In my first post about the myth of Philomela as performed by the Voynich nymphs, I limited the analysis to the row of figures on top of f80r. I then wrote a second post about how Philomela’s tale is concluded in f86r-2, where we see two birds, a maiden and a wind spirit, just like in Ovid’s epilogue to this story. However, a number of scenes are still missing, so today we will discuss the full story.
As I mentioned here, the folios in this quire (=group of pages) are generally accepted to be out of order. Hence, I suggest the story of Philomela continues on f76v. This is what the flow of the story would look like:
Don’t worry if you can’t see the details, this image just provides an indication of how the story meanders down the page, then continues with the row on top and goes on straight to the page on its left. The numbers I added indicate in which order the images must be read.
As usual, I will use Kline’s translation, and we wil start here: Bk VI:486-548 Tereus forces Philomela. The Voynich nymphs summarize the whole story up until the very end of book VI. In this discussion I might alter some details of my initial interpretation. This post, being the most recent one, is to be taken as the one that reflects my current views. The difference is found mostly in the way the first, top right couple of nymphs connects to the rest of the page.
Our main characters are still the same:
Tereus, barbarian king of Thrace.
Procne, queen, Tereus’ wife. Daughter of the king of Athens.
Philomela, Procne’s sister. Trouble starts when Philomela visits Procne in Thrace. King Tereus is not able to control his lust, and rapes his sister-in-law.
As discussed in this post, two “Voynich oddities” are present in this story:
- Very often, male roles are played by female nymphs. In the post linked above, I provide a possible explanation. In short, some copies of Roman works would depict the naked male characters without genitalia, which resulted in men and women looking more or less the same. Scribes copying those works, in turn, would have a very hard time restoring the original gender of the figures. That is why there are examples of the constellation “Hercules” with a vagina and “Cassiopeia” with a beard. That is why after the first scene, our king Tereus will grow a pair of breasts – perfectly acceptable if we know the copyists were guessing on a nymph-by-nymph basis, without necessarily understanding what they were copying.
- The nymphs are seen as non-human “spirits”, embodiments of concepts. “Naked souls”, as O’Donovan calls them. As such, they cannot get wounded, lose limbs, transform into animals and so on. Attributes are extremely limited, no weapons are shown. This likely relates to the fact that the nymphs in these folios perform a double function, representing stars or constellations, winds… and mnemonically playing a role in the story at the same time. You don’t want the embodiment of a star to have its head chopped off, even if the mnemonic script would have it that way.
Our story starts when Tereus, the barbarian king, arrives with Philomela, his wife’s sister. Immediately, before the sisters have a chance to meet, he “took her to a high-walled building, hidden in an ancient forest, and there he locked her away“.
Then, “confessing his evil intent, he overcame her by force“. The Voynich, being a family friendly manuscript, does not depict the actual “overcoming by force” which the barbarian king did repeatedly. However, it does depict the next sentence, with Philomela on the left and the king, who has now gotten breasts, on the right.
She “dragged at her dishevelled hair, and like a mourner, clawed at her arms, beating them against her breasts. Hands outstretched, she shouted ‘Oh, you savage. Oh, what an evil, cruel, thing you have done.” So on the left we can clearly see Philomela with disheveled hair and an outstretched hand. Why does the king look shocked though? Well, Philomela swears a vow: she will tell everybody about what happened. “The skies will hear of it, and any god that may be there!” In other words, this is the face of a man who just heard that his wife will hear about how he raped her sister:
Seems about right. Of course, the king can’t have that happen, so he binds Philomela and “severed her tongue with his savage blade, holding it with pincers“. In the next image, we see the king on the left now, reaching for Philomela’s face. Philomela’s lower body appears to have been bound in some kind of net. Her left arm is bound as well, but in her right hand she holds a pair of pincers, which is a bit weird since the king should be holding them. I am fairly certain, however, that the nymph playing the king in this scene doubles as a star or constellation on the non-narrative level. That is why the pincers have been placed elsewhere in the scene. It does not say “this nymph is using pincers”, but rather “remember, this is the pincer scene where the tongue gets removed”.
After Philomela’s tongue is severed, it gets even worse, because “they say (though I scarcely dare credit it) that even after this crime, he still assailed her wounded body, repeatedly, in his lust.”
The king then leaves Philomela in a guarded prison, returns to Procne, his wife, and lies about Philomela’s fate, making up a story about how she died. The queen tears off her clothes in mourning and “lamented the fate of a sister, not yet due to be lamented in that way”. In the next picture, we do see the queen, slightly disconnected from the rest of the story, her face bearing the signs of grief.
I am not certain what the attribute represents. As often, these attributes are symbolical – perhaps related to the “constellation” layer of meaning, and only indirectly hint about the story. When I asked Diane O’Donovan – who studied the original, non-narrative meaning of these images – about this figure, I found certain elements of her reply rather striking: in her view the figure represents a “queen of the damned” type like Persephone, and the attribute relates to one entering the underworld – and returning, in some versions.
