… and these are Hours with no zodiac. Pt 3a

‘The measure of man’

Vale of tears’ and ‘garden of peace’ .

The Carthage mosaic represents a way of thought in which the souls of the dead are happier than the living.  It is not one alien to early Christian thought.

On three sides of the mosaic, the border is filled with images alternating earthly fruits with monstrous-looking beasts, the world beyond contrasted with the joyous procession of the ‘hours’.

If we may trust Gagnet’s drawings, many have near-human faces, and altogether look not unlike creatures later depicted in Latin manuscripts describing the Christian hell. To see whether, and to what degree, they echo the forms for the triads of ‘hours’ in the Grand tabula would be an interesting exercise, but not one for which I have time here, nor for which I expect Voynich research would find much use.

mosaic of seasons Carthage Brit Mus query

Notwithstanding this, the plants shown may be not only meant for ordinary provisions but for medicinal plants.  The rituals demanded for gathering a given herb, in the ninth-century Leechbook of Bald, show a constant anxiety about timing and placating the spirits or gods who might object to a plant’s being cut or taken.  Before dismissing such works as pure silliness, we should emphasise that the ‘root-cutters’ tradition was older than Dioscorides and that to as late as the eighteenth century, doctors and pharmacists speak of having still to rely on the “old women” or the root-cutters who alone knew their medicinal plants and how to use them.  A recent study of one recipe from the Leechbook, conducted by the microbiologists at Nottingham University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences,  found it had “astonishing antibiotic properties”.

In the mosaic, however, it is the ‘land below’ which is the untroubled realm, and it is represented by the typical and ancient motif for that starry ‘afterworld’: gardens of peace as both Eden and Paradise. The motif is usually supposed Persian, though Persia also ruled for centuries over Egypt:which is why we can speak of a motif as Egypto-Persian or Egypto-Mesopotamian – as when speaking of the ‘Angel winds’ on the tabula from Grand, or of certain stock motifs found in mosaics from North Africa, or in later Coptic weaving etc., and of the form for the Balance on folio 72v (which I treated here in 2012).

happy critters Mosaic Carthage Brit Mus quer

The Egyptians  believed that the sun turned the sky with it; their influence on beliefs of older Carthage and northern France has been demonstrated. Perhaps from Egyptian origins, the idea spread that at night the stars which covered those below were those which covered the underworld during the earthly day, while people laboured under the heat of the sun.

This idea of an oppressive sun is, as Faulkiner said long ago, quite alien to the expectation of northern peoples, for whom the sun signifies life and health and thus happiness, but for those who live in southern and desert lands, the opposite is true.  In Arabic still, beauty is likened to the moon, and joy to coolness; forgiveness for sin is described as “covering” by analogy to protection from the sun’s killing heat.  Thus the king of Egypt was likened to the sun – one had to avoid looking at his face and when he raged, none (supposedly) could withstand him.  To be like Re’ was to be untouchable. To worship the sun, as Akhenaten did, was in older Egypt to be a heretic whose name and memory every effort was taken to erase.

Night brought relief, and pleasure, and rest, under the skies of night, the underworld’s day. In a way, one might see imagery of Christ’s “harrowing of hell” and the following release of good souls to a starry northern heaven as a re-working of the older view, now with Christ as the ‘sun of night’ interpreted as light in the darkness.

In any case, the type of the Paradisical garden (which western scholars of the nineteenth century called the ‘tree of life’) can be seen on Phoenician ivories as early as the eight century BC, just as in the mosaics made in Palermo’s palace during in the twelfth century  –  though typically enough, the latter constantly sets two men or armed centaurs etc. to kill in the higher register. [7]

Griffins Tree of Life Syro-Phoenician 8thC BCLion and Palm Sicily

(It has been reasonably suggested, and first by Dana Scott, that folio 34v in MS Beinecke 408 alludes to something akin to the older ‘Paradise’ motif.  I came later, if independently to that realization, not least because figures sharing a single head is characteristic of Persian style in the older Mediterranean.  Such things add to the likelihood that Dana and I are each correct – and Dana has precedence.

Narratives of the garden/wilderness of the world are sometimes seen on Roman works. In funerary art they emphasise life’s constant struggle, usually represented by labour in the vineyard, or by Hercules and his twelve labours.  Quite the opposite idea is conveyed by the Egyptians’ uniformly tranquil “garden of eternity”.

Egyptian garden

As an ideal model of the world, this timeless garden with its progression of trees, each in their season, may explain the form taken by one very early rectangular map: that of Eratosthenes (276 BC – c. 195/194 BC), a deeply learned man who became keeper of the Alexandrian library – not a quiet occupation, when every ship and traveller arriving in the ports of  Egypt had to surrender for copying any written text they had, that the library might contain all the wisdom of east and west.  It is a time when there were Indian physicians in Alexandria too.

Indicopleustes map 6127-9219-1-PB

The surrounding border of a third century AD mosaic from Liria, in Spain, and now in the National Archaeological Museum, shows no paradiscal garden, nor the ‘wilderness of the world’ with its plants and its savage beasts.  Instead it shows Heracles’ twelve triumphs, or ‘labours’. 

Measures of Man and of Heaven: Herakles as Serapis.

