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.
In my previous post, I explained how I think a handful of folios in the Voynich bathing section contain references to classical constellations. This “informative” first later has been edited later, molding the representations of the stars into actors playing selected scenes from Greek myth. In other words, these folios want to teach about the constellations using mythological stories the audience was more familiar with.
What I am trying to figure out now, is how the second layer rearranged the first one. How was the “dry scientific matter” made more palatable with a mythological sauce? The two hypotheses I want to test are the following:
1. Prominent nymphs or their attributes represent (likely Greek) constellations.
2. A vertical flow or horizontal surface of water represents a relevant line on a celestial globe (e.g. the celestial equator, the Tropics…)
What we shouldn’t forget, is that the audience of the creative, mnemonic edit likely had access to the accompanying text in an intelligible form. So even though the illustrations contain a lot of information, they alone may not explain everything clearly. But we will try.
The following is to be considered a work-in-progress attempt to uncover the contents of the original layer, the dry astronomy, using the mnemonic narratives provided by layer (2) as a guideline when necessary. In this post, I will start by comparing our Voynich nymphs to the constellations depicted on the Farnese Atlas, the best visual representation of a Hellenistic era celestial sphere we have left today.
The Atlas is just a starting point for now. It is very likely that other sources will provide better matches! Once again, this is a work-in-progress post, an initial test of the concept. See the large footnote under this post for a short summary on my views on the manuscript’s timeline.
As a main source, I will use a paper transcription of the constellations carried by the Atlas. The full image can be viewed here, and this is what the California Map Society says about it:
This paper transcription from the Farnese Atlas was drawn in stereographic projection by Martin Folkes. It appeared in the 1739 edition of Manilius’ Astronomicon ex Recensione et cum Notis Richardi Bentleii, edited by the English classicist Richard Bentley. 25.9 X 52.1 cm. Note many of the classical Greek constellations, the zodiacal constellations along the triple lines indicating the region around the center ecliptic line, the gaps representing areas of damage or places where Atlas is holding the globe, and a picture of the statue in the lower center.
Because the globe shows the constellations from an outside perspective, we have to mirror the image for proper comparison:
Bradley Schaefer (2005) lists the following constellations visible on the Farnese Atlas: Draco, Cepheus, Boötes, Corona Borealis, Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Aquila, Delphinus, Pegasus, Andromeda, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces, Cetus, Orion, Eridanus, Lepus, Canis Major, Argo, Hydra, Crater, Corvus, Centaurus, Lupus, Ara, and Corona Australis.
The following constellations are missing, either because they are under Atlas’ hands, got removed by the damage on top of the globe, or by mere omission by the sculptor: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Canis Minor, Piscis Austrinus, Triangulum, Sagitta (arrow, not to be confused with Sagittarius). Additionally, a mysterious rectangular structure was added above Cancer. Schaefer thinks this was added by the sculptor, and may represent a certain comet.
Let’s start on familiar territory. I’ve written a lot about the nymph with the cross, who represents the stylis (Hellenistic naval standard) on the constellation Argo. As a reminder, I show below a coin of Alexander the Great with a Nike with stylis (there are hundreds of those), Argo from the Atlas and the Voynich cross nymph.
What we see on the Atlas, is that Argo is intersected horizontally by the Tropic of Capricorn, cutting through the bottom part of the naval standard. The ship itself is under the Tropic. Now look at the water our nymph is standing in. The ship-like structure is under the water surface, as well as the nymph’s feet. If we take this image as mnemonic rather than scientifically precise, it shows rather well where Argo intersects with the Tropic.
Great, let’s see what else we can find. In my last post, I suggested as well that the nymph with pincers might refer to the constellation of Cancer. The crab is cut in half by the Tropic of Cancer (who’d have thought).
Now look at the nymph’s legs. They are shaped like another pincer. One pincer is above the surface of the water, the other below, and the strange dress she is wearing might represent the crab’s carapace, since it’s cut in half by the water’s surface. As a mnemonic, it works: half above the Tropic, half below.
What else have we got? This is an exploratory post, so I’ll just take them in random order. Let’s have a look at Gemini, on the Farnese Atlas represented by two nude figures embracing side by side. They are looking away from us, which is due to the globe’s “outside” perspective. They are more or less separated by the tropic of Cancer, which I’ve highlighted in blue. I’ve also added the relevant Voynich nymphs.
The posture is slightly different, especially in the way the arms are clasping, but the resemblance is close enough. In this exploratory post, I won’t look yet for which tradition provides the best match for the Voynich nymphs. So far, our hypothesis holds: the flow of water separates the nymphs like the lines on the celestial sphere. Also note that these nymphs have their feet visible, and they are not standing in water (thought their feet do touch a “border”, just like in the Atlas).
