O’Donovan notes – the ‘Calendar’ emblems Pt 6. July’s Lobsters.

c.4500 words

About a third of this post is for people working on Voynichese. Those paragraphs are marked with the partial-derivative symbol (right).

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Two lobsters: July

For newcomers – the ‘Calendar’ emblems so far:

Many Voynich writers focus on where the manuscript might have been made.
Our aim is more like the linguists’ and cryptographers’ – to understand what information the original speaker(s) intended to convey. Just as linguists don’t presume a new spoken language was invented for this manuscript, so we don’t presume the drawings are without precedents.
However, because so few among the manuscript’s drawings speak the visual language of medieval Latin Europe, our aim is (of course) also to identify their original source. In that, the relatively few which do ‘speak Latin’ (or something like it) are like the end of a thread which may guide us into, and then through, the maze of possibilities. Among those few are the small central emblems with which the ‘calendar’ diagrams are provided.
Diagrams referring to astronomical matters don’t exactly speak a universal language, but were – and are – less dependent on local customs for their understanding than is a written or a pictorial text.
Comparing information in some Voynich astronomical diagrams.
We don’t know what purpose the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams were meant to serve, but independent specialists have assured us they are not astrological charts.
At present we are asking whether the emblems offer astronomical information compatible with that found in two other astronomical diagrams (on folio 85r and on folio 67v-i).
These posts being exercises in analytical method, we are considering just two examples: the emblems inscribed ‘November’ and ‘July’.

* * * *

The ‘November’ emblem, as we found, is meant for a crocodile and is derived ultimately from one aspect of an originally-composite figure for the ‘croucher by the Scales’. Known as Ammit, its character was expressed by combining elements of the most savage bringers-down of prey: crocodile, hound/jackal, lion and hippopotamus, with all but the last reaching medieval western Europe as an expression of “scorpion nature” or as the Physiologus’ ‘crocodrill’.

Only one documented example of a ‘crocodile Scorpius’ has been seen, so far, from medieval Latin Europe before c.1350 AD. That was in BNF 7351, so that is where we take up the thread again – but not until committing to memory every detail of the image to be researched.

FIG. 1

Observations:

Caution the difference between someone naturally suited to a study of ancient and medieval art and artefacts, and someone whose talents lies elsewhere, often shows up at this first analytical stage. Be honest with yourself. If you feel impatient with process, over-confident, and want to rush to the ‘bottom line’ – this sort of work is not for you.

1. Remarkable absence of depth or perspective for a work often presumed created first in Latin Europe in the fifteenth-century. It is no product of the atelier. No attempt to provide background, whether of solid pigment, pattern, wash or a schematised landscape. Yet the quires are of vellum, albeit second-rate, and not paper which even by the fourteenth century would be used for rough work.

2.Each of the paired creatures is carefully distinguished – by its facing and by use of pigment. This is a characteristic of the ‘calendar’ diagrams overall; their many anthropoform figures are carefully differentiated by form, proportion, gestures, facing and/or facial expressions – which is a remarkable feat, if you consider their number, and the scale to which they were drawn. That even the month names which had to be inscribed twice are written differently, and evidently to avoid ‘replication’ argues in the original maker (and possibly in the fifteenth-century copyists) a cultural avoidance or ‘tabu’ which – though certainly attested at certain times and places – was never native to the Latins’ tradition.

FIG 2

3. Anatomy – (3.1) The creatures’ upper body (thorax) is made bulbous, not slender. Somewhat ant-like. Arcs are drawn on the thorax, left and right.

(3.2) No large front claw(s) as one would expect in a work produced from a fifteenth-century atelier in Europe.

(3.3) Abdomen ribbed to indicate segments.

(3.4) Divided ‘feet’ are given to eight slender legs extending sideways from the abdomen, Thicker-drawn versions of the same for the front legs to which claw(s) attach in a living specimen of prawn, lobster, crab etc.

(3.5)A tail is shown, fan-shaped and with four lobes.

FIG 3

(3.6) The head is given three points!

(3.7). Antennae emerge – one from each gap between those points – though in the upper figure the copyist may have been, initially, confused or affected by the scale at which he was working; one antenna seems, at first, part of the line or cord linking the two creatures.

In one sense this emblem is not ‘well-drawn’ but diverges from the literal less than a first glance might suggest. The creature is no fantasy beast. Following Lippincott and Gheuens, we’ll call it a ‘lobster’ though ‘crayfish’ or even ‘prawn’ might do.

Here’s the lobster’s anatomy…

FIG 4

… so what might be seen as errors come down to these:

(i) omitting any large front claw(s) ; (ii) confusing the positions of swimmerets and walking legs; (iii) giving all the walking legs split ends, where only the first four should have them; (iiii) giving the creature a head formed of three points (N.B. not one, two, or four, but three).

swimmeret: a swimming-foot; a pleopod; an abdominal limb or appendage usually adapted for swimming, and thus distinguished from the ambulatory or chelate thoracic limbs, fitted for walking or seizing.

If any series matching the series of Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams, or its series of emblems has been found – or any match for this emblem – I’m unaware of it. To be a match for the ‘July’ emblem, the example would have to include two creatures of this form, similarly differentiated, and including all the characteristics just listed.

In the absence of any match, only comparisons can be offered and our first defining element will be the creatures’ “three-point” head.

Koen Gheuens has already followed the ‘legs-for-swimmerts’ confusion from the time of Michael Scot (d.1232) forwards, noting some instances across northern France and then in works produced by one artisan. That essay is linked below. Gheuens referred readers to Kristen Lippincott’s ‘Saxl Project’ pdfs and so do I. As far as possible, I’ll cite illustrations from that resource.

Lobster as Cancer – not so unusual.

What happened after c.1440 is of little interest to us. For this exercise, it is also necessary to count, as characteristics of the image, that these Voynich emblems are inscribed in a Romance dialect or language, and that this emblem is labelled ‘July’ – being in this unlike most Latin breviaries, books of hours and ‘Labours of the months’ series which assign the astronomical Cancer to June, and have the ‘sign’ straddle June and July.

On the brighter side, examples of Cancer’s being assigned, alone, to July, and Scorpius to November are not limited to the Voynich manuscript and the twelfth-century, Byzantine-influenced Otranto mosaic. Here (below) is the same assignment of emblem to month in a manuscript made about the same time as that mosaic but in south-eastern England. (Note here the single, loose loop for the Scorpion’s tail and that all the crab’s walking legs are given two ‘toes’, with the scorpions’ being given three).

FIG 6. and see comment further below

Gheuens began with works composed by Michael Scot in Sicily – or rather with copies that were made later in Italy, but we are looking instead for the ideas and customs in art which influenced Scot’s thinking and that of the people who illustrated those Italian copies regarded as the four most important to survive.

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

Michael Scot‘s lifetime (1175- c. 1232) overlaps with those of several other prominent Latin scholars whose names have been invoked at various times by various Voynich writers. The list includes the first ‘Gerard of Cremona‘ (1114 – 1187), or the second (13thC); the Flemish Franciscan friar, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 -1272); the German Dominican friar, Albert of Lauingen (1200-1280), the English Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (d.1292), and Robert Grosseteste (ca. 1168–1253), bishop of Lincoln and tutor of Oxford.

All save the Gerard(s) of Cremona spent some years pursuing higher studies in Paris, and it was from the region around Paris we have our only other documented ‘Crocodile-Scorpius’ in Latin Europe – so far – before c.1350. Scot and Albert of Lauingen also studied in Italy.

