This is the second post about the constellations on f79r. See here for the first part: f79r (part 1): Balancing Night with the Length of Day.
Header image: folding calendar showing the length of days in each month with partially blackened circles, circa 1400.
To recap the last post, we have located the Zodiac constellations Gemini and Libra on the ecliptic. Additionally, the black-and-white circle in Libra likely refers to the equinox, the point in Libra when night and day are equally long.
However, this appears to be a bit problematic. In the image above, we clearly see that Gemini is placed adjacent to Libra on the ecliptic, while in reality there are three constellations in between: Cancer, Leo and Virgo. There is no sign of a crab, lion and maiden in between these pairs. There is only the triple line (= the ecliptic) and on it some groups of dots. Let’s have a closer look. For layout convenience I rotated the image below by 90°.
The first red circle, labelled “G” for Gemini, is located on the “base” of the Gemini figures. The final circle, “L” for Libra, shows a similar series of dots on the base of Libra, which depicts the actual scales.
Between them, labelled (1,2,3), are three series of dots, representing three groups of stars, i.e. constellations. Cancer, Leo, Virgo. Since I believe this diagram mostly focuses on specific constellations, these three are merely indicated by a group of dots (stars).
Now that we have all these points in place, the rest of the image should be fairly easy to interpret. Let’s work our way towards the bottom of the page first. Beneath the equinox (black/white circle) there is another group of stars. Beneath that, the three parallel lines continue, indicating that we are still on the ecliptic. Then, in true Voynich style, they end up in a green pool of water. Within that pool is a man holding on to a long, cylindrical object.
The series of dots (red circle) indicates another constellation of the Zodiac. if we follow the sequence, this would be Scorpio, who has a very intimate and complicated relationship with Libra. Now this large pool of water appears to indicate that we are leaving the ecliptic, but at the same time there is some overlap, top left of the man’s head.
Remember in the last post, I said that there was a constellation with “semi-ecliptic” status, sometimes called the thirteenth sign of the Zodiac (though it isn’t). This constellation is Ophiuchus, or Serpentarius, or the Serpent-Holder. A man holding on to a large, cylindrical object, basically. I’ll just throw in a whole bunch of different depictions of this constellation for comparison.
I felt the need to add “Voynich” to the VM figure because he’s become rather hard to spot among those lookalikes. The identification of this figure as Ophiuchus has an additional, unexpected benefit. It is often noted that the arm in front of his body is grossly out of proportion, even for Voynich standards. This can easily be explained as a nod to the serpent coiling around his body.
We now have the bottom of the folio explained – that was the easy part. Things are a bit less clear on top, so bear with me. Let’s first shift our attention to this part of the image:
Notice that again, we get a partially darkened “circle” here. Might this be the other equinox? The ecliptic-lines continue right into this thing, so that park works uit. However, the structure right of the black circle – the cloudy thing – has puzzled me since I started studying this folio. I may only offer my best guess.
In the mythological layer, this thing represents a series of waves battering a ship until it is broken. Ovid writes:
Again and again the force of the flood strikes the sides with a huge crash, sounding no lighter a blow than when, sometime, an iron ram, or a ballista, strikes a damaged fortress.
The Latin word for a ram, both the siege tool as the animal, is Aries, just like the constellation.
“The battering ram (aries) gets its name from its appearance, because like a fighting ram (aries) it batters a wall with its impetus.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, p.364.]
So if you need a constellation to breach the hull of a ship, Aries is the way to go. In all possible ways, we would expect the Ram constellation here, because it is Aries that marks the spring equinox. But how on earth is this thing supposed to look like a ram?
We may start by looking at the pattern. It is meant to evoke waves, but there is also something woolly to it. It’s not quite one or the other. On the Farnese Atlas, one of our most authentic sources, a similar pattern is used, just like in a number of medieval manuscripts.
What more can we learn about Aries? Well, for one, he is always, always looking back over his shoulder. This is not some artist’s fancy, but a necessity dictated by the pattern of stars that form the constellation. Aries has his head turned towards his tail end. Just to give you an idea of the constancy of this pose, here is a coin from Roman Syria (early first century) next to a card printed in 19th century London.
Let’s hold on to that thought for a minute and introduce a second property. There are quite a number of manuscripts where Aries is jumping through or lying in what looks like a loop, ring or belt.
It is not entirely certain where this belt originated, but Allen explains it as symbolizing the Zodiac:
Some early artists showed him running towards the west, with what is probably designed for the zodiac-belt around his body. [Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889]
There are many more examples in Kristen Lippincott’s collection (pdf). For our purpose, we will focus on those examples which Kristen calls “lacy”, for lack of a better word. Here’s an example of Aries with a lacy loop:
Alright, so we know that Aries is outstretched on the ecliptic, head turned back, and was often given a loop around the body. Now let’s return to the Voynich image and look at it from a new angle. About 90° counter-clockwise should do the trick.
