Sagittarius fol 73v – implications (starting from scratch #12b Pt1)

added note 4/08/2015: in subsequent posts, as I went deeper into the sense of the Voynich figure, it became clear that the ‘standing archer’ linked *here* (below) was not actually a picture of Sagittarius, but of the astrological ‘saggitarian’. I have scored through the superceded part of that sentence.

This might be a good moment to remind readers, and to tell new-comers, that this blog is not here to argue a personal hypothesis for which I hope to gain huge support so that we can all “vote” for my-our version of things.  Frightfully modern approach, but not one I’m comfortable with. This is not an exercise in finding support for Panofsky’s opinion, but in testing all opinions about this figure, including my own.

I’m hoping that more accurate information might help us locate the right lamp-post, as it were, under which we may find the key to this manuscript’s text.  That means that an argument needs to be more than persuasive; it needs to be as close to true as we can make it. And a large part of the process is getting to understand how the fifteenth-century draughtsmen understood the implications of the standing archer type.

You will see it argued that this form for Sagittarius, and that on folio 73v of Beinecke 408 is ‘typically’ – European, or -German, or -Italian, etc.etc.

All our evidence, scant as it is, points to a very different origin, and a late arrival into the manuscript art of France, Italy and Germany. If the type can be said  ‘typically’ anything it must be called ‘typically eastern’ and ‘typically Jewish’, for as a figure alternative to the ancient Bow, or the Milesian “Pan”, or again the Roman Centaur, the fully human figure is reasonably established as an innovation of the early centuries AD, created for use in a Roman zodiac by a few communities in the eastern Mediterranean, and best attested in northern Israel.

This is interesting to us now because it is another instance of open investigation leading to further support for Panofsky’s initial assessment. If you cannot abide reading details of art and history not immediately forming a cryptanalytic tool, then you may want to skip most of this post. It’s about provenancing the imagery.

But so that not even the ‘skippers’ leave empty-handed, here are a couple of scripts you may not have seen before. Neither is enciphered, but the language of the second remains unknown.  They come from regions not widely separated in space, but separated by a thousand years at least in time.  You may notice some similarities between these glyphs, and some in the Voynich manuscript.

unknown script B

written in an unknown script

spacer SpMu

A SECOND EXAMPLE OF THE STANDING ARCHER from about the 6thC AD was found at Huseifa [Ar. Isfiya]. I have no photograph of that mosaic, and so quote Rāḥēl Ḥaḵlîlî’s description:

[At Huseifa], the surviving figure of the archer is portrayed naked, turning right and shooting with his right arm raised.  The two Jewish communities of Beth Alpha and Huseifa might have been reluctant to portray Sagittarius in its pagan form as a centaur, and preferred a human archer which would have been adequate to symbolise the Hebrew name of the constellation: Qashat, the Archer.

from: Ancient Mosaic Pavements: Themes, Issues, and Trends : Selected Studies (2008) pp.39-4

That is one, very simple, explanation but as  Jacobus rightly notes, Sagittarius was already known in the form of the Bow. This means that a decision to represent Sagittarius as a human figure was not just a means to avoid using the Centaur.  In Hebrew, the words for ‘Bow’ and for ‘Archer’ are distinguished only by their vowels, and adding vowels to the written text is optional – so that in terms of realizing the written word, either interpretation was possible and in theory the old Milesian Greek “Bow” might have served.[1]

 That it is an innovation is clear enough from the form of the Huseifa mosaic’s figure. It appears that the maker simply took up a generic type, used in Greek and in Roman works and known as the ‘bird-shooter’.  I have illustrated it from a hunting scene made in late Roman north Africa, where there is no reference to astronomy apparent. 

blog standing archer 2 NthAfrica

‘bird-shooter’ motif. Conventional. Roman era mosaic.

In time, this version of Sagittarius would also appear occasionally in medieval Europe’s manuscript art – chiefly in the fifteenth century works, though rare even then. An example is shown here, nicely illustrating how Latins constantly clothe figures in their own sort of costume, chiefly designed to convey ideas of social rank and profession – not a motif’s antecedents or place of origin.  Fortunately for us, some exceptions to this rule occur, one being a German manuscript concerned with astrology and fortune-telling – what people of that time classed as the ‘Chaldaean’ arts. Chaldaea (Heb. Hasdim) referring to an old kingdom in lower Mesopotamia near the Persian Gulf.

spacer SpMu

Saggitarius MS Ludwig XII 8 folio56 German shortly after 1464The hat shown here was not worn by contemporary Latins, but one similar appears to have been traditional among some of Germany’s oldest Jewish communities, as we’ll see in a later post.

Our aim now is to see what associations this figure had for the draughtsman and his peers. Medieval imagery was not formed from any idea that it was an artist’s expression of personal sensitivity and superior insight, but rather predicated on an assumption that maker and viewer engaged in a mutual dialogue, the language and grammar of which they held in common. More, I suppose, as a traditional novelist might write his book. Interpretation requires the ability (largely learned, now) to read an image from the same body of knowledge and ideas as those prevalent in a given time and place: ‘gut-feeling’ and guess-work are not necessary, but a fair bit of historical, literary and art-history study is, I’m afraid, if you want to read that pictorial ‘text’ rather than merely looking it in terms of  similar-and-different and hoping that will do.

