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 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 gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. 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 possible 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

Voynich astronomy – note

For those exploring drawings in Beinecke MS 408 that suggest connection to star-lore, calendars and/or meteorology, I want to draw attention to Tzvi Langermann’s having now uploaded to academia.edu the following paper.

  • Tzvi Langermann, ‘From My Notebooks: Studies on the Hebrew Geminos: The Chapter on Weather Signs’, Aleph 10.2 (2010) pp. 357-395.

I have had reason to refer to Langermann before.

For earlier mentions in this blog search ‘Langermann’ and ‘Sassoon’.

I’d remind amateur readers who may have been told by one or more Voynicheros that to cite sources and precedents is ‘unnecessary’ that this Voynich meme is not one to obey. If your work has drawn from earlier research and conclusions – no matter by whom – to omit, fudge or re-assign to a crony the credit for that work is ruinous to any field of study and, in the longer-term, to the reputation of any would-be Voynich expert as well that of everyone connected to Voynich studies.

I wouldn’t be adding this caution here if I didn’t think Langermann’s paper important or if plagiarism weren’t now rampant among particular sectors of the Voynich community. I do think this paper is important; have already referred to it in speaking of the anwāʾ in posts to voynichimagery, and in this blog I’ve mentioned other items of Langermann’s research.

Longer-term readers may remember why I closed public access to voynichimagery.

Consider this.. for James (brief note).

about 1230 words

My thanks to James Barlett, the first of my correspondents to protest that I’d been “a bit quick” in the previous post, and (as James put it) “tossing out meaningless phrases like ‘star measures.’ “.

Re-reading the post from James’ point of view, I see his point, so  for James and other who like details, I add this short post.

Charts of the ‘rose-gridded’ type are not ‘mappamundi’ but navigational charts –  as Datini’s agent understood, and the person who described Cresques’ Atlas for the Bibliotheque nationale.

Such charts are a product of the surveyor’s arts, but when it comes to navigation, the ‘surveyor’ must survey not only his horizon, but what is above it.

 Sidereal navigation was not an art widely known in the medieval Mediterranean – at least not to the level it was practiced by Polynesians and, thanks not least to them, to some among the Arab mariners  in the eastern seas – or, as Majid sometimes calls them collectively, the ‘great sea’. 

‘Surveying the sky’ was an art which Majid and his fellows did know and he counted among those ‘fellows’ certain of the piratical mariners of the north African coast, the original ‘Barbary men’. This part of north Africa is of considerable interest to us since, as we’ve seen, it was there that Leonardo of Pisa first gained his basic knowledge of calculation using Hindu-Arabic numerals; one of our earliest of the rose-gridded cartes marine was also made in Tunis and pre-dates the earliest extant examples from Genoa or from Majorca, and in the same region Kabbalism was widespread.  

At one point, Majid compares himself (and the north African navigators) to the ordinary Mediterranean seamen,  whom he groups together as ‘Egyptians’, and says:

“they [the ‘Egyptians’] are not able to do these things nor can they understand what we can do, although we can understand what they do ..they have no qiyās measurements,* no science and no [navigation] books only the ‘compass’ and a number of “miles”, neither do they use “star fetterings”. We can easily travel in their ships and upon their sea …

They acknowledge that we have the better knowledge of the sea and its sciences and the wisdom of the stars in the high roads of the sea.” (p.121).

*qiyās. Pole altitude measurements. In the story of Marco Polo, we are told that the Arab mariners of the eastern seas had good charts and in the account of his sailing up the eastern coast of India, the height of the Pole Star above well-known ports is given.  As Tibbetts says, in recounting these things (p.6) “we can be quite certain that qiyās measurement was practiced by the navigators of the Arabian sea in his day”.  Determining the position of a port or other landmark by reference to the star which ‘stood’ over it is, of course another instance of corresponding star-and-place positions.  On land, a similar practice was well known to the desert Arabs and also informs the story of Jesus’ birth in the Christian gospels. This was a practice more ancient than astrology, and quite independent of it, though chiefly known to those who crossed the trackless wastes of sea and sand.

  • G.R. Tibbetts, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the Coming of the Portuguese: Being a Translation of “Kitab al-Farawa’id fi usul al-bahr wa’l-qawa’id of Ahmad b. Majid al-Najdi”.  Originally published with maps and charts in 1971, in London, by the Royal Asiatic Society. My copy included four charts: The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden; the Arabian Sea, including part of Somalia and of the Persian Gulf; India and the Bay of Bengal; a sheet containing two charts – the East African coat and the seas of South-east Asia. Compiled from the Arabs’ navigational texts.  


Qiyās is one of those ‘star measures’ I was thinking of. 

