Clear Vision (continued)

folio 5v allI wish it were possible to explain as elegantly as the original presents it, the ground-plan with each of its details nested in it, and that  lucidity with which every part relates to every other, from that initial  ‘flash’ I’ve expressed as: “Protectors of the ship.”

We must a slower way, de cap à pied; and this post being meant to illustrate that quality of mind which is our subject, most of the original discussion of the folio is omitted, having been (as it were) exegetical.  Almost half this post is footnotes.


fol 5v detail dancerSwaying with a delicate balance on the height is a hatted figure with  lower limbs  ‘bent around’ – it is one of the Twins: the Dioscuri or Tindaridai [1] as the Greeks called them, but here the first and immortal brother Polydeuces is associated with Liber, as was done by the mysteries of Samothrace. [2] The form given the lower limbs alludes, simultaneously, to virtu in the elm, to the egg from which they were born, and to the lower of two lunar asterisms in Gemini,  which constellation is everywhere associated with these Twins. By the Arabs the same asterism is called “the bent, or turned around” as Ib Majid explains in the fifteenth century. [3]

Here too we have the first clue to the plants’ identities, for as the figure appears bow-legged [4] and as Liber “clings to the high elm” [5] so elm-wood’s being famously pliant had it sought-after by bowyers. The archer was a ship’s chief defence, and so bow and arrow another attribute of the Dioscuri.[6]  This figure’s balancing as if in a high wind,  seeming to hold fire in its hands reminds us too that Liber’s harmless ‘lightning'[7] – was ever a good omen for the storm-tossed ship, when all other lights were extinguished:

Leaping on the peaks of their well-benched ships,
brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays,
bringing light to the black ship
in the night of trouble.
from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, trans. Alexander Nikolaev.


Just so this flameless light is sometimes called “harbour fire” still, though we call it St.Elmo’s fire, he the patron of Formio, named Hormiae (good harbour) by the Greeks.

Another form of ‘fol 5v detail fire sticksneed fire’ comes again from the elm; made by its wood as fire-drill[8] often miscalled a ‘dowel'[9].  The figure’s hands are formed as if twirling small fire-sticks  and (though this last may be co-incidental)  are drawn overall in a way suggesting the pomegranate flower, the Phoenicians’ emblematic ‘lily’.

On folio 5v, the pair are correctly provided with their star-topped caps [10] telling us that the maker was naturally familiar with the older forms of image.  The two examples shown below are from the last phase of Hellenistic rule in the Mediterranean.

folio 5v flowers
(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol.5v
coin of Dioskourias, Colchis c.105- 90BC.
from image uploaded by 'Uploadalt'
coin  Antiochus IV (175 BC- 164 BC)

This second century BC is also when the earliest of the eastern Greek works were written from which passages were taken and included in the  Anicia Juliana codex, where we also find a ‘template’ layout very common among botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408. (The point was discussed here.)

Distance between Gemini’s two head stars (α and β Geminorum), was taken as a standard measure by navigators of land or sea, and was reckoned an ell’s length –  that is, the length of an average clothyard shaft or a weaver’s beam: about 28 inches.   In modern terms the distance is measured as 4½ °.

Dioscuri as defenders of the ship and its cargo. (Antiochus I (324/3-261 BC)

An earlier Hellenistic coin (above) shows the Dioscuri with the arrow-shaft; its length  being approx. 30 inches, that of the Greek ‘step’, the  haploun bēma (ἁπλοῦν βῆμα), and two made the  pace.  The Arabs also called the asterism formed of α and β Geminorumal Dhira’: “the ell-length”.

In folio 5v, the relative distance between these two, and the slight difference in elevation reveals the first enunciator’s entire ease with these matters: the Greek context; Hellenistic forms; the parallel botanical, cultural and astronomical matter.   While I daresay those determined on a theory of all-Latin medieval or ~renaissance origin for these images might attempt an argument about it as an  allegorical or mnemonic construct of medieval European type, I could not begin to agree. It comes down to that ‘cast of mind’.  This image is so easily and effortlessly done. More to the point, it is so effortlessly conceived and its purpose (as we’ll see) is not literary, nor is it allegory, but absolutely and utterly practical. As a whole, the image is a sort of shopping list of products gained from the plants in this group – it’s not about the Dioscuri, but about the economic and practical worth of plants and matter associated with them. It simply happens that, for the first enunciator, the Dioscuri were the ‘second nature’ association for this diverse but related set of items, whose single theme (as we’ll see later in more detail) are materials serving to ‘protect the ship’. But it is significant that he supposed these hats as high-crowned and star-topped in a way characteristically eastern Mediterranean and Hellenistic.

