Alchemy’s sweet scent – made more readable

It is more than two years, now, since this post went up, but it has remained in the “top 5” continually since then.

 I thought I might tidy it up, as a kind of anniversary gift.  All I’ve done is incorporate into the text a couple of corrections, make it shorter and  order it a little better. Some  posts written in 2013 were written in one-minute bursts, fitting into a pretty hectic day – and they showed it.

folio 4v clematis~~~~~~~~~

content and original identification first posted on 05/02/2013 by

Folio 4v shows a plant having an upright but sinuous habit – so it’s not a tree, nor exactly a shrub, but some sort of vine or twining plant. That, at least, is the base type which is further identified by its narrow leaves.

The blue, bell-shaped flower is set at the top and turns upright to face the sun (as it were). This placement, as we’ve seen, is a convention and may not prove literally true – especially for a vine.  However, we can expect that no matter where the flowers form, they will have blue, bell-shaped flowers, that the leaves will be narrow and opposite and that the plant will not be a tree or shrub. The ‘star-like’ look of those spent flowers (achenes) points me, via Ranunculae, to the Clematis.

The following drawing of C.pseudo otophora, an Asian clematis with a yellow flower,  shows nicely how the basic forms of bell-flower, narrow opposite leaves, slender plant and achenes occur together. European clematis aren’t like this; they have broad leaves and an open flat flower.  Other Asian clematis have blue flowers, very like some later found in the Americas.

Clematis pseudo otophora small

Blue bell-flowers are produced by C.integrifolia of which a natural variety deserves mention.  C. integrifolia ‘Baikal’ developed around the lake of that name and is not a twining plant.  “Baikal’ is probably outside our geographic range, as is the blue-black  Clematis ianthina Koehne of Korea, but I can’t resist showing them to you. The original makers would never have shown the second with its natural colour; anything  in the purple-to-black range is omitted or coloured differently in these botanical folios.

Clematis integrifolia Baikal
Clematis integrifolia ‘Baikal’


About the end of the stem, and at the root, where we expect  these folios to include information about the plant-group members and their uses-in-common, such as whether they are cultivated or wild, quick to regenerate, used for used for timber or fibre, dye, food etc. –  folio  f.4v shows only the double-gourd native to Africa and Asia.  What uses should one read in that?  Probably not pharmaceutical use of the usual sort.

folio 4v detail gourdHerbalists were not terribly keen on Clematis, which has a poor reputation in the western pharmacopoeia.  Mrs Grieves has little good to say of it, labelling it a poison and mentioning it chiefly for  “syphilitic, cancerous and other foul ulcers.”

I suppose if you wanted to read the bottle gourd in Freudian terms, you might see reference to such uses here, although syphilis was not yet known to the Latin world when our manuscript was made.

Chinese medicine uses the root only, for “muscle pain, spasms, cramps, numbness and stiffness in the extremities.”

If this were the intention, I should expect to see some mnemonic, perhaps like the ‘crippled digits’ on folio 16v, but instead we have the gourd used to hold liquids, and as an alchemical receiver. Versions occur in metal and in mixed media, although I do not have an example of an ornamented double-gourd to hand. Some objects made in this form are purely ornamental; it is a popular device in Asian art.

container gourds detaildouble gourd eclearcontainer gourd flasks metal Savafid rev


In the east, until the time our manuscript was made, the clematis’ chief value was its root, burned as incense. In traditional uses recorded elsewhere we find, again, that the smoke from burning clematis is its active principle.

According to Marcello Pennacchio, the leaves of C. brachiata were burned in Botswana, the smoke said to relieve blood-problems caused by ‘itchy sores’ ; people of Burdundi found that the smoke of C.simensis, inhaled, served as an analgesic; leaves of C. brachiata were smoked (like a tobacco) to relieve headaches in South Africa; and in Anatolia, a piece of a branch from C. vitalba was smoked like a cigarette to relieve toothache.

folio 4v
folio 4v

It seems to me that the image on f.4v does manage to convey the impression of something rising like  smoke  from the gourd.

So in one way, Clematis’ value was associated with its ‘exhalations’: chiefly from the root or wood, but there are scented flowers on some of the Asian species, the only naturally scented Clematis.

