While talking about these mnemonics, I’ve often mentioned that the whole thing felt and looked Hellenistic to me. In this post, I’ll attempt to explain why. First though, some remarks.
- I will pretend like the plants are images from Classical mythology. Of course, they are not. They are a blend of these images and plants. Sometimes, the only explanation for a feature is “that’s what the plant looks like”.
- Some images I refer to predate the Hellenistic era. I don’t see this as a problem. It’s not because art was innovated, that it was forgotten.
- To explain some narrative elements, I will refer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was a Roman, writing in the first century AD. During that time, the Hellenistic influence was still in full swing in the East. Additionally, Ovid used Hellenistic sources for his work, sometimes staying true to the original, at other times adding his own twist. When a mnemonic matches a set text, it is likely that this text was based on the same popular previous source as the mnemonic – be it a written text or oral culture.
- I see no reason to disagree with D.N. O’Donovan’s observation that these plants show signs of much later habits. What I will do here, is uncover what remains of the Hellenistic stratum.
Finally, there are three types of mnemonic images at work here:
- Practical mnemonics: they give a hint about a plant’s use, and have no relation to mythology. For example, a plant’s roots can be drawn like ropes, to remind the reader that this plant’s fibres can be used to make ropes. Practical mnemonics aren’t the focus of this post. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were added in a later phase, making many plant parts more rope-like.
- Emblematic mnemonics: these rely on the reader’s familiarity with and immediate recognition of a mythological image. They will evoke a common stance and/or attribute a figure was often given on coins, statues or wall decorations. An example is Heracles’ club. It alone on a coin was enough to evoke the whole figure of Heracles. These mnemonics are often used when the figure was closely associated with an attribute and/or stance. The artists exploited this “easy” option when possible. This also means that in the case of emblematic mnemonics, we have a decent chance of finding corresponding images in surviving works of art. Exactly because this scene was so omnipresent in the ancient world.
- Narrative mnemonics: these mythological mnemonics expect familiarity with certain story elements surrounding the figure. An example is Cadmus, who is evoked through a number of elements from his myths. This choice is understandable, since it’s hard to represent Cadmus in a recognizable emblematic way. Of course, these Narrative mnemonics can contain emblematic aspects as well. They are generally more complex than their emblematic counterparts, painting a picture of several scenes instead of one coherent image. It is usually impossible to find a piece of original artwork to match narrative mnemonics, and they seem to be more of an original creative effort by the Voynich artists.
In the following overview, I will discuss the emblematic mnemonics first, since they will tell us most about the art style. Narrative mnemonics will be summarized in a later post. Just to illustrate this difference to modern readers, I will now show an emblematic image and next a narrative image of someone who missed the invitation to the Voynich manuscript: Jesus Christ.
I call the above image emblematic because we don’t have to know any story to understand it. It’s just Jesus. Our Western eyes recognize him by his stance, especially the two raised fingers. Also, his attributes: halo, burning heart with cross, long, wavy hair, full beard and moustache. Of course, Jesus being Jesus, there are many other typical stances, gestures and attributes that would allow us to depict him in a recognizable way.
Now in this image, we see Jesus in an atypical pose: threatening to use physical violence against a purple-robed man. There’s also a lot more going on: several groups of people are observing or talking, furniture has been flipped, animals run away… This is a narrative depiction: we have to know the story of the cleansing of the temple to understand it, and cannot explain it by using emblematic features alone. Of course, many elements, like the halos, are emblematic, but the overarching image is a narrative one.
Emblematic Voynich mnemonics
Let me first establish that the Dioskouri – Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus- were famous enough to be recognized by their attributes alone. Below, a coin of the Bactrian king Eukratides I (ca. 170-145 BCE), featuring the twins’ typical helmets-with-stars and two palm leaves – which they were often carrying in Hellenistic art.
Now let’s bring out the Voynich Dioskouri, fully discussed in this post. There, I explain how every single line from this plant copies the Dioskouri emblem known from Hellenistic coins.
Voynich wouldn’t be Voynich if there weren’t some problems. Most notably, the heads – and thus the helmets – are missing. This image of the two rearing horses, two spears and two billowing capes, was so familiar in Hellenistic areas though, that it must have been easily recognizable. Christ doesn’t always need a cross.
The Hellenistic origin should be obvious already, but for further contrast, I show below two typical classical (= earlier) depictions of the twins, followed by two typical Hellenistic ones. Note how the Hellenistic artists favored to depict them riding wildly, allowing for a more dynamic scene. The horses rearing and something, either a cape or palm leaf, trailing behind the rider, are common elements as well.
