The Voynich Shallows

Good friend, first consider one of the things I have noted, for it explains the shallows“.

Piri Reis, introductory poem to the Kitab al-Bahriye.

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The great Turkish seafarer Piri Reis, in his book Kitab al-Bahriye, or Book of Navigation (1521), describes the waters and ports of the Mediterranean. Reading this book led me to a very simple observation, which could provide insight into one of the roundels of the nine-rosette foldout. .

Portolan charts have already been mentioned by others in comparison with the Voynich 9 rosette foldout page, but the quest to match the castles and structures to specific places has led to a neglect of the language of maps itself: topographic markings. I believe one of these markings can shed light on a small but significant aspect of the Voynich upper right rosette, where a castle is depicted.

Many have noted that the castle appears to be by the sea, and indeed there are wave-like forms beyond what appears to be a breakwater. However, at the center of the rosette, there are no waves: the area is marked by a field of asterisk-like stars. “The reason for this my friend is that there are never waves in these shallows… Because these seas are shallow, waves cannot extend: such places devour the waves“, Piri Reis explains.

The coast of Apulia, Italy, in the Kitab al-Bahriye

In the Kitab al-Bahriye, dots represent places where the water is shallow, either sandy or with underlying reefs . Crosses represent areas where the water is not only shallow, but where the underlying rocks and/or reefs make it impossible for big ships to pass safely (Piri Reis does not distinguish between shallow rocks and reefs: both had the same effect on ships, which was his main concern). Of course, the Kitab al Bahriye  was written almost a century after the Voynich manuscript. However, Piri Reis tells us that “Hidden reefs in the sea since ancient times have been shown by means of crosses“.

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Rocky shallows off the Tunisian coast on the Carta Pisana

Indeed we find the crosses in many navigation maps from centuries prior, including the 13thC Carta Pisana, BNF  Res. Ge. B1118, thought to be the oldest extant portolan chart, as well as in the 15thC Italian map labeled HM1548 at the Bancroft Library, among others.

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Egyptian coast east of the Nile, with shallow harbors and rocks, in HM1548

The dots and crosses can be arranged in a linear fashion or to form various geometric motifs, but this in itself bears no significance, and the same harbor or bay can be shown on various maps with dots arranged either in lines or in circles or in other shapes.

Therefore, it is highly likely that the spiral impression in the Voynich illustration (which, by the way, only proceeds from the layout of the line of text, and not from the actual layout of the field of asterisks) is not significant: in actual maps, the geometric motifs formed by the marks serve purely aesthetic purposes such as in the examples from the Kitab al-Bahriye below.

My simple point in this post then is that if the 9-rosette foldout shows a map, then cartographic standards would lead me to interpret the field of asterisks as marking a shallow water area, possibly one which contains reefs or rocks.

Interestingly, to this day, the USGS and FAO use the exact same markings as those in the Voynich for exactly the same topographical feature!

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If in fact the markings in the castle rosette are meant to convey the same thing as those on navigation maps, we can know one thing about the Voynich castle: Whether it is real or mythical, the waters there are shallow and possibly full of rocks, perhaps so much so that big ships cannot enter the bay.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the spiral line of text in the center contained words like “shallow”, “rocks” “reef”, or even “dangerous” …


Marginal Psalters: Addendum

It has just come to my attention that there is one more marginal Psalter in existence: BL Add. Ms. 40731. Like most of the others in this group, it was produced in Constantinople in the 11th century. Although it has been cropped and the illuminations have faded quite badly in places, it features a few details that I thought made it worthy of its own post.

Although it is less water-oriented than the others in this group, it does present the classical depiction of river personifications in several folios.

It also presents the same characteristic use of fluids as a framing device, but more often than in the other manuscripts from this group, the source of the water is portrayed as a natural spring, with the water originating in a rocky outcrop:

However, one of the illustrations really stood out, as it represents the source of the fluid in a way that is distinct from all the others, and which I believe Voynich researchers will find very interesting.

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A similar structure is also found as a fountain from which a deer is drinking:

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This Psalter’s illustrator thus alternated between several ways of depicting the source of fluids: either personified, natural, or mechanical. In the Voynich, might we be witnessing a superposition/combination of the three?

