fol 86v: A Curious orientation

a map winds_and_tides 2


As the folio is bound, it is clear that the north-emblem is off-centre, and where we might expect to see North at the top-centre (or a South- or an East- point there), the place is occupied instead by a ‘canopy’ motif – a type of image we’ll meet in other sections of the manuscript, later. [see featured image, above].

Yet, even rotating the sheet to put the North emblem at its top, doesn’t make it look like a western type of map – not medieval nor modern, for now the setting sun (i.e. West) lies to viewer’s right hand as we’ve seen, though this is utterly contrary to our own habit. (It is as if the order of the weathervane, or a purely south-oriented system were used to determine the map’s disposition, but even that doesn’t explain everything we shall find here.)

The problem here [which has previously preventing modern Voynich researchers relating to this folio as a map] is that we are used to looking at our [modern] north-pointing maps as if we actually stood, not north of the ecliptic [or north of the equator], but far to the south, below the line of the sun and – in effect – at the south pole. When confronted with a map made to orient to the south, we mentally remove ourselves to the north Pole.. and so on.

That habit of assuming a disjunction between where we actually stand [on the earth], and where we ‘should’ stand (conceptually) while looking at a map is a habit so ingrained in us that it’s difficult for us to imagine doing things any other way.

Our custom is to think constantly of direction-marks on a worldmap as  if they were marks cut into some fixed and solid horizon, one which lies on a fixed perimeter, but outside any physical map.  That’s the way I’ve arranged the letters ‘N-S-W-E’ on the map above, too (well, as nearly as possible). The letters might have been placed around the central island – but that’s not our habit for worldmaps.

So one thing is clear: whoever made this map either didn’t have the same attitudes as we do ~ viewing the relationship between direction and place differently ~ or this is the result of some factor such as ignorance or accident.

Apart from supposing that the people who created Beinecke ms408 bound the map with south-west to the upper right edge, which would make nonsense of the inset ‘minimap’ and its orientation,  there are ways to make sense of its presentation.

blog minimap fol 86v flipped adjusted

The detail from folio 86v shown above fills the map’s North roundel and adds the otherwise missing reference to the Mediterranean and Black Sea. In my posts it is often describedas the ‘minimap’.

We may suppose (for example) that the map on folio 86v has been traced, and that whoever included it in ms Beinecke 408 didn’t need to reverse it, or didn’t care to – or had no idea they should.

Another possible explanation, I think, is that the makers of the map were perfectly comfortable with the arrangement as we see it, because they didn’t imagine the directions as absolute, but recognised them more accurately – that is, as relative.

‘Relative to what’ is a reasonable question, and one that I treat in more detail in later posts. For the Egyptians, ‘relative to the sun’ meant relative to where the sun stood at the time; some Russian maps picture the sun twice on a map.

A context in which such a  ‘reversal’ is not uncommon and which we do not find troublesome are reversed astronomical figures: reversed due to tracings from older globes; or from a custom of depicting constellations as if the viewer was way above them, looking down through the constellations towards the earth.

The illustration above comes from a manuscript of the Tatar-Mongol period, and I include it not only to illustrate such reversal, but also because of the form given the bull’s lyrate horns, very delicate (almost zebu-like) front legs, and the long face, all of which bear comparison with imagery in the ‘astrological’ section of Beinecke 408. [use the Beinecke’s  ‘zoom’ on fol 71v].

As with our manuscript, that astronomical illustration seems to reverse ‘east’ and ‘west’, even though the ‘up’ for north and ‘down’ for south remain right enough. Exactly as we have with fol.86v.

So, if it makes you more comfortable, just download the map from the Beinecke library’s website,  flip it, then print. Which will give you…

[A]  goes to  [B]











Postscript: see also the Beth Alpha mosaic.

Other explanations for the reversal are of course possible,  and even likely, including for example a possibility that the sheet was to be used as a template, or as preliminary to cutting of a carved block.

On the other hand, it might be that the original makers and users were no more discomforted by a reversed terrestrial map than we are by a reversed astronomical one.  Wayfinders (like astronomers) tend to be more flexible and realistic about the relativity of direction.

We don’t use words like ‘left’ or ‘right’ in any absolute sense, but define them from the point of view which we accord ourselves, someone else, or an object. Our culture accepts that there is no absolute ‘left’ or ‘right’  but treats the names for the directions differently, even though – in fact – there’s no  absolute  ‘east’ or ‘west’ either – unless you believe in a fixed, flat earth.

So yet another explanation is therefore possible: that while the maker’s ‘centre of the world’ lay in the northern hemisphere, his custom was to define directions as relative, and probably as relative to the position at which he currently stood. For now, though, the simpler explanation will do. The map has to be ‘flipped’.

And speaking of the map’s centre…

The way that centre is depicted on fol.86v comes closest of any object in the manuscript to representing the substance of the European T-O maps.

Presented as an island, ringed by three distinct and unbroken concentric bounding walls, with an outermost perimeter formed of little banners (as stars or as bannermen?) separated from the internal ‘island’ by a heaven-band (Ger: wolkenband), it does offer a fair equivalent to imagery of the greater world and its contained Pairi.daêza.

Postscript 2: (December 9th., 2012). I also add a comment (without comment) from a paper by Joanne Conman:

For the Egyptians, direction was a consequence of time, contingent upon the sun’s location. The Egyptians had one word that meant both “west” and “right” and another word meaning both “east” and “left”.

The Egyptians divided the perpetually turning sky into right and left sides. The sky’s right side faced them in the day and its left side faced them at night, as a hymn says,

“Deine beiden Augen kreisen Tag und Nacht, dein rechtes ist die Sonnenscheibe, dein linkes der Mond”

– Joanne Conman, ‘It’s about Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology’,  Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, Bd.31, (2003), pp.33-71

Postscript (Nov. 2014)  I rather think that, just as in  most early ideas of the cosmos, the inhabited earth is imagined ringed by a barrier impassable to the living – as a wall, a ring of mountains etc., upon which the ramparts and towers hold watchers ready to repel those who attempt to ascend without Heavenly permission.  Human habit often being to recreate on earth the conceptual model of the celestial realm, what we may be seeing here could all be literal, or a ‘paradise-on-earth’, or indeed a cosmological image whose centre is the physical world.  For the notion of  ‘angels on the ramparts’ see e.g. Jewish traditions, Christian traditions, Islamic traditions, Indian traditions, and imagery in the Book of Rohan shown in another post in this blog.


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