It’s not entirely true that Mediterranean mariners knew nothing of the navigational stars.  They used two other stars in Ursa Minor to determine the position of the Pole star if sight of it was obscured,  and to tell the hours of the night. And of course they knew Orion, whose setting nominally ended the Mediterranean sailing year, and the Pleiades and Bootes, by the aid of which Odysseus says he sailed home, eventually, from Troy.  But in medieval times they did indeed, as Majid says, have to rely on their wind-compass and measure the distance from one place to another in terms of the following wind which would – in theory – take a ship directly from the one place to the other.

Majid’s navigation was more like the surveyor’s art, and his tools were cousin to those used by the surveyor – a rod or ‘wood’ and a length of knotted cord.  These had been the land-surveyors’ tools from memory out of mind, and certainly from the time of dynastic Egypt.   The ‘rod or pole’ measure of the navigators was much shorter, of course, but it was also a standard measure. The same was true for the knotted cord.  

kamal Ifland

The measuring rod is depicted in a Mozarabic manuscript, where a correlation is made between the earthly and the heavenly vault, and the ‘angelic measures’ are tacitly equated with those who worship the deity on earth as in heaven.   While I don’t suppose the monk who made this image knew very much of navigation, but it should be recalled that Spain was not part of the Latin domains in earlier centuries. Before and even after the Muslim conquest, parts of Spain and north Africa remained part of the Byzantine empire, just as Muslim Spain remained initially closely connected with the Caliphate in Baghdad. Notice the form of these ‘star flowers and dots’ which are meant to represent the fields of stars. (cf. ‘Compostella’).

celestial measure rod Silos Apocalypse

Correlating celestial and terrestrial ‘rule’ by the measures of the pole,  or rod can be expressed in diverse ways.  

If I were to explain in detail why the term ‘kav’ relates so well to this mesh of ideas, I’d probably have to begin by explaining that many words in the shared vocabulary of medieval Mediterranean mariners did not originate with Latin or even with Greek but have been maintained from remote antiquity and some terms are clearly from ancient Egyptian, including terms as basic as ‘cabin’ and ‘governor’. 

Majid had his reasons for  saying that the majority of Mediterranean mariners were ‘Egyptian’.

But if you simply imagine that ‘rod or pole’ as a long, hollow reed, then you may better appreciate the underlying idea which those varied associations for the ‘kav’ carry in ordinary usage, and in kabbalah.

Here is evidence of the surveyor’s rod and knotted cord in antiquity: ‘measuring the fields’. 

surveying earth and heavens Pharaonic Egypt


Any reader wanting to go deeper into any of the points I’ve mentioned is welcome to email for the references. I won’t add them here; they’re not part of a Voynich research bibliography.



for Voynicheros still unconvinced by the detailed explanation offered earlier* about the ‘Voynich archer’ and his hat alluding to Spain, here’s another illustration from the 10thC Mozarabic manuscript, the Silos Beatus. (* through voynichimagery).

Michael Beatus Hell headwear hair scales

The curious position of Michael’s legs is not (as it would be if in a later, Latin, manuscript) a sign of heterodoxy but rather of an obduracy in the face of temptation.  The fallen angels were, after all, his natural brothers.  Here, as in the vocabulary of Byzantine art, wild hair signifies a wicked and untamed character.  

I’m not sure if this is enough to satisfy James that there was more to my mentioning star-measures than just tossing words about, but I hope it will do.

Consider this… Halts and stops.

about 3200 words. Farewell to 2021.

As any experienced researcher knows, there will be times when a promising line of investigation comes to an apparently impassable barrier. In some cases, this can be a permanent stop, but in others only a temporary halt and some insight will be offered months, years or sometimes even decades later.

As an example of ‘dead stop’, see my ‘Colorni’ note in the sidebar.*

*In an effort to see whether any of Colorni’s encryption methods might apply to the Voynich text, I first approached Cryptologia to find someone both able and willing to test the possibility and two cryptologists were kind enough to offer to work with me, and if things went well to produce together a paper for publication. However, then Nick Pelling also offered, and it seemed only fair to give him first shot at it. My reason for wanting to test this possibility is that Colorni’s book, Scotographia, was published in 1593 after he’d spent a decade in Rudolf’s Prague, so it seemed to me that had anyone still known at that time any key (if there is a key) to the written text, they might have approached Colorni, and he then included that method among the others gathered to make his book.

It was possibility, and  a new possibility (though Rene Zandbergen immediately tried to claim priority on the grounds that he thought he recalled having once mentioned Colorni’s name). Nick Pelling, for some inexplicable reason, imagined I’d “fallen over” Colorni, but in fact it was an endpoint to research into levels of adherence among Jews to the religious prohibition against creating false characters, including enciphered texts. An academic paper on the subject led to my wanting to test the ‘Colorni’ possibility.  However…

In the end, our ‘Colorni’ experiment went no-where.

It happens.

But on the other hand, it can take as little as one article to indicate one’s way forward, or even solve problems whose investigation earlier met a blank wall.

A single article referenced in an online journal recently allowed me to pick up again not one but two problems earlier laid aside as ‘halted, perhaps stopped’.

The first question had been – Why ‘Kabbalah’?