Also of interest is the image of Jesus calming the storm, in which the storm is also personified. The personification is indistinguishable from that of other fluid-bearers, but the representation of the fluid issuing forth (wind?) is markedly different, in its lines, color and orientation:

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The manuscript also features an interesting depiction of the night sky above what the BL describes as a depiction of sunset:

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Finally, I found this image quite intriguing, and the BL offers no explanation for the red stars in the clouds beneath the image of Christ carried up to the Heavens or for the red dots falling from the sky. What are those?

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I must admit that I lack the skills to read the Greek labels beside these illustrations. If anyone would like to offer translations, they would be most welcome!

Voynich Q13 Marginal Nymphs & Waters: Comparison with an Unusual Group of Psalters

So my big Q13 post rollout has begun, and its going to mostly be about the sub-quire I refer to as 13M. I’ve decided to make this a multi-part series so I can focus on each aspect more in depth. In this series I’m going to start looking at water in the marginal illuminations of manuscripts and how human figures interact with it. For this first post, I will discuss a group of psalters that struck me as very interesting in relation to the Voynich manuscript.

These are a group known as “marginal psalters”: they are richly illustrated but unlike most psalters, they relegate the illustrations to margins and bas-de-pages. They caught my eye because I was on a hunt for images of water flows in marginalia, and while these are rather rare, they were prominently, repeatedly and distinctively featured in the “marginal psalters”.

The group includes BL Add. Ms. 19352Walters Ms. W. 733 , Vatican MS. Barb. Gr.372, and two other manuscripts held in Moscow (State Historical Museum, Ms. Muz. D29) and St Petersburg (National Library of Russia, Ms. OLDP. F6). The Moscow one, also known as the Chludov Psalter, dating from the 9th C, is apparently the oldest, but only a few images of it are available via Wikimedia Commons. If anyone knows of a full digital scan I would be very interested in seeing that. The St Petersburg one the most recent (ca. 1280-1320), and can be viewed in full here, but it is of least interest to me as it is an almost exact but less ornate copy of the Walters one, and several images are missing due to vandalism.

The BL (ca. 1066), Walters (ca.1300) and Vatican (ca. 1050) marginal psalters feature some rather striking resemblances to things we see happening in Q13.

Some of the fluid-bearers of MS. W. 733, pouring water, water turning to blood, or just blood.

The fluid bearers in these manuscripts seem to be derived from a model in the Chludov psalter, where we find the personification of the rivers of Babylon (see here) and some blood flow which seems to come straight out of the page itself (see here). In a commentary on the latter image, Glenn Peers suggests that, as the psalter was produced at a time when Iconoclasm had only just been defeated, the blood coming straight from the page is a political and religious statement: it serves to enhance the image’s holiness: the page bleeds like only the most sacred, miraculous icons and statues were known to do. In aesthetic terms, the author also notes that “blood frames the scene”: while the political illustrations would be dropped from later marginal psalters, the framing function of fluids would be reprised, and expanded. In the marginal psalters, even land is often represented as a sinuous strand, upon which various scenes take place, often supported by underlying water. The preference for undulating, fluid looking flows as framing devices in the marginal illustrations is clear.

Most interesting to me was the fact that these psalters contain copious amounts of water flow and the depictions of rivers and seas, which feature many times in each. The Walters one is slightly less aquatic, limiting the depiction of liquids to the folios where it is relevant to the text, but the others seem to show fluids flowing at every possible opportunity, even when there is no mention of it in the text nearby. I guess the artists enhanced the depiction of fluid flows because of their aesthetic value, and they can be found curling and swirling around many of the marginal scenes.

There are two aspects which are of interest here: Firstly, the mostly nude, crowned figures, whose interaction with the water is very reminiscent of the way the Voynich nymphs pour and bend the water flow in Q13. Unlike in these psalters however, the Voynich nymphs only rarely appear to be the physical source of the water themselves, and rather seem to be interacting with the flow, either affecting it or being affected by it. However, many other figures in these manuscripts can be found reaching into the flow, sometimes seemingly just to touch it, sometimes to collect water, or to collect things in the water such as relics.

