East-left. Folio 67v and precedents

This post continues my commentary on the relevance of Barbara Obrist’s work for Voynich studies. It adds to earlier posts about folio 67v-i, and to save readers revisiting those older ones, some of their matter is included here too.

Barbara Obrist, “Wind Diagrams and Medieval Cosmology”, Speculum, V ol. 72, No. 1 (Jan., 1997), pp. 33-84. (available through JSTOR)fol 67v-i quarters.

On folio 67v-i, at the edge of the north quarter, is an emblem provided with four faces that form points of a square set in a circle.  The basic figure implies a fourfold division, but by his application of pigment, the colourist has asserted it a tripartite diagram in the Mediterranean’s ‘T-O’ genre, implying in turn a connection to the earth’s disposition.

Folio 67v-i is more remarkable for the number of points of divergence from Latin customs than for such efforts as this to bring the whole into line with western habit.  This folio’s imagery has attracted  less attention than it warrants; its anomalies must impact on any scheme proposed for the information’s provenance and dating.


The colourist might have applied his green pigment  across the two segments at top-, or bottom and so made it more nearly resemble the usual form for Latin ‘T-O’ diagrams.  That he did not, but left the emblem with an East-left orientation which is so very unusual in Latin works, would appear to imply either that he was not from the Latin west, or that he understood the original better than one might suppose, for the underlying figure is astronomical, depicting the northern circumpolar region though correlating it with a world as microcosm and firmly bounded pairi-daêza.

The result of that retention of the East-left is a clear indication that the diagram on folio 67v-i, and indeed the page itself, is to be understood oriented towards the South. Here it is, turned with north as near to vertical as I can manage.

f 67v-i made North


If we suppose the same north-south axis for folio 67v-ii (now below it), one might propose that the stars which are there coloured a darker green (the colour of faith in both Christian and Islamic tradition) are the same important northern stars which are represented in the northern circle of folio 67v-i, and in that case we can be fairly sure they are identified with the  ‘constant and faithful’ stars known both east and west by terms such as the Brothers, Guards or Guardians of the Pole. These are beta Ursa Minoris (Kochab), and gammaUrsa Minoris (Pherkad), whose higher and lower positions together permitted calculation of time, season and direction.

For more on this topic see e.g. the website of Alan H. Hartley: Astronomical terms in the medieval Mediterranean.

Mariners everywhere had come to understand their value. On the other hand, the emblem used opposite them on folio 67v-i is that of a constellation unknown in European astronomy before the seventeenth century though as much esteemed in the Great Sea as the Brothers and Pole in the north.

Today we know it as ‘Crux’;  Yemeni and Arab peoples knew much earlier as ‘Sulbar’, and that name had apparently been gained ultimately from India where the figure is known among other descriptors as Sulba, the measuring cord.

fol 67v-i Crux smlrCrux bwCruxChart

It was first defined and separately named for European astronomers by the Dutch astronomer and traveller Frederick De Houtman (1571–1627) who conferred the name by translating the Arabic Sulbar to give “De Cruzero”.1 Its absence from the western corpus had hardly impinged on Europe before this time, because although referenced by Ptolemy its stars were set by him as part of the Centaur, and the last of them had fallen below the Mediterranean’s horizon in the early centuries AD.

Absence from formal astronomical works did not, of course, prevent those who travelled east from seeing the constellation, as immediately eye-catching in the southern heavens as Orion. Ambassadors, traders, seamen and missionaries were doubtless drawn to notice the figure which – as I’ve mentioned before – appears to be present in its mythological form on the Genoese map of 1457: that is, less than twenty years after the latest date for the Voynich manuscript’s parchment (1404-1438).

