comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Tuscan Herbal – living creatures

[posted automatically at 6.45 am – minor typos then corrected (6.53am.

(one Picture replaced; two more added; minor changes to improve grammar  – 13th June 2016)

Living creatures

An important point of difference between the two manuscripts is their attitude to living creatures. In the Voynich botanical folios they are not drawn literally, save for the little dragon on 25v, which is shown with its long hare-like ears and endearingly ‘cute’  appearance,  reminiscent of older Anglo-Saxon and insular art,

dragons pairedEven there the conception of ‘dragon’ differs, and the plant with which the creature is associated differs on page 4 of the Vermont Herbal.

Tuscany herbal dragon detail p.4
(detail) Tuscan Herbal Vermont (Burlington) mrmc 002, page 4.

Note The page has been inscribed [folio] ‘5’,  but the holding library lists it as page 4, and that is the correct reference.

If an earlier source should carry a different folio or page number, one way to handle it is to first quote the original material exactly and then to  put the superseded foliation into  square brackets thus: [-x- folio 86v]  Beinecke f.86v and 86r.  It is a mistake to omit superseded folio numbers – it will only confuse those who come to the study later. 

Living creatures (cont.)

APART from that little dragon, the Voynich botanical folios use allusive forms for living creatures, in imagery that is evidently aimed at aiding the reader’s recall of matter already known about a given group of plants.  Most of these mnemonic devices are set at the level of the roots, though  folio 5v is one of the exceptions,  setting at the top another mnemonic which I read as reference to  the Dioscuri or Kabeiroi.  (about this, see earlier posts. Search ‘5v’).

Even Voynich researchers who have no previous knowledge of the use of mnemonics and of their prominent place in ancient and medieval learning may recognise that the following detail from folio 32v intentionally evokes the form of a bird having a peacock-like stance and tail –  while also realising that it is no decorative  ‘portrait’ of any bird.  If one had any doubts, the spike at the tail and the provision of what seem to be five insect-like legs should alert the viewer: this is not an image to be “looked at”. It is one designed to be read: it is a pictorial text.

detail peacock root from f.32v
(detail) Beinecke MS 408, fol.32v (Beinecke image ID 1006137

Few mnemonics in the Voynich botanical folios are so easily read as this one by people unaccustomed to conventions in other than Mediterranean art.  However, they are common in the botanical section and mostly set below the stem of the plant(s).

Mnemonic devices are a technique used to prompt recall, not to teach matter previously unknown. Those who have followed the recent contributions to Voynich studies by Koen Gheuens will see this is as distinction  in our respective understandings of the purpose for which these mnemonic devices were included.

In my opinion, the subject of a mnemonic in any manuscript must relate either to the object to which it attaches, or to some passage in the accompanying text –   except when it relates the current item to matter already held in memory –  to ‘second-nature’ things such as well-known songs, sayings, prayers, proverbs and cultural allusions familiar to the original maker, from everyday life.

The ‘bird’ mnemonic being so easily legible for western readers, it is perhaps the best example for explaining how they work in this manuscript.   I have included, below, a couple of passages reprising the content of a more detailed analysis of the folio, published in 2011.

folio 32v small
Beinecke 408, f. 32v.

As I read it, Folio 32v depicts a group of great  ‘spreading trees’ – alluding to the plane tree as the base-type, and so using its leaves to signal the character of this  group of plants.  However, the focus is chiefly on those among such ‘spreading trees’  which local parlance named  ‘Peacock tree’ and ‘Phoenix tree’.

In common with the plane tree, these others served  as markers for that place in any village  where traders might display their wares and where a physician might be available. Brought from central Asia, the Plane Tree served exactly the same purposes within the Mediterranean, from the early Hellenistic period when it appears first in Cos, a noted centre for medicine. Perhaps co-incidentally, the peacock also served as a sign for the work of the physician and was adopted as the ‘ex libris’ mark for the Juliana Anicia codex (see detail below, right)

Peacocks Apuleia and Julia Anicia frontispiece 6thC

The mnemonic’s showing the bird’s tail closed or cut  is doubtless relevant, though I can only suggest it may embody a proverb  still common in regions where the ‘peacock’ and ‘phoenix’ tree are native.  In Hindi for example, it runs:

जंगल में मोर नाचा किस ने देखा ? Jangal main mor nacha, kisne dekha.

literally :  ‘Who sees a peacock dance [with tail open] in the woods?’ – meaning that what is not publicly displayed is not appreciated.

