As a Voynich blogger, it’s hard to know beforehand which posts will make an impact. Sometimes you spend a month’s worth of spare time exploring an idea, and the resulting post is underwhelming and quickly forgotten. And on the other hand, there are those rare posts which lay bare a piece of the puzzle which had been hidden before.
These posts which do leave a mark are, in my own experience, usually based on manuscript-internal analysis, yet free of interpretation. In other words, they expose some property of the manuscript which must be accepted, a small primordial building block of what makes up this artifact.
In a previous post, I noted that the Voynich nymphs, or rather their legs, obey a strange rule. One particular leg is always stretched, while the position of the other leg varies. There are just a few exceptions to this rule, and those are the usual suspects (crossbowman & friends). The bottom line is that 99% of nymphs obey this rule when their legs are visible. I happened to have f82r opened in Photoshop, so here are some examples from that folio:
This “rule” has strange consequences. For example, nymphs are not able to kneel, and they sit like dolls that only bend at the waist.
This also implies that when it comes to leg position, left and right – whether proper or viewer’s – don’t appear to matter as much as far or close. When two nymphs face each other, one will stretch the left leg and the other the right, but it will always be the one closest to the viewer. The pose is mirrored rather than adjusted.
This consistency, together with the unusual imperative that the knee of the close leg cannot bend, is as far as I know unique to the Voynich. Even cultures with extremely rigid art prescriptions allow for more variation in leg poses. For example, even ancient Egyptians can kneel in a variety of ways and even sneak up on baboons:
So while the leg behavior of Voynich nymphs is highly reminiscent of contrapposto, it is also more rigid. To show you just how unusual it is to maintain this rule across hundreds of human figures, let’s look at an example from a Greek vase:
From left to right, the figures leg positions are as follows:
- Lady in long dress: weight on far leg: not allowed in VM
- Warrior: legs spread with weight evenly divided: not allowed in VM
- Person on floor: both legs bent: not allowed in VM
- Nude woman: weight on far leg: not allowed in VM
- Winged figure: close leg stretched: allowed in VM
That’s right, of the five people on this painting, four have a leg position that would not be welcome in the Voynich world. The winged figure on the right is okay, but the shoes would be highly unusual, and supporting the raised leg on an object is not allowed either. So they’re all disqualified.
It goes without saying that such restrictions on leg position are not found in medieval manuscript art either…
What about the arms?
The “close leg stretched” discovery naturally brings up a next question: do the arms behave in a similarly governed way? And if there is a rule, is it determined by a far-close or rather left-right distinction? Arm dominance is usually more prevalent than leg preference, so it might be that right-handedness overrules any formal requirements. I’ll discuss the Zodiac section and quire 13 since those contain all “standard” Voynich nymphs.
In the first Zodiac roundels, a common pose is with the hands at the hips, like the left figure below.
At times, the nymphs will grasp a star, which is done with the far arm. In practice, this is usually the nymph’s left arm since most of them face clockwise, but this does not seem to be the determining factor.
This rule is broken by some of the strange figures emerging from horizontal barrels. One grasps the star with both hands , while the other – as far as I can see – uses his close hand, flailing the far one to the right like some weird wing.
There are a handful more nymphs reaching for a star with both hands, all of them men. This reminds me of fellow Voynich researcher VViews’ observation that male figures have a preference for this “two hands forward” stance. This is not the first time that specifically the men break the rules. Maybe they are not like the “normal” nymphs? That said, the vast majority of the nymphs follow this rule: if there is star-grasping involved, the far arm is used.
Let’s move on to quire 13B, the folios with the central pools. The rule set for this subquire can be derived from the following representative sample – you can look for yourself if you wish:
Items are held in the far hand, just like the stars in the Zodiac section. And when a nymph reaches for a colleague, this is again done with the far hand. The other arm, the one closest to the viewer, is usually either bent and set in the hip, or extended behind the back.
A similar story for quire 13A. This quire is more complex since the nymphs show a higher degree of individuality, but the vast majority of figures confirm the far-arm paradigm, whether they touch an object, a hole, a pipe or each other. A small sample:
Exceptions exist, but again they are mostly limited to those nymphs who apparently need to touch two pipe ends. They use both hands:
Note that the example above still favors the far hand for the “reach”. And the close arm, to the viewer’s left, is still in the most common position: behind the body, with a slight bend. That said, one of the other “pipe nymphs” completely ignores all arm rules:
In summary, we can say that within the Zodiac section and Q13, there is most definitely a rule for the arms: if a nymph is holding or reaching for an object or other nymph, the arm furthest from the viewer is used. The rule is so strong that, just like the leg rule, it is even observed while wrestling:
There are two exceptions, which are best phrased as rules themselves:
- The very few unambiguous men in the manuscript favor a “two hands forward” pose.
- Some of the “tubes” are held or touched with both arms. This applies to only 10 nymphs: one on f77r, one on f77v, four on f82v, four on f83v
So in short: if you want to hold or grasp something, you do it with your far hand. If you’re surrounded by tubes and strange openings, you get to use both hands (but never only the close one!). If you’re a man, you use both hands in a forward position.
The strangest exception
There is still one glaring exception to the tidy rules I phrased above: the thing. Two very similar, enigmatic objects held by two nymphs on different folios. One behaves, the other doesn’t.
The nymph on the right is holding the object up, in the arm that is the furthest away from the viewer. This is perfectly normal behavior. The one on the left, however, is touching (?) a word with that arm, while holding the object behind her back in the arm closest to us.
In my posts about spinning, which I recommend checking if you haven’t yet, I proposed that these nymphs might be two halves of a whole. The one on the right is holding a distaff (a stick with rough fibres to be spun) and the one on the left a spindle (a stick you twist in order to spin fibres into thread). Distaff and spindle are usually held by the same woman, so it is only natural that they are held in different hands. So I would propose that this nymph consciously violates the far-hand-rule because her implicit connection to the distaff nymph forces her object into the other hand.
To summarize once again, Voynich nymphs have a very strong tendency to:
- keep the leg closest to the viewer stretched
- use the arm furthest from the viewer for grasping or holding things
So, what does this mean? There are various explanations, each with their own problems.
- The imagery derives from a source in which human figures were heavily formalized.
- The pose has a meaning, it is some kind of visual code or convention.
- This pose is artistically preferred over others. It opens up the body towards the viewer and breaks the two-dimensional space.
- The illustrator was working from a set of templates which were copied and slightly adapted each time.
These possibilities can be tested, to some extent. But I’m getting close to 1500 words, my arbitrary post limit, so this will be explored in next week’s post.