One of the fascinatingly infuriating properties of the Voynich manuscript is its ability to make even the most mundane things difficult. Take the objects held by the human figures. In normal manuscripts – even when they get weird – we still have a fair idea of what the people are holding. Take these guys, what are they holding?
That’s right, their heads and swords. It’s weird, it’s impossible, it’s ridiculous, but we know at a glance what’s going on. This is likely a whimsical marginal illumination, like there are many. And these fellows from yet another manuscript, what are they holding?
That’s right, sticks! And it’s clear why, without knowing anything about medieval life. They are using the sticks to beat acorns from the trees for their pigs to eat. It’s called pannage and there’s a Wikipedia page about it. So why can we say, even without the help of any text, what these men are holding and why? Well, for one, they are actually using the items, they are interacting with the environment, they are part of a scene. We get context and connections.
This is different in the VM, as I wrote in a previous post about the objects held by Voynich nymphs. They usually just stand there, in the nude, with or without a thing in one hand. At best, you’ll get two nymphs interacting with each other in some awkward way, but that only adds to the confusion about the items. I mean, look at this:
There is a specific group of three nymph attributes, generally referred to as “rings”, which I’d like to talk about in this post. They seem relatively straightforward at first, but are less so upon closer inspection. One problem with these rings is that they are all oversized, more appropriate for a bulky bracelet than a ring that goes on the finger. The nymph below is the clearest example, holding a large yellow (gold?) ring with a smaller bit attached to it. So far little consensus exists about what it is or what it means.
I agree here with Diane O’Donovan’s proposal that this first ring is (or was) in fact a type of ceremonial bucket carried by worshipers of the goddess Isis. I first thought that it might be a degenerated ankh, also in the context of (Greco-Roman) Isis iconography. In my opinion, this nymph refers to the constellation of the Southern Fish, which was linked to the Isis-Osiris myth cycle. The connection to the Greco-Egyptian Isis is key here, so whether it is a bucket or an ankh may not matter much. Compare the position of the arms and the shape of the object with that in the following statue (Roman period).
The second “ring” is even more problematic. For starters it’s red, bearing the pigment that is generally used for nymphs’ lips and cheek blush.
Additionally, it is much more clunky than the one above, almost taking on the appearance of a billiard ball.
I have written before about how I think the nymph with the red “ring” must refer to the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman, called Arctophylax by the Greeks: the bear watcher. Bootes is one of those constellations mostly known for its main star, Arcturus. Goold notes in his translation of Aratus that “strictly speaking Arcturus is a star, but the name is used by ancient astrologers for the whole constellation of Bootes and for the star alone, it is often difficult to distinguish which of these the authors are referring to.” [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.329.]
The nymph has a remarkable tail in her hair, and Arcturus means “tail of the bear”, since the star/constellation literally tails Ursa major. More importantly, Arcturus is a golden red star and one of the brightest in the night sky. It was already known for its red color in antiquity, since Claudius Ptolemy lists it as one of his six “red stars”.
Also, and I’m just noticing this while I’m writing this post, is this nymph pointing at her butt? Remember that Arcturus means “tail of the bear” and that the nymphs use their arms to depict their stellar meaning. I finally understand now why she is touching herself in that way. There might even be a linguistic pun hidden here, since in some languages the words for tail/rear/butt are the same.
Finally, let’s get back to the constellation of which Arcturus is part, Bootes. Its Greek name means “bear watcher“, which, just like Arcturus, it gained because of its proximity to Ursa Major. Might the nymph’s facial expression have something to do with this, with one eye wide open and the other closed like someone who is about to look through a sighting tube or is just squinting for better vision?
Enough about bears and butts, let’s move on to the third ring, which might be the most interesting one.
Note that the centre of the ring is not made green, possibly indicating that it is not hollow but more like a disk. The nymph is wearing a large diadem and has somewhat of a smug look on her face. She’s quite happy with herself. She’s accompanied by what appears to be a child, a figure of smaller size.
I think there are plenty of elements in the drawing that suggest that this nymph is, or at least is based on, Aphrodite/Venus. Venus was born from the Ocean (green water), she is the most beautiful goddess – hence the mirror and the face. She’s often accompanied by cupids. She wears diadems. She’s often shown wringing her hair, hence the tangles.
At this point, I can let the following image speak for itself.
While the Voynich nymph is stylistically different from the antique examples, it is clear how the crucial elements return, and how the original maker of the image must have somehow been familiar with the classical model or a close descendant thereof.
The theme remains popular in the middle ages, but most illuminators favor a more contemporary look, as in this Virgo from a 14th century French manuscript:
This “Aphrodite with mirror” nymph is on f82r, which is one I only know a few things about so far. Knowing that this figure might, at least on some level of meaning, represent Aphrodite, might provide the foothold we need to understand the meaning of the complete pool she’s in. But that will have to wait for a next post.