fol 72r-i Cross-eyed feline and red splash

fol 72r-1 detail

From a modern point of view, the  creature’s musculature and narrow flanks recalls  a  lion’s body less than that of  leopard or cheetah.

What the fifteenth-century copyist believed it was, I cannot guess, nor in this case whether the discomfort was felt by him or merely by a predecessor though again the 9th-10thC and an environment in the western scriptoria is indicated.

Discomfort there must have been, because this red splash is apotropaic:  that is, aimed at  neutralising a figure who is believed able to do harm even in this two-dimensional medium.

I want to concentrate less on the figure’s antecedents than on the 9th-11th centuries ~ so the following images are given just to show that the cross-eyed, lamed feline is attested in the pre- and early Hellenistic world. All these figures are from regions where Greek was spoken, and part of that same network and centuries to which the  ‘two brothers’ imagery belongs. That network was not the Athenian alliance even if one of these figures is Delian.

The reason for such deep-seated fear – even where no similar creatures lived – is not difficult to understand. The lion with one ruined paw had been an iconic figure in the east from ancient times, chiefly as the steed of the burning sun worshipped in Mesopotamia and Achaemenid territory – territory which before the time of Alexander had included much of Asia minor and intermittently all of Egypt.

Below, the type is  illustrated in an Achaemenid seal that was recently recovered from the Black Sea. As you see the beast is given very narrow flanks and the ‘bloodthirsty’  tongue. Its front right paw is damaged in just the same ‘shredded’ way as on the Sicilian coin shown above.

As the ‘aethiop’ sun it often appears in later imagery. Indeed, it is still  a conventional motif in works being made even today in parts of northern Africa, though modern Ethiopia, and to as far as the western coast of India. I’ll discuss some of those examples in treating some others among the manuscript’s diagrams.

Within the Hellenistic community as such, it is instead the ‘Dionysian’ leopard – Dionysius himself attributed, like Medusa, origins in the older culture of the Black Sea and its shores.

Here is the motif again, as it had been transformed under Muslim rule, on a  thirteenth-century coin. My source labels its origin  ‘Thamarra’ and I’m sorry that I’ve not had time to check whether this is meant for Tamara in Georgia or Samarra (there is an s-t shift that occurs in non-classical Arabic).  In any case, by the thirteenth century, the effect of Islamic rule had seen the form retained, while removing many of the earlier cultural associations.  The coin has been reversed to show how it might look on an impression made in wax or clay.  

A myriad versions of Sun-on-Lion can be seen through the centuries in territories anciently under Persian rule or influence. In general, the later the century, the more likely that while it remains a sun-lion, sometimes with paw upraised, it reverts to being considered a natural figure rather than the dreaded agent it had been in earlier times.

Echoes of the type occur in 7thC Scandinavia, as has been noted, but that is scarcely surprising since the route between the Black Sea and Scandinavia is of equal antiquity: part of the amber route and a natural corridor.

The creature drawn on fol.72r-i is not the lion of medieval heraldry, whose extended tongue indicates only authoritative voice and combative character.

With the adoption of Christianity by the eastern (and then the western) Roman empire, the old terrors tended to fade (or to be replaced with different ones, if you prefer).

Five centuries later, as Arab tribesmen espousing the newly-developed Muslim faith swept away much of the older civilizations and their relics, they also removed some of these older cultural attitudes, though habits in iconography are more amenable to a simple re-interpretation of their meaning.

The glass shown below was carved in Egypt, about the eleventh century, its twisted, cross-eyed lion hardly a fearful character, even if its antecedents are clear enough.

That example  illustrates, too, the natural adoption of  ‘parallel hatching’ in ornament for hard, monochrome media. Such techniques are just as common for ivory, stone, metal (especially gold) and ceramics, including ornament that has been incised, engraved or in the case of ceramics, painted.

This survey has been necessarily brief, but I hope it will be evident that the image on fol. 72r-i does not belong to the later, but to the earlier forms for this type. I would place it to roughly the same time as the style of lotus-motif in the centre of fol.67r-ii, and again the earlier style for the ‘brothers’ imagery. In general these month-emblems show close fidelity to imagery of the Hellenistic period, and far less influence from the eastern limits of the Hellenistic kingdoms and their trade.

