In my last post, I promised to continue the story of Voynich antelope sacrifice. This will have to wait a bit though, because I identified another myth from the Mythological Foldout (recto side), which I want to share first.
Just to remind readers what this is all about: the f89 foldout, both sides, is special (you can see it on Jason Davies’ site). It contains many plant pictures, like other folios in this section of the Voynich manuscript, but the plants on this particular foldout have gotten a special treatment: they contain hidden references to Greek mythology.
Why? Because this section (the root and leaf section), how I see it, is a tool to teach Greek speakers the foreign names for plants and plant products that were important in the intercontinental trade. Saffron, pepper and cinnamon, just to name a few. The hypothesis is that these “Greeks” were professionally involved in the Eastern trade, for example as merchants or as officials in a Greco-Roman centre like Alexandria.
The mythological images are mixed with the actual image of the plant to help the reader remember the local name of this plant. For example, if the Hindi name for a plant or plant product sounded a bit like “Heracles”, the artist would try his best to blend the image of the plant with elements that remind the reader of “Heracles”, for example a leaf shaped like Heracles’ club. As I have explained before, such practice (mnemonics) dramatically increases our ability to remember otherwise untransparant words (like the names of plants in foreign languages), and the Ancients were masters of memory.
So, schematically, this is a potential scenario:
- A scholar/scribe in Greco-Roman Alexandria is commissioned to gather information about Eastern plants and their names.
- He finds this information in the library, where countless books, scrolls and papyri have been collected from all incoming ships.
- He finds images of the most relevant plants and their local names.
- He matches each foreign plant name with a word his (Greek speaking) client is more familiar with.
- He draws these plants and at the same time makes them evoke the familiar word (=name from a myth)
- The client reads the foreign plant names, figures out the puzzle-like images and has a much easier time remembering the new vocabulary.
AND…… (many steps later) –> These documents, like they have been copied and adapted over the centuries and by different cultures, reach mainland Europe, where they are copied as part of MS Beinecke 408.
What I am trying to do, is uncover the first, Greco-Roman stratum, which is still present in the imagery.
Now, to get to the topic of this post: we will examine the plant pictured below (for those keeping track of my increasingly complicated naming system, it’s plant rD3). Viewers at home can play along and guess which myth this plant refers to, and how. The roots and the leaves depict two separate parts of the scene.
I had considered this plant a number of times, but never came to a decent conclusion. The root seems like a tumbling or flying human being, sans head as usual, but I had no idea what to make of the leaves.
Yesterday though, I took a better look at the label, and noticed that the second word seemed familiar. I read it as /kirios/ or /kurios/, which brought to mind the Ancient Greek word for “ram”, KRIOS. I still remembered this word from the research I did when writing the Golden Fleece post – these mnemonics really work :). I’m not certain about the first glyph of the first word, but it may be an ornate /i/, in which case the full label reads /iasom kirios/.
But let’s start with the clear part. So think “sheep” and have another look at the leaves, including their stalks.
It’s a bit out of balance because the botanical properties of the plant dictate that they connect to the root in one point, but all in all that’s a decent sheep. (Especially if you take into account the beings that are allowed to pass for sheep in Voynich studies). They even gave it little hooves!
So before I knew it, I had a surprise match between part of the label and part of the image. Then my next question was, as usual: is this a narrative mnemonic or an emblematic one? In other words, does it rely on the reader’s familiarity with a certain story, or rather with an iconic image? As far as I know, there are no truly iconic Hellenistic images of sheep with a floaty humanoid form under their hooves, so I looked into narrative mnemonics.
Since all story-related mnemonics so far are at least mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this text seemed like the best place to start. Ovid mentions two related stories involving the same ram. First, briefly, the story of Phrixus and Helle, and then in more detail the story of Jason and the golden fleece. As we will see, this mnemonic most likely refers to the first story.
In short, it goes as follows: Phrixus and his twin sister Helle are about to be killed by their stepmother Ino. At the last moment however, they manage to escape on the back of a flying ram with golden wool. The flight was not a smooth one, since halfway through Helle fell and drowned in the sea that would henceforth be known as the Hellespont. Phrixus does arrive at his destination, and in gratitude to Zeus sacrifices the ram that saved his life. Okay, it was on the ram’s own request, but that doesn’t make it any weirder.
This ram’s pelt (=fleece) would then be hung in a tree guarded by a dangerous serpent. It is exactly this Golden Fleece that Jason would later be tasked to retrieve in the Argonautica, one of the greatest literary works from the Hellenistic period.
So now the element we’re looking for to explain the humanoid shape of the roots, is a person either hanging on to the flying ram, or falling during the flight. Just to get an idea about how the Ancients pictured this scene, I looked up some of the few surviving depictions of the “flight on ram” scene and compared the human figures to the roots, mirrored where necessary for better comparison. The results are, well, see for yourself:
Even though the original artist has never seen these images – the “flying ram with person” is not an iconic type – the resemblance is still striking. Apparently people throughout history tended to depict someone clinging on to a magical flying sheep for dear life in more or less the same way – be it on a vase, a mirror, terra cotta or Voynich roots.
Given the evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that this myth formed the basis for our mnemonic. It is possible that the label sounds a bit like “Jason’s Ram”, which would be suitable because this is, after all, the same ram as the one in Jason’s story. My tentative label reading of /iasom kirios/ surely points in that direction. But I’ll have to identify the plant and its local name before we can be sure about that.
 There is a definite possibility that the original artist did not blend the plants with the mnemonic images. The plant image and the mnemonic image (e.g. Heracles) would have been pictured separately, so a normal plant drawing with a normal Heracles drawing. The blending of botanical and mnemonic image could have happened in a later copy. I have good reasons to believe this, but they are too complex to explain here.
(header image from dylazuna on deviantart)