fol.86v Emblems of direction: South and East

The emblem for East is self-explanatory.

The emblem for South is based on astronomical lore  older by far than the Greeks, but the original maker of this image  probably associated the sign with the southern heaven’s ‘anchor’ stars and in particular with alpha Carinae, which we call Canopus.

Those who regularly  sailed or walked the ways below the equator knew that no single star occupied the southern celestial Pole, but that its position might be triangulated using three of the brightest in the vicinity. Over time, those used for this purpose changed, and also changed according to latitude. Some options are illustrated below, and another example shown at the end of this post.

Indian belief placed a mountain named Vadavamukha [the mare’s mouth] or Kumeru at the southern limit of the world. Christianity spoke of the circle of hell  in the far south, and Greek myth imagined the ship of Canopus there, forever beached on the far southern island.

The Arabs assumed that Canopus marked the point of the southern Pole until at least the tenth century, and in poetry and proverb, it remains so still.

The three-dot motif  on fol.86v may therefore refer to Canopus simply as  the southern ‘anchor’ star, known as Agastya in Indian tradition. Or (depending on where we have this map on folio 86v), it may reflect real knowledge of the heavens as they appear below the line of the equator – in such places as Java and the Spice islands.

During the Hellenistic and Roman period, those who journeyed south for trade had surely seen them.

In any case, to associate the notion of the anchor with such a pattern was obvious, since in the Mediterranean, the ordinary stone anchor was commonly made with three piercings, formed as an equilateral triangle.

Some added meaning (possibly religious) was attached to this motif  by residents of the Egyptian delta in earlier times.

A ‘tattooed’ version was found carved into a sculpted hand there, but whether it signified dedication or consignment of a ruined piece to the waste, one cannot know. The finder describes it as an amulet.

The motif is found, about the same time, painted on Persianised and Hellenistic works in the Mediterranean. It is then associated with a female maritime figure who (despite a common confusion) is neither a Scylla nor a Medusa. She holds in one hand the palm-branch of maritime measures (for determining height and distance in astronomical measure) and an emblem of the knotted string known today as the loh, kamal, or kombologion which complemented it.

This figure represents a deity of the southern underworld, where ancient and medieval people imagined an endless sea. Devotees, however, had believed the south the origin of life and earthly plenty..

A Hellenistic portrait of Cleopatra  identifies her with the same older figure, the body made as sea-born Aphrodite, the character of that ‘other’ Demeter expressed by the grain, but more to the point by the vine and grapes of the ‘vine road’ and on the Egyptian-style disc above her head has been included same three-dot motif.

Such syncretism allowed  Hellenistic Egypt’s wide variety of peoples to recognise their own deities in the one figure.

Its presence in the manuscript indicates, just as the emblem for ‘west’ did, that this map originates in a time long before the fifteenth century.

In sum: the emblem used for south is an old one, constant in its significance of a southern  ‘fons et origo‘. For an Egyptian equivalent for the boundary line and its regularly-spaced three dots, see the illustration at right.


Postscript: I should add that Mediterranean works of the 1stC AD often refer to the southern limit using  a circle of dots. Below is the first example, the Mainz astronomical globe.








The Romans used the motif of the dotted (rather than barred) circle, but since most of Romans’ art and culture was derivative – certain techniques of their architecture taken from the Etruscans, other elements from the Carthaginians or Greeks and so forth, so in this case one cannot say how old the motif may really be, or where they had it from.

The same motif is seen represented on the Mainz globe (c.150 – 220 AD)as a pair of asterisms placed  fore and aft of an old constellation that was depicted as a serpent-ship in Egyptian works, but which appears in other forms from the earliest times and which is represented in Egypt as in Cycladic art, surviving to appear in the Artemidorus papyrus in Egypt during the 1st-2ndC Ad, and in Coptic works to the Byzantine period. The constellation itself was still known to Schiller in the seventeenth century – but during the interim it had been generally eradicated from the set of figures  accepted by imperial Rome.

Though the circle around the three stars in fol.96v’s ‘South’ emblem is marked by vertical bars (which in Carian imagery signifies an original and solid  ‘foundation’), the dotted circle may signify the equivalent here. Below is illustrated the pair of asterisms from the Mainz globe . One lies below Orion and Lepus, and the other perhaps 45 degrees distant but at the same (celestial) latitude.

The second example is from a glass fragment found in Vindolanda, definitely from a Roman stratum and dated to late in the 1stC AD. (Note the ‘lacing’ design about the rim: it occurs on some vessels in the manuscript’s  pharma section).

glass fragment, Vindolanda 1stC AD

Here the pair of dotted circles appears to imply not the extremity of the sky but the sense of the Latin ‘ad extremum’.