In a later post, I’ll speak about the activities of the papal court while located in Avignon (1309-1375 AD), but at present our focus is on matter that was current in Scot’s time,

When Michael Scot was born, about the second third decade of the twelfth century, texts and manuscripts were gained chiefly from copies made in monastic scriptoria, By the time of his death, such work was increasingly being done by students of the larger universities, particularly in France where some colleges associated with the University of Paris set aside a room for that purpose. Scot would also have seen the beginning of an increase in the commercial producers of manuscripts, in what were described as bottegas or ateliers. In Italy, there existed a system known as the ‘pecia’ system, whereby a student might copy from quires or sections of a manuscript which a stationer had broken into parts, the students paying for materials and for use of the wanted sections.

Outside the world of formal scholarship, ‘informal’ texts were being made, a majority on paper and the greater number of those we still have from Europe were made for and by its non-Latin communities, or communities united by their (non-academic) occupations.

Crab, prawn’ and lobster etc., in pre-Christian western art.

Fig.7

We’ve seen that images of the crocodile, in literal style, existed in Latin Europe in mosaics and other media as relics of the pre-Christian Roman era. There were also many naturalistic images of sea-creatures in such media, with North Africa preserving a large number of this type. The images shown at right, and below, are from Roman-Byzantine mosaics from north Africa. Those shown are described as Roman.

FIG. 8

In some early astronomical illustrations from Latin Europe, the classical traditions in art remain evident, though did not long survive with the same clarity. The Crab in the Leiden Aratea is a case in point. The illustration’s classical lineage is unmistakeable and raises the possibility that we have it from an early copy of the first Latin translations from the Greek,

FIG 9. (The present wiki article ‘Leiden Aratea’ is very poor. It names as the work’s author not Aratus, nor ‘Germanicus but Louis the Pious, and conveys a suggestion that the Arab world gained its knowledge of Aratus from this manuscript – a preposterous idea).

Compare that crab, for example, with the style in which the same creature is represented on an early (pre-Roman) coin made for Akragas in Sicily.

FIG 10 coin of Akragas, Sicily. Reproduced by permission.

That coin was made a little before the birth of Eudoxus, the eastern Greek astronomer who spent time in Sicily and whose astronomical works were summarised and cast into poetry by Aratus.

I should also like to suggest that although the forms of drawing for constellations degenerated through the medieval centuries, that there may have persisted in some regions, and as a kind of folk-tradition, older ideas about the stars and constellations, and particularly associations between certain stars and constellations, and certain places. As the crocodile (for Scorpius) was universally associated with Egypt and the Nile, the Crab and ‘prawn’ spoke of Sicily and the Straits of Messina, respectively, as they had done even before the birth of Alexander.

The strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland, was renowned then as it is today for its dangers and for the chimerical images we call mirages or ‘Fata Morgana’.

The strait [of Messina] has strong tidal currents …. A natural whirlpool in the northern portion of the strait has been linked to the Greek legend of Scylla and Charybdis. In some circumstances, the mirage of Fata Morgana can be observed when looking at Sicily from Calabria.

After Rome conquered the island and thus claimed to rule the strait, we find a coin in which Latin permits, as canting, the Greek ‘Scylla’ to be Latin ‘scilla’ – a prawn. But the allusion is still to Sicily and that dangerous strait. Moon and tides are inextricably linked, so ‘to know your moon’ was to know your tides. This image is a Roman equivalent for ‘Britannia rules the Channel’.

FIG 11.

What makes these antecedents of ‘lobster-prawn-Crab’ imagery so interesting is their age, and that they appear on these coins at much the same time that the astronomical texts were first composed on which Latin European scholars would rely from the time Rome fell until that of Michael Scot: Eudoxus to Aratus to the Aratus latinus and the abysmal ‘Astronomicon poeticon’ which is so unkindly attributed to Hyginus.

Another fascinating image from the same pre-Christian era was made for a Gallic tribe, the Averni. Aratus and Germanicus may have understood what these figures meant to the Averni, but modern numismatists simply call the form above the horse, ‘lobster-like’. It has been provided with antennae and there are three spikes or points to its head.

FIG 12

Ovid, we know, made one Latin translation of Aratus’ poem. Another is said to have been made by ‘Germanicus’ though just who he was is unclear. ‘Germanicus’ means ‘subduer of Germania’ but as Baldwin put it, “as a method of precise identification, the unadorned name of Germanicus [is] intolerably vague. Too many men bore the cognomen…”

* Baldwin, ‘The Authorship of the “Aratus” Ascribed to Germanicus’, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, 1981, New Series, Vol. 7 (1981), pp. 163-172.

TYPES of TEXT

From this point onwards, in addition to considering the emblem’s form, and the month assigned it, and its inscription in a Romance language or dialect, we’ll also take note of the textual setting in which a cited comparison occurs. So that those chiefly interested in the written text can skim the rest, I’ve marked those paragraphs with this symbol

It is probably too much to hope that exemplar(s) used for this whole section in Beinecke MS 408 have survived, so it may help those working on the written text, too, if we find comparable images or assignments occur regularly in connection with some particular written source(s).

Figure 6 (above) came from Brit.Lib. Cotton Julius VI.

That manuscript relates to what is known as ‘computus’ – mathematical and religious works relating to calendrical calculations, including reconciling the lunar cycles with the solar year to determine the date of Easter.

Brit.Lib. MS Cotton Julius VI. Computistical texts and tables.

ff. 3r–8v: A metrical calendar (a version of the text known as the Metrical Calendar of Hampson), illustrated with the Labours of the Month and astrological[sic] symbols. ff. 9r–17v: Further computistical texts, tables, diagrams and a wheel linking months, lunar cycles and a T-O map (f. 15r), including a ‘Sator square’ palindrome written in Greek letters (f. 11r). ff. 18r–19v: A hymn beginning ‘Assunt o socii’ and excerpts from the Easter Sunday liturgy, beginning ‘Et valde mane’, were added in 12th-century hands to blank and erased folios. ff. 19r–71r: An imperfect Expositio hymnorum with a near-continuous Old English gloss. The text on f. 19r-v has been erased, but some initials are still visible. ff. 71r-72v: Three hymns for Trinity Sunday; ff. 72v-89v: Monastic canticles with an Old English gloss. f. 90r–v: The hymn ‘O genetrix aeterni’ and a fragment of the Latin poem beginning, ‘Ad mensam philosophie sitientes currite,’ both accompanied by neumes, were added in the last quarter of the 11th century.

Both the liturgical and the civil calendars began from Easter (falling in March or April) and the custom of dating documents or private letters by the saint’s day would continue to as late as the seventeenth century.

*Easter’s date though the medieval centuries, with both Gregorian and Julian dates given.

* * * *

Maths texts don’t need pretty pictures.

The context in which we find FIG. 6, raises the uncomfortable possibility that the text which informed the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams might also be a mathematical treatise. Whether bound singly or in a miscellany, the Latins’ mathematical and mathematical-astronomical texts are typically chaste, devoid of illustrations other than a few terse diagrams which – in marked opposition to the Voynich calendar – were usually produced with compass and ruler.

In cases where pictures, as such, were desired, the usual practice seems to have been to include as excerpt or copy matter from a text of quite a different origin and type – as indeed was the case for BNF lat. 7351.

The chances are perhaps 50-50 that the Voynich calendar’s emblems have come from a very different source than that which provided the information for the diagrams. We see this too in copies made of the only other work to which the ‘calendar’ diagrams have been compared – the Libros made some decades after Scot’s death, under the auspices of Alfonso X (r. 1252-1284).

* * * *

Another instance of this practice comes from a manuscript which includes the earliest example I’ve seen (so far) of the ‘three-point’ head for Cancer: Oxford, Bodleian Laud. Misc. 644. It is given a ‘face’, and shows arcs drawn on the left and right on the creature’s thorax, gives the legs two ‘toes’ and forms the front legs in the same way as the rest . In this case, these constellation-figures were gained by copying from a copy of Aratus already not less than 200 years old and possibly 400 years old. As the catalogue says of folio 8 “”Good coloured drawings copying a model of 9th or 11th century, …” The manuscript which copies those older drawings was made in late thirteenth-century Bayeux.

FIG. 13 Bayeux 1268-1274 AD

The makers’ choosing so venerable an exemplar suggests a monastic library and scriptorium, and reverence for the oldest forms of image as most authenic, but it would be a mistake to suppose the manuscript is affected by intellectual conservatism. On the contrary, the rest of its content consists of what were, at that time, the most respected and most advanced mathematical works used in Europe.

Bodleian Laud Misc. 644 contains (not in order):

  • Robert Grosseteste, ‘De sphaera‘ – an introductory text on astronomy.
  • __________, ‘correctorius
  • ________, ‘De lineis, angulis, et figuris; Mathematical reasoning in the natural sciences.
  • Albumasar, ‘Flores astrorum‘ (in Latin trans.) Arabic title translates as “Book of the revolutions of the years.”
  • Alfraganus, ‘Liber de aggregationibus [stellarum]’ (in Latin trans).
  • Azarchel, –1100: Canones ad tabulas toletanas. (‘Toledan tables’)
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione arithmetica’ – text and commentary. Latin.
  • Boethius, ‘De institutione musica’ – text and commentary, Latin.

and of course the illustrated section:

Under ultra-violet light can be found an inscription informing us that, by the fifteenth century, Oxford, Bodleian Laud miscellany 644 was in the possession of Charles, duke of Orleans. Charles was the son of Valentina Visconti, through whom he had already inherited Asti, a town about 30 miles west of the Milan-to-Genoa road, and linked to it.

FIG 14

Picking up the thread…

And so, at last, we return to BNF lat. 7351, mis-called the ‘Liber Albandini’ which provided our ‘crocodile Scorpion’. Folio 41v shows these drawings (below), both described by the holding library as forms for Cancer.

FIG. 15

Nonetheless (see Lippincott’s pdfs) the upper type is not rare as a form for Scorpius.

The manuscript was made in northern France during the 1300s, Its history before the fifteenth century is unknown but shortly before, or soon after the Voynich quires were inscribed, it was in the possession of Louis de Bruges, whose name might ring a bell if you read the post before last. This compilation’s content isn’t particularly religious, either. (catalogue entry).

It includes

  • Pierre de Dacie, Kalendarium (Fragment)
  • Albumasar (?), Liberimultitudinum (twice);
  • plus ‘Sphere of life and death’; Astrological treaty in French; Text in Latin on critical days or the so-called ‘Egyptian days’; Correspondence between signs and months and ‘De Duodecim Zodiaci Signis Eorumque Effectibus’.
  • The manuscript includes a removeable paper astrolabe (f.13v)

Pierre de Dacie’s text is no school primer. Sacrobosco would describe it as “algorismum vulgarem’.* meaning ‘ordinary mathematics’ or even ‘commercial maths’ as distinct from computus. Sacrobosco thought highly enough of de Dacie’s text to provide it with a commentary and, together, they proved an immensely popular text in western Europe.

Its primary notability is that it has a better method for extracting cube roots (better than the pre-existing method reported by Johannes de Sacrobosco).

*With Sacrobosco’s commentary, edited and published anew in 1897 by Maximilian Curtze, the edition online at archive. org.

Inferences

What these first examples have indicated is that, in Sicily at least, an association between the forms for Crab and prawn was ancient – ancient enough that they could have influenced astronomical images from the time of Eudoxus, who resided and studied for a time in Sicily.

We have also seen a ‘lobster’-like form, in association with the horse, dating from the time when Aratus made his poetic version of Eudoxus’ work. We have also seen that the style in which the Crab is pictured in Carolingian time, in Latin Europe, had preserved those earlier and more literal forms for Cancer.

Reverence for older forms and learning was a constant in the history of western Europe, with greater emphasis placed on pre-Christian forms as the ‘renaissance’ (so-called) began to flower in southern Europe during the fourteenth century.

Altogether, we must be prepared for the possibility that the Voynich ‘calendar’ diagrams as such may be informed by recent technical information, yet be provided central emblems gained from considerably older sources.

Cancer with a ‘three-point head’ and with arcs drawn on the thorax is a form as old at least as the eleventh century and possibly as old as the ninth century. By 1350, at least in northern France, the same manuscript in which we have a ‘crocodile’ Scorpius could accept for Cancer the form of both crab and prawn, these together or separately having referred to Sicily during the time of Greek, Carthaginian and Roman ascendancy, and an air-borne ‘lobster-like’ creature attested in Gaul no later than the first century BC.

It is entirely possible that there had existed copies of astronomical works, including globes, older than those used by the Carolingian court in which the constellations took a form different from those we now expect to see, and though one or two of the Voynich calendar emblems show evidence of what we might call ‘modernisation’, most of them including those which seem at first idiosyncratic, clearly have roots which are venerable at least and in some cases still evince a lineage decidedly ancient.

… continued next post

Afterword

A little more on authors of the texts included in Oxford, Bodleian, Laud Misc. 644, manuscript made about thirty years after Michael Scot’s death. The authors of the mathematical sections:

GROSSETESTE. Scholar and Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste particularly supported the Franciscan order (of which Roger Bacon became a member). Grosseteste “seems to have spent some time in France during the years 1208–14”. By.1229/30 he was teaching at Oxford, as reader in theology to the Franciscans, who had a community there by about 1224. He remained in that post until March 1235.Roger Bacon was his most famous pupil, and is said to have acquired an interest in scientific method from him. Those of his works included in Laud.Misc. 644 were written between 1220 to 1235.

Works by Grosseteste not included in that volume:

  • ‘De luce’. On the “metaphysics of light.” ( described as ‘the most original work of cosmogony in the Latin West’)
  • ‘De accessu et recessu maris’. On tides and tidal movements. (although some scholars dispute his authorship).
  • De iride’. On the rainbow.

ALBUMASSAR’ is Abu Ma’shar. (see end note)

‘ALFRAGANUS‘ is al-Farghani. Born in Uzbekistan in the 9thC AD. His ‘Jawami ilm Al-Nujum (A Compendium of Astronomy)* is thought to have been written in Egypt, becoming immediately and widely known among speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, and then being another among the works whose translation into Latin was made in Spain and credited to ‘Gerard of Cremona’.

  • *Liber de aggregationibus scientiae stellarum et principiis celestium motuum, quem Ametus qui dictus est Alfraganus compilavit; cum figuris. cf. 524 AdBSB Clm 234.

AZARCHIEL. Toledo and Cordova. His work is commonly found together with that of Jacob ben Machir Ibn Tibbon’s ‘Treatise on the astrolabe’. See e.g. Oxford, Bodleian MS Laud Or 93. (1400-1475)

The Latin translation of the Toledan Tables ‘Canones ad tabulas toletanas’ is generally credited to the first Gerard of Cremona. Michael Scot said he had found these particularly helpful.

BOETHIUS was born in Italy in 480 AD, after the Roman empire’s capital had becme Constantinople and while the city of Rome lay under Ostragothic rule. He died in 524 (aged 44), but his ‘Arithmetica’ remained the standard text for teaching arithmetic and basic maths, until and even after the early fifteenth century.

*Michael Scot died in c.1232. His studious interests were in mathematics, medicine-and-pharmacy and astronomy-astrology. The wiki article vastly exaggerates the magical- and under-states the astronomical and scientific content of Scot’s works for Frederick in Sicily, as well as conveying a false impression of Frederick as ’emperor’. In reality, Frederick reigned chiefly as king of Sicily and his court was regularly under interdiction, which prohibited any Latin Christian from engaging with him. HIs foray into diplomacy in the Holy Land was an effort to overcome those restrictions, whose results included refusal to acknowledge or use one of Frederick’s great accomplishments – sponsoring a Latin translation of al-Idrisi’s new astronomical-geography of the world, which took fifteen years under Roger, but of which no Latin version had been sent to Rome. Idrisi’s work became the foundation of a radically new form of education across North Africa when Idrisi finally returned there.

