One of the more enigmatic constellations the Greeks inherited from the Babylonians and the Phoenicians was a group of stars close to the northern celestial circle, in the imagined shape of a kneeling man. They did not know who this man was, why he was kneeling and why he was set in the night sky – the only thing they knew was that he was there, and he was kneeling. So that is what they called him: Engonasin, translated as “the kneeler” or “he who is on his knees”.
The poet Aratus, who composed one of the most popular texts on the constellations, describes it as follows:
Right there in its orbit wheels a Phantom form, like to a man that strives at a task. That sign no man knows how to read clearly, nor what task he is bent, but men simply call him On His Knees [Engonasin]. Now that Phantom, that toils on his knees, seems to sit on bended knee, and from both his shoulders his hands are upraised and stretch, one this way, one that, a fathom’s length.
On the Farnese Atlas, one of the most authentic surviving depictions of the Greek constellations, Engonasin is a naked kneeling man without any attributes or apparent identity.
The Greeks did not like things they couldn’t understand in their own terms, and especially in the Hellenistic period several known mythological figures were identified with the astral Kneeler. The most popular explanation became that this star pattern represents Heracles, whose image was placed in the sky to honor his great deeds.
I believe that the transition from “kneeling phantom” to “Hercules” was made easier by a pose called the heroic lunge, basically a forward stride that, in extreme cases, approaches kneeling down. See for example this Greek vase painting of Hercules fighting the Hydra. Since the Greeks were constantly confronted with images of Hercules in a pose close to that of Engonasin, it should not have been too hard to make the connection.
Another important aspect of the fighting Hercules’ pose is that he usually raises a weapon in one arm, while thrusting forward the other for protection. Just one of the countless examples is this wonderful Greek Hercules from the Louvre collection (460 BCE):
The fact that both the constellation and the figure preferred a similar pose must have helped to keep later depictions, for example in the Medieval Aratea tradition, relatively in line with the Antique examples. Kneeling or striding, one arm up as if preparing to strike, the other forward. That is how a pose which was already present in Etruscan and Archaic art found its way into 15th century manuscripts.
Of course, the constellation was also drawn like stereotypical medieval manuscript guy about to beat up a fur coat, but that is beside the point.
Okay, now to get to the Voynich part. I believe f76v depicts the constellation of Heracles and those in its vicinity. Before going there, however, I will bring to mind again those important points that are constant throughout the constellations represented in quire 13a.
- The Voynich constellations are all played by nymphs. Imagine the nymphs as actors attempting to evoke the constellation figure.
- Since the space for the drawings in this section is limited to the margins, the relative position of the constellations is not exact. However, clusters of nymphs do correspond to clusters of the correct constellations.
- The arms of the nymphs are usually important for understanding the constellation.
- The base on which the nymph stands (if there is any) also points towards the constellation.
For my more critical readers: these rules are not ones I impose upon the image to make it fit my theory. They are constants across these specific quire 13a folios which emerged after long and careful study of the images and a wide range of relevant sources like the ones above.
Okay, so without further ado, here is the Kneeler in the VM, with on the right the Farnese Atlas image rotated for proper comparison:
Okay, let’s start with the good bit: the arms are really good. One of the constants is that the nymphs use their arms to depict their constellation, and well, I couldn’t have done it any better myself. The Farnese Atlas Engonasin is showing us his back, but that is a custom specific to celestial globes which can be ignored for our purpose. So for the pose of the upper body: good job.
But you will have noticed by now that there is a problem with my Kneeler. Like, there’s no kneeling at all. However, the previous post on this blog in mind, this can be explained. Voynich nymphs are not allowed to kneel! One of their legs is always stretched. The leg pose required for the Hercules constellation is absolutely impossible for the VM human figures!
The reason why nymphs can’t kneel still eludes us, but there must have been an important reason or stylistic requirement, because the “close leg stretched” rule, or perhaps contrapposto preference, overrules everything else.
No worries though, the composers of these images had another tool at their disposal: remember that the base on which the nymph stands is important for understanding the constellation. So let’s zoom out a bit…
That’s right, she’s standing on a giant bent knee! This puts a rather strange twist on the meaning of Engonasin: “on his knees”. Just for fun I put the knee on the poor Farnese Atlas guy (right). Fancy pants.
The deep blue color at the feet of the nymph is appropriate, since Engonasin touches the cold Arctic circle with his feet, the toes of one even crossing it – just like in the nymph. The dotted lines on the knee-base might relate to the celestial circles as well, perhaps representing the two horizontal circles and a number of colures touched by the constellation.
But what is the nymph holding, then? Given the identification as Engonasin, this seems fairly obvious: at her hand appropriately placed another constellation, the Lyre. Note that the nymph isn’t actually holding the Lyre, it seems to be hanging somewhat behind/under her hand. This is why I confidently read is as Lyra rather than for example Hercules’ lion pelt.
An interesting consequence is that there seems to be little to no reference to Hercules in the Voynich figure. This does not surprise me too much, given the presumed authentic nature of its source material and the fact that not even Aratus himself knew the name of the kneeling Phantom.
The other figures on this folio are a bit more tricky, since they are pressed into the margin, forcing them out of their normal positions. But this is clearly the group of constellations around Engonasin, which brings another difficulty: apart from Lyra, they are all animals…
Played by nymphs.
So well, have a look. The possibilities are an eagle, a swan, a dolphin and half a winged horse.
I’m well over a thousand words so I’ll cut it here.