About a month ago, an interesting image was posted as thread #666 to the Voynich forum by user Sam G. A lively discussion followed, and it soon became the thread with the most replies ever on the forum. The number of the beast appeared quite relevant, since this discussion was all about lions and other large felines.
The subject is “Leo” in the so-called “Zodiac” – a series of roundels of which the central emblems remind many people of the zodiac. Month names have been added in what is almost certainly a Romance dialect, and many people, including myself, believe that those were added later, possibly by a different person. The central emblems are:
- two fish
- green goat eating bush
- white goat eating bush
- red bull-like creature eating from bucket
- even redder bull-like creature eating from bucket
- man and woman, clothed, holding hands with crossed arms (double handshake)
- two lobsters
- a large feline with blue spots
- a person with a blue hat and blue dress holding a star on a string like a flower
- a creature with another star-flower emerging from its mouth, that looks to me like a gray-blue mammal
- a crossbowman in ornate dress
It is clear that this is no standard Zodiac sequence. Additionally, even those images which do appear to match part of the Zodiac, like a bull, present a number of difficulties. For example, an analysis of a large number of Zodiacs by Marco Ponzi did not find any parallel for the bull’s bucket.
Some parallels have been found for the images outside of the astrological tradition, and at times even outside of the astronomical tradition. The image posted by Sam G. is one of those; it is part of a collection of sixth century Roman-Byzantine mosaics from Qasr Libya.
What I like about this image, is that it shows two things at once:
- The animal in the Voynich is no lion, but was more likely based on the leopard or Dionysian “panther”. This explains the blue spots and lack of a mane.
- The tail behind the leopard was likely originally a tree that was interpreted as part of the creature’s anatomy.
The tree-behind-animal motif is an old one that was used from North Africa to Syria to medieval Europe, where it was mostly found in bestiaries based on those older traditions. D.N. O’Donovan already mentioned the relevance of this motif in this 2012 post (see image below), and the Qasr mosaic strengthens that conclusion.
Some of the main opponents of the relevance of Sam’s find were members ReneZ & MarcoP, who found the whole tail-tree thing rather unlikely because:
- ancient illustrations ending up in a 15thC manuscript is unlikely
- a tree turning into a tail is unlikely
In this post, I will provide an example of such things happening. We will have a look at the depiction of the constellation Hercules throughout the ages, and what happened when copies became copies of copies and so on. Hercules is a good example, because we know exactly what to expect, and we can trace what was changed in various copies.
The Greek poet Aratus (315 BC/310 BC – 240 BC), whose work remained read throughout antiquity and the middle ages, knew the constellation we now call Hercules only as Engonasin “the Kneeler”, a mysterious phantom without a name. Certainly by the first century BCE, connections were made with the Greek hero Heracles.  One particular scene from Hercules’ labors was often chosen to represent the constellation: the one where Hercules fights the serpent in order to steal the Apples of the Hesperides. Below, a number of classical examples of this scene are shown.
There are a number of constants:
- Hercules is naked, apart from his lion pelt which he uses either as a cape or a shield
- Hercules wields a club
- The serpent sits in a relatively small tree.
Some of the first Medieval European examples of constellation imagery are found in the Carolingian period as illustrations for copies of Greek and Roman works (like Aratus). It is clear that classical imagery was used as an example, as can be seen in the images below.
We notice a change of style, but the motifs are still there and clearly recognizable: naked man, club, lion pelt, and optionally serpent in small tree. The first objection is hereby rejected: we have seen a clear example of ancient imagery and motifs finding their way straight into the heart of medieval European culture. The Carolingians did not just read a story about Hercules and made up a picture – that was just not the way things worked. They copied original antique illustrations from papyrus scrolls, mosaics, frescos, calendars, coins, monuments…  This is just one example of how the early middle ages formed a bridge between the Greeks and Romans and, say, the 15th century.
And now on to the second point: the gradual reinterpretation of imagery. Later copyists had lost the direct connection with antique material, and they had to rely on the illustrations of their predecessors. Let’s have a look. Note that next to these weird examples, other copies were still true to the original motifs. These are just some possibilities.
It starts off innocently enough, with a rather breasty Hercules holding some weird animal head.
Or an entire lion carcass:
Or a ferret:
At times, his pose and the position of the lion pelt are a bit unorthodox:
Sometimes the scene is rendered very well, and only conscious updates are made to Hercules’ weapon or outfit:
Those were some examples of normal, predictable, understandable alterations. They can be easily attributed to a copyist’s lack of skills, a simple misunderstanding, or just a desire to bring an image in line with contemporary expectations. What will happen, though, when copies of these minor adjustments are made, and copies of those? Sometimes, the result of the accumulated changes is quite spectacular. Some examples, in no particular order.
Hairy Hercules holding a cat, beaked serpent around his sword:
Hercules holding the serpent instead of the lion skin, about to give it a damn good thrashing:
Bearded Hercules wrestling lion and serpent:
Hercules holding a happy human skin:
Hercules and pet dog-lion approach serpent. Scimitar and black underpants:
And finally my favorite one: Hercules brings a human hostage to the battle, snake is confused, hostage attempts to explain that he’s supposed to be a lion skin:
I have shown in this post a number of ways original classical imagery found its way into the medieval European mainstream. In the process, it was adapted, modernized and misinterpreted. We have seen a number of subtle and less subtle examples. In the most extreme cases, the lion pelt was replaced by a human skin, a live lion or even a live human held by the hair.
Let’s focus again on the last example, and imagine something like this was in MS Beinecke 408. A man holding another man by the hair and forcing him towards a snake in a tree. I would explain this as follows:
“This is a debased form, a misinterpretation, of what was originally classical imagery. The hostage used to be a lion’s skin, which Hercules can be seen using as a shield in countless images. It likely became like this through a series of copies, where the lion skin first evolved to a human skin or head, which in turn was interpreted as a live human.”
In this case, the analysis is clear, because we have plenty of similar sources, and we can trace the changes, adaptions and a host of misinterpretations. With the Voynich, this is simply not the case. Its material reached Europe through a different way, that was much less documented than the activities of the Carolingians.
Still, I hope this post makes it clear that ancient images and motifs finding their way to medieval Europe and something as minor as a tree being misinterpreted as a tail should not be dismissed as far-fetched or unlikely hypotheses.
 DOLAN, M. 2008. The Role of Illustrated Aratea Manuscripts in the Transmission of Astronomical Knowledge in the Middle Ages. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.