In Friday’s post, I argued that the nymphs’ poses and varying position compared to an obligatory horizon appear to imply a vertical, or perhaps rather a diagonal motion. It is as if the nymphs are climbing an invisible staircase in order to rise above the horizon, or are on their way to disappear beneath the horizon. Two examples of each are shown below:
Those measured, sometimes even labored steps are not those of one simply walking; they indicate ascent or descent. In other cases, the nymph appears to stand still or even balance (on her zenith?). Note how the nymph below apparently marks some beginning or ending, since she’s positioned at a line between the text.
Now that’s for the month roundels, where the “horizon” is an abstract line and the link with heavenly bodies is clear since almost every nymph has its own star. But what about Quire 13, the water quire? Nymphs are drawn in basically the same poses here, knee-kicking and all. Even nymphs who don’t stand in pools are often given a bucket to stand in, as if “standing in water” is yet another imperative in this quire.
The reader will understand how a horizontal line can represent the horizon, but why the water? And if it’s true that many of hese nymphs – including the one pictured above – represent constellations, then why are they standing in “buckets”? Sure, many astronomical and astrological applications make use of the rising and setting conditions of heavenly bodies, but what does that have to do with water?
Well, a lot – if you speek Greek. Diane O’Donovan often argues that the makers of the imagery thought in Greek, and that understanding the linguistic connections they made helps in understanding the imagery. Before modern times, the various meanings of words, folk etymologies and perceived relations between similar words affected thinking, myth, literature and “science” to a great extent – just read Isidore or Hellenistic myths, which often “explain” the origin of words along the way. The ancient mind was trained to exploit language in ways we no longer appreciate to the fullest.
In Latin and Germanic languages, the words for the rising and setting of celestial bodies have a similar meaning, relating to simple upward or downward movement. Sunrise, sunset. The English verb rise, for example, has had a relatively constant meaning of “upward movement”. The same is true for set, which is related to the verb sit, set down etc. In other words, a downward movement – there’s not much more to it than that. Sun goes up, sun goes down. Rises, sets. Same for moon, stars and planets.
In (ancient) Greek, the situation is more complex, both in linguistics as in everyday conceptualization of the appearance and disappearance of the heavenly bodies that wheel around us. Greek sunsets are… well… wet.
The Greek word for the setting of a heavenly body, very often used with stars and constellations, is δύω. The most basic meaning listed for this verb is “to move into”. There is no implied downward motion here; for example, one can “δύω” into a place or country, i.e. to move into it. Or εἴσω ἔδυ ξίφος “the sword entered his body”, δῦτε θαλάσσης εὐρέα κόλπον “plunge into the lap of Ocean”, and so on.
In its meaning of “plunge into, sink…”, the verb is also the Greek equivalent of “to set”. When the Sun, a star, planet or constellation sets in Greek, it “sinks into the Ocean”. In the Greek-thinking mind, the setting celestial body doesn’t merely move downwards until it disappears – no, it enters the water. This is merely a linguistic reality, which doesn’t necessarily link to a philosophical or scientific model of the cosmos. It’s just how normal people talked about these things.
Of course, there are links between heavenly bodies and the Ocean in other cultures as well (thinking of a popular Dutch song about just that) but in Greek this relationship is woven into the language itself. A Greek star can’t “set”, it can only plunge into the water.
The connotations of δύω were also reflected in popular myth and astronomical texts. How much better do we understand Aratus‘ obsession with the ocean now.
Ocean himself will give thee signs at either horn – the East or the West – in the many constellations that wheel about him, when from below he sends forth each rising sign. (= the Ocean sends up the constellations of the Zodiac [from his own waters])
Note also the importance of the simultaneous rising or setting of stars:
For with four signs of the Zodiac Boötes sets and is received in the bosom of ocean
Aratus’ language is filled to the brim with talk of constellations emerging out of or sinking into the water.
But the Phantom On His Knees winks all save knee and left foot beneath the stormy ocean. (= [at this moment] all of the constellation Hercules is visible apart from his knee and left foot, which are still in the water).
The winding River will straightway sink in fair flowing ocean at the coming of Scorpion (= Eridanus sets when Scorpio rises)
With them the Lyre of Hermes and Cepheus to his breast drive up from the Eastern Ocean
Also in his weather predictions, Aratus naturally maintains this language. It was just what happened in Greek, since their word for sinking and setting was the same.
But if without a cloud he [Helios] dip in the western ocean, and as he is sinking, or still when he is gone, the clouds stand near him blushing red, neither on the morrow nor in the night needst thou be over-fearful of rain.
This was not just something peculiar about Aratus: since the sinking metaphor was automatically embedded within the Greek language, thinking about heavenly bodies as entering and leaving the waters is found in the work of many authors. A Greek-English Lexicon lists examples from Homer, Sappho, Bion of Phlossa, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Plato and Aeschylus.
Here’s some Homer for good measure:
“Then into Oceanus fell the bright light of the sun drawing black night over the face of the earth, the giver of grain. Sorely against the will of the Trojans sank the daylight, but over the Achaeans welcome, aye, thrice-prayed-for, came the darkness of night.”
“The sun was now just striking on the fields, as he rose from softly-gliding, deep-flowing Oceanus, and climbed the heavens, when the two hosts met together.”
And, more importantly, from the famous description of the Shield of Achilles:
and the Bear, that men call also the Wain, that circleth ever in her place, and watcheth Orion, and alone hath no part in the baths of Ocean.
Homer himself uses the word “baths” to describe where the stars go when they set. The Bear “hath no part” in them since it never sets, but the other constellations do.
The thought of heavenly bodies emerging from and returning to the Ocean of course also found its way into the works of those writers who drew heavily upon the lore of the Greeks. A passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses I have referenced before is from the myth of Callisto, who was turned into the Great Bear constellation, Ursa Major. As mentioned above, the stars of the Ursae never set, i.e. they always remain in the sky and never enter the ocean. The myth explains this in a scene where Juno visits Oceanus:
shut out the seven stars of the Bear from your dark blue waters, repulse this constellation set in the heavens as a reward for her defilement, and do not let my rival dip in your pure flood!
The point I want to make here is that bathing figures are a natural metaphor for the movement of stars, at least to a Greek mind. Note that I believe that the images in Quire 13 originated much earlier than the 15th century, so I don’t necessarily expect that the text of the Voynich is in Greek. But it looks like the images are.
Apart from the linguistic reality, I also discussed some examples from literature, most notably Homer who literally writes that the stars go to “baths” when they set.
For now, many mysteries remain, but the notion of “bathing stars”, taken together with the mandatory presence of a horizon and abundance of ascending or descending poses, might one day help us understand Quire 13.
While writing this post I decided to limit the discussion of the Greek word for the rising of stars, the Sun etc to a footnote, since it is a bit less obvious. Still there are some interesting associations. The word ἐπιτολή is in the first place used for the rising of stars, but its only secondary meaning is listed as follows:
- rising of the wind; rise or source of a river
While for example in English we also use “rise” for the water of a river, it looks like in the Greek terms this word was more exclusively reserved for the rising of natural things.