…for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher.
In a recent post, The Handy Leek, I interpreted a plant on f100r as kurrat, Egyptian leek. In today’s post, we will delve deeper into the Egyptian theme. I will argue that at least three instances of Hellenistic Egyptian imagery are visible in the Mythological Foldout (f89). One is hidden in a plant, and two are plainly visible.
Taken in isolation, it would be easy to argue against these interpretations. But since they all appear on the same sheet of vellum, and all unambiguously refer to Greco-Roman Alexandria, they strengthen each other’s case.
We will start with the plant, and build our story from there. Take a look at the root; do you recognize any shape? A dangerous animal, perhaps?
Okay, that was easy, it was in the title. It’s been shaped like a cobra.
But what is the thing on its head? Loyal readers will know that I won’t settle for a root that just looks like a cobra, especially not if it’s the very first plant on the recto side of the Mythological Foldout. There may be more to it. Let’s have a closer look:
At first sight, one might say that this top looks relatively normal. There are some unnatural aspects, however, which point towards possible mnemonic manipulation. First of all, it consists of one large, almost vertical “trunk”, with two pairs of branches coming out from the bottom. Maybe some kind of shrub? The weirdest part though, is at the bottom (see red arrow). The way the outer branches connect to the base looks almost sculpted, with a smooth curve and then a sharp corner. I couldn’t make much sense of this, so I ignored this plant initially.
Until I came across this image by coincidence:
It’s a cobra with something on its head, that’s for sure. Let’s have a closer look:
In the bottom image, I have colored the lines as I see them correspond: yellow a vertical line, green two lines that bend away at the top, and at the bottom, in red, the two horns that form kind of a cupping shape. Remember, once again, that the correspondence cannot be total: the Voynich artist has tried to evoke this image using plant parts. As usual, he allows himself some more liberties in the roots, but he can’t just go ahead and draw solar circles in branches. Also the fact that these shapes are both on cobra’s heads is rather convincing.
So what is this serpent, and what is it wearing? Let me show you the full image:
The snake on the left represents a Greco-Roman/Egyptian blend of the goddess Isis/Tyche/Fortuna in her snake form. To her right, the god Serapis in a similar shape.
In Egyptian iconography, cobras are commonly found on Isis’ headdress, while in Greece and Italy, Isis could be shown holding a cobra, or with a cobra wrapped about Her arm. In the Graeco-Roman period, a cobra-formed Isis is paired with Her Graeco-Egyptian consort Serapis (and sometimes Osiris), also in a serpent form. As serpent Deities, Isis and Serapis are Agathe Tyche(Good Fortune) and Agathos Daimon (Good Spirit), and were considered the special protectors of Alexandria. Household serpents, called thermoutheis (pl.) from the name Isis-Thermuthis, were known to be the messengers of Isis. (source)
So this pair functioned as protective deities for Alexandria. In between them is a griffin holding a wheel. This is the goddess Nemesis in her griffin form, holding the wheel of Fortune. The griffin-with-wheel motif was typical for Roman Egypt, especially during the 2nd and 3rd c. CE (see, for example, this 2nd c.CE coin of Marcus Aurelius). The style of the snakes themselves is clearly Greco-Roman as well.
The hat was obtained by the Egyptian Isis when she got merged with the deity Hathor, seen here in a 1250 BCE depiction:
All parts of this headdress, including the solar disk, horns and two vertical feathers, were retained, which is why eventually the Greco-Roman Isis blends ended up wearing the cow deity’s hat. Interestingly, this resulted in Roman statuettes with Egyptian headgear finding their way to, for example, the Netherlands. Some examples from the first centuries CE, Greco-Roman Egypt:
A stele depicting Isis Thermoutis, Alexandria, 2nd c. CE (source)
The merger of these deities from various cultures resulted in some strange sights, like this limestone stele with snake-bodied figures of Isis and Dionysos (British Museum, 1st c.BCE – 1st c. CE). The scales would have been painted on.
Or this one with Isis, Osiris and Canopus (RMO, Greco-Roman period). It appears that Isis had an easier time adapting to her new form than her male colleague.
Many other such examples can be found, all from the same region. What is important in these images is:
- They were found in Egypt (either Alexandria or unmentioned)
- They were made during the Greco-Roman period.
- Isis-Tyche is recognized by the combination of snake form and headdress.
Alexandria, being a major trade hub during Greco-Roman times, is of course a very likely place where the people who made these mnemonics would have gotten their visual inspiration. They would have seen this plant and said: that is Tyche of Alexandria. This plant’s name sounds like Tiche.
On to the second Alexandrian example, then. I had taken notes on this one long ago, but this seemed like the perfect post to add it to. Many containers or vessels are found in the leaf-and-root section. Before I even suspected any connection between Alexandria and MS Beinecke 408’s sources, I recognized something in this particular one. Take a look. Recognize anything of an architectural nature?
Okay, it was in the title again. This jar resembles the famous Lighthouse (or Pharos) of Alexandria. A three-segmented structure topped by a small dome with a human figure on top. On the bottom, surrounded by a wall. Compare to this modern reconstruction, based on a comprehensive study:
And on two 2nd c.CE Alexandrian coins. The one on the right is most similar:
Three layers, dome, human figure, wall. The main difference is that the Pharos had a square base, while the Voynich “lighthouse” has been given a cylindrical bottom part because of the shape dictated by the vessel.
Now, a final argument: guess where this “pharos container” is located.
Right next to Isis-Tyche, its protective deity. Of all the containers and all the plants in the manuscript, these two appear at each others’ sides, as if they are still watching over each other.
I promised three references to Egypt, so here’s the last one. There are several crowns in the Voynich manuscript. They are often used to “prove” that this or that king or queen is depicted, or that the manuscript must be from the author’s country of choice. I highly recommend D.N. O’Donovan’s actually-not-so-exaggerated post about why these arguments are problematic.
There is a crown, though, on the reverse side of this folio, that can only point in one direction. It is the crown of Egypt, and it sits on the head of a snake. F89r, first container.
Before illustrating this further, I will parry two possible points of criticism:
- It’s too small to write/see! – No, it’s not. It’s between normal and tall glyphs in size, which makes it perfectly writable and visible.
- It’s just a smudge! – I can’t prove that it’s not. But in that case, it’s the only such smudge on the page, shaped – coincidence – like the crown of Egypt, that landed – more coincidence – right on the head of a symbol of Egypt.
Below, a relief at the temple of Edfu, showing Wadjet, the snake deity of lower Egypt (i.e. Northern Egypt), wearing the red crown.
And to show the continuity of this imagery into Hellenistic times, a ring of Ptolemy VI Philometor wearing the crown of a unified Egypt, in the 2nd century BCE.
Even more likely, the snake might be wearing a different version of the pharaonic crown: the vulture and snake, again symbolizing a united Egypt and the power of its ruler. I prefer this interpretation, since the snake’s crown appears to have been given a small line for the vulture on the left, and a curved line on the right, representing the snake:
This type of iconography was still in use in Greco-Roman times as well. This first c. CE Isis is holding the Uraeus serpent (as it is called), has the vulture on her headband and another serpent on the solar disk in her headdress:
And so, perhaps, we are one step closer to making the sphinx obey.