When I refer to ‘alchemical processes’ in this case, I don’t mean the full-blown alchemical style of European texts from the sixteenth-  and seventeenth centuries. Their alchemy was designed to produce actual or philosophical gold. Rather, I mean the practical chemistry using heat, reduction and distillation to ‘transform’ and purify a plant extract.

That sort of  ‘alchemy’ was known and recommended by Roger Bacon in thirteenth-century England.

Extraction of plant essences was also part of the process for making dyes, pigments for cloth painting and for perfumery. In some cases, salts, alum, or animal products were added, while hair-dyes and lotions –  so important in  ancient and medieval India – unite the arts of dyer and the perfumer.

Not only what is shown on folio 4v, but information offered across the botanical and pharma sections (and indeed some other folios) suggests an interest in scents and scented goods.

fol 101v-i detail red ginger brghtenedOn folio 101v, for instance, this red flowered plant with the ‘club foot’ root appears to me to be  Curcuma rubescens, a member of the ginger-galingale group exceptional for having a scented root (the only member of the group listed by Genders*).

*Roy Genders, Scented Flora of the World, London: Hale (1978)

botanical art C.rubescens WSharpAnother reason for considering ‘alchemy’ of this simpler sort as a subject in MS Beinecke 408 is that a Voynich-like script occurs in a medieval manuscript from Islam, with an  ‘alchemical’ furnace, and a face drawn to a convention which is traditional in India and southeast Asia.  The image (below) comes from Okasha El Daly’s book describing medieval Islamic interest in ancient Egypt, its rare sciences and its hieroglyphic script. Nick Pelling first mentioned the book and this led me to investigate the connections between medieval Egypt and the far-eastern trader, since by that time I had recognised the range covered by the ‘worldmap’ of folio 86v.

What I found was that in old Cairo (Fustat) and within centres in the Persian Gulf, the Yemen and ports of the Red Sea, medieval industry produced  dyes, perfumes,ceramics and glazes after the example of India and the far east.  In some cases,  native workers were imported en masse. Some of the tenth-century Thai ceramics which we find far as Timbuktu may have been made by Thai workers in Egypt and not in Thailand itself.  I offer just two of the many comparisons for that ‘demon’ face. The first (below, centre) is from India and the second (right)  from Java. The implication seems to be that the ‘alchemist’ is an eastern polytheist.

demon face Fustat alchemy O El-Daly Buddha umbrella demon

mask Java cf Egyptian alchemy







Scent/Pefumery and the eastern sphere

Until about the time our manuscript was made, Clematis had only two uses in Asia, the chief one being as incense, for which the root was used.  Clematis root also had use in Chinese medicine before the tenth century AD –  so  I should expect that folio 4v refers chiefly to its  smoke, as scent and as incense, although the flower must have had a commercial use too, or it would not be pictured.

I have seen no evidence that clematis in any form was used in distilled scents before the modern era, but in earlier times perfumes were still made by adding various plant essences to a base of oils or fats. This is a convenient time to add a note about early methods for such extraction, for perfume-making and for ancient apparatus, chiefly to show that all those methods were fairly sophisticated in the east no later than the 3rdC AD, by which time  I believe that most of the matter gathered to make MS Beinecke 408 had already gained its form.


In what was once the eastern limit of the Seleucid lands and a centre of Hellenism in Buddhist Gandhara (1st-3rdC AD)  ancient stills have been recovered which are closely similar to those in traditional use in the same region in the 1940s.

Distilling ancient India Andrha Pradesh

These may be compared with the oldest known forms of distilling and ‘alchemical’ apparatus in Taxila, in what is now part of northern Pakistan.

container distilling Taxila recons Allchin PDF

.. and again in early China.

distillation ancient China fig1 detail

Other ancient Chinese apparatus is shown (left). The physical example (below, right) is from the Western Han, the same time and region where we find early imagery of the crossbow.

distillation devices Chinese ancientChinese distilling vessels oldest

western Han
















I expect that it will be obvious to readers who know the Voynich manuscript well that a case could be made for arguing the subject of the ‘pharma’ section is alchemical in this simpler sense, but only one of the containers from that section can reasonably be compared with these capsadevices, and its form as well as its colour allow other explanations, including the type of air-tight canister familiar from ancient as from the present day examples.