Genoese were having ships constructed in the eastern sea by that time, and likely constructed along the shore of the western Ghats which provided the timber for most ships constructed in the region over millennia.  I see no reason then to doubt that the three-masted ship on the Genoese map is as little a product of fantasy as the makers claimed for the whole. 2  Within the Mediterranean, by the fifteenth century, three-masted nau or carrick was  common enough, and what more natural than that the companies should bring or train their own shipwrights and carpenters as well as the seamen to man their ships. We have the information about Genoese ships in the Great Sea from a Dominican named Guillaume Adam; he also mentions being obliged to wait with his fellows for months on an island (believed to be Soqotra) until a ship might come which could give them passage out. 3

1 A star map of 1624 shows the relevant stars outside the Centaur’s figure but still in the Ptolemaic division; their separation from the chief figure seems to me intended only to show clearly why the older figure was now rightly supplemented by these stars from Ptolemy’s list. However, by reference to that chart, published by Jakob Bartsch (Kepler’s son-in-law), Petrus Plancius has sometimes been wrongly credited with creating it as a new, post-Ptolemaic constellation. Ian Ridpath’s summary of events and his rare recognition of the Dutch astronomer’s role deserves recommendation ( Ridpath’s page is here).  With regard to folio 67v-i, I see no particular reason, in theory, why its several discordant additions (specified in an earlier post) could not have come from the hand of some much later person as Houtman.

2. In which opinion I differ from Jean Richard, from whose article I take the references to Guillaume Adam’s account (p.47). Jean Richard, ‘European Voyages in the Indian Ocean and Caspian Sea (12th-15th centuries)’,  Iran, Vol 6 (1968) pp. 45-52.

3. Guillaume’s companion and fellow Dominican monk is now credited (if that is the correct term) with authorship of the vitriolic ‘Directorium ad Faciendum Passagium Transmarinum’ which Beazley transcribed and translated in full. The transcription was published as  ‘Directorium ad Faciendum Passagium Transmarinum’, American Historical Review, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Jul., 1907), pp. 810-857;  and the English translation in the same journal and year:  ‘Directorium ad Faciendum Passagium Transmarinum, II’, American Historical Review, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Oct., 1907), pp. 66-115.


fol 67v i Guards detail Asian queryWhat length of time separates the drawings on folio 67v-i from the pigments’ addition(s) I can’t say, but the Asiatic face in the North emblem is another important anomaly.

Unlike any other folio in the Voynich manuscript, this detail represents a human form in proportion, without that systematic distortion which is so consistent through all other folios where human or animal figures are represented.

Whether the distortions were made to avoid prurience, to observe religious scruples, in accordance with social custom, or even due to ‘magical’ thinking we don’t know yet, but I am inclined to favour the first two possibilities over the rest.

Realistic representation was once avoided by peoples from the eastern side of the Mediterranean through the Yemen and beyond.  Avoidance of depicting the holy affected early Buddhist imagery in Gandhara until the 2ndC AD or so, before which the Buddha is not pictured.  As iconoclasm it even affected the art of Christian Byzantium during the earlier medieval centuries, though in this case the prohibition applied only to higher members in the spiritual hierarchy: God, Christ and Mary among them.

bathy women

‘Four parts’

No Latin works made before our manuscript’s presumptive date (1404-1438) show any sense that the world might contain four distinct landmasses or continents (as far as I can discover).

The implication of such a division for the ‘world’ in parallel to the natural divisions of the north are what we see in folio 67v-i, and this suggests an origin for that emblem (at least) beyond the environment of western Christianity, and possibly beyond that of Byzantium or Baghdad.

I know of only two instances where ideas similar to those expressed by the emblem on folio 67v-i occur.  One is a note provided in Abraham Cresques’ compendium for the King of France. That was made in 1375. The other is an eleventh century windrose which has the same most unusual East-left arrangement.

Cresques notes with regard to North Africa that after the Biblical Flood, Noah settled there and there re-planted the vine.  This is a remarkable departure from the usual stories, which see the entire world divided between Noah’s three sons:  Ham, Shem and Japhet – hence the three divisions for Latin and other T-O maps. They were believed to embody Biblical truth.

The wind-rose with an East-left facing is found on folio 156r of a medical miscellany (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris MS. Lat. 7028).

Obrist comments on the extreme rarity of such arrangement in any medieval Latin or Greek work. There may be no other.

east left winds miscellany Obrist

To find both anomalies in a single emblem in the Voynich manuscript is quite extraordinary, as I hope you see.

East-left orientation is so very rare for Latin works that some might try to argue it error in the eleventh century windrose, but one cannot suppose so when it occurs first in the drawing on folio 67v-i and then is retained by the colourist. There was, surely, something heterodox for Latins about an East-left facing for while the eleventh-century miscellany is not unknown, its wind-rose finds no descendants.

