The folio I will analyze in this post is f80v (link Davies). Below, I show an image of the way the narrative “flows” across this page. Note that I follow the images in order, without skipping one. It starts on the right, and from there the “water”, i.e. narrative, flows down, and loops around the bottom. Then the water appears to evaporate and “flow upwards”, all the way to the figure in the top left corner. She will be the conclusion of our story.
I think the flow of water and the pipes are a way to symbolically connect the scenes. When the water flows in an interrupted way, like on the left below, it means “read upwards”, while an uninterrupted pipe or “river” (right) means the narrative flows downwards as well. This makes me suspect that the “tubes” represent fountains or another device that implies an upward motion of water. Note how in English we can also compare a narrative to flowing water: a story has a flow, it can be meandering, someone can talk like a waterfall and so on.
Observant viewers may have noticed that I didn’t include the rop right figure in the narrative. She is perched high on her cloud, appearing to oversee the events with a stern face. This is exactly what she does in the story as well, and we will start with her.
Even without the directions of the narrative, it is clear to me that this person represents Hera/Juno, the wife of Zeus/Jupiter. Several arguments support this interpretation:
1. Overall apearance
This is the most subjective argument, so I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not it’s a convincing one. Here, I compare the figure to a first century Roman fresco of Juno:
The Voynich artist did a decent job of making her appear “beautiful”, as far as such a thing is possible in Voynich nymphs, and rather bitchy at the same time. I’m not an academic so I can use such words. Note the similar headgear, haircut, pose and even some physical features.
Hera/Juno’s most common attribute is her large diadem. A handful of the many examples:
Hera is very often associated with high locations, which allows her to keep an eye on her adulterous husband. The question of whether or not she can see Zeus getting it on with other women (…and men …and animals…) is often crucial in myths (spoiler: she usually finds out). I think the cloud she is standing on has to be taken almost literally here: she is watching from the heavens/ Mount Olympos. I’m not sure whether her gaze is directed at the events below, or at the nymph across the page. Either will work for our story.
If that isn’t enough evidence yet, we will see the narrative I propose also includes her in this way. The story starts in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk II:417-440. The translation I use can be seen here.
The narrative begins when Jupiter (Zeus) notices the nymph Callisto in the world below. She is a follower of Artemis/Diana, goddess of the hunt. Her name means “the most beautiful”, and when Jupiter sees her, he feels “the fire take in the very marrow of his bones“. If you know what I mean.
He notices that the girl is alone and unprotected in the forest, and decides to approach her. We know that the location is a forest because the VM illustrators kindly drew one plant-thing in the first image (above). This is when Jupiter mentions Juno, who is overseeing everything from high above: “Here, surely, my wife will not see my cunning, or if she does find out it is, oh it is, worth a quarrel!” In other words, he doesn’t care if she finds out. Callisto is so pretty that she’s worth a quarrel with his spouse.
I apologize to the reader at this point, since the Voynich does not use a lot of iconography in the next images, so we will have to rely on the narrative alone for a while.
Jupiter comes up with a plan, and “he took on the face and dress of Diana, and said ‘Oh, girl who follows me, where in my domains have you been hunting?’” He didn’t wait for her to answer and promptly started giving her “kisses unrestrainedly, and not those that virgins give.” Jupiter, still in female form, then proceeds to rape her, and Callisto, “face to face with him, as far as a woman could … she fought him, but how could a girl win, and who is more powerful than Jove?”- That is what we see in the next image:
When the horror is over, Callisto is left alone and disoriented in the grove. In the next picture, we see a new nymph happily storming onto the stage. This coincides with Ovid’s next sentence as well: “Behold how Diana, with her band of huntresses, approaching from the heights of Maenalus…”
Callisto joins them, as is expected of her, but she is ashamed by what happened and finds her feelings hard to hide. “Diana could sense her guilt in a thousand ways. They say all the nymphs could feel it“.
The following Voynich image (below) is unfortunately very faded, so let’s first see if we can make sense of it. One nymph is seen lying on her back in the water. I’m not sure, but I think she may symbolize a random nymph bathing, indication that many people witnessed the scene. Two other nymphs are seen standing. The one on the right looks very angry, and the one on the left has her hands on a big belly, and a puffy face. Let’s see if Ovid can help us make sense of this.
Nine months have passed, and the company arrives at one of Diana’s favorite streams, and she orders: “let’s bathe our bodies naked in the flowing water.” All of her followers happily obey, but Callisto tries to delay the inevitable. Finally “hesitantly the tunic was removed and there her shame was revealed with her naked body. Terrified she tried to conceal her swollen belly. Diana cried ‘Go, far away from here: do not pollute the sacred fountain!’ and the Moon-goddess commanded her to leave her band of followers.”
