I’m gratified to see that in recent months, some Voynich researchers have taken up the theme that the botanical imagery includes elements intended as memory-prompts. I believe the first among recent writers to do this is Koen Gheuens, though others including Don Hoffmann have taken it to heart, too.
I would like, though, to emphasise one clear distinction between this newer approach initiated by Koen, and the way in which it had earlier been described in my work: that is, that where I had seen – and still see – such elements as independent of language, and as a direct reference to the plant(s) practical and economic value, Koen and the more recent writers take elements in the imagery which they perceive as having mnemonic purpose, and treat them as cues to items of vocabulary – to names for plants.
That shift in focus, to proposing a textual and linguistic purpose for any mnemonic elements appears to me a substantial difference from my views, which means that while Koen was not first to raise the matter of ‘pictorial annotations’ in the botanical imagery, his argument is an original one.
For readers wishing to weigh the evidence and relative merits of these views, I thought it might be convenient to have a brief account of my work here to compare with that published by Koen and others. I’ve reprinted three posts marking the earlier, middle, and later stages of my own discussion.
The first time I mentioned mnemonics in relation to Beinecke MS 408 was in a paper written about folio 25v and initially published in 2009 courtesy of Nick Pelling. Later (again, courtesy of Nick Pelling) it was transferred to a blog that I had just begun. That post about folio 25v is already reprinted in the present blog.
Reprinting the following three, I’ve added an occasional point of punctuation, corrected one or two typos, removed links that no longer work, and replaced link addresses with a hot link. I’ve checked the pagination from the older Yale site against the Beinecke site’s current foliation, but other than that the posts are as first written and illustrated when published in “Findings”, a blogger blog now closed to the public (i.e. effectively ‘out of print’ although still copyright, so re-use requires attribution). Any remarks made today are in green.
Monday, July 26, 2010 ~ ‘A Plant: fol. 22r the “Myrobalan” ‘
I should like to begin by recommending this link, and in particular its treatment of al-Dinwari’s work:
According to that article, al Dinwari was born in western Iran, studied in Kufa and Basra, and died in Dinawari.
He is called the founder of Arabic botany – by which is meant the corpus of botanical works first composed in the Arabic language. Al-Dinwari was not an Arab as such, and by the time he wrote – in the 9thC AD – some botanical works earlier produced by Greeks, Indians and Tamils had already been translated into the Arabic script and/or language: – The Ocean of Attainments in particular.
I realise that with the majority of Voynich research being focused on the manuscript’s script, codicology and likely transmission through Europe, work on the origins of its content, and from a study of the imagery alone, may seem irrelevant.
The pleasant part of Voynich research, though, is the way it enables one to match areas of its study to those in which one is personally interested and it is possible to go quite deeply into some of the questions raised by this manuscript without encroaching on others’ work to any noticeable extent.
Study of the manuscript’s botanical drawings is not a particular interest of mine but is, or has been, to scholars including Dana Scott and others listed at Cipher Mysteries and at Voynich.nu (Rene Zandberger’s site).
But in a couple of cases I have tried, in these posts, to demonstrate that a diagrammatic quality and mnemonic purpose exists within these drawings: that they were not meant to be as Pliny put it, ‘portraits’ of these plants. Their presentation tells us something more about the time in which the content was first formulated.
Concerning such drawings, and the mnemonic type generally – in which religious painters of both west and east have long been expert – Mary Carruthers’ works are particularly helpful, touching on the scholarly traditions of medieval Europe.
I believe this picture in fol. 22r is such a drawing, intended as a generic representation of the Myrobalan spp.
Here is why –
The form given these stems does not appear so unusual if you look at the image as a product of the spice-roads’ eastern end, the region in which Buddhism first developed and spread.
The same form as we here see given the stalk or stem echoes the object commonly seen in figures of ‘Healing Buddha’, always held in the figure’s left hand. I think the stems are a conscious prompt to memory of the plant’ uses, the plant associated with the Medicine Buddha being invariably that group known popularly as the Myrobalans.
In the detail from fol.22r one sees a cluster or racemes above which is a simple threefold group of buds, or seeds. These, I think represent two distinct types of the myrobalan, the three-fold quality referring to the type depicted in religious imagery.