Heracles – and his Alexandrian incarnation as Serapis – served everywhere as patron of the travelling merchant during Hellenistic times.  He was also identified as the dispenser of ‘just measures’, and his emblem is the Hellenistic version of the old white crown of Egypt, which represented the measure of grain and life, the ‘omer. 

Serapis_Louvre_Ma_1830 grain and olive

The ‘measuring god’ became patron of Alexandria, but was at first a rather different character, evidently a maritime figure whose image with his three-headed dog,  ‘sailed itself’, we are told, to the harbour.  Its original character distressed the Egyptians who would not permit its presence until its form was altered, and it was re-named, as Serapis, but in the Roman Colosseum we see his older form, offering a ‘remedy for all ills’ in the more sardonic sense.  He would come again from the north into medieval Latin Europe, now as the ‘Ancient of Days’.

However in happier Alexandria with its cosmopolitan population, the new ‘Serapis’ had a fully human form, the grain-measure as ‘measure of man’ upon his head.  In another sense, of course, “the measure” of a man is ultimately the space taken by his body or his ashes, and so the grain measure (as we saw at al-Bass) is also a funerary theme.

In descriptions of art and objects, we refer formally to that measure as the modius, the largest formal measure of the Romans, but this doesn’t mean it is a Roman motif, and it is the older type of vessel which I think may be referenced in a detail on folio 89v – for notice of which I owe thanks to Koen Gheuens.

detail fol 89v

a plant whose mnemonic alludes to a feline is given an ‘albarello’-like element. In modern India, Martynia diandra is known as ‘Tiger claws’, but the leaves do not resemble these, even though the clawed seed-pods appear among them.

vessels from a tomb of the V Dynasty











It is in that sense of the “measures” of life, trade, death and re-emergence at the time appointed, that I think the figures with their stars (and cornucopiae?) were represented as they are on folio 70r, not only bearing their baskets of the benefits of their ‘hour’ but set within them, as cistae or cinzae, and decorated appropriately for the region in which we find traditional containers of this sort, an appropriate vocabulary of ornament and an appropriate philosophy – these occurring together not in the fifteenth century, but the Hellenistic era, though remnants lingered long enough to be embedded in the Carthage mosaic.

detail fol 70r rotated

On this subject of the ‘measuring stars’ a few notes might be helpful.

  • Identifying the stars on f.70v

If it is accepted, as I have argued,  that the circuit in folio 70r was originally meant to represent the year’s progression, rather than one month’s, (my reasons explained here) then measuring the distance between the 19 ‘hours-star’ of the outer tier (- as Irenaeus said: “the days are angels”) allows an approximate 19 days between each, according to the old rotating year of the Egyptians which was calculated as 365 days, and was still routinely used in parallel with the Roman calendar in the eastern trade during the early centuries AD.  This would also set the figures apart by roughly 19 degrees.

Translated into the navigator’s measure of  ‘isba or finger-measure at about  2.5° (though standards vary a little) [8] this would equate to a rough ‘hand’ or palm,  calculated as four fingers as the custom was. In linear measure an Egyptian palm was close to 7.5 cm.

In measuring the sky, one held the measure outstretched, at eye level, whether in ancient Egypt or in the fifteenth century, among the eastern nakhudas (or as Majid proudly calls himself, a mu’allim kanaka).   I do not mean to imply that we can identify the timing stars on folio 70r so simply as that,  for the navigators had their own terms for them and, as I’ve mentioned in referring to Brouscon’s charts, there is a ‘double-hour’ represented in them just as in folio 70r, and which I believe we see it again in the patterned border of folio 67r-2 (which, as I explained here) I believe a chart for the mariners’ establishment of the port by the ‘clock of the moon’). Those interested might also like to read the post ‘Baresch, Nymphs, Egyptian style…and months’ published here on December 9, 2012. In that, I laid more emphasis on correlation between timing stars, navigation and locus.)

double palm loh of the Omani pilots

image courtesy of Musee Nationale de la Marine. Exhibition ‘Oman et la Mer’ – the Art of Navigation.

.. and to return to North Africa –  the hamsa is a traditional charm, known across the same range from the eastern Mediterranean to its south-west.  To the Islamic population it is the Hand of Fatima; to Jews the Hand of Miriam; and to Christians of the Levant the Hand of Mary, or Miriam –  queen of Heaven and of the sea.




7. These mosaics were made in the same century that a landslide covered the Roman Villa del Casale, in whose mosaics the usual themes of slaughter are pronounced, and among whose animals are the elephant.

8. the ‘isba measure… for the linguistic connections of this term, see Allan R. Bomhard and John C. Kerns,  The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship, Walter de Gruyter, (1994) p.463.  For a practical description of its regular use in navigation, Ibn Majid’s navigational works are best, having been written in the fifteenth century, within the sphere of the Omani science.



Part 3b is published simultaneously…







One thought on “… and these are Hours with no zodiac. Pt 3a

  1. I may as well add here for the sake of copyright, that I think the human-headed figure with the lyrate horns shown in the Carthage mosaic is a personification of the same animal, and thus the distant ancestor of, the Voynich calendar’s ‘wild bull’.


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