O’Donovan notes #8.5 folio 67v-1 questions outstanding.

c.1000 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

(additional illustration – 22 July 2022)

There are questions about the drawings on folio 67v-1 which are yet to be investigated. I thought some readers might be champing at the bit, by now, tired of being told how, and why, to do non-theory-driven research and impatient to try out the analytical approach for themselves.

As ever, the pattern for work of this sort, investigating problematic images of unknown cultural origin, begins by asking (not by inventing, imagining, guessing, presuming or theorising) – questions of that ‘where?’ and ‘when?’ sort. So-

  • Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars as circles or, if you prefer, as simple un-filled dots?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of providing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  • Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations?

Taking our main example as the four stars forming the peripheral ‘West’ emblem and which I’ve identified as tail-stars in Scorpius (remembering they could be drawn facing left or our right, and both are found in copies of al-Sufi’s Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib…*

  • A copy dated 1260-1280 AD, and suggested made at Marāghah (Iran) can be seen as British Library MS Or 5323. Other copies in Britain include Brit.Lib. Or 1407 ( Brit.Lib. IO Islamic 1407), Brit.Lib. MS Add 7488, (IO Islamic). The Bodleian library holds a copy as Marsh 144.
the yellow circles in the centre detail are my posited identifications for the four stars used to form the emblem on f.67v-1.

Below – Scorpius in a thirteenth-century copy of al-Sufi’s text, completed in 964 AD from knowledge of Hellenistic astronomy and the natural astronomy of the Arab traditions. Al-Sufi’s observations were made in Isfahan at a latitude of 32.7N° and included star-magnitudes – information not always agreeing with Ptolemy and not always accurately copied in later versions.

It may assist to have the stars’ descriptions according to the Greek-letter system no longer used by formal astronomy.

Valuable for historical research and normally difficult to access, is

N.B. the downloadable spreadsheet courtesy of John P. Pratt, whose name should not be omitted if making use of his work.

To add to the researcher’s challenges, the relevant manazil is sometimes found as ‘Shūla’ not ‘Shaula’ and while some important primary sources such as al-Biruni, and some conservative secondary sources such as Savage-Smith form that manazil of just two stars – lambda ( λ ) and nu (ν ) Scorpionis– other sources differ in their naming and/or the number of its component stars.

al-Biruni himself says that the two stars λ and ν are known as H’arazah, ‘the joints of the vertebrae’.

Illustrated copies of al-Sufi’s book show many more stars than two for the end of the tail, and a fifteenth-century eastern navigator, Ibn Majid, says of this manazil – which he knows as ‘al-Shūla‘ – that its component stars:

.. are all small stars, the smallest being of the sixth magnitude and the brightest of the fourth.. (p.109)

If you should find, from the balance of evidence you uncover, that you identify here four different stars of Scorpius from those I’ve nominated (see above), then by all means say so, and lay out the path which brought you to that conclusion.

Here’s one hypothetical alternative:

The best evidence will date to before 1440 AD or reflect habits and traditions demonstrably in place before then.

Marginal sources and notes that may assist.

If you looked at the astrological list of manzil that I mentioned and linked in the previous post, you may have noticed that the manazil is there named ‘Shaula’ but only one star is listed for it. By any criterion other than those which might apply to western astrology, that is wrong. It may have been the habit of some astrologers to represent the manazil by just one star. It wasn’t the custom most writers in Arabic or in Persian, nor the understanding of the eastern pilots such as Ibn Majid.

Jobes makes a passing reference to a comment made by Chilmead* about λ Scorpionis, as ‘It is also called Schomlek, which [Joseph?]Scaliger thinks is read by a transposition of the letters for mosklec, which signifieth the bending of the tail’.

  • possibly in his translation of Hues. See Brit.Lib. Addit. MS. 31429. ‘A learned Treatise of Globes both Celestiall and Terrestriall . . . written first in Latine by Mr. Robert Hues … Illustrated with notes Inr lo. Isa. Pontanus, and now lately made English … by John Chilmead, Mr. A. of Christ Church in Oxon.,’ London. I have not sighted the original.
  • Gertude Jobes, Outer space : myths, name meanings, calendars from the emergence of history to the present day (1964). Use with caution. I regret being unable to add further details, still having my notes but no longer having the book.

To transpose letters in order to avoid speaking a detested or prohibited word, especially a name, is familiar to us from Jewish religious texts but I understand it was also sometimes practiced in Arabic works. For all I know it may have been done by other religious communities, though I would not expect to find it in the west, nor among the Greeks. If we may accept that Scaliger cites some source for his information, then I should say it more likely that ‘Schomlek’ avoided some vernacular form as *S3h-mlk. I should not mention this except that it could prove relevant to the form of cap you see given one of the stars in that detail from folio 67v-1.

