O’Donovan notes: the calendar’s emblems – November and July. Pt.2

c.1700 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Much that has turned up in this ‘Notes’ series has directed us towards the south-western Mediterranean for our present manuscript’s exemplars, but this ‘November’ emblem from the Voynich calendar presents an objection to any easy assumption that the ‘calendar’s’ central emblems originated there.

For one thing, no-one living within a couple of days’ walk of the Mediterranean, south of Constantinople, is likely to have been ignorant of a scorpion’s form.

The zone in which scorpions are still found today.

(Above) – adapted from a modern distribution map showing incidence of scorpion envenomation. I have removed regions unknown to Mediterranean peoples before 1440 AD.

As for to the coast’s Occitan-Catalan speaking regions – that’s just where scorpions are still most numerous.

distribution of Occitan-Catalan dialects along the Mediterranean coast of France.

Italy’s scorpion species are divided into Adriatic and Mediterranean species by the Apennines, which form the peninsula’s spine.

The most deadly Mediterranean species, however, is ‘the scourge of Egypt’, the golden or ‘five-barred’ scorpion (Leiurus quinquestriatus)* which alone is regarded as likely to cause death. It occurs in the eastern Mediterranean.

*Link – VAPA guide, giving details of the species with illustrations and modern distribution map.

So, should we suppose that the ‘November’ emblem wasn’t first made in the south-western part of the greater Mediterranean?* Should we suppose that it might still have originated in that region, but that whoever included this emblem for ‘November’ had a different aim in mind? If the last, what sort of associations had Scorpius, scorpions and/or the month of November for persons living earlier than 1350 AD? Research is the only way to clarify such questions. Theorising just won’t do.

*’greater Mediterranean‘ – all the waters from the Black Sea to the straits of Gibraltar, inclusive.

Our research parameters (see previous post) let us begin from the first half of the fourteenth century.

And our first comparison, from the Occitan context is a ‘no-match’.

In the Occitan manuscript noted earlier, thought to have been made in Toulouse – beyond the ‘scorpion zone’ – the tail is really quite well drawn, and the image includes a feature seen in most Latin images of this constellation – a line of dots along the spine or tail. Yet its head is drawn quite unlike the scorpion’s and the whole doesn’t resemble the emblem given the Voynich ‘November’ diagram.

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Royal C 1 f.37 (1300-1325)

Not only Toulouse but other major centres of earlier medieval monasticism and manuscript production in France were outside the scorpion zone – such as Cluny, Cîteaux, and Vézelay – but it wasn’t necessarily lack of first-hand knowledge which made literalism* a lower priority in earlier medieval art.

*sometimes described as ‘illusionism’.

By the time the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was inscribed (c.1405-1438), there was little excuse for ignorance about the constellations’ forms – not of those forming the zodiac- for that series was being presented in public spaces as early as the period of Romaneque art and architecture (6th-12thC AD), or at least its latter half.

The aim in placing the twelve constellations in churches and cathedrals was to show the whole community how the familiar sequence of activities on the land was in accord with the signs which Gd had provided in the heavens, passing over month-by-month, and which were easily seen at night in a time before external lighting. The series also served to recall to the viewer’s mind, while at their chores, a moralised astronomy explained from the pulpit or the school. It was food for thought and gave the daily round of agricultural work a greater sense of cosmic position, just as monasteries of the communal type were supposed to balance religious observance and meditation with physical work. As the oft-repeated passage runs:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands,

Ps.19:1 (NIV)

Such series are called ‘Labours of the Months’ and most of the twelve astronomical signs are shown in forms much the same as those we use today.

Here, for example, is Libra from a late Romanesque (12thC) basilica, in Vézelay. ..

Vezelay, c.1120-30 AD. Burgundian Romanesque.

Yet, in that same basilica, this is the figure for Scorpius.

It is tempting to shrug off differences from familiar forms by asserting the problem isn’t our own ignorance but that of some imagined ‘artist’ or ‘author’.

But if we say differences are due to whether or not a person lived in the ‘Scorpion zone’ how does one explain the appearance, at much the same time, of a curl-tailed beast in the ‘Labours’ series in Otranto, which lies in the southern heel of Italy and well within that ‘scorpion zone’? This example is important for us, because unlike so many others, this series assigns Scorpius to November as, it would seem, the Voynich calendar does.

from the mosaic in the Cathedral of Otranto.

It is clear that the Latin world had received more than one model for depicting the constellations.

They need not have come from manuscript illuminations. Images of the 12 constellations were to be seen in textiles, carved wood and stone, even game-pieces – especially from the mid-12thC. They might be copied from antique works in many media, including coins, and the researcher as iconographic analyst must consider the widest range attested within a given historical context.

So, for example, the illustration (right) shows a mid-12thC game piece. It is made of walrus ivory, the carving ascribed to northern France. The Met. catalogue says “Cancer or Scorpio”.

