Today, we will take a closer look at the Voynich “zodiac” section. It consists of twelve images, surrounded by large numbers of both clothed and naked “nymphs” in barrels.
At first sight, this is a standard zodiac with some inconvenient Voynich oddities. Most notably, there are two “bulls” and two goats, it starts at Pisces and two other signs are omitted, possibly because of a missing folio. This results in a total of twelve images, but we don’t know whether there were supposed to be these twelve, fourteen (twelve with two doubles) or more.
Understandably, most researchers have started by comparing these images to zodiac cycles from other sources. At this point, however, additional oddities come to the surface. For example, the Voynich lion has almost no mane, and blue spots:
There are parallels for Leos with minimal manes, equivalents of the blue spots on its rough coat are harder to find. All in all, this Leo combines unusual features to such an extent that one would believe it represents a different type of feline altogether.
Similar remarks can be made about the Voynich bulls (plural) which will be the focus of this post. To illustrate this clearly, I compare one of the Voynich “bulls” to a Taurus from a contemporary French manuscript:
I have chosen this example because it shows the differences well. The Voynich critter has horns high on its head, pointing upwards in a lyre shape, while the bull’s horns are shorter and bend backwards. The VM animal has a dip in its spine where the neck meets the back, making it look like a weird, horned horse. Its build is relatively slender and its snout is longer. The de Berry bull shows the typical thick “bull neck” that continues in an almost horizontal line into the rest of the back. Finally, the Voynich animal is eating or drinking from a cylindrical “basket”.
The Voynich “bull” has been compared to the depiction of Taurus in other manuscripts. In this February 2016 study, Marco Ponzi compared the Voynich images to 131 different zodiac cycles. His conclusion about Taurus was that the basket appears to be a unique Voynich feature: not a single other manuscript showed the bull eating or drinking from such a container.
J. K. Petersen came to a similar conclusion, noting that the other aspects can be found in some images, but there is no sign of any baskets. Which is normal, because we don’t typically picture a bull eating from a basket.
Personally, I think the Taurus from Cod. Sang. 827 is the closest match: long, vertical lyre-horns, longer neck, dip in the spine…
Just to confirm this assessment, I called in the help of an impartial farmyard animal identification expert: my two year old daughter. She identified standard Taurus as “cow”, and both the above image and Voynichbeast as “horse”.
Evidence. Though both animals still look very different in the way they deviate from the norm. The St. Gallen Taurus looks and behaves like some kind of horse-goat hybrid, while the Voynichbeast looks like a different being altogether.
So at this point, we could conclude that this is either a very badly drawn bull, or another species. Since this animal is eating from a basket, which apparently cannot be found in hundreds of other zodiac cycles, the latter possibility cannot be overlooked. Why add a food basket to an animal that usually eats grass from the field and is never depicted with one? And even if bulls were basketfood lovers, why add this attribute? I can’t imagine that the artist was so ashamed of his “bull” that he added a basket, of all things, to help us identify it as a bull.
The basket makes the Voynich animal an oddity even among other oddities, which more than justifies looking at options outside of the usual scope. So if the animal is not a bull and the basket was added for a reason, then which animal is it and why was it necessary to depict it eating from a basket? And what is this “basket” to begin with?
In this post (2012), Diane O’Donovan suggests a number of alternative interpretations for the animal. She mentions the hartebeest (Kongoni) as a likely solution, but does not pin down this identification yet; there was not enough evidence that it was even semi-domesticated in Egypt, where a now extinct species of hartebeest used to live until the 1920’s. She’s also not sure about the meaning of the basket.
I went over all possible horned critters that could have been the model for the Voynich creature, but found myself returning to the Egyptian antelope with the lyre-shaped horns: the hartebeest, pictured below. This particular specimen provides a beautiful parallel for Voynichbeast’s horns, pointing upwards. Also note the horse-like neck and the slender-yet-muscular build.
And below a comparison: hartebeest, Voynichbeast, bull. To give the bull a fair shot, I looked for a brown one with a decent pair of horns. In this image, you can also see how the hartebeest has the same eerie, empty stare as the Voynichbeast.
It is easy to find rather general observations that hartebeests must have been somewhat more than animals to be hunted for the ancient Egyptians, see for example this quote from Fuller, E. (2013) Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record.
Hartebeest bones have been found in several Egyptian graves, buried separately or together with human remains. This strongly suggests a certain degree of domestication and use as sacrificial animal. However, these finds are generally too old to be of much relevance for our subject.
Images like the one above exist as well, showing someone handling captured antelopes (hartebeest on the left) as an offering to the gods or a gift to the pharaoh. This one is unfortunately undated.
Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and Greeks sit on the Egyptian throne. Let’s have a look and see what they are using hartebeests for. First, an anecdote about Ptolemy II, who paraded them around for show value:
“For example, the description of Ptolemy II’s great procession (his pompe) reveals that a variety of wild animals had been broken and trained to harness and chariot: this included elephants, goats, antelopes, oryxes, hartebeest, ostriches, wild asses, and camels.” – Lloyd, A.B. (2010). A Companion to Ancient Egypt.
While looking for images of tamed Egyptian antelopes eating from buckets, I found this picture (referenced as being from the Greco-Roman Dendera temple complex, but I think it’s older). It shows three different antelope species, the hartebeest is on the right. And two of them appear to be eating or drinking from cylindrical buckets.
This is an offering scene, representing a number of animals about to be sacrificed for the gods, or as a funeral offering for a wealthy person. It may not have any direct relevance for the Voynich imagery, but it does show that animals which were normally considered wild desert creatures could be captured and made to eat from buckets.
In summary, the Voynichbeasts ar very similar to the hartebeest antelope in appearance. There are various indications that hartebeests had a symbolic meaning throughout Egyptian history, and although the focus appears to lie in earlier periods, they were still captured by the Ptolemies as well. Most sources and images refer to them as sacrificial animals, just like other antelopes. And, finally, antelopes were depicted with their noses on cylindrical objects.
But what is the link between the Voynich bull/antelope eating from a basket, and Egyptian offering scenes? That is a subject for the next post.