Normally when you identify a plant drawing, you’ll want to start from botanical aspects. You list a number of properties for the leaves, flowers, fruits… Then you try to find the plant that best matches those properties. It’s as scientific as it gets, and it can be convincing. After that, you try to explain any weird, Voynich specific aspects of the plant drawing. This is exactly what D.N. O’Donovan is doing in her analyses of the large plant drawings (“botanical section”).
I can’t do this. You see, I think the plants I’m studying, those on the foldout in the leaf-and-root section, are mostly symbolic. You can’t start from botanical aspects, because those have been warped and distorted beyond recognition. The only way to understand these plants, is to understand the underlying symbolism first. And that’s the problem: interpreting these plants’ symbolic meaning is like interpreting the meaning of cave paintings. You can make some educated guesses, but there’s no way to prove beyond any trace of a doubt what the maker’s intentions were.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. Let me quote D’Imperio again, p.16:
The pages in this section of the manuscript show rows of small, sketchy plants or plant parts, which seem to emphasize one structure – roots or leaves – at the expense of the remainder. They are so abbreviated as to appear almost like mnemonic or shorthand symbols referring to plants already illustrated more fully in other folios, or to plants otherwise familiar to the scribe and his colleagues. A determined effort by several students to relate these sketches to the herbal drawings has not been successful, however.
She knew the plants were “abbreviated” in such a way that one had to know the system of abbreviation before being able to say something sensible about them. She considered two options:
- The system symbolically refers to larger plant drawings in other folios
- The system symbolically refers to plants the author and his audience were already familiar with.
She had the first hypothesis tested by a team of determined students, without success. That leaves us with the second option, the one I defend as well: botanical aspects were treated as secondary because these plants were already known. But this also implies that, even if I get this completely right, the very way these plant drawings have been constructed means that I have to build on subjective foundations. I have to start from an interpretation of a piece of art. All that is needed for someone to tackle anything I say is a mere “I don’t see that in that plant”. And it’s done.
So my only option is to ask some initial goodwill from my readers, to accept for a moment my cloudy foundations, and inspect the structure I erect on top of them. Then it is still up to the reader whether they accept the whole or not. In this post, I will explain how such a foundation is built. Hopefully some readers will realize that they are not as cloudy as they may seem.
If I explain how I link these plant drawings to mythological scenes, it will hopefully become clear that it’s not based on a mere hunch, a superficial resemblance of roots to gods. For this discussion, I have selected plant C4 (see Findings Table for an overview). Plant C4 is located at the bottom of the foldout, which is damaged and has largely faded. It’s hard to read the label, but the plant is quite visible. That’s what we need for this example, since we’ll only be identifying the mythological scene. Let’s have a look at our candidate:
There. Not much to go on, right? It took me a long time to identify anything about this plant. Mostly I kind of ignored it, because it’s in the worst section of the foldout. But I did note a couple of typical Voynich things, which I kept in the back of my mind:
- The roots of the plant form three distinct bundles (1, 2, 3).
- The leaves are drawn like hands: two leaves on “arms” (a, b).
- The leaves are drawn in a specific position: both pointing to the same side, (a) significantly higher than (b).
- Hand (a) has five fingers, but in between them there is a large, dark spot, as if the hand is holding an object, (d).
- Hand (b) has six fingers (what the…?). The middle finger, (c), is much longer, more prominent and slightly curved.
Okay, so now imagine you’re me. I’m me, so I can tell you what to think:
You know that there is a mythological scene pictured here. The two hands, the deliberate bundling of roots in three weird, unnatural bunches, the much longer sixth finger. You have studied the behavior of these plant drawings and you know these bizarre aspects are deliberate.
Now find the scene.
Impossible, right? For a long time, I didn’t have a clue about this one. I was vaguely thinking about one of those myths where a nymph runs away and gets turned into a tree. Don’t the hands kind of make it look like it’s running away? But then what do we do with the three root bundles? How do we explain the long, sixth finger? Which object is in hand (a)? Why did the artist add these weird features?
I just didn’t know, and I was greatly annoyed by this plant.
I’m not happy with just a hunch – I want to find a piece of ancient art that actually offers an explanation for all of the above points. All of them. I’m not looking for a piece of art that exactly copies the stance of the plant. That would imply finding the exact model used by the artist, which is unlikely. But I want something that can explain the special features.
I couldn’t find anything.
Usually I then take a look at the label and see if it provides any hints. Often the first letter is the most valuable. This label is hardly legible; here, I show it unaltered on top, and with some shifted values on the bottom (don’t know if that helps at all). I can distinguish two glyphs with certainty. The first one is the one that looks like “8”, I read this as /n/. The second one is the “K” gallow, which appears to be the one-but last glyph. I read this as /k/. So we have something like N???K?. Note that the gallow is in an unexpected position here – that means that this sound is important. Hence, I expect at least the sounds /n/ and /k/ in the name of the mythological figure.
I still couldn’t find anything.
And then I saw this, while browsing for images to illustrate another plant.
It’s a 1st century CE Roman copy of a Greek original. Plenty of copies of this scene still exist, for example this one. On the left is Apollo. He doesn’t matter for us. On the right though, we see Nike – the personification of victory – ritually pouring liquid (a libation) in a flat, shallow bowl. Many other artworks of Nike pouring a libation in some form still survive today.
Assuming “Nike” as a mnemonic, the label is close enough – if the foreign plant name is “N???K?”, then “Nike” is a decent memory booster. Not perfect, but we just have to deal with the fact that Indic plant names are not identical to Greek god names. It does its job, offering a mnemonic “skeleton” of consonants.
But how does this scene relate to our plant? How does it explain the various aspects I’d like to see clarified? Let’s put them together.
Not too bad, right? We can explain the object that’s suggested in the upper hand – something to pour from. The long, flat, slightly curved object in the bottom hand is the tray to receive the liquid.
There’s a difference in the stance of the wings though. In the relief, both wings are on Nike’s back, while in our plant they appear to be on both sides of her body, in which case the middle bundle of roots is Nike’s long dress. I explained a lot already: the exact position of the hands, the items in the hands, and the three elements represented by the roots. But I’d like to find a closer match to this exact position, if possible.
I then went on to confirm that Nike is often portrayed with wings on both sides as well, mostly in two-dimensional art forms like vase paintings. Just one example is pictured below:
This is also a libation scene, but here she’s not pouring and her wings are too small. Annoying, isn’t it? We could combine elements from both images and call it a day: we have a match for the label reading, explained all peculiarities and provided a parallel for the stance. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a piece of art where Nike is pouring the liquid, with both long wings on het sides, though?
Like this one: