To be clear – “astrology”

c.1050 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

[update – see STOP PRESS at end]

Recorded usages in English. .. matter from Oxford Reference:


(definition) – The study of movements and relative positions of celestial bodies interpreted as having an influence on human affairs and the natural world.

Ancient observers of the heavens developed elaborate systems of explanation based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets through the constellations of the zodiac, for predicting events and for casting horoscopes.

The word is recorded from late Middle English, and comes ultimately (via Old French and Latin) from Greek astron ‘star’.

The commonest sense born by the term today (in full: judicial astrology, relating to human affairs) occurs in English from the mid 16th century.

By 1700 astrology had lost intellectual credibility in the West, but continued to have popular appeal. Modern astrology is based on that of the Greeks, but other systems are extant, e.g. that of China.

Natural astrology originally denoted the practical uses of astronomy, applied in the measurement of time and the prediction of natural phenomena.


As you see, the mid-sixteenth century usage is what informs modern perceptions of the difference between astrology and astronomy, and today’s general reader may be excused for expecting that any use of the word ‘astrology’ in medieval works must imply reference to planets, to horoscopes and to the zodiac.

To avoid confusion and false assumptions, those practical uses that medieval people called ‘natural astrology’ we will class as a sub-set of astronomy. Other terms used by modern scholars to avoid confusion include natural astronomy, archaeoastronomy, indigenous astronomy and folk-astronomy and may include moralised astronomy and a union of religious thought with astronomical knowledge, such as identifying Christ with the Sun.

Practical observation of the stars for practical purposes – chiefly to establish times, seasons and directions – has a history descending from times so remote that astronomy can be fairly described as the oldest of human sciences – if science is defined as the accumulation of data by close observation, the systematisation of that data, its practical testing by experiment, its repeatability and its practical aims. The use of navigational astronomy across lands is asserted or inferred as existing from a very early period, and across seas using evidence related to the Australian migrations,* while the Austronesian routes and migrations (which incidentally established the eastern maritime ‘spice routes’) date from c.2000 BC. Trade in lapis lazuli from Afghanistan into Egypt began from the 3rd millennium BC, but scholars differ about when it became a direct, sea-borne trade from the Indus through the Red Sea.

*as e.g. by Alan William, “A new population curve for prehistoric Australia”, Proceedings of the Royal Society – Biological Proceedings, Vol 280 (#1761), (online through Pub.Med. April 2013).

By comparison, the Babylonian empire’s rise* seems quite recent, being closer in time to the Roman occupation of Judaea than we are now.

 *c.1894 BC

In Egypt, astronomy’s origins are older than the rise of Babylonia and by the 3rd millennium BCE, Egypt’s 365-day calendar was already in use, and the Nile’s annual rise predicted by the rising of stars. One must assume, but we cannot prove, that before Babylonia’s cities were built some Mesopotamian peoples had a developed natural astronomy.

From c1479–1458 BCE we have evidence of a highly-developed astronomical, calendrical, religious and possibly astrological system in Egypt, recorded on the walls and ceiling of a tomb* from that time.

*Senenmut’s tomb, in Thebes.

Having survived intact for about three thousand years, the contents of that tomb and its star-ceiling were rifled, dispersed and/or defaced once it was opened by Europeans in 1925-27. A replica of the ceiling is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a few watercolour paintings record remnants of the decoration. What the replica tells us, at least, is that some of the constellations represented within the Roman-era ceiling at Dendera were from Egypt’s native tradition, while Faulkner’s study of the Pyramid Texts confirms the antiquity of Egyptian emphasis on the circumpolar stars, Orion, Sirius and certain other markers.

Had Senenmut’s tomb survived to be studied now, it might have provided more insight into the evolution of the Coptic calendar, its calculation, and its roster of saints.

  • 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.

*without prejudice, I note that the Egyptian constellations identified by Belmonte and Llull include none from the Roman zodiac save Leo. Belmonte is a former editor of the journal Archaeoastronomy which began well in the 1980s but lost readership and impetus as its focus became increasingly, and by the end solely, on the Americas. But see paper by Juan Antonio Belmonte and Jose Lull as Chapter 6 in:

  • J.A. Belmonte, Ancient Astronomy: India, Egypt, China, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Greece, Rome, Genesis, Hebrews, Christians, the Neolithic and Paleolithic

In these posts it will be convenient to take any diagram’s structure as definition of intended purpose for the medieval west to c.1438 AD.

Astrology is indicated, among other things, by a medical text’s including diagonally-ruled tables for the phases of the moon. The ‘zodiac man’ (whose use the early Christian writers had specifically prohibited) is also astrological.

Evidence of applying mathematical calculations to determine the precise position of planets is taken as evidence of astrological purpose.

Constellations on the ecliptic, including the 12 which form the Roman zodiac, are of themselves not evidence of one or other intention. Since these constellations are constellations, not only astrological signs, and our interest is in the purpose for which such forms were made by the first maker(s) and whoever commissioned the sections now forming Beinecke MS 408, we cannot presume predictive-astrological purpose without the presence of other markers (see above). The default is thus – precession notwithstanding – ‘astronomical’.

I expect some readers will protest this decision, but the question we must address is whether the maker – if it were possible to ask him/her – would concur that by picturing the zodiac constellations or signs in e.g. a religious breviary, s/he demonstrated an intention to practice astrology or believed the intended recipient intended to practice astrology in our modern sense of the word. If the western Church had not insisted always that mankind had free will, opposition to astrology would perhaps have been less persistent and less complicated; contact with the Palaiologan court made magic and astrology fashionable among some humanists and Luther’s promoting belief in predestination saw popular interest in all forms of anticipatory lot-casting, fortune-telling and astrology explode, assisted by publication of books of the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ type in which such matter was now included.

Many Voynich writers have assumed or simply announced astrological purpose in the Voynich calendar. A few have attempted to argue a case from evidence, but none has yet proven it and two specialists in the subject have stated, independently of each other, of me and at that time of interference from any Voynichero that the calendar diagrams are not astrological charts.

Allons de l’avant ..


A notice from has just dropped into my mail box telling me that Professor Elly Dekker has uploaded to his her review of a book which I admit I let pass in 2007, given its price of 99 Euros and having at that time no interest in computus and working on very different questions. Come to think of it, back then I’d never heard of the Voynich manuscript. (sigh).

… having now read Dekker’s review, I’ll have to add Eastwood’s book to the library

  • Bruce E. Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  • Elly Dekker’s review is in Early Science and Medicine Vol.13 (2008) 509-530. And of course on Dekker’s site at

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.


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)‘, 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

 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.


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

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’.


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

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Differences really matter!

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

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

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

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

(detail) 85r (part)

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

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

(detail f.67v-1)

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

(detail) folio 67v-2

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

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

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

The Voynich map’s West emblem:


The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

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

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

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

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

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

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

Think of it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lotus and rebirth.

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

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

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

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

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Consider that stylistic difference:

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

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

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For references for any particular point, do email me.

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

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

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

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