I will soon return to type-token investigations, but there is a short imagery post I wanted to finish first. It’s about the Beast – yeah, that one. I have talked to few people about this in the past, so this won’t be new to everyone. Still, I always find it helpful to line up the evidence in a blog post.
Why is it important?
Considering the fact that the Voynich manuscript has dozens of pages full of images, this one detail has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention. This is mainly the case because it is used as an argument for one of the most prominent alternative theories in Voynich research – the New World theory.
You see, the New World theory rests on two pillars: the interpretation of a specific plant image as a sunflower (a New World plant) and the interpretation of the above beast as an armadillo (a New World species).
What I mean to convey with the above sketch is that most New World arguments consist of bad science, guesswork and shaky identifications, all justified by the presumed solid pillars of sunflower and armadillo. You can imagine what would happen to the figure and his theories if the sunflower, armadillo or both were to be taken away…
Animals of the Voynich
Even looking at the Voynich exclusively, more specifically the way it depicts animals, we can learn quite a bit. Are Voynich beasts naturalistic? Can we rely on them to pinpoint one species? Are they well drawn? Do they all represent real animals? As we will see, the answer to all of those questions is no.
Look at this:
We kind of know that this should be a ram, a male sheep, given its appearance in a series of Zodiac emblems. However, it looks more like a goat. Besides that, its face is flat as if it was run over by a road roller. It is as if the artist could not decide which perspective to go with and kind of mixed them all.
The bull has a similar problem with its face, and moreover suffers from dislocated joints in the hind legs, its knees pointing the wrong way. As JK Petersen points out, this is an attribute hardly found in other manuscripts, so it seems to set the VM apart in a pretty bad way. If these drawings are supposed to be reliable, naturalistic animal portraits, then they are pretty bad at their job. But luckily, they are not supposed to be naturalistic; knowing the context of the Zodiac series, we have enough to go on.
This changes when we don’t know the context we’re dealing with. For example, none of the “pond creatures” of f79v can be identified with certainty. Consider the yellow one:
What is this? Its feet appear like paws – with about four fingers on each foot they are certainly not meant to represent hooves. Its tail is long and slender, with a tuft at the end. It could belong to a large feline (lion) but also a cow, though the latter would be in conflict with the paws. The neck is long and curved, and together with the overall posture of the animal reminds me the most of a rearing horse. Certainly not a feline or bovine.
So those are three key aspects (feet, tail, neck/head) which are in conflict with each other to various degrees and point to different animal families. This leaves two possible conclusions:
- A specific animal is meant but it is badly drawn.
- The creature is a random “beast” or a fictional being.
The outcome is either way is that, like so many medieval works, the VM animals should not be taken as naturalistic representations. With this in mind, the reader will already realize how strange it is for proponents of American theories to lean so heavily on precisely a VM animal image.
Properties of the Strange Beast
The VM creature of f80v is particularly hard to understand, but still we can attempt to describe it. The being is suspended above or leaping out of/into what is often described as a basin of water. This apparent water is bordered by a typical VM “cloud line”, though it is one of the wavy variety. Higher up on the same page there is one of the more symmetrical variety as well, for contrast:
Maybe it’s a cloud, maybe it’s water, maybe it’s both – we don’t really know. On to the thing itself; here is the image again for easy reference:
It’s got three visible legs, with the fourth one presumably hidden by the contorted pose. It appears to have three visible toes on the hind paw and two on the front paw. The third leg, which is mostly lifted behind the body, is hard to read. The legs themselves connect very awkwardly to the feet/paws, converging in a point at the end.
The head is even stranger: it’s incredibly flat and it’s hard to tell whether there is a mouth, an ear, an eye, a horn…? The creature does appear to be scaled, with three neat lines of scales running along its body. The tail splits in two parts near the base. A stroke of green-grayish color has been applied along part of the body, legs and tail.
Since the image is so strange and hard to interpret, it has given rise to quite a number of diverging interpretations, one proclaimed with more zeal than the other. The armadillo is the most famous one, and the most damaging to proper research.
