Stars above 5c: Proportion and desire in folio 70v

Header: image from “The LIghts of Canopus” ( Anvār-i Suhaylī) Walters Museum.(p.310 of the Museum’s pdf).

Previous two:


For those who’ve just arrived..  In addition to discovering why G. Sergius Orata –  who flourished in Campania c.95 BC – should be imagined ‘oriental’ by a fifteenth-century French translator, and his artist, this series of posts has pursued three other themes in parallel: the first, that any impression Orata’s ‘bodies in baskets’ are ‘a match’ for the Voynich month-diagrams is ill-founded; the second, that Orata’s depiction as ‘oriental’ was not due to whimsy and third – that should this line of enquiry intersect with the time and/or place from which the month-diagrams first emerged, that fact should be evident from the appearance of similar imagery – allowing us access to the context and informing ways of thought for the month-diagrams.

In an extremely minimalist way – or, if you like a simplistic one  – we are mapping entanglements; not only within chronological periods but between them.

The first, temporal, line has been drawn: from Italy in Orata’s time (early 1st C BC) until monotheism had effectively replaced polytheism throughout lands adjacent to the Mediterranean and to as far north as Constantinople (early 5thC AD).    At each stage, I’m cross-referencing with contemporary names and texts known to at least a few persons in fifteenth century Europe – because by c.1438 the content now in the Voynich manuscript had been copied and the text block bound in a (somewhat anomalous) Latin style.

Leaving aside for the moment the month diagrams’ central emblems, we can be sure that the audience for which the rest of them was first made had not been medieval Latins (western European Christians) – because:

(1) a century’s efforts to find any comparable images, visual or verbal, in the Latins’ corpus, or to explain the diagrams in those terms, has invariably failed.

An extraordinary amount of material has been generated on the subject of the central emblems, but has not  advanced our understanding of the diagrams’ purpose or of ‘Voynichese’ far as I have been able to discover.  As ever, if you know better, do leave a comment.

(2) The diagrams include features out-of-keeping with Latin European practice.  An obvious instance is the way the tiered figures in folio 70v are depicted as if their shoulders and arms were broken or boneless. This had never been explained by any Voynich theory of which I’m aware.   The general habit has ever been to wave off such disparities from a  Latin norm  with some such confident (if  imaginative) assertion as that the draughtsman was mad, immature or  ‘mediocre at best’ etc. Few seem to realise that such assertions raise still more questions unaddressed – such as  “if one scribe’s work was poor, why was he/she not replaced?’.

*Beneath such assertions are unexamined assumptions which would surely embarrass those Voynicheros as much as they do external specialists, were the former conscious of what their assumptions imply.

(detail) folio 70v

In any case, is plainly untrue to say that the draughtsman who produced the diagram we have on folio 70v was incompetent or mediocre.

You need only consider our paradigmatic example (left) and the scale to which it is drawn to see that. (see detail at right)

re Scale

I sometimes think the Beinecke would do well to provide an option which allows readers to overlay the digital pages with a measured grid.
I can only show relative proportion here, but opening the image in a new tab on your tablet or laptop, or taking a ruler to the facsimile edition if you have one, will let you do the calculations. I make it that the detail measures approx. 20 mm x 25mm. (0.8 inches x 0.99 in)


The  torso is drawn with an elegant economy, and sureness of line, with delicacy and mastery of technique as of form.   Consider the scale within which he has achieved this drawing.   And yet, entirely competent as he was, the same draughtman rendered the arms and shoulders ‘boneless’.

In one sense, this example has betrayed him, by revealing his level of skill and the fact that – had he wished – he might have drawn the whole figure in a way satisfactory to the classical tradition and to late medieval Latin Europe.  And it  isn’t just the torso which shows his ability.  Look at the figure’s left-hand side – at the neck;  the muscle is beautifully realised where it meets the clavicle,  with just a single surely-placed touch of the pen.  (To be technical about it, that’s the sternocleidomastoid muscle). The drawing doesn’t imply medical learning; just a sure hand and eye.

He could surely draw.  He could draw. in miniature scale, in a way distinguishing flesh from bone and bone from muscle below that flesh; he could draw a female body in proportion – something which monastic artists and others often found difficult to do, even if the figure was clothed.

That’s the point: he didn’t want to make a ‘realistic’ figure.  In fact, (still exempting the central emblems in the month-diagrams), there is within the whole of this manuscript and despite evidence that more than one draughtsman worked on it, only one detail   (at the top of folio 80r) which might be considered the ‘realistic’ depiction of any living thing. And even that enslaved and shamed figure might represent a city, or a people, or (among other possibilities) the name – not the form – of the ‘chained woman’ constellation* rather than any individual persons.


