O’Donovan notes #8.2 Angles of approach: physic and psyche.

c.2300 words including some optional sections

[Jan 2nd 2023 – passage from Lactantius added; minor edits made]

Header shows Hippocrates (seated), Asclepius (disembarking) and a very Roman Hermes greeting the latter with an arcane hand-gesture, to which Hippocrates unnoticed responds.. Mosaic, Roman, 2nd-3rdC AD, Image courtesy theoi.com

Et in Arcadia…

The author’s rights are asserted.

So here are two gods whom [Tresmegistus] affirms to have been men, Æsculapius and Mercury. Now concerning Æsculapius, both the Greeks and the Latins think the same about that; but as to Mercury, there are many who do not think that he was formerly a mortal, though Hermes [Tresmegistus] testifies that he was his grandsire. … It is sufficient to know that this Mercury of whom Hermes speaks is, as well as Æsculapius, a god who once was a man, according, to the testimony of this same Tresmegistus, esteemed so great by his countrymen, and Mercury’s own grandson.

Augustine, City of God. Bk 8, Ch.10

The French manuscript cited by Ellie Velinska (see previous post) was made several decades too late for its images to have influenced those in the Voynich manuscript, but it still has something to tell us.

Another of its illustrations (below) emphasises for the viewer that Hermes Tresmegistos was a character well known and quite well thought of by Augustine – that thinker and theologian who had lived in the 5thC and defined the future theological character of western Christian Europe. It is was from a fifteenth century French version of Augustine’s ‘Civitate Dei” that Ellie had that detail.

Below, another detail from that same manuscript shows Tresmegistus* wearing red hat used in Latin works to denote an elite easterner. He is putting Asclepius right on the subject of pagan deities. Asclepius is here imagined by the painter entirely Greek, but that’s not what Augustine says – and this isn’t the only time when the fifteenth-century Parisian illuminator tactfully avoided suggesting that any figure admired by the Greeks is even partly ‘Asiatic’.

*as it is spelled in Latin.

detail of folio 390r – The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11. manuscript made in Paris, illuminated there by Maïtre François who completed it c. 1475. The work was begun for Jacques d’Armagnac, duke of Nemours (1433-1477) and after his capture continued for Philippe de Commines (1447-1511), lord of Argenton..

The same impression is conveyed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica which says, “There are frequent allusions to Hermes Trismegistus in late medieval and Renaissance literature” but implies that it came only after the seventh century and from works transmitted in Arabic. This just isn’t so.

For any western student of theology, as for an educated layman, comments made in Augustine’s work told them otherwise. By the early fifteenth century, Civitate Dei (City of God) with its comments attributing medicine’s origin to Egypt would, whether true or not, have been considered general knowledge among the educated.

True, Augustine seems only to have known the Asclepius dialogue, but for our present question it’s enough – and another test for the value of Georg Baresch’s description of the Voynich manuscript.

Concerning Georg Baresch – for newcomers.

Georg Baresch is the first person whose possession of the manuscript is undisputed (save by those who argue the manuscript a modern fake). In his letter to Kircher, Baresch says (in 1635) that German specialists in botany (these being the best in Europe at that time) do not know the Voynich plants’ identities, adding that the plants are exotics – i.e. not native to Europe. That Baresch himself insists (not ‘hypothesises’) that the material in the manuscript was gained in “oriental parts” is what we keep testing against the evidence offered by the Voynich drawings and diagrams, although on the point of medicinal purpose, Baresch himself says that’s only his “guess”. His having paid for copies of sections to be made, and then having them sent to Kircher because the latter had appealed for materials to assist decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (hieratic) indicates, I think, that Baresch did honestly believe the content was in some sense ‘Egyptian’ and in some sense ‘ancient’. So as we go, we test his views. So far, he’s looking good, but that only means his belief was not unreasonable or a-historical – not that it is certainly true.

What the text of Augustine’s Civitate Dei makes clear is that for a well educated person, it might seem logical to seek superior or ancient “pristine medicine” in Egypt.