Again, if I read the image correctly, a parallel allusion is made for this group – to the  ‘Phoenix tree’.   In the longer analysis of 2011 I offered an explanation for why the flower chosen to represent this group should be that of Phoenix tree and not the red-orange of the ‘Peacock’ tree.

The Paulownia is called the ‘Phoenix tree’ not only for  its brilliant ‘royal’ canopy of blue-purple flowers, but also for the speed with which it regenerates and grows.[1] It rises in some cases as much as thirty feet in a year, and even in Europe it grows swiftly to a great size, as the specimen near Buda castle, in Budapest proves.

these pictures have been turned upright. The drawing at left shows a flower from P. tomentosa

Pawlonia and detail from f.32vAnother comment from the more detailed analysis explains why this ‘bird’ should be provided with insect-like legs, and they pictured as if cut, stopped or blocked:

detail peacock f.32v ID 1006137Timber from the Paulownia is used especially for marriage-chests, as equivalent to camphor… goods  being thus  protected from  insects’ entry and damage… 

from: ‘fol 32v – (revised) “Peacock Trees” and “Phoenix tree”, (blog-post) Findings, December 9th., 2011.

Though rare in India, the Paulownia is known there as the “Empress tree”.

Luxury items such as marriage chests, scented woods, the substance for eastern paper etc. occur in various folios in the botanical section, leading me to conclude that luxury goods – chiefly of vegetable origin –  I formed an important part of the business for which the images apparently once served as constant reference.

In the Tuscan Herbal we do see emblems set at the roots of some plants, but these are designed in the style of the  ‘Alchemists’ plants’ books and display nothing of the same sophistication or detailed knowledge of the plants above them as we see in Beinecke MS 408.   Their presence in the Tuscan herbal is the very opposite of  evidence for common origins, rather emphasising the distance between the two manuscripts in time, culture, conception and source-works. The Vermont ‘Tuscan Herbal’ displays a late and eclectic character in every folio.

detail Tuscan Herbal page 12
(detail) Vermont (Burlington) mrmc 002, page 12.

Where such emblemata  appear in the Latin herbals, they carry a constant sense that the Latin painter was ‘painting the text’.

In the Voynich manuscript’s botanical folios mnemonics speak rather to the original makers and users having a direct knowledge of the plants in their native habitat; they are pictured in a different way, and to read the mnemonics one does not need the still unknown written text, but only to read the information embedded in these carefully constructed pictures.

What is essential – as I’d say from my experience of researching the manuscript – is that the researcher have the time, energy and interest to look further than the corpus of western herbal imagery, and to research the images as forms of image, rather than pre-empting that analysis in favour of efforts to force-fit them into one or another system more familiar and congenial.

To ask “which Latin herbal manuscript comes nearest to imagery in Beinecke MS 408?” is to prevent any useful discussion of the very details which tell us, plainly enough, that the Voynich botanical images are no offshoot of the ordinary Latin herbals.

To say that the ‘alchemist plants’ books also have emblemata at the level of the root fails to address the more important question of  why the emblems in the Latin ‘alchemists plants’ are instantly legible where those in the Voynich manuscript are so opaque by the standards of the Latin herbal manuscripts.  It is to fail to explain why the ‘sun’ in the Tuscan Herbal is typically European, while that on folio 67v of the Voynich manuscript is not.

I’ve seen no Latin herbals using mnemonic devices in a way so detailed, apt, direct, sensible, practical and succinct, especially when (as in the case of the Voynich botanical folios) a majority have as their subject plants  not native to the Mediterranean. In some few, the flower is represented by using a stylised form which was immediately recognisable as a traditional one in regions where the plants of the group were natives  – the flowers on folio 33v offering a case in point. I have identified them not as sunflowers (which the rest of the image denies) but a group perceived as like the lotus, and specifically the paeony and mayapple.

I think it extremely probable that Beinecke MS 408 was made in the Veneto – between Padua and Udine – early in the fifteenth century, but II cannot suppose its imagery first enunciated then, or there.  I must conclude it a copy made from matter that had been gained from elsewhere, this matter brought to mainland Europe or the south-western Mediterranean in  about the fourteenth century, and the botanical section having come, as details in its imagery suggest, through the Yemen-Syria link that had earlier seen the making of the Mashad Dioscorides.