In any case, the cap is a last detail which may, or may not, ever be rightly understood and setting that aside, here are the questions likely to shed light on the origin, date and intended purpose for the four peripheral emblems:

  1. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars (not sun and moon) as circles or, if you prefer, as un-filled dots?
  2. Where and when do we find a practice of drawing stars-as-circles with human-looking faces?
  3. Where and when do we find a practice of grading stars by analogy with social gradations as apparently intended by giving one of the figures headwear? Is it done by reference to colour, magnitude, the star’s name, a particular legend, or by some other criterion?
  4. Is there any gender-differentiation apparent? If so, can you identify a language in which the the gender assigned these stars’ accords with their representation?

..and theorists think pictures are easy: ‘two eyes and commonsense-aka-imagination’. 🙂

O’Donovan notes #8.4: folio 67v-1. Peripheral motifs.

approx. 2400 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I had intended to introduce this part by tracing the history of different systems and styles for describing asterisms on the moon’s path, beginning with the Roman-era ceiling in Denderah and continuing to the fifteenth century, but considering how many posts would be needed to do the topic justice, and illustrate it, I’ve decided not to exhaust my readers and so will keep to a period from about the twelfth century to the early fifteenth.

I’ve described these four as peripheral, because they are not essential to the diagram’s description of cardinals and intercardinals but duplicate the four cardinals. They read as if they were additional commentary or astronomical scholia. Were it were not that these stars’ faces are drawn in just the same way that the faces of South and North stars are drawn inside the circuit, one might suspect them of being a late addition.

The four are fairly well-informed and contain some telling details.

The whole page, turned north-up, would appear as shown (below), but since it was designed South-up, I’ll address the South emblem first.


(detail) folio 67v-1. Sulba, Sulbar

The first point to be taken from it is that this ‘South’ motif was not drawn by any untravelled medieval Latin scholar unless he or she had access to an informant with wider knowledge of the world.

Why? It marks South by a group of four stars most probably those we now call ‘Crux’ but which even for Ptolemy were just part of the Centaur constellation and were not recognised by Europe as a separate constellation or asterism until after the time of Faras (1500) Corsali (1516) and of Magellan’s voyage (1519), i.e. at least three generations after the Voynich bifolios were inscribed.* The modern list, and description, of the constellations was decided by an 1880s conference of European astronomers.

*this is not the place to dilate on my reasons, but I suspect that the Voynich manuscript was among those stolen by Guglielmo Libri (d. 1869), perhaps even from the Medici villa in Fiesole, the town where Libri had a house to which he returned to die. I think it was then given by Libri’s noble executor to Fr. Peter Jan Beckx who was resident in Fiesole from 1875, only returning finally to the Villa Mondragone in Rome in 1895. I made the mistake of publishing a scrap of that research at voynichimagery so by now its echo may perhaps be found in some other Voynich site as an ‘idea’ (i.e. re-presented without proper attribution, without evidence or evidence of preceding research). I cannot empathise with Voynich pilferers, but perhaps Libri would.

For those who moved overland or sailed the seas east of Arabia, this constellation was as well known as were the Ursae in the Mediterranean, and for similar reasons. As it wheels around the southern Pole, Crux serves to indicate that point and to mark the night-hours. With no star occupying the South point (as Polaris does the North), Crux is all the more valuable to wayfinders. It had anciently been visible to more northerly latitudes, but again precession had taken it below the horizon over the centuries, and it was not visible to medieval Latin Europe.

India knew Crux as ‘Sulba’ and the Arabs as ‘Sulbar’.

More detail in

When first publishing the summary of research into folio 67v-1, I included a good deal of historical, cultural and comparative iconological matter for these peripheral motifs, but since this series is meant as a demonstration of analytical method, I won’t repeat it all here.

I would, however, emphasise strongly that an analyst’s opinion must wait on the balance of evidence acquired by investigation – not start with an impression, mis-represent the impression as ‘opinion’ and that ‘opinion’ as theory, let alone use that theory to limit the nature and range of research undertaken.

Unfortunately, as you’ll see by reviewing past and present-day theoretical Voynich narratives, precisely that sort of theory-driven approach has hardened into a presumed norm, and has permitted traditionalists to rationalise the manuscript’s disobligingly opaque drawings and assert them all “nice and normal European really” waving aside all stylistic differences by simply imagining that some medieval Latin figure was so affected by aberrant mentality, or by a a desire to be original that s/he rendered the majority of this manuscript’s images illegible in terms of a European visual language.