Bathing nymphs: check. Angry goddess: check. Hiding swollen belly: double check. I’m not sure why their hair is green though. My guess would be that they are branches and leaves woven into their hair. They are forest nymphs, after all. Here’s one example from a 3rd century mosaic found in the Roman city of Volubilis. This detail shows the head of a nymph bathing with Diana.
Ovid’s next sentence brings us back to Juno (Hera), the watcher from mount Olympos. “The great Thunderer’s wife had known about all this for a long time and had held back her severe punishment until the proper time. Now there was no reason to wait. The girl had given birth to a boy, Arcas, and that in itself enraged Juno.”
And now we get to the tricky part. Juno will transform Callisto into a bear, and then Jupiter, taking pity on her, will place her and her son in the heavens as the Bears constellations, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.
Ovid describes the onset of the transformation as follows: her “arms began to bristle with coarse black hairs: her hands arched over and changed into curved claws to serve as feet: and her face, that Jupiter had once praised, was disfigured by gaping jaws.” Which is depicted as follows:
A bit underwhelming, but we have seen in the previous post as well that the VM does not like to depict the actual process of metamorphosis. It does picks up on Ovid’s words though: the face looks more jaw-like, her hair has become darker, and most remarkably the hands are twisted around in an unnatural way.
Now the next picture is where it gets Voynichy, so bear with me. It represents the Little Bear constellation, Callisto’s son Arcas, as he is set in the sky. However, Arcas looks rather androgynous. His face says “man”, but his body says “woman”. I think an explanation could be found in the way D.N. O’Donovan interprets the “nymphs”: as personifications of abstract entities. Apparently, the Voynich defaults to female for these entities (constellations in this case), which is why we get a man with a woman’s body. If you find this difficult to cope with, just focus on the face (inset).
I am not sure how to interpret the item Arcas is carrying, since I’m no expert in ancient astronomy. Does it refer to Polaris, the most important star in this constellation? Is it simply a ring because the other stars circle around Polaris? I will leave this to people more qualified in this matter and will refer to this post by Diane O’Donovan discussing the importance of polar stars in Ancient cultures.
In between Arcas and his mother is one more image, one that has been discussed endlessly and has been interpreted as a sheep, a lizard, an armadillo, a pangolin and a dog, among other things. If we know that the manly figure is the Little Bear, though, the solution suddenly becomes rather obvious. In between the two Bears, arcing with its belly over the Little Bear’s head, is Draco, the icy dragon “that is nearest to the frozen pole”.
Finally, on the top left, we see Callisto restored to her former beauty, but bearing the marks of her treatment in her facial expression. These Voynich artists knew how to draw, if they wanted to. And, as if to complete the circle, exactly across the page from her we return to Juno, who is not happy to see the punishment she inflicted on her love rival undone. She laments: “Oh what marvellous powers I have! I stopped her being human and she becomes a goddess!”
Note how the lines under Callisto’s “cloud”, unlike those of Hera, have been colored blue, as if to suggest ice spikes due to her constellation’s proximity to the “icy pole”.
Finally, the item Callisto is holding. Diane O’Donovan has recently shared her findings about this figure, in this post. I agree with her conclusion that this item likely represents a tool that was used to determine one’s position on the earth. It seems suitable that Ursa Major carries such a symbol, because this constellation itself was of crucial importance for navigation at night. Maybe the “pointing” pose even alludes to Ursa Major’s stars as a convenient way to locate the pole star. Once again, I feel unqualified to unearth the exact meaning of this. I have reached these conclusions through an analysis of the narrative and iconography, not of the history of astronomy and navigation.
In summary, let’s return to the overview of the page and follow the movement of our protagonist. Her story starts in a neutral state, indicated by her position in the middle of the page on the right hand side (1). Then, her descent begins, both literally and figuratively, as she gets assaulted by Jupiter (2). She hits rock bottom when Diana, her mistress, finds out that she is no longer a maiden (3).
Her recovery is ironically initiated when Juno changes her into a bear – only the onset of this transformation is pictured (4). Finally, we witness her glorious ascent into godhood, as she and her son are placed in the sky on both sides of the icy Draco constellation (5). This shows how in this story the page design cleverly matches the contents: Callisto’s downfall to her ascent.
The focus on stories relevant to navigation (the winds in my previous post, and now the most important constellations), suggests that this is not an illuminated Metamorphosis, an hypothesis I have considered for a moment. Taking everything into account, I think this section still fits into the overall theme of MS Beinecke 408: Eastern trade routes. The imagery appears to add selected mythological background to this information.
Having seen all this, it is clear to me that this is not a product of Medieval European creativity either. I must once again agree with O’Donovan’s assessment of the imagery. Even though in this case it is based on Greek myth, it shows customs alien to European tradition, and has clearly been created much earlier than the Medieval period. MS Beinecke 408 is a stunningly accurate copy of an ancient, culturally hybrid original, a window into a lost world.
And the mystery animal is an Ice Dragon.