Panofsky’s initial attribution to southern (Sephardi) Jews of  “Spain or somewhere southern” seems eminently reasonable and probable, but since those expelled from England only shortly before Roger Bacon’s death were also Sephardi, as were those in Calais and Picardy (where we find orthography similar to that on the month-roundels),* so I conclude that it is most probable that it was also Sephardi immigrants from Spain France and earlier England, coming into Padua and the Veneto during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, who had brought the content in one or more works which then served as the sources from which the Voynich manuscript’s diverse sections were compiled.  Not all refer to the southern, maritime route as the botanical section does, but that matter has been discussed elsewhere.

There is no doubt that the new wave of immigrants came to the same centres referenced by the Belluno Herbal and the Koch leaves and specifically to Treviso and Cividale. But Padua had a particular attraction in that, although its teaching was in Latin, students were admitted regardless of religious affiliation.

We find knowledge of non-Mediterranean plants in parts of Europe well before the fifteenth century, and attitudes to the page do not change overnight, either. Both these things must be sketched to show why we posit the Veneto rather than (say) Salerno or Spain.


[1] thus: “Paulownia [grows] up to 20 feet in one year when young. Some species of plantation Paulownia can be harvested for saw timber in as little as five years. Once the trees are harvested, they regenerate from their existing root systems, earning them the name of the “Phoenix tree.”

  • an observation for which we acknowledge Don Hoffmann.

18 Replies to “comparing Beinecke MS 408 and the Tuscan Herbal – living creatures”

  1. Diane

    I just want to stress again that I see no reason to disagree with your analysis of the “large plant” mnemonics.

    I just think that in some other sections, evidence of earlier mnemonic edits remain. I’m adopting your names for the sections:

    – Certain folios of the root-and-leaf section use pre-existing knowledge of Ovidian myth and Hellenistic/”Roman” imagery to teach about the foreign names of plants.

    The chosen mnemonic is only related to the plant in that it sounds similar to the foreign name. This sets it apart from the mnemonics you describe in the large plants, both in the cultural mindset behind the mnemonic as in the didactic goals.

    The way in which it tries to teach (mostly) Indic names to Greek speakers also clearly sets it apart from the Latin European herbal tradition. I agree that any resemblance of Voynich mnemonics, however strong, to later European traditions is only superficial.

    – The astro-meteo part of the bathy section has been edited with a similar mindset. It uses familiarity with Greek myth to help remember (roughly) the position of the constellations and some associated lore, as well as probably some weather phenomena.

    The lore it teaches is culturally diverse. For example in Piscis Austrinus, it refers to its connotation with Isis and Aquarius (water-bearer ;)), but also to the Egyptian Medjed (Oxyrhynchus) fish and the Isis-Osiris myth.

    Well, in conclusion, I might say that our views don’t completely differ about the mnemonics, but that you see more cultural continuity, while I must posit a cultural shift in the mnemonics, probably after the 2nd-3rd century CE.

    I see “my” mnemonics as a relatively mainstream product of Greco-Roman Egypt (relatively being a key word), while yours show a different cultural background and, if I understand correctly, were likely added after the 3rdC CE.

    I’d also like to add that I still very much agree with your overall assessment of the material’s history. Given the fact that you posited a Hellenistic origin long ago, this is a minor difference of opinion in the larger scheme – but an important one nonetheless 😉


    1. Koen,
      Since you and I are pretty much the only people to have mentioned mnemonics – or at least to have offered any extended/comprehensive explanation of how that science applies to the imagery, I cannot think it such a bad idea to clarify for readers where our views differ. Honest researchers will then weigh and discuss the relative merits of both opinons and hopefully get the attributions right.
      We obviously do have markedly different views on the ‘bathy-‘ section. At the moment, I still have reservations about your interpretation of the ‘roots and leaves’ section, too though that’s only because you haven’t yet identified the various plants in that section, or published your word-lists, or the historical evidence that the same terms were used for (e.g. cloves) from the Hellenistic period (say, 4thC BC) to the 15thC AD.

      It’s certainly interesting that you suggest the ‘roots and leaves’ section presents a kind of glossary – do you mean something like Simon of Genoa’s glossary, perhaps, but earlier?

      If you suggest first enunciation for every section during the Hellenistic period, or even the pre-Christian period, then there’s really no need to speak of “Ovidian” myth. Perhaps you might refer to Homer, or some of the older poets, but knowledge of the older religion was in the air people breathed – illustrated on everything from the jar of oil in the kitchen to the necklace a woman wore, or the coins used in the market place – not to mention the temples that stood around it.