Here is another example of the last type, from the Thracian shores of the Black Sea.  This  ‘brothers of air-and-sea’ imagery was made at the mouth of the Danube – in modern Romania – and is dated to the 4thC BC.

Istros on the Danube. Thrace 4thC BC. On the Black Sea, in modern Romania.

The monotheistic religions came relatively late to that part of the world, and in some cases not until the tenth century and later. Until then, one might suppose, the ancient figures continued to be reverenced, or to be feared as they had been for millennia.

When an object is no longer feared, apotropaic marks of this aversion type are no longer felt necessary; they tend to be used as a community turns away from older practices – a process which is not always rapid but which in this case I think appropriate to the tenth century rather than to the fifteenth.

The tenth century saw the armoured fish appear in Fleury, where it had not been employed in the ninth. And again from a tenth-century work, we have another apotropaic ‘splash’.

I’ll describe this frontispiece next time, as the last of these open posts.


There is no mistaking the single red blob on fol. 72r-i for the representation of whole constellations in other works of the ninth-to-eleventh centuries, whether in Islam or in Rheims. It not simply that there is only one dot on the figure in fol.72r-i, but its whole presentation which points to the earlier period and to cultures in which that ‘aethiop’ creature was feared.

I have already linked to a couple of the typical images in Carolingian copies of the Arataea, and here is a figure from an Islamic astronomical text. This is simply and plainly the constellation of Leo. Its face may be a little twisted, and its eyes a little off-centre, but with nothing like the character of the Delos mosaic, to which I think ours closely akin.

[March 6th., 2015 – header picture re-installed]


21 thoughts on “fol 72r-i Cross-eyed feline and red splash

  1. re star-dots in outer ring. Good point – if the red smeared ‘dot’ is apotropaic, why not the gold? All I can say is that these marks, whose history goes back a considerable way, are in this particular context always red. They indicate an ‘eternal’ or near-eternal longeur, and are used for the endless or eternal hours in dynastic egypt – usually in a funerary context – and in Coptic Egypt when consigning people to the southern sea/hell. If you mean by the jackpot some allusion to alchemy – well it’s possible, I suppose. On the one hand, there is that seemingly over-anxious letter in which Kircher is assured that the manuscript is *not* alchemical, which has always suggested to me that K. thought it was, but on the other the assessment by Adam McLean, who says he finds nothing in it of the western(?) alchemical tradition. Given the mix of influences, it is not impossible that the text represents some form of alchemy relates to alchemical thought in some way, but I should think more likely the Indian style (Raysana) which was more closely linked with medicine. About the feline.. well the ears *are* a bit of a problem, but so is the fact that north African geomantic forms turn up in Chinese imagery on early cards. History can be pure mystery, sometimes. (Glad to hear that both are doing well)


  2. Readers – I don’t know why, but all the posts’ header pictures, and many of the readers’ comments vanished from the blog during my twelve-month absence. To Steve and the other correspondent: I didn’t remove your comments.


  3. Diane, what do you make of this mosaic? I found it when looking for imagery for the “Leo” discussion that’s going on on the forum 😉

    It’s a late example of the “feline with tree” motif. The tree appears specifically as bearing pomegranates (?). Especially interesting is the placement of the eyes. Given the location of the find, I thought this might be of some interest.


    • The mosaic was made under Byzantine rule, but is in the Negev – which I think the more important point.

      The spotted feline with rounded ears is found as the Dionysian ‘panther’ in the Greek-influenced tradition; in Syria and North Africa (influenced by older Mesopotamia) you find the animal standing in front of a tree sort of motif – especially in former Phoenician regions. The more purely Mesopotamian version tends to have a pair of animals, mirroring each other with the tree in the middle. Imagery like the second is found in Syro-Phoenician ivories at least as early as the 8thC BC and persists … e.g. the Sicilian mosaics in Palermo which are believed made by imported workers called ‘Saracen’ but since they are in a Christian basilica, more likely eastern Christians under Islamic rule. The animal standing in front of the palm is a pre-Islamic motif from the eastern mediterranean and in north Africa, before and after the Christian era. So what I think we have in the Voynich image is a Hellenistic-period original from one or other of those two, but ‘decayed’. I found equivalents for the whole series of the central emblems on surviving coins (the examples I used dated from c.4thC BC to 2ndC AD) which raises the interesting possibility that the roundels originally represented the stars of the month and latitude at which a given place was visited in a particular circuit, or perhaps an association with the circuit of places in something of the style of the Chronograph (or Chronography) of 345, 354 in which again each month is illustrated by items and activities symbolic of one place in the empire’s circuit.

