The ring o’roses (Voynich map): notes in brief (2-i of 2)

[a short post, for a change. With a maths problem. Additional illustration added 17th April 2017; further illustration added 18/04/20177]


To say that the Voynich map represents  ‘four continents’ is inaccurate: what we see is a custom by which the maker’s world was envisaged as square and for that reason envisaged fourfold. The custom was not European but was – as we’ve seen – conventional among the Chinese.

As now bound, the map has its  north almost ‘up’ (upper right) though East still lies to the  viewer’s upper-left in another custom not the Latins’ but attested in the east, particularly when making maps of the heavens.

I add another illustration of that custom (click to enlarge):

from Y. Maeyama, ‘The Two Supreme Stars, Thien-i and Thai-i, and the Foundation of the Purple Palace’ in S.M.R. Ansari (ed.), History of Oriental Astronomy. courtesy publisher.


This blog is hardly the place for a disquisition on that close historical connection we know to exist between the custom of making maps and of representing cosmology, so I’ll content myself with reminding readers that the imposition of a celestial grid on the surface of sea or land is the essence of traditional navigation among nomads and eastern mariners, across the wastes of sand or of sea.  (Subjective experience leads often to describing the process inversely, as the tracing of a ‘sky-road’ which then, moving overhead, carries one towards the unseen destination).

Precisely the same principle informs our own sidereal surveying, still essential in the curriculum of any would be engineer-surveyor (B.Sc. Eng) until the middle of last century.  With the help of various instruments, sets of tables, pen-and-paper calculations and a copy of the Nautical Almanac, he set about solving problems such as that below, which I add just to break the monotony. Answer is published as a ‘comment’ below this post. The problem comes from a text published in 1955:

For observations in southern England, draw a rough sketch of the celestial sphere, marking on it the zenith Z. Show the celestial poles PP and the equator, and mark the approximate position S of a star of declination roughly 30º N. about four hours before its upper transit. Sketch in the declination circle and vertical circle of the star, and show how the solution of the spherical triangle PZS can be used to determine the azimuth of the point of observation.

From a station in latitude 50° 40′ 40″ N. the bearing of a star from a referring object R was 86° 42′ 00″. The mean altitude measured at the same time, corrected for refraction, was 52° 16′ 00″. The declination was 29° 42′ 08″. Determine the azimuth of the object R. The star was in the west at the time.

Its not only about location, but about relative positioning.

And so to resume..

The Voynich map’s having North to the top and East to the left would not be surprising, nor need excuses created for it, if one accepts that the map may reflect not only eastern customs in representing the form of the square world, but more generally an eastern-influenced cosmography.

Its  containing a ‘navel of the world’ need not disturb us, either.  It is worth remembering that even among Latins of the far west, some knowledge of ancient Ujjain as a semi-mythical ‘Arin’ had penetrated by the early twelfth century.

detail –  showing the area that is set as centre within the Voynich map’s south roundel –  whose subject overall  I identified in 2011 as the ‘Great Sea’ .   It is possible the detail is meant again for Arin, since Columbus was one of those who believed it to lie in the Great Sea, and more exactly in Columbs’ mind ‘between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Persia’. Note here again the  starry pattern used to represent enclosed waters; this is a constant in the Voynich map,  seen in the central roundel, and within the mini-map that now occupies the north roundel.

Peter Alphonsi knows it, a mid-life convert from Judaism who brought much of his astronomical learning to the Latins after his conversion in 1106.  So then Michael Scot, who knew of ‘the tables of Arin’ but made use of the Toledan.  Roger Bacon also and others after him accepted that the semi-mythical Arin, not Jerusalem, stood at the physical centre of the world.. and so it continues.. until in 1498, Columbus says in writing to the king and queen during his third voyage that,  “Ptolemy and the other philosophers who have written on the globe thought that it was spherical, believing that this [1] hemisphere was round, as well as that in which they themselves dwelt, the centre of which was the island of Arin, which is under the equinoctial line, between the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Persia.”  Interestingly, the centre of the Voynich map shows a great lake in that island; ancient Ujaiin had indeed stood by a a lake which can be seen on early maps such as the Tabula Peutingeriana, but which apparently breached at the time of the great disaster which destroyed Muziris. The ‘cupola(s)’ of Arin were also proverbial.[2]

In my opinion, if it is not Arin, it is meant for Raidan – but explaining that isn’t something I want to do through voynichimagery, sorry.

[1] To the day he died, Columbus insisted that he had not discovered a ‘new world’ but, as he intended, reached India.

[2] Hobson-Jobson, ‘Oojyne’ proved delightfully well informed on Arin/Ujjain, and I cite it here chiefly for the pleasure of having that opportunity.


The conclusion of this series (Pt 2-ii) isn’t so short. 🙂


2 thoughts on “The ring o’roses (Voynich map): notes in brief (2-i of 2)

  1. In response to a query. An article published in 1985 by Kennedy and Regier speaks of a large data base compiled by the authors, giving names and co-ordinates from medieval zijs.

    The same authors may have published something more since this article appeared
    E.S. Kennedy and M.H, Regier, ‘Prime meridians in medieval Islamic astronomy’, Vistas in Astronomy, Volume 28, Part 1, 1985, pp. 29-32.
    The authors say..

    Over the past twenty-five years a collection has been assembled from geographical tables which give place names with geographical coordinates. Most of the tables are found in unpublished manuscript astronomical handbooks (zijes) written in Arabic or Persian between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. ..Individual sources, which now number sixty, vary greatly in size, ranging from over six hundred entries to as low as thirty. Most of the cities named are in the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and Central Asia, but there are scatterings of localities in Europe north of Spain, central Africa, India, and China.
    The data are stored on magnetic tape, making them available for statistical analysis, and whence they can be sorted and printed in any manner desired. As additional sources become available, they are read into the tape. For cities which are identifiable, modern longitudes and latitudes are stored. The collection now runs to well over twelve thousand entries.

    But they also add:

    Some texts remark that longitudes are measured from a meridian ninety degrees west of Arin, but this had no effect on the numerical material. Ujjain appears five times in the list, but more or less unrelated to the mythical Arin.

    ..from which it looks to me as if one would have to suppose Scot’s ‘Arin Tables’ either (a) Islamic tables whose ‘Arin’ lies wherever the prime meridian is placed or (b) Indian tables which did take Ujjain/Arin’s as the prime meridian.

    I have already mentioned that there is evidence of certain eastern Hellenistic cities taking Ujjain as their prime meridian. Among the more important items, one was a sundial/hour piece which was among the great many casualties in a subsequent military invasion of that area.


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