A Voynich blog isn’t complete without at least one remark about certain often-discussed elements, like for example the crossbowman. These elements are mentioned regularly because they offer some of the only seemingly Latin European anchor points in the manuscript. Given the general lack of halos, angels, Jesus, kings, knights, priests and nuns, I am very much convinced that these elements have to be seen as exceptions.

One of those items is the cross held by a “nymph” on f79v (see header image). Our Western eyes have been trained to immediately recognize this object as a Christian cross. But, as D.N. O’Donovan says in this blog post about the item, recognition is not the same as an identification.

Of course such a form will remind us – instantly, immediately and powerfully – of a similar sign that is familiar and immensely meaningful in our own culture. But objectively speaking, there is nothing else in this part of the drawing to confirm that reflexive identification, and a good deal to mitigate against it.

One of her arguments against it being a Christian image, is the fact that naked women holding a cross in this way are not compatible with iconographic and theological conventions. Nobody would know which woman was meant here, since no woman was recognized by a cross held in this way. She concludes that this image has no place within the Latin Medieval tradition, a statement I agree with.

In her post, she gives some examples of alternatives:

Since we do not even know so much, the thing we perceive as a ‘cross’ could represent any one of a hundred things  – from a letter in a foreign alphabet, to a sign for the Pole star, a sign for the cross in Cygnus, a Jacob’s staff or a ship-mast, or a lightning-conductor, an axle-tree … and these are just some from the visual vocabularies of navigation and astronomy.

While researching my post on Hellenistic imagery, I came across another possible explanation, which I found rather appealing since it belongs in the Hellenistic sphere and would have been very familiar to those travelling by sea. It is the object carried by Nike (a woman) on many (many!) Hellenistic coins. Below are just two examples, I re-use the image from that post.

nike coins 1

It’s the pole-with-crossbar in her left hand (on the right in the picture). Note that, if Nike wanted to hold this “cross” in the same way the nymph does, she would have to stretch her arm in a similar way to reach the “cross” part.

This object appears to be a stylis, which was a cruciform pole on Greek ships identifying their guardian deity.

from: Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Lionel Casson)

These seamen were a superstitious lot, and the patron deity of the ship played an important role in life on board. This was the case for the Greeks, as well as the Romans. Casson gives a number of examples, including two from the Satyricon.

In chapter 105, two passengers are to be punished because they committed a taboo by shaving their hair. Apparently it was “unlawful for any living man aboard ship to shed hair or nails, unless the wind has kicked up a heavy sea.” One of the perpetrators continues: “Thereupon, forty stripes were ordered for each of us, that the tutelary genius of the ship might be propitiated. And they were not long about it either. Eager to propitiate the tutelary genius with our wretched blood, the savage sailors rushed upon us with their rope’s ends.

In chapter 109, then, a fight is settled and “when pledges of good faith had been given and received, in keeping with the ancient precedent she snatched an olive-branch from the ship’s figurehead and, holding it out, advanced boldly to parley.

If the nymphs in this section – as O’Donovan suggests – are related to astronomy and navigation, then perhaps this one refers to a ‘ship’ constellation, specifically a star on the stern, where the Stylis was located. The most obvious option would be the old constellation argo navisof which only the stern – the part where the stylis was located, was visible in the northern hemisphere.
The original constellation was found low near the southern horizon of the Mediterranean sky. The ship became visible in springtime and sailed westward, skimming along the southern horizon. The ancient Greeks identified it with the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece.
Or, who knows, to Nike herself. She was a popular choice among protective deities. Below I show a 3rd century BC Macedonian coin. On the left, Nike blowing a trumpet and holding a stylis (pictured here on the prow of the ship). Right, Poseidon, holding his trident, yet another – less likely – cruciform object.
I admit that Nike’s position is not the same as the one of our nymph. She usually focuses on the object in her right hand and lets the stylis rest in her left one. Yet the position the stylis has in these coins – pointing towards the top-right, is the same.

EDIT 29/04/2016:
I found an interesting 5th C. coin from Constantinople, showing how the “Nike with standard” type did apparently evolve into a “Victory with cross”.
(MARCIANUS 450-457 AD. Constantinople mint. )