Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should be read (or abandoned) with that in mind.
Ah, Quire 13. Every aspect of the Voynich is weird to some extent (even if only for the script), but some are more unusual than others. As Beinecke curator Raymond Clemens put it in the interview we did with him last year:
Yes we don’t have anything to compare [quire 13] to if I’m honest, we can’t say exactly what’s going on, so it’s a generous research problem.
Of course one can propose parallels for some individual items and scenes, but something like Q13 as a whole simply does not exist anywhere else.
Another complication is that Q13, more so than the other sections with human figures, is devoid of medieval tropes, making it hard for us to link it to any kind of historical reality. As a result, any attempts to interpret parts of Q13 remain speculative to some degree.
In short, my current views on the Q13 images are the following:
- It is layered by design; one figure means x and y at the same time.
- This was most likely done as an exercise in memory techniques.
- Narratives from “Ovidian” mythology are used as frameworks that carry other types of information. Constructing artificial links between known and new information is (together with the “memory palace”) the most essential memory technique, from antiquity to today.
- We don’t understand Q13 because this type of mnemonic exercise is generally a highly personal activity, ideally tailored to the learner’s own knowledge, background and goals.
- However, in this case the images have been drawn, which might imply that they were used by a group of people. If we can unravel the cultural references in the images, we might gradually understand them.
- I still think it’s most likely that Q13 is a copy of something that was made earlier than the 15th century, rather than something that was thought up specifically for MS Beinecke 408.
So far, I have written about the following folios and their narratives. Note that I agree with the theory that the Q13 folios are out of order in their current binding, so the current folio progression likely does not reflect the original intention.
- f79r: Alcione (Met. Bk XI:474-709)
- f79v: Scylla (Met. Bk XIV:1-74)
- f80r: Philomela (Met. Bk VI:486-548)
- f76v: Philomela (cont.) (Met. Bk VI:619-674)
- f80v: Callisto (Met. Bk II:401-495)
The default figure for the VM is a female nude, a human form without additional information. It is only when a figure is differentiated through pose, dress or attributes, that we can learn something specific about it. Hence, it is no surprise that all narratives I have discussed so far have been part of the subquire with more individualized nymphs (non-pool pages).
For example in the image below, compare the bottom (non-pool page, high information per nymph) with the top (pool page, low information per nymph):
Despite this significant difference between both of Q13’s page types, there are some pool pages where a narrative appears to be implied. Unfortunately, since the figures here are relatively flat and unremarkable, the narrative is harder to figure out. Let’s have a look at one such page, and a proposal for its narrative structure.
f84r: Setting the stage
As explained above, f84r is a “pool page”, which usually means a bunch of nearly identical nymphs standing in a row. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that this one is a little different. The narrative nature of this page is the best accessed, in my opinion, through a particular duo of nymphs in the bottom left corner.
Let’s start with the “sneaky” figure in the back. It has a marked facial expression and extends its arm to unnatural length in order to present a spherical object in front of the second figure. The “nymph” on the right is large and androgynous, with a large face, relatively thin thighs… but I should keep androgyny as a subject for a separate post. It is not clear whether this nymph is standing or sitting/leaning.
The significance of this scene is that clearly something is happening here. In fact, this might be the only instance in the manuscript where an object is “used” in “interaction” between nymphs – though I use both terms loosely. Either way, it must be agreed that this is not just people standing around or bathing.
Now let’s zoom out.
The other nymphs are depicted in sitting/leaning/bending position, in two rows of four. All the way on the right, between both rows and above the large bending one, is a remarkable figure with a fancy hat, marked by a red line (which could be hair or part of the headdress). Everyone is staring at the large nymph on the left, who in turn – because of the composition – faces the “pretty” nymph on the right.
I will also include the second pool on this page:
Again, there is a lot more going on here than just bathing. Faces are made:
And in three instances a nymph is seen reaching down to touch a cylindrical object. The nymph on the left has a much larger belly than the other two and appears to be holding a yellow mass under her arm.