A martial character, and an eternal, unrelenting opposition ‘from the foundation of the world’ seems to have attached to the ancient astronomical figure, too,  implied by numerous pre-Roman era examples. One interesting Mycenaean ring shows a woman endlessly toiling at the tiller, burned by the relentless sun.

In relation to fol.86v and its south emblem, we may say that if the circle around the three stars conveys a sense of absolute limit or original foundation, it is perfectly apt, reinforcing implications carried by other motifs in this same folio: namely that it derives from a time before emperors and invaders imposed a uniform monotheism on all Mediterranean peoples.



(1) Scandinavia:

This three-dot motif  must be distinguished from another, used to represent the beginning of the year. It refers to  stars forming the first asterism (Ar: manzil) in the series of 27 or 28 marking the lunar year.


There is next to nothing available online about the manazil that is relevant. I can only suggest this Brill page. The wiki article is not pertinent in the present case, since it seems to restrict itself to one, very particular, application for the term and does not so much as mention the term’s usual reference, which is astronomical.  Nor were lunar calendars of ancient Arabia, which named months by the manazil, only given mnemonic verses for each day by Muslim scholars. These verses, as Serjeant notes are very ancient still in some cases, though in others plainly affected by the later (post 7thC AD) innovations and religious culture.  The Arabs had developed their agriculture, its rosters and their astronomical knowledge millenia before the advent of the Muslim faith.

Nor were the manazil ever used primarily in their native lands for formal astrology, as some English language websites assume – though in that way most of western Christendom heard of them, and used them. All in all, I can only refer readers to some reputable printed text, such as Nasr’s Introduction to Islamic Cosmology, or  Emilie Savage-Smith’s study of Islamicate celestial globes. – sorry.

In Scandinavia, in the sixteenth century, there emerged (or re-emerged) a type of tabula or rod described as a clog calendar. The older ones are carved in bone or ivory, but others made in wood.

On one, made c.1500 in Sweden,  the sign for the year’s  ‘beginning’ is made V-shaped.  Its points are not emphasised; they are not formed as a right-angle. So if it is related in any way to astronomy, it is more likely to refer to the narrower ‘triangulum’ formed by the first manzil in Aries, the two principal stars being known as the “Measurers’ stars” in Arabic works.

Sweden. c1500 AD. ivory

(2) Canopus in New Zealand

The links between Hellenistic (or older Egyptian) peoples and those Maori mariner peoples who to New Zealand during the medieval centuries has often been raised.

I don’t intend to raise it here.  But the Maori legend of Canopus, and their three white stars as ‘anchor’ (in this case the three white stars in Crux) is recorded and well illustrated here:


14 thoughts on “fol.86v Emblems of direction: South and East

  1. Diane

    I was looking for what you had written about Canopus or the southern celestial pole. You see, I am convinced that the “wavy lines”, at one level of meaning, represent the boundary of both poles. For the northern pole circle, this works out perfectly: the Ursae and Draco are above the line, and some other constellations cross it in the appropriate location.

    I was starting to suspect that the “peg and canopy” above the cross-nymph had to represent the southern pole circle, beyond which the stars are never visible. If my interpretation of this nymph as Argo Navis is correct, then it would make sense to place the southern pole beyond this constellation. So I take the top of f79v as representing Argo Navis skimming the edge of the visible sky.

    However, with each analysis, I grow more convinced that bathy B was originally a work of Hellenistic Egyptian syncretism, though I still think it represents the “Greek” constellations.

    Now I’m intrigued by the blue lion amulet you posted here. That bottom part, the circle, that’s got Voynich written all over it, but it’s older than 1000 BCE. Am I correct in assuming that it shows a “peg and canopy” as seen from the top? And that the canopy on f79v shows the same thing seen from the side?

    And so would it be possible that these images are made to speak to “Greeks” and Egyptians alike, and those that were the children of this hybrid culture? It’s like someone tried to make a blend of imagery that would work for both. Kind of an astronomical Serapis 🙂

    So in the Greek system this would be the “never visible circle”, while for the Egyptians it’s some southern boundary, and perhaps refers to Canopus as well?