Since I first set out my reasons for considering the ‘bathy-‘ section’s ladies to represent both star-and-place,  in the context of a practical handbook, Koen Gheuens first accepted my opinion in general, but explored it in terms of mainstream Latin textual traditions, chiefly Aratus and the Aratea and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and taking each figure or group to represent a constellation where I had thought each a single star or asterism.   Others following the same line (after 2011) have rarely acknowledged these precedents, some claiming ‘the idea’ a sudden one of their own for which they provide no evidence of preliminary studies, nor post-inspiration work in justification. Others remaining silent, newcomers reading the ‘inspired’ person either credit him/her with its origin, or again repeat the supposed ‘idea’ without mention of any source.  In this way, yet another opening door is slammed shut rather than investigated further, and the matter becomes so utterly fog-bound, that the persons who produce a seminal study may well find that, just a few years later, they are accused of imitating the imitators.   This now-regular pattern in ‘Voynich studies’ is why the  ground-hog-day fog expands; the study as such devolves or turns endlessly in circles, and  why  a revisionist approach becomes ever more urgent. I might add that Andromeda is not the only possible astronomical association, either.

Think about it.  The fifteenth-century copyist didn’t wish* to draw the figures in folio 70v as the likeness of living beings.

*It is difficult in English to describe an action without ascribing or implying volition to a specific subject.   In fact, I don’t  assume this individual had  – or that he hadn’t – complete autonomy, nor that the figures’  distortion originated with him, or with the present copy, though in both cases, the possibility exists. The point is (a) that there must be a reason for it and (b) it is not a custom of the medieval Latins.  

A paradox like this is pleasing to the provenancer and iconographic analyst because intention is always revealing of environment –  physical,  intellectual, social and often too, linguistic.

I expect that some of my readers having prior studies in one of a number of external disciplines will already have felt an eye-widening moment.  By all means – feel free to anticipate the direction these posts will take, though others must wait while the historical material unfolds just as it did when I did the research – almost a decade ago now.

As I revisit the logs, I’m checking sources and  include more recent references where I think them likely to be more useful.   Some issues and themes on which little had been written in English in 2008 have received more scholarly attention since then.

All clear?  Very well, let us proceed..

Artemis Phosphoros.

POMPEY was prompted to compare Lucullus to Xerxes because they both knew that Lucullus’ creating a new, sheltered arm of the sea imitated the remarkable natural features which made the Golden Horn a source of riches to Byzantion.  Similarly, the ‘praying/imploring boy’ – an ancient statue – stood near  natural oyster beds supposed inexhaustible off the east coast of Pera, and Pliny mocks G. Sergius, given the cognomen ‘Orata’ for his interest in oysters.

But a place was also known by its presiding deity who was, in a sense, the embodiment of that place and inhabitants: in something of the way that a king in Europe could say ‘I am France’.

Artemis Phosphoros with ‘mild Aphrodite’ were Pera in that sense, the coins showing her paired with fishes or with a Syrian star and crescent.  (The tyche of Syrian Harran with its unique sign for ‘North star’ is shown (right).

She who ‘brings to light’* – Artemis Phosphoros  – shared certain features with the Syrian goddess (for whom no simple equation existed within the Greek or the Roman Pantheon).

*older peoples believed that an object was seen when rays emitted from the viewer’s eyes ‘grasped’ it; this led on the one hand to fear of being captured by the rays of an ill-intentioned person or deity (the’evil eye’) and on the other to a perception that one who ‘brought to light’ did so by dispelling the barrier hitherto lying between an object and the beams from one’s eye, as it were drawing the thing from below its cover.  Thus, the translation ‘bringer-to-light’ is to be preferred to the easier ‘light bearer’.

That Artemis was regularly ‘identified with/assimilated to’ the Dea Syria in sites of the eastern Mediterranean in Hellenistic times, and to as far as the Persian Gulf, is well known.  In the east, she is sometimes described simply as ‘the Lady’ [η κυρια]; at other times described as Phosphoros. References are many and easy to find, but just as examples for date and range:

“Hierapolis-Bambyce was the single most important sanctuary of Atargatis and Hadad in Syria and… the Syrian Great Goddess incorporated Artemis/Diana as one of her many manifestations.” Nicholas L. Wright, ‘Seleucid Royal Cult, Indigenous Religious Traditions, and Radiate Crowns: the Numismatic Evidence’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 18 (2005), pp. 67-82. (p.78).