The second aspect that we can observe here is the actual depiction of water flow itself and its use as a decorative motif in marginal art.  As I will be showing in this series of posts, the depiction of water as a decorative element in margins appears in certain contexts far more than others. Here, what we can observe is that the water is represented as a continuous flow, a wavy cylinder almost like a lock of hair, which is given some shading and highlighting on the edges as it unfurls downwards through the margins towards the bas-de-page. The placement of these streams on the page is very similar to that of Q13, especially the subsection I refer to as 13M. However, looking at the actual depiction of the water flow itself, substantial differences appear; we see none of the squiggles and zigzags which animate the Voynich waters.

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Water flow as a decorative framing device in the margins of Add MS 19352

I don’t want to draw definitive conclusions but this group of marginal psalters seems to show that margins with gratuitous nude crowned figures who are connected to decorative water flow used as a framing device are something that existed in a certain current of medieval Christian manuscript illumination. Whether these could have served as inspiration for the Voynich artist remains to be determined.

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A tub, nude figures spewing water, and fish linked together by strings…

I also found the following representations from this group interesting with respect to Voynich iconography:

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These baskets in Barb. Gr. 372 look a lot like the mangers in the Voynich Taurus folios
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Barb.Gr. 372: A personification of the Jordan, in a very Voynich-y pose, looks on while a baptism scene takes place.
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This image of antipodeans in Add. MS. 19352 echoes the layout of some of the “astronomy” folios

… More to follow in the next post!

A Voynich Presentation at Oxford

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Image credit: @medievaldebbie (Twitter)

April 1st was a sunny day at Oxford’s Merton College. The annual medieval graduate conference organized by the university’s Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature was in full swing when a spaceship landed, piloted by Alexandra Marraccini: a presentation about the Voynich Manuscript.

Some had wondered if this Voynich talk was really scheduled, or if it was an April fool’s joke: Was someone really going to analyze this pariah manuscript in such a prestigious academic context? Lo and behold, it was really happening.

I will begin by saying that Marraccini is not to be underestimated: she has a background in both medieval manuscript studies and computer science, as well as having worked closely with the Beinecke, Bodleian, and Herzog August Libraries, and mastering a wide range of languages (from her CV: Reading proficiency: German, Italian, French, Middle High German, Baroque German, Latin, Greek (ancient), Middle English. Codicological/palaeographic experience: Latin (both manuscript and incunabulae), Greek (Byzantine), Middle High German, Baroque German, Middle English). Also, as I had supposed, she is not a Voynich newbie, but has been interested in the manuscript for many years: she first heard about it as an undergrad at Yale.

Alexandra Marraccini’s paper is a valuable resource for any Voynich researcher, whether amateur or academic. While we may not all agree with all of the points she makes (and I am sure it will ruffle some feathers) I think as hobbyists we should pay attention and not just shrug off this rare bit of scholarly insight just because it may not provide support for our preferred interpretation of the imagery.
The full text of her presentation, as well as the slides, are available here, although bear in mind that the text is a draft which will undergo some changes (notably the diagram at the end) before publication.
Certainly, some of the ideas presented in the paper will be familiar to many in the Voynich community, such as the parallels with the alchemical herbal tradition. What I found of particular interest is the connection she makes with some lesser-known manuscripts, and I particularly appreciated the analysis of representations of the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah and the rare depictions of menses. I’ll go into those later on the forum, but here I will offer a transcription of my recording of the Q&A which followed the presentation. None of these questions are mine: they are from other medievalists (and one Voynichero, I think you’ll guess which questions those are!).