One is often obliged to ask of a given Voynich theorist if they have ever read so much as a history of European art.

To this day, as for the last century, a Voynich traditionalist begins by saying in effect, “Presuming that all the content in this manuscript is an expression of western Christian culture and written texts….’ The analytical approach starts by asking ‘Where and when do we find evidence of such forms and informing ideas as are preserved in the drawing under consideration?’

In some cases, the answer may be indeed ‘medieval Christian Europe’; in others, a combined influence (as we saw with folio 85r), and in many there’s no trace of Latin influence at all. A compilation derived from more than one source of non-European origin and supplemented after c.1350 by a few additions in western style would seem to me a reasonable assessment overall, but again I’m speaking of fomat and images. I have no opinion on the script except to say that it appears to me that the way the ‘4o’ glyph is written indicates a hand already accustomed (as few were before 1400) to writing the numeral ‘4’ that way.

Like the difference between a doll’s house and a real house, so a Voynich theory tends to be purpose-made and nicely organised so long as you suspend your sense of perspective and proportion. An analytical study will have its flaws, but (so to speak) when you turn the taps, there’s water in the pipes. The analyst must – unlike the theorist – refrain from a final opinion until after subjecting research-conclusions to a rigorous and quite hostile cross-examination.

About the South-emblem, for example, the cross-examination would include such questions as: Why this astronomical cross? How do you know the maker didn’t mean to refer to the cross of Cygnus? What about the ‘cross’ sometimes identified with Orion? What about that ‘false cross’ mentioned by Ibn Majid and described so in modern astronomy?” “Why can’t they be meant for northern stars since you say ‘South’ in the Voynich map is marked by a circle?”.. and so on. If you don’t seriously stress-test your initial conclusions and consider both pro’s and con’s, your final opinion will be un-balanced by definition even if (predictably) nicely consistent with your initial impressions.

Crux (left) and the false cross (right) in the southern hemisphere.

One must also see things from the point of view of someone who is blinkered by devotion to a theory or affected by some such misconception as that any allusion to stars must either be about astrology or about mathematical astronomy.

I feel fairly confident that someone out there, alarmed by this allusion to Crux and its being incompatible with their variant of an all-European theory, will begin hunting through theory-friendly sources for something to assert is an alternative explanation. They might look for some astrological system which linked stars to the directions. It is well to have done the same.

If – more likely when – a theorist produces a contrary view, then regardless of what you might think about the critic’s Voynich theory, don’t ignore any supporting evidence. It’s all about evidence, after all, and – this is important – their evidence might be better than any that you’ve considered so far. If later re-using that person’s information, an analyst should feel able to acknowledge the person who was kind enough to bring that evidence to notice. As I said earlier – this sort of work needs an almost insatiable intellectual curiosity combined with a level of disinterest practically impossible for the theory-afflicted. I feel most sympathy for those marginal readers who, like Nicodemus, desire to know but dare not admit to knowing [Voynich-] heresy. 😀

Concerning transmission of this material into the west, it is interesting to note that in a Genoese map of 1457, we find a combined image for Canopus+Crux after the custom of India and the mariners of the eastern seas. Its form is related to the Voynich map’s ‘Angel of the Rose’ as I explained when first introducing to Voynich studies the subject of Europe’s earliest rose-gridded cartes marine and their relevance to this study (2012-14) .. but I’m running too far ahead .. Next motif..


(detail) f.67v-1. Sting of Scorpius. Ar: Al Shaulah
(detail) f.67v-1 inscription for the sting of Scorpius.

The maker’s choice to mark ‘West’ shows that they were not by birth and upbringing heirs to the near eastern cultural traditions and star-lore, nor by training an eastern mariner.

This is because the proverbial ‘west’ marker was the Pleiades, and the proverbial ‘East’ marker, Orion, even though in purely astronomical terms (as in classical legend), it is the Scorpion from which Orion seems to retreat, backwards.

This opposition of Orion and Scorpius is what one sees on a globe or in the night sky in the right season, Any person unaware of the older and long-traditional sayings among eastern peoples would, understandably, suppose them an obvious pair, but his not being native to that environment is made evident again by another and more subtle ‘error’ – in attempting to define the east-west opposition in terms of the lunar asterisms or manzil, he has got it very nearly, but not exactly right. He has just counted the series and divided by two, making his ‘west’ not only part of Scorpius but the wrong stars of that constellation, the stars composing its sting and the manazil called in Arabic al Shaulah. But even in those terms, it’s only nominally right; the right manazil would have been the star of the Scorpion’s heart,

  • Looking around online today (15th July), I see a useful list of the lunar mansions on a site devoted to astrology – here.
  • Another astrologer, P. James Clark, has a blog called the ‘Classical Astrologer’ and his post – here – provides a useful discussion of the lunar mansions as they were represented by the Picatrix and so came to inform notions held in western Europe about the manzil.