I felt it important to understand just what it had been about the manuscript that prompted Erwin Panofsky’s allusion to Kabbalah in 1932. Was it format, page layout, vellum finish, the images, or script or something else?

It has become usual to suppose the manuscript written by someone trained in the Italian Humanist hand (another of the many objections to the ‘central European’ theory), but I’ve often had doubts. Within the frame of a traditional Eurocentic ‘all-Latin’ theory-creation, the only other option seemed to be the Carolingian – for which Barbara Barrett is said to have argued in one or more articles published by The Fortean Times.

Yet while I accept a fifteenth century date for our present manuscript, I thought the script might as easily be compared with the general style of thirteenth-century Sephardic cursive. (Note the “might”; it was a palaeographic question – not a ‘theory’).

The examples which I cited, in my posts, were in a Bodleian exhibition entitled ‘Crossing Borders’ and for copyright reasons could only be linked, not shown, in my blogposts of that time. Today, the Bodleian appears to have replaced that page so I can only repeat some of my comments from those posts.

At the linked site, I’d like especially to point out among the Jewish manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that of NAHMANIDES’, Torat ha-Adam, in the ‘oriental’ Sephardic cursive script (Catalonia, Spain, 1330) . And again on that site, a Manuscript of MOSES MAIMONIDES, also in Sephardic cursive, though with additional notes and emendation.

I was most struck by how reminiscent of the Voynich script was that in the copy of Nahmanides’ Torat ha-Adam. I’d make here, again, the point I made back then viz, “I’m speaking of the letters not made ‘sharp’ and the text giving equal visual weight to each of the letter’s elements. .”

The ‘Crossing Borders’ exhibition went to America, receiving there a review by Moshe Sokolow (Wednesday, December 19, 2012) of which I also quoted part in relation to the sort of informal manuscript described as ‘viliores’ – a  term I’d introduced in an earlier post:

… lacking the influence of centralized authorities and catering to more widespread literacy, [Jewish codices]  were produced by private copyists, many for their own personal use, and tended toward greater individualism.  …

  • M. Sokolow, review of ‘Crossing Borders..” exhibition. (Dec. 19th., 2012)

  • The term ‘viliores’ :  adopted after Francis Newton, ‘One Scriptorium, Two Scripts: Beneventan, Caroline, and the Problem of Marston MS 112′, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 66, Supplement to Volume 66: BEINECKE STUDIES IN EARLY MANUSCRIPTS (1991), pp. 118-133. (JSTOR).

The point, as I’d said when introducing that term,* was that manuscripts of such a kind are very often free of diacritics and have the simplest type of ligatures.

* ‘Seeking the Voynich hand- continued’, voynichimagery, (May 27th., 2015)

The relevance of these various details, in connection to understanding why Panofsky mentioned Kabbalah and ‘Spain or somewhere southern’, was then (and is still) that ‘Spain and somewhere southern’ was where Kabbalism flourished during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was part of the region where, at the same time, the scripts known as Sephardic cursive and Sephardic semi-cursive were being employed. And of course the environment in which Abraham Cresques’ ‘Catalan Atlas’ was created.

In that same post introducing the term ‘viliores’ I’d quoted from a paper by Maria Segol, ( voynichimagery, May 27th., 2015) and that quoted paragraph deserves repeating here:

Unlike other kinds of Jewish books… or other sorts of illuminated manuscripts, kabbalistic books were not sent out to workshops for illustration….. In almost every case the diagram is drawn in the same ink and in the same hand as the text it accompanies. They are rarely colored and rarely graphically elaborate or impressive. And medieval and early modern kabbalistic manuscripts are seldom deliberately aesthetically pleasing. They are in some ways the ugly ducklings of medieval manuscripts. This shows that they were reproduced as home operation, for use by those who copied them or by their colleagues and students.

  • Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah, (p.7)

The idea of Kabbalah has been tossed about from time to time in Voynich studies, and in a purely theoretical vein has been incorporated into a couple of theories, most prominently in Tucker and Janick’s ‘New World/Nahuatl’ theory, but no evidence for it has been adduced from the manuscript’s palaeography, codicology, materials or from any formal analysis of its images.

Yet Panofsky’s opinions were always opinions offered by consideration of just those things, not created to serve a speculation as ‘theory’ – so something about the physical evidence and present in the primary document must have provoked that comment.

What was it?

He was clearly thinking of the work as Jewish, and thus of the original – not any Christianised – Kabbalah. He said plainly enough, ‘Jewish and Arabic influence’. Nor was it he who inserted the figure of Ramon Llull or redefined Kabbalah to mean only forms of Christianised ‘Cabala’.

It was a question that wouldn’t go away – what had he noticed?

When it came to the Voynich drawings, I could see some points of comparison with a couple of late fourteenth-century Jewish texts, and again with a few details in later Kabbalistic texts, but it proved very difficult indeed to find that critical key to imagery – the maker’s informing language, vocabulary and cultural context.