Obrist notes:

The accompanying, rather corrupt chapter, “De ventorum virtutibus vel naturis,” is interesting in that it presents a remote echo of the wind diagram of the Aristotelian tradition, which is construed on the basis of diametrically opposed wind locations. It begins thus: “Circius dextram ramusculus septentrionis contrarius est euronoster… .”

Obrist, op.cit., p.54

This reference to Aristotle reminds us that while it is agreed that most of Aristotle’s works entered the Latin west no earlier than the twelfth century, we do hear from tenth century Sicily that the island’s older peoples were devoted to that philosopher, his body reported as formerly having been suspended from the ceiling of an ancient building later made into a Christian cathedral, and by the tenth century perhaps a mosque.

It is the military Ibn Hawqual, an Arab general, who reports the Sicilians’ devotion to Aristotle and does not think well of them because of it. In a section of his report rarely included in modern translations, he says those texts are treated “almost like holy writ” and that they are still expounded as such by teachers seated in the niches about the wall.

So perhaps the East-left custom and garbled version of Aristotle came distantly from Sicily where certainly there had been until about the time of Ibn Hawqal’s visit (943-969 AD) a community noted for its study of secular subjects including geography and languages.

The residents of Oria had come from the eastern Mediterranean and according to the account by Donollo they had come from Palestine in the ‘time of Titus’. Under the first wave of Muslim conquest, each community was obliged to declare itself already a member of an Abrahamic religion, or convert to the Muslim faith, or die.  Conversion often but not always meant abandoning the script, liturgical language, texts and culture of one’s former way of life. Exceptions did occur, where older texts might be retained by reason of their useful information or ancient roots. Aristotle survived, as did other relics of the Greek-speaking world.

Ibn Hawqual’s visit to Sicily closely coincides with the forced dispersal of  Oria’s* large and multidisciplinary centre of learning, which formed the centre of that Jewish town. Among the few not enslaved or forced to flee across the sea was Abraham Donnolo, ransomed by relatives in the southern Italian peninsula. In later life he composed a pharmaceutical dispensatory, Sefer HaMirkachot which is one of the earliest secular compositions written in medieval Hebrew.

* Oria would later be included in the Norman Sicilian kingdom, and had been closely connected with Sicily as part of Magna Graecia. In that sense it was more ‘Sicilian’ than Italian, though it lay (and lies) in the Brindisi Province in Italy’s heel and not far from Novoli, where Fincino would one day be priest.

While he composed his works, those mysterious Radhanites were still travelling across the known (and unknown) roads from the western Mediterranean to the lands of China, and western branches of Jewish families were part of networks which brought eastern spices and fabrics from the nearer and further East.

In referring earlier to his dispensatory (here), I referred to Donnolo’s saying that his chief source was a certain Book of Asaph, Asaph being the angel who, in Jewish tradition, oversees the heavenly hosts in daylight hours. He is also associated with healing.

As Donnolo relates the story, the Oria community had arrived directly from Palestine ‘in the time of Titus’ (i.e. c.70AD – 81 AD) and among its earliest members was one remembered as “involved with wisdom” and “who contemplated the secret of the chariot”.1

 1. as quoted in Elliot R. Wolfson,The Theosophy of Shabbetai Donnolo, with Special Emphasis on the Doctrine of “Sefirot” in His “Sefer Ḥakhmoni”‘,  Jewish History, Vol. 6, No. 1/2, The Frank Talmage Memorial Volume (1992), pp. 281-316.

Now, this brings us back to that emblem for the north on folio 67v-i, and Panofsky’s seeing something in the Voynich manuscript which led him to believe that it was southern Jewish, and its content related to Kabbalah.  Perhaps this emblem was one of those indications, for while Wolfsen recognises the Oria community’s connection to Palestine and its Jewish traditions, closely similar ideas evidently had a broader presence in that region.

Our records of the Harranian ‘magi’ mention a religious celebration of the ‘mystery of the North’, and in nearby Edessa the Christians had a major centre of translation and learning known as the House of Wisdom – the term being again found in Biblical texts.

Such was its importance that upon its destruction the new centre of translation and study in Baghdad was named the same: Beit al Hikmah. It was staffed in some considerable part by the Harranians and Edessans as keepers of ancient learning about mathematics and literature, respectively.

