As, pricked out with less and greater lights, between the poles of the universe, the Milky Way so gleameth white as to set very sages questioning.
— Dante Alighieri
Quire 13 is filled with over two hundred human figures, generally called nymphs. I often write about how in one group of folios, these nymphs “act out” the constellations in a non-conventional way. Unconventional but not uninformed, because as far as I can tell, there is quite some information condensed into these images. I have discussed a large number of figures already, and linked them with various degrees of confidence to their constellations.
Whenever it applied, I have shown how reference is made to the circles (ecliptic, tropics, polar circles) but one “band” has been missing, the one that’s least imaginary: the Milky Way. The advantage of the Milky Way is that its relative position among the stars is unaffected by precession; it “moves” along with the stars, so if a constellation overlapped with it for, say, the Babylonians, it still does so in the same way today.
The question I’d like to investigate today is whether there is some systematic reference to the Milky Way in relevant Q13 constellations. I’m writing this post while checking figure by figure, so I don’t know beforehand whether or not the VM utilizes a way to mark constellations overlapping with the Milky way. Consider it the blogging equivalent of a live broadcast 🙂
1. Starting point: Cassiopeia
In a recent post, I argued that the figure on top of f77v refers to Cassiopeia, the “vain queen” constellation. I wouldn’t be writing this post if this specific nymph didn’t provide a solid basis to start from. Cassiopeia offers a few advantages:
- The resemblance between this nymph and traditional depictions of the constellation is especially strong. Partially because our nymph “actors” are women and Cassiopeia is one of the rare female constellations. But also because of the typical pose and the rare addition of a piece of furniture.
- Cassiopeia is closely associated with the Milky Way, being the most northern (top) constellation captured fully within it. Manilius says as much in his Astronomica: [the Milky Way] completes in Cassiepia the circuit which it began with her.
- Researchers before me (J.K. Petersen) have noted that the three strange blobs under the figure resemble animals’ teats or an udder. While I don’t know why there are three of them, their presence is appropriate to mark the milky way, which was already know to the Greeks as Γαλαξίας, from γάλα, “milk”.
A final piece of the puzzle is the white “stream” which flows on both sides of the figure, just like Manilius describes the Milky Way starting and ending in Cassiopeia. And just like the real Milky Way, its width and shape vary as it flows along.
We will check our hypothesis by analyzing whether the other “galactic” constellations show any traces of milk as well. Judging by the Cassiopeia image, it seems like we’ll especially have to keep an eye out for white, wrinkly surfaces.
Manilius describes the course of the Milky Way as follows, focusing on those constellations which lie entirely or for their most part within it (translation by Gould):
Passing through the constellation of the inverted Cassiepia it thence descends by a slanting path to reach the Swan; it cuts the summer boundary, the supine Eagle, the circle of equal day and night, and the zone which carries the horses of the Sun, passing between the blazing tail of the Scorpion and the tip of the Archer’s left hand and arrow ; from there it winds its tortuous trail through the legs and hoofs of the southern Centaur, and begins once more to climb the sky ; it cuts the ship of the Greeks through the top of the stern-post, heaven’s middle circle, and the Twins through the bottom of their sign; then it enters the Charioteer and, making for Cassiepia, whence it set out, passes over the figure of Perseus ; and it completes in Cassiepia the circuit which it began with her.
That makes a total of 10 constellations, in order: Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Aquila, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Centaurus, Argo, Gemini, Auriga, Perseus, and back to Cassiopeia.
Manilius’ description is correct, though there are some other constellations which somewhat touch the Milky Way with one of their parts. For our purpose, this list of ten will do. From the list, I have linked the following constellations to nymphs:
- 90% certainty: Cassiopeia (already discussed), Cygnus, Gemini, Perseus
- 75% certainty: Argo, Auriga
- 50% certainty: Centaurus, Aquila, Scorpio, Sagittarius
This means that out of 10 constellations, I can discuss 6 with 75% or more certainty. I’ll stick to those and drop Centaurus, Aquila, Scorpio and Sagittarius for now. Cassiopeia has been discussed above, so we’ll start with Cygnus.
2. Cygnus, the Swan
The Swan constellation is roughly shaped like a cross, and its body lies prominently within the Milky Way.