[edit – replacing a dropped half-sentence. Sept. 21st]

According to N.G. Wilson, the first appearance of Aristotle’s biological writings in the West are Latin translations by MIchael Scot of an Arabic edition. According to Wilson, it was this work by Scot, rather than Thomas of Cantimpre, which formed the basis of the book de Animalibus by Albert of Lauingen though the opinion is not generally held:

  • N. G. Wilson, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscripts of Corpus Christi College, Oxford  (Oxford, 2011) pp. 20-21, Plates 43-46.

“‘Albumasar”‘s work, as ‘Flowers of astronomy’ began appearing in Latin, in print from about three generations after the Voynich quires were inscribed, but we know that 46 editions were printed between 1488-1506. These included illustrations, but we have no information about the source(s) used by the block-makers. As a rule they were commissioned from free-lance artists hired by individual printers, and once a printer had a convenient block, it might be used in any kind of text. Here, Cancer does have arcs on the thorax and lobster-like abdomen, but the tail has only three lobes, the abdomen has as neither legs nor swimmerets attached to it; both front legs are provided with claws, the antennae have a rippled edge, and though the head is given three points it is plainly based on that of the ‘prawn-like’ type.

FIG 16

Interim Post: Nails in the wood – symbol of resurrection.

c.1870 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

(edited 15th Sept 2022 – minor typos corrected)

As I’ve said, there are only a handful of images in the Voynich manuscript which employ a visual language, or express a worldview compatible with the customs of medieval western Europe.

However, there is some reflection of Christian beliefs to seen in some of the drawings, one of which is among the plant-pictures.

Having discussed that image quite some time ago, I’ve decided instead to republish part of a different post from voynichimagery, one which alludes to the ‘nails in the wood’ idea, and as a sort of peripheral note for efforts (presently being made by Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport) to re-assert the oldest and most traditionalist Voynich theory, namely that the whole content in Beinecke MS 408 as an expression of Europe’s medieval Catholic culture.

I doubt that theory will find support from any qualified and experienced external specialist in western Christian art and culture, but so little is impossible

The written part of what follows I’ve simply copied-and-pasted from the original .. I’ve remounted the illustrations, because wordpress won’t let you see images transferred in that way.

As you’ll see, this comes from what was the last post in a series, published through voynichimagery on May 8th., 2013. I’ve left the written part precisely as published and left in the weblinks for historical reasons.

————————–

Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)

© D. O’Donovan [2000+ words]

Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested.  It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal. – D)

~~~~~~~~~~~

The miracle of life preserved within death.

The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.

Even today, in Afrikaans,  plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the  ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch.  Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.

Fig.1

Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.

A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual  ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.

Fig.2

For Egyptian Christians, Coptic was the liturgical language;  Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac,  former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.

From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.

That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s  site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct.  Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are  ‘like rue’.

Fig.3

Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis,  brought as replacement from Arabia.

(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).

C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.

Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below.  In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives.  Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.

Fig. 4

From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideas about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.

Fig.5

More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.

This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.

It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.

What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.

However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’.  Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.

Fig.6

As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.

It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself.  One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs.  How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.

(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel  Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at archive.org).

In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.

In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed.  In this,  I may be in a minority, but  it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’.  However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.

Back to the Balsam.

Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries,  ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.

I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.

Fig.7

Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the  ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree.  The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed.  Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.

Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).

True Balsam

Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.

The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct**  due to over-working and a flood.

The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.

So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi.  What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.

C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.

** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.

I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.

  • Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
  • O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
  • Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66, No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.

~~~~~~~~

Summary:

All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.

Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.

~~~~~

Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice:  ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..

Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.

Not much has changed, has it?

Fig.8

Published Sunday, May 5th, 2013

re-issued, September 14th., 2022

O’Donovan notes – Calendar ‘November and July’ Pt 5. November concluded.

c4000 words

The author’s rights are asserted..

I want to finish treating the ‘November’ emblem, so this is long-ish.

THE BEAST that we see as the November emblem is another of those which formed the figure for Ammit, the ‘croucher by the scales’ – the crocodile. The head is especially well-realised and although it is possible the beast was drawn from life, a propaganda-war between Rome and Egypt, between the 2ndC BC and 2ndC AD means that around the south-western Mediterranean, as in the eastern, realistic images of crocodiles were available in enduring media – coins, reliefs, mosaics and in earlier times no doubt murals.

Or. of course, you could see them in Egypt. If you had no ship of your own, pilgrimage ships crossed the Mediterranean in Spring* (wars permitting), dropping their pilgrim-passengers in Alexandria or in a friendly port further up the eastern shore. Christian and Muslim pilgrims and Jews made the journey across for reasons of religion and of community. We owe many valuable records of medieval life and practice to them.

R.J. Mitchell, The Spring Voyage: The Jerusalem Pilgrimage in 1458, (1964) has survived the decades to remain still a valuable introduction to this subject.

Re-collect.

To keep research focused, it’s a good idea to re-visit the list of research questions every now and then, It keeps research on track, and as the investigation answers one and then another, the list grows shorter, which reduces the ‘mazed’ effect. Some questions may be unresolvable.

Overall, our questions about this image were:

  1. Is it a Scorpion?
  2. Was it intended to be a scorpion?
  3. If so, what caused the error? If not, why is it here?
  4. Why ‘November’?
  5. Explain form – spots, head-shape, four legs, upright, looping/lashing tail.
  6. Other details? – skull and ‘hunter’s hat.
  7. Significance issues:-
  8. Is the drawing primarily here for its significance or as ornament?
  9. Is it an astronomical figure, as has always been supposed?
  10. Iconographic lineage:
  11. Place and time of first origin (= first enunciation) in this form?
  12. Transmission-lines?
  13. First instance in the Latin west?
  14. Associated texts – any identifiable?
  15. Is the lifted forefoot significant?

To be clear: this beast is no degraded form for a scorpion, nor a mistaken attempt to draw a scorpion. It is, and was meant to be, a crocodile and is drawn rather better than most crocodiles were in the medieval Latin west before 1440. The head, in particular is very well drawn.

If, as has usually been imagined, this is a figure for Scorpius, why the substitution?

There are a few – very few – examples of a ‘crocodile constellation’ for Scorpius that have been noticed in Latin works made earlier than 1440. One is certainly, and the other apparently from France, and dated to the first half of the fourteenth century. The first is from BNF ms lat. 3718, which is a collection of excerpts whose common theme appears to be medical astrology, though this image comes from a section which is simply presenting the form of a constellation. The constellation drawings’ section [De duodecim zodiaci signis eorumque effectibus…).

After finding this image in the Warburg Database, an online search showed it among the many references provided in Marco Ponzi’s meticulously documented essay of 2017, where he says it had been mentioned earlier by Darren Worley, though (if I interpret him correctly) Ellie Venlinka is to be credited with first introduction to Voynich studies.

*Marco Ponzi, ‘The VM Zodiac as a pictorial cycle: a comparative analysis (by Marco Ponzi)‘, stephenbax.net Feb. 17th., 2016.

BNF ms lat.7351 is attributed to Northern France. The holding library provides (1) the Manuscript’s full description; (2) digitised version. (3) List of persons named ‘Pierre of Dacia‘ – named as the manuscript’s author. By the fifteenth century, according to the holding library, it had come into the possession of Louis de Bruges.

The rest of its constellation figures are generally of Late Roman style and no other is like any of the Voynich emblems.

The next example is more problematic. I can only say that JKPetersen indicated that the image, as single sheet or as manuscript originated somewhere in the general vicinity of Paris or that the holding library is in the general vicinity of Paris. Mr.. Petersen gives a mid-fourteenth century date for it. I find the drawing style – not the subject-matter – reminiscent of that we find in a penitential Book of Hours which, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, was made in 1317 for Queen Jeanne the Lame by a monk of St. Denys.

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day. It incubates its eggs on land, the male and the female taking turns to guard them.

Etym. XII. 20

The first example tells us that a recognisable ‘crocodile’ might serve as a figure for Scorpius. If the second example were also made in northern France about the same time, the context in which it appears could be informative, but all one can say is that the type apparently derives from a work representing constellations in a Late Roman style, that precedent having entered, emerged in or re-emerged in northern France during the first half of the fourteenth century, and that having been employed a few times in northern France was not used thereafter.

Copies of the Aratea have no crocodile constellation for Scorpius or any other figure. Even the Roman-era, Egypto-Graeo-Roman ceiling of Dendera shows the scorpion fairly much as we’re used to seeing it, save a few apotropaic adjustments. (scorpions do not have 10 legs; their bodies do not much resemble the cockroach’s).

One eleventh century Byzantine manuscript, as we’ve seen, hints at equation between scorpion and crocodile, but the work is no treatise on astrology or astronomy and evidently remained in the Byzantine sphere until the sixteenth century.

The manuscript is bound in a 16th-century Byzantine-style cover with thick wooden boards.

A clue to the brief substitution of crocodile for Scorpion in western works may be is provided by the Talmud, on the sense of the Hebrew word livyathan. According to Pinney, the Talmud “accepted the creature as being unquestionably the crocodile” noting that the word has been variously translated as ” a wreathed animal”, “a twisted animal”, and as one “spirally wound” though Isaiah uses it to mean ‘crooked serpent’.

One begins to understand the basis for those convoluted forms given Scorpius in the medieval bestiaries, and the inclusion of a wreath with the November beast in Otranto.

But with all due respect to Pinney, that acceptance is not reflected in our few remaining examples of Jewish calendar series in manuscript art, so far as I’ve found; a specialist may know better.

It is usual for us today to associate the biblical ‘Leviathan’ with a large marine creature – often a whale or a sea-monster – which type is associated also with the constellation Cetus. However, in a footnote to one of his papers, Sela mentions that another name for Cetus was al-timsāḥ meaning literally ‘crocodile’. The term occurs in that sense in a thirteenth century translation into Hebrew of al-Fargani’s Elements, though it is never found in the Arabic Ptolemaic tradition. The term is still current as a place-name in Egypt – Timsah for Buḥairat at Timsāḥ.

  • Roy Pinney, The Animals in the Bible: the identity and natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible (1964) pp. 178-179.
  • Shlomo Sela, ‘Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: A Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation’, Aleph , Vol. 16, No. 2 (2016), pp. 249-365. n.41.
  • Rachel Hachlili, ‘The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art: Representation and Significance’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 228 (Dec., 1977), pp. 61-77. Seminal study, still a stanadard reference.

We can accept, as a possibility, that identification of livyathan and al-timsah with the amphibious crocodile over an entirely marine monster might transfer to Scorpius if the sky-path of the Milky Way were regarded instead as a River-road, and of such a pairing we have an example from the early centuries AD, in Praeneste’s famed ‘Nile landscape’ mosaic.

Praeneste is modern Palestrina, and lies about ten minutes’ drive from Frascati, the town where, in the Villa Mondragone, Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript that is now Beinecke MS 408.

In speaking of astronomical images created in the Mediterranean world, it has to be remembered that the Romans never knew the works of Claudius Ptolemy.

The Romans never heard of Ptolemy

Astounding as that may seem, all sources are unanimous in saying that Claudius Ptolemy’s best-known works were not translated into Latin until long after the fall of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy is not a ‘Roman’ astronomer or geographer in any meaningful sense. He was an Egyptian of Macedonian descent who happened to live under Roman rule in, or near Alexandria. Because scholars are unanimous on the point, a wiki writer may speak for all.

First, about the Almagest:

No Latin translation was made in Ancient Rome nor the Medieval West before the 12th century. Henry Aristippus made the first Latin translation directly from a Greek copy, but it was not as influential as a later translation into Latin made in Spain by Gerard of Cremona* from the Arabic (finished in 1175).

*Readers should be aware there is reason doubt Gerard of Cremona made even half the translations credited to him, though none doubts he took the credit for them.

According to an online article by Dirk Grupe, which sadly fails to add his references::

Today, three mediaeval Latin translations of the Almagest are known – two made from Arabic and one from Greek. All three translations were produced within the same relatively short period of time during the mid- and late-twelfth century, but each version was made independently from the others, under different conditions and in a different part of the Mediterranean world. Furthermore, each of the versions is based on a different source tradition and had varying degrees of influence in Europe.