There were seemingly inexplicable gaps in the literature – no translations into English of the medieval Kabbalistic commentaries, for example, though some among the core-texts were translated. It had to be in English because that’s the only language in which I can assume all my readers are fairly comfortable.

And that was the point of impasse. Without identifying the informing word, I could not in conscience offer any analytical commentary. So that question had to be laid aside. Until I had that notice of an article in the Seriform blog.

There was another question illuminated by the same article, and again a question that no amount of digging had seemed able to resolve before I laid it aside almost ten years ago.

That second question had arisen while researching the ‘ladies’ folios, and initially asking why the stars in the month-folios should be formed as spiky-looking ‘flowers’. Why diverge from the simple drawing of a star? Why not employ a more typical flower-form, with rounded petals? Equivalence between a star and this flower-like form had to be a result of cultural – and most likely linguistic – habit, and so if that question could be resolved, it should offer a little more insight into the Voynich images’ antecedents.

It could have no connection to modern botanical designations, of course. The genus ‘Aster’ (Gk. ‘star’) wasn’t defined until 1706. There had to be some earlier link between the two ideas, and Greek was the most obvious possibility.

I found in one translation of the Georgics of Nicander of Colopon a phrase which spoke of the ‘aster’ and that passage I’ve included in an earlier post. The Gow and Scholfield edition, however, translates the same phrase as ‘shining blue daisy”. Once again, happily, an apparent contradiction was only ‘apparent’, and reference to the physical object shows these variants are in fact complementary and accord with the form(s) given the Voynich star-flowers, or flower-stars. The plant we now call the sea-aster, as you’ll see from the illustration below, can appear more, or less spiky-petalled; has varying number of points, and its colour shifts between white and blue. More, the centres change in colour between yellow and red as the flower ages. (cf. Quire 20).

So from this, together with various other details, I concluded that the month-diagrams (exclusive of their series of central emblems) had been first enunciated by a speaker of Greek.

In fact, I think the diagrams’ original form was probably Hellenistic, but their present form in Beinecke MS 408 displays in the anthropoform figures a cultural distaste for naturalistic representation which clearly opposes attitudes to the body in classical-, Hellenistic- and medieval western Christian (‘Latin’) tradition. On the other hand, the central emblems in the month-folios include some which don’t display similar avoidance, which that is part of the reason I ascribe their inclusion to a different environment, and a later period. The images in that fold-out show an evolution over time: from Hellenistic forms, through the phase of aniconic affect, to the Latin context which saw inclusion of those centres, addition of pigment and so on.

However, similar figures appear again in the bathy- section, and I see no reason to presume their purpose greatly different there, the problem was to understand how those in the bathy- section could relate to those in the month-folios, whose reference I’d found to be both astronomical and geographical loci.

Knowledge of Greek does not, of course, preclude knowledge of any other language, though an ‘either-or’ attitude is not an uncommon reflex among those forming Voynich narratives.

What created the impasse, in this case, was that I could find no linguistic key to explain why the ‘bathy-‘ section should include details showing what appear as pipes, channels, inlets or bays/basins. I could find no correspondence from Greek, nor Latin, nor any language – let alone in connection to ‘Spain and somewhere southern’ or Kabbalah.  I  admit that I did not consider Nahuatl, nor find any useful vocabulary from Jürchen.

I hunted out the few known drawings of plumbing systems in Europe before the fifteenth century, and also works counted as ‘anatomical’ but in neither case did such drawings display any points in common with those in the Voynich manuscript. Newbold’s ‘anatomical’ theory, like arguments about drawings in copies of the Balneis Puteolanis, I reject on iconological, historical and contextual grounds.*

Among these grounds are that illustrations for the Balneis are plainly meant to represent people, where the Voynich ‘ladies’ do not. The body-shapes, the type of head-dress, attitudes to the unclothed body, the representation of movement (so energetic in the Voynich ‘ladies’ and so leaden in the Latins’ Balneis imagery), like positioning of water in relation to the figures … and more… all set the Voynich ‘bathy’ images in quite a different category.

But – unable to get any linguistic clew for those ‘tubes’ – I could not in honesty publish an analytical study of the ‘bathy-‘ section.

It was yet another question which had to be laid aside – perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. In this case, it was only ‘temporarily’.

*…… ten years on …..*

A few weeks ago, regular notices from The Seriform Blog included:

And that article explained why I’d found such difficulty accessing English translations of the medieval Jewish commentaries on Kabbalah.

And that same article, in citing an example from such commentaries, directed me towards the solution of that other frustrating problem – the bathy- section’s ‘pipes’.

As one application for the term ‘KAV’, it gave the meaning ‘pipe’ … but then the author shows that in Kabbalah, the term ‘Kav’ has its philosophic and religious sense, which any person knowing it might apply, so as to express by that visual metaphor a wide range of ideas, including: line, ray, measure, bay or inlet.


