As promised, I will attempt to summarize and evaluate my earliest posts on this blog (about the small plants). The first part (introduction) is about how and why I chose my method. It can be skipped by readers why just want to get to the VM bits 🙂
I started reading about VM research around September 2015, some two and a half years ago now. I had read a short article before about the “world’s most mysterious manuscript” some years before, and wondered: did they solve this thing already? And if not, what is known about it? After some browsing, I learned the answers to those questions: no, and not much. Reading through the available sources, I quickly became interested in the work of two researchers in particular.
First, from Diane O’Donovan’s work I learned that the manuscript’s imagery cannot be properly understood from the assumption that its contents are a purely 15th century creation. Of course, all art forms carry their history within them, but the VM simply won’t make sense without thinking in terms of its various chronological strata. I also liked Diane’s work on plant mnemonics, and understood this as one of the reasons why the plant drawings in the MS look unusual: at one point they have been altered to incorporate visual memory-aids.
Secondly, I was influenced by Stephen Bax’s work, specifically the method he employed. If a particular plant is an onion, then there’s a good chance the word next to it will read “onion”. One problem with this, however, is the number of uncertainties involved. For example: Did I identify the plant correctly? Does the VM text contain any linguistic information or is it generated nonsense? If so, which language is it in? Do the images and text belong together? Are plant names mentioned in the text? Did I select the correct word from the text to be my “plant name”?
Many of those uncertainties must be accepted for what they are, but a few of them can be eliminated by shifting the focus from the large plat drawings (with one to three paragraphs of text) to the small ones (with a single label). If you’ve got a drawing and one word next to it , there’s a decent chance that this one word is the thing’s name. Find out what the drawing represents, and you know what the name should be. Even if the name is encoded in a complex way, you might still gain some insights .
My impression was that the small-plants section had been understudied and its potential underappreciated at that time (ant it still is). Most researchers rarely ventured into that section, and if they did it was for the ornate “vessels” depicted in it, not for the plants themselves. So in front of me was basically a blank slate.
Soon I noticed that particular folios of this section were laden with symbolic images hidden in the plants, much more so than we had realized thus far. Of course, some of those had been spotted before, and are generally accepted to a large degree. These are some of the most obvious examples:
With this, it is established that there are mnemonics integrated in the plants. But while Diane, writing about the large plants, discussed mostly mnemonics related to the use of the plant, I hypothesized that these were about the foreign (or “international”) names of the plant. It is not uncommon for plant books to include relevant translations and glossaries existed as well , so some kind of illustrated lexicon is not too crazy of a suggestion.
A side note on mnemonics
Mnemonic techniques are essential to those who have to memorize a lot – which explains why they were ubiquitous in the past, especially before we were able to mass-produce books. However, there are still occasions where mnemonics come in handy. For example, if you want to learn Japanese script (hiragana), mnemonic images can help to remember their sound value, and indeed several mnemonic charts are available online.
Normally my memory is not the best, but by using some of these mnemonic images, I was able to memorize all basic hiragana in no time, with decent long-term memorization as well.
I mention these mnemonics for two reasons:
- The potential of mnemonics depends on the learner’s language. I can draw and imagine Japanese “to” as “a toe with a splinter on it”, but this mnemonic will only work for people who speak English, as it depends on “to” sounding like “toe”. It doesn’t have to be their first language (it’s not mine) but they must be comfortable with it. In short, many mnemonics will only work in one specific language.
- To show that visual mnemonics, as they are employed in the VM, are not something strange or fanciful. It is a well established learning technique that is still used today. It’s not just some weird fantasy, but rather a didactic solution tailored to specific needs.
So then in March 2016 the time was right to start publishing some of my ideas on a blog. Since many of the mnemonics I discerned were related to Greco-Roman myth, I decided to call it “Herculeaf”, a contraction of the demigod Hercules (from Greek myth) and leaf (from plants). It seemed like a good idea at the time, though now I wish I’d chosen something with “Voynich” in the title – ah well.
