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 this third installment, we will expand our list of the constellations that are represented on folios f76v, f79r, f79v, f80r and f80v. As I’ve explained in posts (1) and (2), I think these five folios contain anthropomorphic depictions of the classical constellations, structured in the mnemonic form of Greco-Roman myth.
Before we continue, I will first mention some new insights about these pages in general. These posts are a reflection of my ongoing research, so changes happen:
- Given the fact that visual parallels are found in Greco-Roman artifacts and early manuscripts based on the same tradition (like a Revised Aratus Latinus or an Aratea, both early 9thC) and the fact that reference is made to the relative position on the Great Circles, it seems safe to assume that the underlying system is astronomical. This replaces the previous hypothesis that these five folios were based on a lesser known system for navigation.
- While the Farnese Atlas statue offered an attractive visual starting point, I have explored a large number of other sources since. It appears that especially early works based on Aratus often provide a better match. That shouldn’t mean yet that the Voynich system is directly based on Aratus though – we must identify more constellations first.
- It is possible that vertical water flows represent the Ecliptic rather than just any celestial Circle. The Ecliptic is the line described by the Sun, and it stands at an angle compared to the celestial Equator, Tropics and Poles. Note how in the example below, the constellation of Gemini is divided by three parallel lines (i.e. the ecliptic) on the Farnese Atlas, and three (!) lines in the Voynich. In that case, interruptions in the line might indicate the segments of the Zodiac, though at this stage it is too early to fully confirm this.
- I have counted the figures on these five pages that might represent a constellation, and, depending on what counts and what doesn’t, the amount ranges from 43 to 54. So the number of constellations that are depicted will lie somewhere between those values. The amount of constellations listed by early Greek astronomers all lie within this range, with the 48 listed by Ptolemy as the most famous example. Hence, purely based on the number of nymphs (and animals), it is possible that every classical constellation is depicted here. Of course there can be deviations. The Farnese Atlas, for example, omits a handful of constellations that are mentioned in its most likely sources, and adds one unknown rectangular structure. There’s also the matter of the wandering stars, which might account for up to five nymphs.
So, let’s get down to business. First, here’s an overview of the ancient constellations as listed by Ptolemy, including their original Greek names. In green are those constellations we have identified in the previous posts. Items marked in blue are ones which I still consider uncertain. Those may get shuffled around in the end, if a better candidate turns up. If there is one thing one learns quickly when studying the Voynich, it is that things are always less certain than they appear.
Ursa Minor, Ἄρκτος μικρά (Arktos Mikra)
Ursa Major, Ἄρκτος μεγάλη (Arktos Megale)
Draco, Δράκων (Drakon)
Virgo, Παρθένος (Parthenos)
Libra, Χηλαί (Chelae)
Corona Borealis, Στέφανος (Stephanos)
Sagittarius, Τοξότης (Toxotes)
Hercules, Ἐνγόνασι (Engonasi)
Capricornus, Αἰγόκερως (Aigokeros)
Aquarius, Ὑδροχόος (Hydrochoös)
Cygnus, Ὄρνις (Ornis)
Pisces, Ἰχθύες (Ichthyes)
Auriga, Ἡνίοχος (Heniochos)
Eridanus, Ποταμός (Potamos)
Lepus, Λαγωός (Lagoös)
Serpens, Ὄφις (Ophis)
Canis Major, Κύων (Kyon)
Sagitta, Ὀιστός (Oistos)
Canis Minor, Προκύων (Prokyon)
Aquila, Ἀετός (Aetos)
Delphinus, Δελφίν (Delphin)
Hydra, Ὕδρος (Hydros)
Equuleus, Ἵππου προτομή (Hippou protome)
Pegasus, Ἵππος (Hippos)
Corvus, Κόραξ (Korax)
Triangulum, Τρίγωνον (Trigonon)
Lupus, Θηρίον (Therion)
Aries, Κριός (Krios)
Ara, Θυμιατήριον (Thymiaterion)
Corona Australis, Στέφανος νότιος (Stephanos notios)
Gemini, Δίδυμοι (Didymoi)
Piscis Austrinus, Ἰχθύς νότιος (Ichthys notios)
As you can see, we still have quite a way to go, so let’s add some more color to the list. First, a rather certain identification, the constellation of Ara, the altar. The mythology around it is not as expansive as is the case with some other constellations. In most cases it is an altar, upon which offers are burned.
