Some months ago, I wrote a post about how one of the small plants on the Mythological foldout symbolically refers to the three-headed hell hound Cerberus/Kerberos. There were, however, still some issues, which I will partially address today.
(Image: Roman statue of Cerberus in between the Ptolemaic deity Serapis and Isis/Persephone)
New readers are highly recommended to read the original post first, since we will build upon its conclusions.
The scene we are looking at is a very narrative one. It tells the part of the story where Hercules drags Cerberus into the sunlight for the first time, and the hell hound starts vomiting bile as a result. The image below is one I made for the original post, but somehow never got around to using. Possibly because I wrote “sick Cerby” on the vomiting Cerberus. And added faces. I’m way more serious now. Still, it serves our purpose.
We can ignore Hercules for this post and focus on Cerberus. His body is made up of the roots and the trunk of the tree. We can clearly see his serpent tail on the left, and two pairs of wobbly legs under the body. On the right, there is a white structure from which a leaf appears to sprout, something that does, as far as I know, not appear in nature. My addition of an eye should make it clear that this composition can be seen as a vomiting head. To the left of this head, there are two empty necks, suggesting a total of three.
That roughly summarizes the previous post. There are, however, two major problems:
- Why would anyone depict Cerberus with only one head and two empty necks? Hercules does not decapitate Cerberus, and definitely not twice.
- The label reads ROS (o)SA??. We expect the name of the symbolical figure to provide a hint to Greek speakers about the indigenous name of the plant or product. So “the local name for this plant sounds like X”. ROS (o)SA??, no matter how I twist or turn it, does not sound like KERBEROS (the original Greek name of Cerberus).
As it turns out, these two problems solve each other.
In my previous post, about the Monkey Butt Plant, we saw that the back end of a monkey was evoked, because we only needed the “back end” of the Greek word for monkey. In other words, the symbolical figure and its name form one, rebus-like entity. This may seem a bit far fetched, but remember that the originally intended audience knew that they were getting a linguistic hint. They knew the rules of the game. They knew that when only half a monkey was shown, they only needed that half of the word “monkey”.
The linguistic cue we get from the symbolic figure is KER-BE-ROS. Only the third head is shown. The label reads ROS… As the image below shows, in its original rotation, we can see the necks of Kerberos almost as counting fingers on a hand. The head is placed on the syllable we need, the third one: ROS. Like this, the symbolical figure worked into the plant confirms our label reading, at least for the first word.
So what does ROS mean? We have analyzed one other label that consisted of two words, perhaps not coincidentally the one belonging to the plant left of our Cerberus: Hercules. In the post where I discuss this plant, I concluded that the label refers to a product rather than the actual plant, in this case its wood. I read that label as “wood (of) teak” – respecting the proper word order in Indic languages. Interestingly, the word for “wood” was of Indo-Iranian origin, while the word for “teak” was Dravidian, that other major language family in India. This is not surprising at all, since even the English word “teak” is ultimately a loan from Dravidian.
If our “ROS” follows this pattern – the plants are adjacent after all – it would be the Indo-Iranian name for some type of plant product: wood, leaves, fruit, bark… The second part of the label would then specify from which plant it is.
Hercules-plant: WOOD of TEAK Kerberos-plant: ROS of OSA??
As it turns out, ras means “the sap or juice of plants and fruits” and “a beverage made of juice” in Indo-Iranian languages, going back to a common root in Old Indo-Aryan. Since we were expecting a plant product, a reading of the label as RAS, “juice”, is very likely.
The older form (Old Indo-Aryan, Sanskrit) was rasa. We must take this into account when reading the second word of the label, since it starts with a Voynichese “o”. This sound may have been misinterpreted as the onset of the second part of the word group, instead of the ending of the first. (ROSO SA?? instead of ROS OSA??).
The second part of the label will determine which kind of juice is referred to. The reading is made difficult because of two reasons:
- We don’t know whether the initial o- is part of the first word (and should hence be ignored).
- I don’t know yet how to read the last part of the word. It looks like a sequence of three i’s, with a flourish on the last one. This leaves a whole range of options open.
These are some of the possible readings:
- sam, osam, sem, asem, asam, osa?i, sa?i, se?i…
The final part is still unclear, though if we manage to identify this plant, it will mean a breakthrough in label reading.
What we know:
- it is a plant or fruit from which juice was derived
- this juice was a valuable trading commodity OR useful for a trader’s crew and/or ship
- the indigenous name of the plant or fruit starts with osa, ose, sa or se.
We do have some (minor) hints about the botanical aspects of the plant. The white structure appears to be a representation of the fruit (or nut, seed…) from which the juice is gained. The green thing emerging from it could be a leaf, which would be biologically impossible yet serve the purpose of showing the tree’s leaves for identification. It might also represent a jet of juice emerging from the opened fruit.
- For good measure, let’s have a look at the Mediterranean during the Hellenistic period. We know that the three most common “amphora commodities” were olive oil, wine and fish sauce. None of those are good candidates, since nothing in the plant suggests a grape vine or olives, and fish don’t even grow on trees.
- This leave open the more likely option of an oil or juice imported from India, or used as provisions by travelers there.
I have long considered sesame oil, which was the main type of oil used in India. There are some similarities between the shape of the sesame seed and the white structure on the one hand, and the shape of the leaves on the other. Arguing against sesame is the general wooden, tree-like appearance of the plant.
A second option is the juice of one of the many Citrus varieties, many of which were valued for a wide range of applications (culinary, medical, perfumery, religious ceremonies…). One candidate is Citrus medica, called citron in English, though it is unclear why specifically the juice should be mentioned, since the bulk of the applications are found in other parts of the fruit. Furthermore, I have not been able to find a satisfactory match for any possible label reading.
I will leave it at this from now and hope that perhaps a reader with more knowledge of plant juices might offer some insights.