A genuinely ‘eastern’ work that was being copied in fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe was Ibn Botlan’s Tacuinum Sanitatis, and some copies reproduce elements from their exemplars better than others do.

Tacuinum sanitatis East WindOne from Italy has a text describing the ‘ventus orientalis‘ – the Eastern wind –  with an image showing two eastern men, both bearded with long curls lifting in the wind. The one who carries a bow and uplifted arrow has a tall pointed hat upon his head.  Plainly not a Latin European. That picture (left) intends us to recognise the sort of eastern people conventionally credited with extraordinary skills as archers –  the Medes, Persians, Parthians or Scythians.  The German draughtsman was probably quite vague about any distinctions between those peoples, but he cannot have relied only on the Tacuinum, where the Eastern wind is directly linked to  temperate characters born under Aries, Taurus and Gemini.

Nonetheless, the draughtsman was not relying on his imagination.  Below are representations of the Parthian (left) and the Saka or Scythian (centre) made while they were living and active peoples.  Closer to the artist’s time, though, is one version of a type of hat worn by German Jews. The example shown below comes from a thirteenth century German manuscript, but as we’ll see in a later post, that worn by Jews in Vienna and in Regensburg comes closer still to what the German illustrator drew.

Parthian Saka and German medieval Jews

Today, we would see the Parthian headwear as most like that in the German figure, but we are comparing them with the benefit of another five hundred years of cross-cultural studies, including the archaeological finds which gained us our examples.  The German draftsman is more likely to have relied on any exemplars, complemented by what textual sources as he had available.  Most of those are equally vague about ‘national’ groups.

Isidore tells us that the Parthian and Median word for ‘arrow’ is the same, and is that by which the river Tigris was named. The Tigris is one of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia and flows from the region of modern Turkey to the Persian Gulf. (map)

Lucan‘s Pharsalia thought of the Medes as the quintessential bowmen, comparing to them the Garamantes of north Africa: ” those whose darts/ Rival the flying arrows of the Mede.”

Strabo considered Medes, Persians, Bactrians and Sogians practically the same, because they “speak approximately the same language, with but slight variations”.

Closer still to our German manuscript artist and his time, Notker‘s account of Charlemagne appears to locate Baghdad (on the Tigris) in Parthia, which according to our present system of history had given way to the Sasanids five centuries before:

“through the energy of the most vigorous Charles it was found not merely possible but quite easy for his envoys to go and return, and the messengers of Haroun [ar Raschid], whether young or old, passed easily from Parthia into Germany and returned from Germany to Parthia.”

It would be understandable if a fifteenth century Latin then supposed that  ‘Chaldaean’ arts and the Jews of Germany had come from the same vaguely ‘eastern’ region, where pointed hats were supposed worn. His Bible told him that all the people of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel had been deported by the ‘Assyrians’ and taken to “Halah and Habor by the river Gozan, and into the cities of the Medes”. But since it was also termed the ‘Babylonian exile’, clearly it must seem (to a person in that time) that the Medes lived in Babylon, a city also identified with Baghdad under the Caliphate and identified, again, with Parthia and Chaldea. So the pointed hat in that fifteenth century manuscript is certainly speaking of those ancients whom he believed had lived, or did live, in lower Mesopotamia, but we can suppose little more.

And now we reach thornier ground: he must have known that among the northern tribes sent to ‘the land of the Medes’ was the tribe of Manasseh, but did he know that Manasseh was traditionally associated with the Bow, or that the standing human Sagittarius had been devised in the ancient territory of Manasseh? Had he heard that the city ‘of the Scythians’ (Scythopolis) was the Biblical Bet She’an, where one saw the zodiac with this original form for Sagittarius? Perhaps he had; for in recording the non-classical lore of Sagittarius in the late nineteenth century, Richard Hinkley-Allen would write that it was “associated with the tribe of Manasseh”.[2]  Appropriate, certainly, but when was that correlation first enunciated?

I’m well over the 1500 word mark, so will have to break …


next post... the figure’s arrival in Europe.. c.12thC.



1. Helen R. Jacobus, Zodiac Calendars in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Their Reception: Ancient Astronomy and Astrology in Early Judaism (Brill: 2015),  p.140.  At the time of writing, I have yet to see Jacobus’ book, apart from what is shown online.  When my copy finally arrives, I hope it will mean that these posts will need updating.

2. “Among Jews it was the tribal symbol of Ephraim and Manasseh from Jacob’s last words to their father, Joseph, “his bow abode in strength”. Hinkley Allen, Star-Names.. p.352.


2 thoughts on “Sagittarius fol 73v – implications (starting from scratch #12b Pt1)

  1. Oh Sheesh! Mosaic guy’s bow will NOT release an arrow, ever!
    The pointed cone-shaped hat supposedly worn by Jewish men bear a strong resemblance to the hoods worn by the Ku Klux Klan when they were hunting (to use their foul language) ‘niggers’ or ‘nigger lovers’ — before, during, and after the so-called Civil War, here in the US.
    The Ku Klux Klan is still active today. Shiver….


    • That organisation’s hat is of the same shape as the one worn by members of the Inquisition, by people who whipped themselves, by people put into the stocks as punishment, and by clowns. Not so much like the various forms of hat recorded for Jews, I think.


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