Q: (sorry I failed to record this question properly, it was about the zodiac section).
A: There are lunar calendars with women but sometimes, they may have been defaced by a later commentator. She can either stand outside the calendar, or in this case, they put the roundel there. It’s not uncommon that calendars are round, as of course menstrual time is cyclical, as we were talking about before, it’s just interesting in this particular case because lunar calendars in the 15th century in other books aren’t often round, although they sometimes are if they have illumination in the center. So you really just have to look at hundreds of manuscripts and make a statistical analysis, but my best guess is that it is done specifically to highlight the centrality of the woman’s role and the body recreating the seasonal cycle of the heavens, which, the microcosm and the macrocosm map onto each other in the alchemical discourse, so it’s another example of that.
Q: What about the dragon that we find walking about the roots of the plant, is it just the dragon as a means to produce fire, so a means to the transformation in alchemy?
A: Actually, those are quite common to herbals, even non-alchemical herbals in both the Dioscoridian and pseudo-Apuleian tradition. Sometimes they refer to the property of the plant itself to cure venom, sometimes they refer to the fiery nature of the humoral properties of the plant. There are lots of fictive and real animals documented because the bestiary tradition is embedded in the herbal tradition as well. So those are, they are used in alchemy as well, but they exist in the herbal tradition.
Q: I was hoping you could tell us more about some of the scholarly theories about the language, and which theory you think holds the most water?
A: One of the problems with decoding the manuscript is that people who work on mathematical cryptography are not often paleographers. So what would happen is there would be, like, 26 letters, or a certain number of letters encoded in the digital alphabet, and does that really express all the diacritical marks etc in the manuscript? There was some evidence found that the manuscript reflects the structure of a natural language, but then we also have knowledge of period ciphers, like Vigenere ciphers. And basically, that’s not something we know [ed. note: if it’s a natural language or a cipher].
So, recently there’s a linguist named Stephen Bax who claimed to have deciphered the manuscript, the same way that about 40 other people have in the past, which is to say by using the known names of plants. The problem is there aren’t Linnean names for the plants, and the Pseudo-Apuleian names might be relatively consistent but their spelling certainly isn’t, and the order in which the folios of the Voynich manuscript were arranged has been changed around, so you can’t use the plants’ names, I think, as plain text to decipher the manuscript. Just from a cryptographic perspective, you don’t even know, even if it is written in Northern Italy: is it written in the vernacular, is it in Latin, maybe a French-Italian combination? So there have been both computer based and human based approaches to decrypting the manuscript…  I’m not a linguist but the linguistic approaches tend to ignore the history of the herbal tradition and the problems with using stars or plants as plain text words.
Q. Have you read Nick Pelling’s book, or any of his work?
A. Yeah, I know he keeps a blog as well, and it’s quite good. But at this point, we can see the zodiacs pretty clearly, we know what those are, we might even be able to recognize the species of plants, although there are some people who claim to see a New World sunflower, which is a pretty contentious thing, dating-wise. And I just think, without knowing anything about the mechanism of the cipher, or of the tradition from which the manuscript originated… I mean if we could definitively tie it to a certain type of herbal production, maybe we could start to speculate about the way the folios were rearranged, or which plants were missing, but I just don’t think that, for now, that approach would work.
Q. Nick identifies a strong Milanese link, through the Sforza and the Visconti, and I find that very compelling…
A. I’ve seen the Visconti Sforza tarot cards at the Bodleian, and I know they did in fact collect esoteric material. But the problem is, this [ed. note: the Voynich] doesn’t get mentioned in their archive as one of the things they held. Until it shows up in the Rudolphine court, there isn’t documentation… it’s possible, I’m not saying it isn’t, but without confirmation I’m not going to assert that it’s true. I mean the only thing that we know about this manuscript is the dating and when it turns up in a series of 16th century letters. So, perhaps it was associated with the Sforza’s, although it is produced using relatively cheap pigments… if it was a Sforza manuscript, they’re absolutely dripping with gold, and even their alchemical manuscripts are quite expensive.
Q. I’m not suggesting it’s a Sforza manuscript. There’s a character, 4o, that Nick points to which is also found inside the scripts in early 15th century ciphers which were produced for the Visconti or later the Sforza. I’m not suggesting it’s that, but it might have had an influence… anyway that’s his argument, not mine.
A. Well, there is that argument, there are other characters that people have found and linked to other cipher manuscripts. The problem is the Voynich characters are inconsistent within the manuscript, the problem is the repetition of the characters is such that if they were anything like a Vigenere cipher or a period cipher, it would mean far too many consonants. So, I don’t have an opinion on this theory because I don’t think we know enough. But I think, what I want to explore about the manuscript is not trying to decipher the text as a first step, but rather trying to find the origin of the images, what we can already see.
Q. But do you think, the large foldout sheet, Nick identifies a castle and also other geographical locations…
A. See, this is where Nick is a computer scientist. I really love his blog and he has absolutely wonderful knowledge of cryptographic mathematics, which I did in a past life, but that architecture is similar to so much fictive architecture and manuscript traditions all over Europe… You can find a castle that looks like that castle in an 11th century English herbal. But… you cannot pin that architecture down to being an Italian…  It’s tempting, but I just would be extremely hesitant to attribute the style of those buildings to any one city in any part of Europe at any time. Especially given that I could look at his chronicles [ed. note: the previous speaker’s] and manuscripts by Chaucer, and find castles that look like that. So we have to be very very careful, which is why I chose to focus very specifically on this one image of Sodom. So in a way, what has damned the previous scholarship was that we do tend to take these speculative leaps, like Oh, this looks like an Italian city, or it looks like it has Arabic influence or it looks like this, and then all of a sudden you’re seven steps removed. It’s fascinating but it’s also dangerous.

