Another distraction – revisiting the ‘ladies’, Amazons etc.

“One-breasted ladies”

Apart from the metaphor of “Amazonian” torsos, which I intended as a nod to my long-term readers concerning the Black Sea and earlier posts about the imagery in the ‘ladies’ folios, (see brief outline as third section of this post) there is one fairly obvious and simple possibility for the ladies’ having been given a single breast.

Stars were often likened to drops of milk..  Most visible stars are single stars… so one breast each.  🙂

galaxy:  Middle English (originally referring to the Milky Way): via Old French from medieval Latin galaxia, from Greek galaxias (kuklos) ‘milky (vault)’, from gala, galakt- ‘milk’.

I’ve already explained why I consider the first enunciators of the outer tiers  (not the central emblems)  in the calendar section to have been a person who thought in Greek:

see e.g.  posts ‘Folio 70r: Star-hours & months ~ for the mathematicians’, Voynichimagery‘ October 28th., 2012  and briefly reprised in the summary post ‘Boundaries – the ins and outs’, published at, October September 30th., 2013)



But since we’ve raised the subject of Amazons, let’s go there.  I won’t bother you with the whole load of historical and archaeological stuff, but I think a nice introduction, if you have JSTOR is:

E. Baynham, ‘Alexander and the Amazons’, The Classical Quarterly, Vol.51, No.1 (2001) pp. 115-126.

Baynham first refers to the “Amazon” type in legend but quickly moves on to  more solid sources such as Arrian.

All ancient and later writers locate Amazons in Scythian lands near the Black Sea around the Thermodon River  –  the link to the sea making it  part of that network which criss-crossed the Black Sea.   The Amazons are said to have lived inland from the shore  between Sinope and  Trebizond – and Trebizond would be where Gregory Chionades later translated for his Byzantine audience the corrections to Ptolemy’s Tables, completing the work c.1295 AD. (see note in third section of this post, below: ‘Persian Syntaxis’).

Trebizond was among the earliest Greek foundations in the Black Sea, though originally ancillary to Sinope.  After the Roman period Trebizond would be held by, and remain longest, a Byzantine possession.  I’ve written before at some length about these matters in relation to Beinecke MS 408 ( see e.g. the ‘Temple of the Angels’ series of posts at

map Black Sea southwest detail of a map by Michael Angel

Here’s how the region (‘Pontus’)   looked as a Christian diocese by 400 AD.

Black Sea southwest Diocese of Pontus 400_AD


For a neat list of the classical sources, here’s the entry for Thermodon from Smith’s Dictionary of Classical Geography (vol. 2, p.1161).

Thermodon River from Smith Dict Geog Vol2 p1161

From the late 6thC BC to the 4thC BC, Amazons were mentioned regularly by Greeks, something which is of interest given that there was an active Greek network into that region.  A line of ancient Greek towns and cities: termed ‘colonies’  lined the Black Sea’s coast, and a few Phoenician colonies too.

Perhaps their inhabitants invented the Amazons, but there’s nothing impossible about such group’s having existed, even if more recent writers have attempted to claim that the women were only  “lightly-armed auxiliary troops” assisting their men, from the assumption that (a) women couldn’t live without men to tell them what to do and (b) that the society couldn’t possibly have been matriarchal and (c) that women would have had to give up any military activity once they began producing children – except in emergencies.  (I won’t add references for those opinions here).

See however the “Greeks of Pontus” map, covering the 8thC BC – 3rdC BC, courtesy of wiki article here.)

Baynham notes – and how could one not  – that there is a pronounced hostility expressed in the Greek and the Latin literature towards the Amazons, though their way of life is evocative of the Greeks’ Artemis.  One can understand that when any one class of person, and in this case a classical Greek male, finds a universal acceptance in their own world of their being ‘naturally’ one of the dominant class, that offence might be taken when encountering what would appear an inversion of that ‘universal and natural’ order.


Reprise: Astronomical imagery in the ‘Ladies’ Section, the  Black Sea High northern road.