The advantage my approach offered was that – if my assumptions were correct – I could go at a Voynichese words from different angles at the same time and corner them in a smaller range of possibilities, since it had to sound like the mnemonic and the name of the plant. Let me whip up a Venn diagram:
Ideally, a complete analysis explains how the mnemonic helps to remember the plant name. In what follows, I will review my early posts on small-plant mnemonics and rate their reliability as I see it now.
See post: https://herculeaf.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/f-100r-the-handy-leek/
Here it’s clear that the mnemonic is a hand. The plant ID is, as usual, up for debate, but I still find leek a good possibility. Apparently Egyptian leek, kurrat, was especially valued. This gave me the idea that Greek might be the underlying language of the mnemonics, since Greek for hand is kheir. The exact pronunciation depends on the time, region and accent of the speaker, interpretation of the foreign name etc, but all in all it looks like something which might work.
This might also have been the point where I completely abandoned the idea that Voynichese may be the result of one-to-one substitution. If this label is to read something like /kurat/, then the “cc” in the middle must be some kind of ligature that stands for /ur/, and the last glyph a word-final version of /t/.
All in all I’m still behind this analysis.
Rating: THUMBS UP
2. Castor and Pollux
See post: A1. Castor’s Cape, Mango
I’m not too certain anymore about this one. On the one hand, it is absolutely clear that the plant has been modified to fit some symmetrical scheme.
I saw in this the two Dioscuri, traditionally depicted riding next to each other, with lances and billowing cloaks.
I’m still okay with this, though I’d welcome other suggestions. I’m not certain at all anymore about my further interpretation of plant ID, mnemonic link and label reading.
This remains one of my favorite ones overall, and I have nothing to add to the original post: A4. The Mourning Hawk: Saffron
It confirmed that I was on the right track seeing the section as an illustrated lexicon, and assuming Greek as the language the maker/audience was thinking in. I’ve mentioned this post before on a number of occasions so won’t go into detail here, but basically the mnemonic works because the Greek word for hawk, /kirkos/ sounds like some of the international names for Saffron (related to Crocus), using the K-R-K consonant structure.
See post: B2. A first taste of Victory
I’m feeling less certain about this one now that I did before. Both the mnemonic and the plant ID are a bit uncertain, since there’s not much to go on – a bunch of flowy roots and a white spike. A redeeming quality is that /nike/ would make a decent mnemonic for the local name for finger millet, as explained in the post.
5. Three Graces / sugar cane
See post: A3. Something Sweet
I still stand behind this post, although the plant ID is a difficult one. It assumes that the bulbous roots are entirely mnemonic additions and the actual focus is on the sticks above ground. The unusual thing about the drawing is that the bulbs have two “roots” each, enhancing the impression of intended anthropomorphy.
The idea is that the word for Grace, /kharis/, will help to remember the “international” word for sugar, /zakhari/. It’s not bad, and I was able to make some sense of the label, in part.
Rating: PRETTY GOOD
6. Golden Fleece
Looking back at this image, I think the Golden Fleece is a plausible mnemonic. Unfortunately it’s pretty useless without a better idea of which plant is meant.
See post: D2. Tantalus, Indian bay leaf
This one was quite a stretch. I don’t rule out the possibility that some of the analysis is correct, but I wouldn’t put my money on it. I don’t even remember writing this or making those pictures 😐
Rating: POINTS FOR EFFORT?
See post: Teak is for Timber – Hercules
Like the previous one, this post certainly isn’t among the best, although I’m still okay with the mnemonic.
Somehow I thought the plant should represent teak, and while this is not the worst possible idea, there should be better ones. The link between mnemonic and supposed plant ID and label interpretation is all rather shaky.
I still feel very confident about this mnemonic. As a reminder, I saw this and the plant next to it as a pair, illustrating the story of Hercules who chains the hell hound Cerberus and drags him into the open, causing the creature to vomit bile because of the sudden exposure to sunlight. Always wear sunscreen, folks.
