Paradoxical History of Balsam #5 (final)

© D. O’Donovan [2000+ words]

Afterword (May 8th., 2013) – I have found a late fifteenth-century description of a garden in Egypt where balsam was harvested.  It reads very like the image in Manfred’s herbal and requires a reconsideration of our opinion on the latter. Whether I’ll publish my conclusions here or as a formal paper I’ve not decided. Depends what else I find. – D)


The paradox of true Balsam oil was that greatest of all; life in and arising from that which was not, or appeared not to be, living.

Even today, in Afrikaans,  plants of the Commiphora group ( corkwoods having scented resin; the group includes myrrh) are all known as the  ‘unkillable’ or ‘cannot die’ (kanniedood) tree. I expect the Africaans word preserves more ancient terms, once current in lands taken by the Dutch.  Exactly the same idea is embodied in a pre-Islamic image from Christian Egypt. Here the Balsam is pictured on the left and with a rising star.

Balsam Coptic ms Alin Suciu

Nor did Christianity first create an association between tree, its two nails and belief in resurrection.

A stele carved for a queen of Egypt’s First dynasty embodies the same ideas (the object to the left standing for the ‘Great House’, and the time of the annual  ‘crossing over’ as well as the constellation on which the spirit rose was identified initially with Orion. The term ‘star of the crossing [- over’] remained current in the seventh century AD and mentioned in the Qur’an.

blog Stele 1st dynasty EgyptFor Egyptian Christians Coptic was the liturgical language;  Christians of Ethiopia developed Ge’ez, but Syrian Christians of the pre-Islamic period maintained Syriac,  former language of Rome’s eastern empire, in their texts both secular and religious.  From Syriac originals first-generation translations into Arabic continued to be made to at least as late as the thirteenth century, so had the western church not rejected their more learned brethren in the east, they might have had a copy of Dioscorides a thousand years earlier.

That Coptic manuscript (shown above, and first shown on Alin Suciu’s  site) is also what permits me to suggest that Dioscorides’ description o Balsam may not have been referring to C. gileadensis at all, but to a cultivar and possibly a hybrid of Commiphorae now extinct.  Dioscorides describes it, as it is shown in that image, as a plant growing no more than a meter or so in height, and having leaves that are  ‘like rue’.

Rue plants

Loss of the old groves from Judaea, and balsam being (apparently) soon reduced to a single grove in Egypt, so with the loss of that grove to over-use and a great flood, we may have lost the original plant forever, the grove in Egypt being restocked with C. gileadensis,  brought as replacement from Arabia.

(On the reduction, and loss of the first grove at Heliopolis, see article by Milwright, cited below).

C. gileadensis has a more solidly tree-like form, and by the thirteenth century, certainly, that is how Balsam is pictured.

Clear connection to the older Egyptian associations for Balsam are plainly being maintained in the Arab-Christian tradition from which came the picture below.  In most Arabic texts, that tradition of the graceful tree is soon lost and the two nails become two knives.  Balsam is already a tree in the late tenth-century manuscript from Samarqand.

Balsam XII century ms small caption marked

From Egypt through to Arabia and thence (it would seem) to upper Mesopotamia, older ideasbotanical art Balsam Samarqand about Balsam were evidently along a line of connection pre-dating the coming of Muslim rule, and passing from Egypt, to Arabia, to Mesopotamia.

More relevant to the Vms’ botanical section, is the typically Egyptian (and, later Indian) custom of picturing a plant with its fruit at the top of the plant and turned upward towards the sun.

This is not invariable, but evidently conventional and a convention unusual enough to be remarked upon.

It is seen in the Coptic image, and in the Voynich imagery, as in Indian art of the Gandharan period, but is much rarer in Muslim art within Islam.

What we find instead is, often, a subversion of the older imagery to remove from it such figures as the heavily robed ‘ancient’ priest and even his young assistant. No longer haloed (or hallowed) figures, they are removed, or reduced to their emblems – here simply knives and not the formerly-traditional iron nails.

