Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series.

*header image. (left) modern reproduction of a tide-calculation calendar in brass. (right) schematic drawing of a nocturnal, illustration from Leonard Honey, ‘The Nocturnal and other Instruments’, Horological Journal, Dec. 2006 p.458.
Numerous Voynich researchers since 1912 have speculated that the month-diagrams (and other diagrams) might relate to one or another type of astronomical and/or time-keeping instrument. None appears to have researched the possibility in any depth, but for the history of this idea in Voynich studies see standard sources given in my ‘Cumulative Index’ Page – Jim Reeds’ Bibliography, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, conversations in Jim Reeds’ (first- mailing list files), Philip Neal’s pages and Nick Pelling’s blog. These sources are the most reliable when you want to accurately identify the sources and courses of an ‘idea’ about the manuscript.  I am not arguing that the month-diagrams show a nocturnal, merely demonstrating that the stars served many non-astrological purposes, even in Latin Europe. 

Having spent a couple of weeks thinking it over, I’ve decided to terminate the ‘Skies above/Certain measures” series.

Originally, my intention was to take readers through the process of research, stage by stage, to make clear the range of information and chain of investigations that led me to form the conclusions I did, and the further process by which I subjected those conclusions to hostile examination. I think that we must always try to act as our own best-informed and most determined cross-examiner. Enthusiasm, like ill-informed critiques, may be left to others. 🙂

We’ve lost almost eighteen months to covid, and I daresay that has also broken reader’s concentration on the progressions of evidence and argument which halted with the epidemic’s arrival. I think it may be best, now, to return to the original format, which offered readings and brief notes on various of the traditional and fiercely maintained, but often unfounded ‘Voynich doctrines’.

To finish the series I list here a few notes and pointers, and anyone keen to go further into this section of the manuscript is welcome to write if they want e.g. recommended readings. I should say that most of my work relies on academic studies, and it will be helpful if you have access to a good library, or pots of money to hand over to academic presses.

write to voynichimagery AT gmail dot com

BASICS.

If the month folios were astrological diagrams produced by medieval Latin Europe, that purpose would have been accurately assessed at least a century ago.

As the two independent specialists said recently,* and as the silence of so many other specialists from 1912 onwards indicate, astrological diagrams present in a set number and range of forms, each according to its purpose – natal diagrams and so forth.

*see post of Feb.9th., 2020.

No-one has discovered anything having the structure and particular characteristics of the Voynich diagrams in any astrological text, whether medieval Latin, or not – and the specialists have studied their subject back to as far as Egyptian times.

In recent years, the practice adopted by persons determined on some (usually ‘Latin European’) theory has been to extract the late-added central emblems from the diagrams, to assert that these form a zodiac, and then to assert or imply that any ‘zodiac’ is astrological. The last two assertions are demonstrably false both within and beyond Latin Europe and would be false even if the Voynich central emblems had formed a zodiac, or a continuous section from a zodiac.. which they do not.

What few substantial insights have been offered on the central emblems themselves is increasingly difficult to determine given that ever-more of the ‘online community’ imagines that the aim of research is to gain personal ‘credits’ and to that end, many deliberately omit, or dissemble about, the sources from which they have what they term an ‘idea’. Creating a wiki article so you can cite that as a way to avoid due acknowledgement of your sources is unkind, unfair and… dirty pool.

The most dishonest may just blame co-incidence or serendipity for their suddenly developing an ‘idea’ recently set out as part of another researcher’s detailed work but never argued before that time.

Let me make this point once more. (and don’t worry, I’m sighing with you).

Everyone who comes to this study is entitled to expect transparency. ‘An idea’ is not a fact. A reader is entitled to be given a clear path back to that idea’s origin, so that they can see how it was first, as well as most recently, presented, argued and supported (or not) by evidence – evidence which the reader is also entitled to check for themselves and which scholars generally feel a duty to check before adopting any assertion. (on contacting me for details of my own work and published sources, see above).

The origin of the ‘astrological’ description for the month folios lies with Wilfrid Voynich and Professor Newbold, whose talks of 1921 show clearly that it was based on nothing more than subjective impressions expressed by persons whose range of information was limited, and who never formally argued or proved their impressions valid.

