it had nothing of the character of a royal circlet. The first proven appearance of the word tiara [from the Persian] as designation for the papal head-covering is in the life of Paschal II (1099-1118). The monumental remains give no clue as to the period at which the papal head-covering became ornamented with a royal circlet, but it is mentioned in a statement of Suger of St. Denis (c.1130). During the next period ( up until the pontificate of Boniface VIII 1294-1303 AD, the diadem remained a simple although richly-ornamented [single] ring.

The election of 1294 would bring a change. As Boniface VIII, Benedetto Caetani would add a second crown. It is evident from the inventory of the papal treasures which had been undertaken in 1295 that the tiara at that era had still only one royal circlet.

Three statues of Boniface VIII that were made during his lifetime and under his eyes, and of which two were ordered by Boniface himself, leave no doubt that he introduced the second circlet. Two of these statues are in the crypt of St. Peter’s, and the third, generally called erroneously a statue of Nicholas IV, is in the Church of the Lateran. In all three the tiara has two crowns.

What led Boniface VIII to make this change, whether merely love of pomp, or whether he desired to express by the tiara with two crowns his opinions concerning the double papal authority, cannot be determined.

The first notice of three crowns is contained in an inventory of the papal treasure of the year 1315 or 1316. As to the tombs of the popes, the monument of Benedict XI (d. 1304) at Perugia shows a tiara of the early kind; the grave and statue of Clement V as Uzeste in the Gironde were mutilated by the Calvinists, so that nothing can be learned from them regarding the form of the tiara. The statue upon the tomb of John XXII is adorned with a tiara having two crowns.

Benedict XII (c.1342) – while the papal court was in Avignon.

The earliest representation of a tiara with three crowns, therefore, is offered by the effigy of Benedict XII (d. 1342), the remains of which are preserved in the museum at Avignon. The tiara with three crowns is, thereafter, the rule upon the monuments from the second half of the fourteenth century.

Further references:

For more information about the detail I’ve shown above as Fig. 5, see

It is sometimes difficult to get results by searching shelf number at the Bib.Nat. Paris website, so here is the link to BNF Lat. 15170.

O’Donovan notes #8.5 folio 67v-1 questions outstanding.

c.1000 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

(additional illustration – 22 July 2022)

There are questions about the drawings on folio 67v-1 which are yet to be investigated. I thought some readers might be champing at the bit, by now, tired of being told how, and why, to do non-theory-driven research and impatient to try out the analytical approach for themselves.

As ever, the pattern for work of this sort, investigating problematic images of unknown cultural origin, begins by asking (not by inventing, imagining, guessing, presuming or theorising) – questions of that ‘where?’ and ‘when?’ sort. So-

  • Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars as circles or, if you prefer, as simple un-filled dots?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of providing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations?

Taking our main example as the four stars forming the peripheral ‘West’ emblem and which I’ve identified as tail-stars in Scorpius (remembering they could be drawn facing left or our right, and both are found in copies of al-Sufi’s Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib…*

  • A copy dated 1260-1280 AD, and suggested made at Marāghah (Iran) can be seen as British Library MS Or 5323. Other copies in Britain include Brit.Lib. Or 1407 ( Brit.Lib. IO Islamic 1407), Brit.Lib. MS Add 7488, (IO Islamic). The Bodleian library holds a copy as Marsh 144.
the yellow circles in the centre detail are my posited identifications for the four stars used to form the emblem on f.67v-1.

Below – Scorpius in a thirteenth-century copy of al-Sufi’s text, completed in 964 AD from knowledge of Hellenistic astronomy and the natural astronomy of the Arab traditions. Al-Sufi’s observations were made in Isfahan at a latitude of 32.7N° and included star-magnitudes – information not always agreeing with Ptolemy and not always accurately copied in later versions.

It may assist to have the stars’ descriptions according to the Greek-letter system no longer used by formal astronomy.

