I defy anyone to name another manuscript ascribed to fifteenth-century Europe, classical Rome, Christian Byzantium or medieval Egypt whose visual language is so obscure that a century’s study has been unable to determine whether a given element is a tent, a machine-part, a topographic feature or a mushroom. Or whether an area of green is meant for a lawn, some sea-water, or a bath of ‘herbal pea soup’ (the last a suggestion posted by an anonymous person to the Voynich mailing list).
I hope I’ve demonstrated that the imagery suggests neither an untrained amateur, nor a child, nor an irrational person. So why doesn’t the imagery communicate a clear meaning to us?
“Deliberate obfuscation” is one possibility, attractive not least in translating our inability to understand into a positive skill (or fault) in the original maker.
But when the subject of a drawing is recognised, no effort at obfuscation is evident; mnemonic elements can be described as a minor form of encoding, but ‘minor’ because their purpose was to amplify, not to obscure.
The imagery overall doesn’t appear to be hiding its content so much speaking with a very different audience: mutually informed by a shared language, custom and perspective – which is not ours.
To a greater extent than we realise, interpreting any image depends on common cultural ground with the maker: the more we have in common, the more we ‘get’ the message.
In another time, or in another country, the picture of a crowned lily (for example) can have its elements described, but lacking knowledge of European heraldry, or the epithets for Mary in the Christian liturgy, it will ‘say’ nothing. Add to this a different way of translating three-dimensional objects to a two-dimensional medium, and the picture can be perceived as no more than a random arrangement of line and colour.
This, I think, is the reason for the ‘mystery’ of these pictures.
The one gleam of hope is that we appear to have in common with that ‘other country’ of the past and the maker, a link to the older Greek-speaking world.
Don’t worry, I won’t be quoting Homer – but it is thanks to a remark made by Herodotus about the (minor) difference between the aegis of the Greeks and that of the Egypto-Libyans in his own time that I’m spending so much time on this ‘aegis’ motif. I think it offers an explanation for many anomalies in the content and style, including the evident jump from an older Mediterranean context to one where the makers were plainly at home in the eastern sphere and the focus of the work becomes trade across the Great Sea.
It also offers a reasonable explanation for the total (or very near total) absence of Christian and Muslim motifs.
It goes like this…
The aegis’ origins.
that the Greeks gained the aegis with which they adorn statues of Athena from Libyan woman; except that [the Libyan women’s’] is made of [goat’s] leather and has fringes of thongs instead of snakes, there is no other difference – and it is from these skins that we took our word aegis.
The Greek word carried just the same connotations as wolkenbanden for German-speakers and art historians today – implying similarity between the rippling line and storm-clouds.
Because I do not expect readers to be especially familiar with any language other than English, nor to have studied the history of art, I’ve coined an English term: ‘welkin-band’. If you prefer to use the German, here’s its definition:
Wolkenbanden: ‘cloud bands’ : A continuous element consisting of a wavy stylization of a cloud, widely used in Chinese art and oriental rugs. As you see, the German term carries no implication of a German origin for the motif, and in fact it is not a motif created in continental Europe. However, by ‘oriental rugs’ in the definition above, Persian, Afghani and Turkish may be included.
In reference to the Voynich manuscript, a post by Thomas Sauvaget (March 2012) itemised occurrences of ‘wiggly lines’ (rightly using a non-specific descriptor) and so the ‘welkin-ban’ proper can be compared with similar (-ish) forms in other folios, even when their intent and evident meaning differ. Nick Pelling’s response to that post also provides a list of related posts from ciphermysteries.
But survival of the aegis motif in the Mediterranean as in Persia is why this element alone seems immediately familiar here: use of the rippling boundary line survived there.
That figure of Athena shown above is from the Parthenon. It was made about the time that Herodotus lived, but its showing Athena in that way, holding one of the bordering serpents, is most unusual and I see no particular reason for supposing any equivalence implied here to the cruciform object on f79v.
