Today I will analyze the third myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses that is depicted in the Voynich Manuscript. So far, We have seen these stories:
- Philomela and her sister are turned into birds: this post and concluded in this one. Other parts of this story are told elsewhere, but I haven’t gotten around to posting those yet.
- Callisto and her son are turned into the “Bears” constellations: this post.
The folio we will study in detail now is f79v. There are a number of issues we will need to address, bottom to top:
- A number of strange, hard to identify animals.
- A nymph being half swallowed by a fish, by some also taken to represent a mermaid.
- A nymph handling what appears to be a pot of water. Nymph (2) is looking up at nymph (3).
- A nymph lying on her back, holding a ring.
- The flow of water between (3) and (4) turning a special shade of “dirty” green.
- A nymph on top holding a cruciform object.
- An prominent watery formation behind this nymph.
- A “wavy umbrella” above this nymph.
I have written about the nymph holding the cross before, in this post. There, I suggested the possibility that she represents the protective deity holding a standard (stylis) that was common on ships in antiquity. Nike, the goddess of Victory, was often depicted holding such a standard on coins. In Christian times, this stylis was reinterpreted as the Cross, as shown below.
So my conclusion was that this nymph might represent a ship’s protective deity, though I had no idea of how this related to the rest of the page. Let’s see if Ovid can guide us through the treacherous waters of this folio towards clarity.
These nymphs tell the first story of book 14 in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I used A.S. Kline’s translation for my analysis. Our story starts when the sea god Glaucus comes to “the halls of Circe, daughter of the Sun, filled with transformed beasts.”
This half sentence explains quite a lot already. Let’s have a closer look. We have watery halls filled with “transformed beasts” (Circe is a witch). The creatures pictured below are clearly “beasts”, but they are impossible to identify. The yellowish one on the bottom, for example, looks like a short-necked giraffe with a lion’s tail and fingers. Transformed beasts, check.
The sea god Glaucus is shown as well, though he has gotten the Voynich treatment of being transformed into a woman. I explain how and why this happened in this post. It all comes down to a series of subsequent copies. At some point, representations of male gods and constellations were drawn naked but without a penis. This allowed later copyists to interpret these figures as female, and depict them as such. I think something similar happened in the Voynich. Either way, there appears to have been a certain leniency when it comes to the gender of abstract representations. In our manuscript, they take the form of female or ambiguous nymphs.
Glaucus has come seeking Circe’s aid. He has fallen in love with the nymph Scylla, but she does not answer his love. He now begs for the help of the witch: “If there is any power in charms, utter a charm from your sacred lips: or, if herbs are more potent, use the proven strength of active herbs. I trust you not to cure me, or heal me, of these wounds: my love cannot end: only let her feel this heat.” In other words: let her love me like I love her.
The VM illustrator once again shows his skill here, playing with the implied difference in height between the figures. Glaucus is show down below in the murky water, a beggar among the beasts, directing his desperate gaze towards Circe.
The witch, however, does not like what she hears. She tells Glaucus that he should not desire those who don’t share that feeling, and that there are plenty of fish in the sea. Besides, she adds, Glaucus is “worth courting” and does not need aid. But, “if you doubt it, and have no faith in your attractions, well, I, though I am a goddess, daughter of shining Sol, though I possess such powers of herbs and charms, I promise to be yours. Spurn the spurner, repay the admirer, and, in one act, be twice revenged.”
So to put this in understandable words, Circe is in love with Glaucus herself. The sea god does not accept Circe’s relationship request, though, which angers her greatly. And we all know what happens when someone upsets a witch.
“The goddess was angered, and since she could not harm him (nor, loving him, wished to do so) she was furious with the girl, who was preferred to her. Offended at his rejection of her passion, she at once ground noxious herbs with foul juices, and joined the spells of Hecate to their grinding.”
This is what happens in the next image, and it explains the strange green color of the water flow as well: poison. Noxious fumes rising from her concoction, connecting this scene to the next.
Circe rushes towards a pool where Scylla bathes and poisons the water. This turns the once beautiful nymph Scylla into a horrible sea monster. At this point, however, the usual Voynich restrictions are imposed upon the narrative. In the transformations, half-man-half-animal beings are never depicted. Note how this is cleverly solved in the case of Glaucus, by having hem stand in the mouth of a large fish instead.
Scylla, though, follows the usual Voynich rules. She is shown as the end result of her transformation, but still in nymph form. Ovid concludes Scylla’s story by telling that she eventually “transformed into a rock, whose stone is visible even now: a rock that sailors still avoid.” This dangerous rock formation is evoked by the nymph lying on her back, suggesting that she herself became the terrain, as the tradition wills.
She is shown in the water, like an actual mountain on a coastline, her bottom arm extending dangerously into the waters while her other hand still carries the ring, symbolizing the fact that she was once desired by a god.
And that’s how far Ovid takes us. This story is a beautiful complement for the other ones we saw, because again it relates to sailing. We’ve had myths about winds and the most important constellations. Now we can add one about the dangers at sea to the list. All this leads me to conclude that “the cross” does indeed represent the protective deity’s standard
Readers acquainted with classical myth will probably object now: “if this nymph is Scylla, and the page is about divine protection at sea, then where is Charybdis?” That is a fair question; “between Scylla and Charybdis” is still an expression today, and also throughout history, these two would have been expected together. In Ovid’s day, Scylla was rationalized as a protruding rock near the coast – which we have seen. Charybdis was a large whirlpool on the other side of the strait, and sailors had to be extremely cautious when passing in between these two dangers. So where is this giant whirlpool?
Well, it’s right where it belongs… across the strait.
That’s Scylla and Charybdis, right there in the Voynich manuscript.
This leaves us with one more thing to explain: what is the umbrella above the protective deity’s head?
Let me be honest: when I don’t understand part of a Voynich image, I turn to D.N. O’Donovan’s blog and see whether she has written a post about the subject. I found one here, and about the “umbrella” she writes the following:
In this case, as in its other occurrences, the implication of combined ‘peg’ and canopy is that of the leading light and its associated protection
That seems suitable: there is no place where the protection of a leading light is more appropriate, than between Scylla and Charybdis.