    • I think Canopus and his ‘ship’ (here not as Argo ratis but subsumed into..) the transfixed beam (Sulbar/Sulba) could be the reference of the figure at the bottom of folio 79r. Al-biruni remarks in his Indike on the fact that it Canopus was used as marker for the southern pole (the Pole sometimes as ‘nail’ al-Mikh) ~ which would then, in my opinion, make the vignette on f.79r equivalent to the bat-winged figure on the Genoese map of 1457. The same star Canopus was identified with Agastya, patron of Siddha medicine.

      The usual name for Canopus among the Arabs was Suhail. In traditional lore of the Bedu he was imagined a great figure deposed. In other cases Suhail is identified with King David, less as king of Israel than the person to whom the secret of metal-working had been entrusted. Thus, of course, equivalent to Hephaestos, who is also located in the world ‘below’ and in a sense a lord of the underworld. But none of that last set of classical and Arabic lore appears to me to be present in the Voynich imagery.

      The Indian ‘Sulba’ actually means he knotted cord used for measuring – and so the radial measures of that figure on the Genoese map. Not something the Genoese invented, but an older idea of Agastya in India – attested plainly no later than the 3rdC AD, and who knows how much older?

      (edited to clarify)


      • It’s quite a puzzle with all these possible cultural influences running through each other.

        At the moment I still believe the current contents of the bathy section were fully established before the period when we might expect major Arab influences. That is, of course, ignoring later stylistic and cosmetic (or rather, anti-cosmetic) alterations to the figures.

        I mean Canopus like the bright star in Argo Navis, that also had importance in navigation. If the nymph with the cross is Argo like I think it is, then it is placed very prominently on the top of the page, just like Ursa Minor is on f80v. They serve similar purposes but are placed near opposite “poles”. That speaks to the “Greek” side of the audience.

        Clearly the peg-and-canopy above the nymph with the cross speaks to the “Egyptian” side, since you show that it is an Egyptian motif. But seeing what you have written about it, wouldn’t an association with the “boundary” of the sky and Canopus’ guiding light be appropriate? As well as, perhaps, any associations with the origin of the Nile?

        Also, do you think the canopy might represent, or be an adapted form of, the “Usekh” (Egyptian “aegis”) and the peg its counterweight, the “menat”? This relief from Dendera shows the (oversized) counterweight on the left and the aegis in the middle.

        (I am aware that splitting things in “Greek” and “Egyptian” might not be proper in a context where these influences mingled and brought forth new forms, and one person might feel comfortable with both of them and perhaps not even see the difference – it’s just for convenience :))

        Sorry, so many questions and so much to learn! 🙂


      • Koen,
        I have said exactly that – that the canopy represents the delta as the original ‘aegis’ or covering as mark of divine favour, translated then into the goatskin borne by messengers and traders – first as those of Egypt and very early adopted by the Greeks. I’ve given a fair number of posts over to this subject, its history, references from Herodotus etc. and comparative imagery, from north Africa to the eastern limits of the Hellenistic empire.

        I’ve also said, already, in treating the cross-like object that it is most likely to refer at once to astronomy and to the measuring device – I referred in particular to the Egyptian instruments used to measure both astronomical and terrestrial distances, and while it is certainly true that the older port of Egypt was named by the star we call Canopus, and that this was once the star which led one to the port, it is a star found far to the south, and so the line of travel would still see it as the lowest marker of the journey. That the Arabs traditionally took Canopus as notional marker for the southern Pole doesn’t limit the dating to post-7thC AD. The Arabs had been described as occupying the western side of the delta even in the 8thC AD when Herodotus wrote. We know from the past three-quarter of a century’s concerted study of pre-Islamic tribes’ indigenous astronomy that knowledge of the stars did not begin with the adoption of Greco-Indian mathematical astronomical texts.


  2. Diane

    Thanks! I just wanted to confirm whether the image I linked would be an appropriate illustration. It looks like something people might understand and also shows that “Egyptian” doesn’t have to mean “1000 BCE”. Thinking of the general audience 🙂

    I’ve come a long way from my original impression of the images as mainly illustrating Greek myth. I’ve carefully considered all your objections and most of them were well founded. The focus is astronomical, and there’s a clear Egyptian layer. Of course I would have never seen an Egyptian layer if you hadn’t exposed it before. It’s one of those things you have to be shown if you’re not an expert, but once you have seen it, it’s quite convincingly there.

    I also think you may be right about how the water ways relate to the Nile, though that would only be a minor aspect of the overall meaning on the more narrative folios.

    What I still don’t understand is why the section can’t be described as purely a product of Hellenistic Egypt. I don’t see any reason to assume a date later than the 2ndC CE (other than cosmetic alterations). One could even argue that the section’s contents was completely finished in the BCE period, though it could be the first centuries CE as well.