I haven’t yet published anything on the line of transmission to Sephardi Jewish communities of the south-west Mediterranean through the Aegean, of astronomical matter gained from the northern road, from the Black Sea, Maragha and other centres once on the Hellenistic and Persian roads – though  I am strongly inclined to believe that northern route from the Black Sea was that along which which the ‘ladies’ folios came – still bearing evidence of their Hellenistic origin – to medieval Europe.

The centres’ including the  ‘Scales’ would normally date the centres in the calendar series no earlier than the second century AD;  other centre-emblems indicate subsequent re-working to suit more contemporary and (I’d argue) specifically Latin ideas.

The inclusion of the apotropaic ‘splash’ on the feline emblem, the form given the two fishes suggests to me a period of about the tenth century for those emblems, at least, while (by contrast) the archer’s present form argues a re-working even later – I’d say about the  twelfth-to-early fourteenth centuries. If we had a better idea of when bows with the additional roll-lock were first invented, a more exact date might be posited for its final version. Where the central emblems were first enunciated I have no certainty, but I suspect they might come from some source earlier in Fleury and possibly gained from Syria or southern Asia minor.  The outer tiers tell a different story.

As I’ve said in several earlier posts, the ‘ladies’ having an enlarged belly, over-large heads, with exaggerated thighs and yet not rarely – especiall in the ‘bathy-‘ section –  shanks made so thin as to be little more than the thickness of a bone offers a set of characteristics so unusual that I have found them together only in imagery from earlier Kiev, in sculptures generally believed to date from before the region’s conversion to Christianity. fol84v low

pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD

pre-Christian deities Kiev. Ascribed to the ?8-9thC AD

However, the Kiev sculptures show the breasts heavy, and the air of heavy ‘guardianship’ which they exude is more akin to the monumental quality of older Egyptian than of any Greek sculpture. Below are some archaeological drawings from the same site.

characters sculpture Kiev

Other regions where we find a Hellenistic root in combination with Scythian presence and an older Persian culture provides other comparable features to those given the ladies.   At the eastern end of that same northern high road, imagery of the Greco-Buddhist, Greco-Bactrian-, and Indo-Scythian periods shows again the enlarged head and very narrow limbs, but now we also see small, pointed breasts.  A particularly good example is provided by the coin shown below, which I’ve noted two or three times before (as, subsequently, did  Koen Gheuens and perhaps other researchers hunting similar forms, for there are very few to be found).

coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD

coin Indo-Scythian 1stC AD

Astronomical lore and observation across that high northern route, and especially near what was once the eastern boundary of Alexander’s empire, has a history much older than Christianity or Islam, but it was from the observatory of Maragha that there came the information to Trebizond which enabled the Byzantines to update their copies of Ptolemies’ tables.

A separate line of transmission brought astronomical imagery and -tables to the south-western Mediterranean and specifically to the Sephardi or southern Jewish communities.

Thus, one line went via Trebizond and the Byzantine Greeks to finally inform the Latins (early in the early fifteenth century) while an independent one passed via the  northern Jews and the Aegean to Iberia and, more widely, to the Sephardi communities.

From that non-Latin tradition we appear to have matter within  MS Sassoon 823, now in the University of Pennsylvania’s Schoenberg Collection as LJS 57. That manuscript was unknown to Irwin Panofsky, and it offers us evidence that what he called ‘shapely ladies’ – and as astronomical figures – appears earlier in the west than he thought it did.  Their presence led him to suppose they could date from no earlier than the fifteenth century since he knew of no similar forms in Latin Europe before that time.   The  manuscript LJS 57 (formerely MS Sassoon 823) is dated c.1361 AD.