      I mean to say, the only people who walk around medieval cathedrals carrying a handbook of saints’ emblems are people who have no other connection to the culture from which the church and statues emerged.

      I’m not disputing that your view of the “root and leaf” section is possible, though I have greater disquiet about your interpreting the ‘bathy-‘ section in the same way. I have real difficulty imagining why, in medieval Europe, a European wouldn’t just draw a picture of cerebus or athena – they were well-enough known, and there was no prohibition about classical figures, no iconoclasm in 15thC Europe..But these things take a while to set out in blog-posts, as I know, so I’m waiting to read those which you are yet to publish. Call me an Ovid-agnostic for the meantime. 🙂


      1. Yes, like I see it at the moment all sections have their origin in the Greco-Roman period, i.e. Hellenistic to whenever one would reasonably expect more christian imagery. 300 BCE to 300 CE, just to put a number on it. It’s often hard to determine what exactly is Hellenistic and what is later Roman, as for example in Egypt there was continuity and it was a cultural melting pot. But I think broadly referring to the Greco-Roman period is sufficient to understand what we are talking about.

        To put it very simply:
        – I follow you about the large plants section. (It is possible that this section once contained earlier Greco-Roman mnemonics, and a handful of them might still be there, but the majority of them have later been replaced by the ones you describe. This is mostly speculation on my part though, and the evidence is thin).

        – I follow you about quire 9, the stars and suns and moons. I’m glad I don’t have to study that 😉

        – I largely agree about the “zodiac”, although I have my own ideas about what the animals originally depicted. But that is a minor difference all in all.

        – Bathy section: if we call the “Nile roads”, i.e. the folios you have written the most about “Bathy A” and the ones I write about “Bathy B”, then I agree about Bathy A but I am absolutely convinced Bathy B is a different creature,

        It’s clearly a Greco-Roman cultural product, but that’s less obvious because the figures have been marred, like you say, by later cultures. Part of their strange features, like rubbery limbs and baby-proportions can also be found in some early Aratea manuscripts.

        You are right that I don’t need Ovid, but if it’s not him, then his Hellenistic sources. So when I say “Ovidian” then I mean Ovid or the pool of myths from which he drew his book. Once again, Greco-Roman might be the best term.

        I think what Bathy B is trying to teach is something like Aratus or Hyginus or… but then in image instead of in words. It looks totally weird because:

        1) It’s been mixed with the structure of a mythological story for mnemonic reasons. I think the Ovidian myth serves a similar purpose as a memory palace, activating the visual and spatial parts of the brain and tying the unknown to the known.

        2) it’s been stylistically influenced by Eastern culture.

        NO medieval influence whatsoever – it’s quite old 🙂

        So I see this section as “completed” earlier than you do, and I see the influence of a culture that is closer to what we Westerners are used to.

        Without wanting to sound pretentious, I think the evidence for this is much more solid than for Herculeaf. But on my blog I just touch the surface. I hope my paper will be convincing enough 🙂

        I’m still not sure what exactly it is. It seems clear that the Ovidian myth just provides structure and some mnemonic links. What this section tries to teach is the lore surrounding the constellations and roughly their relative positions. It’s much more Aratus than Ptolemy, more early-intuitive than late-exact.

        Finally, I think the root-and-leaf section has known a similar development as Bathy B – Hellenistic origin, Greco-Roman didactic edit, Eastern stylistic influence, 15thC copy.


      2. Koen,
        The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually taken as the period from the time of Alexander to the Roman conquest of Egypt. In the east – around the region of Gandhara for example, the Hellenistic influence continues to as late as the 3rdC AD, though most of the Greco-Buddhist artefacts which we have are dated generally to the early centuries AD – that is, to the period of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean, so glass found at Begram (for example) is called Roman glass, even though we all know quite well that no Roman from Rome is likely to have laid eyes on it, let alone made it. Around the 1st-2ndC AD, even the glass being made in Egypt or in the Veneto was being made by persons who learned their inherited craft by reason of roots in Syria and Hellenistic Egypt. So when we say ‘Greco-Roman’ it can acknowledge this sort of thing, or it can refer to the Roman efforts to assimilate the older civilization which – like most military conquests saw first the destruction of older and more civilised peoples, and then efforts by the invaders to collect, copy and assimilate what was left.