    I think the aspects you see as belonging to later navigators’ knowledge are actually part of the original Hellenistic blend – which I hope to demonstrate adequately when my paper is finished 🙂


    • Koen,
      The evidence of post-Hellenistic input and use is partly the fact that while the design of some sections (such as the month roundels) suggests that origin, the present form of the imagery would have horrified a Hellenistic Greek, I think it’s fair to say. If anyone revered the human form as the embodiment of reason and physicality combined it was they. I can’t imagine a Hellenistic Greek artist even conceiving of figures so disproportioned etc., let alone setting out to make them. There is the other thing too – that it was considered worth replicating in a fifteenth century manuscript most likely made in northern Italy shows that the information *and* culture which led to such imagery had maintained its relevance over a period of as much as two millennia. Time, location and culture bring such changes to the expression of a corpus which itself is constantly maintained. If the ‘aegis’ is meant for the Egyptian delta, and the cross-like thing for a constellation, then someone had known it to as late as the time the exemplars were made, at least.

      Actually Dante is thought to have known the Southern Cross constellation even though officially it doesn’t enter the Latin astronomy until the time of Magellan.


      • PS – (i) thank you and (ii) pleasure. and (iii) two sources I have found very helpful are Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and the massive study of North African traditions done by a husband and wife team. Theirs was one of the items in my library lost in 2013, and for the moment their name escapes me. Ginzburg’s text (in several volumes) helps non-Jews understand more deeply what we are seeing in illustrated copies of Haggadah It is available through the internet archive.


  3. I agree that the human figures look absolutely un-Greek, un-Roman, un-Egyptian and un-European for that matter. Of course, that doesn’t have to mean that the figures originally looked like that. But altering the appearance of the human body is something I classify under later stylistic alterations. I agree with your observation about those, but at the same time they don’t necessarily *need* to imply that the actual contents were changed as well.

    Deformed human figures can be seen in a number of surviving Aratus manuscripts, even the 9thC ones. Their contents are absolutely Greco-Roman though. It’s quite clear in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Nouv. ac. lat. 1614 (9thC), which can be viewed on the Warburg website. The figures are deformed in a different way than the Voynich ones, but they are still out of proportion and “rubbery”.

    Closer parallels for the VM nymphs are found in the 15thC Pal.Lat. 1389, for example this guy:

    I don’t mean that the VM passed through the same path as these manuscripts, but it does show that contents can be maintained even if human figures are dramatically altered.

    That does, however, move the problem I face to your second point. If I want to posit that the contents are entirely Greco-Roman-Egyptian, and the form of the nymphs is the result of copying by later cultures, then why was the material worth copying for them? Why did they want to keep this? That is a question I can’t answer at the moment. I’m still working on the “what”, the “why” is a different matter 😉


    • Koen -perhaps more relevant to the earlier period are the Greco-Bactrian ones (which you have also mentioned), and those from a late Hellenistic/Roman-era site in Alexandria (often called the Tigrane tomb). I’ve referred to it, and shown illustrations too – though they are by personal kindness of the scholar who wrote the article from which those illustrations came.(and thus not to be copied from my site for re-use). Poor drawing is one thing, but the Voynich figures’ heads are pretty consistently as long as the distance between collar bone and navel. That is unusual for any Latin work, well or badly drawn. Add to that the limbs which appear to be deliberately rendered ‘boneless’ and the number which show a specific deformity for the face, even while very nicely representing other facial features, foreheads well proportioned, backs and bellies and armpits effortlessly rendered etc.. these things speak not to an individual incompetence but to there being a reason for making sure no-one mistook the figures for any real person or deity. All the more likely if, once, they had represented ‘gods’ or tyches etc.


    • Koen,
      You can see in one of my pages here my conclusions about why the matter was retained so long and, as as separate issue, thought worth copying in the early fifteenth century, probably in northern Italy, so I hardly think you need it repeated in a comment here. I gather that you find it less than satisfactory. 🙂

