Green stars (reprint from my Blogger series)

Originally published 11/01/. Updated 22/01/2012 23:29 +11:00. (post received 23 registered readers)

note – I omit illustrations and links provided by the original post, to preserve proof of copyright.


It is a truism of modern astronomy that there are no green stars.

[picture omitted]
fol 67v -ii (detail)
On the Beinecke website, though, there appear to be several and indeed, if you G/gle “blue-green naked eye star” a number of apparent exceptions will be found. (Naked eye stars are ones you don’t need a telescope to see).
So – assuming the Beinecke site’s colour values are good, and I expect they are, then one has to ask about these green stars, not only if they are ‘real’ or ‘realistic’ but other questions again: such as –
(a) did the painter make them green advisedly, idly, or mindlessly; is is just a case of a limited palette?

If we suppose the colour is deliberate – for if it isn’t there’s no more to say – then we must ask if it is supposed to be taken literally or not? Is the green a metaphor?

For example, Majid routinely refers to Canopus as the ‘green’, and does so as if the term were a proverbial epithet, known to and accepted by all.

Our question about the nature and purpose of the green stars in fol. 67v -ii is not likely to be answered by a classical text alone.

Scholars in their urban centres, ensconced with their books, might have happily copied the dicta of ancient scholars without looking about them, but a seaman, merchant or traveller couldn’t afford to work with literary allusions alone. If we accept the manuscript as a ‘traveller’s companion’ sort of book, then whatever the reason for colouring some stars green may be, it can be expected to have relevance for daily practice and even the commercial interests of its prior owner. (prior to the fifteenth-century copy, that is).

Putting practical use to the fore may hamper our flights of fancy, but certainly widens the geographic parameters. By the mid-thirteenth century, a vademecum might include information gained anywhere from the Iberian peninsula to Kieve, Mali, Madagascar or China.

However, let’s consider a few useful examples of metaphorical use …

– some stars in the Chinese heavens are known as ‘jade stars’. And in that context: there is an object which Michel argues was an early star-sighting instrument: commonly made of jade, and rotated by reference to some few important stars. See article by by Heni Michel, ‘Chinese astronomical jades’, Popular Astronomy, Vol. 58, p.222. [link omitted] What if our green-coloured stars were the same ‘jade’ stars?

Or we might consider the correspondence, in western Christendom, between times, stars, and colours according to the western Calendar: the civil and religious being one for most of the medieval period. The liturgical colours were:

[wheel diagram correlating liturgical colours with the year’s roster.  Omitted from reprint]

White, … light, innocence and purity, joy and glory;

red, fire and blood, indicates burning charity and the martyrs’ generous sacrifice;

green, the hue of plants and trees, bespeaks the hope of life eternal;

violet, the gloomy cast of the mortified, denotes affliction and melancholy;

black, the … emblem of mourning, signifies the sorrow of death and the sombreness of the tomb.

Thus, as the year progressed, the colours of vestments and church cloths were changed to reflect that stage in the annual remembrance of Christ’s story, related by the corpus of Christian literature.
By the way, if you feel unwilling to study material written between the 3rdC and the time of Luther, I doubt that your study of the Voynich manuscript will go far..

The history of medieval Christian thought infuses Latin works, even when their soures came from other languages and texts. Most dedicated scholars of the Latin west were churchmen through the medieval centuries, and the vast majority believed as firmly as their families and co-religionists did. The ‘unbeliever-priest or -monk’ is not always a fictional creation, but certainly as rare as a career physician who does not actually believe that medicines work.

Other possibilities might include:

– An allusion to the stars of the three (lunar) months of the Hajj.

– An allusion to the ship’s port or starboard, the ‘divisions of the ship’ being used as an analogue for the horizon. Again, Majid speaks of it.

– Conventions of navigational lighting by reference to the previous point, see this article [link omitted] and (perhaps) more detailed information in e.g. The Mariner’s Mirror (journal. Note – issued in more than one series)

I haven’t finished, but that’s plenty for one post. (I expect general readers might have found this long enough, and dull enough, too!).

I’ll come back to the diagram’s stars, its hint of the volvelle, and of calendars.. but later.


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