      Whatever the source from which those central emblems first came, their last incarnation (denoted by the inscriptions) makes of them a calendar.

      The damaged spotted feline with one upraised paw is not common, but does occur in a mosaic from Delos – I illustrated that one in particular because it is so unusual; as a rule the upraised paw is seen on the Persians’ “lion ridden by the sun”, though that motif continues down the centuries, twisted head, crossed eyes and all the rest. I thought my 10thC Islamic glass with ‘hatching’ a particular fine example, myself. 🙂

      But I’ve treated all that so I’ll be boring you with the repetition.

      Here, by the way, is a how a lion was represented in that same mosaic series from the Negev.


    • Oh – I forgot to mention. The idea of a hunt series is another possible source for the central emblems as they had been, before being fixed or modernised. Again, the animals see in mosaics now in the Bardo include one lovely ‘hunt’ floor.

      But I guess the main point is that the animal depicted in the Voynich is certainly no lion!


      • A hunt series! I like that idea. Did you ever see that (Roman?) mosaic where they use penned up hartebeests as bait?

        Here’s a crappy version of it – I used to have a better one but can’t find it anymore:


      • You’re right – not so good an image. But the spotty cheetah called ‘panther’ when associated with Dionysos in pre-Christian works is surely the right sort of beast.
        Here, just for other readers, is that image from Delos.

        But that custom of showing the animal with unfocussed eyes is apparently also apotropaic – a desire to ensure that even in effigy the beast could not see the viewer. We find it even in some relatively modern works from across North Africa (in which I include Egypt and Ethiopia). It lasts to the present time in ivory work produced from Benin. I illustrated one example very early on (2009-10) because I think the inclusion of a number of ‘cross-eyed’ figures in Beinecke MS 408 is another of those details significant of origin and descent.


  4. Haha, I’ve come to the point that lion imagery in comparison to the Voynich feline makes me laugh. I agree with your analysis. Just to be clear, I see no need for the involvement of Byzantine culture in Voynich studies, except for in cases like these where we are at the intersection of so many cultures.

    I don’t remember having seen your early parallels for some of the centre images – are you keeping those secret for later or did I miss that post? I remember Virgo – very convincing. I’ve also read your analysis of Pisces and the bull, and of course the crossbowman, but I’m not sure what its ancient equivalent would be? I don’t think I’ve read much you said about the lobsters and Scorpio (which is totally a black pig).


    • I didn’t bother with the lobsters. The critter with on folio 73r, inscribed as November – I really couldn’t say what it was first meant to represent. Not a scorpion, I’d say. I quite like Ellie Velinska’s idea that it represents some kind of skink; she proposed the Apothecary’s skink but that could be too specific. Somewhere I have an image from a medieval work, supposed to be a crocodile, but which looks rather like. I guess when I realised that no-one seemed able to see the animals here as they are, and recognise that they do not form the zodiac ’12’ or even 10 of the 12, I explained a number and then kind of shrugged and moved on to another and more interesting aspect of the ms. I still don’t get the way so many people can’t see the difference between the procession of the zodiac’s 12 figures, and what we have here, covering just 10 months of the year. A calendar of some sort it is, but not a zodiac and probably no astrological purpose, either IMO


  5. Here’s a better version of the hunting scene. You can see how the antelopes are penned up on the right, as bait for the big cats. A scene like this could explain why they have gotten buckets to eat from. There are also other relevant animals (lure?) in the upper section.

