Note about section names for clarity: initially I had distinguished between the two types of folios in Quire 13 (“bathing section”) by calling them Q13a and Q13b. Then I learned that before, Glen Claston had also called them 13a and 13b, but the other way around. I will adjust my names to match Claston’s and start calling the folios I always write about Q13a instead of Q13b.
There are many ambiguous objects held by the human figures in the Voynich manuscript, and certain interpretations return with some regularity. One such favorite is the spindle, an instrument used for spinning wool into thread.
A spindle basically consists of a stick and a weight, called the whorl. The whorl can be attached at the top or the bottom of the spindle. In the image below we see a Peruvian woman spinning threads with a bottom whorl spindle.
This example shows spinning in its most basic form; the fibres to be spun (in our examples mostly wool) are held up high in one hand. The other hand alternates between keeping the spindle turning and guiding the threads. This is necessary to evenly balance the amount of twist in the thread. The spindle automatically pulls in the finished thread and rolls it up nicely around the stick.
Here’s a diagram of a modern top whorl spindle:
The first time I read about a spindle in the context of Voynich studies was in a comment by Daniel Myers on Stephen Bax’ blog. The next logical step, in my opinion, was taken by Darren Worley, who noted that the spindle is used as a metaphor for the rotation of the heavens in Plato’s Myth of Er. Plato made the idea of the heavens revolving around the poles more accessible for his audience by likening it to the movement of a spindle, which must have been a common sight at the time.
The technique of hand spinning has remained the same over the millenniums, and modern day traditional peoples or hobbyist spinners still use the same tools as people did in prehistoric times.
Still, there is some variation in the way a spindle is used and there are different systems for holding up the fibres to be spun. Let’s have a look at some examples. The image below gives a good impression of what spinning looked like since the middle ages, and still does today in certain traditional environments.
The raw wool fibres are combed and placed onto a long staff called distaff. As the spindle spins, it pulls on these fibres, and guided by the hands, they are turned into thread. The Cretan woman below is also using a long distaff while moving the spindle on the ground.
Just a fun fact: medieval manuscripts regularly depict women using their distaffs + spindles in the martial arts. My favorite example is below, two women who have perfected the noble technique of synchronized spindle spanking.
In this illustration from the early 13th century MS BLB Bruchsal 1, Mary is depicted spinning, like a good housewife is supposed to do. She is elegantly holding the fibres between her fingers, and the spindle is supported in a special cup on her lap.
And this Roman rope maker, sculpted on a sarcophagus, uses his thigh to support the spindle, while a voluminous mass of fibres is attached to the ceiling. The carving looks crude because of damage and erosion, but it must have once been of fine quality.
Bear with me – there is a point to all of this. We are just establishing a base line and looking for universals and differences in various forms of spinning. For completeness’ sake, here’s how to spin like an Egyptian:
The fibres they used were spun wet, so they are placed in buckets of water on the floor. This gave them the freedom to work two spindles at once, presumably doubling their output. The buckets are on the floor, but the universal rule still applies: the hand which holds the fibres is higher than the one which flicks the spindle. It is also interesting to note that the figure on the left is using his thigh for a more balanced spin, just like in the Roman example.
While the medieval period favored large distaffs, older examples are smaller, often hard to distinguish from the spindle. A typical classical image of a woman spinning will look something like this. Note how the distaff in her upper hand is short and has the wool tightly wrapped around it, making it look rather similar to she full spindle.
Also note how her pose is somewhat artificial, with some added grace and stateliness. It seems that this was a somewhat conventional manner to depict a spinner – it’s hard to imaging someone standing in this pose for hours on end. Here are two more examples of the same pose:
In fact, based on images like these, some researchers believe that the famous Venus de Milo was spinning before she lost her arms. Take a look at this beautiful reconstruction by Cosmo Wenman.
There is a second pose which is often used, where the spindle is held on one side of the body, low, and the distaff on the other side, high.
It is important to know that spinners were conventionally depicted and recognized like this. Greek and Roman art often use one of these two poses.
I swear we get to do Voynich stuff soon. Just two more. First, a detail from a Roman sarcophagus (early 3rd century CE) featuring two of the Moirai (Fates). The one on the right is holding the by now familiar distaff and spindle, in a side view of the second pose.
Apart from a small handle on the distaff, both objects look almost identical. This is again clear in this relief from Bithynia, modern day Turkey. The distaff is the one on the bottom. It’s called a finger distaff because there’s a ring attached to it. For a finger.
That should do it – I hope we are well armed now to take on the Voynich figures. Get those distaffs ready, ladies!
Okay, so there a total of four nymphs reported to carry spindles, spread across three folios.
The ones on top appear to be holding a very similar object which closely resembles an empty bottom whorl spindle. In both cases, the object is held low, which is consistent with spindle iconography.
The ones on the bottom are more problematic. One is holding her object high, the other low. Both objects appear larger than the ones on top, and if they are spindles or distaffs, they are full of wool. Now, the problem is that one of the objects has a spike and the other doesn’t. We would expect the spindle, i.e. the one held low, to have a spike, but it is the other way around.
In the examples above, there are a couple of spindles that don’t end in a spike, so this needn’t be a problem, though it would still be a bit inconsistent.
Now let’s have a look at the poses.
I’m not too sure about the women carrying the empty spindles. I will just point out that one of them has had her hands twisted back unnaturally, and just looking at her hands, they somewhat resemble the first “elegant spinning” pose.
But this could just be Voynich weirdness, so let’s move on to the other figures.
Both figures appear to exhibit the high-low dichotomy and to some extent the classical spinner’s pose. Only, one of them carries the distaff and the other the spindle. As if they are meant to be complementary. If we were to connect them by an imaginary thread, they could be spinning together, like the mythological Fates.
I know, my thread sucks. But you get the point.In my analysis of these folios, the top nymph is located at the northern pole of the heavens. The bottom one at the southern pole. If we think again about the Platonic idea of the Earth’s axis as the thread of a spindle connecting both heavenly poles, well… I think it works. One on top, one at the bottom.
But, did you see it? While the distaff in art was often sleek and smooth, in reality it contained loose wool fibres that had been combed to lie in the same direction, and were bound together with some strings or ribbons. And now look at this nymph’s base, and the one of the nymph next to her – both represent constellations nearest to the northern pole.
A rather thready business, isn’t it? Yes, on one level of meaning these represent the pinnacle of the northern heavens, marked by the serpent lines and the somewhat icy atmosphere – an idea I share with Diane O’Donovan. But look at those wiggly lines, those unspun fibres, the origin of all the wiggly lines that run through this quire. It becomes increasingly clear that Voynich imagery cannot be analyzed without a multi-layered approach.
When discussing this nymph over at the Voynich Ninja forum, allround Voynich expert Rene Zandbergen asked, somewhat rhetorically, “Well, why is she standing in some fluffy thing that is floating in the air?” I guess I now have an answer: because it represents a Cosmic Distaff.