In Constantinople the great new cathedral was also named ‘Hagia Sophia’.

In most of the centres so named, we find angelology studied in combination with philosophical and religious meditations about the far north of the sky, imagined as an angel-ringed city, a walled pairi-daêza, and at the same time its stars envisaged as the vehicle bearing spiritual power.

Majid knew the ancient figure as formed of stars in Ursa Major, knows it as the arca noe, and describes the ship’s formation star by star.  Latin Europe would recognise instead the ‘wain’ which circled endlessly, seeing it first as a farm cart and later as Charlemagne’s chariot.  For the Jews who meditated on the mystery, it was the merkabah, central to Kabbalist thought.

So prevalent were these ideas that they are found everywhere in the late classical to medieval centuries, and a great many of the images supposed ‘Helios’ actually depict the northern chariot and Pole star.

How does this matter of eastern Mediterranean belief square with the pronounced influence of Indian or southeast Asian custom in so much of the Voynich manuscript, especially its botanical and ‘pharma’ sections?

One solution may be that while some communities went westwards in diaspora, others had travelled east, both taking with them the works they considered most precious as well as ideas and folk customs so embedded in a region that they are retained as cultural customs regardless of language or religion.

To posit that we have much, or most of the content in MS Beinecke 408 from people who originated in Palestine or Syria but who then went east in diaspora rather than west is not difficult, since we have evidence that this was so.  In each case, too, one might reasonably suppose that ideas and deeply embedded attitudes travelled too, and even written works so revered or so useful that their preservation was desirable.

In the Mediterranean, Oria was just one of the Jewish refugees’ western settlements. Others had been sent to small villages about the head of the Adriatic, and others again were established in Cairo or North Africa. Kairouan was once a most important Jewish centre for medical studies, surviving until expelled and supplanted by the incoming Arab tribes.

In the east, we hear of a Jewish community about the ancient port of Muziris, that which traded with the west while the Nile canals still functioned.

We have sufficient evidence that these scattered communities kept in touch with at least some few others, and it would be possible to explain most of what is found in MS Beinecke 408 by positing it  a compilation of matter gained from one or more of the eastern enclaves, ones which originated before the Arab conquest.

Most of the Voynich astronomical diagrams, unlike the rest of the manuscript’s imagery, reflect  little obvious affect from eastern habits in art. The botanical and ‘pharma’ sections, on the other hand, show very marked stylistic connection to customs of the region from Aden to southeast Asia, and many features in common with Indian and Chinese herbal texts – some ancient.  The ‘bathy-‘ section is different again, but appears to me to describe the Red Sea of an early epoch and in relation to its navigation.

Though perhaps beyond resolution, the question must be who brought these sections together to form the present manuscript. Perhaps, as Georg Barchius thought, it was one man; perhaps too its matter was truly believed in some sense Egyptian.

From Philip Neal’s translation of Barschius’ letter, here is an abridged and edited section. For the whole, in Latin and in English translation (with Notes) see Neal’s webpage  here.

Your Reverence won worldwide acclaim by publishing the Prodromus Copticus. Now in it, among other things, you requested all those who might possess anything which might enrich the work for help …

Now since there was in my library, uselessly taking up space … a piece of writing in unknown characters, I thought it would not be out of place to send the puzzle to [you] to be solved. And so I ordered a certain old book to be transcribed in part …. My hope was that … the effort might … benefit [you], and myself, and the common good.


From the pictures of herbs, of which there are a great many in the codex, and of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism, it is my guess that the whole thing is medical, the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls. This … thing cannot be for the masses as may be judged from the precautions the author took in order to keep the uneducated ignorant of it. In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants …


(I’m still working slowly on a new page giving a full list of posts. Did I really write so many?)


One thought on “East-left. Folio 67v and precedents

  1. To avoid re-posting the whole thing, any extra notes are added here as comments-to-self. In this case, I thought I’d say that the inscription above the head of Crux struck me as ‘parergon’, which is odd, because the northern pole marker is known as Cynosure, having a sense near enough to “paragon”.
    According to Aratus and others, the Romans didn’t take U.minor as pole marker, though. They stayed with U.major The true Pole star was known chiefly to Phoenician mariners in ancient times and even through the middle ages of the west.
    Just thought I’d mention it.


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