The ring o’ roses (Voynich map) Pt 2-ii of 2.

detail from one of the ‘ladies’ folios

My point in the foregoing post is that the map is likely to combine terrestrial and celestial loci in parallel.  Such is also the habit which, in my opinion, informs the ‘ladies’ folios, for a tyche was originally the guiding spirit and ¬light of a specific place, dedicated to it (like a star) from the time of foundation.

coin of Sidon 1stC BC

The Romans, who arrived a couple of thousand years after the eastern Mediterranean became urbanised and to that extent civilized seem to have been oblivious of most ideas held by those subject to Roman rule.  Roman references to the tyche as ‘genius’ evince no knowledge of that older nature, and even in Hellenistic times, the rarer winged Nike’ had come to serve something of the older tyche’s role.

Again, we find a combined astronomical and geographic reference informs imagery of early cartes marine produced from Majorca – not just through accompanying tables but more subtly in the maps themselves. ‘Tyches’ have no presence there, of course, though some cities have their personification. What is intriguing is the keen awareness in some Majorcan charts of stock characters from the eastern Mediterranean world’s astronomical narratives –  scarcely known at all in the west, which had only the basic Greek and Roman constellation-legends.  I won’t enlarge on that here.

Another ‘fourfold’ world serves as emblem for north in folio.67v-1. 

(detail) f.67v-1

The diagram’s including an Asian face is not itself surprising, given what has said about the prevalence of influence from eastern custom in this manuscript.

What is surprising is the literal style in which it was drawn. Portrait-like depictions of body, face and dress are so rare in this manuscript that I have taken the avoidance as sign of some  religio-cultural tabu among those who had maintained the more ancient matter before about the mid-13thC AD.

There is a further distinction here: between the hand which drew that face and that which produced the three disc-like star faces about it.

I am not inclined to attribute that difference to the (generically-described) ‘overseer’, but do attribute to him/them a decision to overlay the fourfold emblem with pigment in a way which confers on it a superficial resemblance to the Latins’ ‘T-O’ diagram.  That it should have been thought necessary to turn an astronomical emblem into a geographic one, and to make the quadripartite form seem tripartite deserves  our attention.

folio from the ‘Poems of Caedmon’, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Junius XI. (10thC)

No later than the time of Egypt’s early dynasties, the northern circumpolar ‘island’ was being imagined a place of endless ease and a home in the afterlife.  There the  early Egyptian kings expected to ascend after discarding their physical body, and at first no others were imagined with them save obedient servants and subjected gods or foes.

Over time, the same idea of an afterlife in the north of the sky spread to associated peoples and by the time of early Christianity, was widely believed by certain Mediterranean peoples.

By the fifth century AD, the Phoenican by birth and former Manichaean, Augustine, imagines it as ‘city of God’;  others evidently retained memory of Ursa major’s  having been seen as a ship and adopted other metaphors for the ecclesia and heaven’s ship of souls:  they saw the arca as that of Noah, or as Michael’s shield of re-birth, or as Peter’s barque and so on.

One might say more about this, but the vital point is that the north of the sky held strong religious and cultural associations for Latin Europe, and it must surely have disconcerted the ‘overseer’ to find imagery of the northern circumpolar regions as a  ‘little world’ over which the ruler was depicted not as Gd, but a foreign king.

The fact of it is that other peoples had comparable ideas, and what we see on f.67v-1 is an expression of .. some other’s.

Astronomical Identification:

As I said, when first explaining this North emblem … seems so very long ago now, but perhaps that impression is magnified by the ensuing silence … the reference is to  Ursa minor, whose β and γ stars  were widely known by terms such  as the ‘Guards’, or ‘faithful ones’, for their continually patrolling the perimeter of the north, circling about the  Pole and serving as a reliable means to mark the watches of the night, guide the traveller, and allow  determination of the Pole star’s position when it is obscured.[1]

[1] all the above in more detail in earlier posts.  See e.g. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘fol 67v-i ~ chronological strata’,  (first published April 6th 2012; re-printed with minor edits through October 18th., 2012).The last five years’ work has refined my reading of imagery in various folios, but I find no reason to alter my reading of that emblem. I no longer think that we need invoke the Armenians as middle-men. 🙂

