Month-roundels ~ Aegis and shield pt1

Chersonesus 1stC BCIt is difficult to think of any purpose for the month folios except some reference to astronomy, but since what we have in the section is not (as it is now) a series for a zodiac of the Roman type, the sections’ astronomical purpose must remain an open question.

The shields of heaven (as of earth) can be represented by other versions of parallel bands, and one alternative is pictured as the header to this post.

Often confused with a Gorgon or Medusa, even by Roman times, this figure with its goad is meant rather for the swift (initially Median or Persian) rider as embodiment of that unstoppable horse envisaged in our constellation of Perseus. It is often pictured in that way, its ‘sting’ sometimes imagined an arrow and at other times this goad. The rider itself is near-invisible, imagined as the white wisps forming a skeleton or ghost: in this case a ride covered.

In this way his coat of platelets is a type of aegis – sign of imperial (and thus divine) protection.

Greek imagery for the gorgons –  Medusa being one –  begins with a similar implication: that the messenger is swift, sacrosanct and potentially dangerous. In imagery in the Parthenon, Athena holds, like a weapon, the stinging serpent whose form is made like that of the asterism in Perseus which we and the Romans called the curvus saturnus, the sickle.

Initially the Greek gorgons were distinguished from the ‘Persian messenger’ type by  (i) starting eyes; (ii) protruding fangs and/or – tongue; and/or  (iii) hair formed by a tangle of serpents. Such forms are only much later shown  having a pair of bird’s wings on their head, and a tie below the chin. Ironically, this was the item most often retained as the figure became increasingly beautified over the centuries even as it was amalgamated with the other.

coin Amisos 1stC BC reverse master

Amisos 1stC BC

In other sections of the Voynich manuscript, and especially in the bathy- section, the imagery also appears – at least to me – a product of the pre-Roman world.

In the late (1stC BC) coin whose obverse is the header to this post, is the hatted or helmeted figure on the back is less a Nike than another version of the messenger, and its presence further defines the arranged platelets on the obverse as referring to the shield of/over the world. This particular ‘Nike’ is rather a version of that ‘Angel of the Rose’ which appears in the north-west roundel in f.86v.

In the way it appears on the obverse the cover is formed less like the older  Egyptian lotus, or as the Carian’s hibiscus ‘rose’, but more like the Hellenistic lotus bowls which now used the  Indian Nelumbo (sacred lotus) in place of the older version, which had employed the Egyptian ‘lotus’ or waterlily. Lagids.

Ptolemaic lotus bowl c220=150BC

Ptolemaic Lotus bowl    c.220 BC-150BC.

Coins showing the same combination of aegis and ‘angel’ were issued for several cities of the Bosphoran kingdom, including Sinope and Amisos.

What these motifs show in common with the disposition of the figures around the bands of the month-roundels is their regularly, if not invariably, offsetting them between one band and the next. As in  the two inner rings of the Ptolemaic Nelumbo bowls, or again as in that version of the aegis from coins made for Sinope and Amisos, that offsetting elements in a band is habitual, just as it is now in standard forms for our compass rose.

In short, I think it less fruitful to consider the ‘star-holding’ (astrolabein) figures in terms of a zodiac than as stars used simultaneously to mark the ‘hours’ of time and of distance. In other words, effective markers of what we should call lines of longitude whether astronomical or geographical. Where we are accustomed to conceiving the movement of the sun through the lines of longitude, hour by hour, the Egyptians’ habit had been to consider the sun itself as a moving ‘prime meridian’ marker, and to describe time, direction and distance by reference to it.

Each of the month-roundels, then, I should liken more to shield divided into its sections rather than to extensions of a fixed system such as that of the zodiac or our own calendar.

It may also be worth considering (if you are working on star-names as a clue to the written text) whether the system employed is necessarily a western one. I imagine it might be, but the oldest star-chart that we have was found in what is described as a Buddhist cave at Dunhuang, and it includes the figure of a standing archer.


1.  I think that I may seem too dismissive of arguments for an astrological interpretation of the month- diagrams, but this isn’t for lack of consideration.

Among other reasons for concluding that they were less likely to apply to astrology is that the number of stars in each month-roundel is greater than the number of stars included in regular diagrams of that kind, and greater than the sum of stars included in earlier star-lists for western Latin Christendom [where the number is often a set 15]. Not even older astrolabes include so many, they having engraved a number in the low- to mid- twenties.**

** estimated  from a rapid survey of earlier examples in Gunther’s 2-vols.

Then, of course, there is the context suggested by the rest of the sections in the manuscript.

Below,  I’ve used folio 73r as illustration of the ‘offset’, removing the distracting elements and highlighting the stars.

Since the end result is, in effect, a  series of zig-zags, or what could be called overall a  ‘net’, and I’d suggest its most logical connection to  the botanical and pharma sections etc. is the sort of triangulation used in navigational astronomy and  sidereal surveying ~ among other things. The science is probably the oldest known to humankind and was an established, if expert, technique long before Claudius Ptolemy wrote his texts  ~ which he would do some two centuries after the ‘aegis’ coins were made.

 ‘Offset’  does occur  in some types of astrological diagram, of course  (as random example e.g. topposite the medical body in MS Shoen. 1541 Yorkshote, but I suspect the similarity less in that case than I suspect it may be to e.g.  Liber Floridus  – Codex Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel  Guelf.1 Gud.Lat. f xi r.

– another manuscript whose details I can’t recall at the moment ( perhaps of Dominican or Franciscan provenance)  included a diagram drawn with a ‘toothed’ arrangement. I’ll look it out if I have time before the end of the year.

2. The almost dead-straight line  above this roundel reminds me of a figure for Bootes in  al-Sufi’s astronomy.

I add it  with Schiller’s –  he being an astronomical cartographer whose knowledge of pre-classical forms and the meaning assigned them is as extraordinary as it is unexplained. I should like to have known whether or not he was distantly related to the chartmakers of Genoa or the Balearics.

Schiller’s charts being called ‘The Christianised Heavens’ they are widely supposed invented figures, but this is certainly not so.  It is perfectly understandable but much to be regretted that Schiller leaves no mention of just whose system he preserved by a Christian in appearance.

3. Many discussions of this section in the manuscript have mentioned Sacrobosco and/or Dati’s Sphaera so without implying that I see any particular connections, I add links to both at end.

…… t.b.c.

f73r blog marked wiped.

Bootes Schiller alSufi

Bootes from Schiller (c.1660) with inset al Sufi


A printed copy of annotations to  Sacrobosco’s Tractatus de Sphaera includes a ‘hand and rod’ diagram which relates to manual calculation of the equinoxes.  Annotazione sopra la Lettione della Spera del Sacrobosco  from Mario Taddei’s library.  Sacrobosco’s work is also known as De sphaera mundi (written c.1230).

Published 4/12/2012

header picture re-installed 7/12/2014


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