Apparently at the time I made this somewhat embarrassingly un-academic image for clarification:
You know, it’s ridiculous, but precisely that would make it an excellent mnemonic.
In the follow-up post I explore some possibilities for the label, which I still like as well. Unfortunately I must still mark this one as incomplete, but it’s got potential.
Rating: INCOMPLETE but mnemonic seems right
See post: E3. The Hydra
This one, the plant on the right, got me started on this folio and launched the hypothesis that its mnemonics were connected to mythological tales. The connection to Hercules made the thematic link even stronger. Unfortunately I didn’t get much further than a weak suggestion for the plant ID.
Rating: INCOMPLETE but mnemonic seems right
See post: rC2: The Dragon, Cadmus and his Sown Men
I love the way this mnemonic has been drawn, it’s incredibly clever. It’s a shame the story of Cadmus isn’t better known and more present in visual culture, otherwise this would be recognized right away.
In short, Cadmus slew a dragon, scattered its teeth in a field, and five men came out. The roots of the plant have been brilliantly shaped like a furrows in a plowed field, from which five men emerge. At the far end of the field we see the tree to which Cadmus pinned the dragon with his sword.
This is one of the mnemonics I am most determined about. Unfortunately, the botanical information that’s left in the drawing appears limited to the shape of the leaf. It’s a characteristically shaped leaf though, so perhaps it can be identified some day.
Rating: INCOMPLETE but mnemonic seems right
See post: vC1. Thalia, the muse (Artocarpus)
I find it hard to judge this one. The mnemonic, label and plant ID tie together nicely. On the other hand, the drawing isn’t the most obvious one, so I’m hesitant to express much certainty.
13. The Sheep
See post: Lost Sheep and how to Find Them
I started off this post with some background on my views, but this was really in the beginning of my Voynich days and some things have evolved now. But the interpretation of the mnemonic is really good, and I like that it matched part of the label (/krios/ = sheep). Unfortunately, no suggestions for plant ID yet.
Rating: INCOMPLETE but mnemonic seems right
14. Monkey Butt Plant
See post: Monkey Business
This post still makes a lot of sense to me, even though the plant is rather obscure. It was really shocking when I googled the word suggested to me by mnemonic and label, and I got rather quickly to a plant with the exact same leaf shape.
So well, there you go. Since a few people had asked me about these older posts, I thought it would be good to list them here and add my current thoughts. There were five of them where I expressed my doubts about their reliability. All in all though, I still stand behind the concept.
Above all, there are a few instances where I believe I was able to “read” the label to some extent. Doing this and comparing various labels formed my opinions about what Voynichese can and can’t be. In particular, I think it was originally a cursive or perhaps a minuscule with positional variation. This has then been copied and fitted into a structure with a more rigid appearance. I don’t know whether this process was intentional (to simplify or to obscure) or accidental (because the scribe was unable to parse the exemplar text correctly). Even though in my view this must have led to some loss of information, I still maintain hope that enough is left to eventually work out its meaning.
It’s a shame that the plants in the small-plant section are so difficult to identify – perhaps not mainly because of their size, but because of the scarcity of clear botanical information they convey. Otherwise it would be a perfect place for image-guided deciphering attempts. If the VM does contain retrievable information and we ever manage to break its shell, I would not be surprised if the first cracks show up on the small-plants foldouts.
 Some labels have more than one word, which has been seen by some as an objection to their being plant names. But of course the name of a plant can consist of more than one word. Additionally, some of these words are repeated in several labels. This, again, is not a problem, since the repeated words could be adjectives: “large x”, “large y” (or “small, red, wild, sweet….”).
 In that way it’s like a tiny block paradigm 🙂
 In fact, Neophytos Prodromenos, a focal figure in a recent post, produced a lexicon of Arabic plant names and their transliteration into the Greek alphabet, which Touwaide calls the best example of this type.