[at Failaka] on the beach to the east of the fortress, [the structure] has been partly destroyed by sea erosion. The sanctuary was dedicated to Artemis and can dated to the first half of the second century BC” Abdullah Saud al -Saud, ‘Central Arabia during the early Hellenistic period, with particular reference to the site of al -‘Ayun in the area of al -Aflaj in Saudi Arabia’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1991) p.52, citing  (Callot et al. 1987, 37 -45).

In this post I’ll summarise those aspects of the Syrian goddess’ cult echoed in Pera and by the deeds of those fish-breeders of Naples.  After that, we may at last turn our backs on Orata and that fifteenth century French manuscript, moving on to the month-diagrams’ iconography and meaning.

Dea Syria – Hierapolis and Pera

As a rule, the older Greeks and Romans expected the same divinities would be worshipped everywhere and would differ from their own only to the degree that, for example,  Athena Parthenos differed from their Athena Agelêïs. Classical texts may ignore the foreign god’s native name and just translate it as they might translate any other foreign word by its nearest equivalent. This practice brought non-classical figures into the west with classical names attached, leading various later writers to wild errors, including Seznec whose opinions on the derivation of all gods from the Greek, Roman or Egyptian is to be regretted.

But when it came to the Dea Syria, no simple equation presented itself.  Her attributes and associated deities or epithets remain a subject of scholarly research and discussion today, but for our needs, the description of her image in Hierapolis* will do.

*Hierapolis  was also known as Bambyce and later as  Marbug. mod. Manbij. Coins have ‘Hieropolis’ – on which see Hierapolis’  in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (Vol. 1).

Writing in the 2ndC AD, the treatise’s author said:

“While the overall effect is certainly that of Hera, she also has something of Athena and Aphrodite and Selene [the Moon] and Rhea [‘that which flows’] and Artemis and Nemesis and the Fates” (De Dea Syria §32). Compare with the image below. 

  • H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa (1980) see esp. inscriptions and notes p. 117-118
Fish pools.

At Hierapolis and elsewhere were pools of sacred fish. The best known today is in Edessa, whose traditions were not derivative of Hierapolis’ but cross-referenced them.

The point I want to emphasise here is that customs and ideas native to, or deeply embedded in, a region and its peoples survived for millennia in pre-modern times and did so regardless of time, war, ruling powers and theologies.  Edessa’s pool offers a fine illustration in point.

Recent archaeological studies have shown that Edessa’s fish-pool has been a focus of religious belief for about ten thousand years.

A couple of centuries after the tract De Dea Syria was written and whose author understood reverence for such pools an aspect of the Syrian godess’ worship, Edessa had become a major Christian centre and a station on the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. In the 380s AD, a pilgrim named Egeria passed through and was provided with a fully-developed Christian explanation for the same pool, an explanation she duly recorded.   Another three centuries on, Edessa was part of the Arabs’ empire, and a modern writer sets out its current explanation:

“A legend, originally Jewish but taken over by the Muslims, tells that the evil king Nimrod wanted to punish Ibrahim [Abraham], and threw him from the citadel into the fire. The fire, however, changed into a pool of water and the logs of wood into fish, which are venerated until the present day by Sunnites and Shi’ites alike.”  ( ‘Edessa’)

The pool of Edessa, Syria.

Egeria also visited Harran.

Edessa’s pool according to Egeria [sometimes wrongly as ‘Etheria’].

The vital part is in bold. I add more for those interested.

I came, in the Name of God, at the fifteenth milestone [of the Pilgrimage route to Jerusalem] to the river Euphrates, of which it is very well written that it is the great river Euphrates [Genesis 15:18] for it is huge and, as it were, terrible, for it flows down with a current like the river Rhône, only the Euphrates is still greater. And as we had to cross in ships, and in large ships only, I waited there until after midday, and then in the Name of God I crossed the river Euphrates and entered the borders of Mesopotamia in Syria.


Then, journeying through certain stations [of the Pilgrimage], I came to a city whose name we read recorded in the Scriptures–Batanis,[Bathnae in Osrhoene] which city exists to-day: it has a church with a truly holy bishop …. The city has a teeming population, and the soldiery with their tribune are stationed there.