Here’s the relevant paragraph:


KAV – as ““Line” or “Ray”… The kav possesses two dimensions, an outer dimension and an inner one. The outer dimension of the kav, referred to as kav hamidah (“the line of measurement,” “the measuring rod” or “ruler”) corresponds to its power of “measurement,” the power to define boundaries…The two letters in Hebrew which spell kav are in fact the two inner letters of the word makom, “space”.

Which is why, when I’d introduced to Voynich studies another image, preserved as the frontispiece to a Christianised ‘Introduction to Cabbala’, it had been in the context of that link to Majorcan Jewish cartography and gridding ‘by the Rose’.   Both items in the following illustration are Christian European works, but (as I argued in the original ‘Ring o’roses’ series in Voynich imagery), from Jewish precedents.

The rays emanating from a circuit of points, and by which both astronomical and geographic locus is determined.. that’s the prosaic, secular sense of such maps.

But as you see, there can be a correspondence with higher ways of seeing.


By identifying that ring of points with stars and/or angelic souls..  you have another sort of drawing altogether… the power to define boundaries.

“Line, ray, measure, bay or inlet… and ‘pipe

To speak of the Voynich manuscript in terms of the then-new cartes marine was a new idea, or insight, when I introduced it to Voynich studies, and still more when I was at last able to connect them both with the ideas, vocabulary and that southern Jewish environment where Sephardic cursive script was being employed by Jews of that region.

As each stage of the research was published, overt response from the ‘Voynich community’ was quite odd; overt expressions of disdain paralleled by covert methods of adoption and re-assignment of authorship, including the habit of immediately trying to invent ‘alternatives’ more compatible with a Voynich theory of all-Latin ‘possession’ of the manuscript and its origins. 

  For the charts, an alternative Latin story; for Kabbalah, a revival of the old ‘Ramon Lull’ suggestion – and again of Christianised ‘Cabala’.

Superficially, the ‘Voynich Theory War’ presents as a dispute about nationality: which section of western Christian Europe shall ‘own’ the text. 

In fact the true opposition is between that traditionalist medieval-European-Christian narrative, and any opposition to it. This includes not only an overt suppression of unsupportive information (by subverting and re-directing the original evidence) but an active hostility to those who bring such dissenting evidence to light. Picking ‘bits’ from others’ research and re-using them to suggest support for what that evidence was shown to oppose has become habitual for a certain section of the online ‘community’. Apparently from the ‘think-tank’ principle that when confronted with unwelcome information, the thing to do is to invent and disseminate another theory-patch.

  So today you may well find, incorporated into some other Voynich site,  later-invented and often appallingly bad efforts to create an ‘alternative’ context for the medieval charts, for images used to illustrate and prove some point (such as the plant identification for folio 13r) made against the usual Eurocentric narrative, and this sort of thing isn’t done only with matter published by the present author but has become endemic among a certain prominent sector of the ‘online community’.  The most aggressive of these plagiarists are not beyond pretending to themselves and others that such theft is a form of moral obligation – rather as schoolyard bullies  ‘properly punish’  some classmate for daring to have more lunch-money than they do. 

The property is ‘re-distributed’ in this way to persons they deem more worthy to have it, and  whom they feel it will not be beneath them to name in footnotes and citations.  That the invented ‘alternative’ uses may not serve the manuscript’s study seems not to occur to those in whom ambition and intellectual poverty have formed their always toxic mixture.

But to return to our subject:

One can see now how persons  acquainted with the language(s) of Hebrew and Greek in addition to any others, might quite naturally give such form to ideas of the ‘Aster’ as flower and as star, to the  ‘chord/chora/hora’ and to the Kav.

Star-measures, distances, spaces and …. places.  This complex of ideas is such that, when the astronomical aspect is considered alone, it can be compared to  what the Latins called the radii stellarum or to Majid’s bashi, yet which in terms of topography is just easily explained using terms still current in English.  

The varied facets of meaning for the term ‘KAV’ allow us a rational reconciliation of the ‘ladies’ presence in those two sections of the Voynich manuscript, namely the month-folios and the ‘bathy-‘ folios so called, and of those the ‘pipes’ and bays seen in in the latter section’s margins.

In the same way, the term provides a way to reconcile the fourteenth-century rose-gridded map made in Majorca or Genoa, with concepts of Kabbalah.  These are also an expression of perceived correlation of astronomical- with geographic loci. It does not imply that the written text will be all about Kabbalah, but does help explain Panofsky’s recognition that there might be ‘something of Kabbalah’ in it. That is to say – the combination of informal format, the script with its absence of vertical emphasis, aniconic affect evident in the marring of anthropoform figures and informing construction of the vegetable images etc.

Speaking of places –  Gerona lies across the strait from Majorca. With North Africa, and southern France, Gerona was the major centre of Jewish Kabbalism during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  After the fourteenth-century expulsions, the places to which Sephardi Jews went from this region went included, among other places, northern Italy and Dalmatia.