folio 5v flowers

All the compositional elements I’ve mentioned  so far were part of that “ground-plan perceived in a flash” – to use Kitto’s words again. There’s nothing heavy, nothing forced or laboured in the enunciation even if, necessarily, in the present exposition. For all its complexity, the image remains simple; its design perfectly lucid. We can only be grateful that the 15thC copyists (and all before them) were so faithful to the original.

The Dioscuri were, of course, the quintessential “Protectors of the ship” having been conferred power over wind and waves:

sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrake (Samothrace) and attribute the appearance of the two stars [α, β Geminorum] to the epiphany of the Dioscuri.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 4.43.2


… continued ….



[1] The English word ‘tinder’ may be suggested by the image so I thought I might mention that etymology evolves, like any other science. The habit of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etymologists was to derive almost everything in English from Latin or German, but in this case the latest view is:  “Old English tynder, related to tendan “to kindle”, from Proto-Germanic *tund- “ignite, kindle.”  In other words that the German, like Dutch, Swedish or  Norse terms are related but less directly than formerly thought.

[2] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6. 78 (trans. Rackham) : “Most people assign to India the city of Nisa and Mount Merus which his sacred to father Liber [Dionysos], this being the place from which originated the myth of the birth of Liber [Dionysos] from the thigh of Jove [Zeus].” But the Homeric hymns and other older sources show this an error. The original Liber, the first Dionysius, was Egypto-Phoenician. The first Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, dated 7th-4thC BC has:  “[Zeus] gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. There is a certain Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoinike, near the streams of Aigyptos…” Homeric Hymn 1 to Dionysus (trans. Evelyn-White). The ‘first Dionysos’ was Sabazios, or Zagreus. A good online site for the myths and sources are an excellent pair of blogposts at Spacezilotes, a wordpress blog:  “Metis Menis of Dion Ysus (A)  (15th. Feb. 2013) and  … (B), (1st. May 2014).

[3.]  ‘al-Han’a. This rises at dawn after the 221st day of the [Persian] year and it is a windy and good-omened group. It consists of stars formed like the letter n ( ن ) and it is given this name because it is bent round, i.e. its ends come together as the Arabs say hana’at, i.e. some such thing is bent or turned around, meaning that part of it is turned round towards another part. There are no well-known stars in it except one which is called al-Maisān of the third magnitude..’  Kitāb al Fawā’id.. (Tibbetts’ translation pp.88-89). In Ibn Majid’s system, according to Tibbetts,  al-Han’a consists of ε,γ,ζ,λ,δ Geminorum. (op.cit., p. 552).

[4] The term used by the Greeks of pre-Roman times is uncertain. The Roman term blaesus means “curved legs” and while its etymology derives it from the Greek βλαιiσóς, Simon and Steger ( Sudhoffs Arch. [2011] Vol. 95, No.2, pp. 209-221) point out that the Greek does not mean quite the same.

[5] “Liber…”  A visual/verbal pun –  deliberate, I think. So, Isidore quotes Virgil concerning the elm’s bast fibre, writing Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm.  I cannot think the medicinal Slippery Elm meant; Ulmus rubra is an American species.  Perhaps Timperly is correct, connecting the word to the Latin word for a book –  initially a type was made of the inner bark (bast fibre) –  though he refers to Europe’s use of the lime tree not the elm, while referring to the Egyptians having used the elm among other trees for the same purpose. I regret being unable to spare time to consult more recent sources on this last point.  (Timperly, The Dictionary of Printer and Printing (1839) p.22.

[6] The elm’s wood bends well … making it quite pliant. …Elm is also prized by bowyers; of the ancient bows found in Europe, a large portion of them are elm. During the Middle Ages elm was also used to make longbows if yew was unavailable. The … trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction (in medieval Europe). – from a wiki article ‘Elm’.