Departing thence, we arrived at Edessa in the Name of Christ our God, and, on our arrival, we straightway repaired to the church and memorial of saint Thomas [the Apostle to India]. There, according to custom, prayers were made and the other [customary] things … were done; we read also some things concerning saint Thomas himself. The church [Hagia Sophia, destroyed around the middle of the 12thC AD] there is very great, very beautiful and of new construction, well worthy to be the house of God, and [I made]...a three days’ stay there. Thus I saw in that city many memorials, together with holy monks, some dwelling at the memorials, while others had their cells in more secluded spots farther from the city. Moreover, the holy bishop … received me willingly and said: “… if you are willing, we  will show you all the places that are pleasant to the sight of Christians.” Then, …. he led me first to the palace of King Abgar, where he showed me a great marble statue of him… Then the holy bishop said to me: “Behold King Abgar, who before he saw the Lord believed in Him that He was in truth the Son of God.” There was another statue near, made of the same marble, which he said was that of his son Magnus…. Then we entered the inner part of the palace, and there were fountains [better: ‘springs’] full of fish such as I never saw before, of so great size, so bright and of so good a flavour were they. The city has no water at all other than that which comes out of the palace, which is like a great silver river.

Then the holy bishop told me about the water, saying: ” At some time, after that King Abgar had written to the Lord … the Persians came against the city and surrounded it. And straightway Abgar, bearing the letter of the Lord to the gate, with all his army, prayed publicly. And he said: “O Lord Jesus, Thou hadst promised us that none of our enemies should enter this city, and lo! the Persians now attack us.” And when the king had said this, holding the open letter in his uplifted hands, suddenly there came a great darkness outside the city before the eyes of the Persians, as they were approaching the city at a distance of about three miles, and they were so baffled by the darkness that they could hardly form their camp and surround the whole city about three miles off. So baffled were the Persians that they could never afterwards see the way to enter the city, but they surrounded it and shut it in with their hostile forces, at a distance of about three miles, for several months. Then, when they saw that they could by no means enter, they wished to slay those within the city by thirst. Now that little hill …over against the city, supplied it with water at that time, and the Persians, perceiving this, diverted the water from the city and made it to run near that place where they had made their camp. And on that day and at that hour when the Persians diverted the water, the fountains which you see in this place burst forth at once at God’s bidding, and by the favour of God they remain here from that day to this. But the water which the Persians had diverted was dried up at that hour, so that they who were besieging the city had nothing to drink for even one day; which thing is plain to the present time, for no moisture of any sort has ever been seen there from that day to this. So, at God’s bidding, … they were obliged to return to their own home in Persia. Moreover afterwards, as often as enemies determined to come and take the city, this letter was brought out and read in the gate, and straightway all enemies were driven back by the will of God. The holy Bishop also told me that the place where these fountains broke forth had previously been open ground within the city, lying before and below the palace of King Abgar..but after these fountains had burst forth here, then Abgar built this palace for his son … so that the fountains should be included in the palace.

Moreover the holy man … took us also to the palace which King Abgar had at first, on the higher ground.

CHARRAE’ (Harran; Haran; Roman Carrhae)

Then, after three days spent there, it was necessary for me to go still farther, to Charrae, ..where holy Abraham dwelt, as it is written in Genesis when the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house, and go to Charran (Gen. 12:4).  … I saw the bishop of the place [who] took us at once to the church, which is without the city on the spot where stood the house of holy Abraham; it stands on the same foundations.

A interesting commentary on Eastern (Syriac) Christian symbolism, in language, art and architecture:

  • Andrew Palmer and Lyn Rodley, ‘The inauguration anthem of Hagia Sophia in Edessa: a new edition and translation with historical and architectural notes and a comparison with a contemporary Constantinopolitan kontakion’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Volume 12, (1988)  pp. 117-168.

Another Edessa exists in northern Greece.

The difference between the Greeks and the ancient Syrian worshippers, was that while the Greeks show no aversion to eating fish, even fish from the holy pool, the ‘Syrians’ abhorred fish-eaters,  as several authors attest. And – as in Pera – the chief deity is associated with another figure, an aquatic hybrid – what the Romans would call a ‘monster’.

Texts and notes.

In the words of Xenophon,”…. to the river Chalus. That river is a hundred feet broad, and is stocked with tame fish which the Syrians regard as gods, and will not suffer to be injured.”

The author of De Dea Syria speaks of this aversion more in terms of Phoenician beliefs and their fish-tailed figure, whose name he translates as ‘Decerto’.

