A lot has been written about a certain object held by two of the Voynich “nymphs”, now affectively called The Thing after a thread by forum user VViews. One of the proposed identifications for The Thing was a spindle, the primary tool used for hand spinning.
In a recent post (Spinning: A Thread through Voynich Q13a?), I gathered all four figures from quire 13 which are regularly identified as holding spindles and compared those to several kinds of spinning depictions. Some of the best matches were found in Greco-Roman imagery.
In this post I will link the “spinning” nymphs to my own analysis of these folios. I will argue that the references to spinning have to be read as an extended metaphor about astronomy.
Let’s start in an unusual place: a 16th century illustration. Like many other researchers, I had been looking for a visual parallel for The Thing, but something was always missing. Hence, I was surprised to find the most complete match in a work made a century after our manuscript, while generally the best matches are found in earlier art.
The three little ladies are the Moirai or Fates, who in Greek mythology spun each person’s thread of life and decided when their time had come. The trio naturally remained popular during the middle ages.
The large spindle balanced by the one with the yellow dress (Necessity), however, is atypical, and I have not been able to find any similar illustration. On it are represented the heavenly spheres with the Moon, the Sun, five planets and the fixed stars. Usually these spheres are drawn in a diagram of concentric circles. A similar line of dots is marked on the Voynich objects. It was exactly this line that made the identification as a spindle or distaff not as straightforward as it could have been.
Is that the answer then? Does this image explain the Voynich items?
Well… not entirely.
The most well known example of a “cosmic spindle” is found in Plato’s Myth of Er. This story is essentially about the afterlife and reincarnation, but it also teaches us a thing or two about Plato’s cosmology. He introduces the spindle of Necessity (Fate), to which all circles of the heavens are attached. Fate keeps the spindle turning in the same direction, and the cosmos turns with it.
It is understandable that Plato used a spindle as a metaphor for the spheres that turned around the Earth: spinning was a common activity for women, and the sight of a spindle turning around its axis and pulling on attached threads would have been a familiar one. Thenaud’s text as well as the image the image are not exact renditions of Plato’s text, but there is evidently a strong link.
So what does this all mean for the four Voynich “spinning figures”? Well, I believe we are dealing with a case of convergent evolution. Thenaud’s image marks the spindle as a “Cosmic Spindle” with a line of stars from top to bottom, and the VM does just the same, most likely independently. Thenaud would have been familiar with diagrams not unlike the one below, derived and adapted from classical authors:
At this point I could take Thenaud’s spindle as proof that the Voynich object is essentially the same thing. But that’s not how we do things here at the Voynich Temple.
There are four “nymphs” in Q13a that appear to be holding spindles or distaffs. The items all look different and are held in different ways. Two of them are empty spindles, the other two could be full spindles or distaffs – probably one of each. Let’s have a closer look and see how they match my understanding of the astronomical meaning of these folios.
First, there are these two, which I connected in the previous post to illustrate how they can be seen as forming a spinning pair.
The one on top symbolizes Ursa Minor, the constellation closest to the northern celestial Pole. The one in the bottom is in many ways her opposite, and her surroundings indicate to me a southern position. The implication here appears to be that the Pole star is invisible. In a recent post, Diane O’Donovan explains that she holds similar views about the astronomical implications of these figures (though not necessarily the presence of a spinning metaphor).
If these are meant to be a distaff-spindle pair, or two full spindles, their association with the pole star is obvious; like everything in spinning turns around the spindle, everything in the heavens turns around the Pole. The idea of an axis is also present, since in spinning the spindle and distaff are connected by a thread in an aslant north-south position, just like an observer in a northern latitude would imagine the axis of rotation of the heavens.
This is a first important difference with the Platonic Spindle. The Voynich Q13a imagery contains a clear North-South opposition, of which this spinning metaphor appears to be a part.
Now the other two are something else – let’s have a look. They are both found on top of f80r, on opposite ends of a row of figures. This is how I read these figures on the constellation layer. The complete analysis is way too long to include in this post, I will keep it short and stick to the spinning bit. The women holding spindles (marked with a green dot) represent the constellations Cancer (crab) and Capricorn.
So we get the constellations of Cancer and Capricorn, each holding a spindle, and between them the Sun and the five planets that were known to the Ancients. I assume that the planets are presented here in a strictly astronomical sense, and that there is little to no link to astrology.
At first I was rather confused about this composition. Sure, Cancer and Capricorn are opposites on the ecliptic (or Zodiac belt) so it makes some sense to place them on opposite ends of the page. But why the planets between them? And why the spindles? Well, they both have to do with the solstices. A Solstice is “an astronomical event that occurs twice each year (around June 21 and December 21) as the Sun reaches its most northerly or southerly excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere.” (Wiki).
It is important to know that the Summer solstice was traditionally in Cancer (later Gemini) and the winter solstice in Capricorn (later Sagittarius). Hence, the figures with the empty spindles likely represent the solstices. Since the planets were also seen moving along the Sun’s path, the ecliptic, it is normal for them to be depicted in between the solstices, since those marked their extreme limits, the most northerly and southerly point.
This also explains why this row of figures is placed on a single line – a unique occurrence in the manuscript. This is because the focus is not on the Zodiac belt (three lines) but the path of the Sun itself, the ecliptic circle. Cleomedes writes:
This Zodiac has a determinable width … that is why it is described by three circles: the central one is called “heliacal” (hēliakos, “of the sun”).
Now let’s focus on the figures themselves – why are the solstices marked by spindles?
I first thought these spindles were merely there as an attribute for Philomela, whose story structures these figures on the narrative level. Philomela manages to escape from captivity by spinning, so the attribute is appropriate. Yet she is also depicted without a spindle on the same folio, so this explanation is not sufficient.
Now that we know these figures represent the solstices though, we can connect them to the extended spinning metaphor of the constellation level. When a spinner touches the spindle, this is usually to give it a new twist. In other words, the moment we see depicted here is when the spindle stands still for a very brief instance before being spun again.
Knowing this, we need merely consult the etymology for the word solstice. It entered English through French, ultimately from Latin solstitium “point at which the sun seems to stand still.” The Greek for solstice, ἡλιοστάσιον, means exactly the same.
Allow me to praise the ingenuity of these drawings for a moment – I shall even use an exclamation mark. How appropriate a metaphor! If the movement of the Sun is symbolized by spinning, then is there any better way to convey the momentary standstill of the Sun than the brief halting of a spindle? That very moment when it is touched, only to send it back along its orbit?
One last thing. Let’s have a look at the spinning figures, from most North to most South. Remember that spinning implies a progression from north to south. You start off with a full distaff, then you attach the spindle. As the spindle turns, it will pull more fibres from the distaff, making an ever longer thread. In other words, the spindle drops as the thread gets longer. In the end, you’ll have a full spindle and an empty distaff.
So, in conclusion, are the Voynich spindles like the one in Thenaud’s image shown at the beginning of this post? Yes, in that they both form a visual metaphor about the Cosmos. But mostly no, because the Voynich system is much more intricate, more layered, and more beautiful. Though I might be biased on that last point.
NOTE: This is an anniversary post since WordPress kindly notified me that this blog was opened a year ago today!