I  omitted other allusions here  though they were probably known to the first enunciator and could be relevant  e.g.,  an inference might taken that the mariner’s entry into the Erythrean Sea was equated at that time with descent into the underworld.  Homer tells us that elms were planted by nymphs over the underground tomb of Eetion, king of Trojan Thebes slain by Achilles; the Metamorphoses tells of the nymph Erytheia becoming an elm (Ptelea); and the Roman Virgil has the spirits of dreams (Oneiroi) perch in an elm at the entrance of Hades.

[7] Liber [Zagreus] was identified with Polydeuces. Debate continues among scholars over the origin of this ‘first’ Dionysius, but opinion tends towards a Phoenician origin and identification in the first instance with Zabazios. The issue need not concern us. The point is that Zagreus, another son of Zeus, was famously permitted to play childishly -i.e. harmlessly – with his father’s lightning.

[8] Richen says that “It was probably the toughness of wood which led to the elm being used for production of fire by drilling [in many parts of the older world]” and that the ancient practice survived to recent times in Europe ” as a ritual performance, for the generation of need-fire”. R.H. Richens, Elm, C.U.P 1983   (pp.109-9).

[9] As it is often used, but invariably described in archaeological reports.  The University College, London (here) notes it found in “wide use in ancient Egypt, most often smaller objects such as dowels” with an additional note that it is “tough and durable when permanently wet”. Whether it like salt-water spray as much, I’ve not determined.

[10] “During the voyage of the Argonauts .. when the heroes were detained by a vehement storm, and Orpheus prayed to the Samothracian gods, the storm suddenly subsided and stars appeared on the heads of the Dioscuri” For the source texts see Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Vol. 1, p.1053. online.


11 Replies to “Clear Vision (continued)”

  1. I’ve always found this mnemonic a bit of an odd one in the large plants. It’s completely isolated in the leaves instead of the roots or entire plant. It’s a full human figure, however rudimentary. It refers to ancient myth, ancient imagery and associated concepts and beliefs.

    Would you consider the possibility that this one belongs to an earlier stratum than the other large plant mnemonics (= the ones in the roots)?


    1. Koen,
      I don’t think this was ‘ancient myth’ for the first person who formed the picture; that’s rather the point. Such ease with the details (such as the form given the hat, and the Dioscuri as mariner’s Samothracian deities) indicates first enunciation before the 3rdC AD, as I see it.
      Certainly, the style of the ‘pictorial annotations’ which we see at the position of the root finds closest comparison with works produced in the twelfth century in upper Mesopotamia, and is then echoed in details from Spanish Jewish works in the following century, as I’ve mentioned and illustrated in treating the issue of transmission into the west ~ e.g. in this post


  2. Diane

    Reading this post anew, I find it strange that you would find my idea about Dionysos’ profile in the tendril so unlikely (see my last post and thread on the forum). Just like the Dioskouros sits like a guardian lord atop this plant, so too Dionysos (or Seilenos) marks his domain on f17v.

    I might even add that by far the strongest parallel with the Anicia Juliana image you discussed lies in these two mnemonics. There we saw a sea deity (as such indicated because she’s friendly with Cetus) next to coral. One might even infer from the image that here, too, a sense of protection is conveyed, since the fearsome monster is on her side, turning it into a guardian.

    Coral belongs to the “domain” of the sea deities.
    Vines wild and cultivated are holy to Dionysos.
    The plants in this post belong to the domain of the Dioskouroi, protectors of sailors.

    As you say, it’s not essential to understanding the plant or its uses. It’s secondary, though of course it may bring all kinds of useful information to the mind of the viewer…


    1. Koen,
      I think that whether or not one sees the line of a tendril as resembling a human profile, it is impossible to demonstrate that the original maker intended that impression to be given: what is drawn is a tendril, not a face.

      By contrast – that “monkey” you were first to notice in the ‘leaves and roots’ section is a real image: it is certainly meant for a monkey, But… why did he include it? In the Anicia Juliana, a monkey is associated with the coral tree … but why? Is there a different significance attached to monkeys of that sort when they are included in medieval Latin manuscripts than when they are shown on the shoulders of Egypt’s emissaries in pre-Roman ivories? Is is more likely the monkey is there merely as metaphor, or as ‘pun’ or as a literary allusion, or does it refer to what was common, but localised knowledge (e.g. monkeys love mangoes?). Trying to get right the explanation for what the maker certainly intended to be seen is hard enough, I think. 🙂