One was, according to Grupe, made in Antioch by “Ebdelmessie Wintoniensis” but here one may have reservations. ʿAbd al-Masīḥ [-ibn Isḥāq] was al-Kindi’s pseudonymous title* and ‘Wintoniensis’ is Winchester. That a copy of Al-Kindi might have been gained from Christian Antioch and turn up in Winchester is not unreasonable, and al-Kindi, who worked in Baghdad certainly took his view of the solar system from Ptolemy.

*pseudonymous … according to Bottini, Laura, “al-Kindī, ʿAbd al-Masīḥ ibn Isḥāq (pseudonym)”, in David Thomas (ed.), Christian-Muslim Relations 600 – 1500: A Bibliographical History.

Similarly, it is undisputed that Ptolemy’s Geography had never been translated into Latin before 1406.

Writers of Byzantine history may presume that, as a work written in Greek, Ptolemy’s master works had always been preserved in the Byzantine sphere, but evidence is wanting and the fact may be that we owe any knowledge of Ptolemy to the Sabaeans of Harran, who requested of an early Muslim governor that they be given their holy books – among them them Aratus’ text, and Euclid’s – which until then were in an Egyptian temple in Alexandria. These Harranians subsequently formed the core of early mathematical and astronomical Arabic studies in Baghdad, from which copies of Ptolemy’s Almagest emerged and circulated in Arabic translation five hundred years after Ptolemy’s death, but it would be another half-millennium knowledge of it reached the Latin-speaking west.

So, while it is true that the Romans’ zodiac had always included the figure of a Scorpion as a scorpion and that the Romans knew Aratus well, it is equally true that they had no single or precise definition of the constellations or the positions of stars, and that independent traditions survived in some regions (if not in the west) despite Roman insistence on uniformity.

However, our assumption that the Voynich emblem is an astronomical figure remains just that – an assumption. Even if that assumption is reasonable, to think it serves as token for Scorpius relies chiefly on medieval and modern ideas about etymology, and to some extent on the often-surprising information retained by early modern makers of celestial charts. Ancient ideas and figures are sometimes preserved in them by being differently clothed or assigned by form or character to newly-invented constellations. The constellation Lacerta is a case in point. It was invented by Johannes Hevelius in 1687, illustrated by a type of lizard which still hinted at crocodile or (for a new world audience) the alligator – the key being that it should be well-muscled and ‘weeping’.

The variant spelling for lizard *lacer-, to *lacro, resembles the Latin cognate for tear (as in ‘crocodile tears’). Isidore writes that “The lizard (lacertus) is a type of reptile, so named because it has arms [cf lacertus, ‘upper arm’]. and later that “In the arms is the brawn of the upper arms (lacertus), and there the marked strength of the muscles is located” and “Some believe that the word for tears (lacrima) comes from an injury of the mind (laceratiomentis); others maintain that it is identical with what is called lakruon (‘tear’) in Greek.”

Isidore’s description of the crocodile reads,

The crocodile (crocodillus), named from its saffron (croceus) color, is born in the Nile. It is a quadruped animal, powerful on land and also in the water. It is commonly twenty cubits in length, armed with huge teeth and claws, with skin so tough that it repels blows from stones, however strong, against its back. It rests in the water at night, and on the land during the day.

With the great period of ‘recovery’ which a modern scholar described as ‘renaissance’, Latin Europe discovered a wealth of ancient information more accurate and informed than it dreamed had ever existed. A story of European culture then imagined for itself a history running from Babylonia through the Greeks to Rome and Byzantium, granting ‘Aryan’ status to Arabs for that narrative but omitting Celts, Semitic peoples, North Africans and so forth. Egypt became a land of importance only for its Pharaonic tombs and ancient religion, all of which was imagined ending the moment Julius Caesar stepped off his ship.

It wasn’t quite so simple. Beginning from the time of that Cleopatra, the image of the crocodile was used as an esoteric sign, a rallying call to Egypt and its allies to drive out the Roman invaders and more exactly to assist in building (and after Actium, rebulding) an Egyptian navy.

The Romans responded with a campaign of counter-propaganda, disseminated through the most widely-distributed and the most enduring media – coins, mosaics, and reliefs, and they focused on Alexandria and on regions which had earlier supported Carthage or Egypt against Rome.

159-160 AD

In Nimes (right), the Romans had chosen one Celtic tribe, separating it from the loose confederacy of Gallic tribes of that region, and by patronising it and massively re-populating and rebuilding the town, held Gaul. Nimes was so thoroughly re-made that today the city proudly describes itself as the ‘French Rome’. Nimes is in Occitania. Here the crocodile is firmly chained to the palm-tree. ‘Aegypta capta’ reads an inscription on the other side – and this more than a century after Cleopatra’s death.

As in Gaul, so in Spain, in passing through both of which Hannibal had been supported. Here, the Roman mosaic shows Egyptians or Libyans being hunted by their own crocodiles. Both had access to good timber.

.. and in Syria, in Emessa, which controlled some of cedar routes, the message of this Roman villa seems to be ‘Try passing, if you dare”. The flower is the Nile’s lotus.

In Italy Italy itself, from the same period, a replica ‘Canopus’ was created, and underneath the crocodile’s concrete casing, you can still see the remains of a corroded bronze original.

.. which brings us back to Praeneste.

One native of Praeneste who lived about the time Claudius Ptolemy was living and in Egypt, was named Claudius Aelianus, better known as Aelian. His native city had been twice destroyed by Romans, and on the second occasion every male was slaughtered and those who remained driven to lower ground while a colony of ex-soldiers was given the upper city in which was an ancient religious site, originally used by Phoenicians and Etruscans, but which was now being made a very grand temple which the Romans called the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia.

Aelian preferred to speak and write in Greek, and one text which he composed we know as ‘On the Characteristics of Animals’. It was never part of the western bestiary tradition, and the earliest instance of his work’s being re-used in any manuscript held by the British Library dates to the second half of the fifteenth century where the parts transcribed have been copied in Greek, The purpose of that compilation is, as with BNF lat.3751 to serve the interests of physicians. (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 6295, ff 65v-73*).

Paper. dimensions 210 x 145. Single column. It is described as of eastern Mediterranean provenance, and having at some time been owned by the Jesuit College, Agen prior to its acquisition either by Robert Harley (1661-1724), or by Edward Harley (1689-1741). The library notes that the manuscript’s fore-edges are each decorated in Cretan style, with two circles linked by an interlace pattern in ink and colour wash.

Aelian says of crocodiles:

I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the sacred crocodiles are tame, and … the Egyptians assert that the aforesaid crocodiles are endowed with prophecy, and adduce the following evidence. Ptolemy (which of the line it was, you must ask them) was calling to the tamest of the crocodiles, but it paid no attention and would not accept the food he offered. And the priests realised that the crocodile knew that Ptolemy’s end was approaching and consequently declined to take food from him. -‘

Aelian, ‘On the characteristics of Animals’ Bk.8.4,ii. The English trans. by A.F.Scholfield (1958).

The Romans of that time were yet to encounter the concept we call ‘cultural sensitivity’ and in Preaneste a relief commemorating the Battle of Actium – the battle which saw Cleopatra’s Egyptian navy destroyed and herself choose suicide over the predictable humiliations and reprisals inflicted on captives, prisoners of war, and defeated peoples by the Romans. The human head you see through the open oars-locker is probably Cleopatra’s and inclusion of Egypt’s prophetic beast an example of Roman wit.

In the following century, the Christian Greek patristic author, Eusebius, sees the crocodile as an agent of divine justice, snatching away the impure soul… Ammit reprised.

Achthoēs … was the most terrible of all the kings up to his time. He cruelly maltreated the inhabitants throughout Egypt .. fell into madness and was killed by a crocodile.

Eusebius, Chronicle. English trans. from one based on a Latin translation of the Armenian translation of the Greek original – courtesy of attalus.org.

 The Roman ‘propaganda war’ which continues from the 2ndC BC to the 2ndC AD, reviving ‘crocodile’ imagery as needed, was interested neither in moral or in astronomical issues, though like everyone else Romans believed one’s fate ‘written in the stars’ and Roman emperors continued to worship Anubis as part of their own version of Egypt’s Isis cult until the 4thC AD.

Within Egypt itself, the religion’s four thousand year history was not erased, even by Rome and crocodiles were still treated as noble souls, were mummified and sometimes worshipped as – so to speak – the ‘guardian hounds’ of the Nile as late as the fifth or sixth century, ceasing only about the time the last hieroglyphics were inscribed in Philae.

This image from Oxychrinchus seems to me to consciously to equate the crocodile, whose head is given a kind of mask, with the form of a galley.

Perhaps this will help clarify:

The point of those illustrations is that if a fifteenth-century European living in Italy or around the south-western Mediterranean, and especially if they were now excited by things antique, could find a good image of the crocodile in various relics of the Roman era, including a bronze statue in what was once Hadrian’s Villa (118-133AD), a few minutes drive from the Villa d’Este.