The truly astonishing fact is that, from 1912 to the present day, no-one seems to be credited with having asked, and investigated that simplest of questions, which can be expressed as:

‘Wilfrid and Newbold had a feeling that the month-diagrams served some type of astrological calculation – were they right, or wrong?’

From which it follows that no-one checked the evidence adduced by either man, so noted that there was no evidence, and apparently none began to test the worth of that idea.

It would appear – do correct me if you know better – that no-one so much as asked, ‘Is that so?” before I did in 2010, and its most authoritative assessment and rejection was not published until 2020.

Given the deliberate and systematic erasure of researchers and research that do not lend credence to a currently-popular story (such as the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea until c.2000, and since c.2004 the ‘New World’ theory initiated by O’Neill and promoted by Tucker and Janick, or the ‘Germanic-central European’ proposition initiated by Prinke and Zandbergen), researchers are now greatly hindered in efforts to discover what, if any, research has denied the ‘astrological’ notion which those storylines all treat as a ‘given’. It is arguably (apart from the ‘Rudolf owned it’ story), the most pervasive and determinedly maintained of the unfounded ‘doctrines’ in Voynich studies.

So – it seems – that most basic question had remained un-asked for a century and my conclusion in the negative was not independently confirmed still later still.

The month-diagrams are NOT astrological diagrams. It follows that they are not ‘horoscopic charts’.

So what did the original maker, and the subsequent transmitters of these diagrams (up until our manuscript was made) see as being their purpose?

That’s a research question.

Any conclusions of research into that question should be able to provide and document a coherent analytical and historical commentary for the form of those diagrams, for the fact that the series is labelled with the names of only ten months, that there are ‘doubled’ or ‘split’ months.. and much more. Such as – why does the series begin with March? Why are the ‘barrels’ concentrated in the March diagram? Why are the ‘ladies’ bodies drawn in neither the attenuated style of earlier Latin art, nor the voluptuous ‘shapely’ form of later Latin art? Why are the faces marred, and the upper limbs ‘broken’ in a way opposing Christian ideas of the human as made in the image of God?

You might even ask whether Panofsky was right in believing, from the full range of his experience and scholarship, that Latin Christian art didn’t depict unclothed ‘shapely’ females with rounded bellies until the 15thC.

=================

Thus, the internal evidence shows that the month folios’ diagrams are not astrological diagrams and the drawings not a product of Latin Europe’s customs when the Voynich manuscript was made.

Contrary to what is repeated ad.infinitum (and even taken by Fagin Davis to be ‘what we know’), what we actually have filling the centres does not constitute ‘a zodiac’ nor a straight segment of any standard Roman zodiac. That’s the fact.

Here are some details as markers from my own investigations, but that’s as much more as I’ll provide here from my own work on the section.

I would like to acknowledge that some studies of the central emblems have been genuinely original and solid contributions to the study, among them Koen Gheuens investigation of the curious ‘lobster’ form’s later dissemination through France and Alsace.

*Koen’s wordpress blog is found by searching ‘herculeaf’

So: –

The ‘castle’ in the map represents Constantinople. This was the conclusion reached by analysis of the fold-out map.

Neither Greeks nor Latins had a custom of deliberately distorting faces, or ‘breaking the bones’ of human figures. Christianity held that the human body was made in the image of the deity.

The motifs of bull, goat etc. simply denoted the constellations visible in the sky in a given month. That is why these emblems appear everywhere in manuscripts, on public buildings, as religious allegory and moralia within (and beyond) Latin Europe. They are primarily calendar emblems – ‘shorthand’ forms – though in some manuscripts and calendars, their assignment to the months is not literal like a calendar’s, but schematic or astrological assignments.

Comparative study of calendars can be fascinating but study of calendar systems is definitely non-trivial. Just as a first taste, here’s a wiki article surveying some varieties of ancient Greek calendar.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_calendars

Again, considering a calendar’s relationship to work, you find that in practical terms a ‘ten month year’ of active work, such as agriculture or seamanship, is characteristic of northern latitudes, but also necessarily affected the Mediterranean traveller’s year (especially for anyone who needed to travel by sea.)

