Eastern (Siddha) medicine and immortality – reprint from ‘Findings’

This post comes from one originally published in ‘Findings’ in June 4th., 2010

At that time I saw no reason to dispute the credit so generally granted Mnishovsky’s story, though now, four years on I see no particular reason to believe that story at all. The original notes from 2010 have stood the test of time fairly well, I think. Additions made at the time this post was put up here are in dark blue.

[Jan 14th., 2014 – duplicated paragraphs removed]

Immortality: The obsession of Rudolf II

Rightly or not, Beinecke 408 is firmly associated with Rudolf II. Historical sources emphasise his disdain of mundane matters and describe his interest in physical immortality as “an obsession”. I believe it is one he shared with Cosimo de Medici and – probably – with Ficino.

But given  Rudolf’s character, one would suppose the sort of book for which he might have paid 600 ducats (as he is said to have paid the messenger, at least, who brought it) would be one referring to more elevated matters, since we know that for an entire library of classical manuscripts, Rudolf agreed to pay no more than 6 ducats per volume, and that even after the seller’s death, his widow was still trying to extract the promised payment.

As will be clear from earlier posts [in ‘Findings’], my investigation of the Voynich imagery led soon to the  fairly firm opinion that Beinecke 408 is a collection of extracts  which was compiled to serve the needs of trade, and that its plants are ‘herbs’ only the broadest sense  – that is, that these plants might be meant for uses other than medicinal: for embalming, for religious ritual, for dyes, veterinary medicines, perfume, cosmetics etc.).

Internal evidence is strong of an initial basis for the imagery in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, even if in some sections the  origins for this imagery appears to go much deeper than in others, and in some small number of  instances it is possible to suggest that they belong to a time closer to the manuscript’s manufacture.  In this, the anomalous folio 9v with its nearly-but-not-quite Hebrew script written in true micrography (a speciality of Jewish scribes) is especially worth note.

Certain motifs which are incorporated into the botanical section as in the astronomical section I should date to the twelfth-thirteenth century and for the former, some equivalents occur in medieval herbals. However, given that the Latin herbal tradition seems very early to have been influenced by the Nestorians’ medical style and that it is acknowledged as incorporating  Egyptian, Greek, Elamite and other more ancient antecedents,  so these coincidences in the Latin works are understandable without offering an argument for any more direct relationship between those botanical illustrations and what we see in the Voynich manuscript.  [Jan 14th. 2014 – more on this point is in the series of posts called ‘Paradoxical History of Balsam’]

As I see it, the Voynich botanical imagery refers to plants as items of economic value within the environment of maritime trade and travel: sailing routes and ports within the Aegean, and lines of trade and sailing from the south-western Mediterranean to as far, at least, as Socotra and the Indus the spice islands.  That these routes existed and were travelled during the Mediterranean’s Hellenistic and Roman eras is well known, as is the fact that at times when the Nile canals were navigable, ships might in theory sail directly from the south-western Mediterranean at least to India.

added note – 14/1/2014: Along those routes, and indeed to as far as southern China, were forms of medicine whose corpus was established in some cases – such as India’s Ayurvedic medicine, or southern India’s Siddha medicine, before the opening of the Hellenistic period, while the Chinese ‘Bencao’ literature reflects the early intercourse between the Persian Gulf, India and China, and is (in my opinion) the model for the Voynich manuscript’s pharma section.

One reason why Rudolf might want a trader’s manual, and be willing to pay immediately a sum twice that ‘king’s ransom’ paid for the Julia Anicia codex is that he believed it contained medicine of that  ‘ancient’ sort. In Rudolf’s time, as in Kircher’s, Asia was believed to have been repopulated after the Biblical Flood by one of Noah’s sons whose offspring moved eastward from Egypt.  This is one among several explanations for the opinion held by Georg Barsch that the manuscript contained ‘ancient Egyptian medicine’.  A simpler explanation, of course, is that it does.

Between Egypt and southern India contact was not all one way.  WE are told that in the 3rdC BC, at the opening of the Hellenistic era, the Buddhist ruler Asoka had commanded plants and physicians sent to bring medical knowledge to the first generation of Alexander’s successors, for the healing of both animals and men. Evidence of Tamil script and of Tamil communities’ residence in Egypt has been found, while in southern India to this day some Christian communities claim to have been founded in the 1stC AD directly from Egypt by the apostle Thomas.

To this day people of the Tamil community reverence palm-leaf books of their traditional ‘Siddha’ medicine which the Hindu histories claim is merely a reflection of the undoubtedly ancient Ayurvedic corpus, while practitioners of Siddha hold that their knowledge was originally conferred by the sage Agastya.  The reputation of Siddha medicine is such that even Weiss’  very modern academic discussion  could be entitled with all propriety, Recipes for Immortality.

The possibility that one’s local environment has the potential to bring beauty, youth, and eternal life, if only manipulated in the right way,continues to entice … as it has for centuries. By emphasising that the components of Siddha medicine are both accessible and obscure, both ordinary and fabulous, the [healers] make the extraordinary appear within reach.” And “[Practitioners of Siddha medicine] claim that their medicine is both  eminently practical and potentially liberating, useful for common ailments but capable of curing even the most chronic and deadly diseases. Indeed among the most common siddha medicines are those that use widely available ingredients and that promise something between immortality and remedy.

