A while ago I published a paper on astronomy in the Voynich manuscript, mostly focusing on f80v. Today, we will have a look at a similar folio, f79r. I believe that the images on this folio depict important points on the ecliptic (the imaginary circle that shows the sun’s “path” through the stars).
I believe the illustrations on specific “bathing” folios (quire 13) contain at least two layers of information. The human figures or “nymphs” on one page are like actors who play out a popular Hellenistic myth on the one hand, while simultaneously referring to a constellation on the other. This means that the images don’t look completely like one or the other, but as a combination of both. It is almost as if the constellations themselves are actors in the myths.
Since most “actors” in Voynich imagery are by default female, this also means that often the part of male characters or constellations is played by a female figure. This is something that starts to feel natural – somehow – after a while. The nymphs are like blank puppets that can portray anything, depending on the attributes and posture they are given.
In a previous post, I analyzed the myth told by these nymphs as the story of king Ceyx and his wife Alcyone. For reference, I used Kline’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Bk XI:474-709).
In the following, I will assume that the reader is familiar with my view on the mythological layer. I have added to that post two new larger images as well.
What remains unexplained?
There are many aspects of the image that are not explained by reading it just as the myth of Ceyx and Alcyone. Let’s have a look at these issues first, before turning to the stars for clarity.
From top to bottom:
- The storm/warrior: the myth layer explains this figure fairly well. It is supposed to embody a storm, likened to a conquering soldier in Ovid’s version. As explained in the post about the mythological layer, the iconography is not inconsistent with that of storm gods. What we do need is an explanation for the wavy line he touches with his upright hand, and perhaps the specific pose.
- This thing. Is it a cloud? Waves? I’m not sure, it is the most confusing part of the image.
- According to the myth layer, this nymph portrays a sailor looking up at the sky as the storm rages on. The “tub” he is standing on represents the ship’s hull starting to fill up with water. Plenty of questions here: what’s up with the pose? Why is the “ship” shaped like that? What is the circle in the water?
- These two represent, on the right, Alcyone and on the left Morpheus assuming the shape of the drowned Ceyx (which is why his hair hangs in wet strands). Alcyone, on the right, sees this in a dream, which explains the closed eyes. Morpheus appears to reach through the grey veil of sleep, and Alcyone touches his arm – believing he is her husband. To be explained: why the three parallel lines between them? Why the awkward arm pose? And what are they standing on?
- Does the water running through the scenes represent something? Why the dots? Why does it appear segmented?
- In the myth, the figure on the left is almost certainly Iris, bright messenger of Hera (see earlier post for iconography analysis). The one on the left is probably Sleep (Somnus), though this is hard to tell – there’s not much more going on than “standard nymph with male hairstyle. Iris’ “running” pose is obvious: she is a swift messenger. Sleep looks upset because Iris woke him up for this nonsense (not a joke, it’s in the story). So the figures are basically accounted for by the “myth layer”. But what about the strange base they are standing on? This is the only base in this section that supports two separated figures.
- An enlarged detail of the base: what is this half-black-half-white circle?
- Finally, the figure on the bottom is explained fairly well by the myth. The ship has perished, and Ceyx holds on to a piece of wreckage. His final moments are filled with thoughts of his beloved wife Alcyone. What might require an additional explanation is why exactly the mast of the ship was chosen, and not a different piece?
Attentive readers will have noticed that the story of Alcyone mostly explains the human figures and the sparse iconographic clues, but leaves much of the surrounding structure unexplained. Hence, I will argue that the structure – bases, pipes, water flows, circles – are best explained in terms of astronomy.
Celestial Circles and Constellations
Since not all readers will be familiar with astronomical concepts, I will introduce the most relevant ones for this folio first. I will quote from the works of Aratus, a Greek didactic poet who wrote a popular poem about the constellations in the third century BCE, and the first century CE Roman author Manilius.
I chose these authors not because I am certain that the Voynich images are based on any of their texts, but because they focus on the same things, in this case: the constellations on the Great Circles. It is important to know that the Ancients imagined the starry sky as a great dome that was turning around the earth, upon which the stars were fixed. Only the Sun, the Moon and the planets moved on their separate paths.
This is exemplified in the Farnese Atlas, a second century CE statue containing the oldest known representation of the celestial sphere.
On this sphere, we see the constellations from an “outside perspective”, as if we are gods looking down on the Earth and the constellations around it. Just like on Earth there are two Poles, north and south, around which the sphere revolves. The polar areas are marked with circles. Looking at the Atlas statue above, we see the south pole circle right above his head.
