I saw Tantalus in agonising torment, in a pool of water reaching to his chin. He was tortured by thirst, but could not drink, since every time he stooped eagerly the water was swallowed up and vanished, and at his feet only black earth remained, parched by some god. Fruit hung from the boughs of tall leafy trees, pears and pomegranates, juicy apples, sweet figs and ripe olives. But whenever the old man reached towards them to grasp them in his hands, the wind would sweep them off into the shadowy clouds.
– Homer, Odyssey, Book 11.
This is the only plant I have completely analysed on row D. Admittedly, this mnemonic is rather complex and requires some imagination. For any new readers, I recommend reading A4. The Mourning Hawk: Saffron first for a cleared example.
Tantalus, the mythical Greek king who offended the gods and as a result became one of the most famous inhabitants of the Greek underworld. His crimes vary depending on the version of the story, ranging from mere theft to cannibalism and kinslaying. But it is his eternal punishment that is still remembered today: he was made to suffer hunger and thirst while juicy fruits hung right above his head and water was within his reach. But whenever he tried to grab one of the fruits, a gust of wind would blow the branch away, and whenever he tried to drink the water, it would plunge down and disappear into the earth.
For my analysis of the next plant as representing this myth, it is unfortunate that very few early depictions of this story remain. Our image of the myth has been shaped by later illustrations, like the one above, where Tantalus is seen almost drowning in a large lake. In the three earlier images I have been able to find, no lake is to be seen and Tantalus is standing on the ground. By no means do I wish to imply that the later medieval artists misinterpreted the stories: as quoted above, Homer himself has Tantalus standing in a deep pool of water. As so often, however, this is just one version of the story, and the limited evidence suggests that the ancients themselves favoured other ones in their visual art.
One image, which I won’t reproduce here because it is less relevant to our analysis, shows a lesser known version of the story: Tantalus is reaching for a basket of fruit and a jug of water, while a ghost holds him back. A second depiction, (see the drawing on the left), is found on a Roman sarcophagus. Here we see Tantalus (on the right) trying to drink, but the water gushes down his body in an endless flow, not a single drop touching his thirsty lips. Note the flow of the water: downward and outward, away from the body and into the ground. This element will return in our plant.
In the final image, part of a larger view of the underworld, we see the punished king standing, straining his arm to reach the elusive fruit. No water is in sight. I will show this image next to our plant below. My most perceptive readers may already notice how the crucial elements of the Tantalus myth are skilfully blended into this mnemonic.
Even though this is first of all an image of a plant (a tree with a trunk, roots, braches and one leaf), we can still see a number of hidden clues: a human figure, shown from the waist up with two outstretched arms, headless as usual. A tree with a windswept branch. Water crashing down in rolling waves, spreading out before seeping into the earth.
The label contains an unusual character in the middle. It looks as if the scribe tried to write a vowel and a different ligature at the same time, ending up with something that looks like neither. Initial T and final AR/AL are clearly legible. At first sight, it looks as if the last two glyphs are separate, but closer inspection reveals that the connecting line is just very faint. I will select the reading TA?AL because that’s the best fit for mnemonic and plant ID.
The best candidate for our plant is Cinnamomum tamala, also known as Indian bay leaf, tejpat, Malabar leaf, Indian bark, Indian cassia, or malabathrum. This tree is native to the South slopes of the Himalayas and the mountains of North Eastern India, extending into Burma. Its leaves, known as tamal-leaves in original Sanskrit, are an important ingredient in North Indian cuisine. Its bark has been used as a cheap (and inferior) cinnamon substitute. The Sanskrit TAMAL-name, which has also been chosen as the botanical name, is an excellent match for our label reading of TA?AL and the mnemonic TAntALus.
Cinnamomun tamala leaves are thought to have been the main ingredient for the ointment known as malabathrum in classical and medieval texts. The leaves were therefore sought after by Greek traders, who sometimes went as far as the mouth of the Ganges to acquire them.
The one leaf on our tree resembles the leaves of several Cinnamomum species. Tamala leaves differ in appearance depending on their age (young leaves are more slender and pinkish). Below I compare our plant’s leaf to tamala leaves. Note the prominent, somewhat crooked drip tip, the wavy appearance of some leaves, and the somewhat elongated shape.
EDIT 22/03/2016: I found an image of a “cinnamomum tree” in the Leiden Dioscorides. It shows some resemblance to our tree’s gnarled or bulbous trunk. I think the Voynich tree’s trunk ended up looking like this as a result of mixing the mnemonic “waves” with this custom of depicting cinnemomum trees.
Finally, the roots on the Voynich tree show an unusual resemblance to the above ground roots of old Cinnamomum trees. The best visual match was found in a picture of Cinnamomum camphora, trees which are often allowed to grow undisturbed. This may be a rare example of Voynich plant roots looking like actual plant roots. Perhaps the fact that these roots are visible above ground has something to do with that.
To sum it all up
The word TAMAL matches an accepted label reading, as well as the original Sanskrit name for this tree, which still lives on in several modern languages and the botanical name. Visually, the closet resemblance is found in the leaves, which share the same shape and a prominent drip tip. Finally, these leaves were a prized trading commodity.
The mnemonic should be read as follows: The foreign word for this tree is TAMAL. To remember this, think of the tree drawn like TAntALus.