Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:


David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at voynich.nu I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through academia.edu)


Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?


Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for Vat.gr. 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)


There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)


For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast   ..so, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.


So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript Vat.gr.1291.

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in Vat.gr.1291 folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.


In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That Vat.gr.1291  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at voynich.nu.  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..


Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.

edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.


The skies above Pt.2 ‘asteriskos’

In a media-savvy age, many readers will know that meaning is context-dependent.

“Everything’s fine. Just realised an ancient Egyptian deity was really  Macedonian. Me, in fact.”

This doesn’t mean we may haul the manuscript and its content into whatever context we find comfortable and then assert its meaning is whatever we, and ‘people like us’ find most agreeable.    My saying so may seem trite.. but don’t be fooled.

Hauling the past into a present social environment, to make easier the task of co-opting and re-interpreting it to suit self-and-friends has been a perennial activity, probably since human society began, and even more with images than with words.

Lewis Carroll’s  Humpty Dumpty offers an apt example:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I begin with the diagrams entire though the usual habit has been to discuss the central emblems without reference to the rest.

Structure: format

There are present eleven diagrams of similar design in Quires 10-12.  Each diagram of the eleven occupies the equivalent of one page. By ‘page’ here I mean one face of the four in a standard bifolio of this manuscript.

All are accommodated within the range “folio 70v(part) to 73v” because Quires 10 and 11 are on lengths of vellum folded to suit the ordinary bifolios’ dimensions, and having a width equal to the ordinary bifolio’s length.

There is no indication of subsequent trimming for re-binding, and no record appears to exist of any ruling out or pricking for these or for the normal bifolios. Nor have I seen any reference to pressure-marks of the sort which might indicate use of frame and wire.

It takes little acquaintance with medieval manuscripts and their techniques of construction to realise that this absence of ruling out, or evidence of its erasure, is either an anomaly or (rather strangely) an omission from the Beinecke catalogue and from all other descriptions.

In addition, the corpus of Latin Christian manuscripts appears to contain nothing comparable to these ‘fold-outs’ – neither in their design or in the way the pages are folded..  Quire 11, in particular, uses a form of concertina fold, a type characteristic of small  sleeve calendars in Latin Europe and otherwise chiefly characteristic of Asian books in direct descent from palm-leaf books and Buddhist works on paper.

All eleven diagrams follow the same general scheme, viz:

(detail) f.70v (part).

A number of concentric circles presenting as wider and narrower bands, with the narrower occupied by script and the wider inhabited by discrete anthropoform figures, chiefly female, the majority on the ‘March’ folio being provided with a roughly cylindrical container and an element that immediately strikes the modern viewer as resembling a star held by a flexible cord, or a flower on a lax stem… or both at once. (I’ll come back to this).

Each diagram’s centre contains an emblem, none of which appears in any other diagram.  At some later time a different hand added to the centres the name of a month, some repeated but not exactly: they are not ‘replicated’.

I’d like to comment on this fact, for throughout the manuscript, and most unexpectedly with regard to great number of such anthropoform figures, which occur not only in these diagrams –  care has evidently been taken to distinguish each from all others, and this has been done with a degree of subtlety (or perhaps delicacy) which argues against the usual idea that the figures are just badly drawn.

(detail) folio 72r-ii

We do see one two emblems in which the creature has its ‘pair’,  but even there it is not exact: not a   ‘mirror image’and the painter (see the example shown right) has also emphasised that they cannot be confused for one another, or supposed to ‘replicate’ the other.

I consider this another item indicative of cultural mores mutual between the persons who first enunciated the ‘ladies’ folios, and the person who later added the month-names.  Of those month-names, some appear twice, yet each  is again distinguished by some small detail not jarring to the viewer, but again avoiding ‘replication’.

I’ll include bibliography for the ‘replication’ issue, in early medieval Cairo and in medieval Byzantium at the end of this series.  Anyone wanting the references sooner is welcome to email)


Structure (cont.)