However, since it had not been the custom in ancient or even Hellenistic Egypt to provide plants with their roots (save for a few images in medical texts such as the Roberts Papyrus), to add scholia as hieroglyphics, actual or virtual, would be natural enough, creating forms parallel to those of the herbals which Aldrovandi described as ‘of the alchemists’.  Here is the usual form for depicting plants in earlier Egypt. This from Karnak’s “herbal chamber”.

Karnak garden

As Neal points out, existing manuscripts of that ‘alchemists’ type apparently derive from some original that was in northern Italy in the earlier part of the fifteenth century.

It was in 1419 that Buadelmonte brought Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica to Italy, electrifying the renaissance men of that time, both clerical and lay. Then began a characteristic effort among these people to apply the principles of such ‘hieroglyphiks’ in imagery of their own creation. Dürer most famously.

It should not be forgotten, though, that there were a considerable number of monuments inscribed in hieroglyphic within Rome itself.  One Emperor had been so besotted with things Egyptian that he had his own official decrees translated and carved in hieroglyphs.  How the populace managed to understand and obey those decrees, history does not relate.

(If you’d like to see the Hieroglyphica in parallel  Latin and Greek text, an edition is available at

In this way, it is not so surprising to find herbals of that type in vogue for a time in Italy, just as the iconoclastic imagery which tended to replace human figures with emblematic objects, persisted in some regions of Islam.

In my opinion, the absence of natural, or realistic, human figures throughout the Voynich manuscript is due to that same, constantly-recurring objection to picturing living forms which is characteristic of the eastern sphere and communities originating from it. In my opinion, the figures within the Voynich are meant as abstractions, and even then are drawn marred and deformed.  In this,  I may be in a minority, but  it is also a custom attested from before the Roman era, and not absent even from the modern world. For a time it even affected the imagery of Christian Byzantium, as ‘iconoclasm’.  However, like the ‘ornate P’ form in the script, this avoidance is most characteristic of regions eastward from the eastern Mediterranean and never noticeably affected the dominant culture of mainland Europe.

Back to the Balsam.

Increasingly, during the later medieval centuries,  ‘Balsam’ is shown not as a herb but as a tree with a long, bare trunk.

I should mention in passing that Brit.Lib. ms Egerton 747 is not an exception to the dictum that Europe had no knowledge of the Balsam’s appearance until long after the time the Voynich manuscript was made.

Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12
Brit. Library. MS Egerton 747 folio 12

Pace Pavord, I do not think this represents the  ‘balsam poplar’ but rather that it is a generic image, a product of some verbal information that the plant resembled a herb or young tree.  The form given it has the typical poplar leaf but I think it is probably a generic form and based on no more than that the scent of balsam is very like that released when any poplar’s catkins are crushed.  Modern descriptions still speak of it as a balsamic odour.

Thus the wall may be at once imitating an exemplar which in the same way used a generic form for its tree or talisman, or simply a way to remind the reader that Balsam, and the recipe for the Myron was to be closely guarded (‘secretum’).

True Balsam

Even that tenth-century image in the manuscript from Samarqand manuscript might show no more than a generic image for trees that yielded oil or resin. Very similar forms (minus the knives) are used for olive, ben oil and so forth.

The true balsam that had been planted in those groves in Judea to which the Jews took such exception may have been of a cultivar, a sport, or a hybrid which could never be readily propagated and which were first reduced to no more than a single grove at Heliopolis before becoming, in all probability, extinct**  due to over-working and a flood.

The tree-like C.gileadensis was certainly the plant brought from Arabia to re-build that grove, until the last of them also died.

So exactly how the original plant looked we don’t know, nor whether it was the plant from Ein Gedi.  What is certain is that the older imagery does not show a tree, but something more like a herb, springing without bole or trunk directly from the ground.

C. gileadensis was surely a close relation among the Commiphorae if not the original Balsam.

** an inference by the present writer, from consideration of imagery over the centuries, and Milwright’s account of the Egyptian grove.

I shan’t pursue this topic any further here, but if the reader finds it interesting, do include the following if you can in your reading.

  • Encyclopaedia Iranica: ITALY – iv. Travel Accounts
  • O. W. Wolters, The “‘Po-ssŭ” Pine Trees’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 23, No. 2 (1960), pp. 323-350.
  • Marcus Milwright, ‘The Balsam of Maṭariyya: An Exploration of a Medieval Panacea’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 66,No. 2 (2003), pp. 193-209.