In Book 8, Augustine writes,

Your grandsire, O Æsculapius,[was] the first discoverer of medicine, to whom a temple was consecrated in a mountain of Libya, near to the shore of the crocodiles. In that temple in which his body lies – his earthly man – … he affords to the infirm even now by his divinity those aids he used to afford them formerly by the art of medicine”. (Augustine, Civiate Dei. Bk VIII Ch. 26).

Augustine also knew, in fifth-century North Africa, what few medieval or Renaissance European artists appear to have known – namely that this Asclepius was not Greek, but half Hellenistic Greek and half Egyptian.* The story we see in the images made for Hague, MMW 10 A II, suggest rather that the Greek ancestor ‘Mercury’ is the patron of healing, though that’s not what Augustine knew, and he was quoting the original text.

*I stand corrected. Some Greek presence in Egypt dates to before Alexander’s conquest, leaving open the possibility that the Egyptian temple may have been frequented by Greeks, and by them associated with Asclepius, even before Alexander’s time.

“…by the shore of the crocodiles”

Augustine means lake-shores near that cult-centre called by the Greeks Krokodilopolis or Arsinoë, and by the Romans Arsinoë or, sometimes, Arcadia.

*autocorrect’s Antinoe un-corrected to Arsinoë, which is correct.

In traditional style, Augustine’s ‘Libya’ includes all land west of the Nile, save only the delta, and in fact, remnants survive today of a temple on the hills overlooking that shore.

Its nearest village was known in Ptolemaic times as Dionysias and so in modern accounts that temple is sometimes described as ‘The Temple of Stones’ or else the temple near Dionysias. It is now so reduced as to be all but devoid of interest, resembling an empty warehouse.

You can see both those places on the map (below). Dionysias is seen to the upper left [look for 184]. Crocodilopolis/Arsinoe/Arcadia near the centre [1935]. The numbers refer to the number of papyri found in a given site. [Other places called Arsinoe HERE]

Another site, rich in finds of papyri as the other two combined lies near the map’s top-right. It Karanis [2,474] and this isn’t the first time that Karanis and the Faiyum have cropped up while researching this manuscript’s drawings. Last year, treating the calendar’s ‘November’ emblem, I showed a detail from a Roman-era papyrus. That work is known as the ‘Book of the Fayum’ but Karanis in particular was noted some time ago when the present writer investigated some artefacts seen in the Voynich ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

Here’s a brief recap from that earlier work. This is less than a twentieth of it, but will do here. 🙂

Faiyum, glass and the Voynich ‘leaf and root’ section.

Karanis (sometimes Karanais) cropped up while considering artefacts seen in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section.

notice the vestigial ‘wreath’ ring around the neck. The brownish discolouration is a natural effect post-production. This image courtesy collection of John and Carole Alaire.

Some appear meant to represent glassware.

Some of those include a feature made by trailing an extra rod of glass to form what you may think of a ‘wreath’-ring.

In combination with that feature, you see what is evidently meant to dnote glass that is white or clear,

As I explained at length and with many illustrations at a time when any suggestion of ‘Asiatic’ influence caused severe allergic reaction among hard-core Voynich traditionalists – not so often these days – to find this combination is not very common. The ‘wreath’ ring indicates the eastern Roman empire in c.1st-2ndC or so, and clear or white glass with that indicates Egypt over Syria at that time.

Karanis was a major centre of glassmaking. Glassmaking tended to maintain similar forms and techniques until the craft-families were lost to illness or war who had kept those secrets. Enamelled and gilded glass, attested in finds from Begram (1st-2ndC AD), returned to Syria only with the Mongol’s eruption and consequent population movement. From there, Venice would acquire workers who were imprisoned on the city’s islands and whose techniques continue to echo those used in the eastern Mediterranean a thousand years earlier.

As for the earlier glass of Karanis and Syria – though called ‘Roman’ glass, Romans as such are unlikely to have had much to do with the process of manufacture. Other details suggest a context beyond Roman rule for some artefacts in this section, but we know that Hellenistic-Persian communities in what is now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were making or importing glass of fine quality to as late as the 2ndC AD.

