This short post is about the plant on fol. 17v, one of the “large plants”,  which looks like one of the most normal plants in the Voynich manuscript. Normally each detail in the manuscript can be interpreted in a hundred different ways, but this one is clearly, without any trace of a doubt, a type of vine. Vine in the meaning “any plant having a long, slender stem that trails or creeps on the ground or climbs by winding itself about a support or holding fast with tendrils or claspers” (source).

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We see a clear tendril on the end, a leaf shape typical of climbing plants, and what appear to be berries in the way they are found on Smilax aspera, just to give one example of a vine with a number of culinary, medicinal and other uses. In this post, I will not attempt to nail down a definite plant ID, but the image below should give the reader an idea of the kind of plant we are looking for:

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It should now be sufficiently clear that we are indeed dealing with a type of vine. Other researchers have also come to this conclusion. Ellie Velinska adopts Dana Scott’s ID of wild buckwheat and D.N. O’Donovan thinks it could be a pepper plant, if it weren’t for the tendril.

It is exactly this tendril we will have a closer look at in this post. Quite a while ago, I noticed its shape seems to deliberately evoke the profile of a human face. That this is possible should not surprise anyone remotely familiar with the more symbolical aspects of Voynich plants – sometimes full human heads are included in the roots.

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For those who may not notice the profile right away, I have edited the image (below) to make it more obvious. Starting from the top, we see a large (bald?) forehead, a little bump for the eyebrow, eye, nose, what appears to be a moustache, lower lip and a pointy beard.

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The amount of detail included in the face makes it unlikely that this is a coincidence, and we can even deduce the kind of person that is represented: and older man with full facial hair and a snub nose. Furthermore, the image implies a wreath of vegetation worn as a crown on his head.

Luckily, there is a figure who immediately and powerfully explains this image: Dionysos, the Ivy Crowned. Dionysos (known to the Romans as Bacchus or Liber) was a god of nature, especially known as the god of wine and ecstasy. One of his epithets was “the ivy-crowned”, referring to the wreath of ivy often worn by him and his followers. Several animals and plants, among which the grape vine, ivy and bindweed, were holy to him; climbers like ivy and bindweed were perceived as the cultivated grape’s “wild” counterparts, so they were the perfect crown for this untamed deity and his frantic followers.

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Left: A Theban coin (ca. 400 BCE) of exceptional quality and craftsmanship shows Dionysos with ivy wreath. The site where I found it calls it “unquestionably one of the finest facing heads in all Greek numismatic art”. Right: the same subject on a Greek red figure vase.

He was usually shown as a handsome youth, but a number of “old Bacchus” images are also found. It appears that these are influenced by the standard depiction of his foster father and faithful sidekick, the old drunk Seilenos. “Old Dionysos” images and those of Seilenos are often almost identical and can communicate exactly the same, so for our purpose it does not matter which one is meant. They both show an old, vine-crowned man, visibly marked by his wine-drenched lifestyle.

Seilenos, just like Old Bacchus, has a bald head, moustache, pointy beard and a drunkard’s snub-nose. Some examples:

Hermes delivering infant Dionysus to Silenus & the Nysiades | Greek vase, Athenian red figure, white-ground kalyx krater
Hermes delivers the infant god Dionysus to Seilenos (Attic red figure) – source
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Seilenos rides a camel. Mosaic from El Jem, Tunisia (2ndC CE)
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Seilenos holds the infant Dionysos – Greco-Roman marble, Vatican Museum.

Comparing the wreaths worn by these figures, we see a number of different leaf shapes, often including drupes of berries, always vines. Indeed, the vine in general, whether wild varieties or cultivated ones, was holy to Dionysos and would have immediately brought to mind this figure throughout much of history, in the Mediterranean area and beyond. To wrap it all up, the image below shows our plant once again with an inset of a Roman “Old Bacchus” marble, first century CE. Note the leaf shape, berries, and especially the profile of the face.

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When I first made this discovery, I was discouraged from publishing it since it appeared unlikely. However, after having given it some thought, I can only conclude that this plant as a vine and Seilenos/Old Dionysos as the god of vines belong together and reinforce each others’ interpretation in the strongest way possible.

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