I admit it makes me wonder whether Georg Baresh’s information had been garbled in transmission – whether the collector of the matter in Beinecke MS 408 had actually ‘travelled east’ or instead to the ‘d’Este’. But that’s dangeously close to morphing into a theory, so I’ll drop it, right now.

A last comment on the ‘Nile Landscape’ mosaic originally in the temple complex of Fortuna Primigenia.

Praeneste’s Nile Mosaic … ..was noticed by Antonio Volsco shortly before 1507; the mosaics were still in place among the vestiges of Sulla’s sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia. At that time, the Colonna family of Rome owned the town (mod. Palestina). In the 17th century, Palestrina passed to the Barberini family, who between 1624 and 1626 removed most of the mosaic from its setting, without recording the overall composition, and, after further movements and damage, put it on exhibition in the Palazzo Barberini in Palestrina, where it remains. – Jasnow reviewing Mabloom’s study.

It has been badly messed about – the camel’s hump, for eample, is now upon its shoulder. No other Roman-era version gives the crocodile a face mid-way between that of a dog and of a human.

detail from the damaged Praeneste ‘Nile’ mosaic.

The chief issues concerning the Nile Mosaic are the date and iconography. K. Parlasca posits an Augustan date, while G. Weill-Goudchaux favors the time of Hadrian. Meyboom himself believes that the mosaic belongs to “the last quarter of the second century and, more precisely, from between 120 and 110 B.c.” (p. 19). There is certainly nothing which precludes such a dating. Roman interest in knowledge of Egypt is well documented at this time. ..

From the ‘Book of Faiyum‘ – extant copies date from 332 BC E – 359 AD, Note the styles of hatching and patterning used here.

As I’ve said, this series of diagrams with their central emblems is termed a ‘calendar’ only because the centres are inscribed with month-names. The central emblems don’t form a zodiac but are are among the handful of drawings in Beinecke MS 408 which use a visual language reasonably compatible with the conventions of western medieval art.

They require no date later than the range we have for the vellum (1405-1438)* and more narrowly still, not later than about 1350 or so, meaning that the fifteenth-century copyists appear to have gained much, if not all, of this section from one or more exemplars.

*Please don’t write to ask why the Beinecke Library catalogue entry adds, another two hundred years to that range. The entry was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s by the head librarian but apparently not from any codicological or palaeographical assessments, these having already dated the quires’ inscription to the early fifteenth century.

centre of the ‘Crocodile rota’ in SIgismondo Fanti’s Trionfo di Fortuna. 1527. [private copy]

Sept. 6th. – ‘Primagenia’ corrected to ‘Primigenia’ – the fault entirely due to my appalling handwriting and not the long-suffering typist.

Postscript:

Not only, but not least for its connection to Crete, a page from a late sixteenth century copy of another rarely-mentioned poem about the nature of animals,

Written by Manuel Philes (c.1275-c.1345), it is known as De Animalium Proprietate, and we are indebted to the Cretan scribe, Angelos Bergikios, for knowledge of it, for (as the British library catalogue says) “he made something of a career out of producing lavishly-illustrated copies of this poem for French aristocrats during the last quarter of the sixteenth century.”

Such earlier copies as have been found in the Greek-speaking world appear have no illustrations, but perhaps an illustrated version had existed in Crete. Whatever the case, enjoy Bergikios’ really beautiful script.

O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.3

c.2600 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

edited to correct mis-spelling – 25th Sept – somewhere along the line ‘Lippencott’ made its way into the spell-check’s ‘don’t check’ list. My apologies to the scholar.

Warning – readers uncomfortable with the fact of Egyptian influence in late Roman culture and earlier Christianity might want to brace themselves.

SHORTCUT – Throughout this investigation of the November and July emblems, our aim is still to answer one question: ‘Do the Voynich calendar’s central emblems display influences similar to astronomical details noted for folio 85r and folio 67v-1? Readers impatient with process might prefer to know, now, that the bottom line is “not exactly”. Those more demanding – please read on. 🙂

BACKGROUND – (Summary of Pts 1 and 2 for newcomers). To skip this, start from the ‘Note’ manicule below.

SO FAR, considering various forms for Scorpius in medieval works from Latin Europe, Lippincott’s survey included examples, from western manuscripts, of a few non-classic forms for Scorpius. Those given a ‘beast-like’ form are associated with just three sources: first, the Roman-era ‘Poeticon Astronomicon‘; then the early medieval and English ps- Bede’s De signis caeli, and finally copies of thirteenth-century works by the Anglo-Norman Michael Scot. Concerning the last, however, and as Edwards observed, the four principal manuscripts are all from Italian scribes and “probably made in Bologna” where Scot is known to have studied and been residing in 1220.

  1. Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS nouv. acq. lat. 1401, parchment, fols. llr-128r P – “the earliest copy we have; it can be dated fairly certainly to 1279.
  2. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 10268, parchment, fols. lr-146r. which initially Edwards “dated on palaeographic evidence to 1279” but further research and consultation led him to amend that to “the style of script.. c.1300.. Virginia la Mare… illustrations characteristic of Bologna 1300-1310.’
  3. Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS f. iii. 8, parchment and paper, fols. lr-126v. The paleographic evidence dates it to the third quarter of the fourteenth century.
  4. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 266, paper, fols. 1r-222v – dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Edwards also notes that “the most distinguishing palaeographic characteristic is a Niccol? Niccoli hand on folios 53r to 65r”.

Another copy, now in Scotland, has been commented on by Eleonora Andriani, who rightly remarks the importance of Edwards’ work.

  • “The comprehensive nature of Michael Scot’s work has attracted contributions from a number of scholars, drawing significantly on the Prohemium, the first edition of which appeared in 1978 as a doctoral thesis by Glenn M. Edwards.” Eleonora Andriani,(2019) ‘A Neglected Witness to the Liber introductorius of Michael Scot’, Giornale Critico della Filosofia Italiana, Settima Serie Volume XV, ANNO XCVIII (C), Fasc. III. The article is now accessible through academia.edu.

Parameters – Temporal and Geographic

With some reservations (see image, below), our temporal range becomes ‘ps-Hyginus to Scot’ or, c.2ndC AD – c.1228 AD.

from the ‘M’ source – made in Italy, probably Bologna, c.1310.

From the same basis, and now taking into account the Judeo-Catalan, Occitan, Norman-English (etc.) posited for the inscribed month names, our geographic range sets its upper boundary approximately at the Via Francigena, one of the oldest routes of western Europe and which existed in Hyginus’ time as it does today. It can be said to begin from Santa Maria di Leuca, in the ‘instep’ of Southern Italy and passing through Rome, to continue through to Canterbury in England. Within the maritime context, we have already a practical map of entanglements for the fourteenth century in Datini’s pattern of trade and communications, illustrated earlier, and this allows an extension of our northern line to include the Adriatic and Venice by sea and then, through the Veneto, again to the via Francigena.

NOTEre SCOT in FREDERICK’S SICILY.. Some online articles badly over-emphasise Frederick II’s genetic inheritance over what we know from the historical evidence, namely that his character, attitudes, inclination and actions were formed by his dedication to Sicily, his kingdom by birth and an inheritance through his mother’s line. To suggest that he was in any sense but the most formal a ‘German’ is a mistake – and to speak of him as “Frederick II of Hohenstaufen – evidently following Burnett’s idiosyncratic practice – creates an entirely wrong impression. He was Frederick II of Sicily. The primary sources make very clear that Frederick’s upbringing, sympathies and cultural alignment, as well as his inheritance, made him consider himself above all, a Sicilian and Sicily’s king, though it is reasonable to say that his earlier overt antipathy towards his German connections, and specifically to his uncle, reduced as their efforts to acquire the kingdom were abandoned and, later, when practical diplomacy gradually required more frequent contact with German princes after Frederick was crowned emperor of the west.

These parameters are, of course, for the purpose of tracing the lineage of the ‘November’ emblem alone, not the entire contents of Beinecke MS 408. Even so, it would be a very long study to thorough track, map and document images in that range – even just images of Scorpius or more narrowly still, Scorpius in western Christian zodiac series. Limiting the range to its very narrowest – to no more than western manuscripts’ depiction of the 12 zodiac constellations – is a large enough task and on that, Lippincott and the ‘Saxl’ project labours still.

Trying to ‘match-the-image’, across all media, within our geographic and temporal limits as one would have to do, could only be an exercise in futility when no western (Latin Christian) equivalent is known for the Voynich ‘calendar’ series or for this creature as a form for Scorpius.

So… instead, we trace the ideas which have informed the ‘November’ emblem. That is – ideas about the astronomical Scorpius, about the scorpion’s nature and/or about the month of November.

Three points to keep in mind: First – this November beast is a quadruped, shown as a single figure; 2. It faces the Scales, not the Archer. 3. It was not given the body of a scorpion.

(detail) Voynich ‘November’ beast.

Here is how crab, fresh-water ‘lobster’ and scorpion were being drawn in northern Italy in c.1440.