Concentric circles are a near-universal convention for depicting the heavens and that technique informs many different systems employed for doing so, but diagrams of such structure have many other applications and need have no necessary reference to the heavens.  The eleven diagrams’ taking such form may, however, cause a modern viewer to feel an immediate (‘gut’) feeling the diagrams allude to stars, or astronomy or astrology and so over-ride consciousness of the gulf between subjective and objective certainty.

‘Asteriskos’ – questions unasked.

(detail) f.108r

The ‘flower-like’ stars, or ‘star-like’ flowers given most of the tiered figures has been another trigger for that reflexive reading, unchanged since the 1920s.

Appearance of a similar motif in the margins of Quire 20  naturally then raises questions of common subject-matter and  whether some direct connection was intended between the diagrams and this later section.  That is, whether the motif was intended to carry similar significance.

Quire 20 itself is not formed in the usual way of quires in Latin  European manuscripts. It is, or was, a septenion.

A quire of seven bifolios is rare in Europe but was fairly standard in the Arabic-speaking world a.  It was also seen in Irish manuscripts.

I made these points earlier:

  • D.N. O’Donovan,  ‘Expert Opinion: Myth vs Materials Science Pt3’, Voynichrevisionist, April 26th., 2019.


Again, certain Arabic texts are found in which a form of  flower-like “asterisk”  separates sentences.  I hope readers won’t mind that the illustrations come from the same 12thC treatise on theriac which I mentioned earlier in posts to Voynich Imagery (in a series entitled,  ‘Theriac:  rosetta stone?’)

The header (above) and the detail (below, left) are taken from that manuscript: .

As text-mark, the ‘asteriskos’ is attested from Hellenistic times, though we have no example of the earlier form.  In 3rdC AD Egypt, the works of the Christian philosopher, Origen, see him use and possibly invent the form for it which then passed in the context of authoritative Christian manuscripts to 6th-7thC Spain, and saw Origen’s version maintained within the Latin manuscript tradition where it appears as a vertical or a diagonal cross having dots set in the interstices.

The Latins’ ‘astericus’ did not have the form of a flower; nor what we might call  a ‘star-shape’. In short, it was never formed as are these motifs in the Voynich manuscript


Below is illustrated a detail from a 12thC  copy of Isidore’s Etymologies.  However, where he had included the Greek term in Greek letters, this copy romanised and then translates the Greek as ‘stella’ just as numerous other and later copies do, even while  keeping Origen’s and Isidore’s form for it all but unchanged.  In other cases (as the detail upper left), the motif served as virtual ornament and filler, while still expressing the asterisk’s significance, by showing that the half-filled line was not blank unintentionally; i.e. an intentional ‘omission’ of written text.

Significance in the Hellenistic and in the Latin traditions.

The oldest references to use of the ‘asteriskos’ are Hellenistic and show it marked places in a text where some item or passage had been duplicated. No examples remain.

Origen used the ‘asteriskos’  to mark points where he  re-inserted a passage from the Hebrew left untranslated by the Septuagint.  He did not replace the earlier text with his own revised version, but added his own below, marking both with his cross-shaped asterisk. In that way, the sign still signified ‘duplication’ but now, equally,  ‘omission’ – and the latter sense became the default in medieval Christian Europe.

There is another and deeper level of significance for the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian traditions. It is touched upon. lightly, by Isidore whose comment runs (in English translation):

“The asterisk is placed next to omissions, so that things which appear to be missing may be clarified through this mark, for star is called in Greek, ἀστήρ and the lLatin] term asteriscus is derived from this. ” 

  • Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae Bk I xxi.2  ‘De notis sententiarum’ (De Critical signs)

What Isidore  touched upon lightly, a later Christian authority, Jerome, would expand upon – and  “F.M.P”  has rightly drawn attention to the fact:

  • Anthony Grafton, Glenn W Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (2010).

