‘Astrological zodiac’ roundels ~ the hypothesis

* note – throughout the post, the sort of zodiac I mean is the one so commonly supposed represented in these folios: that is the European astrologers’  standard 12-figure solar zodiac.  

Thinking about what might be – could be – or even what ‘should be’ can be a spur to research, but as an intuitive conclusion, it has less value.

The inscriptions on the twelve folios which are so widely supposed a zodiac are not to be relied on as proof for that assumption.

The twelve images in the centre of these twelve folios cannot represent a twelve-figure zodiac because two figures ( goats and  bulls) are included twice ~ Nor are goats normally assigned to April.

For argument’s sake and despite their being  stock, standard images for ‘the goat’ in medieval manuscript art, we might agree to pretend that the goats are sheep.

A zodiac does not contain two sheep ~ nor does it have a sheep and goat adjacent other.

As I point out in a subsequent post, the picture labelled with what seems to be the equivalent of ‘April’ shows a rough-haired and smooth-haired creature on hilly ground, munching on a bush or small tree.

Domestic sheep don’t browse at all –  they graze (i.e. crop grass directly from the ground, not by stripping leaves off trees or bushes).

What is more, the goat’s habitat and habit of browsing was inextricably linked to its  Latin etymology (he-goats: caper; cropping bushes: capere; uneven places: capatere aspera – vide Isidore IX) so that these were the associations established by the terms and language which informed daily speech among the learned and the basic education of all the literate in western Christendom.

I’ll be quoting the basic texts such as Isidore and the bestiaries on that point.

In addition, the curves given the horns here, and omission of the beard is in keeping with classical habit. Compare the jawlines ~ as drawn in a medieval bestiary as against a mosaic from Greco-Roman Antioch.

And it is also very difficult to argue (as one might about imagery of scorpions or crabs) that such animals as bulls, sheep or goats were misrepresented by a fifteenth-century European.

Bulls have straight backs; sheep crop grass; goats browse bushes.


European Bull

Everyone knew that. One couldn’t walk to the local village on market day without realising that a bull doesn’t have this sort of dip in its spine as, for instance, a horse might do.

Even a monk who had entered the monastery enclosure as a child, and never left it would know so from whatever books were in his library.

But let us suppose it so – that the goats are sheep, and they are doubled. Also that the bulls are meant for European bulls and these too, but no others, were doubled.

Two more questions inevitably follow:-

(a) Why are  no other creatures doubled? and (b) where’s the rest of the zodiac?

Doubled zodiacs &/or missing folio

Some researchers have observed, rightly, that zodiacs do exist in which each of the twelve creatures is seen doubled.

An interesting example is seen the (almost-certainly astrological) Tabula Bianchini, drawn in a fusion of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greco-Roman style. It is  presently dated to the 2nd-3rdC AD. There are others.

To posit that our goats (“sheep”)  and bulls are doubled because the series was originally a doubled-zodiac, or that only two figures are missing, we have to rely on the ‘missing folio’ for our argument.

There’s certainly one absent folio between this section and the next.  Whether it was cut out because superfluous, or whether it was ever inscribed, we simply do..not..know.

The cut folio comes between those inscribed  “73” and “75”  – which is why it is assumed that only this one  [fol.74] is gone. That is how the quire is described  at voynich.nu, and recently  Nick Pelling told me that he thought so too.

Nick thinks this missing folio contained “the last two” figures – by which he means Aquarius and Capricorn, as he explained –  which would make the total number of the ‘zodiac figures’ in the Vms fourteen.

The idea would still require us to read the two goats as two sheep, then in effect ignoring one of them and – I suppose – ignoring one of the bulls, too.

A fairly hefty piece of imaginary reconstruction, but nicely convenient if it could be proven. We might get away with it by invoking the arcane calculations of computus.

However, another explanation might be that the two extra goats and bulls represent the simpler process of  intercalation (needed often only for lunar, not solar calendars, but let that pass).

Or we could say it allowed for adjustments  between regional calendars: for example between the Byzantine and Roman Easter. Not that there’s any detail in the image which can be cited as confirmation,  so far as I know. But the inscriptions on the doubled figures (the open and closed type of posited ‘a’ for example) might be invoked in support.

Doubtful, I think, but perhaps appealing to some. And it would have to be supported by hefty maths – and some explanation of why so highly trained a mathematician couldn’t tell the difference between sheep and goats, or draw a bull which looked like one.

On the other hand, to argue that it was originally not a zodiac, but a calendar would be more arguable: see Intercalation (timekeeping) for some examples.  But this present issue is about whether the series of 12 folios represents an astrologer’s zodiac.

So what about the alternative: an originally doubled zodiac?.

Doubled zodiac

So far we have twelve figures already and one potential extra folio.

Even if that missing folio were supposed a fold-out like the largest fold-out page in the manuscript, it could add no more than six roundels to the total, giving only 18, six short of the 24 required.

To argue that another entire  bifolio is missing is even possible in theory.

The ever-patient Mr. Pelling, who had written on this question in 2008 (before the C-14) said  that:

I suspect that the folio numbers were added between 1580 and 1600, around the time that the manuscript was rebound into its current order ..

and recently he added more detail. (See the post at ciphermysteries.)

So in that way one could posit a total of 24 figures ~ by arguing that there had been two more bifolios, one removed, but the other cut only near the time of numbering, so that the person who did the numbering accounted only for that single missing folio… except then the difficulty would be that from fol. 73v-iii the figures would be out of order, and not actually doubled, but rather repeated. Adjacency is the definition of any known ‘doubled zodiac’.

In sum:

If you’re one of those who really wants the series to be a zodiac, or thinks it just “feels like common sense that it’s a zodiac” then you’ll understand exactly how the cryptographers feel, time and again, as another promising hypothesis just won’t work.


5 thoughts on “‘Astrological zodiac’ roundels ~ the hypothesis

  1. Isn’t the simplest explanation that the author was a townie, and couldn’t tell his/her Donkey from his/her Elbow? Errrm… sheep from his/her goat?

    As for the last folio: well, given that it’s only the very earliest roundels that are split into 2 x 15, and they’re also the ones with the most detail, it looks very much to me as though the author got tired of all the elaborate stuff after a little while, and just jammed the ‘stuff’ (whatever that stuff may be) into 1 x 30 pages. Hence, it seems likely (from Ockham’s Principle Of Maximized Laziness) that the final bifolio contains only two roundels, i.e. Capricorn and Aquarius, which would be consistent with someone clipping out only a single folio etc.

    Hope this isn’t too snarky! 🙂


    • Oh do please snark. (a) it means someone’s reading, not skimming
      (b) I get to refine my perception of the ms
      (c) maybe then it will be useful to a notional 3rd party – which is the whole reason for its being, after all.

      Thanks, Nick.

      Its a neat argument, but feels a-historical to me. I have trouble imagining ‘an author’ at all for this ms. Plus I can’t imagine someone back then who would be *such* a towny that they had no idea about what a bull looked like, and the goats are perfectly drawn; that’s the problem.


      [plus there’s still the problem of doubling, and if the townie were literate, of course, he’d know his Latin. If he weren’t, he’s a surprisingly accomplished copyist… ]

      How do you explain the doubling, btw?


  2. For readers, who may be puzzled to find similar observations and conclusions repeated by other writers, but no mention made of my name, or this post, I should note that a peculiar custom is adopted by Rene Zandbergen and others associated with him, by which it is held that such acknowledgements are “not necessary”. No precedents are acknowledged here because none existed to acknowledge, or because such precedent as might exist was, and remains, unknown to me.


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