At some future date, I’ll try to find time for a summary post about this issue of non-Latin transmission of scientific evidence to the south-west but at present I don’t want to go too far from the botanical folios and –  to be quite honest –  since whatever I have published online for the past eight years has been regularly adopted without acknowledgement, mis-represented as an “idea” and then re-worked or otherwise misused – when it is used at all –  I’m not so keen as I was to publish everything for the benefit of others online.  These days, having constantly to track back to my first post or mention of some point or other, simply to add a footnote to the work in press to demonstrate that I’m not plagiarising the plagiarists is, frankly, a pain in the neck. Particularly objectionable is the sort of person who reads the original post, picks up the conclusion from the research – sometimes from the extraordinarily egotistical idea that they are entitled to “check and correct” without acknowledgements, and sometimes in order to present it, supposedly as an anonymous “idea”,  to some poor third-party fool who is asked to “investigate the idea” and who then unwittingly launders the stolen goods.  How the study is supposed to advance in such an environment, I cannot imagine, especially when this sort of thing occurs simultaneously with a mad hunt through Voynich archives to find something – anything – which might be revived in order to claim my work is ‘not original’.  Of course, I’m always happy to hear of precedents, whether or not previously aware of them. (And on the matter of letting me know about precedents etc., I once more owe thanks to Nick Pelling for sending me me a copy of his notes to the first mailing-list when he argued the map on f.86v (Beineke foliation 85v-and-86r) to be a city street-map or aerial view, an  idea he later set aside).

So that’s why I’m now keeping back part of my “working out”. Sorry. Anyone keen enough will  be able to fill those gaps by doing a bit of their own research.





An earlier (though not my first) allusion to the statues from Kiev and the imagery from Indo-Scythian regions:-



Entry in Smith’s Dictionary of classical Geography


On the background to the “Persian Syntaxis” a good place to start might be the following,  bfirst published by Springer, now online as a pdf.

Raymond Mercier, ‘Shams al‐Dīn al‐Bukhārī’, in Thomas Hockey (eds.), The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Astronomers, Springer (2007), pp.1047-1048.





8 thoughts on “Another distraction – revisiting the ‘ladies’, Amazons etc.

  1. Many of the female figures, especially the ones walking around the month roundels, actually have a lot in common with Egyptian art. The standard forward pace, standard positioning of the arms… And the breasts. Sometimes women in Egyptian art have only one breast visible, the one on the side of the body. This is just a consequence of the perspective. In other cases, like again the Dendera ceiling, the side breast is generally much more prominent than the one ‘in’ the figure’s body, which is often very faint or even covered by hair.

    This might lead copyists who were not familiar with Egyptian art to take the figures as having just one breast on the side. This would mean that the copyists attempted to maintain the figure’s pose and perspective, even though severe stylistic alterations were made as well.

    It might also explain why the corrector added the extra breast, which is often there in the Egyptian exemplars but just harder to see. Though your idea that it may have been done to make the figures less alien is very plausible as well.

    I agree that the original author thougt in Greek or was writing for an audience that did.


    • Koen,
      I take your point. For me the difficulty is that the sort of person who would render the figures so well rounded, while not blinking about depicting them unclothed,* already had a mental framework that wasn’t classically Egyptian. And if, as we two seem to agree, the first design for these roundels is Hellenistic, and Hellenistic art in Egypt is still discernably Hellenistic, not dynastic in style, so why retain that particular formality. There is also the fact that while imagery of dancers and so forth is found in dynastic art, you don’t find the somewhat ‘mad-looking gestures there that you find given the ‘ladies’ in some folios. I might add that there is clear evidence that the person I call the “corrector” and Pelling takes, by default, as .. hope i’m not misrepresenting his views … the composer or author.. spoke Latin. That is, apart from the addition of a crown in European style the “months” are indicates as menses, always in the darker ink so far as I’ve noticed.

      I don’t doubt that there were scribes in Egypt, by the 1st or 2ndC, who also spoke Latin but one ancient authority says that in Alexander’s time, Rome itself was a Greek city.
      But there again (i.e. Alexandria and Egypt under Roman rule, c.1stC), the proportions given the figures, though they are similar to some which I illustrated from the Tigrane tomb (thanks to Venit allowing me to re-use the pictures), are not exactly right. For myself, I went looking at the Black Sea, hunting for that purportedly “ancient Egyptian colony” from which the deity re-formed and re-named “Serapis” might have come.

      * Afterthought – of course, in dynastic Egypt an unclothed figure was a servant, and their being depicted that way wouldn’t be out of keeping for the sixth century or even later. Augustine had drawn the dividing line between the Manichaean and the ‘proper’ sort of Christian by pointing out that the Manichaeans of his time saw the stars (or more likely the first/chief star of a constellation, probably first of three) as ‘Lords’ where ‘proper’ Christians saw them as servants. This cropped up again with the later anti- “Manichean” movement. But that’s a bit far off topic.