The asterisk as  illuminating’ what was absent – light into the darkness – impressed the medieval mind. It will offer another and natural link to associations of ‘stella maris’.

But while I’m quite prepared to accept that the Voynich ‘star-flower’ (as signe de renvoi) might have been intended as  link-and-key to text in Quire 20, and even evoke intentionally that sense of   ‘lights in the darkness’ I cannot accept that the sort of men who knew how to employ their version of the ‘asteriskos’ in Christian texts – clerics by definition during most of the medieval period – would have ever created such figures as those ‘ladies’ set around the diagrams.

And of course, the Latin form for the asteriskos, though it had variations was always the dotted cross or X.  It came, in the Latin west, to serve as signe de renvoi, indicating a link between marginal text and main text, but adjacent, not separated by a number of quires.  A comparable practice is (so far as I’m aware) unattested before the introduction of printing, and even then not immediately.

On this see e.g.

for which example and other details I’m indebted to

  • Yin, ‘Asterisks in the Middle Ages’, medieval codes (August 5th., 2014)

I have found only one source where there is so much as a hint that any type of ‘flower’ form was used in any comparable way in a medieval text.

I owe that hint to:

  • Lori J. Walters, ‘The Rose as Sign: Diacritical Marks in the Tournai Rose [TOU]’. In: Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 83, fasc. 3, 2005. Langues et littératures modernes – Moderne taal en litterkunde. pp. 887-912;  doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rbph.2005.4948   https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2005_num_83_3_4948

The manuscript discussed by Walters dates to the 13thC, and is a revised version of the ‘Romance of the Rose’ devised by Gui de Mori in 1290AD.  It may be available to view if you’re in Tournai:

If anyone sees that manuscript, and whether its ‘rose’ mark has similar form to the Vms’, or similar purpose as the Latins’ asteriskos, I hope you’ll let me know.

  • Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies)

Tentative conclusion (A)

Apart from that possible exception in TOU, the Latins did not have the linguistic frame [aster-asteriskos], nor did they have the requisite habits in marking texts,  to have invented such a form as the Voynich ‘flower-stars’ to serve in place of the traditional ‘asteriscus’.  Nor does there appear to exist any comparable use of their cross-shaped ‘astericus’ to link diagrams in one section of a manuscript with text separated from it, as is now the case in the VMS,  by several quires of other images and text, amounting to tens of pages.

The Latins’ habits in making manuscripts does not encourage the idea that,  if the diagrams’ star-flowers were meant as cue to Quire 20, that the materials’ first enunciation occurs in medieval western Christian Europe. The one possible clue to any exception is yet to be sighted.

Islamic works of the thirteenth century use a ‘flower’ form but it resembles a rose and not the Voynich manuscript’s spiky ‘aster-‘ whose drawing is consistent in the diagrams and  Quire 20, arguing a set habit.   However, the fact that the Voynich motifs have the same form in both sections doesn’t itself prove shared reference or common significance, here or in any posited  exemplars.

Something that I’m inclined to think might prove relevant, should anyone wish to take up the question for research, is that the motif in Quire 20 sees a conscious alteration of the centres, and this seems to me a possible echo of the way (as in the same 12thC ms cited earlier), ‘marginal’ passages of text were differentiated in Islamic manuscripts. I suggests consonant habits of mind.

What does not accord with the idea of origin for the Vms’ diagrams in works of the Islamic corpus is first, the ease with which the Voynich drawings equate flower-form, star-form and that hint of ‘light in the darkness’. It seems to me to imply familiarity with the Greek, and specifically if indirectly with the author of a ‘Theriac’ text, the Hellenistic poet Nicander who lived at just the time we first hear of Hellenistic use of the   ἀστερίσκος (‘little star’), whose form is unknown but which is attested in use, to mark duplication, by the 2ndC BC – precisely when Nicander lived.

It is also my opinion that much in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery points to first enunciation in the Hellenistic period, but I won’t elaborate on that except to refer to the form of the diagram’s unclothed female figures.


