fol.22r Myrobalans (concluded)

~ and will probably make no sense without it!
The immature fruit of one particular member of the myrobalan group (T. chebula) was valued for its dyeing-ink ~ used in tanning leather, and in the processes of a traditional fabric art of southern India,  kalamari ~ some characteristics of which I’ll have reason to mention again in analysing fol.86v.

The same uses for T.chebula (among the myrobalans) remain practiced today, and its extract  is still a component in ‘india ink’.   Details at end of post..

The point for us, in this analysis of fol.22r,  is that these purposes are the ones indicated by the arrangement of the roots: they are made to be a mnemonic, but of that  ‘quieter’ type I mentioned earlier, understanding which does not refer to Latin terms, and which is much closer in style to the regular ‘motifs’ as for example the circumscription-mark. These quieter memory-aids blur the line between  general ‘motifs’ and a particular group’s specific  ‘mnemonic device’.

It is important to emphasise here that whereas the mnemonic device may be (and usually is) unique to one given group, what I term an artificial  ‘motif’ carries  the same meaning, consistently, over the whole range of folios in which it is used. A ‘circumscription line’ always refers to cultivation; the ‘cut bole’ always means a harvested ‘timber’;  I’ll introduce others as we go.

If that consistency did not occur, then even if one suspected that these ‘motifs’ were meaningful, no more than a suspicion it would have to remain, and a suspicion is hardly worth bringing to the reader’s attention.

Consistency of form, and consistent application are essential for any visual ‘vocabulary’ whose aim is to communicate, not to obscure meaning. And that’s why these quiet mnemonics, composed like the standard ‘motifs’, really do assist the process of identification.

Earlier users of these pictures in our manuscript might have turned first to the mnemonics – both the standardised ‘motifs’ and the particular folio’s ‘mnemonic devices’ ~to help them in the market-place – to distinguish between the grades of plant that lay heaped on a trader’s table, or to ensure that what they ordered from agents heading to the mountains to fetch a list of specific plants was actually what they got. Being cheated in the markets was not a rare experience, and no factor wanted to return to his employer having bought or sometimes even ordered an entire crop in advance.. of quite the wrong plant..

In our case, however, lacking the same historical context or local knowledge, these elements can only be used by us a  final check for initial  identifications that are reached by considering the form given the plants themselves, and in most cases by first considering the type of leaf.

The main part of the figure in fol.22r was discussed in the previous post, and explained by reference to the three best-known in the  ‘Myrobalans’ group of plants.

However, the roots appear to reflect uses associated with just one among the myrobalans: T. chebula, which both in Europe, and in the eastern medical tradition, was considered less important than the other two: that is, the Emblic and the Beleric myrobalans.

T. chebula was noted rather as a source for tannins. These were used as inks, as leather-dyes and in textile work, functions which in Europe were served most often by oak-galls and barks.

As one works through the manuscript, such indications as this that our manuscript’s imagery has a non-Eurocentric focus will  accumulate, and they occur with such frequency, and with such circumstantial detail, that  I cannot conclude otherwise than that this manuscript, for all its basis in Hellenistic works, had been maintained east of Suez for a considerable period – centuries – before its matter came to be   copied (possibly in Europe) about 1438 or so..

In the lower part of the figure we see that the roots are so arranged as to hint at the way strands of fibre or of leather are overlapped, in the first stages – not of weaving, but of braiding leather or fibres.

To weave cloth, and to braiding fibre or leather one must begin by looping the cords or threads so that they lie side by side. However, it is only braiding which begins from the centre, and only braiding which uses a loop or eyelet. The weaver’s threads are laid around a rod or beam whose straightness is as necessary as proverbial.

Below, the arrangement of these roots is compare with techniques of weaving, and with braiding.

fol.22r detail
rope braiding
                   weaving diagram (backstrap)
 Since the way the roots are arranged normally serves to jog one’s memory about the uses to which the given plants were put, they tell us more about the original user/s immediate associations than about the plants themselves. In this case, for example, one sees that the first association for woven threads was not the loom, but the braider’s hook or eyelet, and this is – in fact – just as it should be given what we know from other sources about the nature of the east-west trade in earlier times.

Weaving at the loom was generally a sedentary occupation, and one considered lower-status work in most ancient and medieval societies, even if one wove silk. It was normally considered inappropriate work for a man, too, and our evidence suggests that women were not often engaged in international trade.

Certainly, many men wove, but I know of none who were well-rewarded, or credited with high status for their craft. In many societies, the task of weaving was left to marginal members of a society.

On the other hand, what we ourselves might consider a small craft, used chiefly in making bracelets, or work we call macrame, for the mariners, horsemen and caravaneers, the quality of braided leather and rope was of real importance, and maintaining the tack was a constant and essential task.

So greater familiarity with the techniques of braiding, over loom-weaving becomes perfectly understandable, and a thing which first springs to mind often becomes our best ‘memory aid’.

As for the myrobalans – they did not provide a fibre, but the dye and tannin for leatherwork, the preparatory mordant of kalamkari cloth-painting, and the tannins in scribal ink. And only one myrobalan (T. chebula) served all three purposes.