I ended up having some time to talk to her during lunch, but didn’t record that conversation (obviously).
She spontaneously mentioned Arderne’s works as a potentially relevant source, as well as alchemical and esoteric works such as Books of Secrets. The stars in the margins are more common than we think, but often have been lost in other manuscripts due to trimming. The big foldout is, according to her, a sort of a map, but not a literal one, including fictive cities mixed in with other concepts. While we hobbyists may often complain about not enough tests being done on the Voynich, she explains that in fact, what little testing has been done is more than most medieval manuscripts will ever receive.
Some may be disappointed by her reluctance to make more definitive assertions about the Voynich, but I can understand that she would rather err on the side of caution and also, I’m sure there is a lot she will be telling us in the future: she plans to publish more Voynich research, hopefully as a post-doctoral project, ideally in collaboration with other medieval art specialists, which I think would be wonderful.
As she says at the end of her paper, it is not intended as a closing argument, but as a beginning.
I am really glad that there is finally an academic of her caliber, with the adequate qualifications to really bring something useful to the field, and who is committed to giving the Voynich a proper study. It gives me a lot of hope.

Stars in the Margins (Update)

This isn’t the big blogpost I’ve been meaning to put up for ages: instead it’s something I would have posted to the forum normally, but since the forum’s had a few hiccups lately I’ll just make a quick post to share it here.

I found the marginalia in this MS quite similar to the marginal stars in the Voynich manuscript’s Quire 20. I don’t know if the star-with-a-tail in the margin of manuscripts is a common occurrence in medieval medical/pharma books, but I’ve never come across such an example before outside of the Voynich “recipe” section:

Glasgow UL Ms Hunter 135, f 163v, featuring “star on a string” marginalia.

The MS is a collection of medical recipes, and this particular section is a copy of Arderne’s Practica Chirurgiae. It is slightly too late for the Voynich, although very little is known (England, 16thC, with many later additions), as the various hands who composed and annotated the text are anonymous. A detailed description of Ms. Hunter 135 is available on the Glasgow library’s website.

MS Hunter 135, f158v
MS Hunter 135, f162r

Are the stars drawn by the original scribes or added by a later owner? Of course I can’t help but wonder if these stars refer to something in the text here or if they are a kind of decorative highlight for a special section of text, especially the first one with its tail.

Apparently this version of Arderne’s work is a much less ornate copy of another Glasgow MS: Hunter 251, which I unfortunately haven’t been able to find fully digitized yet, so I cannot check if there are marginal stars in the other one too.

Are marginal stars with tails present elsewhere? Personally these are the first I’ve found. Let me know in the comments!

