Clear vision (cont.3)


.. A Place called Teredon


Teredon was probably somewhere in the vicinity of modern Basra, and was an important seaport in Alexander’s day .. and the starting point for much of the exploration of the Persian Gulf region, especially that by Androsthenes in 325-323 BC.. a source with which Eratosthenes was familiar .

Duane Roller, Eratosthenes’ ‘Geography’ (p.187)

Its name surely sounded ill-omened to the first of Alexander’s men.  They had come by sea under Nearchus, a Cretan possibly of Hittite descent, –  the same Nearchus whose commemorative medallion finds so close a reflection in one of the Voynich calendar’s central emblems. [3]

(Longer term readers will be patient with this repetition; newer readers will not know it).

medallion Hellenistic celeb Nearchus voyagefol 72r-ii centre blog fairy







The effects of time and copying having left so light a mark, in this case, that even the little hillock and plant are set at the right distance from, and in the right proportion to, the main figure.  The fifteenth-century draughtsman has turned the distant palm into a little flower, but manages to convey something of the ‘biretta”s angularity, while mistaking the ridges of the lower wings for part of the garment.  What has been consciously translated is the shield of the world (imago mundi) as Achilles’ shield[4].

Its  being made a star implies  influence from a Semitic language in which the words for ‘star’ and for ‘shield’ may be rendered by the same: ‘magen’.[5]

To the residents of the land, Teredon meant only  “gift of [the god] Tir” but since it happened to be homophonous with the Greeks’ word for the ‘calamity of the sea’ the salt-water ship-worm, so the town’s name must have struck the company as  ill-omened.

fol 5v foot detail
(detail) folio 5v: the termite-worm,Gk: teredon.

For that reason, perhaps, the Greeks did not initially use it, but a direct translation of the word’s sense, thus: ‘Diridotis’.  As Alexander later began sending out parties of men to map the known world – or at least that part of it he claimed – Teredon served as an marker-point, a corner for one of  Eratosthenes “seal stones”.

Nearchus had managed a near-impossible task in taking a ship and crew into unknown waters, and unfathomed sea-bottom, under strange stars and -winds, through hostile shores and natives whose language they could not speak, to reach this place whose position the Greeks had not known save by name. But he succeeded:

“they .. anchored in the mouth of the Euphrates near a village of Babylonia, called Didotis [Teredon]; here the merchants gather together frankincense from the neighbouring country and all other sweet-smelling spices which Arabia produces.”[6]

As corner of one of the “seal stones” Teredon is noticed by the later Stabo, Plutarch, Ptolemy and Pliny etc. but Isidore does not know it, nor even the shipworm: he knows of the teredon only as an ordinary sort of woodworm, devoid of those telling ‘horns’.[7]

Pliny (2– 79AD) writes of the site in the Gulf  two generations before Claudius Ptolemy’s birth:

After Petra the country as far as Charax was inhabited by the Omani … but now it is a desert. Then there is a town on the bank of the Pasitigris named Forat, subject to the king of the Characeni ; this is resorted to by people from Petra, who make the journey from there to Charax, a distance of 12 miles by water, using the tide. But those traveling by water from the kingdom of Parthia come to the village of Teredon below the confluence of the Euphrates and the Tigris. The left bank is occupied by the Chaldaeans, the right bank by the Scenitae tribe of nomads. (Nat. Hist. Bk VI: xxxiii 145-6)  (pp. 447-449) [8] 

His speaking of the Omani, at this early time, reminds us that the Oman pilots and among them members of the Arabian tribe of the Azd, were to become the most famous  navigators and merchants in the eastern sea.

Such was their renown that it has been widely assumed by the Arabic-speaking scholars that Ibn Majid, an Omani “master of stars”, was another member of the Azdi, so often becoming luminaries in whatever field they engaged – though the wiki writer dates their presence to c.180–242 AD.

They [the Azdi] were the chief merchant group of Oman and Al-Ubulla, who organized a trading diaspora with settlements of Persianized Arabs on the coasts of Kirman and Makran, extending into Sindh “since the days of Ardashir”  – wiki article ‘Azd’.