Valuable for historical research and normally difficult to access, is

N.B. the downloadable spreadsheet courtesy of John P. Pratt, whose name should not be omitted if making use of his work.

To add to the researcher’s challenges, the relevant manazil is sometimes found as ‘Shūla’ not ‘Shaula’ and while some important primary sources such as al-Biruni, and some conservative secondary sources such as Savage-Smith form that manazil of just two stars – lambda ( λ ) and nu (ν ) Scorpionis– other sources differ in their naming and/or the number of its component stars.

al-Biruni himself says that the two stars λ and ν are known as H’arazah, ‘the joints of the vertebrae’.

Illustrated copies of al-Sufi’s book show many more stars than two for the end of the tail, and a fifteenth-century eastern navigator, Ibn Majid, says of this manazil – which he knows as ‘al-Shūla‘ – that its component stars:

.. are all small stars, the smallest being of the sixth magnitude and the brightest of the fourth.. (p.109)

If you should find, from the balance of evidence you uncover, that you identify here four different stars of Scorpius from those I’ve nominated (see above), then by all means say so, and lay out the path which brought you to that conclusion.

Here’s one hypothetical alternative:

The best evidence will date to before 1440 AD or reflect habits and traditions demonstrably in place before then.

Marginal sources and notes that may assist.

If you looked at the astrological list of manzil that I mentioned and linked in the previous post, you may have noticed that the manazil is there named ‘Shaula’ but only one star is listed for it. By any criterion other than those which might apply to western astrology, that is wrong. It may have been the habit of some astrologers to represent the manazil by just one star. It wasn’t the custom most writers in Arabic or in Persian, nor the understanding of the eastern pilots such as Ibn Majid.

Jobes makes a passing reference to a comment made by Chilmead* about λ Scorpionis, as ‘It is also called Schomlek, which [Joseph?]Scaliger thinks is read by a transposition of the letters for mosklec, which signifieth the bending of the tail’.

  • possibly in his translation of Hues. See Brit.Lib. Addit. MS. 31429. ‘A learned Treatise of Globes both Celestiall and Terrestriall . . . written first in Latine by Mr. Robert Hues … Illustrated with notes Inr lo. Isa. Pontanus, and now lately made English … by John Chilmead, Mr. A. of Christ Church in Oxon.,’ London. I have not sighted the original.
  • Gertude Jobes, Outer space : myths, name meanings, calendars from the emergence of history to the present day (1964). Use with caution. I regret being unable to add further details, still having my notes but no longer having the book.

To transpose letters in order to avoid speaking a detested or prohibited word, especially a name, is familiar to us from Jewish religious texts but I understand it was also sometimes practiced in Arabic works. For all I know it may have been done by other religious communities, though I would not expect to find it in the west, nor among the Greeks. If we may accept that Scaliger cites some source for his information, then I should say it more likely that ‘Schomlek’ avoided some vernacular form as *S3h-mlk. I should not mention this except that it could prove relevant to the form of cap you see given one of the stars in that detail from folio 67v-1.

In any case, the cap is a last detail which may, or may not, ever be rightly understood and setting that aside, here are the questions likely to shed light on the origin, date and intended purpose for the four peripheral emblems:

  1. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars (not sun and moon) as circles or, if you prefer, as un-filled dots?
  2. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  3. Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations as apparently intended by giving one of the figures headwear? Is it done by reference to colour, magnitude, the star’s name, a particular legend, or by some other criterion?
  4. Is there any gender-differentiation apparent? If so, can you identify a language in which the the gender assigned these stars’ accords with their representation?

..and theorists think pictures are easy: ‘two eyes and commonsense-aka-imagination’. 🙂

O’Donovan notes #8.4: folio 67v-1. Peripheral motifs.

approx. 2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I had intended to introduce this part by tracing the history of different systems and styles for describing asterisms on the moon’s path, beginning with the Roman-era ceiling in Denderah and continuing to the fifteenth century, but considering how many posts would be needed to do the topic justice, and illustrate it, I’ve decided not to exhaust my readers and so will keep to a period from about the twelfth century to the early fifteenth.