Our task, however, is not so nebulous as one might expect, for ps-Bede, and Scot have England in common and if the source for the 2ndC ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was ultimately Hyginus, then Scot and he may have Iberia and Italy in common. On the other hand, if Hyginus’ birthplace was Alexandria and not Iberia, as some argue, then we have full circle, because Egypt and Alexandria were major centres in which early Christianity had flowered and from which the Latin west gained its model of communal monasticism and scribal culture,* continuously trading goods during the medieval centuries – first through Jewish- and then through Italian agency.

*As one modern Benedictine from a community now based in Egypt puts it “St Anthony, St Paul the Hermit and St Pachomius are household names for any Western monastic.”

Nor do we forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s contents to be, in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’.

CONSTANTS.

To begin, we define a few constants to keep the investigation steady, and highlight evidence of transmission independent of local forms.

The easiest to identify is the reason for the skull’s inclusion – an association between November and death.

1.November – month of the dead (first constant)

In the Roman world and in western Christianity, November was the month of the dead.

In pre-Christian Rome, on November 8th, the ‘the mundus pit’ was opened, for the last time of three.*

With the lifting of the lid, which was regarded as the Gate of Hell, the spirits (manes) of the underworld emerged and could roam the streets of the city. The day was ‘holy’ (religiosus): no public business could be transacted, no battle fought, no army levied, no ships set sail, no marriage take place etc.

*scholars debate whether it was one stone or two; the other two occasions were on August 24th. and October 5th.

When Rome adopted Christianity, November remained the month of the dead.

Christianity just re-explained things. The Byzantine Church made the same date the feast of f ‘The synaxis of the holy archangel Michael and all the angelic powers’; the Russian Orthodox Church calling that day’s feast “Synaxis of the Holy Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Salaphiel, Jegudiel, Barachiel, Jeremiel and the Other Bodiless Powers”.

Western (Latin) Europe, however, changed the date to November 2nd, calling it ‘All Souls Day’, and preceding it with the happier ‘All Saints Day’ on November 1st.*

*’All Hallow’s Day’ meant ‘all saints’ day’ with ‘All Hallow’s Evening’ the vigil, on the night of October 31st. But things later became a bit confused in some places, and the result has been that the modern ‘Halloween’ is celebrated in October and is about ghosts and ghouls, rather than remembering the dearly departed in heaven. There is no equivalent in the present day Coptic liturgical calendar today. The Hebrew calendar has one feast, a joyful one, in November. The Muslim liturgical calendar is based on the lunar year.

Here’s the month of November in the late-Roman Filocalia or ‘Chronography of 354’. (Don’t get excited; our November beast isn’t Anubis).

2.The Unchanging Stars. (second constant)

Our second constant is provided by the stars.

We know stars can newly appear in the sky and others vanish, but ancient and medieval peoples spoke of the stars as eternal and unchanging, the night sky as the God-given template of what had been and was to come, containing markers for ‘times, and seasons and years’.

That the figure we call Scorpius should be imagined crouching by a set of Scales at the point where the Milky Way – as a lucent road – rises from the horizon is easily understood …. it does. This (below) is what a northerner sees today in November.

That road doesn’t just rise towards the north; it also takes one down below the horizon towards the south. Lying by that road at the point of crossing from the horizon, the great scorpion was seen as an dreadful attacker in wait.

From the earlier medieval period, we have evidence that Christianity in some places retained a popular belief in that ‘road’ as the one along which one might ascend towards heaven or, alternatively, fall to the fires of the south. It’s well known that ‘south’ was the direction of the Christian Hell and South or South-west associated with Scorpius – not only by who knew how to practice astrology.

A conception of the Milky Way as ‘Road to heaven’ would not survive in the west beyond the later medieval period except for a proverb about the route to Santiago but in a manuscript copied in England in c.960-1000 AD* the whole of that celestial Way between Heaven and Hell is drawn, like an itinerary, in registers. Its having an astronomical ‘template’ is obscured by the fact that the figures are rendered in almost-orthodox Latin Christian forms.

That manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian MS Junius 11) was made in Anglo-Saxon England, yet a majority of its illustrations point to origins in a body of star-lore less than perfectly compatible with orthodox Christian theology and iconography.

  • Leslie Lockett, ‘An integrated re-examination of the dating of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11’. Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 31 (2002) pp. 141–173. [JSTOR] The astronomical basis for the images has not been widely recognised, the study of indigenous astronomies rarely intersecting with the history of Christian Europe.

In older Egypt, where the idea of ascent to the north is very old indeed,* it was initially only the king who ascended to enjoy eternal rest in that ‘island’ in the northern sky, among what they saw as the ‘sea of reeds’. The later, Christian, idea would accept that firm foundation in the north of the sky, but following Augustine define it as a ‘City of God’ into which all approved souls would be welcomed but to which Michael or other angels had to carry them.

  • R. O. Faulkner, ‘The King and the Star-Religion in the Pyramid Texts’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 153-161.

Before being permitted to rise up from the horizon, though, the soul’s virtue had to be assessed – and that’s where the ‘Snatcher’ becomes involved.

Weighing the Soul.

The scene is portrayed like this in the Egyptian funerary texts and art:

I expect most readers know that a jackal-god named Anubis was the Egyptians’ guide for acceptable souls (‘hearts’ in Egyptian thought) but for hearts found wanting – ‘hearts too heavy’ as the Egyptians saw things – a different fate lay in wait.

This quadruped wasn’t worshipped, only feared. Its name was Ammit. Its nature is expressed by combining elements from the most voracious, most relentless, swiftest and fiercest of beasts that drag down their prey – crocodile, hunting hound, the lion and the hippopotamus.* Egyptian art, like Egyptian names, may use elements adjectivally, combining them much as we might combine the names of colours to express e.g. a ‘blue-green-grey.’

“The hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest land mammal, according to the BBC. They kill around 500 people every year, twice as many as lions kill.”

You saw, in that first illustration of the weighing, how Ammit was shown, as intent as any hound, waiting for the word of command before snatching away the imperfect heart-as-soul.

Here’s another expression of the scene, making clear that Ammit waits on a figure whose Christian equivalent would (much later) be the ‘Recording Angel’.

Now, it’s a curious thing that while the ‘croucher by the Scales’ became a well-known item in western Christian art and is echoed in the formal literature, folk memory of a ‘judging and recording Angel’ did not. It was transmitted unofficially, so to speak. There is not a single mention of ‘the recording angel’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia and to find an example of depiction in Christian art, I’ve had to turn to works made in nineteenth century America!

On the other hand, the Scales and dreadful ‘snatcher who drags down’ would become a common trope in western Christian art and part of the west’s formal theology.

Here we see the scene, in Christian terms, in a manuscript made in Spain about a century after the Anglo-Saxon image of the sky-road, and little more than a century before Michael Scot would travel from England to Toledo.

Trying to keep these posts under 3000 words, I’ll pause here – but I think we are now on the way to defining a third constant – the nature of the beast.

3. The Nature of the Beast (third constant)

grasping/snatching; devourer of human beings, their hearts/souls; attentive only to its master’s command; immune to all deterrents.

Below, a preview of one illustration from the next post. This shows a drawing made of a figurine found in south-western England during the eighteenth century and dated to the 1st-2ndC AD, a period when Egypt, England and Gaul were all under Roman occupation and when ps-Hyginus’ ‘Poeticon Astronomicon’ was written. Notice the spotted hide, here covering only the upper body -just like Ammit.

Postscript – the ‘Beast of Gévaudan,

There is no reasonable link between that figurine and a beast which was to trouble France about fifty years after the figurine was found and drawn in England, yet the animal’s description is uncannily apt and worth repeating.

The unidentified animal called the ‘Beast of Gévaudan; Occitan: La Bèstia de Gavaudan, slaughtered 500 people within three years, and across an area about fifty miles’ square. The few who survived an attack (only about 50) described it as: “the size of a calf, a cow, or, in some cases, a horse. It had an elongated head similar to that of a greyhound, with a flattened snout, pointed ears, and a wide mouth sitting atop a broad chest. The beast’s tail was also reported to have been notably longer than a wolf’s, with a prominent tuft at the end ….”

Modern rationalisations have supposed it “an unusual form of wolf” or “from a hound cross-bred with a feral dog”, or “a beast brought from elsewhere”. Some have suggested, with more reason, that it may have been a specimen of the Australian Thylacine, now extinct, but which certainly could have been carried to France in the eighteenth century. The difficulty is that the Thylacine does not – no more than does a wolf – have a tuft at the end of its tail. And stories of a great ‘Hell hound’ are reported in England, too, to as late as the eighteenth century.

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).

FIG.1

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 #8.3a: 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.