This takes us back to the ‘eyelet’ which is set at the Theophrastan point on fol.22r.

fol.22r detail

As you see, it is not formed as a smooth ring, but rather as a kind of triangular or diamond-shaped hollow, with the upper point elongated. It cannot be a literal image since a plant’s roots do not form in this way, in parallel lines from a triangular hollow.

For the illustration at right I am indebted to a reader who after reading this post, wrote to point out that the roots of the Yadake bamboo ( illustrated right) form in parallel, and that Yadake bamboo is the only one used for arrows in traditional Japan. I see no evidence in the rest of the folio which would suggest reference to Japan here, though Buddhism had arrived there before the middle of the sixth century AD.  (Dates range from 250 to 538 CE).  Chinese ships were visiting Japan by the 8thC, but I have found no mention of a trade in arrows or Yadake bamboo.

But I am more inclined to see the ‘eyelet’ as referring to a second use for the tannins from T. chebula. Where the braiding may suggest leather dyes and/or fabric, this ‘eyelet’ I take to be a variant of the mnemonic I’ve described as the nib-motif.

The picture below is included, not only to show how the reed-pen used in the east is cut to such a shape, but also to suggest a possible explanation for the manuscript’s rapid shifts in tone between the darker red-brown and the lighter

‘Related Tibetan Scripts’ blog Jan28,2012
fol.22r detail
 (The kalamkari pen has a large swelling on the handle below the tip. I see no reference to it in fol.22r).

I am not arguing that the Voynich manuscript itself was written with a reed pen.

I am suggesting that whichever scribes are responsible for our manuscript had either used such pens or (and arguably this is more likely) tried perfectly to reproduce every aspect of some prior text/s…  which had been.

In general, the ‘eyelet’ or ‘nib’ motif  in these botanical folios is formed with an eyelet having two  flowing lines extending from it  – just as here.

In the usual way, I shouldn’t have paid much attention to so small a detail; over-examination of imagery has its own pitfalls. In this case, however, it illuminates the nature of the original maker/s and users, as well as the applications for the group of plants.

I should hope that it has also provided readers with an insight into the  intelligent and accurate information embodied in these folios.  One can understand why such constructed figures were described in earlier Europe as ‘hieroglyphics’ –  form and meaning are so carefully maintained in tandem. And of course, Kircher believed that Chinese characters – which have a similar quality – derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

So – 

(i) the plainly vegetative elements in fol.22r – such as the arrangement of racemes, fruit and so on have accorded with those myrobalans that we know were most used and traded – even into Europe – before the Voynich manuscript was made.

(ii) he mnemonic device in the stem is again appropriate for that identification, and

(iii) the mnemonic offered by the representation of the roots does not contradict but rather supplements information about uses for myrobalans in the same, eastern sphere.

Although our modern taxonomy has one of the older ‘myrobalans’ group as Emblica officinalis, where the other are Terminalia…, quite the opposite view was taken in older, and eastern societies and that older view is reflected in our manuscript – as one would expect.

So altogether we have sufficient reason, I think, to conclude that fol. 22r does in fact represent the Myrobalans group.

In the scriptoria of Europe, as far as I’m aware, the non-medicinal uses for T.chebula were unknown by the fifteenth century – another reason for believing that the manuscript is not the personal invention of some European author.

Review of fol 22r

(and then some tech-y details)

————fol. 22r. Reviewed


T. chebula

as a mordant:

Powdered (immature) fruit, and seeds, from T. chebula  provide a sizing-and-mordant for kalamkari work,  allowing the black dye (kasimi) to be applied without the addition of any mordanting agent to the ink itself. The method is as follows:

After an unbleached cotton cloth (gada) is scoured and bleached, a paste is made from freshly drawn buffalo milk and powdered fruit of Terminalia chebula (karakkai), in proportions of  10:1 (mls/grams). The mixture is left to rest for an hour to leech the seeds’ tannic acid. One can treat six meters of rinsed and wrung-out cloth with a mixture  containing 200grams of Myrobalan powder. After about a quarter of an hour, cloth properly saturated becomes light yellow in colour. At that time, the excess liquid is wrung out, and the cloth shaken and left to dry in sunlight for about an hour. A sandy soil by a riverbank is preferred. When dry the cloth, now sized, may be folded and kept in a cool dry place for about three months until wanted. Ink applied to it will fix without further mordants.

As an ink still used today:
According to a recent (2007) draft Standards paper published by the Indian government, commercial ink production [still] includes tannin extracted from T. chebula.


The same source reports that tanin extracted from the  seeds of T. chebula has been used from time beyond memory as “a tanning agent. for hides and skins. Known as HARRA (Hindi), HIRDA (Marathi), ANALE (Kannada), KADAKAI (Tamil), KARAKKAYA (Telugu), HARITAKI(Bengali)”.

extra cultural notes.
Religious associations for the Myrobalans:
*Buddhism: Tibetan see: L.Augustine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism with its mystice(sic) cults, symbolism and mythology, and in … By p.354 (visible thru G/books)
*Hinduism: named Haritaki (Skt), Hara, Harriti  etc. because sacred to Lord Shiva (Hara)
*Among the Nairs of Kerala, Emblica officinalis is known as Nelli, and is associated with the Nakshatra (lunar mansion) named Rohini; in the Hindu system the same lunar mansion is associated with Prajapati.
husks of Terminalia belerica (Myrobalans group)

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