  2. I definitely agree that the original was not a classical Egyptian work. The facial expressions of some ladies alone argue against that. Against any form of classical imagery, really. It is almost as if the ladies were a Hellenistic parody on the Egyptian form. Greco-Roman nudes walking like an Egyptian 🙂 That scenario would of coursr require that the marring and unusual proportions were added in a later stage. Unless of course its origin is similar to that of the art in the Alexandrian street you often mention. Is anything known about its makers or why it looks like that? A second idea: I’ve also noticed that papyri can deviate from strict classical standards. There’s this old papyrus with images of a lion seducing and violating an antelope. It almost has a comic book feel to it. This might mean that next to the carvings for the ages on the temples, there may have been a less formal papyrus tradition, perhaps allowing for Voynich -like forms to be expressed..


    • Yes, I know the ‘cartoons’ you mean, I think. They’re all Roman era, aren’t they? Antelope playing chess, mouse attacking lion etc? They are metaphors, and not terribly nice in every case.. Roman era, if I recall.

      I don’t find, throughout the manuscript, much sense of the ‘literati’ – the leisured class whose learning came mainly from books – in the imagery, and absolutely nothing of medieval Europe’s sort of unsophisticated and often rather insensitive sort of humour. Perhaps I’m mistaken and the month-roundels are just a bit of ribaldry, but I think you might be creating a scenario rather than describing and explaining what’s there on the page.

      As example – the antelope playing the lion at chess is symbolic of the battle of wits between the vulnerable (female, slave, conquered people etc.) and the enemy who has power of life and death. As late as the 12thC AD, this ‘battle of wits’ is nicely played out in numerous permutations in the Alf Layla wa Layla, whose stories were traditional ones, much older but collected and written into their present form by then. It was a classic scenario within the Egyptian consciousness, you see. The humour always came from the ‘antelope’ out-witting by its swift mind the powerful and dangerous physical power. In the stories, the ‘lion’ is so impressed that he falls for/releases from servitude/ etc. etc. the brilliant and usually female concerned.


      • Twentieth Dynasty apparently, so not quite Roman :). Don’t get me wrong, I think this has nothing to do with the VM. But it is an interesting example of purely Egyptian art that’s not just people standing stiffly, if you know what I’m saying.

        The appearance of the nymphs is still quite a mystery to me and I don’t find any solution completely satisfactory.

        Based on non-stylistic arguments I am convinced that they were first made by someone very familiar with Hellenistic Egypt. But I’m not ready to form a solid opinion about the style yet…


      • Koen,
        we might be talking about different drawings. Can you give some details of the ones you mean?
        I’d agree that the roundels’ tiers, and the ‘ladies’ presentation strongly suggests a Hellenistic origin, and Alexandria (Hellenistic Egypt) sounds perfectly reasonable: pity about the destruction of the Temple of Serapis and Nymphaeum and ditto the temples of Canopus and of Heraklion i.e Thonis). They might well have held the answer – but one does what one can, eh?

        changed attitudes to unclothed forms during the late Ptolemaic (Lagid) and early Roman period in Egypt

        That is said to be Caesarion (Ptolemaios XV), son of Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar.

        cf the naked slave (note anklet and attentive pose)

        also of interest is replacement of the ancient ‘serpent of the brow’ with other forms, such as palmettes etc. So the non-battlement headdresses surely are *not* evidence for fifteenth-century or Renaissance origin, as some have tried to argue.
        see headdress given the priest of Isis in Pompeii.


      • Koen,
        Not sure it’s a hartebeest, but whatever… notice that the lion is toothless? The lion may look happy, but who triumphs in the bedroom is a matter of interpretation, and the message throughout the series seems to me to be about the disempowerment of the violent and destructive – sort of “amor vincit omnia” in a way. Or so I read the series.

        I was thinking of another series, actually, and I wish I had time to hunt it out for you. Just now, I don’t.


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