Disclaimer: this post will be more speculative than usual. It is to be read as a possible hypothesis rather than a fully fleshed out analysis. It may even have nothing to do with MS Beinecke 408 at all. Read at your own risk.
After …forty days’ journey on land one takes another boat and in twelve days reaches a big city named Meroë, said to be the capital city of the Ethiopians. The inhabitants worship Zeus and Dionysus alone of the gods, holding them in great honour. There is an oracle of Zeus there, and they make war according to its pronouncements…
Herodotus, book II: 89.
To understand the background for this post, we must travel to the ancient Nubian city of Meroë, and briefly explain its history. Meroë was located on the Nile south of Egypt, in the region known to the Egyptians as Kush. It was the capital of the Meroitic kingdom (c. 800 BCE – c. 350 CE). The decline of the kingdom started in the first and second centuries CE, after continuing conflicts with Roman Egypt and the ever advancing desert undermined its power.
Meroitic culture reflects the history of the Nubian people, and specifically their interaction with their northern neighbour, Egypt.
- By 1500 BCE, much of Nubia lay under Egyptian rule; the Egyptians desired the land of their southern neighbours because of the relatively lush fields and abundance of natural resources like gold. Who controlled Nubia, also controlled important parts of the intercontinental trade routes. These five hundred years of Egyptian rule “left a very long-lasting legacy, particularly evident in the Nubian ruling class’ adoption and maintenance of Egyptian religion, language, and writing”
- After the Egyptians had abandoned the region, the Kushite king retaliated and in turn brought Egypt under Nubian rule. Kushite kings controlled Egypt during the 8th century BCE as the twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt. (See above: a number of statues of Nubian Pharaohs.) When the Nubians were expelled by the Assyrians after almost a century of rule, they fell back further south and made Meroë their new administrative centre (550 BCE). For our story, it is important to note that Meroë was also “very well situated for trade (gold, ostrich feathers, ebony, ivory, leopard skins, elephants, iron), either across the desert to Egypt or via Red Sea port to several destinations (especially during the period of Greek/Roman control of Egypt)”.  Even though because of these interactions the Nubian elite became influenced by Egyptian culture, the Meroitic kingdom still had its own script, language, gods, and art style. Below: Horus and the once mighty Amun stand behind the Nubian god Apedemak.
- In the first century BCE, Meroë repeatedly attacked the Romans in southern Egypt, on one encounter stealing several statues of Augustus. However, by the first and second century CE, Meroë was in decline. Natural resources had become exhausted and the land eroded by over-exploitation. The decline of the Romans in Egypt also caused trade revenue to collapse.  Eventually, the kingdom of Axum took over control of the Red Sea trade.
Very little is known of the kingdoms south of Egypt, even though it is certain that they reached a high degree of development and success. What we need to remember from the story of Meroë is that throughout the Greco-Roman period there were kingdoms south of Egypt who:
- controlled trade routes and depended on trade revenue
- adopted aspects of Egyptian culture but did not abandon their own customs
- had their own language and script
The cursive and hieroglyphic forms of the script are shown below. Readers may note a number of similarities with Voynich script, though certainly not enough to start celebrating.
What is interesting about the Meroitic cursive script is that is contains a number of properties which are often ascribed to Voynichese as well:
- It is connected to a hieroglyphic system but is used as an alphabet
- it shares properties of cursive and non-cursive writing, with only some combinations forming ligatures
- it has only four vowels, of which “e” is only used in foreign names and “a” only appears at the beginning of the word (!)
- it is believed to have been influenced by Greek writing
- the only punctuation mark is a word divider
- we do not understand the language
At the moment of writing, I still believe the Voynich script was a relatively late addition. It resembles Latin script too much to be a coincidence. However, it is not exactly Latin script. If it appeared that an ancient writing system underlies the current “Latinized” forms, I believe this will be something like Meroitic cursive or the very similar Demotic, which was used to write Coptic, the native language of Egypt. In the unlikely scenario that the Voynich manuscript is actually written in a Nubian language, we are in trouble:
Meroitic has, with Etruscan, the distinction of being one of the two ancient languages the phonetic values of whose signs can be read with reasonable certainty, but the meaning of whose words cannot be understood. This is a great barrier to a complete understanding of Meroitic history and culture, and until this language has been successfully read and the inscriptions translated, much of the story of Meroë will remain unknown.
It is worth noting that the Meroitic rulers were in contact with Greek culture as well. King Arkamani, who was the first to establish contact with Ptolemaic Egypt, was said by Diodorus to have “Greek learning” – somehow. Officials in the northern parts of the Meroitic kingdom are known to have employed Greek scribes. Additionally, the Egyptian influences found in Nubia were mostly those of the Hellenistic period. The cult worship of Isis as a funerary deity united Greeks, Egyptians and Nubians. “Her worship was for all practical purposes the state cult both of the Ptolemaic and of the Meroitic provinces of Lower Nubia” 3. A wonderful Nubian Aegis of Isis is pictured above.
Now, to get to the second possible connection between Nubia and the material that ended up in MS Beinecke 408. It relates to the appearance of the Voynich nymphs, like the typical pair below.
Common properties include:
- large head in relation to body
- large thighs, skinny lower legs
- large belly
- lumpy face (varies)
- red “blush” or scars on cheeks
These properties are not compatible with Egyptian, Greek, Roman or European medieval artwork and should raise some eyebrows. However, they are hardly mentioned by Voynich researchers. The standard explanation is the same as always: the “author” lacked skills. The only attempt at explaining these aspects of the imagery by cultural factors I have read is by D.N. O’Donovan. She believes the blemishes on the face and deformed bodies have been drawn with a purpose: to avoid a realistic depiction of the human form, and to make the naked body less attractive. In other words, she believes that there are cultural preferences at work.
I agree that the strange shape of the nymphs looks intentional (i.e. not the result of any lack of skills on the draughtsman’s part). Moreover, there is no denying that a large percentage of the nymphs look as if they have been given physical deformities on purpose.
I have no explanation for these physical defects, other than the one offered by O’Donovan. However, I believe some of the other properties can also be found in other cultures, like the Nubian one. In this case, however, they are to be seen as a sign of beauty or status. below are pictured two Nubian artifacts which might remind the viewer of the Voynich nymphs:
That leaves the marks on the face. In the fourth episode of the BBC documentary Immortal Egypt, archaeologist Joanne Fletcher visits the Nubian site Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, location of the sacred mountain. There she meets Dr. Tim Kendal, who has spent almost thirty years working at the site. Dr. Kendal starts digging in the sand (YouTube link), revealing an image of the Egyptian goddess Mut. Dr.Kendal explains how this carving shows a remarkable blend between classical Egyptian culture and the Nubian’s African roots; the Egyptian goddess has been given tribal scars.
Similar marks have been found on Egyptian images of Nubian prisoners:
And the practice is still found today, in many different forms.
Naturally, when I saw the “tribal” Egyptian figure, I couldn’t help but wonder if Nilotic cultures along the trading routes had had an influence on the Voynich figures in an early stage.
Probably not, but I still liked the similarity.
Some of the Voynich nymphs show what looks like a healthy blush – they have been copied by 15thC Europeans after all – but many bear a different mark on their cheeks, not unlike the tribal scars on Nut or indeed the marks that adorn many Nubians today. Some selected examples:
Finally, I would like to draw attention to this otherwise unremarkable nymph on f.78v. It might be a smudge, but I believe it is there intentionally – the same can be seen on the other side of her face. The face marks are not in red, but in black, and not a blush, but… three lines.
 Shinnie, Meroe (New York, 1967), p132.