From the Azdi clan came two Roman emperors Philip (204 – 249 AD) and Leo III (685 – 18 June 741) , and  (as legend has it) the last Muslim dynasty in Iberia.

A coin which was made for Philip ‘the Arab’ shows a container somewhat like the simplest of those in the Voynich manuscript’s “root and leaves” section; the similarity may be mere co-incidence.  Containers of the drum- type are immensely practical, and are still made to this day.  Philip’s was made of metal and used to collect Roman taxes, but one doubts that it was coloured red or blue.  Asian containers of such a form have been traditionally lacquered in red or black – though the Voynich manuscript avoids the pink-purple-black range of colour and habitually replaces black with blue.  The same may be the case here.  After the 3rdC AD, containers of this type with smooth straight sides and tightly-sunk lids become much rarer in the west, and even those red-coated ‘capsae’ used for carrying papyrus and scrolls are not seen in quite that form after the 1stC-2ndC AD.


containers rolled rims2What makes it unlikely that the containers shown in the Voynich manuscript’s “root-and-leaf” section  are meant for ones made in the Roman period or in the Mediterranean  –  even in Philip’s time –  is the depiction in other details of such containers set upon “knife-blade” legs.  Legs of that type are  entirely characteristic of Asia and the silk road –  along which, by the way, Seleucid coins had been ” well renowned” [9] that I have never seen an example of them outside the eastern sphere before the sixteenth century.  Within China, on the other hand, they are attested as early as the 15thC BC.  I am not suggesting that the stands pictured in the Voynich manuscript date from that time, but that where the style is unknown to the Mediterranean or Europe, it was a very longstanding habit in Asia – as was (and is) the custom of setting containers of almost any sort upon a separate, legged, base.  These things are distinctively eastern, and most of the containers pictured in that section are uniquely so.  (More illustrations in the post linked in the caption).

container blade feet
first published in post ‘In the Vicinity Pt.2‘ (8th. December 2013).

I won’t go into the history of Chinese and other Asian regions’ links to the Persian Gulf – anyone interested in the subject can find the information easily enough, the point for us being that they began before the birth of Alexander.

Alexander’s successors brought worship of the Dioscuri among their other gifts to the region. As patrons of the traveller and merchant they were literally ‘common coin’ here by the mid-second century BC.  The example below was made for the Seleucid Demetrios I (162-150BC),  minted in Ecbatana and used throughout the region.[10]


By the end of the second century BC (BC 120’s) a change was occurring as the Parthians rose in power.  Salles believed that the Greek-Macedonian presence in the region about the Gulf had been entirely superseded:

… The Seleucid authority over Babylonia and the Gulf was challenged then ousted by the Parthians who progressively took over the area, more precisely the northern end of the Gulf maritime lane: the  Characenian kingdom, whatever might have been its fluctuating relations with its Parthian suzerains, became the new owner of the east-orientated and ancient emporion of the Shatt al- Arab  known as Spasinou Charax, and kept it at least up to the end of the 2ndC AD. [11]

Recent discoveries have altered that perception.  They include an inscription and a naos t0 the Dioscuri at Tylos in Bahrain, the editors of the inscription concluding:

‘.. Characene sovereignty on Bahrain and other islands of the Gulf was simply a continuation of the Seleucid domination of these same regions’.[12]
 Within this area others again had a presence.  A settlement had existed in Bahrain from at least the 1stC BC, but probably from the 2ndC BC, occupied by a ‘colony’ from Ḥaḑramawt, from whence we also have examples of the traditional star-calendars which were recorded by Serjeant and others.   The Hadramawti are another group of pilots who are later recorded as chanting their route by the star-paths, and including allusions to legends of the stars and winds and places on the route.  The site of the former Hadramawt settlement  in Bahrain is now [13] called Khor Rorī. Ar: خور روري).
Akkadian, Aramaic and Syriac are said to influence the sedentary dialects of eastern Arabia, including Bahrani Arabic.[14]
Nearchus had called Bahrain, altogether,  “Tylos”.  Some Hellenistic Greeks called it ‘Gerrha’.
Of interest to us is that Nearchus spoke of its great number of cotton trees[15]  and (if I might again mention study of another folio),  I have identified the Arabian cotton plant (Gossypium herbaceum) as a likely component in folio 52r – this was published originally in a post to  Findings (Sunday, May 22, 2011) [16]