Postscript – etymology for ‘aster’.

Proto-Indo-European root meaning “star.” Buck and others doubt the old suggestion that it is a borrowing from Akkadian istar “venus.” 

It forms all or part of: aster; asterisk; asterism; ..; …constellation; disaster; [etc.]

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit star-; Hittite shittar, Greek aster “star,” with derivative astron; Latin stella, Breton sterenn, Welsh seren “star.”

The source of the common Balto-Slavic word for “star” (Lithuanian žvaigždė, Old Church Slavonic zvezda, Polish gwiazda, Russian zvezda) is not explained.

For its intrinsic interest – if you’re into scripts – here’s a webinar where palaeographers are chatting about their research into scripts of the Aegean Bronze age, including Linear A and B.

Minor typos and a couple of dropped phrases corrected – 24/12/2021

Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.


POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids





Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

Dec. 29th., 2021.

Happening to re-read this today, I see I should have been more specific AND should have included the ‘petal’ held by the figures. ‘Nine-petals’ is probably more accurate. Here are the details I mean. My one reservation is that Perseus’ temporary victory into the North occurs now, yet these figures appear at ninety degrees to the vertical. The distinction, I expect, is more apparent that real. More – this example again seems to me to indicate that the inner circuit refers to the polar and circumpolar stars and the outer to those on or near the horizon. I admit to having devoted less time to this question than it deserves. Here are the details I mean. from July and August in the Voynich calendar.

Potions and lotions – the ‘pharmaceutical’ section. Perfect antiquity and a Voynich legend.

Two posts previous:

Header image – from the Iliad Ambrosiana.

Medieval Europe did not share the modern preference for new ideas and the latest information, but believed that the more ancient a text was, the more trustworthy and less degraded by the vicissitudes of time and inaccurate repetition.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some images in Beinecke MS 408 reveal evidence of Hellenistic* or Roman character.

*The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually said to begin with Alexander and end with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, in the eastern region of Alexander’s empire and colonies, Hellenistic culture survived for almost three centuries more and the influence of Greek and Roman art persists still longer in some regions east of the Bosporus.

We are used to thinking of human history in terms of an ongoing ascent, but the medieval west saw it rather as a process of descent from an imagined pristine origin.

To some extent the recovered classical and ancient texts appeared to support that view.

There was no doubt that Virgil and Cato spoke better Latin; that Ptolemy had access to better information about astronomy and geography, than did fifteenth-century Latins. I do not think they imagined what they were doing as a ‘renaissance’ so much as a re-discovery and recovery of what had been a greater glory.

That is why European elites of the fifteenth century devoted so much time, effort and money to having agents find and bring copies of ancient and classical works to Europe and then have them copied and, where necessary, translated.

Such things cost money, and it is no co-incidence that the Church, the merchant classes, and the artisans whom they employed were what drove the first, Italian, phase of that great recovery we call the Renaissance. Texts which they wanted and copied include everything from legal orations to epic poetry, botany, history, geography and other matters of the natural world.

Nor were even the most ancient of those works necessarily ‘dead texts’.

The most strongly Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine empire (or what was left of it by then), long used the poems of Homer as the basis of education, in much the way the book of Psalms was used in the west. By the fifteenth century, the text of Psalms was as much as three thousand years old; that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey about 2,200 years old. Neither was a ‘dead text’ but very much alive.

In those two cases – that is of the Psalms and of Homer – the custom was to have students first commit the verses to memory, each verse then used as both a springboard for, and a memory-cue to, more developed commentary spoken by the teacher.

It was an entirely practical system in a time when books were rare and most education conducted by words, word-pictures or actual figures from the natural world or public imagery (vide depiction of the constellation-emblems and their labours of the months in churches and on the exterior of a cathedral in the west).

To take one example, to show how Homer’s work could remain relevant, here’s one passage. You can see that the passage naturally opens a path to commentary about astronomy and geography, but all being framed by an adventure-story in beautifully turned Greek and sure to grip the interest of any young lad.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. …. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.(Bk.V ll.269-280)

Any well-educated person in the Byzantine sphere could have recited this by heart, and over the centuries, a myriad of metaphors and proverbs in daily life referred back to Homer much as in western Christendom they often derive from biblical ideas and tropes. 

The first Latin translation of Homer – both his Iliad and his Odyssey – was produced by the Calabrian scholar, Leontius_Pilatus, who also translated Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) and  Aristotle (384-322 BC).  

Thus, to find matter in a manuscript made in the early fifteenth century, and probably in Italy or the western Mediterranean, in which there are images reflective of the pre-Christian world, should not greatly surprise us.

Another ancient author whose writings were found, brought, translated and then eagerly copied was Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) among whose many subjects were plants, meteorology and winds.

Because his work on Plants appears not been noticed by Voynich writers (the present author having met what might be described as ‘expressions of surprise’ on introducing his name some years ago), I’ll add a longer than usual list of first-stage references further below.