    Now wouldn’t it be fun if the “Scorpio” turns out to be a dog on a leash? 🙂


  6. Sorry, here’s another one! 😉

    What do you make of these manuscripts posted by Marco?

    They are noteworthy because they duplicate several “zodiac” figures (two bulls etc). Especially the earlier Bologna one (M511) appears to follow the “animal in front of tree” and “two animals facing tree” tradition. The later one, then, appears to show some similarity to the VM in the style of its human figures.


    • Koen, I’ve left a comment at As so often, it seems as if Marco is taking his lead from Rene, who takes his from other and earlier work done by researchers – their names not always recorded.

      The “doubled zodiac” theme is an old explanation for the series two ‘bulls’ (which aren’t bulls) and two goats (nice to see my explanation of why they are not “Aries” or sheep has been so widely followed, though as usual the original observation and who explained it tends to be omitted when the conclusion is adopted.

      I guess this re-introduction of the ‘doubling’ theme is an effort to address a comment which I made recently to Koen, who I thought would get it, whereas when it was first published, that same observation about the ‘open and closed’ complementary pairing motif through the manuscript was derided. Funny, but classic Voynichero stuff. Point is that the figures are not DOUBLED at all. They are not mirror-images. Unlike the Latin works, these are a *complementary pair* – and neither is that pairing defined by the ‘opposite’ sort of pairing that includes male-female pairing of the sort common enough i in Latin works – not just manuscript works, either. Since Marco’s argument remains based on the proposition which he adopts – namely that the series must in some way or another be a ‘zodiac’ and related to astrology, I don’t see this re-introduction of an old idea particularly gripping. But that’s just me.


      • I was mostly surprised to see these old motifs of cat-and-tree etc. surface in these manuscripts. But in the paper about it mentioned in the same thread, the author writes that this was still fairly common in early medieval works.

        As I’ve said before, I find your analysis of this section convincing, though I would surely like some more certainty about the original purpose of the series. You have proposed a number of likely solutions though.

        The zodiac thing might just be a matter of terminology. To me it is clear that the images in their current form do refer to those constellations through which the Sun passes. On the other hand, as you say, their origin was likely unrelated to constellations. I think we can have both at the same time 🙂

        What I don’t understand is that people still defend that it’s a standard zodiac, while the best comparative imagery is always found outside of that tradition.


      • Koen,
        As far as I can discern, the outer tiers are a separate matter from the central motifs – and for all sorts of reasons including stylistics but also that the centres as we have now have them – including the obviously late version of the archer – appear to me to “speak Latin” where the outer tiers, on the contrary “speak Greek”.

        However, when I consider those emblems which show the least influence from medieval Latin *style* – notably the scales – then it seems to me that what had been another system altogether, and very possibly an itinerary where the emblems began as those denoting a particular city or port on the old Mediterranean sea-routes, was adapted to suit those more accustomed to thinking in terms of stars-and-time than stars-and-place. Given that the series which remains, and the months inscribed on those roundels, co-incides with the sailing season in the Mediterranean (and the Hellenistic-and-ROman coins using such motifs are all on the coast), so the shift in interpretation isn’t really so great a step. In addition, other indications that I’ve noted, and which strongly suggest an association, by the early fourteenth century, with the new sort of rhumb-gridded charts, called ‘portolan charts’ although ‘cartes marine’ is by far the better description, and that in practice as in gridding, the astronomical and terrestrial grids were applied in tandem, so I tend to think that these are calendar-stars, now defined in terms of astronomical figures only, whereas earlier they had referred to both astronomical and terrestrial locations.

        There’s much more of research and evidence behind that opinion, of course, but that’s the short version of my own conclusions – minus what I think about the process and culture which changed the original Hellenistic forms to those which were eventually set down in Beinecke MS 408.

        If it sounds complicated – it is. If it sounds confusing, blame my having to fit it all into a comment. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Slightly infantile follow up question: do you have an idea about these places, or is this lost to time?

        Also, for quite a number of the original figures, it is easy to associate them with a deity. Cat – Dionysos, hunter – Artemis, antelope – Set?, goats – zeus… These associations are probably only relevant to the extent that they help tie an emblem to a location?