The Three Graces
The Kharites are discussed in this post. We see three round roots, each with two gracefully dancing legs, representing three bulbous women.
Images of the Graces dancing like this once again flourished in the Hellenistic period. They mostly survive in Roman copies and imitations, as well as in many later works. In our plant, the bending and crossing of the legs is especially Hellenistic, suggesting movement and breaking out of the bonds of classical stiffness. Below, I show a typical classical image of some Graces, followed by a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.
The area is harder to determine since this image of three dancing women was found everywhere the Greeks went.
Conclusion: Hellenistic and later, all areas under Greek influence.
The first Nike (Victory) is discussed in this post. I discern two elements that could help us to provenance this image. Nike is flying, and she’s carrying a palm leaf. Flying Nikes are found everywhere, but the palm leaf is a crucial aspect, which served as the telling attribute (i.e. common and recognizable) for the intended audience.
At first glance, this plant looks Helenistically inspired already: look at how the left part of the dress is draped around Nike’s bent knee, and how on the right the folds trail behind her. To depict the garment windblown against the forward leg was a favorite of Hellenistic artists, as can be seen in the Nike of Samothrace, one of the most celebrated pieces of Hellenistic art.
As for comparative imagery, Nike depictions are common, in Greek and Roman artwork alike, and especially on coins. Below, a typical example of an advancing Victory with palm leaf on a Roman coin.
That this motif is older, and was known even in the easternmost Hellenistic areas, seems clear. Below a coin of Azes I, a first century BC Indo-Scythian ruler. The Nike on the right is inspired by the same examples as the Roman advancing Victory.
Many such coins survive, all with a similar motif: a walking Nike with wreath and palm branch.
The association of Nike with a palm branch is much older. The famous Nike of Paionios of Olympia was holding one. Interestingly, her dress was originally painted red, which might explain the reddish roots in our plant. It seems clear though, that the palm branch found its way into mainstream Nike imagery in the Hellenistic kingdoms. However, depictions of a flying Nike with palm are harder to find, and most online sources don’t provide specific dates or place of origin. These are two examples I found, with the provided info.
Conclusion: Hellenistic period and later, popular in Eastern Mediterranean and further East.
I have elaborately discussed the second Nike in this post (Finding a Myth). This image consists of two parts. First, the hands (leaves) which pour a libation. I won’t discuss this part for provenance purposes, since it is found before, during and after the Hellenistic period in much the same way. If we look at the wings in isolation though, we can learn a lot about the preferences of the original author, and perhaps also of those who modified the image in later copies.
As I discuss in the main post about this plant, the match between the relative positions of the hands is absolutely striking. On the other hand, the wings are positioned differently. In the plant, they are spread dramatically to both sides of the body, with long, spread out feathers. In the relief, however, they are rather well-behaved and hang behind the body. This may seem like a detail, but it isn’t.
The relief is an example of Neo-Attic art, an art form much beloved by the romans, that sought to abandon the baroque excesses of Hellenistic art and return to a more sober, composed classical style. This can be seen in the static, controlled stance of the figures.
Now Hellenistic artists would prefer their wings and fabrics flapping around or dramatically displayed. There is one medium where we often find Nike with exactly these wings. If you guessed Hellenistic coins, you are right. We’ll start at the very beginning, with this coin of Alexander himself, minted in the first years after his death in Memphis, Egypt. Look at those wings:
From there, it continues into the various Hellenistic kingdoms. Once again, look at the wings.
They were so fond of these wings, that they even slapped them on Nike when the rest of her posture didn’t allow for it, like in this Seleucid coin (ca. 300 BC.)
Now, if we put our plant and one of these coins side by side, we can see how closely they correspond. The top, round part of the root roughly matches Nike’s head. Both side bundles of roots match her wings, with long feathers. If we continue down the middle root, we see her belted waist, with below that her short skirt, and then the wavy lower garment.
Now, as Voynich tradition wills, there is still something strange going on. Something regarding the symmetry of the wings. While the wing on the right has been given five nice, normal, straight feathers, the one on the left has two pairs of feathers overlapping each other. This could be related to the avoidance of complete symmetry, imposed by a copyist of a later culture. Or, more simply, it could be a practical mnemonic, telling us that fibrous material from this plant can be woven into ropes.
Once again, I think it’s likely that what we see in MS Beinecke 408 is the result of several cultural layers being heaped upon the original material. What I hope to have illustrated with this post, is that the bottom layer may be a Hellenistic one, or at least one inspired by Hellenistic imagery.