Whoever first made the image on f.79v surely knew not only the Libyan aegis with its hanging strings, but both types for the Greek aegis, because there were two. One – evidently the older – was something between the Egyptian collar and a shawl. The Greeks, though, came to see it as a type of wrap known as a chlamys (There’s one below the collar in the picture below) – and since the chlamys had the longer version as an oblong, it gave altogether three ways that the ‘aegis’ might be drawn: a shorter collar, a longer circular shawl covering the arm, or an oblong chlamys somewhat more like a scarf. All three forms occur with a rippling border in the manuscript, two of them on the same folio.
See where this is going? Yet again the indications are of Greco-Egyptian customs, but more exactly ones affected by Libyo-Egyptian. This is addition to others including (i) a Greco-Egyptian lotus as sign of ‘west’ in f.86v; (ii) fresh water marked with zig-zag lines in the Egyptian way on f.79; (iii) an Egyptian Nymphaea lotus as compass ‘rose’ on f.67r-ii.
Here’s the collar-type.
(If you find the topic of the chlamys really interesting, F.B. Tarbell’s exhaustive treatment is online).
Aside: in relation to charts and cosmography, a very informative image from older Magna Graecia supplements the information in f.86v’s direction-markers. It shows a three-point below (as trident); a square for north, and a pleated fan of the same form as the collar-and-aegis. Evoking, as it should, the legend of medusa but also the nature inherent in the cosmographical ‘mirror’ ~ and all this before the Romans.
(The figure may look female in this detail, but is actually androgynous, which was the nearest a Greek could imagine a creature of indifferent sex).
about this point, it’s easy to back away and to say ‘the umbrella is the simpler answer’. If it were the canopy alone, that would be a reasonable response, but these are not isolated pictures; they are elements in a larger design and that simple interpretation as ‘umbrella’/ ‘festival tent’ cannot initiate a narrative that can be maintained through the remaining elements even in these folios, let alone the section as a whole and the content of the manuscript altogether. Nor can it explain the numerous stylistic features that are manifestly non-European.
The aim, after all, is to bring us closer to an answer for the mystery of the written text, assuming the present script has any direct and original link to the imagery.
OK – so..
About five hundred years after Herodotus, but two generations before Claudius Ptolemy, another Greek who like him was pro-Roman repeated the story of how Alexandria had been laid out.
Plutarch knew the shorter aegis now, it seems, only as a military cloak (chlamys) and in that way he describes it, saying Alexander’s men laid the lines beginning from the skirts (as one may say), and narrowing the breadth of the area uniformly.
Whether or not any refer only to Alexandria, the three versions of the aegis are marked in this way ~ the language isn’t ours, but the picture does ‘speak’ intelligibly considered this way – wouldn’t you say? So the semi-circular area is the delta (or perhaps Alexandria), the cut area the delta, drawn with its blue canals and new cuttings, and the oblong more generally the ‘shield of Egypt’ as we would speak of the Arabian or African shield, I’d say.
Plutarch’s story, unfortunately, doesn’t date this imagery. Whether he knew it or not, his account of Alexandria’s marking-out is an urban legend which effectively is no more than a reprise of that about Carthage, established about a thousand years before, but I won’t digress on that point. By the third century BC, Carthaginian territory included most of the north African ports.
In centres in Egypt, and ‘Libyan Egypt’ west of the Nile, Greek-speakers were already settled before Alexander came. Among them was one town called Barca whose people were famous as horse-breeders. After an initial expansion, various disturbances led to the Persians (who still ruled Egypt) sending a large proportion of Barca’s surviving population first to Mesopotamia and then to the eastern limit of the empire, where the area was named Bactra (Bactria, Bactriana) after their old home ~ or so it is said. The area later became a flourishing independent kingdom known as the Greco-Bactrian, and Ionians also swelled the population.
Here are maps showing where Barca lay in relation to Crete and Cyprus, with a picture of a coin from Barca, of the kind current when Herodotus wrote.
(Map courtesy of wiki ‘ Cyrenaica’ ; coin courtesy of wildwinds.com).