      • Koen – our comments are crossing in transit. This is in reply to your ‘slightly infantile…’

        I didn’t know it was infantile, but if it is, I’ll make sure I avoid doing the same in future. 🙂

        Yes, of course – it was by identifying the motifs on coins that I was able to work out their reference within reasonable limits, if one assumes that unlike the botanical and ‘roots and leaves’ section, the calendar’s development occurred entirely within the greater Mediterranean (i.e. including the Aegean and Black Sea). There are two issues, though. First is that the Romans had an annoying habit of re-assigning motifs which had been the sign for a given city for millennia to some other – apparently at random. This might be due to sheer ignorance of the more ancient system, or as I think more likely due to political considerations. The Romans made concerted efforts to destroy, before they imitated, the old assignments which appear to have been employed first by the Phoenician mariners and then by the Hellenistic peoples of the Mediterranean. So it depends whether the first enunciation of the central emblems was Hellenistic (certainly the Scales appear to be late Achaemenid-early Hellenistic), and then the degree to which the system employed by the Romans in c.1stC AD (or so) was used before the lot entered the Latin (Christian) environment, which last I think occurred around the 10thC or so.

        There is also the fact that some motifs were used by imitation: for example, the ‘two fishes’ – conventionally called “tunny” in numismatics – was the sign of Byzantium, but due to Byzantine influence in Arabia (we think) you also find it used there. It signified the place between two seas and that’s why it suited Constantinople. Since March began the sailing season, more or less, that’s an interesting correspondence too.

        However, the basic form for the ‘Angel with the wand’ derives, in my opinion, from a medallion made for Nearchus and still remains very true to that original, save that a Semitic language has changed the original shield to a star (i.e. ‘magen’).

        That brought up the additional question of whether we might owe the centres to nothing more, or earlier, than the interests of some collector of Hellenistic and Roman coins.. something which could have happened at any time, but which would also make sense in terms of the ‘itinerary’, I guess if one checked the minutiae of classical and medieval schedules (supposing the information still exists to be checked. We know incredibly little about the Byzantine history here).

        It’s always tempting to try and follow each of these avenues to their end, and really sew the argument up. But the aim of the work I’ve published online wasn’t to sew up a theory or argument of my own, so much as to provide enough evaluation, background and pointers that those interested in the language and script of the VMS would have a good basis from which to pursue their own investigations. (And THAT, by the way, is why I become annoyed when people treat the conclusions of my research as no more than an ‘idea’ which they take up, re-use or mis-use, while refusing to acknowledge the source. It completely subverts not only the conventions of scholarship, but the very reason for which I shared the results of the research online).

        I was hoping, for example, that pointing out the relevance of the Hellenistic influence, the fact that the series of emblems is not a zodiac and so forth, would turn people from the endless and fruitless circular discussion of the supposed ‘zodiac’ and its supposed relationship to astrological calculations and imagery in Latin manuscripts. So-so result, there. 🙂

        What has happened is just that bits – such as my pointing out the sheep were goats – is copied but those reading that tid-bit are prevented from finding the hard rock at the heart of the consequent snow-ball of repetition and distortion – in this case, the evidence which led to that original conclusion, and the further conclusion that the series is NOT a zodiac! Nor are the two goats just a doubled Capricorn.


      • Haha a coupled Capricorn. I know some people who would surely like that.

        Thanks for your elaborate answers. I hope I know enoug now to stop asking questions about cats for a while 😉


      • Postscript: It was the process of exploring that ‘itinerary’ theme which brought me to consider a number of those older ones which remain to us, including that by Aethicus – whose alphabet is mentioned by Bacon and then by Newbold. I didn’t trouble to explain then that I think the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century commentators appear to have suffered from a then-common delusion of absolute rightness in all things. Oddly enough, the further north you go the more pronounced that delusion. 🙂 But I do not believe that Aethicus’ text is fraudulent at all. I think it is a genuine record of ideas and of a script which was around before the time of the Saracenic invasions. The geography might read a bit weirdly, it is true, but I have an idea about why that is, too. One of these days I might follow that up, just as I hope to find more time one day to read every extant ‘Periplus’.


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