This is the first plant I’ll discuss from fol. 89r 1&2. It’s the recto side of the foldout I’ve been calling the Mythological foldout. It appears like the recto side follows the same scheme: every plant contains references to Greek myth as a pronunciation hint for the plant’s indigenous name. Today, we’ll have a look at the second plant from the third row. It’s a rather mnemonic heavy one.
Let’s first inspect our plant and determine which aspects of it are “unnatural”. Below I show the original drawing on the left, with a “cleaned up” version on the right. I’ll be using the cleaned up version for your viewing convenience. All I did was remove as much external elements as possible, and shift around the brightness values a bit in an attempt to increase the plant’s visibility.
We’ll start at the root level, ’cause that’s where the party’s at. There are five roots, each bearing a human face in the middle. Even people who think Voynich plants are purely botanical, will agree that people don’t grow on roots. Close study reveals that these faces were an intentional part of the original line drawing.
The second strange part is at the leaf’s stem. As is often the case, the leaf itself looks true to nature, but the way it connects to the rest of the plant is utterly bizarre. The stem splits in half, and from the middle emerges a thin line. Attached to this line is a thicker, single stem. If you know where such constructions occur in nature, do tell me.
So these are the elements we must explain in our analysis of the mnemonic:
- five root-men
- split stem
- unnatural structure entering the split stem
As the reader will expect by now, there is a myth that explains exactly these oddities. It is the story of Cadmus and the dragon, as it appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from which I will quote (click link for full text).
Our story begins when the hero Cadmus finds out his friends have been killed by a dragon. He walks in on the creature licking the blood from their wounds. The brave Cadmus cries out ‘Faithful hearts, I shall either be the avenger of your deaths, or become your companion’, and attacks the dragon. A struggle ensues, in which the dragon mostly avoids Cadmus’ blows, and destroys much of the area in his struggle. Finally, however, Cadmus manages to back the serpent up against a tree, and drive his sword further into its mouth:
But the son of Agenor, following it all the time presses the embedded iron into its throat, until an oak-tree blocks its backward course and neck and tree are pinned together.
Let’s pause here to have a look at the top part of our plant. First of all, it should be clear that the “split stem” is drawn exactly like the dragon/snake’s split tongue in the above vase painting.
And now the other parts: Cadmus drives his SWORD into the SNAKE’S MOUTH, pinning it against a TREE.
The story doesn’t stop there though. Next, Ovid goes on telling us how – rather randomly – the goddess Pallas appears from the sky and orders Cadmus to…
…turn the earth and sow the dragon’s teeth, destined to generate a people. He obeys, and opening the furrows with a slice of his plough, sows the teeth in the ground, as human seed.
So he uses the dragon’s teeth as literal seeds to sow people (see header image for a medieval illustration of this exact story). Soon, a group of warriors grow from the field. They have hardly appeared, and already they start fighting each other. Until…
these youths, who were allowed such brief lives, were drumming on their mother’s breast hot with their blood. Five were still standing, one of whom was Echion.
So five warriors remain standing on the furrowed ground. These five would accompany Cadmus, helping him found the city of Thebes.
If we have a look again at our full plant, we can now explain its oddities.
It’s divided into two scenes, starting at the top. The weird split stem represents the serpent’s mouth with a forked tongue, being pierced by Cadmus’ weapon. The rest of the plant is drawn like the tree against which the serpent was backed.
If we then continue down the roots, we see how they are cleverly drawn like a worked field, with five furrows. From each furrow emerges a warrior. These five sown men will become Cadmus’ companions.
As always, your illustrations from coins and other extant artefacts are very interesting.
The way in which the faces are drawn appears to me to be the same style as those in one of the astronomical diagrams. (67v-1).
Given the continuity of classical learning and culture in the Byzantine world, right to the fifteenth century, so if the Hercules cycle were used as a structure for remembering plant-names, then this could have been done at any time before the present manuscript was made.
The important thing, I suppose, is whether these mnemonics – as you perceive them – not only helped the maker of the drawings to remember the names of plants, but whether they can help us do the same. Have you any proposal for the name of this plant with the ‘five faces’ roots?
I’ll have to say honestly that I would have dated first enunciation of the the ‘leaves and roots’ section to a fair bit later, and addition of the ‘faces’ later still: perhaps around the 12thC. But of course, you must make the argument you find reasonable from study of your sources.
It’s a very complicated matter. I believe you if you say the faces look later in style. But does that mean they were added, or rather altered to match the copyist’s desired style?
Here it may also be interesting to consider the difference between emblematic and narrative mnemonics. The emblematic ones absolutely demand a familiarity with the Hellenistic way of picturing figures, sometimes quite specifically on coins. These are the ones that make me say the imagery is Hellenistic.
Now the narrative ones, like Cadmus, don’t require any visual contact at all. One just needs to know the stories, in this case the way it’s retold by Ovid.
I wonder, if you had to guess when, where and by whom this section was made, what would be your first option?
About the plant, I still have to get to that. I work mnemonics first, as it’s the only way one can understand plants in this section. This one looks like it’s got only a partial match with /kadmus/ since the local plant name is a long and hard one. Judging by the practical mnemonics, I’d expect a plant of the repair type, fibre and/or timber.