Procne is certainly a queen of the damned, because it is her marrying king Tereus that doomed their family. Additionally, she is pointing the attribute at the next figure across the page: Philomela, who is as this moment believed to be dead, but will soon return to the world of the living.
Let’s have a look at this next scene right away. A year has passed, and Philomela is still imprisoned. Eventually, she comes up with an ingenious way to tell her sister of her fate: she weaves a design, revealing the crime. This scene is depicted symbolically in the Voynich manuscript, but ever so brilliantly. We see Philomela actually picking up the flow of the story. She literally uses the threads of fate to weave a message.
Notice how Philomela, as she grasps the threads, appears to be looking up towards their source. Just to illustrate once again how brilliantly creative these images are, this is the full picture:
So we see her literally looking back to the moment when she got raped, grabbing the thread that runs through it, and weaving it into a depiction of the event.
The next few scenes are discussed in detail in my first Philomela post, so I will be very brief here. Philomela sends the woven cloth to her sister:
The messenger arrives and shows the purple-or-red-on-white pattern to the queen (the color depends on the translation):
Judging by the Queen figure’s elevated, prominent position, I think she represents a constellation as well. In other words, this is one of the cases where the meaning of the original matter is brought to the fore, within the mnemonic frame of the narrative.
Next, the queen, learning of the horrors committed by her husband and the fate of her sister, enters a frenzy. She storms towards the place where Philomela is imprisoned, together with some companions:
She sets Philomela free during the nightly festival. They blend into the crowd by dancing and weaving ivy in their hair, just like the other party goers:
They return to the palace and Philomela (right) uses wild gestures to explain everything to her sister (remember that she lost her tongue, literally, so she can’t speak).
The story then continues right next to the final figure, on the page to the left. Philomela and Procne decide to kill the king’s son, cook him in a pot, and serve the meat to the king as a meal. They attack the boy, and, when he realizes what is about to happen, “he stretched out his hands, knowing his fate at the last, crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’, and reaching out for her neck“. The Voynich does not depict extreme violence like cooking a person’s body parts, but it still manages to depict this scene remarkably well: we see the boy pleading for his life, his gaze directed at his mother and aunt on the page to the right. Behind him, a large kettle:
“Philomela opened his throat with the knife. While the limbs were still warm, and retained some life, they tore them to pieces. Part bubble in bronze cauldrons, part hiss on the spit: and the distant rooms drip with grease”.
Procne then invites king Tereus to the feast and sends away the servants. “Tereus eats by himself, seated in his tall ancestral chair, and fills his belly with his own child.” After a while he gets suspicious, and asks where his son is. The queen, “eager to be, herself, the messenger of destruction, she cries ‘You have him there, inside, the one you ask for.’ He looks around and questions where the boy is. And then while he is calling out and seeking him, Philomela, springs forward, her hair wet with the dew of that frenzied murder, and hurls the bloodstained head of Itys in his father’s face.”
This is wat we see in the next image: Philomela springing forward with a bloodstained head in het hand. Remember that the Voynich nymphs are naked souls, so their heads can’t be severed. Instead, Philomela is holding some strange object that resembles a head with bloody hair on the sides.
After this dramatic reveal, the king realizes that his son is now in his stomach. He furiously pursues the women, and they all turn into birds, fleeing in different directions. Like I said, the actual transformation is not depicted since these abstract souls cannot become birds, but the imminent metamorphosis is hinted at by having the characters’ hands twisted. They also assume a flight-like pose, and the king’s nose appears to grow:
Taking a closer look at the above image, we see first of all that the king spreads his arms like wings. In the hand on the right, we still see a chunk of meat/flesh. Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this image reveals how the 15thC copyists were uncertain about the characters’ gender.In this nymph it is particularly clear how both breasts have been added in darker ink, and how some erasing and/or correcting has been going on in the groin area. Because of examples like these, my guess is that in the immediate exemplars, most nymphs were genderless humanoid figures.
In the final two images, we see both sisters fleeing from the king, while starting to transform into birds as well: Philomela towards the roof of the palace, Procne towards the forest (not pictured). “One of them, a nightingale, Procne, makes for the woods. The other, a swallow, Philomela, flies to the eaves of the palace“. Philomela, under the roof, has been given a new attribute resembling three flowers. I think this relates to the actual, “constellation” layer and is supposed to help the reader identify which star or constellation is meant. There is no point in actually picking flowers while you are being pursued by a murderous serial rapist barbarian.
I have just passes the 2000 words-mark for this post, so this will be enough for now. In conclusion, I must say that the more I analyze this imagery, the more I am inclined to follow Diane O’Donovan’s interpretation of these folios as representing Hellenistic period astro-meteological information (source). What I add myself to this analysis, is my interpretation of the nymphs’ arrangement as a didactic evocation of Ovidian myth. What I think we see in these folios, is an attempt to make specialized Hellenistic concepts easier to digest and memorize for a later audience.