IF anyone had been intending to seek ‘ancient’ pristine medicine in what Baresch calls “oriental parts”, then if they had read Augustine’s ‘Asclepius’ dialogue, the Faiyum is surely one region they’d have on their itinerary, though Cairo’s fonduks are another, and perhaps also what remained of the temple to the other god-man, Hermes whom the Romans and Latins called ‘Mercury’. A temple to him lay further upriver than the Faiyum, at Hermopolis‘. Thus Augustine – “For this elder Hermes…who, he says, was his grandsire, is said to be buried in Hermopolis…”and

…[Tresmegistus says] Does not Hermes, who was my grandsire, and whose name I bear, abiding in the country which is called by his name, help and preserve all mortals who come to him from every quarter?

Thoth was also known through patristic writings, including those of Lactantius,whose life overlapped Ausonius’ and who served as advisor to Contantine I, the emperor to whose youngest son Ausonius’ uncle had been tutor.

Lactantius’ classical education allows him to refer easily to the works of Homer and to the many deities and philosophies of the empire that was still, to his time, ‘Roman’ in every sense. Nonetheless, he knew less than he believed he did. Literati of the Italian Renaissance spoke of Lactantius as the ‘Christian Ciceero’, his Institutiones Divinae offering a venerable authority for melding Christian and pre-Christian allusions.

In Bk I, Ch.6, a passage shows what he understood of Tresmegistus – and that he believed Egypt had first gained writing and laws from an outlawed Greek(!). It is an oddly European arrogance: The Greek Herodotus writing in the 5thC BC had known better and so would Augustine. But here is Lactantius – who says among other things that who is buried in Hermopolis is not Hermes, but Tresmegistus(!):

According to Cicero, Caius Cotta the pontiff, while disputing against the Stoics … says that there were five Mercuries; and having enumerated four in order, says that the fifth was he by whom Argus was slain, and that on this account he fled into Egypt, and gave laws and letters to the Egyptians. The Egyptians call him Thoth; and from him the first month of their year, that is, September, received its name among them. He also built a town, which is even now called in Greek Hermopolis (the town of Mercury), and the inhabitants of Phenæ honour him with religious worship. And although he was a man, yet he was of great antiquity, and most fully imbued with every kind of learning, so that the knowledge of many subjects and arts acquired for him the name of Trismegistus. He wrote books, and those in great numbers, relating to the knowledge of divine things, in which be asserts the majesty of the supreme and only God, and makes mention of Him by the same names which we use — God and Father. And that no one might inquire His name, he said that He was without name, and that on account of His very unity He does not require the peculiarity of a name. These are his own words: God is one, but He who is one only does not need a name; for He who is self-existent is without a name. God, therefore, has no name, because He is alone; nor is there any need of a proper name, except in cases where a multitude of persons requires a distinguishing mark, so that you may designate each person by his own mark and appellation. But God, because He is always one, has no peculiar name.

Healing from the spirit; attending to the body.

Healing in the style of ‘Asclepian’ medicine paid more attention to healing as a benefit of both physical and spiritual healing. That of Hippocrates had a more pragmatic concentration on the body as such.

The following is slightly edited from a Polish article, but this is standard information which you should find in any reliable history of the Greek tradition.

Ancient Greece had two types of medicine: one priestly-religious and associated with temple treatment and the divine Asclepios; the other Hippocratic and rational. Both types of medicine co-existed, representing two non-antagonistic alternatives in treatment. In spite of apparent differences in their approach, we have no evidence of either collaboration between Asclepian priests and Hippocratic physicians, nor of any mutual misunderstanding or hostility between them. Followers of Asclepios respected tradition, believed in a divine descent for their profession, but remained loyal to the Hippocratic Oath. The fact that when the rational type of medicine did not help a patient, the patient might seek then healing through religion and other alternatives is not rare even today.[i.e. it implies no exclusive attachment to either remedy].

see Marketos SG, Poulakou-Rebelakou E. Tradycyjna medycyna w starozytnej Grecji (współistnienie sztuki asklepiejskiej i medycyny hipokratejskiej) [Traditional medicine in ancient Greece (coexistence of Asclepian art and Hippocratic medicine)]. Przegl Lek. 1995;52(12):612-4. Polish. PMID: 8834663.