What is the meaning of this?
I don’t know what the primary meaning of the composition is, but I do think the images are again structured after an Ovidian narrative.
The first narrative that comes to mind at the image of someone sneakily introducing a spherical object into a gathering is the story of Discord’s apple and the judgement of Paris.
The goddess of discord was not invited to a wedding while all the other gods were. Dismayed, she threw a golden apple among them, inscribed with the words “for the fairest”. The other goddesses started quibbling over the apple, and before you know it half the Mediterranean was at war.
It’s possible that the “intense apple nymph” is somehow an allusion to this episode, without a doubt one of history’s most famous myths. Taken together with the other scene though (with the three ladies bending over), another story comes to mind. Golden apples are a popular theme in mythology in general, and in Greco-Roman myth they feature prominently in at least three tales:
- The Judgement of Paris (above)
- One of the labors of Hercules was to retrieve three golden apples. This is why three apples were one of his main attributes, together with the club and lion’s pelt.
- The story of Atalanta.
There is some evidence that these stories about golden apples belonged together in public imagination. For example, in the “Book of the Queen”, Harley MS 4431, c 1410, the story of Atalanta (left) is followed immediately by the Judgement of Paris (right).
Atalanta and Hippomenes
“Perhaps you have heard of a girl who beat the fastest men at running: that was no idle tale, she did win. Nor could you say whether her speed or her beauty was more deserving of high praise.”
The myth of Atalanta is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses book X. It is not that well known anymore, so I will summarize:
Atalanta was a beautiful woman who did not wish to get married. Hence, she set strict conditions for any would-be husbands: “I will not be won, till I am beaten in running. Compete in the foot-race with me. Wife and bed will be given as prizes to the swift, death to the tardy: let those be the rules.” Of course Atalanta was super fast and nobody was able to beat her. All men who raced her lost and following their agreement, were executed.
In early versions of the myth – which goes back to Homeric times – she even gives the men a head start, then chases them in full battle attire, only to execute them by her own sword.
One day however, during a race against suitors, the young and beautiful foreigner Hippomenes arrived. At first the thought of racing to the death seemed crazy to him, but as soon as he saw Atalanta’s beauty, he challenged her to a footrace.
Then there’s this whole paragraph about Atalanta and Hippomenes staring at each other, her kind of falling in love as well, doubting whether she should just let him win and so on. At the end, she decides that he’s a fool and she’ll race him dead. “Let him look out for himself! Let him perish, since he has not been warned off by the death of so many suitors, and shows himself tired of life”
By now, however, Hippomenes is starting to realize that his hormones had gotten the better of him, and in fear he calls for divine aid. Venus, who is the narrator in Ovid’s story, heed his call and comes up with a plan. This is where the relevant part for the VM images starts so pay attention!
“Now her father and the people were calling out for the usual foot-race, when Hippomenes, Neptune’s descendant invoked my aid. […] I was carrying three golden apples, I had picked, in my hands, and I approached Hippomenes, showing myself only to him, and told him how to use them.”
Since Venus is invisible to Atalanta and the audience, she can explain her plan to Hippomenes. During the race, he is to drop the apples one by one, which will hopefully distract Atalanta long enough for him to win (because women like shiny things?).
The trumpets gave the signal, and, leaning forward, they flashed from the starting line, and skimmed the surface of the sand, with flying feet. You would think them capable of running along the waves without wetting them, and passing over the ripened heads of the standing corn.
A medieval depiction of the race can be seen above (though it looks more like two people who don’t understand how to play football). The few surviving older depictions are damaged or unclear, but the subject gained popularity from the 17th century onward. A famous example is this 1618 painting by Guido Reni. Atalanta cradles one golden apple in her arm, while reaching down to pick up another.
Soon Hippomenes is overtaken by Atalanta, and he throws his first apple ahead of her. “The girl was astonished, and, eager for the shining apple, she ran off the course, and picked up the spinning gold. Hippomenes passed her: the stands resounded with the applause.”