In the Tibetan tradition, as we see from the figure (below), the Healing Buddha is shown with the myrobalan, and here the sprig – on figure’s right – terminates in just such threefold cluster of buds.
These associations were encountered in everyday life, so that the form given the usual container, and its association with the plants called Myrobalans seemed obvious. Myrobalans are used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, still, and throughout the same regions where eastern spice plants were anciently grown , to provide for the local and for foreign users.
The corpus of Auyrvedic medicine was finalised about five hundred years earlier than Alexander reached the Indus and is current to this day. (Tibet did not become, officially, a Buddhist kingdom for some centuries after the establishment of the Seleucid kingdom).
Different types of plant are included in the medical Myrobalans. Here, the curiously down-turned pods, or cups are those seen in the Beinecke manuscript. This is the Terminalia belerica, sometimes called the ‘lesser-‘, ‘inferior;’ or ‘bastard-‘ Myrobalan.
The plant is “…reputed to improve immunity and bodily resistance to infectious disease and is therefore used for coughs, sore throats, and eye and skin diseases such as conjunctivitis and leprosy. The preparation Triphala [with 3 types of myrobalan] is widely prescribed for liver disorders and gastrointestinal problems. The seeds are generally used to treat wounds of ruminants.”
The cracked, grey bark of the plant is not used in medicine, and is not depicted in fol.22r. These are not ‘botanical drawings’ in the sense we use that term of our own scientific drawings, but aids to recalling what the person has already learned by heart.
Higher up the stem, in the drawing on fol.22r, we have what appear to be the flowering racemes, or sprays of flowers, and again their arrangement is accurate enough, once we know we are looking at Myrobalans … even if we would expect them to be shown drooping. Showing flowers upturned is a regular convention in these folios.
A triple-branched myrobalan known as the ‘Arjuna myrobalans’ in the Ayurveda of India is illustrated, and may be compared with a detail from another image of the medicine Buddha.
Leaves are omitted from the image on fol.22r because they were not necessary in this case; a person trained in medicine, like the person sent to purchase it, needed only to refer to those characteristics that distinguished different grades of a good, and permitted a false product’s being identified before the purchase was made.
[I’ve put up a separate page listing plants used in Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine. See page entitled ‘Botanicals’ – link omitted]
If this topic is an area of interest for you, then you might like this site from among many that are recommended, plant-names being given in a number of languages.
For an Hadith (tradition) concerning the Myrobalan in Muslim lore see this excellent paper:
List of ‘Myrobalans’ according to wikipedia:
Cherry plum myrobalan plum (Prunus cerasifera)
Amla, Amalaki, Emblic myrobalans (Emblica officinalis)
Bibhitaki, Belliric myrobalans (Terminalia bellerica)
Haritaki, Chebulic myrobalans (Terminalia chebula)
Arjuna, Arjun myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna)
First – this plant[-group] lacks the ‘circumscription’ mark so we’ll suppose it probably grows freely, or wild.
Secondly – the plants’ habit should show in one case a mass of branches/leaves at ground level, and another a central stem producing multiple leaves or new branches higher, from which a single(?) bloom extends some way above that crown.
Thirdly, its root formation should present much as shown, but including in one or more motifs signifying the plant’s use/s.
The form given the flower or emerging fruit is distinctive in this case, a tipped ball, covered with small spines or prickles and held in a crown-like formation. I am inclined to read it literally.
It is also worth noting, with regard to the way the leaves and stem are drawn, a similarity here to the depictions on the wall of Karnak’s Herbal Chamber. It may be no more than coincidence, but is worth keeping in mind.
The form devised for the root here I take as a mnemonic (i.e. pictorial annotation) and it suggests – intentionally, I think- a person carrying a torch, or perhaps overall an oil-lamp of the classical kind, so I’d suggest that the plant will yield plentiful seeds whose oil may safely be burned. In addition, that extension rising from one ‘arm’ might be read as a wick, or set of stalks, so it is possible that the plant also provides the fibre needed for the flame, or a wick.