“I have seen the semblance of Derceto in Phoenicia, and a wonderful sight it is ; one half is a woman, but the part which extends from the thighs to the feet ends in a fish’s tail… The effigy, however, which is at Hierapolis is a complete woman. The reasons for this story are plain to understand ; they deem fishes holy objects, and never touch them. Of birds they use all but pigeons for food; the pigeon is in their eyes sacred.”

The translators add: “other famous Syrian shrines of Derceto were at Carnion and Askelon”.


Half-fish; half human

The image (below, right) shows such a figure as that described by the author of De Dea Syria as Phoenician.  It is given a border that could be described as ‘lilywork’ – but it comes from Cambodia where it is now part of Buddhist belief and named ‘Soma’.  Within the Hindu pantheon, too, there is an equivalent figure (Matsya) , honoured only in a few centres all of which were anciently, as well as later, centres of foreign trade and residence adjacent to the eastern sea.

In the research earlier shared online, I mentioned Matsya but not Soma in treating a detail on f.79v and explaining Kircher’s dependence on Baldeus for his image of Matsya within own China Illustrata.  Today, Matsya has been mentioned by other Voynich writers using the same illustrations as I did so there is no need to repeat them here. However, I had not mentioned the figure of ‘Soma’ and no other Voynich writer has done so yet, as far as I’m aware.  If you know better, do leave a note so that I can quote the precedent. In none of these cases, however, is there any suggestion of the ‘horrible monster’ and I do not think such character attached to the Phoenician figure whom others called ‘Decerto’.

Perhaps here I should add that Mediterranean traders – including some Europeans (chiefly Genoese) – are known to have been resident in India and southeast Asia by the late thirteenth century.  Contemporary accounts suggest the enclaves were well populated, on the same routes by which eastern ‘spices’ and gems had been entering the Mediterranean world from before the Roman era. A painting found in Pompeii shows what is undoubtedly a piece of bamboo, used as a garden stake.

Decerto as monster.


For Decerto see also Metamorphoses, Bk. 4.32.

Pliny, the quintessential Roman,  describes her as  ‘monster’.  For the Greeks, the re-born Dercerto presented an equivalent for  sea-born Aphrodite or, as would later be recorded (by Nonnus, in the 5thC AD), for ‘monstrous’ Keto as mother of  ‘Astris’. (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 26. 350 ff.)

The older imagery (usually described as Greek) shows a female measurer of stars and waters, effectively patron of navigators.

Her tokens were the oyster(?)- shell (as loḥ), the knotted measuring cords as strings of pearls, and the rod as measuring (‘back-‘) staff. [Sorry to get technical without providing more detail] Her motif was the triangle of stars, indicating those used to determine the position of the southern celestial Pole and more generally consignment to the underworld, the region below the surface of land and sea.  The last motif, formed of three dots, appears with its original implications in images of the Hellenistic and eastern Roman world, surviving even in one or two early medieval western Christian works – and is used in its original sense of ‘South/Under’ on the Voynich map. (left, bottom register).

As a sign for the sea-ways, too, the ‘ivy road’ was to survive (or revive) in later medieval Europe, not as the ornamental ‘ivy border’ which actually represents Byrony, but in a true (often white-on-blue) style and in consciously ‘antique’ works of the Italian renaissance copyists.

Otherwise, the three-dot motif was employed in post-classical works as repeat pattern, first as token for the night sky and later as purely decorative element.

I first explained the foregoing when treating the different direction-emblems in the Voynich manuscript – first in  post to ‘Findings’, and later at Voynichimagery.

I add here (above) a few of the  illustrations I used then.  Perhaps in this present context, their significance may be clearer.  The second image (left, middle register) is a syncretistic figure of Cleopatra, incorporating emblems of numerous female deities worshipped in Egypt’s Late Hellenistic environment.  The signs include  those for Demeter, Isis and Aphrodite and, in my opinion, for that figure the Greeks called Artemis Phosphoros.

Demeter was the Greek patron of grain; Egyptian Isis was identified with Sirius, the second brightest star in the heavens and the brightest visible to all the Mediterranean,  while Aphrodite had been born from the sea-foam. The figure in the upper register is often termed ‘Scylla’ but this is also a translation, the deity being older than the Greeks and probably of Semitic origin. It is possible I suppose – though I’m not inclined to think it – that this figure was the original type for the Voynich ‘mermaid’.