Atalanta overtakes him again, and Hippomenes must throw his second apple, again buying him some time while she bends to pick it up.
But again she catches up with him easily. So now in his desperation, Hippomenes “threw the shining gold vigorously, sideways, into the deep field, from where she would take longer to get back. ” To further hinder her, Venus then “added weight to the fruit she held, and obstructed her equally with the heaviness of the burden and the delay.”
Now I don’t think readers will readily agree with my proposal. For example, there are baskets (?) instead of apples. Keep in mind though, that I argue that the structure of these stories is imposed on “something else”, and I don’t know what the something else is on these folios. In other words, I believe we are looking at a hybrid product.
But the few clear narrative elements in these drawings do match the story of Atalanta, and some details are even included. For example, the last nymph reaching into the cylinder (perhaps supposed to bring to mind harvest baskets?) is “made heavy” and holds a large yellow burden.
But with the limit of 2000 words in sight, here’s how Venus ends her tale: “And lest my story be longer than the race itself, the virgin was overtaken: the winner led away his prize.”
One thing is certain: you have a good eyesight to see the smallest details. But why did not you add the picture from the top? And how do you explain the apparent feet of two nymphs, heroines of the blue pool scene?
Do you believe that the page speaks of the alchemy, the mercurial water stopped by the golden apples?
Thanks, Ruby. I really don’t know what the “real” meaning of the page is. I don’t think it’s alchemy, but since I don’t have a better alternative I’ll say it could be.
I excluded the part on top because I don’t understand the narrative there yet. There clearly is a narrative goin on there! But I don’t know whether it belongs to the other two scenes.
The feet, that’s a good question. One thing it does is differentiate them from the others, it may be as simple as that. But there is still much I don’t know. For example, why is there a big nymph bending over at the right? If only there came some text with it 🙂
If it’s about alchemy, I believe that the various works had to be done according to a well-defined calendar taking into account the position of the stars / constellations / signs of the zodiac. Try to apply your own theories, maybe the nymphs represent some constellations or zodiac signs ?
Hmmm. I don’t know about these. There’s a good chance they represent stars, but for this page I don’t see a convincing solution. There’s just not enough information in the drawing. It’s a problem with all the pool pages, there’s not much to go on.
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[Postscript – to be read first] I should have written an email to ask your views about these things. Wish I had. Please treat it as if I had, if you like. I don’t mind if you choose not to publish this, or any other comment from me.
I had a little difficulty following you as you moved from the statement that (within the limits set by old expectations), the search for images formed like those in Quire 13 have failed.
Now, given that the usual narratives created for this manuscript begin by begging a considerable number of questions: such as whether manufacture and content were contemporaneous creations; whether or not the maker lived in the Mediterranean; whether there was, or wasn’t an ‘author’ … and so on… the usual inclination has been to focus on the researcher’s personal interests, range of prior reading and ‘home town’ comfort: this extending to the wished-for nationality.
So – if we assume the great majority have only looked at Christian (or Muslim) manuscripts, and that they have there found nothing comparable, and given that the quire is not characteristic of those employed for western Christian (i.e. ‘Latin’) works, so how can you then excuse the drawings as ‘memory-aids’ and suppose that what is being memorialised are the ideas of a poet who wrote in Latin?
Are you implying that the written part of the text consists of Ovid’s poems in the Latin or in translation, and if so – how widely known outside the Latin environment were those poems known? They certainly had an effect on the Irish who also disseminated the ‘Marriage of Mercury and Philology’. And while the Irish manuscripts routinely had quinions, I do not think you would find many willing to say the style of drawing in Q.13 is Irish.asite l
But you still seem to be arguing that this quire’s drawings, which are unlike any drawings known from Latin Europe, and drawn in a style and in a quire which warns against ascribing it to Latin Christian origin… that the quire is a work of Latin Christian Europe.
How can this square with the other indications that the content – and probably the environment of manufacture – wasn’t of that sort at all?