Still on the sub-set of maritime ‘years’ – Officially the Mediterranean sailing year ended in November with the rising of Saggitarius’ bow. In classical times it had ended with the rising of Orion, before Orion was dropped in favour of the Romans’ Libra, this being the first non-living figure imagined on the road of sun-and-moon.

Documents from the medieval western Mediterranean show that, in practice, accomplished seaman might sail set distances (as from the French-Spanish border to Rome) to as late as December.

Body-types (discussed in a little more detail in earlier posts) are valuable pointers to cultural origin for an image.

Panofsky was quite right when he said, in 1932, that in Latins’ art, the custom of drawing ‘shapely females’ like those in the month folios did not occur so early as he believed the style of drawings suggested overall.

That’s still a valid observation given the information available to him then.

Before it became a fashion (or fad) which spread (apparently but not certainly via works produced in Paris), it hadn’t been a Latin custom to show women with swollen bellies as a stylistic, and even there, most Latins initially drew the belly on a body attenuated, accenting still the bones rather than the flesh, this a continuation of earlier Latin practice. (Here see, for example, a ‘city of God’ illustration first brought to notice for ‘Voynicheros’ by Ellie Velinska).

What Panofsky did not know, in 1932, was that earlier examples of the swollen belly do exist, but in Jewish manuscripts. Both the examples below were introduced to the study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. The first is from a manuscript originally part of the Sassoon collection, but now in the University of Pennsylvania. It is often regretted by historians and scholars that the British Library found itself unable to purchase the collection entire, and it is now widely scattered. In my opinion, this is the image most like the style of drawing in the month-folios. I notice not only the emphasis on the hands, but other details including the way the feet and ankles are drawn.

Nor did Panofsky know the next example.

Dated to 1322, the ms is believed to have been made near Lake Geneva, in the region of Constance. What it shows is NOT (as the ‘Germanic’ theorists will surely opine) that this body-shape, or use of yellow, or gold, for a figure’s hair proves this work ‘Germanic’. Nor does braided hair, as some have asserted.

It is another Jewish work, and as far as I’ve been able to discover, was also first introduced to study of Beinecke MS 408 by the present author. Do correct me if you know better.

The point, in this case, is that as early as 1322 and 1361, Jewish works were already portraying human figures with rounded bellies and over-large hands but without attempting to make them ‘beautiful’.

What we do not find in the medieval Jewish works, even when depicting unclothed bodies, is any suggestion that the unclothed body might evoke carnal or sexual response in the viewer. The 1322 AD figure is shown very heavy, even ungainly, and is fully clothed. If we imagine it at the drawing stage, before the pigments were laid on – well, I won’t try dictating the rest of that sentence. You must form your own opinions.

In earlier posts, I gave a thumb-nail history of how the human body’s depiction changed in Mediterranean cultures from the early (pre-Roman) through to the late medieval period in the west.

We found that naked female forms occur relatively late in the history of Greek art, and that even then the custom had been to paint statuary. ‘The nude’ as we now define it occurs for only a relatively short time, and is decidedly sensual in Roman art until it falls out of favour again as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. It doesn’t re-appear as ‘shapely ladies’ in western Christian (‘Latin’) art until after our manuscript was made.

So there are two immediate possibilities to investigate – one being that the form of the month diagrams preserves but distorts (possibly for cultural and/or religious and/or ideological reasons on the part of the transmitters) what had once been a classical (i.e. pre-Christian) calendar. Some few ancient and classical calendars were long preserved in various media including mosaic and stone, but the Voynich diagrams have not given any indication (to me at least) of the medium from which the style of the Voynich month-diagrams and details (excluding central emblems) might first have come.

note – An interesting and consciously-Christianised diagram is found in a particular tenth ninth-century Byzantine manuscript often mentioned by Rene Zandbergen. That diagram includes a section for what had been ‘the 12 hours’, but describes those figures as ’12 holy virgins’. The adaptation appears to me to have included replacing an earlier Apollo or (more likely in my view) a Queen of Heaven in her chariot (Ursa Major). The Christian version would become known as a ‘helios’. Apart from the Christ invictus type, the adaptation to Christianity was not successful and such ‘ladies’ don’t appear in later works.