What that summary implies, and what we find in Latin Europe, is a deliberate ‘wiping’ of the older and once well-understood seminal contribution made by Egypt.

this is very clear in the fifteenth-century illustrations for the Hague copy of Augustine’s work, but is far more widespread within medieval and early Renaissance Latin Europe. I should add that Augustine has played a bit fast and loose with his terminology, choosing to use ‘demon’ rather than, as he should, daimon or daemon. Many in Augustine’s time still held the ancient belief that the stars were ensouled, and Augustine’s detestation of such figures may be a hangover from his Manichaean period. Here’s the text for which Ellie’s example is the illustration:

Chapter 10 – Concerning Theurgy, Which Promises a Delusive Purification of the Soul by invocation of demons.

These are the delusive appearances of that spirit who longs to entangle wretched souls in the deceptive worship of many and false gods, and to turn them aside from the true worship of the [one] true God, by whom alone they are cleansed and healed, and who, as was said of Proteus, turns himself into all shapes, equally harmful, whether he assaults us as an enemy, or assumes the disguise of a friend.

As to those who… see… certain wonderfully lovely appearances of angels or gods, this is what the apostle refers to when he speaks of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light – (referring to 2 Corinthians 11:14).


Despite the reverence in which Augustine was held, some parts of his ‘Cite de Dieu’ are tactfully passed over in medieval images. Augustine identifies Asclepius’ Egyptian grandfather as inventor of medicine healing, but the Latins uniformly accord that role, instead, to Asclepius himself or others such as Chiron etc. (badly scrambled sentence, sorry – corrected 6th Jan).

Another remarkable fact is that although we see Hermes’ staff correctly represented in North Africa in the period of Roman occupation, a sophisticated fifteenth-century French illuminator has no idea what it should look like.

Hermes. drawing from a classical Greek Attic vase.

North Africa c.2ndC BC – 1stC AD. Herm-Anubis with daemones.

The belief against which Augustine rails in Chapter 10 of Civitate dei – of a soul’s being carried up by daemones is seen vividly in a near contemporary ivory. Their ‘Mercurial’ nature is indicated only by the bird-wings of their hair.

British Museum Object No.1857,1013.1, dated 402 AD. T

The coin on the left still has the staff fairly correct, and helps us understand the strange saw-toothed weapon given ‘Mercury’ in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r,

Roman Egypt. mid-2nd and early 3rdC AD.

Mercury, patron of traders and travellers with insignia in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

(detail) Hague, MMW 10 A 11 folio 197r

That this isn’t a unique error is evident from other Latin examples, of which there are many, even from about the same time:

provenance unspecified.

I differ on some statements in the British Museum’s description of the next image, but reproduce it in full.

British Museum. Object 1845,0825.347. Late 15thC. Italy possibly Ferrara

Mercurio (Ferrara, c.1470-1480) Mercury; facing right, wearing winged helmet and sandals (boots), he holds the caduceus with entwined serpents and plays a flute; the decapitated head of Argus full of eyes and a cock at his feet; inscribed at lower left: ‘A’, at lower centre: ‘MERCVRIO XXXXII’ and at lower right: ‘4Z’; encircled by a frame of diamonds.

I hope that by now you are asking, ‘What have these late fifteenth-century French and Italian images got to do with the Voynich drawings?

I do hope it’s what you’re thinking, because the answer is – not very much.

Those drawings bear no resemblance to anythin in the Voynich manuscript. Not in the arrangement of the page, not in the border ornament, not in their style of drawing, not in their subject matter, the degree of immediate legibility, not in any associated script nor their attitude to human society – not even in their ideas about who should and should not be hatted and booted.

And that IS the point.

All those images in the Hague manuscript, and the other medieval western European images I’ve mentioned in this post are “new wine in new skins” – nothing about the pictures suggests origins in some earlier copy of Augustine’s text.


The Hague site is not the easiest to navigate. To see more of Hague, MMW 10 A 11 best go directly to:


To be fair, one image said to be of Anubis (friend of Mercury), lets us add a few grains’ weight on the positive side for that ‘St.Theodore’ in Venice.