Update: I found another, earlier MS from this collection (the Malaga Corpus) Hunter Ms. 185, which is also worth mentioning here: although it is devoid of stars, it does feature a list of recipes, each with a marginal squiggle which brings to mind the Voynich star tails. The initial f’s also form an almost gallows-like shape. Two examples:

Hunter Ms 185, England, 15th C, f64v, recipes. See marginal squiggle-tails and initial gallows-like f’s
Hunter Ms 185, England 15th C: more marginal tail-like squiggles near recipes

The Voynich Taurus (25/02 Edit)

The Taurus roundels of folios 71v & 72r1

In Marco Ponzi’s extensive study of the Voynich Zodiac roundels, he describes Taurus in the following terms:

“The bull seems to be eating from a cylindrical manger, or drinking from a cylindrical well or bucket. It has been impossible to find any parallel for this detail. I think this point deserves further investigation.”

For a while now, I’ve been searching for something that might explain where the image of Taurus near a cylindrical manger might come from. I found nothing in astrological imagery. Even outside of zodiacs, most of the medieval images of bulls that I found represented them in nature, or interacting with other animals and people, or grazing in fields, or eating out of rectangular troughs. The cylindrical manger seemed elusive.

In this seasonally appropriate post, I will be exploring the possibility that the Voynich Taurus could be derived from the imagery of Nativity scenes. In Nativities, the round manger is a lot more common than in any other genre of medieval art. It is often represented as a structure made of wattle or some other type of basketry, which offers a compelling explanation for the criss-crossed pattern that is present on the manger in the Voynich image.

Bulls in Nativity scenes are most commonly portrayed near the manger where Jesus is laying, gazing upon him. Their position in the scene conveys either that they are adoring him (based on the 7th C Gospel of pseudo-Matthew) or that their breath keeps the baby warm (according to oral tradition).

There were variants of course, and medieval artists sometimes presented the bull as rather unconcerned with Jesus’ birth, or focusing on the food.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
Detail, f44v, Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410-1416

In most nativity imagery however, the bull is not portrayed eating, but rather looking on, with his head hovering just above a manger, usually the one Jesus is laying in, but not always.

Detail, Grabow Altarpiece, 1383
Morgan Ms.766, f. 29v, England, c.1400
Metropolitan Rogers 1998.66, Ethiopian Gospel, Late 14th-early 15th C

The bull with a round manger motif in Nativity imagery is found in many places, as these examples show. Geographically, this iconography alone cannot really help us to pinpoint a local tradition which the Voynich image would fit. Chronologically, however, the period is very restricted: all of the images I found were from the mid 14th to the mid 15th century.   In this sense, the Voynich Taurus imagery appears to be firmly rooted in its time.

If the Voynich Taurus is based on Nativity imagery, this means that the period of production of the source material was very close to the time of production of the Voynich manuscript: the artist who created the Voynich zodiac roundels was inspired by recent or contemporary material, rather than by an older source.

How would Nativity imagery find its way into a Voynich zodiac roundel? In many medieval works, especially Books of Hours, Psalters, calendars and almanacs, both astrological imagery and biblical scenes can be found.  In my opinion, the Taurus roundels could result from the presence of a Nativity in a book of Hours (or other such book) from which the Voynich artist drew his inspiration.

We don’t know what the Voynich text says, but some researchers have suggested that the human figures which surround the central roundels in the Zodiac section could have some relationship with the theme of fertility, pregnancy, or the cycle of life (for example, this one ). If this possibility is entertained,  the use of a Taurus borrowed from a Nativity scene would be rather fitting.

EDIT: I want to highlight the importance of the references MarcoP left below. Here is a zoomed image of Vat. Gr. 1087, showing the Aselli:

Vat.Gr. 1087, 14thC Constantinople, f. 302v

This image is very close to the nativity images I posted above, especially the Ethiopian example. It opens the possibility of a shift from Aselli to Taurus via the light and dark pair of the bull and donkey in Nativity scenes. But as MarcoP points out, this doesn’t account for the doubling of other signs in the Voynich, so we are still missing many pieces of the puzzle.