Just like on Earth, there is also a celestial equator, which divides the sphere in half, and two tropics. For this folio, the celestial equator is the most important circle, together with the ecliptic. The ecliptic can be visualized as the path through which the sun appears to pass. Because the axis of the Earth is tilted, i.e. not perpendicular to its orbit around the Sun, the ecliptic does not run parallel to the other circles.
The Astronomical Component of f79r
So how exactly are these things present in the Voynich image? Let’s start with the line of water that runs down the whole page, since it is critical to understand its significance first. I believe this line refers to the ecliptic, perhaps better known as the Zodiac – though as in Aratus’ text, the Zodiac sequence itself is subordinate to the constellations and the Circles as such.
Specifically, I believe a number of constellations on the Ecliptic are depicted here, along with a number of surrounding ones. Why three parallel lines though? Well, this was a standard way to depict the Ecliptic and its outer limits.
The image below shows part of the ecliptic on the Farnese Atlas. I have duplicated the image and marked the three parallel lines of the ecliptic in blue, and some lines dividing the segments in red.
We see, left to right, Leo, Virgo, Scales + Scorpio, and in the bottom right corner the head of Sagittarius. Note also, left of Sagittarius’ face, the lower legs of Serpentarius, the Serpent Bearer well in the ecliptic. This is why this constellation is sometimes called the “thirteenth sign” of the Zodiac, even though of course it was never made into an official Sign. Still, it is important to remember that the Serpent Bearer has semi-ecliptic status and is the most famous non-Zodiac constellation through which the Sun passes.
The same convention is seen on the Mainz Globe.
Beneath the Zodiac section from the Mainz Globe, I have placed the water line from the VM f79r. The point is that someone used to this convention of depicting the ecliptic, would have recognized the reference in the Voynich “water”. This is the first mystery explained by the astronomy layer: the three parallel lines represent the ecliptic. Note also in the image above, that there are groups of dots placed upon the “ecliptic”. Might these stand for stars, and hence constellations?
Now, the next logical step is to have a look at the figures placed on this Voynich ecliptic, and see if they correspond to constellations. Just for reference, the constellations on the ecliptic are the following: Aries (Ram), Taurus (Bull), Gemini (Twins), Cancer (Crab), Leo (Lion), Virgo (Maiden), Libra (Scales), Scorpio (Scorpion), Serpentarius, Sagittarius (Archer), Capricorn (Goat), Aquarius (Water Bearer), Pisces (Fishes)
Let’s start with this pair: they are clearly and obviously placed on the ecliptic – which constellation could they represent?
That’s right, the Twins. Their pose appears to mimic the very common “embracing” Gemini pose, found in a wide variety of sources, including the Mainz Globe above. Below are some examples from medieval manuscripts as well:
So the Twins on the ecliptic, where they belong. So far so good. But what about those strange bases the Voynich figures are standing on? Well, Gemini are traditionally associated with the mythological twins Castor and Pollux.
Castor and Pollux were recognized by their typical, round helmets, often topped with a star. I believe that the base of the Voynich figures, as seen upside down, must be read as an allusion to these helmets, and thus an additional hint that they represent Gemini.
Like this, it becomes clear that the placement of the figures on three parallel lines, their pose and their base all help the viewer to make the association with the constellation of Gemini.
There is another pair of figures placed over the ecliptic. As I have noted before, these figures are unique because they share one base, yet don’t touch each other. This made me wonder whether the base itself might be the clue to understanding the constellation.
Note how the figures are out of balance (no pun intended). The one on the left is significantly larger and “heavier”:
It appears that as a consequence, the base is tilted in her direction, at a considerable angle:
Hence, this pair of figures on one base refers to Libra, the constellation of the Balance. In the myth, the larger, blue figure represents the bright Iris, messenger of Hera and personification of the rainbow. She has entered the dark halls of Somnus, god of sleep, forcing him out of his eternal slumber to perform a task. Hence, this scene depicts the balancing of light and darkness, day and night.
The theme of night being balanced with day is also present in the constellation of the Balance. It is in this constellation, as well as in Aries, as the classical authors say, that the ecliptic and the equator intersect. Manilius writes:
[The ecliptic]is twice crossed by the circle which balances day and night [the equator], whose line it cuts in the signs of the Ram and the Balance.
These points of intersection are the Equinoxes, the two times in the year when the night is as long as the day. Of course, authors loved the fact that day and night were “in balance” in the sign of the Balance. Manilius says about the Scales that they are “balancing night with the length of day”. And Isidore of Seville even claims that the constellation was chosen because of the equinox: “They named Libra from the equal balance of this month because on September 24 the sun makes the equinox while running through this sign.”
Now remember the half dark, half light circle beneath this base?
This circle represents the equinox in Libra, half night, half day. The point of intersection between the ecliptic and the equator.
– – CONTINUED IN NEXT POST – –