And now for the kicker.Remember how in this post I analyzed the mnemonic as the story of Ceyx and Alcyone. A major plot point in this myth, is that Morpheus takes on the physical form of Ceyx to visit his wife in a dream. So this story is about one guy taking on the exact same physical appearance of the other guy. Two guys who look the same. As a mnemonic for the constellation of the Twins.
On the same page, we see a nymph I interpreted as the personification of a storm. This seems like a suitable candidate for the constellation of Hercules, but there are some problems, both in the orientation of the figure, the pose of the legs and the various overlaps with circles.
- To get this match, I had to mirror Hercules the other way as well, deviating a lot from the original.
- Voynich head does not cross a line
- Voynich figure is not kneeling
- Voynich right hand crosses a line
- Voynich feet float freely
A better candidate may be the figure of Andromeda, whose overall pose does offer a close match for that of the Voynich nymph. Another important parallel is found in the wiggly line touched by the figures’ raised hands. In the constellation, this is the line between the fish of Pisces, while in the Voynich mnemonic this line is a large wave. Furthermore, the feet touch no horizontal circle, while the lowered arm on the left does cross the Tropic.
Let’s continue. In my post about Callisto I concluded that two nymphs and one lizard represented Ursa Minor, Ursa Major and Draco. This area of Atlas’ sphere is completely damaged, so we’ll skip those for now. The next example is the following nymph who appears to correspond to the constellation of Perseus. For better comparison I add to the bottom left a Perseus from a 809 CE French manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France → Nouv. acq. lat. 1614, fol. 87v).
Perseus is generally depicted holding a Gorgon head in one hand and raising a weapon in the other. The Voynich mnemonic tells us that this nymph is, indeed, holding a head. Why not just draw a real head, though? I think layer (3) taboos don’t allow for the realistic depiction of such things, which may also be why all weapons are omitted. A close match is found in the general depiction of Perseus’ pose, the head, and the fact that a foot/feet touch the water/tropic of Cancer.
Next up, we have the constellation of Cetus, which is normally some kind of sea monster. Because of the mnemonic overlay, however, the part is played by the ugly yet benevolent sea god Glaukos.
The parallels in the layout are striking though. In both cases, the fish tail is flirting with the surface of the water/Tropic. Both upper bodies are entirely above water. The most convincing similarity, however, might be in the positioning of the upper arm. In the Atlas, the monster’s arm rests on the constellation of Eridanus, a river, nicely following its curve. How similarly is the Voynich figure’s arm draped around the edge of the water, as if leaning on it.
There is more, but I will post those later. For now, this should be enough.
 Footnote on the different “layers” and how I currently see them, all subject to change:
As I explained in the previous post, I think the so-called “bathy section” consists roughly of four layers. For the first, third and fourth layer I follow Diane O’Donovan’s conclusions.
- At the core, the informative layer. This is the basis of the section, its actual contents. For these particular folios, this content originated in the Hellenistic era, and it relates to constellations and navigation.
- Second, a mnemonic layer. This was added during the first centuries CE, very roughly speaking between 10 CE and the rise of Christianity as the dominant culture in the Roman empire. Likely in Alexandria. It aims to present the original, informative layer in a way that makes it easier to remember for the readers. It does so by creatively molding the information about constellations into a mythological narrative. Very simply put, we see anthropomorphic representations of constellations acting out stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (= essentially Greek myth). This layer determined the layout of what we see now, and part of the appearance of the nymphs. The detection and description of this layer and its interaction with the first one is what I consider my own contribution to Voynich studies.
- Third, influences from later Eastern cultures affect the imagery. This is mostly a stylistic change. In the bathy section, I don’t think much information was added during this period, but the physical appearance of the nymphs was altered significantly.
- Fourth, the manuscript is copied in 15th century Europe with little change and without any intellectual input.
Again, very simply put:
- Origin of information –> Hellenistic period.
- Rearranged as naked people doing weird stuff around water –> First centuries.
- Redrawn as naked people with unrealistic proportions, faces made ugly, certain taboos are applied… –> in between, by different cultures.
- Copied –> 15th century Europe.
And still in another, even more simplified way:
- intellectual origin
- creative adaptation
- stylistic alterations (likely in various phases), conservation of content
- conservation of content, only minor alterations
Applied to the following image, layer (1) explains the attribute held by the nymph on the right and possibly the relative position of the figures and the water, (2) explains the interaction between the nymphs and most of their particularities, (3) explains why they appear deformed and unnaturally proportioned, and (4) explains why we still have access to these images today.