This is the first post about the last row in the Mythological foldout, row E. As I explained in my last post, The Voynich Memory Temple, these three plants should very much be seen as a mnemonic group. They have been grouped to increase the effectiveness of the mnemonics – i.e. to help the reader memorize foreign plant names more effectively. Today, we will take a look at the first plant.
The mythological figure hidden in this plant is Heracles – today mostly known by his Roman name Hercules – one of the most famous Greek heroes. As a son of Zeus, he was renowned for his superhuman courage and strength. His most famous adventures, the Twelve Labours, were twelve daunting tasks Heracles was made to complete. At least two of these labours are relevant for other plants on this folio, as discussed in their sections. For our current discussion of Heracles, it is important to keep in mind that he is depicted while performing his twelfth labour: to subdue the three-headed hellhound Cerberus. Cerberus is portrayed by the plant to Heracles’ right.
The resemblance between this plant and the Greek hero is probably not immediately clear to many readers. Let’s start by identifying Heracles’ most common attributes: a gnarled club and a lion skin cape. In the below images, I present a depiction of Hercules on a Greek vase, the plant from MS Beinecke 408, and a mixture of both. The attributes are marked as 1 (lion skin) and 2 (club).
As we can see, the left and right panels are nearly indistinguishable.
The leaf on the right is the one that looks most like a club – it’s wider on top and much narrower at the bottom. But then does the other leaf represent something else? It seems as if an effort has been made to make it as round as possible, without losing the actual shape of the leaf, which is narrow at the base. An explanation I find likely, it the fact that some authors have Hercules wielding his club in one hand, and the head of his lion’s pelt in the other as a shield. It requires some imagination, but it’s possible that the left leaf represents this Lionhead shield, with added manes and everything.
Now one question remains: why is our plant Hercules depicted in such an awkward position, as if he’s bent at the middle? The answer lies in a standard depiction of Hercules when he approaches Cerberus: crouching down to reach for the hound.
The extra root can be explained as the chain or leash Hercules uses to capture his opponent. It can be seen in the image above, and again in the one below.
This label is an interesting one, as it uses an Indo-European term to clarify a Dravidian one (those being the two main language families in India). This indicates a mixture of languages, which one would expect in a trading environment.
The label contains two words: tar or tal and tekou. The first word derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for tree: *DERU. This is, in fact, the root from which English tree is derived. In Indian languages, it survives as the word for wood. For example, the Hindi word for cinnamon is dal chini, “Chinese wood”. A similar name is found in many other languages in the area.
The second word is of Dravidian origin, the other one of India’s two main language families. Cognates are found in Malayam tekka, Tamil tekku, Telugu teku, all meaning teak. In out label, this word was borrowed into an Indo-Iranian language. This is not surprising, since even languages like English got their word for teak from this Dravidian root. So our label means something like “teku wood”, or “teak wood – wood”.
This type of seemingly pleonastic language mixing is fairly common when people are confronted with untransparent borrowings. Compare standard Dutch struisvogel “ostrich-bird”. In German, the ostrich is called Strauß, while in Dutch the word for bird has been added for clarification. The same happens when some English speakers say tuna fish. Interestingly, this seems to imply that the author – or his sources – was more familiar with Indo-Iranian languages than with Dravidian ones.
This reading supports the idea of the “bench” character as a number of ligatures. In this case a /t/ + /k/ ligature with an inserted vowel. Having the /t/ and /k/ sound represented in this ligature is a requirement for my understanding of the “gallows” as ornate ways to represent these same sounds.
Our label reading as tal tekou allows for an identification of this tree as teak (Tectona grandis), native to India and Southeast Asia. The languages firmly point towards the Indian subcontinent, which reinforces this identification. If we were to consider a naval trading context, teak’s reputation as an excellent boatbuilding material deserves special mention.
“Teak has been used as a boatbuilding material for over 2000 years (it was found in an archaeological dig in Berenike, a port on the Indian Roman trade). In addition to relatively high strength, teak is also highly resistant to rot, fungi and mildew. In addition, teak has a relatively low shrinkage ratio, which makes it excellent for applications where it undergoes periodic changes in moisture.”
As we can see in the above image of a young teak tree, its leaves bear the same general shape as Hercules’ “club”. Only the knots are missing, but those were left uncoloured in the manuscript, which suggests that they may not be an actual part of the leaf but more of a mnemonic addition. The draughtsman could afford some artistic liberty, as the merchant would be interested in the name of the timber, not an exact botanical depiction of its leaves.
To sum it all up
We have identified the mnemonic and connected the label to the plant. But what is the mnemonic connection between the words Heracles and dal tikou? They don’t sound very much alike. First of all, teak was valued for its strength, which is why it was a prized boatbuilding material. The Greek strongman par excellence was, of course, Heracles. One might even say that teak is the Heracles of woods (especially if one is a teak salesman).
I’ll be honest and say I’m not totally sure about the linguistic link. It’s not always the name of the mythological figure, but could also be the word for one of the attributes – like we’ve seen with Castor’s cape drawn like a mango. For my best guess, we need to dig a little deeper, all the way to Heracles’ childhood. To his first name: Alcides.
As an illegitimate son of Zeus, Hercules was the subject of great hatred from Hera, Zeus’ wife, as Heracles’ existence was proof of her husband’s infidelity. Heracles was originally named Alcides by his parents, and his name was only changed later in a vain attempt to please Hera (Heracles meaning ‘glory of Hera’).
Hercules’ original name is still used when an association with strength is desired. For example, several ships in the French and British navies were called Alcide.
Once again, I must admit that Alcides doesn’t look like daltikou quite yet, so this mnemonic reading is uncertain. It becomes a bit more likely if we assume that somewhere along the meandering river of language change, two letters switched places. For example: Aldikes – (d)altikou. This solution would provide a good “skeleton” of vowels to use as a memory booster.
In summary, our mnemonic reads:
The foreign name for this strong wood is DAL TIKOU. To remember this name, think of the tree drawn like the strong ALKIDES.
 Daniel Ogden, Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. P.66.