I’ve described these four as peripheral, because they are not essential to the diagram’s description of cardinals and intercardinals but duplicate the four cardinals. They read as if they were additional commentary or astronomical scholia. Were it were not that these stars’ faces are drawn in just the same way that the faces of South and North stars are drawn inside the circuit, one might suspect them of being a late addition.

The four are fairly well-informed and contain some telling details.

The whole page, turned north-up, would appear as shown (below), but since it was designed South-up, I’ll address the South emblem first.


(detail) folio 67v-1. Sulba, Sulbar

The first point to be taken from it is that this ‘South’ motif was not drawn by any untravelled medieval Latin scholar unless he or she had access to an informant with wider knowledge of the world.

Why? It marks South by a group of four stars most probably those we now call ‘Crux’ but which even for Ptolemy were just part of the Centaur constellation and were not recognised by Europe as a separate constellation or asterism until after the time of Faras (1500) Corsali (1516) and of Magellan’s voyage (1519), i.e. at least three generations after the Voynich bifolios were inscribed.* The modern list, and description, of the constellations was decided by an 1880s conference of European astronomers.

*this is not the place to dilate on my reasons, but I suspect that the Voynich manuscript was among those stolen by Guglielmo Libri (d. 1869), perhaps even from the Medici villa in Fiesole, the town where Libri had a house to which he returned to die. I think it was then given by Libri’s noble executor to Fr. Peter Jan Beckx who was resident in Fiesole from 1875, only returning finally to the Villa Mondragone in Rome in 1895. I made the mistake of publishing a scrap of that research at voynichimagery so by now its echo may perhaps be found in some other Voynich site as an ‘idea’ (i.e. re-presented without proper attribution, without evidence or evidence of preceding research). I cannot empathise with Voynich pilferers, but perhaps Libri would.

For those who moved overland or sailed the seas east of Arabia, this constellation was as well known as were the Ursae in the Mediterranean, and for similar reasons. As it wheels around the southern Pole, Crux serves to indicate that point and to mark the night-hours. With no star occupying the South point (as Polaris does the North), Crux is all the more valuable to wayfinders. It had anciently been visible to more northerly latitudes, but again precession had taken it below the horizon over the centuries, and it was not visible to medieval Latin Europe.

India knew Crux as ‘Sulba’ and the Arabs as ‘Sulbar’.

More detail in

When first publishing the summary of research into folio 67v-1, I included a good deal of historical, cultural and comparative iconological matter for these peripheral motifs, but since this series is meant as a demonstration of analytical method, I won’t repeat it all here.

I would, however, emphasise strongly that an analyst’s opinion must wait on the balance of evidence acquired by investigation – not start with an impression, mis-represent the impression as ‘opinion’ and that ‘opinion’ as theory, let alone use that theory to limit the nature and range of research undertaken.

Unfortunately, as you’ll see by reviewing past and present-day theoretical Voynich narratives, precisely that sort of theory-driven approach has hardened into a presumed norm, and has permitted traditionalists to rationalise the manuscript’s disobligingly opaque drawings and assert them all “nice and normal European really” waving aside all stylistic differences by simply imagining that some medieval Latin figure was so affected by aberrant mentality, or by a a desire to be original that s/he rendered the majority of this manuscript’s images illegible in terms of a European visual language.

One is often obliged to ask of a given Voynich theorist if they have ever read so much as a history of European art.

To this day, as for the last century, a Voynich traditionalist begins by saying in effect, “Presuming that all the content in this manuscript is an expression of western Christian culture and written texts….’ The analytical approach starts by asking ‘Where and when do we find evidence of such forms and informing ideas as are preserved in the drawing under consideration?’