Poses in the Voynich Manuscript

In this post I’m going to be taking a closer look at the way in which people in the Voynich manuscript are depicted, paying attention to their poses. Although there are hundreds of nymphs and other people in the various sections, seemingly performing lots of different activities, it appears to me that the range of poses is quite limited. It dawned on me that perhaps I could try to survey these poses and classify them.

What I am going to try to do here, then, is to create a catalogue of the poses which the artist has used in his illustrations. Not all of the Voynich people fall into these categories, (the poses of some of the busier nymphs in the balneo section are unique), but the overwhelming majority of them do. In some cases there are so many nymphs for one pose that I have only selected a few in the examples I give here. This post will be subject to change as I continue to investigate the poses and also taking into account reader contributions. Maybe something will emerge from this at some point.

Pose 1: “The Classic”

One hand on hip/waist or behind, the other arm outwards and upwards, slightly bent.

Classic pose

This is the typical pose for nymphs in the Voynich manuscript zodiac, but it also appears in the balneo section. The pose can often appear to convey a greeting or salutation, or more generally, speech. It does not appear that the pose relates to holding things: the nymphs in this pose in the zodiac section are not actually holding the stars, but rather depicted as connected to them by a line. Exceptions to this could be the people in  85r2 and 86v4, who are actually holding objects: to me these should fall into the next category.

Pose 2: “The Brandish”

This is a variation of the first pose, where one arm is stretched out forward, and not up. It is only found in the balneo section. This pose is generally used when a nymph is holding an object, and conveys a certain impression of power.


Pose 3: The “Hands-off”

In this pose, both hands are behind the back of the nymph, sometimes with the arms outstretched backwards. The nymphs in this pose do not hold objects, except for one who may be cradling the object with her neck/shoulder (contrary to what one might think at first, she is not holding it with her mouth: the object does not connect to it). These nymphs appear to be passive, powerless and rather overwhelmed by the things that are going on around them. In the cases where the arms are outstretched backwards and up, it is tempting to read the pose as an expression of surprise or even fear.


Pose 4: “The Spectator”

Both arms are down, sometimes in a rather uncomfortable-looking position. In the zodiac folios, this pose is only featured in two places: the outer ring of Pisces, and in the dark Aries folio (all of the inner ring, some of the outer ring).It is also present in the balneo section. These nymphs typically don’t hold objects, or engage in any discernable activity.

Spectator pose

Pose 5: “The Spread”

Both arms are stretched outwards from the sides of the body, more or less upwards. In one case, it may be explained by the tubing. In the others, not.


This pose could be related to the iconographic tradition of the “orant” pose, or to that of the crucifixion. This study of the imagery in Nicolas Oresme’s translation of Aristotle, the Livre d’Ethiques, shows a pattern of using this pose to depict the incarnation of various virtues. Hildegard von Bingen uses this pose to represent the “Universal Man” in her Liber Divinum Operum . In all of the above examples, the pose is in some way indicative of a virtuous or pious person.

Pose 6: “The Bend”

This pose is exclusive to a few folios in the the balneo section. The nymph is bent over, apparently picking something up with one arm, while the other either lies flat against her side or is slightly bent.


Pose 7: “The Two-Armed Reach”

This pose, in which both arms are stretched out, slightly bent, towards the front, appears mainly in the Zodiac section, and mostly among male “nymphs”, although Virgo and the female half of Gemini are exceptions. It is worth noting that all of the human figures in the Voynich Zodiac’s central roundels are depicted in this pose.



Application: Groups of Nymphs

When we examine groups of nymphs in the balneo section using this classification, the action almost becomes readable. For example, in f75v:

Capture d’écran (70)

The classification allows us to see that in this illustration, what might at first appear as a homogenous group of linked nymphs is actually two groups, of nymphs doing the “Brandish” around the central “Spectator” nymph. As we have seen, the Brandish is associated with holding something, while the Spectator is a passive posture. The two groups appear to be engaging in some kind of tug-of-war over the central nymph.

The structure above them which connects to each nymphs’ head is also divided in two. The central nymph appears to belong to the left side group, as her head is connected to the left structure, but her body is turned in the opposite direction, facing in the same direction as the right side group. Which side will she end up on?