Below (right) is a detail from that folio showing the ‘pictorial annotation’ or mnemonic, and comparing it with an eastern Christian emblem (below, left) where the flame-shaped head and a thread of red cotton each have symbolic importance.  flame-head-and-52r

We also have a funerary stele from Hellenistic Bahrain where a master pilot is honoured, being described as kubernetes.  His name was Abidistaras (‘servant of Ištar’) [17]

Considering these regions eastward of the Mediterranean, and seeing the reality of Hellenistic and eastern interactions also  allows the question to be asked – are apparent similarities between the Voynich script and those of older Arabia or in the Greco-Bactrian region merely co-incidental, or are they pertinent?

In the second example of zabur script shown, you may notice not only the “ornate P” form we see in the Voynich script, but another character rather like one of the Voynich glyphs described as a “bench- or crossed- gallow glyph”.

script Sabaic minuscule detail drawing
Sabaic minuscule – inscription on palm leaves. Popularly known as “zabur” or “psalm script” – possibly an allusion to the chanted poems of the Yemeni/Omani pilots.



script Sabaic miniscule palm inscription
coin Bactria Menander aegis border blog
coin of Menander. Greco-Bactria.  2ndC BC

Next post… Europeans in the east before 1438AD.


NOTES – published separately



4 Replies to “Clear vision (cont.3)”

  1. About the script – it does seem to straddle on the bridges between various known scripts that are of possible relevance. The pi, the “r rotunda”, 9, 4, o, alpha… I wouldn’t like to count the number of scripts that have a shape like them. I’m starting to believe that Voynichese is a pidgin and the script a “pidgin script” – one devised or evolved to be easy to grasp by various cultural backgrounds. Though in that case it must have been one with a rather restricted use, otherwise inscriptions would have been found elsewhere.


    1. Koen, as you know, the written part of the text isn’t my field. What I have always wondered is why there appears to have been no survey done to find just where (and when) some of the more unusual glyphs occur. That even more unusual ones *do* occur suggests to me first, that the script isn’t a wholly invented one as cipher-scripts often – or sometimes – were. But then again glyphs like the “ornate P” or the “benched gallows” aren’t all that common and I should like to see their occurrence mapped. It would at least suggest where the script is likely to have come from, or been devised.

      Actually I did do this for the “ornate P” and the result showed pretty clearly that it only occurs in scripts of the Aramaic-family of scripts (not necessarily the Aramaic language family).

      “… otherwise inscriptions would have been found elsewhere…” You’d think so, but history tells us otherwise. We know, for example, that Cuman was spoken across most of the world between the Black Sea and China as late as the thirteenth century, but I’m not sure we have a single record of the script or language. Same for the language of Khorasan. Along with Greek, Latin, and Hebrew it was one of the great languages of the world, to as late as the twelfth century (from memory) and though we think we have a couple of examples of the script, no-one understands a word of it. Tocharian had been completely forgotten to history until Aurel Stein found some bits and pieces in inner Asia: an unknown language in an unknown script. Interestingly, though it was discovered almost exactly when the Vms was, the Tocharian documents attracted a raft of specialists, who co-operated in sorting it out within a decade.


  2. The Tocharian example is surely interesting, and I must admit that Voynichese could be similar. Perhaps if Beinecke 408 had been fount on Soqotra, it would have been solved already 🙂

    The reason why an overview of similar glyphs had not been made must be that most – including initially myself – thought that the script was too similar to Latin writing to be a coincidence.

    I suggested a pidgin because by definition they evolve in trading contexts. And perhaps more importantly, they are relatively “simple” in all possible ways, and have some other Voynich-explaining properties as well. For example, they often use reduplication for plurals.


    1. Interesting you should speak about a pidgin. A while ago, someone challenged Stolfi to produce anything in a natural language which was like qodedy, qokedy, qokeedy,qokedy (or one of that sort of string), and off the top of his head he did so… not from a pidgin, but… I think … from Malay.

      Wish now I’d taken a copy of the comment in my log-book. I’ve often thought of it, but never found it again online.


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