In some cases, the answer may be indeed ‘medieval Christian Europe’; in others, a combined influence (as we saw with folio 85r), and in many there’s no trace of Latin influence at all. A compilation derived from more than one source of non-European origin and supplemented after c.1350 by a few additions in western style would seem to me a reasonable assessment overall, but again I’m speaking of fomat and images. I have no opinion on the script except to say that it appears to me that the way the ‘4o’ glyph is written indicates a hand already accustomed (as few were before 1400) to writing the numeral ‘4’ that way.

Like the difference between a doll’s house and a real house, so a Voynich theory tends to be purpose-made and nicely organised so long as you suspend your sense of perspective and proportion. An analytical study will have its flaws, but (so to speak) when you turn the taps, there’s water in the pipes. The analyst must – unlike the theorist – refrain from a final opinion until after subjecting research-conclusions to a rigorous and quite hostile cross-examination.

About the South-emblem, for example, the cross-examination would include such questions as: Why this astronomical cross? How do you know the maker didn’t mean to refer to the cross of Cygnus? What about the ‘cross’ sometimes identified with Orion? What about that ‘false cross’ mentioned by Ibn Majid and described so in modern astronomy?” “Why can’t they be meant for northern stars since you say ‘South’ in the Voynich map is marked by a circle?”.. and so on. If you don’t seriously stress-test your initial conclusions and consider both pro’s and con’s, your final opinion will be un-balanced by definition even if (predictably) nicely consistent with your initial impressions.

Crux (left) and the false cross (right) in the southern hemisphere.

One must also see things from the point of view of someone who is blinkered by devotion to a theory or affected by some such misconception as that any allusion to stars must either be about astrology or about mathematical astronomy.

I feel fairly confident that someone out there, alarmed by this allusion to Crux and its being incompatible with their variant of an all-European theory, will begin hunting through theory-friendly sources for something to assert is an alternative explanation. They might look for some astrological system which linked stars to the directions. It is well to have done the same.

If – more likely when – a theorist produces a contrary view, then regardless of what you might think about the critic’s Voynich theory, don’t ignore any supporting evidence. It’s all about evidence, after all, and – this is important – their evidence might be better than any that you’ve considered so far. If later re-using that person’s information, an analyst should feel able to acknowledge the person who was kind enough to bring that evidence to notice. As I said earlier – this sort of work needs an almost insatiable intellectual curiosity combined with a level of disinterest practically impossible for the theory-afflicted. I feel most sympathy for those marginal readers who, like Nicodemus, desire to know but dare not admit to knowing [Voynich-] heresy. 😀

Concerning transmission of this material into the west, it is interesting to note that in a Genoese map of 1457, we find a combined image for Canopus+Crux after the custom of India and the mariners of the eastern seas. Its form is related to the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’ as I explained when first introducing to Voynich studies the subject of Europe’s earliest rose-gridded cartes marine and their relevance to this study (2012-14) .. but I’m running too far ahead .. Next motif..


(detail) f.67v-1. Sting of Scorpius. Ar: Al Shaulah
(detail) f.67v-1 inscription for the sting of Scorpius.

The maker’s choice to mark ‘West’ shows that they were not by birth and upbringing heirs to the near eastern cultural traditions and star-lore, nor by training an eastern mariner.

This is because the proverbial ‘west’ marker was the Pleiades, and the proverbial ‘East’ marker, Orion, even though in purely astronomical terms (as in classical legend), it is the Scorpion from which Orion seems to retreat, backwards.