I am as certain as can be that the large nymph on f76v refers to this constellation. Her beak-like nose, extended arms, long neck…
Following the hypothesis that “milky” surfaces refer to the Milky Way, we see this identification confirmed. The nymph is placed on a structure much like the one surrounding our Cassiopeia: white with flowy lines.
The fluid white base marks that the constellations are positioned in the Milky Way, but Cassiopeia is also surrounded by a bulbous line. The line, as always in this section, marks proximity to a polar circle.
Conclusion: Cygnus appears to confirm the hypothesis.
Continuing down Manilius’ list of Milky Way constellations, the next one I’m confident about is Gemini (f79r).
Note that Gemini aren’t a full-blown Milky Way constellation like Cygnus. In fact, the constellation only has its feet touching the Milky Way. Let’s have a closer look at their bases:
These are less telling than the previous examples, yet something unusual is going on here as well: the figures appear to be standing on the edge of their bases, or even on white “platforms”. This is different from the other nymphs on the relevant folios (f76v, f79r, f79v, f80r, f80v), who generally stand in some kind of deep cup and/or colored water. The fact that we can see the surface these figures stand on and it is white may be relevant.
Conclusion: if the Gemini base indeed refers to their tiptoeing the Milky Way, it is well done: they stand on “milk” instead of the usual water.
The final constellation I’d identify with 90% certainty is Perseus, who occupies the same folio.
I’ve often cited this nymph as a peculiar one because it’s one of the only human figures in the whole manuscript who don’t stand or lie on anything. It’s just kind of hanging there. If we want to look at the base for Milky Way signs we’ve got a problem, since this nymph has nothing under its feet, unless the blank of the page (it’s a shame the MS doesn’t employ any visible white paint). However, using the visual vocabulary we’ve built up, a few things can be said.
It’s complicated, so pay attention. Between Perseus and Cassiopeia, two lines meet: the north polar circle and the Milky Way. In the picture below, there is an inset from the Farnese Atlas (right), where I have marked the polar circle in blue and an approximation of the Milky Way in red. Perseus’ raised hand is below the place where the Milky Way plunges back beneath the polar circle.
In the VM, we’ve got a white structure which runs into a bulbous line (always a polar circle) This then transitions into a blue stream, which is weird. Then a new white structure continues. If the white had been continuous, Perseus would have actually been captured properly within the Milky Way, but this is not the case.
Auriga has its one half in the Milky Way, the other half outside. The figure which I believe to be Auriga is located right beneath Perseus, which is appropriate.
There’s not much I can say about the Voynich figure, apart from that it shows the same “tiptoeing” behavior, like it’s balancing between the blue pool and the white of the page. And of course, it’s connected to Perseus by the white beam.
There’s something else though. Between the two nymphs I just discussed, there is a triangular structure. Originally I thought this referred to Aries, but I may have to revise this opinion since Aries isn’t even between Auriga and Perseus.
Part of Auriga, to Perseus’ side, is an ancient triangular asterism known as the Kids, with Capella as its most prominent star. These stars lie right in the Milky way, between Auriga and Perseus. And precisely at this triangle, the white beam reveals its liquid properties, as we’ve seen in Cassiopeia and Cygnus.
Conclusion: a flowing white structure connects Perseus, the Kids and Auriga.
6. Argo, the Great Ship
The constellation Argo is all over the place; in fact, it was so vast that modern astronomers have divided it in various parts to keep it manageable. It is no wonder then, that its top pokes into the Milky Way since it stretches from the southern polar circle all the way to the celestial equator. Unsurprisingly, the nymph which I believe represents Argo Navis is surrounded by lots of bells and whistles.
The easy part is the bulbous line: Argo crosses the southern polar circle. But what about the Milky Way? The most milky part of the ship is what we now call Vela, the sail. And indeed, the sail-like structure behind the nymph exhibits the features we’ve come to expect by now: white with lines and some faint blue dabs.
We know nothing for sure until we can read the text. Still, I was surprised of the extent to which the hypothesized Milky Way nymphs appear to share a specific visual vocabulary: organic white flows. And also, for some reason, sequences of wavy lines with faint blue dabs.
I’m not dissatisfied with these findings, though I don’t expect much reader enthusiasm – if they made it this far to begin with 🙂