On the more objective points, we agree of course. That the figures refer to stars (you have modified this to have them constellations). We agree that the drawings are there to aid matter already memorised – as pure point of fact, I first explained this as my view well before you came on board, and have repeated it endlessly since then, so I suppose technically you agree with me. Anyway, we agree: mnemonic images, with/including astronomical reference for each of the ‘ladies’… and further (again you agree with me here) that the battlemented head-dresses help mark the time of first enunciation as not later than the 3rdC AD and quite likely not later than the 1st-2ndC AD.
But from there you have leapt to one and only one sort of astronomical source, and this a Latin work, though the battlemented headdresses are characteristic of the Hellenistic and earlier periods, and more often with the eastern (Greek-speaking) Mediterranean of that time than with the western and Roman side.
And, once more – neither the codicology nor (pace Pelling) the palaeography agrees with a Latin Christian storyline. Who else liked Ovid?
Don’t worry, I welcome any kind of comment from anyone about the subject of the post 🙂
You ask some good questions, and difficult ones.
Well, first of all, I always say “Ovidian” but I don’t think Ovid’s work is the subject of the VM, and I would also be surprised if it were reflected in the text. It’s just that Ovid is an accessible source, and he has written about a huge percentage of the Greco-Roman mythological corpus as it stood in his day. He also relied heavily on previous sources which are now lost. So I might better say “Greco-Roman myth”, but so far the Metamorphoses have proved a great source.
So instead of “who else likes Ovid?” the question should be “who else likes Greco-Roman myth?” , which somewhat resolves the issue. But I admit that I should have explained this better in the post. If Ovid indeed reflects the mythology that was current at the time, and I add that the focus should be on these stories and not on the author or his works, then I don’t see why this should be in conflict with the indications for an origin in the first centuries CE.
Usually mnemonic images are made to help memorize a text (like in a mnemonic bible) and indeed it looks like most mnemonic techniques were aimed at text memorization, like when you had to memorize a speech.
I don’t think it’s meant to help remember Ovid though. Rather it might be the other way around. Elements from popular myth are integrated in the imagery to help remember whatever the actual subject is. I think everyone would have known these stories, though not necessarily in the form they were written down by Ovid.
There is a difference between the various (two or three) subsections of Q13. The folios I usually discuss refer to the constellations, but this one clearly doesn’t. It might be as you say, something like stars integrated with geographical information.
So well, let me summarize it this way:
* Forget about Ovid as an author, I’m interested in the stories he collected.
* I would be surprised if these myths were the main subject. Rather I think that popular narratives were used to enhance the mnemonic power of the images.
* I have no own ideas about the specific astronomical meaning of this particular folio. Do you? 🙂
Koen, Thanks for the clarification and for the helpful response to those questions. As far as mnemonics go, I think it important for Voynicheros to avoid being stuck in the older ideas in Frances Yates’ book and read Mary Carruthers’ works which completely changed the paradigm in that subject. I’m not saying you haven’t considered them, but when I introduced the subject of mnemonics and began explaining the way image-and-text interacted, the reaction of some was immediately to return to their few, long out-of-date sources such as d’Imperio and then try to suggest that I’d just revived material in that. You hadn’t appeared, yet, so you won’t know why the idea of mnemonic imagery (especially for the plant roots) is now everywhere repeated, but in fact it’s a conclusion I reached, and then argued for systematically, from historical and iconographic evidence over the years 2010-2014. I’m delighted to find that this is among the numerous items adopted from my work, but as so often others were denied the opportunity to read the evidence and historical background which
together had led to my drawing that conclusion. Not admitting my work exists, or is the reason for many of the changes seen between the state of things in 2008 and today, became a determined policy for some and the resulting plagiarism is why I have now closed off my blog altogether. There is no cure for the intellectually dishonest, and so long as they maintain their habits, there’s no point in feeding the beast. As you know I have removed my blog from public access, limiting readership to persons in whose integrity I have reason to feel some confidence.