This opposition of Orion and Scorpius is what one sees on a globe or in the night sky in the right season, Any person unaware of the older and long-traditional sayings among eastern peoples would, understandably, suppose them an obvious pair, but his not being native to that environment is made evident again by another and more subtle ‘error’ – in attempting to define the east-west opposition in terms of the lunar asterisms or manzil, he has got it very nearly, but not exactly right. He has just counted the series and divided by two, making his ‘west’ not only part of Scorpius but the wrong stars of that constellation, the stars composing its sting and the manazil called in Arabic al Shaulah. But even in those terms, it’s only nominally right; the right manazil would have been the star of the Scorpion’s heart,

  • Looking around online today (15th July), I see a useful list of the lunar mansions on a site devoted to astrology – here.
  • Another astrologer, P. James Clark, has a blog called the ‘Classical Astrologer’ and his post – here – provides a useful discussion of the lunar mansions as they were represented by the Picatrix and so came to inform notions held in western Europe about the manzil.

To a few among the literati of medieval Latin Europe, the lunar mansion system was known, but only as a magical and occult system, as represented in a rather garbled version in Latin translations of the Picatrix, but the series of lunar mansions (manzil) simply describes the ecliptic in smaller increments than the simple 12-fold system of month-marking constellations with which the Latin west was thoroughly familiar.

In the world beyond Europe, the series of lunar mansion asterisms served various purposes. It served as a horizontal axis for the eastern navigators’ conceptual grid, among other things. Every mosque throughout the medieval Islamic world had its almanac in which the manzil were included, because the same series marked the periods of the liturgical year as it named the months of those Arabian agricultural calendars mentioned in the previous post.

Anything to do with the stars could be, and was, put to use by fortune-tellers, astrologers and magicians, but it is a major error to imagine that there’s a simple equation – ‘manzil’ equals ‘occult’.

The person who added these peripheral emblems to the diagram certainly understood that Orion should denote East (as we’ll see) but in deciding which lunar mansion should stand for ‘West’ he chose as you’d expect a foreigner would – by taking the opposition literally and by counting the half-way point.

In purely technical astronomical terms, to have these stars opposite those of Orion is ok – as you’ll see if you look at an astronomical globe. But it is culturally just a bit off, even in literal uses – a bit like perfectly grammatical yet non-idiomatic English spoken by a well-educated visitor.

The whole of Orion opposed by the whole Scorpion -yes. That would be fine. But as symbolic emblem for ‘west’ – it should be the Pleiades, often in the form of a cup, and significant of a final victory. (Which of course is the wit in Hafiz’ allusion, earlier quoted.) And in literal terms west should be identified with the Scorpion’s heart-star, al-Kalb (which again, those familiar with Hafiz’ poems will appreciate.)

While I don’t believe that the person who drew these four emblems was a stay-at-home Latin bending over Aratus’ Phaenomena or even Ptolemy’s Almagest, he may have been a traveller from somewhere in the west, or a member of an eastern Christian community or at the very least have known the story of Christ. The Arabic term for Crux is rendered as ‘the beam of crucifixion’ and a person of deceptive or traitorous character was proverbially described, in the near east, as a ‘scorpion’. What argues against his being a Latin, or someone who had seen Crux, is that the drawing gives it four arms of equal length.

For students in search of additional sources, I refer to the listings under ‘Stars and their Uses’ in the page My recommendations. (see header bar).

In Voynich studies, the subject of the lunar mansions has surfaced and sunk again many times, since first raised in Jim Reeds’ mailing list (1990s-early 2000s) but since most Voynicheros have begun by presuming everything in the Voynich manuscript must be the brain-child of some western Christian author, what we’ve seen so far from Voynich writers addressing the topic has been based on the Picatrix (in a very poor thirteenth century version), and by then jumping straight to Cornelius Agrippa’s book published in 1533, and thus almost exactly a century too late to be relevant.

Darren Worley‘s posts and comments to the blog set up by Stephen Bax, did consider the Indian nakshatras, though again with astrology in mind and adopting the remarkably constant error by which Voynicheros imagine the Voynich calendar shows ‘a zodiac’ and the still more egregious error which imagines the purpose of every zodiac’s representation was astrological.

I might mention that there is nothing in any of the Voynich drawings which points to an astrological purpose: the habit of imagining no other purpose could inform drawings that show sun, moon and stars is another by-product of Voynich studies’ early history.