And a close up comparison of the rings. VM top left.
Conclusion: the half darkened symbol does mark the equinox, and Aries is evoked by referring to two of its defining characteristics: its triangular, turned head, and the “lacy belt” tradition. This means that the intended audiences would have been familiar with images of Aries, and especially those which show it with a belt around its body. It seems safe to conclude that a theme of f79r is the equinoxes and surrounding constellations.
There are two figures left to analyze, both close to Aries and neither is explicitly placed on the ecliptic. Might they be constellations associated with the rising of the Ram? Let’s start with this one, who, I believe, represents Auriga, the Charioteer.
This identification is tricky, since Auriga is one of the more complex constellations. Some of its stars are important and often get their own names: the Kids (young goats) and Capella (female goat). Additionally, Auriga was sometimes seen not as a charioteer with a whip or reins, but as a seated shepherd-like figure. As a consequence, depictions of Auriga vary widely. Elements to be included were a chariot or a cart, possibly animals to pull it, a whip or reins, and what seems like half a petting zoo. See Lippincott’s very extensive overview here: pdf.
One of my favorite “degenerated” examples is the one below, with Lippincott’s notes included in the image.
Basically none of the elements of this image make any sense. The figure should either be seated or driving a chariot. The rabbits should be goats. And who knows where that eel comes from… Just to say – this wasn’t exactly the most standardized constellation, making our work here a bit harder. I will just explain how I think the image is supposed to be read, though once again: this constellation is full of challenges in and of itself.
Let’s first zoom out a bit and see what’s going on here. On the mythological layer, we see a ship suffering all kinds of damage in a storm, and a panicked sailor. This is just an interpretation:
In other words, we are at the height of the storm. What is the relevance of the Charioteer constellation here? Let’s ask Aratus:
But if it be thy wish to mark Charioteer and his stars, and if the fame has come to thee of the Goat herself and the Kids, who often on the darkening deep have seen men storm-tossed, thou wilt find him in all his might, leaning forward at the left hand of the Twins.
Note first of all that, as Aratus says, the charioteer is located left of the twins – in this case up, since the horizontal line has been made vertical to evoke a ship’s mast.It is clear that these figures are not meant to show the exact relative positions of the constellation, but still the placement is remarkably accurate.
But perhaps even more relevant here is the association of the Charioteer and some of his specific stars with stormy weather. Also Manilius notes that with the Charioteer, “the seas close”. This refers to the period from mid-November until early March, when navigation was considered too dangerous. One could say that in the myth, Ceyx ignored the signs of the Charioteer, leading to his shipwreck.
So yes, the Charioteer does belong here, both in terms of the constellation’s position as its meaning for navigation. But does this figure actually look like any Auriga depictions? Let’s have a look, keeping in mind that they vary greatly.
The Charioteer in AN IV 18 f.22r serves as a good starting point. The manuscript is early (9th century) and the image appears relatively authentic. Still, we see a difficult balance between the chariot and the goats. A horse has been added to the chariot and the goats have been placed somewhat randomly nearby.
It appears that Voynich figure mimics the charioteer’s proud stance on the low chariot, and his vehicle itself is not unlike the “tub” in the VM. With some goodwill, we can even see the suggestion of wheels.
The fact that the Voynich figure is standing somewhat on the edge of the “chariot” is no objection. It even strengthens the analysis, since many illustrations favor a low chariot. Levitation optional.
And here is the VM figure compared to Auriga in the Mainz globe and the Kugel globe. Again, lots of variation, but I think the main idea is similar.
This leaves one figure unexplained: the “storm warrior” on top, just above our Aries.
Turning to the constellations, adjacent to Aries and the Charioteer is this fellow (Farnese Atlas):
This is Perseus, the legendary warrior who was said to possess the power of flight. He does seem like a decent match for the warrior storm figure. An additional advantage is that Perseus’ raised hand touches the Polar circle, which is exactly what the wavy line stands for in the manuscript.
Depictions of Perseus are relatively consistent. Here are some examples from Bern, Burgerbibliothek Cod. 88 and BNF lat. 8663.
Obviously, Medusa’s head is not really depicted in the Voynich, since it attempts to show a storm figure simultaneously. Those generally don’t carry heads around. The pose speaks for itself.
That concludes my analysis of this folio. I hope the consistency of the analysis and multitude of evidence might convince the reader to overcome his initial hesitation to see these images for the beautiful synthesis they are.