The Voynich “nymphs” are tricky. They appear in many contexts, some relatively normal (bathing), some clearly metaphorical (standing naked in a circle around a “zodiac” image). I hadn’t thought much yet about connecting them to the rest of my work, exactly because they appear as such a random bunch.
There is a row of human figures on top of f80r. When discussing this folio in the Voynich forum, Marco Ponzi referred to a comment made by Daniel Myers, that one of the Nymphs appeared to be holding a spindle, a device to spin fibres into threads. I reproduce here the image provided by Marco, since it shows a convincing similarity:
This made me study the details of this folio for the first time, and soon I noticed something: all these figures are connected by a thread. At first, this seems like a border separating the images from the text, but I think it isn’t. No other illustration in the manuscript is “framed” like this. Hence, I thought, the thread must have a different meaning, probably relating to the spindle, and connecting all the characters in a way, like the thread of a story.
The logical next step was to look into which story could have been represented by these figures. I hunted down a number of spindle-related myths and started reading. Much to my surprise, one of the myths turned out to be part of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I have already written about how I think many plant mnemonics have been inspired by Ovid’s work (see Did Ovid write the Voynich?), so I was intrigued.
Conclusion: these “nymphs” tell the middle part of the myth of Philomela. They start with the pair on the right, moving to the left as the story progresses. It is possible that the other parts of this story are told elsewhere in the manuscript, but we will stick to the top of f80r for now.
I will cite directly from the translation of Ovid provided here. The relevant sections are “Bk VI:549-570 Philomela is mutilated“, and the next one: “Bk VI:571-619 The truth is revealed“. I will show each part of the above image, going right to left, adding the relevant Ovid quote and my own comments.
The relevant part of the story starts in the palace of Tereus, the king of Thrace. His wife is queen Procne. One day, Procne’s sister Philomela visits the palace, and the king develops a “passion” for her. Long story made short, the king abducts Philomela and rapes her, as was the custom in Greek myth. Philomela swears an oath that she will tell everybody about this evil deed…. The next scene is where the Voynich story starts. This is the matching line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The king’s anger was stirred by these words, and his fear also. Goaded by both, he freed the sword from its sheath by his side, and seizing her hair gathered it together, to use as a tie, to tether her arms behind her back.
And the image, the two figures on the right:
We see a woman with her hands behind her back, yet no visible rope, apart from her long hair. In darker ink, indicated by the blue arrow, we also see the spindle, which tells us that this woman is Philomela. She was given this attribute because of her renowned weaving skills. The male figure is Tereus, king of Thrace, who has raped her and is now afraid that she will live up to her vow of telling the world of his crime.
Next, Tereus cuts out Philomele’s tongue, making her mute. He locks her up and returns to the castle. He tells the queen that her beloved sister is dead. Ovid then tells how the queen tears off her clothes and laments her sister’s fate, which is shown in the next figure:
Meanwhile, Philomela is still trapped in a guarded building with thick, stone walls, unable to speak. She comes up with a plan, and “fastens her thread to a barbarian’s loom, and weaves purple designs on a white background, revealing the crime. She entrusts it, when complete, to a servant, and asks her, by means of gestures, to take it to her mistress. She, as she is asked, takes it to Procne, not knowing what it carries inside.”
So, before I show the next image, let me stress once again: we are looking for a purple design on a white background, shown by a messenger to a queen.
I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
Okay. Note how the messenger appears to be wearing the fabric, which might be a sign that the 15th century copyists probably didn’t fully understand this image but tried their very best to make sense of it.
Edit 1 May 2016: there is a possibility that the piece of fabric is used in a double purpose here. It is still the embroidery that holds Philomena’s message for her sister, but by the way it is draped around the messenger’s shoulders, it might also give the reader an additional hint. As D.N. O’Donovan explains in this post, the habit existed of denoting emissaries with shoulder covers. So this object conveys two messages at once: 1) this person is a messenger and 2) the message she bears is that of Philomela. Some typical Voynich efficiency.
Also, J.K. Petersen noticed that in some other translations of the story, the color of the cloth is “red on white”, which seems like a perfect match for this drawing.
So then, we continue: when the queen learns of her sister’s being captured, she “has no time for tears, but rushes off, in a confusion of right and wrong, her mind filled with thoughts of vengeance.” That’s the next figure:
Luckily, there is a distraction going on at night, which allows the queen to leave the castle and move unnoticed: ” It was the time when the young Thracian women used to celebrate the triennial festival of Bacchus”. She disguises herself and manages to reach her sister and set her free:
“She comes at last to the building in the wilderness, and howls out loud, giving the ecstatic cry of Euhoe, breaks the door down, seizes her sister, disguises her with the tokens of a wild Bacchante, hides her face with ivy leaves…”
That is the next image: the queen and her sister Philomela disguised as festival goers, dancing to mingle in with the crowd:
Brilliant. Notice how Philomela, the one on the left, is holding her hand behind her back. This implies to the viewer that she is hiding her attribute, the spindle. In other words: she is hiding the way by which she can be recognized! The blue-greenish colour in the queen’s hair are meant to depict the ivy leaves, the “tokens of a wild Bacchante”. This is how one went unnoticed through an Ancient Greek night.
When they reach the palace, Philomela is finally able to tell her story:
“Procne, once there, took off the religious trappings; uncovered the downcast face of her unhappy sister, and clutched her in her arms. But Philomela could not bear to lift her eyes, seeing herself as her sister’s betrayer. With her face turned towards the ground, wanting to swear by the gods, and call them to witness, that her shame had been visited on her by force, she made signs with her hands in place of speech.” And that is our final image:
Philomela, on the right, is gesturing wildly, and she is once again carrying her attribute in the open. The queen is looking on, anger and grief on her face.
Now, of course, the question is which other ones of Ovid’s stories are depicted by the “nymphs”. It may be hard to find, since we are dealing with a medieval copy of rather ancient originals. As can be seen in this story, the copyists tried their best to stay true to the story’s intent, though. There is still much to be learned.