Context is critically important in any analysis involving imagery, and the way the botanical and ‘pharma-‘ sections interlock  means that the implications gained from one must apply in evaluations of the other. So while I do think that some of the plants in the botanical and ‘pharma-‘ section are there for their value as scented materials, I am still inclined to see this section less as a ‘pharma’ section than as a record for shipment and delivery.

Plants appearing in both those sections – as far as I’ve identified them – include many that appear to me to have no relevance for medicine, alcohol distillation or sophisticated forms of alchemy, but which might serve as principal ingredients later subjected to chemical processes to reduce their extracts. In other words, I do not think the users of our manuscript necessarily engaged in such practice, but they may have traded in the raw materials and in the extracted essences or goods which included them.  Ancient and medieval perfumes were made by adding the scented extract to a base made of fats and oils.

Other plants included in these sections are most reasonably explained as assisting manufacture, and not as medicinal substances.  The luffa, for example, which I have identified (as, I understand, others have now done) was used chiefly as a kind of sandpaper, though while very fresh it might be eaten as a vegetable.

It is possible that our distinctions between trades are not those in operation in other times and places; those who made perfumes might also make a box of perfumed wood.

The Mathematics of Perfumery.

To see how perfumes were composed in the earlier period, and the unexpected application of mathematics even to this art in earlier India, I quote below one recipe from an English interlinear transcription, with commentary, from the Brht Samhita. This recipe is known as the the Gandhārnava.  The “Ocean (or sea) of Perfume’. A modern translator of the Brht Samhita rightly points out:

Mathematics plays no insignificant role in almost all branches of Sanskrit learning. Our author was an astronomer to boot.

(It seems to me that if he had wanted to, any perfumer could have invented a fairly complex mathematical cipher).

The Indian perfumer’s method was to take a relatively  short list of ingredients, producing hundreds – indeed, literally thousands – of distinct scents by measured permutations and combinations of those few. The recipe is as follows:

from: ~ Part II of M.Ramakrishna Bhat’s translation of Varahamihira’s Brhat Samhita. Published Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers (1982) Ch.LXXVII pp705-718. (I quote the translation exactly, including its botanical terms. but in the chart below I provide the present taxonomic descriptions) – D.

“every four [of these sixteen substances] are permuted variously at will, and that in one, two, three or four parts. The substances are:

Cyperus rotundus, Aporosa lindieyana, bensoin, camphor Vetiveria zizanioides, Mesua ferrea, cuttle fish bone, Bryonopsis laciniosa, Aquilaria agallocha, Randia dumetorum, shell perfume, valeriana wallichii, coriander, Hedychium spicatum, Scirpus articulatus, and Candana.”


(Among these plants some, and possibly all are represented in the botanical folios of MS Beinecke 409, and alluded to again in drawings from the ‘pharma’ section -D)

Perfume ingredients
I have been unable to persuade the grid’s formatting to survive translation into a picture, and then into jpg format. 😦

Bhat continues: ‘Here altogether 96 varieties are obtained; each set of four items having 24 permutations. Thus, the four sets together will have 24×4 perfumes, the four sets being shown in the corresponding diagram below.The [original] commentator explains in detail how we get six varieties for each of the 4 ingredients with one part, viz.

Perfumes Table BSmhita Pt2 p713

… All the above-named products should be fumigated separately, and not in a mixture, with turpentine, resin, jaggery and shell perfume; and then they should be mixed with musk and camphor….

To which Bhat adds: ‘Fumigation and Budha, mixing, mentioned here, constitute the final touches to the perfumes. If these are done, the products attain a high water mark of excellence’

The total number of perfumes resulting from the sixteen ingredients, in all possible combinations is 174720 (i.e. 4,000 + 7,000 + 100,000 + 720.



I want to make the point here that I had made a series of identifications from the botanical section first – and long before thinking to consult  Bhat’s translation of the Samhita.

Botanical identifications came first, then the recognition of close links between the botanical and pharma section. Following that, a realisation that at least two folios (including f.4v) alluded to equipment used in distillation. Finally (by considering the regions in which the identified plants grow) an investigation into the text of the Brht Samhita to see if any correspondence might exist between what I had identified in the botanical and ‘pharma’ folios and ingredients given in that Sanskrit compendium for various perfumes.

There was.