Zandbergen’s site treats that Byzantine diagram in detail, but gives no indication of when or by whom it was first introduced or discussed within Voynich studies. None of the non-Voynich commentaries I’ve seen attempt to identify the source from which the pattern had been adopted, but its ‘ladies’ suggest that the donor had been a tradition opposed to accurate depiction of a living creature. That ethos pervades most of the Voynich drawings, and while Vat.gr.1291 – that is, the manuscript as a whole – is dated to the period of iconoclasm in Greek Christianity (ms is dated AD 813-820), hostility to the making of ‘life-like’ images was endemic and ancient in the near east, informing not only Jewish thought, or later Islamic views, but other and early cultures of the region. It passed away from Byzantine Christianity by the early 9thC AD. It remained a cultural norm elsewhere.

The wiki article on ‘iconoclasm’ lacks depth.

——

I’ll skip the many following sections in my logs which treat subsequent phases of the digging – and move to notes about a last phase of question-and-investigation. This asked whether the material so far accumulated could explain why the ‘March’ diagram contains the majority of ‘barrels’. My brief note, now, will surely seem arbitrary but that can’t be helped.

The barrels represent gifts to heaven (i.e. to one or more of its denizens) – a formally defined gift which was specifically ‘for the preservation of the city’. This was an ancient ritual which preceded Alexander in the Greek-speaking world and which survived in spirit and in its name, not only the end of his empire, but the end of Rome’s empire, and to as late as the fourteenth century (at least so late; I didn’t follow it further).

As each cultural and political phase gave way to the next, the Greek word for this ‘gift’ as a tax on the population remained, its purpose also the same in essence but differently presented – becoming material goods to be given in that month by the local population to maintain local officials, and then church officials, and by our time of interest, as taxes to be paid by all who used the Byzantine ports (Or more exactly, Constantinople’s. It may have applied more generally, but I didn’t follow the matter further.) The ‘protection of the city’ theme also survived and it was demanded by Constantinople – being imposed for example on Genoa – that any city granted rights to use the port(s) must provide ships to aid the city if called upon to do so.

Perhaps now some readers will see why I spent so much time, earlier in the series, talking about Pera.

Oh – and if you try picking up the threads (to be fair I should say they don’t end with Constantinople) you should not be surprised if you are told soon by someone that Constantinople is ‘Germanic’ by reason of a temporary Frankish (i.e. Latin European) usurpation of the throne which the Greeks themselves decided to ratify as the most sensible way to normalise that situation.

Constantinople occupies a very small proportion of the Voynich map, and so too it occupies only part of the story told by the Voynich map, its calendar and its ladies.

One reason that the Prinke-Zandbergen Voynich ‘theory’ has produced so little new insight into the manuscript is that its adherents’ every line of study aims to end with the cry, ‘It’s Germanic-central European Christian’. But just as a passport is not a person, so this conception of ‘nationality’ explains nothing about the form, or content, or purpose for which the manuscript and its content was produced.

One must take notice of the fact that there is nothing distinctively ‘Germanic’ or ‘central European’ about the vellum’s finish, the layout of the pages, the structure of the quires or the stitching. The Prinke-Zandbergen theory offers no explanation for absence of ruling-out, nor the palette, nor the style of script, nor the structure and meaning of the month-folio diagrams.

Indeed, many of the things which speak to a manuscript’s content and purpose positively oppose that particular, fairly-recent (if presently popular) proposition.

Additional note. Novices may not see why I should place such emphasis on the palette and our lack of a full analysis of the pigments. The fact is that even an isolated initial, cut out from its original manuscript, can be dated by experts and correctly assigned its place of production, not least by its palette. It was only on the basis of ‘shapely ladies’ and the heavier paints palette, and O’Neill’s spurious identification of a ‘sunflower’ in the manuscript, that Professor Panofsky changed his opinion of what he’d been told was an autograph, from the thirteenth or fourteenth century to ‘within 20 years of 1500’. (for the full background to that later dating, see my post of January 15th., 2019).

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’..so 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.

*constellation

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.”  (Livius.org ‘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.

EDESSA

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