It is not always never easy to write clearly about Voynich imagery, especially when some degree of interpretation is involved. And until we manage to read the text, if ever, interpretation will be necessary when discussing the images. A certain uncertainty, as it were.

This has certainly been true for my posts about unusual visual references to the Greco-Roman constellations in Quire 13. Interpretation is necessary because, in my opinion, these images have been composed at one stage with a specific purpose in mind – likely a didactic/mnemonic purpose. Two things in particular make these Voynich constellations different from their normal counterparts:

  1. All constellations in Q13 are portrayed by naked women, while in reality very few constellations are naked women.
  2. Each image is layered in meaning. My impression is that the constellations are employed as a familiar frame, to which new information is linked.

The consequence of the first point is that we get a series of nymphs doing silly things in order to depict their constellations, which are often animals or even objects. Like these three, playing a Cup, a Serpent and an angry Crow (Hydra, Corvus, Krater):

hydra

 

Or this one, acting like a Swan taking flight on what looks like a cloudy gust of air (Cygnus):

Cygnus

The second point makes things even worse, since it means the constellations-played-by-nymphs are placed in unusual surroundings.

Stellar Gender Inequality

Now, the reader might remark, what about those constellations that actually are women? Surely those don’t suffer as much from the first unusual Voynich feature, the fact that all constellations are played by naked women? As we will see in this post, this is indeed the case. But first – how many “woman” constellations are there to begin with?

For this exercise, let’s take Ptolemy’s list of constellations. Other pre-modern authors give slightly different lists, but no variation had a meaningful impact on our question, so Ptolemy will do. Counting the things represented by these constellations, we get in ascending order:

  • 3 women
  • 10 objects (including the River)
  • 12 men (includes both centaurs and two Gemini)
  • 25 animals (Pisces counted as two, Serpens included)

The numbers of objects, animals and men can shift a tiny bit depending on the list, but in a standard sky, a mere 6% of figures are women:

  • Virgo (the maiden)
  • Cassiopeia (the vain queen of Ethiopia)
  • Andromeda (the princess of Ethiopia)

Cassiopeia and Andromeda will be the subject of this post, since they are closely related, being taken from the same myth. Additionally, they occupy adjacent locations in the northern sky.

Our prediction will be the following: the constellation images will still be unusual because of quire 13’s specific project which layers meaning in images, presumably for didactic purposes. On the other hand, they will be more recognizable than the others, because the nymphs are portraying women.

The myth of Cassiopeia and Andromeda

The Greek constellations were often linked to each other by mythical narratives, the most famous example of which is the myth of Andromeda. All main players in her tale correspond to constellations:

  • Cassiopeia, the queen of Ethiopia.
  • Cepheus, king of Ethiopia and not very important in the tale.
  • Andromeda, their beautiful daughter.
  • Perseus, hero of Medusa-slaying fame, capable of flight.
  • Cetus, a man-eating sea monster.

As often in Greek myth, the chain of events is set in motion by an act of hubris: Cassiopeia likes to brag about her beauty and proclaims to be more beautiful even than ocean nymphs, the Neredis. When Poseidon gets word of this, he sends forth the horrible Cetus to terrorize the Ethiopian shores. It becomes clear that human sacrifice will be needed to deter the curse, and princess Andromeda is chained by the shore. Perseus happens to fly by at that moment and decides to kill the Cetus in exchange for Andromeda’s hand in marriage.

The constellations

To commemorate these events, the protagonists’ images are placed in the sky:

  • Cetus as some whale-dog-like monster.
  • Perseus as a flying man, with Medusa’s head in one hand and his sword in the other.
  • Cepheus as a foreign ruler. His only distinct trait is usually a foreign-looking hat.
  • Cassiopeia as a woman sitting on a throne, wrecked by the thought of having to sacrifice her daughter.
  • Andromeda as a young woman.

Most of them are in adjacent locations, as I marked here on a drawing of the Farnese Atlas:

Atlas

As you can see, they are grouped in the northern part of the sky, around the vernal equinox. Only Cetus dwells in the south.

There are two main options for Andromeda’s pose. The Farnese Atlas, as well as many later manuscripts, show her with one hand raised. This pose was based on an extremely popular scene during Antiquity: Perseus holding one of the liberated Andromeda’s hands. Here is just one of the many examples, this one from a Roman fresco:

f47-2perseus

The other pose is more common in the Aratea tradition, as exemplified by Andromeda from the Leiden Aratea:

leiden

Ancient depictions of Cassiopeia focus either on her vanity or her sorrow. In this detail from a Roman fresco, for example, she is averting her eyes from her bound daughter:

fresco2

This pose is only preserved in a few manuscripts. In constellation imagery, Cassiopeia is generally seated on a throne, with arms outstretched. The roots for this type are again very ancient, as this image of a Greek vase demonstrates (description by Kristen Lippencott):

vase

Because so many antique exemplars were available, Cassiopeia imagery is unusually consistent. A woman seated with arms outstretched. Usually her body is facing towards the viewer, her face either also in frontal view or averted to one side. Her throne can be elaborate, but usually it’s rather simple, a large chair or even a “box”. Again, the example from the Leiden Aratea is fairly typical.