In  the earlier commentary, however, I did cite Hinkley Allen as reference for the  β star’s being known to the Chinese as ‘the emperor’ and the larger  (γ1) of the doubled stars ‘the crown prince’. On both counts, now, the paper by Y. Maeyama must be preferred with regard to those terms, though no alteration of my identification is involved: i.e. that the ‘four stars’ are in Ursa minor; do not include the Pole star,  and the Asiatic face is a personification for β Ursa minoris.

What Maeyama concluded from study of Chinese sources and the Dunhuang star-maps is that the term Thien-i (Celestial unique) was always applied to the Pole star for any given epoch, but Thai-i  refers to  “the unified celestial symbol of the Pole star and the terrestrial emperor, designated to a star adjacent to the Pole star”. [emphasis, present author].

In terms of modern astronomy, Polaris (α Ursa minoris) moved to occupy the point of North during the 5thC AD, but the testimony of classical writers is unequivocal:  no later than the 1stC AD, Phoenician mariners were habitually taking Polaris as Pole star; a practice the Romans saw as a peculiar and quasi-religious quirk of Phoenician mariners alone, and which they saw no reason to adopt.

β  Ursa minoris is not ‘adjacent’ to the Pole but directly ‘below’ it, so of all the variant sources cited by Maeyama, the nearest to what we see informing the drawing in f.67v-1 is the dictum of one of the older, most respected, and thus constantly repeated sources: Shih Shen (5thC BC).  I reproduce the passage from Maeyama’s paper directly:

South of (below, beneath, under) the Pole star… Polaris and β Ursa Minoris.

Being apparently without authority – at first – to prevent near-facsimile reproduction of drawings so constantly antithetical to the Latins’ world view, its academic traditions and religious belief, the fifteenth-century overseer had to be content with having this little drawing overpainted – an act of ‘translation’ that allows a suggestion that while such an Asian king might rule in the physical world, it could never be so in that higher ‘world’ of the heavens.

For the Latins of that time, the ‘T-O’ diagram was far more than a schematic diagram of ‘three continents’: it was by now part of closely-woven mesh of theological, geographic and quasi-historical ideas. It wasn’t the sort of diagram which might be discarded simply because better geographic knowledge came along and I find no evidence to suggest that a four continent world was known to, or accepted by,  the Latins before 1438.

Some readers having no  time or no inclination to search out medieval school books and sermons might yet feel interested in such associations, so I’ll mention a few.

Bread used in the western religious service (the mass) was made as circular, very white, unleavened discs, provided in a smaller size (‘wafers’) for the congregation but a larger,  known as the ‘host’, provided the priest. (Image). After the bread’s consecration, and within the formal service, the larger was  broken into one larger and two smaller pieces, analogous to the divisions of the ‘T-O’ diagram and as this was done the act was consciously equated with the world’s division – as body of Christ – into those three ‘races’ believed descended from Noah’s three sons, whose re-unification was believed  intended by Gd under the auspices of a single universal Christian church: (universal = catholicos). A further conscious parallel was drawn to the core Christian belief in a triune deity, and again to the throng of heaven’s ‘host’  – the same term applied to that celestial ‘host’ as to the holy bread.

Noachian and Christian associations for the ‘T-O’ form ran very deep. Nor were these ideas regarded as human intellectual constructs, but as  insights into the divinely ordained disposition of the world, past and present. The ‘T-O’ diagram thus served to express deeply-held ideas about  cosmic and religious order, and to replace the three-fold with the four-fold ‘world’ required a good deal more incentive than a changing knowledge of geography.  The mappaemundi used a different shape for the world, but were informed by precisely the same habits of mind and disposed in just the same way, by reference to a three-continent world. There is no sign that European scholars had abandoned those habits by 1438.  The ‘rhumb-gridded’ carte marine emerges from an altogether different, and still mysterious source. The Voynich map is no Latin mappamundi.