The next two astronomical motifs, next post.


Readers might enjoy Clark’s post about the astrological directions in al-Biruni’s work, though of course al-Biruni was a towering intellect whose report on India’s culture and intellectual history includes far more than their astrology. Still, it is interesting to note that in al-Biruni’s description of astrological directions (as Clark reports), “Cancer is in the centre of the North, Scorpius a point to the left and West [of north].” HIs post includes a diagram – shown north-up and east-left – in which Scorpius is actually left and east of North. Whether the error is in the diagram, or in the translation from al-Biruni, I’ve never troubled to check. In any case, here again, I think al-Biruni’s system for weather-predictions can be crossed off our list of potential sources for the ‘West’ emblem on folio 67v-1.

O’Donovan notes #8.3a: folio 67v-1 (the centre – turned North-up.)

c.2000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

The central part of the diagram is now turned so that our posited East is to the viewer’s right, because most of my readers will find a north-up orientation more comfortable. It is not done because north-up is a ‘proper’ orientation. Like the diagram on folio 85r, this was designed South-up.

(detail) folio 67v-1.
Yale, Beinecke Library MS 408

Now, in the highest and the lowest position, you see two more flower-like forms, each showing a circular face without the sun’s leonine corona.

To a modern way of thinking, the natural complement for the sun is the moon, so it might be tempting to imagine, without any better reason, that these details may speak of the moon’s rise and -set.

(details) folio 67v-1

In the normal way, a researcher would have to investigate that possibility should it arise, but since this is only a demonstration of method, I’ll save readers’ time by saying that, in this diagram, the simple circular faces refer to stars, and this secondary pair will be treated in full later, along with the four peripheral drawings (see previous post.)

Here I note that second pair refers again to the lotus, though perhaps not the flower named ‘lotus’ by modern botany.

Whereas the pair used for the places of sunrise and sunset show the sun emerge from the petalled ‘cup’ but sink in the west into a flat surface, those for North and South distinguish the two elements differently. The East-West pair might possibly refer to the flower we call Lotus today (Nelumbo spp.) and in which the seed-pod is visible as elevated, flat-topped object

Nelumbo nucifera. The sacred lotus of Buddhism.

Names given N. nucifera in about 20 eastern languages – see here.

The second pair (north and south) instead show South surrounded by petals while North emerges from what appears as if it were a cloud of stamens. The distinction made, in both pairings, is between whether the heart has its outer covering, or not. This isn’t a purely iconographic distinction: it reflects a certain way of seeing, and perhaps knowledge of both the Egyptians’ lotus and that we now call Lotus (Nelumbo spp.)

When the petals of N. nucifera fall, the flat-topped pod is clearly seen, but with the Egyptians’ blue lotus, a waterlily, (Nymphaea nouchali var. caerulea), what one sees are just the stamens.

For a summary of the Egyptian imagery and its associations – see here.

Not native to Egypt, the pink Lotus was first introduced, it is thought, during the period (6th-5thC) when Egypt was part of the Achaemenid Persian empire, whose eastern border co-incides with the western limit of that flower’s natural range “from central and northern India (at altitudes up to 1,400 m or 4,600 ft in the southern Himalayas, through northern Indochina and East Asia (north to the Amur region)”.

Achaemenid Empire

Within the Mediterranean Nelumbo nucifera could be seen in Egypt even before the establishment of Alexandria and thereafter seen by trader-travellers as well as by residents of the country.

It is perfectly possible, that whoever first made the diagram on folio 67v-1 might have know all three types – that is, the Egyptians’ native waterlilies known as lotus, both the blue and the white, and this pink Lotus. In my opinion, though it is not perfectly clear, the original maker probably meant the ‘east’ and ‘west’ in folio 67v-1 to refer to the Nelumbo, but those for North and South the Nymphaea.