Below, a coin made for the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. The obverse is inscribed in Greek; the reverse in Kharoṣṭhī.
About points in common between Kharoṣṭhī and Voynichese script ~ I believe that has already been considered. I’ll give better details when I have finished wading through the volumes of correspondence from the old Voynich mailing list.
The reason I illustrate this second coin is to show that the Bactrian style for Athena’s aegis is still, more than three centuries later, the more antique kind, draped over the extended arm.
More importantly, this Athena has been provided with the thunderbolt which is usually an attribute of the male Zeus.
Just as this aegis is given both the rippling ‘serpentine’ line and hanging strings, an ‘Athena’ combining attributes of both male and female is characteristic of the Libyan-Egyptian environment. Neith was the character having that quality, and whose emblems were those of shield and arrows as guardian of boundaries. She was one of two whom the Greeks identified as having the same nature as their own Athena, less for her emblems than for that unbegotten aspect.
It could be said that the first (above) of these Bactrian coins includes another detail similar to that in the manuscript (f 79v) but the likeness is probably accidental; it is taken for a monogram equivalent to that on another coin made for the same ruler.
But what this does is take us again to that crucial region between the Caspian and the Indus ~ to which so much has already turned attention. Here lived a group having come initially from a Greco-Egyptian/ Greco-Libyan area, and who had been moved into one affected by Scythian, Persian, Buddhist and – to speak loosely – SerIndian.
By Menander’s time it was linked to the Black Sea by the older Persian messengers’ roads, and to Antioch by those uniting one end of the Seleucid territories to the capital; and again now by way of the Indus and the sea, through the Lagids’ canal to Egypt.
After the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, that of the Kushans covered and extended the common boundary, but the question is best left to later, and to discussion of f.86v-i.
This region was never reached by the Roman armies, and rule by monotheist empires came much later than in the Mediterranean ~ after the demise not only of the Bactrian kingdom itself but what appears to have been a general dispersal of its older communities.
Greco-Bactrians from north Africa (in addition to other immigrants or re-located populations) offers a history, context and practices permitting a reasonable explanation for otherwise seemingly irreconcilable details and style for the imagery.
The Greeks of Bactria were distant, but not necessarily isolated, from their original homes and I expect that like many who suffer diaspora, they never forgot their origins.
The imagery suggests this was the case.
The date for the first cutting of a canal is uncertain, but the most conservative date puts construction of a working canal in the time of Ptolemy II from c.274/273 BC, so it can be presumed in operation during Mendander’s time. (The wiki article ‘Canal of the Pharaohs’ offers is a balanced and fair introduction.)
The marker ‘peg’.
Identification of the physical object which is referenced by the ‘peg’ emblem, when considered in combination with that idea of a male-and-female ‘Athena’ is our best cue to the meaning of the detail and any physical equivalent.
The manuscript shows it as the centre for all three types of aegis.
The picture below shows the figure of Neith, here given a human face although normally feline. As a rule, the Greeks didn’t adopt the Egyptian custom of expressing character by having the character’s face resemble an appropriate animal’s (although medieval Europe did at times), but they did recognise Neith and Sekhmet ~ both feline figures ~ as having identical in nature to their own Athena.
This object was made in the time of the Nubian Pharaohs an refers to the opening of the Egyptians’ new year, celebrated as the feast of Hr of the two horizons. The pillar here refers simultaneously to the idea of Isis-as-Sirius (due to homophony between the idea of piercing and the word ‘Sothis’), and to the sort of peg and pillar referenced already in the astronomical ceiling.
A Libyan statue of the male-and-female feline character is shown below left (below), the example including a typically elongated neck marked by rings.
Sekmet is shown in formal Egyptian style at right, holding a ship’s tiller in the form of a papyrus stalk. (I have been unable to learn whether this statue is a late copy or not, nor how it reached Genoa, where it now stands. The form given the lower part of the forefront is a little unexpected in an Egyptian ship, so I hope to resolve the provenance soon.