Depictions of Ara vary, ranging from a relatively simple altar to a flame-bearing tower, to some kind of chapel. I believe it is the tower type which is alluded to in the Voynich. These Altars are taken from early revised versions of Aratus‘ work. We also see the tower mentioned in the description by Manilius: Ara ferens turris, stellis imitantibus ignem – A tower bearing the Altar, stars imitating the fire. This fire or its smoke was the Milky Way.
In the Voynich most constellations are portrayed by nymphs, who simultaneously play a part in a mythological scene. The nymph in the middle above is king Tereus’ son, about to be killed by Procne (his mother) and Philomela (his aunt), as I discussed in this post. They will cook him and serve his flesh to the king to get their revenge. There lies the first mnemonic link between myth and constellation: in both cases there is a sacrifice, and in both cases it is put on the fire. Ovid describes the scene in much the same way as one would describe the slaughter of an animal.
“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” – Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
However, there is a second mythological link between this scene from the story of Philomela and the Ara constellation. This is where the original creator of these images really shines as a master of synthesis. First of all, remember that this scene is about a mother cooking her son to feed him to his father. The Ara constellation, being an altar, was also associated with the goddess Vesta (Gr. Estia), to the extent that Vesta was one of the constellation’s titles (source). And apart from the goddess of sacrifice, Vesta was also the goddess of fire and the hearth. “Every hearth had its Vesta, and she presided over the preparation of meals“(source).
The goddess closely associated with this constellation, was also the goddess of the family hearth, watching over the preparation of meals. The Altar coincides with a scene where a boy is about to be slaughtered, cooked and served.
And that is how mnemonics work.
And now for something completely different. We will move on to the most exciting constellation of all: the Triangle. Behold its glorious depiction in the Paris Aratea (Nouv. ac. lat. 1614):
Unfortunately, this constellation was omitted from a number of sources, including the Farnese Atlas, despite its ancient origin. Manilius describes it as follows:
“There follows, with two equal sides parted by one unequal, a sign seen flashing with three stars and named Deltoton, called after its likeness”. [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century A.D, p.33]
The ancient Greeks called the constellation Deltoton, like the capital letter, D, delta (Δ), in the Greek alphabet. It was associated with the fertile delta of the river Nile since ancient times. Herodotus (5thC BCE) called it “the gift of the Nile”(source).
And that’s about all we can say about it: three stars, represented either with three equal sides or one side of different length, ancient association with the Nile Delta. So here’s the Voynich Triangulum/Deloton. I included some of the area below it for context – it’s located above the nymph I analyzed as the constellation Cetus, just like in real life.
As you can see, there is a unique pipe formation here, with three smaller pipes gathered around the main one for no apparent reason. Their openings represent the three stars of Triangulum, and they form the shape of a triangle.
It wouldn’t be the Master of Synthesis at work here if there wasn’t an extra hint added, though. Take a look at the bottom of the picture, where the water falls from the “pipe” into the Green water. This is not the typical “three parallel lines” depiction of the water flow that might represent the Ecliptic like we saw in the Gemini picture.
Remember the association with the Nile delta, and now look again at the flow beneath the Triangle. Note how the lines branch out in the shape of a… Delta. Also know that maps were often drawn with North and South reversed before “North=up” became the standard. So if we adjust the image to what we are used to, it would look like this:
That’s a decent Nile Delta, for a mnemonic at least. Given the fact that the lore originally surrounding Deltoton was relatively limited, one cannot help but marvel at the the artists’ creativity.