Here, I’d emphasise yet again as antidote to popular conceptions of history that during the centuries between when Julius Caesar claimed Egypt and the mid-fourteenth century, the forms and sense of older Egyptian iconography weren’t locked in the mists of time, nor was all memory of their meaning lost. It is a surprise, but a pleasant one, to see for example that in Exeter Cathedral a thirteenth-century carving shows, semi-translated into Latin forms, two Egyptian ‘ba-birds’ and to realise that some Egyptian tour guide has explained to an Englishman, that it signifies a person’s ‘soul’. So here we see, in medieval England, the pair of soul-mates. This carving isn’t part of the Cathedral’s formal ornament but adorns a misericord, an area that individuals were free have carved into pretty much whatever image or design they pleased.

misericord. Exeter Cathedral. 13thC

(Another shows an elephant better-realised than many manuscript illustrations of the time).

Returning to folio 67v-1, the thinking behind inclusion and omission of petals reflects a world view very different from our own, and very different from the customs in medieval Latin Europe; this drawing isn’t ‘speaking European’ at all.

Ephemeral covering – perceptions of the flower.

For us, and in general for the Europe’s iconographic tradition, a plant is principally identified and defined by its flowers.

Once the petals fall, we tend to regard that plant as past its peak in every sense. We cut the ‘dead heads’ from the rose-bush, empty the vase and say to visitors that they should have seen the garden last week. Because such is our everyday custom, I expect most readers will consider it obvious and commonsense that a flower is better with, than without its petals. But this isn’t the sense intended by this drawing, and our assumptions were plainly not those which inform the Voynich plant-drawings either, save for a very few such as the violas on f.9v.

I’m not speaking here of scientific botany in the modern sense, though anyone who has been asked to collect specimens will know that the flower is required.

Our assumptions and priorities are not universal, and were not those of even some among the older Greeks.

For Theophrastus, as for most agricultural communities, the things which defined a plant were those which endured and remained constant. He considered petals an ephemeral set of leaves, a passing stage in the fruit’s formation and defined a plant by its habit, leaf-shape and fruit.

Pointing this out is no tacit argument for Theophrastus as ‘author’ of matter now in Beinecke MS 408, but shows that even scholars might understand the rural and non-elite workers’ point of view: that a plant’s fruit and seed were what mattered most and then what other practical value it had – as timber, fibre, fodder, dye-stuff, scent, medicine, toxin and so forth.

All these stood higher on the scale of importance, and informed schemes for classifying and defining plants, than did flowers – unless they too had some practical or commercial value.

Religious, allegorical and ornamental use of a flower-motif might influence ideas about some plants – such as the lotus – but overall, and in the diagram on folio 67v-1, the chief association with flower-petals is of immaturity and transience, their absence the later stage of development, endurance and permanence. What endured lay within.

The sun rises young from a flower, but sinks into what appears to be the flat-topped pod(?). The North and South emblems show the transient South star surrounded still by petals, while the enduring and constant North star is free of them. Neither ‘north’ nor ‘south’ show the flat-topped pod of the pink lotus – so I suggest the maker intended here to refer once more to the Egyptian lotus – Nymphaea.

(details) folio 67v-1.
(left) ‘North’ and (right) ‘South’.

There was no ‘South’ star for Medieval Europe,

The star Canopus, referred to as the South star in Arabic and Persian sources, could not be seen any further north than approx 32°N during western Europe’s medieval centuries.

Thus, in 1153 AD, the astronomer Ibn Rushd had to travel south from his native Córdoba in Al-Andalus (37°53′N) to north Africa ito see it, as he was finally able to do in the Berber city, Marrakesh (31°37′48″N). While it is certainly possible – so far – to suggest that the inclusion of this ‘South’ star reflects literary or proverbial allusions, it is not reasonable to suppose it reflects real knowledge on the part of any medieval Latin who had not travelled to that latitude.