And even the ‘three continents’ idea is purely notional; Asia and Europe are part of the same landmass, linked to Africa. As traders and armies knew – or learned by practical experience – one may trek overland between western north Africa, or Spain, and the eastern shore of China.. or the reverse.

On this same point of overland routes –  it will be relevant for some coming matter that the period from the 7th to the 10thC AD saw a strong Manichaean presence around the Black Sea and through greater Khorasan.

Last part of this post (2-iii of 2) includes some of my more recent work.



9 Replies to “The ring o’ roses (Voynich map) Pt 2-ii of 2.”

  1. I am unable to see in any of the predominant blogs (Bax, Zandbergen, here, Cipher Mysteries and the Voynich Temple) any chart or list of substantial findings with regard to the Voynich manuscript. A couple of new possibles exist with regards to plants and buildings, some with cosmological charts but nothing about the language.

    Am I wrong in thinking that there has been no attempt to lay the manuscript open before an Indian linguist, specifically one who has expertise in (Medieval) Indian dialects?

    Thank you.


    1. Pete,
      The key is ‘substantial’ findings. Without including any work I’ve done myself, either way, I’d say that the only substantial work I’ve seen lately is the technical essay included with Yale’s facsimile edition. I’d agree to some extent with Pelling’s recent comment that we know a lot about the manuscript, though what we know – what is based on evidence and permitted reasoned critical evaluation – is chiefly results of the analyses of materials and binding and statistical analyses of various transcriptions.

      Whether anyone has ever consulted an expert in Indian languages, I don’t know. There’s a chap who says the written text is a compound of Indian dialects, but linguistics is not my field, so I have no opinion about that.

      PS Do you know the blog ‘Agnostic Voynich’?


  2. Thanks for the response, Diane. I am an absolute minnow in the Voynich waters but cannot shake the feeling that in the case of the nymph sketches the discussions that have so far evolved are far more complicated than what was in the mind of the person who drew them. I also have certain views about the nature of the individual who overdrew the female anatomies of some of the nymphs in order to present images objectionable to what might pass as a normal society (in any age).
    At least I’m qualified in that respect after 60 years of using Australia’s beaches for surfing and public amenities for changing. The indecent scrawls on the walls in those places aren’t that much different.


    1. I often think the best preparation for studying a fifteenth century manuscript from who-knows-what origins is to read a lot of background material. It’s not enough to walk the Voynich walk – and surely not just to talk Voynich talk – you have to be able to think like someone who lived six or more hundred years ago.

      On the ‘ladies’ you find objectionable… so I think did the fifteenth century lot, though for other reasons. I wrote a couple of posts called ‘Lamentable Days’ quite recently about that very thing. If you care to read them, the funny little side-bar should open to a page with ‘Search’ function, or since they are recent, you can probably just scroll down.

      Glad to see you don’t confuse proper uses for surf and public amenities. 🙂


      1. Diane, you had to be there … (male) surfers, generally speaking, are a complex and ungovernable society of misfits, criminals, thugs and attention seeking blowhards.
        I’ve long walked that walk and talked that talk.
        The Voynich background material I’ve been reading leads me to the sub-continent and its dialects every time, and the fact that no-one has looked there for an answer makes it all the more attractive a destination. If they have an Intercontinental Hotel in Peshawar I should be able to spare a month or two on the search.


    1. Pete,
      I don’t know. I can think of all sorts of examples in which that would be true, but whether it can be stated as a general ‘law’ of a code-to-language transition I have no idea. The cryptographers and maybe the linguists could give you a better idea. Have you thought of joining the forum at People there tend to react civilly and to presume that a question asked is always seriously meant, and respond in kind.

      In terms of images and codes – I think it would be more like saying that within a language you can have dialects and slang and the type of language so very elevated that it’s incomprehensible to the greater proportion of the people.

      And you can make a picture partly in the ‘ordinary language’ and partly in the rarified language and partly in a language having so very few acquainted with it that it is effectively a secret code. How this equates to the linguist/codicologist’s divisions, again I can’t say.


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