        The point, I guess, is that where Aratus was certainly Greek, Ovid was certainly not. Whether or not Ovid had ever left Italy before he wrote the Metamorphoses I don’t know, so it is in every sense a Roman work with Greco-Roman content.

        If you are positing a Hellenistic origin, a redaction in the early centuries AD, eastern stylistic influence and (ultimately) our fifteenth century copy, then I can hardly disagree, since this was the conclusion I reached by 2008, and which I’ve been demonstrating over the time since then. You are the first person, I think, to find yourself in accord with that opinion.

        On the specifics we differ, but that is no bad thing. I don’t believe that the root-mnemonics in the botanical section are original to the work, nor that any element in the root-and-leaf section contains evidence of anything which is certainly Hellenistic. I’d date first enunciation of that section to no earlier than the Greco-Buddhist period, and we differ in that you believe the containers are a late addition to that section, where I do not. I date the section by them.

        I suppose we differ too, in that I consider the basis for both sections to be a ‘Theophrastan’ rather than a Dioscoridan attitude and approach to plants’ classification. (I haven’t said so online, but I would be open to the idea that al-Dinawari’s system has had some affect).

        Neither do I see the content as expressing a context of schooling and of teaching literature, but rather about those who practiced the business of east-west trade ‘in the field’ – a practical man’s handbook rather than a schoolroom textbook or set of lecture notes. The reason for our present manuscript’s being collected or collated has to make sense by reference to all the sections, and what is in each, as well as by our study of the period, its interests, manuscript-production and so on. If, for example, the calendar is a ten-month calendar because the other two months weren’t part of the sailing year, and if another folio’s diagram describes (as I think it does) the mariner’s system for calculating tidal rise by the notional ‘o’clock’ of the moon, then .. why Greek myth? Not a challenge, just one of the myriad of historical question-marks one would need to address.

        I haven’t read much about Ovid’s botany, now I come to think of it. Have you any reference which talks about whether the terms he uses tell us anything about his sources? That might also be interesting for your readers, who will be looking for a basic vocabulary of Greek or Latin, I expect.


      3. Addendum:
        I’ve just ordered a copy of a text which may interest Koen and his readers:
        The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from Ancient Greece and Rome,(2014)
        By Annette Giesecke.

        Much of it is already to be found in Mrs. Grieves’ Modern Herbal (the hardcopy version), but Giesecke’s book is nicely focused on Ovid.


      4. Diane

        You say:
        “If you are positing a Hellenistic origin, a redaction in the early centuries AD, eastern stylistic influence and (ultimately) our fifteenth century copy, then I can hardly disagree, since this was the conclusion I reached by 2008, and which I’ve been demonstrating over the time since then. You are the first person, I think, to find yourself in accord with that opinion.”

        Yes, that really sums it up quite well, which is why I always stress that I follow your overall conclusions. I noticed that what I found actually fits perfectly in the scheme you describe.

        We only differ in views about which exact cultural influences are at work in which part and which “layer” of the manuscript.

        I must admit that – having had no historical training whatsoever – I have a hard time distinguishing between the Hellenistic period and what followed immediately after it.

        Many of Ovid’s Hellenistic sources that I would have needed have been lost, so it’s hard to see whether they match the implied story to the same extent – maybe they did. In that case I don’t need Ovid, but I can stay well within proper Hellenistic times.

        I’m not sure if there is anything to be found in Ovid’s plants. They are the types commonly known in the Mediterranean, while the Voynich plants are ones Ovid would have never heard about. Like Artocarpus, a plant we both found in our respective sections.

        I think Hellenistic myth (whether through Ovid or not) was just a didactic tool for the people who edited this material. They thought: “everybody knows that Cadmus killed the dragon, we can use that knowledge to teach the name of this Eastern plant!”

        The reason why I lean towards Ovid, is that whenever some details of these mnemonic myths are included, they match with Ovid’s version, while other authors use different details.

        But actually you are right: it might have been taken from Ovid’s Hellenistic sources as well, which would actually make the whole thing a lot easier to explain: “popular myth” versus “one author’s book”. The “popular myth” interpretation does seem a bit less anachronistic 🙂

        I think our views differ most about the balance of cultural influences. For example, I think the likes of Aratus and Hyginus (he who cites many sources without proper attribution) are of much more importance in explaining Bathy B than any later author. I even think it predates Claudius Ptolemy. The focus is on the lore, even though reference is made to the great circles and the colures – which Aratus does as well.

