fol. 73v: the nature of the beast Pt2 (s-f-s #12e/2 )

Summary: continuing to explore the range of character accorded Sagittarius, to illuminate the intention behind the Archer figure in fol 73v.

[edited on request; some pictures were too big for mobile devices]

spacer SpMu

Imagery for the ‘Centaur’ and ‘Centaur-Pan’ for Sagittarius can be ambivalent, but we find no such uncertainty about the Babylonian and Egyptian figure of the relentless pursuer as “conqueror of all”.

In both form and character it remains clear.  It was certainly known to the people brought to Mesopotamia and the “land of the Medes” from the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah during the neo-Babylonian period (1000–539BC) – during which the following seal was carved.

centaur attacking lion Cylinder seal neo-Babylonian 1000–539BC

cylinder seal and impression. neo-Babylonian period.

The figure’s wings symbolise swiftness; the stars and dots signal action in the heavens as counterpart to activities on earth. Whether meant for our Sagittarius is uncertain, but many seals emphasise the solemnity of sealing by evoking it as parallel to the weight of heaven pressing upon those on earth below.  It  is meant to serve as a form of oath, we think, or perhaps as threat to anyone breaking the seal. This character is not the greco-Roman ‘centaur’ at all, neither a Chiron nor  a forest- hunter like the Pan. It represents the relentless pursuer.

Its figure and character remain fairly constant over the centuries, influencing Egyptian astronomical forms from the next Mesopotamian dynasties, which held all the fertile crescent, and Egypt from Memphis along the river to as far as Thebes.  Indeed, the whole region from the Persian Gulf to the lower land of the Nile sees an ebb and flow of astronomical lore and imagery, one whose influences include the Phoenician, Carian and Macedonian. As we’ve seen it travelled west to appear in near-identical form in Merovingian Gaul.

Some hint of its relentless character invests another example, carved in relief on the Cathedral of León [6]. Here the creature’s wild hair hangs, perhaps dreadlocked, evoking those Berbers who invaded the same region from North Africa, and whose horses bore the Islamic ‘identity tags’ later adopted by Latins.

Leon Sagittarius to Pisces

As time progresses, and as we move more into the safer  atmosphere of the northern regions and a more settled habit in picturing Sagittarius, so the makers’ terrors evidently abate. More plainly human, though hardly a sympathetic figure yet, that in the example shown below appears to be a wild Celt, or perhaps a Pict, or even a Norseman “inflamed” by Apollyon. [7] It is too soon to feel at home with the savage Sagittarius; we are still only in Autun on the Rhone.

Sagittarius Cathedral of St Lazare Autun Burgundy

“When the sun inflames the bow and the Drawer of the Bow, you should put ashore at evening and not continue to trust the night” – Aratus

In nearby Vézelay, the type is already closer to that in later medieval manuscripts. This centaur might even be ‘on our side’, despite his flaming hair (rather shorter) and his staring eyes.

Sagittarius from Vezelay

Sagittarius from Vezelay

Most copies of Aratus’ text made north of the Rhone picture a figure unlikely to inspire blank terror, even if horned and even so early as the tenth century. However the face seen here can be read as a mask – something true for many of the ‘evil centaur’ images.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 250

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 250

I’m not sure the Byzantines had any idea of the relentless pursuer type, or Sagittarius as ‘the Beast’, but something the Mesopotamian and Egyptian nature for Sagittarius does survive south of the Rhone. As late as the mid-fourteenth century in Spain, we see a version of the horned, half-animal figure in a manuscript from the time of Alfonzo XI (1311-1350), now a female with highly rouged cheeks as ‘relentless pursuer’. Partly Sagittarius and partly Siren, even her hand-gestures evoke an invisible bow, as you can see by comparing them with those of a wonderful Saggitarius carved in a spandrel at Poitiers.

horned Centaur beast woman Castile Libro de la ordinacio de la caça de monte attrib Alfonzo XI

detail from ‘Libro de la ordinacio…’ attributed to Alfonzo XI

Sagittarius Poitiers spandrelThe drawing of the woman-beast looks extraordinary modern, doesn’t it, in its handling of tone and colour? Like a fashion plate in aquarelles.

Her bright red cheeks are characteristic of earlier Celtic as of Byzantine manuscript art, but emphasised here. Note also the multiple lines of the serpentine neck, a characteristically Mozarabic practice.

Alfonzo XI (1311-1350) was not only king of León and Galicia, but also king of Castile ~  while the Papacy was centred in Avignon, and while Gallician-Portuguese influenced its greatest range and Leonese itself was just beginning to recede. (The wiki article ‘Gallician-Portuguese’ has a good interactive schematic map of the dialects’ expansion and contraction through the period 1000-2000.)

Even when the style in which it is presented becomes charming, the cruel-hearted type for Sagittarius is not entirely forgotten by the scribes in fourteenth France.  The same character  known to  Zeno in sixth-century Verona arises  – somewhat unexpectedly –  to infuse a crossbowman pictured in a fourteenth-century Psalter made in Metz.[8]

How do I know he’s to be read as an evil creature?

I’ll show you, in the next post… But could this give us the character intended by those who first made the figure in folio 73v of MS Beinecke 408, despite its ‘bird-shooter’ pose?

crossbowman Yates Thompson Psalm detail

Bodleian MS Yates Thompson 8 f61. Made in eastern France (Metz) between 1302-1303.



6. Cathedral of León. “Located in northwest Spain along the Camino de Santiago (Road to Compostella), the Cathedral of León is properly the Catedral de Santa María de Regla de León.  Built over the ruins of ancient Roman baths in the thirteenth century, it is another in the style known as Opus Francigenum during the medieval centuries but later given the derogatory description of ‘Gothic’ by humanist devotees of classical architecture.

7. (1) Apollyon: “They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer)..” Apocalypse Ch.9:1-11.  In this context, one notes the unusual figure in a late Roman mosaic from north Africa.  (1) Norse..”Replica bows using the original dimensions have been measured to between 100 and 130 pounds draw weight. A unit of length used in the Viking age called a bow shot corresponded to what was later measured as 227.5 m, or 800 feet. Illustrations from the time show bows being pulled back to the chest, rather than to the corner of the mouth or under the chin, as is common today”.

Apollyon query mosaic Tunis


8. Metz … now part of French territory, but an independent republic from the 12th to 15th centuries. It stands at the confluence of the Moselle and the Seille rivers.

  • An old zodiac ring carved in ivory – proclaimed an astrologer’s board in most reports although its style of use is unknown – was found in Croatia, in a cave by the sea, in 2012. Radiocarbon dated to about the 2nd-1stC BC. This is about the time to which I also date an important stage in most of our manuscript’s imagery, by the way.  The ivory shows what appears to be the usual Greco-Roman Centaur Sagittarius:

zodiac hellenistic or Roman ring vertical


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