There are two main types of plant images in the Voynich manuscript. Large plants and small plants. These names don’t refer to the sizes of the actual plants, bit rather to the size of the individual plant image compared to the page. Below a large plant page on the left, and a page with a bunch of small plants on the right.
When I started researching the manuscript myself and reading the works of others, I was surprised to see that the large plants had been studied much more in depth than the small plants. The small-plant section had gotten some love for its cylindrical containers, and one or two particular plants were often mentioned because they suited this or that theory. But dozens of others were largely ignored.
Just to illustrate this, let’s have a look about what D’Imperio (still considered essential reading by some) wrote about these plants. This is all, a short paragraph on p.16:
The pages in this section of the manuscript show rows of small, sketchy plants or plant parts, which seem to emphasize one structure – roots or leaves – at the expense of the remainder. They are so abbreviated as to appear almost as mnemonic or shorthand symbols referring to plants already illustrated more fully in other folios, or to plants otherwise familiar to the scribe and his colleagues. A determined effort by several students to relate the sketches to the herbal drawings [large plants] has not been very successful, however.
When I noticed this, I decided that my official act of Voynich study would be to understand these plants better. After all, many of them look like perfectly normal plants or their parts – so what can be so hard?
Oh… right, Voynich. In these plants, just like in the large ones, there are rather unexpected shapes, some hidden, some… not so much.
I soon started noticing more hidden images in the plants, parts which could not have been meant as actual plant pictures in any way. On one foldout, I recognized a number of references to tales and figures from Greek myth – which is how this blog got its name, Herculeaf. But those are, admittedly, not too easy to spot. However, there are more obvious hidden images, of which I will provide an overview in this post.
Let’s start with those images which are clearly not purely botanical and not even hidden. All of these have been spotted by other researchers before, since they are out in the open. Both plants with faces in the roots go here, as well as the following:
f.88: Hidden animals and animal parts
Apart from these obvious examples, there are quite a number of other (partial) animals hidden in the plants. These appear on various folios, though especially on f.88 recto and verso side:
For a quick, zoomable look at these folios, check this page.
There are enough indications to launch the hypothesis that all plants on this folio refer to animals or animal parts. Of course not all of these are easy to understand: because of the cultural, geographical and historical distance between us and the makers of these images. Because successive copyists may have altered the images. And because they are still plant drawings in the first place.
But still, I dare to state with confidence that these plants have escaped identification and are indeed ignored by most researchers, because they have been artificially altered to evoke the shape of animals at the same time. The following will contain a fair bit of interpretation, as is often necessary in the study of art. If you only like things that are mathematically provable, you might as well close this tab.
Let us first have a look at a trio of relatively large plants that dwell near the bottom of f.88r. Try for yourself, and see if you can understand why I believe these plants have been grouped and which type of animal they represent. As is the case in 90% of the plants, the hidden image is mostly or exclusively in the roots, while the leaves are more botanically accurate:
Not too hard, right? They are all aquatic creatures with tentacles.
The most obvious one is an octopus, with eight roots for eight arms, including suction pods:
It is interesting to note that octopus images are rare in medieval manuscripts, yet abundant in earlier art.
The other plant has its tentacles close together and is more streamlined, giving it the appearance of a swimming octopus or a squid. The difference between octopus, squid and similar creatures is not the same in all languages.
The final member of the tentacled trio has got nine legs, so it’s either a greedy octopus or a jellyfish. I think the last option is the most likely, especially since this plant is drawn in a relaxed floating way, while octopus and squid are swimming.
Once again, remember that these three plants are right next to each other on the same folio.
Those are pretty clear examples, and their size indicate that they may have been meant as the focal point of the folio. I am less certain about those on top of the page, and will just show some examples to demonstrate that they, too, contain animal forms. The same is true for the plants on the verso side. Rather than forcing some interpretation, I will post them here and let the reader decide for themselves.
Additionally, one plant on the verso side is shaped like a spine, perhaps of a fish?
And of course, not to forget, the monkey butt. With thanks to Lars Dietz for the excellent monkey species suggestion.
(For the complete discussion of this plant, see this post: Monkey Business)
The adjacent foldout moves on to hidden mythological elements, yet these still contain quite a number of animals or animal parts. A rearing cobra:
A snake, two birds or horses in the leaves, a fish tail…
That should be enough for this post. My aim was mostly to demonstrate that there are many, many more hidden images in these small-plant drawings than one would suspect at first sight. And even more importantly, perhaps, that these images appear to be somewhat grouped thematically.