The century-long focus on the Dioscoridan tradition and its herbals, in Voynich studies, has not led to any clear understanding either of the plant-pictures or of the ‘leaf and root’ folios, which latter section is now habitually described as forming a “pharmaceutical” section – an idea based on nothing but speculation and never since proven true, but which has hardened over time to become yet another of those Voynich doctrines well deserving revisionists’ attention.

A copy of Theophrastus’  ‘Historia Plantarum’ now in the Vatican library is dated to the tenth or eleventh century. It is in Greek. (Vatican City, Urbinas graecus 61; eleventh (?) century).  Some of Theophrastus’ work was preserved, with his name, in Pliny, and in the works of Jerome (see here) but otherwise his works were scarcely known to the west until a Latin translation was made of what is more properly known as the Historia Plantis, that translation made by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V.  The Theodore of Gazatranslation is said to have been completed in 1454. It would be published in Treviso, in 1483. During the three decades which intervened, the text both in Latin translation and in the Greek were evidently being passed around in manuscript, and copied eagerly.  In a sense it was considered a replacement for the better known text of Dioscorides, but even today the problems of matching plants to the terms used by Theophrastus – or indeed by Dioscorides – is no trivial problem.  From whence Theodore had his copy we do not know, but in speaking of Leontis Pilatus, Holton placed  emphasis on the fact that the fourteenth-century scholar had “spent several years in Crete” around 1350 and from Byzantine sources too, we get a glimpse of a ‘Recovery’ in Crete before that in Italy.

  • Holton David  Literature and society in Renaissance Crete. p. 3. (1991).

  • Benedict Einarson, ‘The Manuscripts of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum’, Classical Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 67-76.

Perhaps it was during the three decades between its translation into Latin and its publication in print, that the copy of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was made, in Greek, which is now included in a compilation of copies from Greek texts dating from the fifteenth century (Vat.gr.1759). The other texts  bound with it offer a window into contemporary interests, and its being devoid of  separation between secular and the religious interest.  The copied authorities relate to astronomy and to theology, to pre-Christian philosophy, astrology and botany.

Some helpful references.

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Botany’ in A. Classen (ed.), Handbook of Medieval Studies. The section can be downloaded through academia.edu.
  • Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’s Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 317-332.
  • John Scarborough, ‘Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies’, Journal of the History of Biology,  Vol. 11, No. 2, (Autumn, 1978) pp. 353-385. JSTOR
  • ___________________, ‘Drugs and Drug Lore in the time of Theophastus: folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters’, Acta Classica, Vol. 49 (2006), pp. 1-29. 
  • Charles B. Schmitt, ‘Theophrastus in the Middle Ages’, Viator, II, 1971, pp. 257-70.
  • R. W. Sharples, ‘Some Medieval and Renaissance Citations of Theophrastus’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 186-190. Very technical; interesting chiefly for its connecting Theophrastus to passages in the work of Albertus of Lauingen [called ‘magnus’], and for mention of a known Syriac copy of Theophrastus’ meteorological works (n.35).
  • Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Lenhardt Library ‘Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance’, (December 2012)
  • Michael L. Satlow, ‘Theophrastus’s Jewish Philosophers’, Journal of jewish studies, vol. lix, no. 1, spring 2008. (at academia.edu)
  • Dr. Efraim Lev, ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’.  A first draft has been posted at academia.edu, with the author’s caution that it is only a draft that has been accepted for publication.

Theophrastus’ work on winds begins, 

“We have earlier considered [in his ‘Meteorologica’] the nature of winds: of what they consist, in what way they come to be, and by what they are caused. We must now try to explain that each wind is systematically accompanied by effects and in general by phenomena whereby the winds are differentiated from each other” – Theophrastus, de Ventis.

For more on this see last see,

  • V. Coûtant and V. Eichenlaub, ‘the De Ventis of Theophrastus: its contributions to the theory of winds’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 55, No. 12. (December 1974), pp. 1454-1462.

For any reader who feels an especially strong interest in Theophrastus, most of the information in the references listed above are embraced by Brill’s series of authoritative editions and commentaries.

Beyond the learned halls.

In the elite and carefully-monitored, interconnected circle of western literati during the early Renaissance, ancient and classical texts were studied, but beyond that environment, the erudite selection of worthy material and decisions about translation no longer apply.

What the new and slowly emerging commercial class wanted was practical information that was both rare enough and ‘new’ enough to be of financial advantage over others enagaged in similar business.

Some of the ‘new’ techniques that Europe habitually ascribes to some particular Latin’s invention (as gunpower was earlier claimed to be Roger Bacon’s “invention”), were not.

In the next post, I’ll consider one of those legends – one maintained to this present day and which attributes to a Venetian named Angelo Barovier the invention of clear glass – quite two decades centuries after it appears in the eastern Mediterranean, and a couple of decades at least after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been dated.