        When my paper about Bathy B is finished, you will surely see what I mean.

        On an unrelated note – have you ever looked at Meroitic cursive?
        I came across it just now, and I must say it looks rather Voynichy. It also seems to have had significant relevance in the trade routes. My favorite script so far 🙂


      5. Koen,
        Honestly, I’m not trying to be contrary, but we do have a fairly fundamental difference in our interpretations. As far as I’m concerned, we have the sort of matter in this manuscript that would be compiled by someone happy to have acquired information potentially worth the national income of an entire country – about how to reach and to trade in the eastern sea (the spice route) and the routes overland (the ‘silk’ routes). This stuff was worth a lot before 1490, let alone later.

        From this it follows that I imagine the written text would prove fairly dull – perhaps with lots of numbers and values – as merchant letters, and handbooks generally are. But that is just guessing – I have no idea when the written part of the text was first composed, because unlike imagery writing itself does not reveal content. Only literacy does that. So it could be the Latin office or a copy of the Alexandreis or .. even the Metamorphoses in a prose version. 🙂

        We keep coming back to the “Why” of it.

        Suppose the text in the ‘leaves and roots’ really is a glossary, and that the roots are really meant as mnemonic keys to the word’s sound in Hindi or Chinese or Arabic.. well, that could make sense.

        One could even posit origins in the ancient multi-lingual centre of medicine in Jundishapur ( a centre of which the silly authors of the ‘Salerno’ wiki are apparently ignorant).

        But while that might reasonably explain the existence of a multi-lingual plant glossary in the Hellenistic or Greco-Roman centuries, it doesn’t explain why everything else in the manuscript should relate to Greek or the Roman beliefs.

        I sense that at some level you are making the usual euro-centric assumptions: that all of value is Greek or Roman, and if any eastern material came into the west, the active agent in that transfer has to be a white European male. Just ain’t so – it’s part of the nineteenth century European self-image but in fact you have Syrians resident in mainland Europe in the eighth century, and Arabs from north Africa making trading agreements in Marseilles in the fourteenth, while Genoese crossbowmen are supposed to be building boats in the Persian gulf to make war on Egypt on behalf of Baghdad but supposedly kill each other to the last man arguing the Guelf-Ghibbeline thing. Meanwhile, a certain Michael Scot is able (if he wishes) to teach star-names in Berber to the Irish, and an Italian girl is dying in mainland China, not so long before Uyghurs from central Asia are bringing unspecified items as gifts to Avignon from the Persian Nestorian patriarch of Mesopotamia and Mongols are cooking their dinner and learning the local language in modern Hungary.

        The ‘tide’ of history runs over rocks.

        Realistically, we’d expect that any pictorial text that is posited as first enunciated before the 3rdC AD, but thereafter exposed for so long a time to eastern customs in image-making that the figures hardly look Greek, and in some cases hardly look recognisable – then surely over that same period references to gods originally Hellenistic would have been slowly transformed into their local equivalent?

        The same happens everywhere. The ‘Anubis’ of Egypt becomes ‘Anubis-Hermes’ in Hellenistic Alexandria, and then the process of acclimatization sees it finally in the eastern side of the Mediterranean-Black-Sea as a dog-headed St.Christopher (patron of journeying men).

        So why wouldn’t an original Hera have gradually become Sarasvati or someone? And if the originally Hellenistic culture remained in its Greek form, then why couldn’t the imagery itself do so? Why shouldn’t the nymphs still look like Greek nymphs?

        Which cultural influence explains the distortions in any coherent and demonstrable way?

        Koen, I’m not trying to harangue you, honestly – just listing here for you some of the mind-bending conundrums which are raised by this manuscript. They’re exactly the sort of thing I had to myself before embarking on the historical and related avenues of research – and research is what you need to be able to offer others any reasonable explanation for why the Voynich manuscript is as it is.

        I quite enjoy the duty of being one’s own first peer-reviewer and most hostile. Like playing both sides of a chess-game, it prevents foolish error (though not hopeless typing in my case)


  2. Greco-Roman Egypt doesn’t sound too bad an idea. As for links between the Greek mythic schemes and the stars, there’s a very interesting book with a very bad title – doubtless chosen by the publisher. The title is “Homer’s secret Iliad” and the original author died unpublished, her papers being edited later.

    I recommend it highly, and it may provide just what you’re looking for.