Richard S. Weiss, Recipes for Immortality: medicine, religion and community in South India, OUP 2009.

The sage Agastya (also known as Agathya, and identified with Canopus, the alpha star of Argo Navis) is pictured with trident and drinking bottle, and with the rounded belly which signifies flourishing health.  Some examples:

Of the first four illustrations, only the bull and in the lower register that on the far right are certainly meant for Canopus/Agastya. The bull is an alternative to the human form for Agastya in southern India (right). The version shown here with gourd and trident is Javanese. bull as emblem of Agastya Canopus a Argo navis

I have added the figure to the far left because it comes from Elam, the oldest known centre for medicine in the middle east, and it is therefore possible that an association between the star and the god of healing had existed even there, just as it is reflected in near-eastern writings, both Christian and non-Christian right up until the fifteenth century. The next figure is from classical Egypt, where it represents a figure known as ‘Bes’, one which entered the Egyptian pantheon from a foreign people.



Elamite figure
Elamite figure

Agastya Java

Bes Egypt
Bes Egypt


Echoes of the ‘Canopic’ style appear early in western Christianity, chiefly in depictions of the Milky Way as an immortal road to heaven (an idea as old as the Pyramid texts). Emphasis on physical immortality is not seen in the mainstream culture of western Christendom, but is intrinsic to Siddha medicine, which is rightly described as alchemical medicine, and it would be interesting to find the degree to which the imagery of western alchemy realises the allusive ‘technical’ language of the older Siddha texts.

I should note here that at the time this post was written, I had not read an article by Wiart and Mazar though Nick Pelling had noticed it and linked it on one of his blogposts.

Still, since that emphasis on alchemy, and on physical immortality arrived relatively late in continental Europe, the two strands will be treated separately here.

Across the high roads it was rather the Manichaean form of Christianity which predominated. Mani described his religion as Christian.

On my research blog, ‘Findings’ I had posted lists of plants which are known to have been imported into the Mediterranean from the eastern seas. I have not reproduced them on this blog.

Before leaving the subject I might add some few more pictures from those regions that relate to the Voynich manuscript for reasons of style in drawing, historical connections between east and west, or evidently similar content.

.Kircher's Mer-god

coin IndoScythian Bactria 1stC ADmap Genoese fishtail 1457 map detail





1. by many commentators, the Siddha medicine is treated as a variety of Ayurvedic’ medicine. In modern practice the two may be confused, conflated or combined but they are  distinct traditions and that distinction is emphasised by most Tamils.

2. I do not mean to imply that I believe the language or script in Beinecke ms 408 necessarily is, or is directly derived from, Tamil or Sinhalese. It may be. It may not. I have no opinion on “Voynichese” but the instructive example of what happened when Bracciolini tried to collect information about eastern plants makes it likely (in my opinion) that these plant-names at least will retain their local names, in those language(s) used by sellers at the source.

3. I would also recommend Attygalle’s book, Sinhalese Materia Medica (see Bibliog.)

4. Concerning the star Canopus:

Before the loss of Egypt’s port which the Romans knew as ‘Canopus’, and which  Egyptians called Pe-Gouti, some of the same associations between Canopus the star and Canopus as healer were certainly known to some Syrian Christians. In his Scala Paradisi,  John Climacus refers to the penitentials of Canopus as having formerly been “lights, guides and healers” until their fall from grace in an early Christian schism. The star Canopus also figures in traditional Bedu lore. Some years ago, in discussing in detail a set of cards made for the court of France by one ‘Gringonneur’ I identified the figure of the Hermit as that for Canopus, pointing out the way in which the imagery united objective astronomical information with elements from the folk astronomies of the near east and allusions to Islamic as to European religious beliefs. I remain convinced that these cards reflect the earliest and most accurate form for these images which – regardless of whether repainted later, in Italy, were in my opinion first designed at the same time (c.1375-77) that the so-called “Atlas Catala” was presented by a Jewish master of Majorca (or, as Grosjean now thinks, Mallorca) to the court of France.


One Reply to “Eastern (Siddha) medicine and immortality – reprint from ‘Findings’”

  1. The time spent on this manuscript has persuaded me that Barsch knew the work was Jewish, but was reluctant to say so, given the atmosphere of the times, and the likelihood of confiscation, or outright burning. I think that Barsch hoped that Kircher would simply nominate the type of script, without having to risk losing the manuscript altogether. However, Kircher would appear to have demanded to have the original manuscript itself – an outrageous demand, actually. One did not send original manuscripts “through the post”: the done thing was to do as Barsch had done, and commission a partial or complete copy made by professional copyists.

    But the demand is of interest in itself; it suggests to me that Kircher considered the language, or the people who had made it to be inferior in some way. He would not have demanded that the owner send him the original Vienna Dioscorides, for example. Although given Kircher’s opinion of himself, you never know… 🙂


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