I trust that the foregoing has demonstrated plainly enough why contemporaries who knew of Lucullus and Orata’s making fish-pools and a ‘new Byzantion’ in Campania, took it to imply an oriental character in those men, something viewed with distaste by staunch Romans such as Pliny .  And, whether intelligently or accidentally, the fifteenth century French painter rightly envisaged  Orata so.But there is no evidence that Orata had any interest in running a public bath-house; all the evidence is that his only interest, verging on obsession, was with sea-food.

I think we may now leave G. Sergius Orata in peace, having (I hope) dissuaded Voynicheros from efforts to link his  fish-pools and hot-water ‘baths’ to Vitruvius, and so turn without those misleading ideas to consider the month-diagrams anew.

phase added to clarify. 28th Sept. 2019

Skies above 5b: Star and basket

Header: detail from Madrid [ms] VITR/26.2 image/page 30.  Ionannes Scylitzes, [Synopsis historiarum] (1126 – 1150?).. 

Two preceding:



Précis of previous post.

The depiction of C.Sergius Orata in a fifteenth-century French manuscript provides him with seemingly inappropriate ‘oriental.Asiatic’ dress.  In the previous post, I argued that this was no arbitrary decision on the painter’s part and, further, that while the immediate cause was a misreading of  Pliny, it  owed something too to a broader impression among Romans of that era  (1stC BC – 2ndC AD) that an ‘oriental’ character affected certain men in Campania  engaged in large-scale fish-breeding – and all the more when it involved building large pools or a re-working the landscape in a way evocative of Byzantion, renowned for its abundance.

Byzantion’s coins reflect its reputation with an emblem of ‘two – or more – fishes’.

Fish ≈ Star: ‘Oriental’ character in Byzantion.

British Library Cartographic Items Cotton MS. Vespasian

The drawing (left) is dated to 1422 which, as most readers will know, is near enough to the mid-point of the radiocarbon range (1404-1438 AD) obtained by the University of Arizona from samples of vellum taken from the Voynich manuscript.

portrait of Isabella of Castile from Rimado de la Conquista de Granada. Painted 1482-1502.  Note retention of that custom traditional in Iberia and in Byzantine art of putting bright ‘roses’ in the cheek – a custom also present in the Voynich month-diagrams.

In that linked article about the radiocarbon dating, a caption describes the date range (1404-1438) as “the beginning of the Renaissance”- an unfortunate addition to the scientific matter.  “The Renaissance” is not a chronological epoch with a set date as beginning and end, and to employ it in connection with the Voynich manuscript’s date-range was ill-advised.  Whether or not the scientists (or article-writer) knew it, to use that term for those years is to imply the content and imagery in the Voynich manuscript was first formed in Flanders, France or Italy.  Though such ideas are part of certain speculative theories,  they are not a matter of fact.  Even by the end of that range – 1438 – the  term ‘Renaissance’ is to be applied  with care, and on a case by case basis, if describing objects. images or script.   What  one writer might call a work of the  ‘early French Renaissance’ – such as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry – another  writer (perhaps better informed) would describe as  ‘late International Gothic’.   The image at right, for example,  is described as a ‘product of the Spanish Renaissance’ but still carries more of the medieval Spanish than what is generally envisaged as ‘Renaissance’ style.  It was painted between 1482-1502. 

Pace Pelling and others – the mages in the Voynich manuscript are not expressions of  ‘Renaissance’ style – not in attitude to depiction, nor admiration for the human form, nor drive towards literalism, nor use of perspective, nor techniques of drawing.  No matter when he lived, the first enunciator was unaffected by the ideas and practices of the European ‘renaissance’.

The drawing shows Pera (north/top) and Constantinople (south/below) as they appeared in 1422 when the Florentine Franciscan,  Cristoforo Buondelmonti, visited the region, the account of his travels entitled Liber Insularum Archipelagi (“A Book on the Islands of the Archipelago”),.

  • Thomas Thomov, ‘New Information about Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s Drawings of Constantinople’, Byzantion Vol. 66, No.2 (1996) pp..431-453.


IN the days when Orata, Strabo and Pliny lived, Byzantion used a second emblem on its coins as  alternative – effectively as synonym – for its ‘two fishes’, and this other certainly implied at that time a connection to  ‘oriental’ ways. It was formed as a Syrian star on a crescent. As you see from the insets (left, above), the motif continued to be used and to carry significance for the city  long after its Christianisation.  But – as we’ll see again in speaking of fishpools in Syria – a practice may survive changes of rule and of religion.

 Syrian Stars.