I note that the figure so formed also has some similarity to the motif of the female figure holding a ‘cross’ in folio 79v. [Discussed in three earlier posts to Findings – links removed.]
Given the environment posited, and other allusions noted so far, two obvious identifications are cotton, and flax.
Both were widely used well before our period of interest, and for long afterwards; both yield copious oil-seed, and from it oil that was being used in lamps, even before the 3rdC BC. In those aspects, both Gossypium herbaceum (the Arabian cotton plant) and Linum usitatissimum (flax) are comparable to the castor plant, but where the former were also used to produce fibre of a kind used for wicks, castor was not.
I thus identified the reference of the lower set of leaves as Flax, and that of the upper set as G. herbaceum
“Flax is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Ethiopia and ancient Egypt. In a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia, dyed fibers have been found dated to 30,000 BC” and they are said to come from the flax plant. -wiki article, ‘Flax’ –
I think the image probably means to represent both. The stalk and general growth habit recall those of the flax, while the form given the leaves (reminiscent of others whose leaves are shaped like a hand) refers to a primary characteristic of another oil-and-wick plant; the species of wild cotton widely known to Arabia, Egypt and Africa. The form of the flower is devised again to evoke features of both plants. As ever, proximity of natural occurrence, and common purpose for the product are what define plants as ‘related’ in this manuscript – not modern taxonomic descriptions and classes.
Postscript: I might add that the idea of the flame’s use to represent the head is not unknown, though I won’t elaborate here.
March 18th., 2012 ~ ‘Flow chart’, Findings (blogger blog)
I’ve been asked whether or not I start by hunting manuscripts for plants which resemble those in the botanical folios. To say ‘no’ may just seem perverse, or as if I’m relying on imagination. So I thought I’d summarise the points in a list which has evolved over the past three years of my own research, and which has increasingly proved very helpful. These days an identification can take as little as a day, where once it took no less than ten; and that’s one reason why the ‘banana plant’ post includes much less explanation that my old exploration of the ‘sorrels’. I think the turning point came with discovering the structure used to compose the ‘myrobalans’ picture.
Anyway, here’s my present template, as it were. In explaining the system, I’ll refer chiefly to one or other of two posts: that on the Artocarpus and that on the Mangroves, because although neither links to the Theophrastan corpus – no equivalents existed in it – between them these two posts include examples of most points listed below,save the Theophrastan-style of mnemonic device.
Whoever designed, or developed the images in the botanical section did not know the algorithmic (or ‘flow-chart’) method we use today to identify and classify plants, but for all that had a rational and logical approach.
Using the form of leaf, and a plant’s habit, as the basis for classification reflects a style attested in Mediterranean works from the time of Theophrastus, whose works I take as a defining corpus here.
In addition to that basic classification method, various parts of the drawing regularly include ‘cues’ (not ‘clues’) which indicate to the viewer what it is which constitutes the perceived ‘innate similarity’ between plants in the group picture (i.e. picture on a given folio), while simultaneously the same cues can indicate differences between the members in that same group, depicting distinctions which are specific, and sometimes very precise indeed.
I do not believe that I have been able to identify all such ‘cues’ – at least not to the point where I can recognise them with the same precision that they were initially drawn and read.
I haven’t followed up – for example – what I believe to be the differences between the way roots are shown. Indeed, I suspect that it might have been the original user/s habit to take the roots as a separate or complementary classification system. I think I might have better defined the variant forms for roots, and also that I should have considered the classes of leaf-types more closely.
Perhaps the time and opportunity will arise in future.
Here is a fairly rough idea of how the ‘flow-chart’ (as it were) was considered by designer/s and user/s of the original imagery.The pattern has only emerged during the course of the research, so it isn’t an hypothesis so much as a record of observations – and observations which made the task of identification increasingly easier as time went on. Although in all botanical identification, ‘easy’ is a relative term.
1. Leaves… resemble a plant-type (x) from the Theophrastan corpus (Y/N)
if yes then consider the text where Theophrastus explains that plant’s nature and uses before proceeding … to step 2
if no…. to step 2
Is there a detailed mnemonic device at/near the point where root and stem meet?