‘Mystery’ images in the Voynich.

Every now and then, an image in the botanical section carries a hint of some level of meaning additional to the generally pragmatic tone.  It is no more than the occasional hint of some deeper meaning obscured, and in the current absence of intelligible text can’t be clarified or proven. So, in the main, I ignore what are little more than an intuitive response on my part.  In the context of Balsam and resurrection/immortality, I thought an exception might be made so here are two which affect me in that way.

Folio 11v reminds me of a common theme in Armenian as in older Egyptian art: it’s the bird on the pinnacle or apex. In Egyptian tradition the bird was sometimes the ‘ben-ben’ bird, and sometimes identified by classical authors as a version of the Phoenix. On the right is this motif from a somewhat mysterious series made to decorate the shrine of St.Adelbert in Prague.

composite blog balsam post

Similarly on folio 38r is a plant which has at the foot of the stem a pair of spent flowers set at such an angle that they recall the ‘two nails’ or ‘two pegs’ motif, especially as support for the beam of crucifixion. Crucifixion, by the way, was a practice first attested among  Carthaginians,  imitated by the Romans who used it as a means of capital punishment.

fol 38r

f37r detail

I think, even if one were supposed to see here a reference to the ‘two nails’ used to get resin from Commiphorae that the plant meant would not be the Balsam or C. gileadensis, but some other.

Chiefly by reference to  Pliny’s comment, which was  no doubt a merchants’  proverb ~ that ” Bactrian bdellium is dry and shining, and has numerous white spots, like [finger-nails/claws]  in shape” (N.H. .12.19), I’d suggest that the plant a bdellium.

In Pliny’s day (which was also Dioscorides’), Bactria’s bdellium was obtained through Barygaza, the famous port of northern India.

For religious rites and mercantile uses, if the true Balsam could not be obtained, Bdellium and others of the Commiphorae such as C. wightii, C. africana, or (in Bactria) the Indian C.stocksiana might conceivably might have been substituted.

Such questions cannot be resolved except by specialists, and specialists themselves cannot always agree.  Some hold that it was Balsam, and others Bdellium which was the chief ingredient in the Pathians’ famous Royal Perfume.

Fifteenth-century Europe’s ideas on this subject were not merely confused but verged on the chaotic.

Below, a rapacious crusader is pictured in a fifteenth century manuscript attacking a ‘balsam’ which resembles a peach-tree, and which has leaves unlike any member of the Commiphorae that I know.

The painter seems to have managed even to confuse his balsam with dracaena, for the crusader is seen wrestling the tree into submission, and the liquid falls like blood from a great pod as …  ?mouth?.

The only reason for mentioning this somewhat silly image is that the painter includes  tadpole-like form as stars or angels, but in shape not unlike those rising through the greenery on f.38r

botanical art Balsam rapacious Crusader

More relevant – at least in my opinion – is a piece from the 3rdC AD,   said to be an imitation of Orphic imagery. For myself, I think it informed by astronomical beliefs and very likely Harranian. A later version of the Harranian standard shows the upturned crescent with a cross-shaped star.

seal orphic copy 3rdC ce


f37r detail






Thus again the anchor of the south, and the ‘two nails’, though I should say that these calyces seem to more nearly resemble yet another Commiphora,  C. balsamea (ex. Balsamodendron ehrenbergianum), now classed as a myrrh.


All the above to explain why, as late as the seventeenth century, a European botanist was able to treat the question of Balsam as still an open one, writing a dialogue discussing its source, and having as the three interlocuters an Arab, a Jew and the European author.

Paradox, mystery and closely-guarded secret.


Balsam oil (C. gileadensis) can be listed on some commercial sites even today. One seller stamps the catalogue-entry with a bright red notice:  ‘Expensive’ and then writes ..

Unfortunately, this tree is rare, difficult to cultivate, and highly protected in areas where it will grow. Because of this situation, it seems unrealistic that genuine authentic oil is easy to find.

Not much has changed, has it?

See also:

Frankincense and Myrrh; Bdellium; Gum Benzoin. Styrax Benzoin.

Balsam blog end


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