Edit 19 June 2016: the contents of this post, like the others in the series, do not necessarily reflect my current views. While writing my paper, I have come to a better understanding of the systems involved. Please refer to this soon-to-be-published paper for an updated analysis.
These last few posts, I’ve been talking about the nymphs on some folios as if they were a troupe of ugly, androgynous actors performing selected scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
I’ve also referred to stars, constellations and navigation.
So what is it all about, really? It’s time for me to publish one complete, clear example that illustrates what I think these images actually are. My analysis applies to what is generally called the “bathy” section, apart from bifolios 78-81 and 75-84. These are related, though different in construction and general appearance, as observed by many before me (Pelling and others).
About the base level of meaning, I follow Diane O’Donovan’s assessment that the material contained in the bathy section originated in Hellenistic times. She stresses that the nymphs are never to be taken as literal “people”, but that they are rather embodiments of stars or abstract ideas related to navigation. In her view, a nymph can refer to several things at the same time, for example a city, its associated deity, a ship and/or a relevant star.
In this post, for example, she interprets the image below as representing a maritime map, with the nymphs representing a specific type of ships and/or stars needed for navigation. Note that this is one of the folios I do not include in my own study.
I largely agree with this analysis, although at the moment I think a number of folios depict constellations rather than single stars. Considering the enormous range of interpretations given this section, this is almost a detail in the grand scheme of things. So I want to make it very clear that as far as the original, actual purpose of these images goes, I agree with Diane’s conclusions.
A significant aspect I do add to O’Donovan’s findings, is that this original material appears to have been edited in the first centuries CE. At this stage, the nymphs have been rearranged in a mnemonic way, referring to popular Greek myth. What I take from this, is that one of MS Beinecke 408’s ancestors was aimed at someone living in the first centuries who wanted or needed to learn the rather specialized subject of navigation in the context of the Eastern trade routes.
So the unfamiliar subject, in this particular case Hellenistic constellations, was edited and arranged in a way that made it easier to remember. This was cleverly done by depicting these constellations as enacting some well-known myths: the same ones we find in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Often these myths explain the origin of constellations or meteorological phenomena, adding another mnemonic layer to the whole.
After this phase, I follow O’Donovan’s proposed timeline again: in later copies, elements of Eastern custom and certain tabus entered the imagery. This is why the nymphs look rather deformed, far from the ideal representations of the human body we see in Hellenistic art. I do think that the nymphs’ nakedness might be a relic from my proposed stratum. In the Greco-Roman art of the first centuries, we see more complete nudity than in previous and later times – but there are other possible explanations for this as well. As a final step, this material was copied in 15th century Europe, without much creative or intellectual input by the European copyists.
So basically, I see the following evolution of these particular folios. The second step is mine, the others are how I interpret O’Donovan’s findings:
- Hellenistic knowledge about the stars and navigation is written down.
- Somewhere in the first centuries CE, these documents are gathered and edited to make them easier to understand and memorize. What we get, is a celestial map enriched with Ovidian narratives.
- This material later travels East, because ultimately that’s what it’s made for: to navigate the Eastern trade routes. Evidence of eastern custom enters the imagery.
- By the 15th century, some of this material is copied in Europe.
So now, the example of how this all works. Let’s return to the cross, and drive in the final nail.
I have written about this nymph before. In this post, which was written before I undestood much about this section, I suggested that the attribute could be a stylis, an often cruciform pole or standard that was placed on the stern, the back part, of ships during Hellenistic times. It represented the ship’s tutelary deity, its divine protector. Keeping this deity happy would protect the ship and crew from the many dangers of navigation.
Later, in this post, I analyzed the mnemonic, mythological narrative of the page, concluding that it told the origin story of Scylla, who together with Charybdis represented the greatest danger for sailors and their ships. In the days of Ovid, Scylla and Charybdis were no longer seen as the Homeric monsters, but rather as a dangerous rock formation near the coast, and a destructive whirlpool. Both of these are depicted, Scylla as a nymph lying on her back and Charybdis as, well, a whirlpool. It doesn’t always have to be complicated.
In the image above, we can see how the nymph with the cross appears to stand on the rear deck of a (half) ship that is passing in between the dangers (encircled in red).
Now, the mythological narrative explained quite a lot about the nymphs, but not everything. One thing I noticed, is that whenever a nymph carries an attribute, this is not mentioned in the source text. There is no character with a cross or any other cruciform object in the myth of Scylla. And Scylla, the nymph lying on het back in the above picture, is not said to carry around an oversized ring.
Hence my hypothesis: any attributes likely refer to the original, actual contents. As I will show, I think nymphs holding an attribute might represent constellations.
So in summary, the cross is a stylis (naval standard associated with divine protection), and we see the back end of the ship passing through a danger zone. The dangers are mnemonic, and they help the intended audience memorize the constellation represented by the cross. So why do I think this nymph is to be seen as a constellation, and not a single star, a city, a person, a goddess or a transsexual Jesus?
Let’s ask this man:
This marble statue is known as the Farnese Atlas. It is believed to be a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. On his back, Atlas does not carry the earth, but rather a celestial sphere, a globe of the constellations surrounding the earth, as they were imagined to appear from the perspective of the gods.
In this article (pdf), Bradley Schaefer argues that the celestial sphere carried by this Atlas reflects the constellations as presented by Hipparchus, “(b. Nicaea, Bithynia–d. after 127 BC, Rhodes?), Greek astronomer and mathematician who discovered the precession of the equinoxes, calculated the length of the year to within 6 1/2 minutes, compiled the first known star catalog, and made an early formulation of trigonometry.”
Hence, if we want to find a Hellenistic era image of a constellation represented as the back end of a ship and sporting a prominent stylis, this might be the most relevant place to look, since these may be the only authentic images of Hellenistic era constellations we have left. The half-ship part is easy: the constellation Argo Navis was often drawn as the stern of a ship. So without further ado, here’s the Farnese Atlas’ Argo Navis, compared to that in the Voynich manuscript. The images from the Atlas have been mirrored, since the “outsider perspective” requires this for proper comparison.
Based on these observations, I propose the following hypotheses:
- Nymphs in this section holding an attribute represent constellations.
- Put together, these folios form a map of the sky.
- The flows of water and pools in these folios either represent corresponding bodies of water on earth, or are references to the various circles around the celestial sphere.
Finally, as a bonus, a second Voynich-Farnese couple:
To be continued.