There was advantage to be gained by pretending some technical secret an invention rather than an importation – a rival was deterred from attempting to find another source for that information. But avoiding acknowledgement of any debt by Europe in general, to a foreign source, to any ‘foreigners’ or even to European Jews has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in the way Europe has written its history.

Scholars had begun to open their eyes by the 1960s but it is evident they had no immediate influence in general attitudes. Apparently none at all on d’Imperio, even as late as 1978 when her own initial impression that the Voynich images suggested ‘foreignness’ was one she quickly suppressed – as we’ve seen.

In was in 1960 that Lynn White had written:

IN I499 when Polydore Vergil published the first history of technology that amplified the Greco-Roman tradition, it did not occur to him that, save for silk and cotton, Europe might owe anything in these matters to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia: his horizon in that direction was the “Magi, qui Persica lingua Sapientes appellantur.” It was not until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries to the Orient persuaded Europeans to believe that several of the fundamental inventions which are alleged to have made the modern world modern were of Chinese origin: notably gunpowder,* the compass, paper, and printing. The process of scholarly erosion then began, and our view today is moderately changed. What has emerged is a sense of the remarkable complexity of the interplay between the Occident and East Asia from Roman and Han times onward. This involved a two-way traffic, in many items, along many routes, and of varying density in different periods…

*as we’ve seen, this particular Eurocentric myth was maintained by the general population in Europe and in America well into the twentieth century.  

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.

  • Lynn White Jnr., ‘Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Apr., 1947), pp. 421-435.


A three-hundred year gap between knowledge of some debt owed by European learning to ‘foreigners’ and the general recognition of that fact within the west, is the sort of thing which causes a scholar to feel irritation and frustration.  We’ve seen this sort of irritation in Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American in 1921 and here again – fourteen years later than the earlier paper – Lynn White now writes with an understandable exasperation: 

Except for the folklorists, medievalists are not habituated to thinking about the borrowing of cultural items from alien peoples in distant parts, and seem curiously resistant to the idea. When one talks about diffusion, for example of the spinning wheel or of the magnetic compass .. some skeptic is sure to assert his faith that our crafty medieval ancestors were as capable of inventing such devices for themselves…. One can only reply that each case must be examined in the context of all that we know: there are indeed a few clear instances of separate invention.  When, however, we find Indian buffaloes in medieval Europe, we may be confident that the buffalo was not invented twice.

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.

Indic buffalo Pisanello from Lynn White 'Indic Elements..'Two years after that paper was written, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was in process. 

Published in 1978 it never for a moment looks beyond medieval European culture, assumes that Jews had literature exclusively religious or ‘superstitious’, presumes that any version of such material can be relevant only in forms mediated by western Christian ‘translation’ and in one place clearly expresses her personal aversion, in general, to the ‘foreign’.  

What Lynn White knew to be true of western medievalists half a century ago is less true of those scholars now, but the same attitudes had been pervasive in the general culture of Europe and America, thus influencing the first generations of Voynich writers and thanks not least to d’Imperio’s record of the Friedmans’ efforts, informs the lineage of current-day Voynich traditionalists.

That the study remains in that state is chiefly due to the determined and defensive-aggressive posture of some core-traditionalists and others adhering to the same ‘history’ for the manuscript.

How such attitudes and responses deter researchers and hinder any new approaches can be attested by many, among whom one might again mention Jorge Stolfi who simply reported the results of his computer-analysis of the written text.  Whether his results were right or wrong is yet to be known; but it was a fair contribution to the study and one whose rejection was achieved by means other than civil scholarly discourse.

 The faithfulness with which certain core traditionalist adhere to the Wilfrid-Friedman-d’Imperio line is the main reason that ‘Voynich studies’ today conveys something faintly musty and quaint as exercises in historiography.  A constant emphasis on nationalism is so typically nineteenth-century, and today recognised as being inappropriate for the medieval world; the notion that any image found in a region must in some (ill-defined) way the unique expression of a local ‘cultural character’ –  within medieval Europe – is embarrassing when we know that a manuscript may be found, by research, to have been made  not in Spain but in Sicily, or not England but in France with the only discernible difference the saint’s name is listed in a calendar. 

The same excuses which White assigned to ‘some skeptic’ have really been offered by Voynich theorists when informed that some aspect of the manuscript’s codicology, or imagery, presents irrefutable opposition to their theory.  ‘Our chaps could have done that too’ is not an uncommon response and for some ultra-traditionalists ‘could have done’ means ‘certainly did – pure Wilfrid style.

And so to the next ‘Voynich doctrine’, by which folios 99r-102v are deemed the ‘pharmaceutical section’.

Voynich bit leaf-and-root fols

Folios 99r-102v. ‘Pharma’

About this section, again, close inspection shows its ‘Voynich doctrine’ to be an elaboration without foundation. The ‘pharmacy’ idea was built on nothing but air – or at least, airy notions.

In the next post, its roots are traced. The following post starts asking specific questions.

Next post – the legend.