      I might add that while writing up a post about the Juliana Anicia codex, I came to think that your seeing Hellenistic figures in the ‘leaves and roots’ section mightn’t be quite as far-fetched as I’d thought. I’m still not at all sure that the point can be adequately argued: the remaining evidence is so vastly altered from any possible original imagery – but at least one folio from the Juliana Anicia shows that there was a practice of putting mythological figures adjacent to a ‘plant’ as prompt to sources for it. Interestingly, the example in that sixth-century manuscript does not relate to anything in Dioscorides, but to another work composed (it is thought) by Rufus of Ephesus about that time, and which – rendered into Latin in eleventh-century France – became the ‘Macer Floridus’ poem. Extra interesting given what I’ve been talking about recently in relation to folio 49v. Rhymed and rhythm are the essence of memorised text, and in another post I mentioned the work of Philo of Tarsus in that context. Tarsus is on the southern shore of Asia Minor, another of those cities on the old ‘astronomer’s coast’ so important to the growth of Greco-Roman astronomy. Not far from the port later known as Ayas or Laiazzo, either. 🙂


  4. Haha, I get it, so those Aratea are just crappy drawings. It is true that the Voynich is much more consistent.

    There are many things that make the stylistic issues more complex. For example, the fact that the faces in the root-and-leaf section roots are drawn in a different style than the nymphs – unmarred. The fact that the hand-root-mnemonic on f100r is a much more anatomically correct hand than that on the nymphs. Was this hand added later, or rather before and did it escape deformation because it’s in a root? Is it elongated because its style is eastern (later), or rather Egyptian (early)?

    Also, is it possible that the figures already had strange proportions and the marring was done in a different (Semitic) stratum? And if there may be Bactrian or Kushan stylistic influences, then why does at least part of the imagery appear to speak “Egyptian”?

    Or if we go with the Alexandrian example, is it possible that the figures ended up with those proportions because the draughtsman, or an early copyist, was Egyptian and that was the way some of them drew in those times?

    (these are not meant as critical questions, it’s genuine confusion ;))

    Your remark about the Juliana Alicia is very interesting. I think I have seen that one before, with some kind of sea deity. The fact that this plant is from a separate tradition makes it all the more fascinating. The goal is different, but it does show a similar use of visual vocabulary.

    By the way: do you happen to have any hints about the top nymphs on f80r? They are the most problematic at the moment in my analysis. Specifically I know their meaning on the narrative-mnemonic level, but not on the astronomical level. I don’t think they represent constellations like the others do.

    I did assign a constellation to the pair top right and the pair top left, and I have an idea about the “queen” standing on a platform in the middle. The five remaining figures though, all singles facing left, are problematic. They are not constellations. Since there are five of them, and several of them are running or implied in motion, I wondered if they could be the Wandering Stars, i.e. planets. This wouldn’t fit very well in a context of navigation, but it could be part of something Aratus-like. So well I wonder what you think about these figures and their attributes.


    • Koen,
      It’s my opinion that the sections where we see the ‘ladies’ or ‘nymphs’ had come by a separate route into the Latin west and generally I divide the content into three sections: those containing such ‘ladies’ or ‘nymphs’; those which are focused on botanical and related matter (i.e. the botanical folios and the ‘roots and leaves’ section which I also describe as the lading section) – and the third is the map on folio 86v-as-was, now foliated more awkwardly as “85v and 86r”.

      Apart from what I see as their common origin in Hellenistic sources, and a common relevance to the practical aspects of an east-west trade (notably without any obvious reference to animal products), I don’t see much in common between these sections’ approach to imagery and don’t often speak across the divisions.

      About folio 80r. I was interested to note that the pair on the left right* are the most life-like figures in the manuscript. I also pointed out that the female’s hat is not incompatible with central and hither Asia, to as far as the map clearly takes us overland. One might speculate that female figure is meant as allusion to Andromeda the ‘Woman in Chains’ and that her hands behind her back signify a time and latitude where the outstretched arms are invisible to the viewer, but another person might argue, equally, that it is an image of some captured queen, Zenobia being appropriate to the Hellenistic-Roman context. It’s too speculative an idea to be worth research time, imo .. so I didn’t go further into it.

      * (I’ve been looking at a lot of astronomical imagery lately, and one gets into the habit of reversing a line of figures.)


  5. Oh, I get the problem with astronomical imagery. It’s especially bad the Farnese Atlas because it shows the figures not only mirrored left-right but also as seen from the back (as it should to remain correct).

    To get back to the Egyptian Aegis, do you think any connection with the goddess Bastet is appropriate? Her Ptolemaic period statuettes very often show her holding an aegis in front of her chest, topped with a sun disk, not unlike the shape evoked in the Voynich.

    A statuette can be seen here:

    Also note the pattern in the dress, that’s pure Voynich right there. You’ve written about it already in relation to the barrels I think, though perhaps not about such example. According to the museum’s note, the “hatching” is supposed to represent the fact that the dress is of made of quality fabric, and perhaps evoke a cat’s fur, though they aren’t sure.


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