In his exhaustive paper on the history ot the Aster. Burgess quotes a fragment from Nicander, author of  ‘Theriaca’,

  • Edward Sandford Burgess, Studies in the History and Variations of Asters —Part I (etc.),  Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.
When the flood waters receded, all that was left around the two mortals was mud and slime. Astraea felt so sorry for them she wept, her tears. upon hitting the earth, turned to star-flowers (asteriskos). Sea=aster.

The ‘aster’ which Burgess, and all subsequent commentaries on this fragment of Nicander’s poetry have assumed meant is the purple-flowered Atticus, but I feel some doubt on this score, for Nicander calls it ‘luminous’ and there is a white, spiky-petalled ‘star-flower’ whose centres alternate in colour.  It is has been known over time as Aster pannonicus and  Aster tripolium, and its present description is  Tripolium pannonicum.  The oldest remaining version of the Greek legend of Astraea seems consciously to conflate the high- and the low dwelling types (see picture and caption, left).

Note: The plant we now call ‘Hellenium’  is arelated to the sunflower and native to the Americas.  The ancient ‘Helenium’ was Elecampagne, something known to European writers  by the early 17thC. as e.g. The General Practise of Physicke … Translated and Augmented by J. Mosan. B.L. (1605) p.817.


Nicander of Colophon, Aratus of Soli. Theriac, medicine and Stars.

coin of Soli in Cilicia.

Nicander was born in Claros, near Colophon on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor in 197 BC.  Though he may have known Aratus’ work well, or the material from which Aratus drew, Nicander’s  ‘Theriaca’ mentions stars only as markers of time; warning that this or that season was when a noxious creature was most numerous, most active or most highly venomous.  He died in young, in 170 BC.

Aratus had been born and died long before, being born in Soli in 325 BC and having died in Pella, of Greece in 240 BC.

Despite these disparities the two came to be often mentioned together, due to a witticism which commented on the fact that Aratus wrote about the stars but had no (practical) knowledge of them, while Nicander wrote on medicine and had no knowledge of pharmacy.

Cicero (de Oratore i.69) repeats the usual parallel but tries to a put a good spin on it – along the lines of ‘why shoudn’t someone learn only as much as they need for a present occasion?’

And as a last thought – the material copied to make the Voynich manuscript had to be copied because useful to someone; since the quires appear to have been bound by, or for a Latin, so presumably the information was perceived as useful to them.  It occurs to me that by translation from ‘aster” to ‘stella’ the sea-aster offered a natural association of ideas with the ‘stella maris’ which of course might mean the Pole star (which medieval Latins continued to associate as often with Cynosura as with Polaris), but it might also refer to the magnetised needle and surrounding compass (card).

Just a thought.


Status of the problem so far ….

The seemingly natural connection made by the first enunciator f these diagrams: ‘flower-star-textual asterisk’ implies, if intentional,  close familiarity with Greek.  .

The medieval Christian works, the ‘asterisks’ don’t take this form – certainly not before the 13thC  and even then there appears to be only one comparison known – the TOU.

On the other and each in their several ways suggest the aster- motif in both the diagrams and Quire 20 are likely to relate to the sea-aster whose range today is believed much reduced from what it was in the centuries BC, but still inhabits salt-marsh environments.

At the moment the three avenues offering strongest possibilities of responding to investigation are, in order of chronology  (1) Asia Minor, Hellenistic Greek. (2)  Arab-Persian c.12thC AD or (3) 13thC French culture ‘[TOU}.

If common significance could be proven between Quire 20 and the diagrams, the contextual range would be more limited – which is all to the good.

The first printed edition of NIcander’s medical work issued from the Aldine Press in 1499.  (In Greek). You can see a copy of that edition here,

.. but that’s how we begin.

Note – August 20th. I have corrected minor typos and improved the grammar of half a dozen sentences. The reader is asked either to excuse mis-typings which remain, or leave a comment below.