Pillars with papyrus, and with lotus capitals were common enough in the Egyptian temples. It is possible that one had earlier stood as an earlier ‘pillar of the horsemen’ as the rallying point. This site from tour-egypt (from which I have the picture of the column shown below) gives a quick summary of the various types of Egyptian pillar.
Another obvious possibility is that the peg represents one of the Persian steles shown on the map in a previous post).
It is, I should think, the mark from which mariners and measurers took their distances, spreading out in all directions from that spot.
Note: The later (Roman) pillar was known to the Arabs as the ‘pillar of the horsemen’ but by the Egyptians as ‘Pompey’s pillar’ and said to contain Pompey’s head. The sub-text suggests an association either with Scorpius or with the star Canopus. Either would be intelligible by reference to the timing for the sailings and the legends attached to these stars.
Until 1944, there was preserved in Dresden was a colossal statue which (if Smith’s sketch may be relied upon) appears one of the very few true Greco-Libyan statues of Athena.
It includes – most unusually – the Egyptian uraeus, and the neck is drawn with strongly marked rings in Libyan custom.
It also has an asymmetrical over-gown of the type not usually seen except on figures of Iris after the archaic period, but which is present on that small figure in f.86v. The great torch(?) held by that small figure in f.86v is another anomaly: without precedent but again suggesting a preservation of older Greco-Egyptian practice in a region where it altered as a result of factors such as distance, time, and local syncretism.*
*this smaller figure is not seen in the more recent, lighter scans. (note added Jan 30th., 2015)
As for the position shown for the marker on folio 75r – it appears at the head of one among the canals – then if not meant for one of the Persian steles, another possibility is that ‘Persian tower’ mentioned by Herodotus.
During Hellenistic times, anyone entering by sea was required to present any written matter for copying, in order that the Alexandrian library might be improved. Collections of extracted matter could also be made, and to that custom even in the fifteenth-century the Persian ‘ark-books’ are said to owe their origins. The term had come to mean any commonplace book ~ things to be learned by heart, and a way to stave off ennui. A favourite subject among the fifteenth-century and later Persians was the poetry of Hafiz.
Again, for the ancient period, the peg might be the temple of Karnak, where the botanical chamber was made, and where in another section a temple monitored the standardised weights and measures used by merchants, astronomers and mariners. Karnak’s temple used both lotus and papyrus columns. (Picture below of standard Egyptian weights).
Read in this context, I think it becomes evident that these ‘nymphs’ in the month-roundels and bathy- section are personifications: of the mariner’s hour-stars, of their ships, of the Nike associated with each home-port.
Or something of that sort.
But in the Greco-Bactrian region, as we know from a sun-dial recovered from Ai Khanoum, the measures were taken from Ujjain, later to become the semi-mythical ‘Arin’ of Islamic astronomers.
More on that subject next year.
I hope it is now clear why I think that the original maker/s were neither devious or dishonest: that the pictures were meant to communicate directly, but not to us, and they necessarily rely on what was – in their original milieu – a common knowledge, custom and community which in all likelihood vanished long ago as – perhaps – the language in which the text was originally written.
Whether it was a Greco-Bactrian dialect, I do not know of course but in that context the imagery does speak a little more plainly and I doubt the maker/s would ever have imagined for a moment that an image of the ‘Great green’ might one day, on the other side of the world, be interpreted a bath of pea soup!
Pillar, aegis, and Agatho daimon
(Pole, ‘peg’ and Parasol’)
Trajan included the figure on a coin of the 1stC AD, but as the long Ionian or Greco-Bactrian locks show, the antecedents are demonstrably earlier. A Greco-Egyptian figure. For the use of this caduceus in the 5thC BC ~ image of Iris-as-messenger from pre-Roman Sicily.
It is a curious fact, one I’d like to explore in another place, that in India the horse-breeding ‘Yavana’ who is the first westerner noted in their records is initially said to come from the direction of the Mediterranean, but later from the north-west.