To a few among the literati of medieval Latin Europe, the lunar mansion system was known, but only as a magical and occult system, as represented in a rather garbled version in Latin translations of the Picatrix, but the series of lunar mansions (manzil) simply describes the ecliptic in smaller increments than the simple 12-fold system of month-marking constellations with which the Latin west was thoroughly familiar.

In the world beyond Europe, the series of lunar mansion asterisms served various purposes. It served as a horizontal axis for the eastern navigators’ conceptual grid, among other things. Every mosque throughout the medieval Islamic world had its almanac in which the manzil were included, because the same series marked the periods of the liturgical year as it named the months of those Arabian agricultural calendars mentioned in the previous post.

Anything to do with the stars could be, and was, put to use by fortune-tellers, astrologers and magicians, but it is a major error to imagine that there’s a simple equation – ‘manzil’ equals ‘occult’.

The person who added these peripheral emblems to the diagram certainly understood that Orion should denote East (as we’ll see) but in deciding which lunar mansion should stand for ‘West’ he chose as you’d expect a foreigner would – by taking the opposition literally and by counting the half-way point.

In purely technical astronomical terms, to have these stars opposite those of Orion is ok – as you’ll see if you look at an astronomical globe. But it is culturally just a bit off, even in literal uses – a bit like perfectly grammatical yet non-idiomatic English spoken by a well-educated visitor.

The whole of Orion opposed by the whole Scorpion -yes. That would be fine. But as symbolic emblem for ‘west’ – it should be the Pleiades, often in the form of a cup, and significant of a final victory. (Which of course is the wit in Hafiz’ allusion, earlier quoted.) And in literal terms west should be identified with the Scorpion’s heart-star, al-Kalb (which again, those familiar with Hafiz’ poems will appreciate.)

While I don’t believe that the person who drew these four emblems was a stay-at-home Latin bending over Aratus’ Phaenomena or even Ptolemy’s Almagest, he may have been a traveller from somewhere in the west, or a member of an eastern Christian community or at the very least have known the story of Christ. The Arabic term for Crux is rendered as ‘the beam of crucifixion’ and a person of deceptive or traitorous character was proverbially described, in the near east, as a ‘scorpion’. What argues against his being a Latin, or someone who had seen Crux, is that the drawing gives it four arms of equal length.

For students in search of additional sources, I refer to the listings under ‘Stars and their Uses’ in the page My recommendations. (see header bar).

In Voynich studies, the subject of the lunar mansions has surfaced and sunk again many times, since first raised in Jim Reeds’ mailing list (1990s-early 2000s) but since most Voynicheros have begun by presuming everything in the Voynich manuscript must be the brain-child of some western Christian author, what we’ve seen so far from Voynich writers addressing the topic has been based on the Picatrix (in a very poor thirteenth century version), and by then jumping straight to Cornelius Agrippa’s book published in 1533, and thus almost exactly a century too late to be relevant.

Darren Worley‘s posts and comments to the blog set up by Stephen Bax, did consider the Indian nakshatras, though again with astrology in mind and adopting the remarkably constant error by which Voynicheros imagine the Voynich calendar shows ‘a zodiac’ and the still more egregious error which imagines the purpose of every zodiac’s representation was astrological.

I might mention that there is nothing in any of the Voynich drawings which points to an astrological purpose: the habit of imagining no other purpose could inform drawings that show sun, moon and stars is another by-product of Voynich studies’ early history.

The next two astronomical motifs, next post.


Readers might enjoy Clark’s post about the astrological directions in al-Biruni’s work, though of course al-Biruni was a towering intellect whose report on India’s culture and intellectual history includes far more than their astrology. Still, it is interesting to note that in al-Biruni’s description of astrological directions (as Clark reports), “Cancer is in the centre of the North, Scorpius a point to the left and West [of north].” HIs post includes a diagram – shown north-up and east-left – in which Scorpius is actually left and east of North. Whether the error is in the diagram, or in the translation from al-Biruni, I’ve never troubled to check. In any case, here again, I think al-Biruni’s system for weather-predictions can be crossed off our list of potential sources for the ‘West’ emblem on folio 67v-1.