Among plants mentioned in ‘The Perfume Ocean’ recipe the following had been already been identified by me, and published in posts about the botanical and pharma sections before the present post first went up.

Aquilaria agallocha, Emblica officinalis (one of the myrobalans); Terminalia chebula (another of the myrobalans); Hibiscus cannabinus called Nalikā or Sprkkā), Sesamum indicum and so on.

(see INDEX) page, above.

Nor was it only the ‘double gourd’ motif on f.4v which first raised the question of scents and scented vegetable products and woods, but my re-considering an initial identification for that red-flowered ginger/galingale on f.101v. My initial identification had been Torch ginger. After realising the plant more nearly resembled C. rubescens, I puzzled over its possible uses for the trader, given that it has not even a culinary use.  I found that its chief commercial value lay in its scented root.

That link to ‘torch ginger’ takes you to the drawing by W. Sharp, a gifted nineteenth-century artist. Others of his drawings show plants listed in ancient and medieval recipes, including perfume recipes. About a hundred of the drawings are online at




*Sprrka is identified as Bryonopsis laciniosa; also ‘Agar-wood’ was obtained from trees other than A.agallocha, although this is now one of the best known, others being on the verge of extinction.

** ‘Aporosa lindeiana’ is in the printed text. This was evidently an error for -x-Aporosa Lindleyana, now superseded. The current description is   Aporosa cardiosperma (Lindleys Aporosa).



9 Replies to “Alchemy’s sweet scent – made more readable”

  1. Readers – in all honesty, if it weren’t for the presence of the double gourd, and the dates given for the parchment, I would have to say that the clematis closest in form to what we see in folio 4v is actually from western America: Clematis hirsutissima.


  2. Diane, do you feel like looking at another specimen: Endymion (Scilla, Hyacinthoides)”
    This note is referenced from my “Sunset Western Garden”
    I’m not sure if you can followup my references from the “New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening (Ed: T. H. Everett — New York Botanical Garden) because the editors didn’t refer to Endymion, but rather “Scilla”/”Squill”.
    I can just see Fray Sahagun’s cipherers/illustrators trying to compare the Latin term for a hyacinth with the elaborate feathery writing tool: ‘quill’.


  3. In re the “lufa” or “loofa” : Take a look at B-408, folio 15v — which illustrates a squash/cucurbit blossom/flower. The fully developed squash/gourd’ could could be peeled and dried, then have its seeds pushed out (for growing more gourds). The hollowed out, dried gourds became loofa/lufa sponges:
    Ububchasym called the plant cucoxaesam.
    Nahuatl name for the squash was tlal-a-yo-chi-tl-tz-il-ac-ay-oh-tli
    Nahuatl name for the squash flower was: ayoh-xo-chi-tl-ay-ox-och-qu-il-i-tl
    Nahuatl name for the lufa/loofa sponge was: zo-nec-tl-cul-li
    Several months/years ago, I gave this identification to Ellie V.
    At that time, I was also just beginning to visit the Nymphaeacae in their bath house. One of the nymphs was holding a loofa/sponge.


  4. I’m hoping you will be able to find references to the dandelion plant; which leaves were eaten as a substitute for spinach (cooked) or for lettuce/salad. It may be my imagination/hope that we will be able to find another translation of dent’ de’ lion as mentioning the ruler of Leon Province in Spain.


    1. For the history and lore of common plants, I still find that Mrs. Grieve is one of the best among the easily accessible sources. Not the abbreviated online version, but the book. According to my copy, the dandelion has few other names – most unusually because the alternative names sometimes fill several lines. “Priest’s crown” and ‘Swine’s snout” are listed. She notes that it is generally assumed that the tooth-like leaves conferred the name, as corruption from the French Dent de Lion and says “an equivalent of this name being found not only in its former specific Latin name Dens leonis and in the Greek name for the genus to which Linneus assigned it, Leontodon, but also in nearly all the languages of Europe. There is some doubt, however as to whether it was really the shape of the leaves that provided the original notion, as there is really no similarity between them, but the leaves may perhaps be said to resemble the angular jaw of a lion fully supplied with teeth…” [some say] that the name was conferred by a surgeon who likened its many virtues to those of a lion’s tooth.

      Presumably the teeth of real lions were still considered medicinal substances as late as 1532.
      No mention of Leon in Spain – sorry.


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