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.”