But back to the main subject: if you are saying the imagery reflects the content of the Greek religious stories, then it comes down to time and language. If the period is the Hellenistic, or if the cultural environment where the images were first enunciated was Hellenistic (even to the 3rdC AD), then there’s no need to refer to Ovid. The texts known by heart by every educated Greek were Homer’s. If you wish to move into the Roman imperial environment, you have the poetic descriptions of the heavens. If you move on to the medieval centuries (pre-Renaissance) then Aratus is the most sensible first stop, as you know. But then the problem is this: because the texts were committed to memory, the only reason for creating mnemonics based on those texts were to create links between that text and some other body of knowledge. That ‘other’ is, in my opinion, the key here.
Yes! I think I finally got my point across 🙂 You’re actually quite right, it’s confusing that I call them Ovidian myths while I actually mean the stories themselves. The story of Atalanta appears to go back to Homeric times, for example.
I can’t say much about the language, since bits of narrative structure (plot) are being used. Those are language-less, or rather independent of language.
In the case of this folio: “focus figure stands in front of crowd, facing another marked figure (“pretty lady”). Sneaky figure introduces globular object to first figure. Second scene: figure reaches down three times, appears “burdened” in the end.”
But I agree with you that the language of the images appears to be Greek, and have also found some indications in that direction.
And yes, as I explained in the post and in my replies to Ruby, I think of the narrative elements as additional to the main subject. If the narrative had been the main focus, it would have been clearer. So as you say, the “other body of knowledge” is what we must eventually understand. But for this particular folio, I doubt that we will be able to figure out its concrete meaning by the images alone..
Edit: I must add that yes, I feel more for the Roman imperial period, but Metamorphoses (and Catasterisms ) were a typical Hellenistic genre. But I don’t know to what extent these things were general knowledge in that period. As we talked about before, our perception might be somewhat muddied because so much more survives from the Roman period, both in writing and other art forms.
Koen, first to clarify: when I say that some of the imagery ‘speaks Greek’ I mean that certain elements in the “ladies” folios and the diagrams make sense of the form, disposition and visual ‘puns’ they present if we look at them as the product of someone who used Greek regularly. It may not have been his first language, but it was one he was very familiar with. Some few labels, it seems to me, read like a kind of wobbly Greek. (we find ‘wobbly Greek’) in other works of the imperial Roman era including the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
In fact, I went through that last-named text to see whether the itinerary/narrative of the ‘bathy-‘ folios and perhaps also the botanical folios mightn’t derive from that work, being as it was a product of Egyptianised Greek, made for a Roman readership (apparently) and having lots about bays, inlets and eastern vegetable products of commercial interest and value to the westerners. I can save anyone else the trouble of repeating that part of the research by telling them that there was no direct correspondence discerned.
About the beliefs held by the pre-Roman speakers of Greek (who were not all ‘Greeks’ in any modern sense) – they were reflected in written works but were the shared culture. In the west, the shared culture of Christian communities derived, ultimately, from a book and it is easy to suppose the same of earlier times, but this doesn’t appear to be so. Two sources which I often recommend as introduction to the Greek-influenced arts and thought of the pre-Roman Mediterranean may surprise by their date of publication, but they are still standard works, and the first seems always to inspire in newcomers that combination of delight and intellectual engagement which sees the ‘student ship’ safely launched.
The first is by Kitto, and is called simply, ‘The Greeks’. There is a Penguin edition which can probably be found at somewhere like abebooks.
The second is Robert Graves’ ‘Greek Myths’ also available in a Penguin edition.
I usually recommend, too, that people take the books into some park or garden – get out of the modern, tech-y, functional ” information-collecting” frame of mind and read the books themselves – slowly.
Maybe one or two of your readers might enjoy trying that, too.
Thanks, Diane. Well, yeah, that’s what I had in mind. That those myths were known then as generally as stories about Jesus are now. Or well, 50 years ago, it’s likely less now.
So well, bottom line, I don’t think there should be any contradiction between your findings and my proposing the use of Greek narratives as a mnemonic aid. But I admit that by focusing on Ovid I’ve given off the wrong vibe 😉
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