As distinct from the Mesopotamian custom of depicting a star with eight rays, or the invariable practice of the Egyptians in having a star of five points, the most usual custom in Syria was to have a star of six points.  This customary regional distinction was never part of Latin thought, but may appear in Latin works when a text or an object is closely copied  from some older and non-indigenous work – whether at one or more remove.   In any case, the six-pointed star on these coins for pre-Christian Byzantion was consciously ‘Syrian’.

In the 12thC AD illustration shown in the header, the message was that the person being crowned was secondary ruler of ‘all below the moon’ – in other words, of matters mundane, though simultaneously elevated to serve as the ‘shield’ of those below him and to become an intermediary between humanity and deity.    For other proposals see:

  • Christopher Walter, ‘Raising on a shield in Byzantine iconography’, Revue des études byzantines Vol,33 (1975), pp. 133-176.


IN earlier times, the crescent shape could evoke any number of well established associations – the physical moon, of course,  and various deities such as Isis, Selene or the Roman Luna. But it would have suggested, too,  the horns of a bull, and that ’round  ship’ which served throughout the classical Greek and Roman periods as the quintessential cargo-vessel for people or for goods.

To depict the ’round ship’  then became a convention  of  Mediterranean art, and in this way its form survived in both Byzantine and Latin works to as late as the fourteenth century.  To envisage the night skies as the shield of the world, or as a sea on which the moon and stars sailed were other natural metaphors, none exclusive of any other. In Egypt, the ‘star-ship’ was envisaged instead as a shallow-draught reed-boat.*

*The ’round ship’ was developed by the Syro-Palestinian seamen over the period from 1500BC-1200BC, the design proving so practical it remained in use for at least two millennia more than three and a half thousand years.

Artemis with Aphrodite at Pera.

Of the two coins shown (above, right), the earlier  maintains Hellenistic style, and pairs the  ‘star-on-crescent’ with a deity.  In this case we may identify that figure with one or both of those worshipped at Pera until at least the second century AD.  If you missed the previous post, that precinct lay at Bolos, on the eastern side of Pera.* and though dedicated to Artemis Phosphoros, it was where ‘mild Aphrodite’ was honoured too.   The cult was active during Claudius Ptolemy‘s lifetime.

* Bolos “on the east part of Galatea (Pera)” according to Richard J.A.Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World: Map-by-map Directory, Volume 1  Map 53. Key p.801.

  •  Stella Chrysochoou, in her paper ‘Ptolemy’s Geography in Byzantium’ (} comments on the fact in Byzantium from the ninth century to the twelfth “there was a tendency to comment on the writings of Strabo and Ptolemy jointly, treating them as complementary to each other other.”

Just in passing, here, I’ll mention that when the earlier of those ‘star in crescent’ coins was made, Ephesus in Asia minor was still showing on its coins  the type of ornate baskets known as ‘cistophorus’ or ‘cista’.  The type was first disseminated from Pergamon, and issued between c.170 BC  until 140 BC  – which overlaps with (e.g.) the composition of PolybiusThe Histories. When the Voynich manuscript was made, Polybius’ work was known to only a few among the literati of Florence – but among them was  Leonardo Bruni. For more on that last matter see e.g.

  • Gary Ianziti, ‘Between Livy and Polybius: Leonardo Bruni on the First Punic War’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 51/52 (2006/2007), pp. 173-197.
emblems on two coins for Tralles in Lydia. (BC 155-145).
Cistophoric tetradrachams

The cistophorus (Ancient Greek: κιστοφόρος, kistophoros) was a coin of ancient Pergamum. It was introduced sometime in the years 175–160 BC at that city to provide the Attalid kingdom with a substitute for Seleucid coins and the tetradrachms of Philetairos.”

Scholars in classical and ancient studies may not need the next two posts.


For the convenience of Voynicheros I’ll be treating as briefly as possible the equation of Artemis Phosphoros with aspects of the Syrian goddess, before turning to mentions of Artemis with  kanephorai and then tracking in outline the shifting sense and significance  of  kan[e]on and kaniskos –   those objects into which  were placed a variety of things for the continuing protection of a city.  The outline will  cover (lightly) the centuries from the pre-Roman period to the fourteenth century. Thereafter, we turn to re-consider the implications of the so-far unparalleled combination of star (aster), ‘string’, patterned container and anthropoform figures in the Voynich month-diagrams, found chiefly in its ‘March’ diagram.