    1. That does sound like the kind of thing I need, I’ll certainly look into it 🙂

      I see these sections as part of the Egyptian melting pot – no Italy or Greece required – so I’m not really looking for a way to make it white or European. Also, for example, I quite like the resemblance of the VM script with Meroitic cursive, which would imply that after the initial “Greco-Roman-Egyptian” layers, I have no problem accepting a “black” African one, and whatever else is required.

      However, that does not take away the fact that in some base layer I do see a relatively mainstream Greco-Roman mindset, even if it is in an Egyptian context. I understand how that forms a conflict with what you discern in other sections of the MS.

      What I’m positing then, is the following: most of the material started out as something armchair-oriented, but it also had some use to the kind of people you have in mind. Over the centuries, they adapted it and added to it, replacing the roots in the large plants and so on. Like this, it got streamlined and became very practically useful. However, in some sections evidence of the the Greco-Roman-Egyptian stratum remains.

      For example I could see a first gathering and editing of material in Alexandria, and then a move southward after the 2ndC CE. Then practical mnemonics were added, naked nymphs were made less arousing, faces were marred and so on.

      This does imply that perhaps an Aratus-like set of illustrations rode piggy back on the “useful stuff” through history. Why that could have happened then, I don’t know.


      1. What do you make of the recent work published on Professor Bax’s site, and which argues the astronomical labels are in an Indic language? Derek Vogt’s comments I found especially interesting.


    2. By the way, I’ve been reading in the book you recommended, and it’s illuminating. At the very least, it shows that the mnemonic linking of a seemingly unrelated narrative with the stars might have been something that came naturally in oral traditions.

      It also makes me understand better some of the objections you have raised against my proposals. When studying the Voynich, one often needs to be made to separate what is known with relative certainty from what is, perhaps mistakenly, deduced.

      I am certain, that the mnemonic links that are made explicit in the VM relate to Hellenistic myth, i.e. those stories that were especially popular in those days. It may be no wonder then, that Ovid, who collected these stories, appears to be a good match.

      So perhaps what I am seeing in the VM is an attempt to make explicit how popular narrative can be linked with astronomical knowledge. Kind of an “update” of what people did intuitively with Homeric myth.

      Maybe the audience wouldn’t even have found the bathy illustrations so weird, then, if this kind of thinking came naturally to them.

      That also leaves room for the text to be more practice oriented, like for navigation, leaving the illustrations as pure memory boosters – which might explain why they were allowed to ride along…

      (Sorry for using your comments section as a platform for thought development ;))


      1. Koen,
        Which book do you mean? I suppose ‘Homer’s secret Iliad?’

        There’s a school of thought in archaeoastronomy and native astronomies which holds that observation of the stars was as old and as natural as observation of any other element within the natural world – plants, tides, seasons, winds and so on. ‘Memory-stories’ about the stars are found among all the ancient peoples – at least those not permanently disrupted by the arrival of imperial settlers or factory-based economies. To cut a long story short, we know that people were navigating the eastern seas by the stars, winds and tides at least 60,000 years ago. Wayfinders, herders, farmers and others who needed to know it, passed down an accumulating body of astronomical and natural observations as ‘memory stories’ – often as chant or rhyme – which could then be repeated and used for practical needs. Even modern Europeans have a trace of this in their weather-lore: red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight. That sort of thing.

        But in their more settled and evolved form, such ‘memory stories’ become progressive sagas, and some believe this the origin, rather than the later interpretation, of the Homeric saga. For modern, literate people most of whom scarcely see the stars, this may seem hard to believe. We are so very book-oriented. However, there is enough left of the older lore in various places to suggest that our ideas are back-to-front: Greek myth wasn’t imposed on the stars, seasons and other natural phenomena, but derived from them. (some of the pre-Greek peoples of the Mediterranean criticised the Greeks for turning sensible histories and bodies of practical information into myths, which proves the Greeks weren’t the first to know their heavens, even in the Mediterranean.


      2. Yes, I’ve also been reading a lot about this, it’s really fascinating. Especially the fact that there are certain universals that go all the way back to ancient peoples, like the association of serpents with boundaries – the results of which, I think, we still see reflected in Voynich imagery.

        When we had to read Homer in high school, I remember telling my friends how weird it was that he listed a whole lot of places where people got wounded for example, like “x got hit by y’s spear beneath the left nipple”. Such descriptions would make more sense if there was an implicit connection with the stars.