    2. PS I don’t mean to sound discouraging and wouldn’t want to discourage anyone, but what so often happens… almost always in terms of the imagery, it seems.. is that the minute someone glimpses a grand idea, they sort of slide away from focusing on explaining the manuscript and instead start explaining why we should believe their ‘narrative’. As soon as your argument depends on the reader’s making an act of faith: e.g. although I cannot see a picture of the wine god, I will believe he is present, then the argument is about the writer not about the manuscript’s imagery. It’s a good check to ask yourself (and you are a linguist) whether an equivalent argument about the text would meet interest or a sort of “get out of here” reaction. Most of what is said about the imagery, if applied to discussion of the written text, would come out something like “I have an idea the language is Eskimo. “I see a letter “o”.. now see my collected examples of Inuit documents containing an “o” .. this proves the language is Inuit” .. [and all their documentation and argument is then limited to things Inuit] or else they are something like “here is the letter B.. it looks like a fat person… so the manuscript is about how to lose weight”. [and after that all the matter they study, and all the evidence they adduce, comes from texts about weight-loss].

      I don’t mean that your work is of that sort; just that most comments made about the imagery over the past century wouldn’t last two minutes if the same method were applied to the written text.


      1. Diane

        This is a rather strange experience, surely – to me this looks like one of the most obvious and clearly rendered symbolical images in the manuscript. Though I understand why this proposal raises some suspicion, perhaps even more so than otherwise. Draw any wavy line and it looks like a face in profile. I am aware of that, it’s called pareidolia.

        Additionally, I am expected to look for this kind of images that aren’t there because it fits my “theory”, whatever that may be.

        And thirdly, a large human face drawn in profile is not something we would expect given the overall art style of the manuscript.

        Thing is, I don’t really see the difference with the reading of the figure you propose here. A full human figure (including the head) hidden in a plant? Not something I’d expect given the preference for:
        – mnemonics at root-level
        – either a head or a body but not both
        – little or no reference to myth

        But the manuscript is a hybrid document with many layers of influences, so who knows what to find. Perhaps even a full human figure standing on a plant.

        There are just too many arguments in favor for me to dismiss it, and the same goes for Dionysos vineface:

        – The tendril’s shape is not natural. Tendrils curl, they don’t wave.
        – The tendril has been thickened in some places, exactly where for example the eyebrow should be. It is varied in width to bring out the details.
        – There is quite some detail: not only a thick upper lip, but also a drunkard’s tongue slightly protruding from the mouth. This goes way beyond some waves that look like a face.
        – There are berries hanging from the forehead, just like in the examples I provided.
        – You have provided two examples yourself of a deity being placed with plants from his/her domain (the second one being the goddess with the coral). This is no different.
        – Dionysos was part of the same set of myths as the figure you describe here. Known well past Hellenistic times, and depicted countless times on mosaics all across the former Roman territories.

        What this figure meant to the first audience? That seems so incredibly simple. This is clearly a vine, and vines of all kinds belonged to Dionysos. He literally wore them on his head, and so did his real life worshipers.

        Nonnus, Dionysiaca 39. 70 ff :
        “I have heard how Zeus once gave his throne and the sceptre of Olympos as prerogative to Zagreus the ancient Dionysos–lightning to Zagreus, vine and wineface to Dionysos.”

        Like you say, I would find it nonsensical to insist if there were no reasons other than “it looks like a face”. That’s Crazy Town territory, and I don’t want to go there. But there are just so many reasons, both in the image and the plant, textual sources and comparative imagery, as well as how this would make sense to the original audience…


      2. Koen,
        I’m practicing giving short answers, so cut my original (1st) reply – forgive if doing so means that your reply’s point is lost.
        You say,
        “To me this looks like one of the most obvious and clearly rendered symbolical images in the manuscript”.

        I can see how it could well suggest a profile, but I am not convinced that the maker intended us to see one. I do not think it can be proven; the best you can do is work at the level of persuasion or ‘plausible’ argument. And arguments of that type are – forgive me – more about the argument than the object.

        About the tendril? Well, you can read it literally, or stylistically. In the end each of us does his or her best to understand the intent of the original.

        – besides, cheer up. Look at our relative reputation-points at 🙂


      3. Diane

        Ahhh, I see the problem. I never thought this plant represents grape vines! Surely, the thought of grapes is invoked. But like I said in the first paragraph of my post about this, I mean Vine in the meaning “any plant having a long, slender stem that trails or creeps on the ground or climbs by winding itself about a support or holding fast with tendrils or claspers”.