From wherever the models came, one strand reflects a long-enduring vision of the heavens as ‘waters’ above the earth, over which stars sailed and the beasts of the zodiac swam. Many eastern Mediterranean sources (including Homer and the Book of Genesis*) envisage the night sky that way, from millennia before the rise of Rome until long after its empire was gone. In the fifteenth century, for example, one poem by the Persian poet Hafiz begins, ‘The green seas of heaven; the hull of the new moon...’

Kendall and Wallis describe the Genesis 1:7’s ‘waters above the firmament’ as “one of the most vexatious questions of Christian cosmology” and which Bede’s commentary on Genesis explained, following Augustine and Ambrose, by saying those waters were actually solid and crystalline.

  • Calvin B. Kendall and Faith Wallis (ed. and trans.), Bede On the Nature of Things and On Times, (Translated Texts for Historians Series), Vol. 56. (p.140).

Augustine, Ambrose and Bede notwithstanding, the older idea of the heavens found expression in an eleventh-century mosaic created for San Savino in Piacenza, the twelfth-century charter for whose monastery was introduced to Voynich studies by Reeds as comparison for those Voynich glyphs mis-called ‘gallows’. Here’s the example Reeds cited.

from Cappelli’s Dizionario (the 1967 reprint of what appears to be the 1929 edition) – “Tavola IV”

The Piacenza mosaic has lost its Scorpius, but its ‘Cancer’ remains (below). Use of the zig-zag* rather than the wave to denote waters, as we see done here, is quite unusual in Latin Europe but was always conventional in Egypt’s visual language.*

*the same convention is used in other sections of Beinecke MS 408.

  • Charles E. Nicklies, ‘Cosmology and the Labors of the Months at Piacenza: The Crypt Mosaic at San Savino’, Gesta, Vol. 34, No. 2 (1995), pp. 108-125.

It is often forgotten that Christianity is an eastern religion; that the model for communal (cenobitic) monasticism was Egyptian, or that the three great centres of Christianity in the earlier medieval period were Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. But I’ll comment on that in a later segment.

Today, we might see Capricorn drawn a ‘goat-fish’ and know that Cancer is a ‘watery’ creature but, as the following zodiac in Byzantine style shows, there existed versions where more beasts were given looping ‘swimming’ tails – including Aries, Taurus, Sagittarius and even Leo. The twins are enthroned on a kind of raft and Virgo is a Mermaid. But it wasn’t whimsy; it was a tradition of non-Roman origin.

The same ceiling shows an innermost band formed at once as foundation-stones and as a scroll folded concertina-style. I won’t digress into the subject of ‘the scroll of heaven’ in western Christian thought, but it is worth mentioning at least that the oldest and distinctively Christian texts were made in that way; by making the scroll into a codex.

  • Anna O. Funk, ‘From Scroll to Codex: New Technology and New Opportunities’ [pdf] Chapter 2 from her History of the Book: Disrupting Society from Tablet to Tablet. While I think Funk’s approach is a little anachronistic in its pragmatism and the theory’s largely mechanistic-economic vision – by reducing history to a form of ‘business management’ and consequent lack of attention to things that mattered to peoples in the pre-industrial era such as ideology, cultural identification and authority, and while I also regret her over-emphasis on Rome, still her basic historical data is good and has the advantage of being online in chapter-length pdfs.

Two manuscripts made in twelfth-century England, nearly contemporary with the Otranto mosaic and Michael Scot’s lifetime, show an effort made to reconcile the ‘dragon-like’ with the ‘insect-like’ images of Scorpius, while typically retaining Scorpius’ distinctive marker, the line or line of dots marking its spine. In old English ‘wyrm‘ applied to many creatures, from one as small as a mite, through insects, snakes and to something as large as a dragon.


So now, is the ‘November beast’ in the Voynich manuscript no more than a ‘watery’ Scorpius, still with a looping tail, but minus wings? Are we seeing, in this emblem, another effort to reconcile celestial with terrestrial versions for the scorpion?

At this point, of course, one checks developing ideas against the primary evidence – the source whose opinion matters above all others – to see if we have yet understood the intention of this drawing.

And I don’t think we have, yet – chiefly because behind the Voynich beast’s head is a human skull wearing what appears to be a hat of the kind that a huntsman or traveller might wear.*

*rather than a military helmet

If the skull has been commented on by any previous Voynich writer, please leave a comment below providing details that can be credited. If not, and you repeat the information, don’t neglect to inform your own readers how and where you obtained it.

Clearly, we haven’t yet understood the first maker’s intention, and since the analyst’s task is not to invent a plausible storyline about the manuscript, but to correctly read the images which are here before us, on the page, the process of research must continue.

Part 3 to be published next week.

Postscript – the hat

– not exactly like the Lappavatten hat, but the latter’s date-range is interesting (1310-1440 AD) and that archaeological find, with images showing others of comparable form – and most of which were meant to be worn out of doors – are dicussed and illustrated…

details of the original source ?.
  • (HERE) well into in a post by johan Käll in ‘The Medieval Hunt‘ blog’, (February 1, 2020). Regrettably, few of the comparative images that Käll offers have been labelled with date and source, so their value is not what it might be for other researchers.

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.