The following should have been listed in the previous post:

  • Thomas James Russell, Dionysius (of Byzantium), Byzantium and the Bosporus: A Historical Study, from the Seventh Century BC Until the Foundation of Constantinople (OUP; 2017). The two ‘Hierons’ see p. 41
  • on the eastern and greater ‘Hieron’ see Alfonso Moreno, ‘Hieron: The Ancient Sanctuary at the Mouth of the Black Sea’, Hisperia, 77 (2008) pp. 655-709.

The skies above Pt.5: bodies in baskets

Two previous:

Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib.  MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of  Valerius MaximusFacta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived).   British Museum.


MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:

C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)

As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:

There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.

Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur  as early as the tenth century in the Latin west,  and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’  pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9.  I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts.  Any wanting to doing so might begin with:

  • Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).

In brief – nothing.  At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.

More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:

  1. that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’.  But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
  2.  that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated.  Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath.    The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed).    I think  Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing.   We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of  lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting,  immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market.   I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container –  of netting or of woven sea-grass  – would be entirely practical. The image below (right)  proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.
    detail from a mosaic made in Carthage c.2ndC AD. Now in the British Museum
    known today on the Atlantic coat of France as carrelets; in Italy (chiefly around the head of the Adriatic) as trabucco; in India as Cheena vala.

    (The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)

  3. That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century.   The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject.  I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post.  In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe,   the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times.  Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried  had been the mainstay of  Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of  Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made,  Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul).  Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)

It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.

  • Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
  • a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.

I’m not suggesting that the tiered  ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise…  but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features  led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.

I  exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems.  Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain.  This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time;  perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera.  More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)

What is certain is that when  ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript,  all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious,  to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically.  Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.

The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction.  The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September.  I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.

To my knowledge no-one has ever found  a comparison for any of the  Voynich month- diagrams.   No-one  had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros…  No  closer comparison seems to have been found since.  Nor have I offered one.

What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance.  And this because,  just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the   ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.

I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names.  And while it may be a natural assumption  that, were this the case,  the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.

Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that,  after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had  just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.

I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect;  to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable.   It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas  ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it.  If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.


But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me.  Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t.  One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory.  Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign  credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.

Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery.  This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little).  I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be  surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze.  🙂

So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.

“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A

C. Sergius Orata

Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose,  Valerius’ is the more valuable.   Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s  cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.

Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’.  At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite.  Even a century later Strabo names  Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.

  • Strabo, Geographia  VI, 253 = VI.1.2)

The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’  with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any  eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.

On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:

It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject.  After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata,  by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:

 At which,  Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe. 

Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘.  Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata.  Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant.  The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.

*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.

The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters:  Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.

In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius.  Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built.  At which,  Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….

-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.

It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.

Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines

A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:

On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:

  • ***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***

Specifically for the controversy over red calceus mulleus, see Ryan’s notes:

  • Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
  • Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2  (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.

The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.

Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew.  The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour.  (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).


discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)

In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.

A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall.  It is immediately plain  to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible.  We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets.  We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.

That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting  nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so.  He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.

As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known.  It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us.   But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural  responses veer  between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us.  Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.

Or perhaps a better illustration is the  way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus.  There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context.   So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with:  they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.

The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or …  anything else.  Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.

Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact.  Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen.  They stopped attacking his motives and character.  Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.

The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply,  to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself  at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic.  Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:

“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.]  If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”


What is not  explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from  sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.

  • Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.


“Pensilia balinea”

Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea  with  Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.

While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:

I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device  and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)

  • Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
Short bibliography:
  • On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
    • Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
    • Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5  10.2)

    Readers may also enjoy:

  • Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
  • John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810)  is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods.  on Tunny fishing  see p. 415

To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those  fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo.   The other centre of the fish-trade –  apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means.  I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo  (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).

Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’  Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman,  and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors:  first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:

from Dionysius of Byzantion

§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).

§ 6  The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….

§ 36Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.

* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.

§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.

§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….

and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:

§ 93.  In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.

Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.

  • from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874).  The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at


And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost  more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea.  Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of  diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..”  A Byzantium in miniature.

from Strabo

Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata)  is thirty-five stadia; ….  The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The  pelamydes  [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand.
Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore.  There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.     

Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.


At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..

Short bibliography
  • Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)

If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:

  • James Arnold Higginbotham,  Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.


That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century  is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript,  a complation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England.  It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.

  • Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
  • Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia  on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.

Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe.  It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing.  For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see  Isidore of Seville,  Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.


detail from a map originally part of the Vatopedi manuscript. Now in the British Library.


2 minor typos corrected – 17th Sept. 2019.