From the wiki:
Armadillos (from Spanish “little armoured one”) are New World placental mammals in the order Cingulata. […] 21 extant species of armadillo have been described, some of which are distinguished by the number of bands on their armour. All species are native to the Americas, where they inhabit a variety of different environments.
Most species have rigid shields over the shoulders and hips, with a number of bands separated by flexible skin covering the back and flanks.
Our Voynich beast clearly does not have any bands. Its scales are also way too large to even resemble the multitude of tiny so-called scutes typical for the armadillo.
Proponents of the armadillo-theory often suggest that the being is seen in the act of rolling into a ball as a defense mechanism, but in actuality this behavior is only regularly observed in the three-banded armadillo. Other species will run for cover in the thorny undergrowth.
Additionally, the armadillo has long, sharp claws and does not have a split tail. Needless to say, the armadillo theory does not gain much traction in mainstream Voynich research.
An Old World mammal does exist which is in many ways similar to the armadillo: the pangolin. This adorable fellow has the unfortunate honor of being the world’s most poached animal.
Identifying the VM creature as a pangolin creates some of the same issues as the armadillo does: claws, long tail… But the pangolin has got two things going for it. One, it has very large scales, and two, it needs fewer convoluted theories to justify its presence in an early 15th century European manuscript.
Still, if it were a pangolin, it would be the only image of its kind, and this proposal is not without its problems either. Occam prefers it over the armadillo, but he’s still not quite satisfied.
A sea monster
Last year I spent quite some tome studying medieval bestiary traditions, and I concluded that there is some connection between the VM animals and the images in Thomas de Cantimpré’s De natura rerum and its rich tradition. See A network of faulty lobsters: Scotus, Cantimpré, Megenberg and the Voynich Manuscript.
One chapter in these works is titled De monstris marinis, “of sea monsters”. It is not entirely clear to the modern reader what exactly constitutes the difference between fish, sea creatures and sea monsters. The latter are always partially or entirely fictional.
To get to the point, some of these sea monsters look rather familiar to Voynich researchers. In Pal. lat. 1066 (1424, Bayern), there are two in particular, here and here. The second one is labelled “tuna” (apparently a sea monster) but I suspect the image belongs to a different paragraph, especially since a more conventional fish is depicted above it. The first is called the Kylion, and Marco Ponzi kindly translated its paragraph as follows:
Kylion is a rather marvelous sea animal, as Aristoteles says, in which it is believed that either nature erred or changed its usual order. But it is not the case to believe that nature erred: indeed it designed everything well and all things were created in a right and appropriate way. In fact, while in all the animals on earth, small all large, it placed the liver at the right and the spleen at the left, in kylion it placed the spleen at the right and the liver at the left.
Similar beings are found in Valenciennes MS 320, the mother of the illustrated Cantimpré tradition. On f116v we encounter the kylion again, as well as the karabo (bottom).
The karabo appears to be doing something which requires it to bend its head down, but I don’t have a translation for its text yet. The VM being shares the facing direction of the Valenciennes creatures, but is stylistically more alike the German manuscript.
Similarities between the “sea monsters” and the VM “armadillo” are:
- Position: not quite swimming, but rather above or on the water
- In case of the karabo also pose
- body shape
- fish tail
- apparent mix of species, confusing head
- often grey-green coloring
- found in early 15th century manuscripts
I started this post by showing that the VM creatures cannot be relied upon as naturalistic depictions of animals. Next, I provided some images wich I believe form convincing parallels for the type. I’m not saying that the VM creature is a kylion or a karabo or any of the other beasts depicted in this manner. It’s impossible to know which creature is meant without a text. What I am saying is that the Cantimpré tradition offers a convincing medieval parallel for the iconography of this image. It seems likely to me that the VM illustrator wished to depict some aquatic creature, whether real or imaginary, general or specific, and they found an example in a book related to the Cantimpré tradition. No armadillos or pangolins required.