        Ivy was holy to Dionysos, as well as bindweeds and whatever else people saw as a “wild” kind of vine. Any kind of vine was seen as a different version of the same thing, and “the vine” was holy to Dionysos. If they saw a vine-plant in India, it would be as well.

        In most of the images I posted for comparison, he is crowned with some type of ivy rather than grape vines. I also wouldn’t necessarily predict (or desire, for that matter) grapes to be featured in the MS. Given the plants you have identified and my own, I’d much rather expect something like pepper or any local kind of climbing plant. I don’t see any specific reason why grapes would be there.

        There *is* a possibility that the plant being positioned on the page as it is alludes to it being cultivated like grape vines. But the leaves nor the berries look like grapes, so it must be another type of vine. But still part of Dionysos’ domain, like ivy and bindweed 🙂


  3. Koen – it is a vine, but not a suckered one, like ivy.
    The leaves are given a form which, in Latin herbals means an edible leaf… ‘sorrel-like’.
    So …

    I simply can’t recall now whether Don Hoffmann first said ‘pepper vine’ as the subject or whether I did, but one or the other of us. Perhaps you could ask Don.

    Don’t bother with The identification might be there but it will be probably either un-footnoted or wrongly attributed. Zandbergen offers credits and attributions ad.lib., as a sort of re-distribution on the basis of perceived moral character. 😀


    1. Looking back at the posts and comments to the research blog – I think Don might have first suggested Pepper for 17v.
      The issue is a little confused by the fact that there were several systems of foliation being used:- the old Bibliotecaplayades site; references in the pre-1970s writings; the original Beinecke foliation, the second mailing list foliation used by its members (including e.g. Pelling and Zandbergen) and the present description used by the Beinecke library.

      I did mention pepper in a reprint post here: ‘Botanical: habit & habitat’ post (Feb. 19th., 2013) (here)
      On the old blogger blog, I identified your ‘profile’ plant (17v) when treating the class of ‘Berry vine’ – that is as a class of imagery in the manuscript which appears to apply particular motifs consistently to the same purpose. The title of that post – just to get it all straight – was ’17v Berry vines: C. foliosum and R. tomentosa [cf. C.capitatum]’.

      Now – in writing his review of Alain Touwaide’s paper – published through Stephen Bax’s site last year(March 28, 2016), Rene included a doubled image – folio 35v, with the one of BNF Lat 6823, folio 60 recto. The identification given is ‘Oak and Ivy’ but others – sorry, don’t know who, though I’ve seen it – have identified 35v with pepper.
      I also noticed that pairing of images attributed- as a ‘find’ – to Zandbergen himself in a post by Ellie Velinska, and wondered in one of my own posts: ‘Postscript: the Juliana Anicia codex (concluded)’ whether Touwaide or Zandbergen was the correct person to credit.
      When I had the opportunity to ask Zandbergen directly who had made the comparison and consequent identification, Zandbegen named Edith Sherwood.
      I’m sure that is an error – it has never been Sherwood’s custom to address the imagery in the manuscript as image, nor to offer any comparisons to medieval manuscripts.
      But back to folio 17v and the ‘Pepper’ id.
      The commentary I published on the old blogger blog, included in thee ‘berry vine’ class – but looking it up now, I see association with pepper made in a much later post a failure on my part – that is, a failure to acknowledge (I think) Don as first to see it as a pepper vine… Trying to map this sort of order after the fact is made very difficult when that detail isn’t added promptly, so my apologies – and incorrect attributions are even more annoying of course. Unfortunately both Sherwood’s site and Rene’s, suffer constantly from errors of this sort, in addition to confusing chronology by not datin their own additions and alterations.

      I see that (*sigh*) this ‘Habitat and Vines’ post is yet another among those whose formatting was mangled when the new theme was applied. Will fix. Sorry I can’t do more to point you to the correct person to credit re 17v as Pepper. If only we had a scholar with Oxbridge standards of accuracy crazy enough to write an encyclopaedic guide to Voynich studies past and present!! Imagine being able to look up “folio 17v” and be guided to everything said about it. Or to be interested in such-a-person’s ideas in… 2012… and be guided directly to the original source. Bliss.


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