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Alright. I have taken some more time for the introduction than I usually do. This is because now you will be able to understand right away why I believe these ladies are represented in the Voynich.

Cherchez la femme

There are three nymphs on top of f77v, connected by some strange “pipes”. Let’s zoom in on two of them:

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Ignore the surroundings for a minute; focus on the women.

Untitle d-3

I hope the images speak for themselves, but in case they don’t: there’s a woman (Cassiopeia) sitting on a box, body in frontal view (unique in the VM), face averted from what she thinks is her daughter being eaten by a monster. To her right, a young lady with a smile, Andromeda in the “being freed by Perseus” pose. Note also how Andromeda is standing in wavy water and the vertical lines above it might be interpreted as cliffs. This is appropriate since she was chained to cliffs by the shore.

Now the correspondence between Cassiopeia and the left nymphs is obvious. The rare frontal view, both arms extended, the rare piece of “furniture”, the matronly appearance… In fact, when I proposed that this nymph might represent Cassiopeia, I was told that this had been noted before on a number of occasions, which indicates that the link is clear even to those who are not in a “constellations-mindset”. [1]

The Andromeda figure does deserve a closer look. Her “being freed by Perseus”-pose was extremely common, making its way from ancient Greek exemplars (top) over Roman era wall art (middle) into medieval manuscripts (bottom).

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Last but not least, there is the matter of Andromeda’s headdress. The vast majority of images show her either with long, loose hair, or with her hair done up, at most supported by a diadem. In the Voynich, however, she is shown with what can only be interpreted as a large diadem with a veil.

In discussing this image with Diane O’Donovan, the matter of the headdress came up as a possible objection. As I traced the history of the scene, however, I soon noticed that some of the most authentic depictions show Andromeda with precisely this type of veiled diadem. The intention of the Eastern style garment appears to have been to signal Andromeda’s foreign origin:

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More can be said about how the top of f77v relates to astronomy, but that will have to wait for a later post.

Now, to anticipate the usual comments: no I do not claim “the Voynich author” saw a Greek vase and copied figures from it. What I am trying to show is that images like these have to be considered in a wider context.

The VM is clever with images which should not have been understood that well anymore in 15th century Europe. It seems to understand them and their underlying lore far better than what should have been the case. Apart from some exceptions in other sections, it bypasses European developments altogether and somehow taps into different sources which have retained more of their authenticity, while at the same time show the marks of different processes.

This is basically where I agree with Diane O’Donovan: the Voynich as a whole simply cannot have been invented by a medieval European author, and in fact it is likely that the 15th century copyists have had very little impact on the imagery as it is now [2]. The VM imagery betrays an understanding, a use of the ancient visual tropes, which would not be seen again until later, when the Renaissance was in full swing. But then, the images aren’t renaissance in style either.

The only viable option I see is to agree that the images reached 15th century Europe through a non-traditional way: undocumented transmission. We will not make much progress if we keep thinking in terms of a 15th century European “creative author”.

For me there are plenty of indications that what happened in the 15th century manufacturing of the MS was more copying than creating. However, given the presence of some clearly medieval additions to the manuscript – like the crossbowman – I understand that people choose to think otherwise.

What I have demonstrated in my own work is that a number of folios in quire 13 employ authentic constellation imagery in a unique way. I believe this to have been a didactic project, first composed at a time and place when authentic Greco-Roman constellation images and their myth and lore were still common knowledge for the intended audience. For people who considered this their own culture, and who were ignorant of or indifferent towards Christianity.

Conclusion

In the beginning of this post, I explained that quire 13 refers to the Greco-Roman constellations, but does so in a way that’s not immediately obvious. This is the case for two reasons:

  1. All constellations are portrayed by “nymphs”.
  2. Each image is layered in meaning because the VM’s specific project links constellation images to “something else”.

Based on these premises, I predicted that property (1) would be eliminated for those few constellations that represent women, making them easier to spot, understand and describe. I selected Cassiopeia and Andromeda because of their thematic and spatial proximity.

The result was positive: both Andromeda and Cassiopeia correspond exceptionally well to images from a range of other sources. After this analysis, I don’t see how anyone could still deny the presence of constellation imagery in some form in Q13. But I’m not getting my hopes up 🙂

 


NOTES

[1] I tried to look for these earlier mentions of Cassiopeia to find out what was written about the figure, but was unable to find the source. I’ll add a reference here when I find out.

[2] Of course copyists are people too, and their impact can be felt in some places. For example, a while ago, Marco Ponzi shared an image from a [early 15th century] Balneis manuscript [see comments], which did convince me that at least one copyist had this tradition in mind while making the VM. This is of interest since it reveals a bit about the environment of manufacture.

arches

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