Just a quick post to address two issues that came up in my previous posts. The images corresponded to Ovid’s stories rather well, but there were some things I had to set aside as “Voynich being weird as usual”.

One of them was the fact that, even though I refer to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Voynich draughtsman stubbornly refuses to draw a person in the act of transformation. In the case of Callisto, for example, we see Callisto as a nymph, skip the part where she becomes a bear, and go straight to her ultimate “goddess-as-constellation” form. In the story of Philomela, we see the sisters, and on another folio we see two birds, but we don’t get to see the women actually growing a pair of wings or something similar.

The second problem is that some male characters or constellations are depicted without genitalia or explicitly female. We’ll start with this issue, since it’s the easiest to address. Yesterday, while browsing the Warburg Institute website, I came across some “normal” manuscripts doing exactly the same. Without going into much detail, I will show a couple of examples here and refer to this post whenever I have to explain another Voynich sex change.

First, a picture of Heracles, the most manly of heroes, who is clearly missing a bit. There also appears to be some correspondence to Voynich nymph anatomy, since the demigod looks like he skipped too many sessions at the gym. If his head were a bit larger, he’s approach Voynich proportions quite well.

Revised Aratus Latinus, Tours, 809. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France → Nouv. acq. lat. 1614, fol. 85r.

That’s not really a woman though, is it? Maybe the artist just didn’t like drawing genitals. Okay, let’s see our next example then. It is from a 15thC copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the fixed stars (Latin translation) (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana → Pal. lat. 1369, fol. 148v).

Behold how the brave Herculea takes on the  fearsome Eagle, using a drugged cat as a shield.

 So well, let just agree that constellation-related sex changes are conceivable. This one, from a 15thC French copy of the Aratus (Reg. lat. 1324, fol. 29v) shows Cepheus in a normal way, but his wife Cassiopeia has been given a beard:


There are also examples of men dressed like women, and so on. In other words, it is not only the Voynich that acts weird when it comes to the the gender of the constellations. If “normal” manuscripts can submit Hercules to the above treatment, then the Voynich might as well depict male “abstract figures” with women’s bodies.

So now, on to the other point: people are never shown actually changing into animals, even when the narrative describes such changes. One explanation is that the VM depicts abstract concepts in deformed human (female) shape, often overruling the depiction of an animal. The “bear” constellation is still represented as the nymph Callisto.

I think that is the case, but still there appears to be some clue in the imagery that a transformation is taking place in the narrative. In the image below, I show four nymphs who are changing into animals, and one dragon which has been changed into a constellation. Nymph 1, 2 and 3 are about to become birds, while nymph 4 will change into a bear. There is a strange thing they have in common. See if you can spot it, before I give the answer 🙂 It is the clearest in nymphs 1 and 4, while nymph 3 is an ambiguous example.




Okay, here’s the answer: their hands are twisted. In nymph 1, you can see that the hand on the left has the thumb on the wrong side. It is physically possible to assume such a position (try it) but it’s very awkward and unnatural. Nymphs 2 and 4 have their palms turned outward in a similar way. I think nymph 3 as well, but there the drawing is less obvious.

And what about the dragon? Well, it’s scales run the wrong way. So what these five images have in common, is that a conscious effort has been done to include an unnatural, unexpected element. Of course the artist can’t tell us why he did this, but I suspect it’s been done to evoke the unnatural process of transforming into an animal, without actually drawing it. In that case – quite clever.

Ovid very often describes how characters see their hands change when they are “metamorphing”, so this might just be related to narrative elements as well. Either way, if the artist was not permitted to draw half animal/ half man kinds of creatures, or if he just didn’t want to, it looks like he found a clever way around the issue.