In my previous post, I wrote about trees in herbal manuscripts, and I challenged the still dominant view that the Voynich deals mostly with healing herbs rather than trees. Now, somewhat ironically, one of the best parallels that have ever been found for a Voynich plant in another manuscript involves a tree. This parallel between Voynich f35v and a group of Italian herbals is so unusually strong, that it has been noted by a number of people independently, and written about by many more.[1]


Specifically, the drawing on Voynich f35v is similar to a plant featured in various Tractatus de Herbis manuscripts, of which Egerton 747 (left) is the oldest. The BNF manuscript (on the right) can be assumed to have descended from the Egerton, though it is still older than the VM.[2]

It is especially the structure which is similar in a very specific way. An upright stalk with oak-like leaves, around which winds another plant which has clusters of berries. To my feeling the similarities between these drawings are too great to be a coincidence, and some relation can be expected, though not one of direct copying.

While the overall structure is similar, there are also great differences:

  • The leaves are different in each manuscript: spiky in the Egerton, bulbous in the Voynich, proper oak leaves in the BNF.
  • In the VM, the vine has no leaves, only berries, while the other manuscripts always show a form of ivy leaf.
  • The VM plant has been given roots, from which both the host and the vine appear to emerge.
  • The color of the berries is different in the VM where, as J.K. Petersen correctly notes, some of them have been given a rare kind of blueish green. Several shades of green are used and some berries are red to brown. It stands beyond any doubt that the coloration of the berries was an important part
  • Perhaps most importantly, in the De Herbis manuscripts the vine winds tightly around the host, while in the Voynich it undulates loosely through the air and appears to pass through an incision in the stalk of the host plant (see image above). As Diane O’Donovan writes, the Voynich “shows the upright plant serving only as a kind of ‘living stake’, where the Paris manuscript shows the oak as host to the parasitic ivy.”

Read the manual?

My next question was whether the text in the Egerton manuscript would help us in any way. If the VM illustration is related to this tradition, perhaps the text explains why it only includes the berries of the vine, or the nature of the oak tree. Unfortunately it is not of much help. The text does not mention a host tree or manner of growth at all – in fact it calls ivy itself an arbor. It then goes on the usual way, with the mention of some synonyms, translations and recipes. One recipe explicitly recommends use of the berries, but other plant parts are also involved. In other words, the text does not offer an explanation for the host tree, nor for the Voynich’ absence of leaves on the vine.

A divine symmetry?

At this point it is impossible to say what exactly the relationship is between the De Herbis drawings and Voynich f35v, but I would like to offer some speculation in this post about the possible origin of the Voynich drawing.

One thing I find fascinating is the way the vine is attached to the host tree. It pierces the stem somewhat artificially in a couple of places, but does not wrap itself around it or cling to it with roots as ivy would. But there is more to it than that: if the illustrator wanted to draw a vine that is attached loosely to a branch, he could have done so. But instead, we get two separate vines that dance around the tree in near-symmetry (the VM does not seem to like perfect symmetry).


Having outlined the shape like this, it reminded me of something I had seen before: an ancient symbol of commerce which remains in use today.


The Caduceus, the herald’s staff of Hermes/Mercurius. This symbol is not to be confused with the Rod of Asclepius, symbol of medicine, which features only one snake.

The Caduceus became the symbol of the element Mercury, and has known continuous use till the modern day. Here are just some examples:

Held by Mercurius on a Pompeii fresco.
On a beautiful Bactrian coin.
On a Byzantine mosaic.


In the hands of Hermanubis (Vatican Museum). This particular version of the staff – if it weren’t broken – would form the best parallel for the VM composition.

One possible explanation is that the “berries” might be an important trade commodity like black pepper, which is a vine that uses trees for support. The symbol of commerce and the protector of travelers would not be out of place there.

An ode to Dionysos?

A second parallel I found is a Roman era mosaic from Tunis showing grape vines on millet stalks. A somewhat similar illustration with vines surrounding a date tree can be seen here. I have not been able to find much information about this – why grow vines like this on millet stalks? One possible explanation is that the millet brought to mind the thyrsus staff of Dionysos and his followers, to whom all vines were sacred.



The problem of the root

Finally, what to do with the roots? They are definitely not naturalistic, and don’t resemble oak roots in any way – nor ivy roots for that matter.


Look at that thing. Diane O’Donovan tentatively explains the part right below the plant as referring to a wooden saddle which would have been made of oak, but I am not entirely convinced of this. Either way, it leaves the majority of the roots unexplained. I do agree, however, that the root looks timber-like and hence probably refers to an application for the wood of the “host tree”.

I wonder if this root might not be a remnant of the Greco-Roman origins of the Voynich material as well. It seems to me as if it depicts typical parts of Greco-Roman warships. Oak would be appropriate here, since in shipbuilding its hard wood was especially suitable for the hulls of these ships, which would have to withstand harsher treatment than your average fishing vessel.

So where do I see references to warships in particular? Well, one symbol is common in numismatics, on coins commemorating military victory: the aphlaston, or aplustre [3]. The aphlaston was part of the stern of the warship, and much like war standards, they were captured as a matter of pride in battle. Sailors would give their lives defending the aphlaston of their ship. This is why it became a recognizable symbol, often featured on coins. Just some examples:


I can imagine that at one early stage, before the drawing had been copied a dozen times by people from various later cultures, the whole composition may have looked like a warship with the tree as the mast. Which reminds me, one last thing to complete the circle…

The story of Dionysus and the Tyrrhenian pirates

Yet another mosaic from the Bardo museum in Tunis.

There’s a story about Dionysos where he is captured by pirates. They don’t know that he’s a god, and plan to sell him on the slave market. This obviously makes the Lord of the Vine rather angry, and he turns his captors into dolphins and destroys their ship. With vines, of course.

Look at them twirl!

Two vines, according to this image, which grow on top of a war ship, next to a tall mast…




[1] Many people have written about this parallel, including renowned herbal manuscript expert Alain Touwaide. I consulted the following sources:

  • O’Donovan:
  • Petersen:
  • Zandbergen:

[2] For an overview of the stemma, see this forum post by Marco Ponzi:

[3] This website has a very interesting explanation about the aphlastron, from a numismatics point of view: . All coin examples are taken from this site.