If yes , consult local names and/or vernacular Latin vocabularies to identify the reference here, and note down that the plant/s in the picture will have those routine associations – if you have rightly read the mnemonic!.. and go to step 3b.If no … to step 3b.
3a. Habitat and Habit.
Where a ground-line is drawn in detail (e.g. the mangroves) it indicates usual habitat:
*water (see posts on water-plants),
*lowland (usually tidal and/or sea-shore – again see mangroves)
*flat, brown, not emphasised – ordinary soil
are among the more common
.. and onwards as below..
3b Is habitat indicated Y/N
If yes the plant will occur in that habitat, and ones not belonging there must be removed from the list of possibilities.
If no, then the plant can be considered not a shore- or water-plant, and any which are can be removed from the list of possibilities.
4. Is the plant cultivated (i.e has it a circumscription mark?) Y/N
If yes , discard from the list any plants which are unknown in cultivation, then move to 5
If no, move to 5.
5. Are the roots drawn ‘flowing’ (e.g. myrobalans)
If yes , the plant is likely to yield an oil and or oily dye, employed for hair or textiles. (‘Likely’ because I have not properly defined the variations of ‘flowing’ – so there’s still a fair margin for error). Go to 7
If no, go to 6.
6. are the roots drawn as withies? (interlaced or interwoven with regular thicknesses – see mangroves post)
If yes , then one use for the plant will be to provide flexible lengths of wood, for such uses as stakes, staves and poles – in addition to any others. Go to 7.
7. Is the habit..
*upright but very slender – a vine or creeper
*upright but thick – tree or tree-like
*spreading from close to ground level – a shrub or shrubby-looking plant
*springing sprouts from a cut bole – at least one member of the group is used for timber (in addition to any other uses).
… and to 8..
8. Are the leaves of a group shown as very similar in shape, and massed, but variegated (e.g. mangroves): Often, tho’ not invariably, this formation indicates a group of plants all of whose leaves have upper and lower sides displaying different colour or tone, perhaps most often (as with mangroves) a silvery appearance which is noticeable at a distance.
9. Are any flowers or buds shown?
If stylised, treat as a mnemonic (see above)
If apparently literal, use as a final test or refinement between species included in the picture, but only after an initial identification for the group by reference to uses, habitat and other indicators. Flowers are generally irrelevant for the classification system here.
..last checks.. go to 10.
10. Anomalies (e.g. the latex detail in the Artocarpus species; the ‘shrimp’ attached to the hook for the fish-taking plants)
Anomalies often point to – I’m tempted to say emphasise – inclusion of one particular plant in the group, as with Artocarpus elasticus, which appears to be considered an essential item among this group, for the person/s who used the work.
After running through these initial checks you should have a basic list of features, criteria which if not all met are likely to invalidate any identification.
So even before seeking out plants at all, you should be able to limit the search by already having..
* a fair idea of where the species, or most members of the group, are likely to occur (geographically speaking);
* a fair idea of the habitat in which at least the prominent members of the group are to be found.
* the group’s salient habit and general appearance, though some members of a shrubby group may differ, as the convolvulus from forms of hibiscus which were perceived as ‘similar’ here.
* whether or not the group is/includes cultivated types or was only known from the wild.
*some of the chief – invariably commercial – uses,
*and, often as not, some allusions to associated lore. (e.g. Peacock trees, ‘clavus’).
So if you know the focus is on the Indian ocean, and you have indications that you are looking for a waterside plant, one whose roots also emerge from the water, and whose roots are used as poles and stakes, whose leaves are similar across the many different types, but all being different on upper and lower surface, and all forming a dense canopy.. well, it wasn’t so hard to identify the mangroves then, especially with the flowers drawn so clear.
But the method is systematic and clear: not necessarily the modern reader’s ability to interpret correctly, as my own posts show, without need to say more.
Still, the system does seems to work – the errors are mine, I’m sure. It’s also possible some species pictured in the botanical folios are now extinct.
POSTSCRIPT (added 21 August 2016): I should have liked to add the post about the “fish-taking” plants, especially, but this is surely long enough. Also, I’m still satisfied with the ‘Myrobalans’ id, but less so by the ‘Flax and cotton’.