In this post, I will discuss the fourth plant from the Mythological foldout, plant A4.
Just to be clear, we’re talking about the completely white plant, not the brown-green one on the right. This looks as if it has been a beautiful drawing at some point, but unfortunately the ink has mostly faded on the upper edge of the foldout. Additionally, green ink shines through from the other side of the sheet. Still, we can make some observations about this plant at first sight.
The first thing we notice when trying to identify the plant, is that it looks like two flowers. The one on the left is closed, while the one on the right is open. A long, prominent structure protrudes from the open flower. Readers who have been paying attention, might suspect that this will be the saffron I’ve mentioned a couple of times. Also, it’s in the title for this paragraph.
Indeed, the saffron flower, Crocus sativa, does resemble our plant. Remember that the colour is not important, since the root and leaf section only uses greens, browns and white, and tends not to colour flowers and fruits.
What is significant is that saffron is harvested from the large threads that protrude from the flowers – not unlike the structure in our drawing. But why have these threads been merged to one big “thing”? For that, we have to look at the mnemonic.
At first, I couldn’t make sense of it. I had a vague impression that the right flower looked like someone who had gotten an arrow in the mouth (???) and the other one was just kind of standing there.
So I took to Photoshop and meticulously traced the lines in order to gain a better view of the image. I compared various scans – the older bright one and the more recent darker one – which allowed me to trace these lines. This is the result:
Arrowface is suddenly very clear. If you look carefully, you can even see a spot that could have represented a closed eye, but I didn’t trace that because it would make me look like I was making things up. It’s obvious enough as it is. The other figure is starting to come into focus as well: its head is bent, as if mourning – which is not unusual when your buddy got shot in the mouth – and remarkably, it looks like it’s been given a bird’s beak, like a hawk.
This was all very intriguing, but it didn’t clarify much. A fable about a hawk getting shot perhaps? So I started googling, and soon found the Greek origin myth for the hawk. I will summarize it for you. Sit back, and watch the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
Long ago, in a country far away (unless you live near Greece), there was a warrior named Daedalion. He was known for two things: his courage in battle, and his beautiful daughter Chione, who, as tends to happen in Greek myth, would be the cause of all trouble. She was apparently so beautiful that a thousand men desired her. Among her admirers were even two gods, Apollo and Hermes. Greek gods weren’t known for their gentle manners with the ladies, and long story made short, both of them ended up date raping her. But that is not important for our plant analysis.
Chione was quite flattered by the attention of two gods, and she soon bragged that her beauty surpassed even that of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Artemis did what every sensible goddess would do, and she shot an arrow straight through the blasphemer’s tongue. As a side effect of taking an arrow in the mouth, Chione was now dead.
Her father Daedalion was overcome with grief, and in his rage threw himself off mount Parnassos. Apollo – perhaps feeling a bit guilty for having raped his daughter – took pity on Daedalion and turned him into a hawk before he hit the ground. It is said that the hawk got its strength and hunting instinct when this furious warrior was transformed into the bird.
So here we have an arrow in the mouth and a grieving hawk in one story: the Greek origin story of the hawk, still known to us today through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was the inspiration for a 1622 painting by Poussin. As far as I know, the plant in the Voynich manuscript is the oldest extant depiction of this myth.
In case there are still unbelievers, let me paste some images together: our plant, a hawk and a mirrored detail from the Poussin painting:
J.K. Petersen, a fellow Voynich researcher, was friendly enough to lend his image processing skills in an attempt to get the most out of this image. This allowed me to propose two additional elements in support of my analysis, a mnemonic one and a botanical one.
Mnemonic: below I show a detail from Petersen’s image, to which I added two arrows for clarity.
This detail focuses on what I consider the mnemonic figures’ arms. Let’s start with the left flower, who represents the father turning into a hawk. Note how his arms are drawn like two little wings, like those of a bird taking flight. I would almost dare to add that the leftmost wing looks like it originally had a feathery bottom line, but this is so faint that I may be mistaken.
The figure on the right represents his daughter, who is lying dead on the floor due to arrow in mouth. At first sight, it appears like she has only one arm, but between the clear arm and the stalk, there is a thick, dark line, which represents the other arm lying under the body. Not much to say about this pose, apart from the fact that it’s one of the many, many ways one can lie dead on the floor. Incidentally, the Poussin painting shows the dead woman’s arms in a similar position.
There’s a faded, vertical object slightly behind the plant’s bottom left root. In Petersen’s image, it’s more or less separated from the green background, which made it clear to me what this detail represents: it’s saffron, the way one would buy it on the market after it’s harvested. I’ve mentioned before that the author links as many names and drawings as possible to the product as a trade commodity. When you buy saffron, you don’t buy a heap of flowers: you buy the harvested threads. This is in line with O’Donovan’s observations about a purchase-oriented representation of fruits, for example in this post about bananas:
In reality these fruits hang pendulent, but we are shown the view which, for example, a person would see if checking or pre-purchasing a crop.
So this detail shows the product one would purchase. Thicker knobs on top, then thinner lines that tangle and come together on the bottom.
Now for the final part of our analysis. How to connect the “hawk” mnemonic and saffron with our label? The Ancient Greek for falcon was KÍRKOS. Our label can be read in a few ways. If the first glyph is the Latin abbreviation for /kirk/, we read KIRKIOS. If the first glyph is a /k-vowel-r/ ligature, we can even read KIRKOS, or alternatively KURKOS, KURIOS.
The name for saffron was very similar to these readings in many languages along the trade routes. It is a root common to Semitic languages, Persian and Sanskrit. Its ultimate etymology seems unclear, although probably not Semitic:
“The Arabic cognate of Hebrew karkom [כרכם] is kurkum [كركم], originally also with the meaning saffron. This is probably not a Semitic word, as is has close relatives in unrelated languages, e. g., Middle Persian kurkum and Sanskrit kunkuma [कुंकुम]. Arabic kurkum is no longer used for saffron, but denotes another yellow spice, turmeric.”
The only false note is the /s/ at the end of our label reading. Is this, perhaps, an influence of the mnemonic /kirkos/ on the scribe?
So the mnemonic reads: The foreign word for saffron is KURKUM (?). To remember this word, think of this plant drawn as a KIRKOS (hawk).