        Who knows what our ancestors knew in their oral traditions, that they never wrote about. Maybe it was not uncommon to put information in the structure of a story for mnemonic purpose. Maybe Hellenistic myth was born in conjunction with increased interest in astronomy, and what I describe in bathy B is making explicit what they all knew in Hellenistic Egypt, and Ovid later translated it without knowing the associated knowledge about the stars.

        So many options 🙂 But I have abandoned the Ovidian principle, it might just be Hellenistic myth in general, and the astronomical information is clearly the focus.


      3. “Who knows what our ancestors knew in their oral traditions?”

        – I don’t know about “our ancestors” – mine are Irish and yours, I expect, are mainland European – but there has been an enormous amount of study and research into the subject, and if we ignore the sad conflation of Freudian-Jungian notions with Frazer’s efforts to collate the remnants, the study might be said to have started with him. He never intended the working titles to be used as ‘archetype’ definitions and protested such use all his life, but the idea is now so firmly stuck that we have ended up with nonsensical theoretical spin such as that in the (now repudiated) Hamlet’s Mill, as well as the more solid and scholarly studies. To find the latter, you’d need a good library – one offering access to academic journals, I’m sorry to say. Few Voynicheros care to hear about anything before the Roman period: Discorides and Claudius Ptolemy etc., and that’s why I decided to stop treating the ‘bathy-‘ sections online.


  3. I mean the (indeed unfortunately named) Homer’s Secret Iliad 🙂

    About the comments on Bax’ site, I do find it interesting that they are also finding Indic in the labels. On the other hand, the dozen or so labels I have read in the root-section are mostly in Indic because they would have been called so by the locals. In the case of leek and licorice, for example, I have found other languages.

    Still, they may be on the right track. I’m not sure if it really *has* to be Romany though. Part of the reason why they are interested in this language is because its phoneme inventory seems to come close to that implied by the VM script.

    I think the script is simplified, but that doesn’t mean that the underlying language(s) have a similar sound inventory.

    One thing I am sure of is that the mnemonics are aimed at someone fluent in Greek. And I don’t have any idea about the linguistic implications of the other sections yet.. So whatever the answer is, I don’t think it will be as simple as “the VM is encoded x”, where “x” is one language or even language group.

    Do you think there is a possibility that, even before the 15thC copy, the text was maintained along with the drawings even though people didn’t know how to read it anymore, since the drawings were telling enough by themselves? Or is that an unlikely scenario?


    1. Koen,
      I try not to have any opinion about the written part of the text. Partly it’s the usual thing of sticking to your own area of knowledge and partly because I’m very conscious of the fact that this manuscript has not even been properly provenanced in terms of its materials and binding yet – though I accept Touwaide’s assessment of the stitching (obviously), and the older experts’ opinion that the text presents like something from late 13thC England, and Panofsky’s assessment of the imagery (and perhaps the script?) as looking like a Sephardi work from Spain or somewhere southern. Otherwise, it could just as well be a book maintained by the eastern Jews who had been so long in the east that they didn’t even know the Roman word for inhabitants of the Roman province of Judaea. We know the eastern Jews came into the west. Medieval records refer to this person or that as one of the Beni Isroel, rather than as Jews, and some imagery from earlier medieval Spain says the same.

      As far as Romany ‘language’ is concerned, I have my doubts because there was no unified ‘Romany language’ at all in the medieval period. I know, because I became interested in the same possibility some years ago – the Romany came from Egypt, from the high reaches of the Indus (near the Greco-Buddhist area), some spent time in and around the Yemen and Baghdad, and the earliest reports of Romany in Europe speak of one ‘leader’ who said his name was Thomas and that he hailed from southern India. The Romany called themselves that because in some way or another they considered themselves Romans. All very interesting and curious, but the thing is that there were three distinct strands/communities of Romany peoples each of whom spoke a different dialect though all included words derived at some remove from Indic languages, especially those of the upper Indus. I concluded that so little is known about the medieval Romany cultures, ideas or art that any argument from that basis would be novel-writing. Not enough facts known to call it history. Perhaps the linguists will oblige me to change my mind – who knows?


      1. I’ve always been convinced that the script is a relatively recent addition as well. Until I read about Meroic script yesterday. Now I’m a bit more agnostic on that aspect.

        I agree that the Romani background, and the places where they have been, would surely fit well with what we know.. I’m just glad I’m not the one investigating that language 🙂

        I’m focusing on my bathy section paper at the moment, hope it will get finished soon.


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