Claudius Ptolemy knew Canopus of course, because his work was composed in Egypt in the 1stC AD and he was an Egyptian of Greek ancestry. In Hellenistic Alexandria, Canopus’ acronical rising had marked the feast of the Ptolemaia but precession had been taking it ever-further below the horizon since that time.

The Ptolemaia: the date of this feast’s foundation has been a subject of scholarly debate, but need not concern us. Any reader interested is referred to

  • P.M. Fraser, ‘The Foundation-Date of the Alexandrian Ptolemaieia’, Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 54, Issue 3 (July 1961), pp. 141 – 145. accessible online through Cambridge Core.

In those southern regions navigators by land – such as the Bedouin of the Negev and Sinai, and navigators by sea – including Ibn Majid – called Canopus Suhayl, and – here I must correct the wiki article – “because [Canopus] appears for so short a time above the horizon (even) in those regions, it was associated with a changeable nature, as opposed to always-visible Polaris, which was circumpolar and hence ‘steadfast.’

That, precisely, is the distinction which is made between the star of ‘North’ as against ‘South’ in these motifs from the diagram on folio 67v-1.

Having said so much it’s time to do the obligatory reality-check though the historical, literary and archaeological evidence to see whether these sources confirm or deny our reading of the drawing so far. It is easy to force interpretations into a theoretical mould but .. no evidence, no case.

Is there evidence that the circuits of day or of night were ever defined by the stems of four lotus flowers? If so, in what visual ‘language’? When and where are closely similar iconographic conventions found? It is not enough to say that something might be or could be intended by a drawing; one must show evidence of similar ways of seeing and the same iconographic conventions – the visual ‘language’ of a given community and period.

With the ‘west’ emblem from the Voynich map showing that a pre-Roman Egyptian convention in drawing could survive to be in our present manuscript, Egypt is a logical place to start cross-examining our reading so far.

As it happens, examples abound, but I show this one (below) because it was made before the pink lotus (N.nucifera) was introduced to Egypt and because here we also see the four stems offset and are able to appreciate its significance. I’ll speak about the last point in another post.

Many such lotus bowls survive from this early period onwards. Egypt’s iconography and its conventions were maintained almost unchanged for (literally) thousands of years, so readers need not be off-put by the age of that example.

If the reader had gained an impression (not uncommon today) that Egypt’s four-and-a-half-thousand-year culture and all its attitudes and customs evaporated into a semi-mythical realm from the first moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship, I hope that idea will now be laid aside, knowing that (as we saw in folio 85r) not all the manuscript’s content can be ancient and much is unlikely to be of solely Egyptian origin.

On the other hand –

Egypt’s art and traditions did survive Caesar.

… and it is not at all impossible, just as Georg Baresch wrote about the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher in 1639, that someone might have travelled (at some unspecified time) and collected information from monuments, books and people, even if knowledge of the Egyptian scripts had been forgotten.

One has to guard against confusing knowledge with books, especially for the pre-modern age, just as one must avoiding imagining history as if it were a train of self-contained and mutually-exclusive episodes, one succeeding another. And – need one say it – a modern scholar does not imagine that, in the pre-modern world. a thing could be known to no-one if it weren’t known to a European.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium (2005). For first bringing this work to notice in Voynich studies, the debt owed is again to Nick Pelling. (see here).

The Egyptians’ word for the lotus was sšn, also used for the lily. The Greeks called the Egyptian lotus ‘souson‘, but in the Mashhad Dioscorides we find ‘shushan’ describing a form of Iris – reasonably enough given the sense of ‘Iris’ in the Greek.

Nearly 2000 words, so I’ll break here; the remainder tomorrow.

Postscript – elucidating the ancient bowl.

Spell 148 in the Book of Coming Forth by Day directly associates all four of Horus’s sons, described as the four pillars of Shu and the four rudders of heaven, with the four cardinal- and the four intercardinal points.

O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).


The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.



I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.


With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth (thirteenth – sorry, missed that misprint) century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gain so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 is promising. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possibly also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu