One of my earliest impressions of the plants in the Voynich manuscript is one I still hold dear: that the symbolic elements (like animal shapes) worked into the plants are more numerous and more important than most researchers suspect. While there is a near-consensus that yes, the plants do contain unnatural items, few see these as much more than mnemonic or folkloric elements secondary to the true botanical significance.
Opposed to this, there are also cases where the plants appear botanically reliable and realistic. The “water lily” is a superb example. There is discussion about the exact species, but the overall plant type is depicted as faithfully as in the best of medieval examples.
What I believe is that the VM plant images play both fields simultaneously; they use images of real plant parts, but those are as much a means to an end as the symbolic elements are. In my understanding, the whole of VM plants is not an herbal that happens to employ a lot of unusual non-literal elements. I believe it is better seen as a unique project that draws from herbal imagery to reach its goal, and the nature of that goal still eludes us.
(Note: I think it is true for most of the VM that the imagery is hard to interpret because it artificially attempts to express two originally separate things at once. Not in the way symbolism usually works, but in a very much constructed, novel kind of way. I like to think of it as a visual equivalent of polyphonic overtone singing (YouTube), a technique where one person sings two notes simultaneously, and the result is somewhat alien. Maybe I should call it the “polyphonic paradigm”?)
This belief has its roots four years ago, when I noticed what looked like a coherent theme in small-plant foldout f89v. I thought some of the plants were related to the story of the twelve labours of Hercules. Which is incidentally how this blog got its address, a merging of “Hercules” and “leaf”. Yup… My Herculeaf ideas received a lot of criticism back in the day, and most of it was certainly justified.
One piece of constructive advice recurred a few times: yes, there seems to be something there, but if this is really about the “twelve labours”, shouldn’t there be more of them instead of just the three I singled out? Several people also pointed out that the famous “lion claw” plant was on the exact page where I was seeing Herculean feats of strength, and while defeating a lion was part of the labours, I had not included it.
So here’s what I want to do now. Let us assume, just for this post’s sake, that these comments were justified and that we should look for a more complete set of “Labours”. Where would that take us?
I. The Twelve Labours of Hercules
As I explained in the previous post, the fact that Hercules performed a series of epic feats was widely known, but there wasn’t necessarily an ordered checklist. Still, there were various authors writing about the Twelve Labours in the early 15th century, so it probably remains our best option to use the list of twelve as a rough guideline. Here follows the most commonly agreed-upon list (order may vary slightly). I used theoi.com‘s wonderful overview of quotes from classical sources.
1. Slaying the Nemean Lion
One of his most well-known feats, Hercules was sent to defeat a large lion. Since the beast’s hide was impervious to weapons, he strangled it with his bare hands. From this lion, which is usually connected to the constellation of Leo, he got his trademark coat.
The lion, mightiest dread of Nemea, crushed by the arms of Hercules roared his last.
– Seneca, Hercules Furens 224 ff
2. Slaying the Lernaean Hydra
The hydra was a venomous water serpent with many heads, depending on the source nine or one hundred. Though this number is somewhat trivial, since each time Hercules chopped off a head, two new ones grew in its place. He finally bested the creature by burning the stumps with fire. Afterwards, he dipped his arrows in its poison. Connected to the constellation Hydra, and in some versions also Cancer (because Hercules trampled a hostile crab in the struggle).
3 or 4: Capture the Ceryneian Hind
Hercules was sent to capture alive a sacred deer. He chased it for a year before finally being able to trap it.
3 or 4: Capture the Erymanthian Boar
Hercules captured a huge, ravaging boar alive and brought it back to the king. A detail not often found in text but popular in early imagery is the cowering king hiding in a jar upon seeing the beast. This detail may be irrelevant for our purpose, but merely for your enjoyment here is a 2500-year old depiction of Hercules using a giant pig to make a king hide in a jar.
5 or 6: Clean the Augean stables in a single day.
For his fifth labour, Hercules was tasked with cleaning the stables of king Augeas in a single day, with ages’ worth of manure of a thousand cattle. He did this by rerouting the course of one or two rivers, depending on the source. Diodorus Siculus gives an extended account, focusing on the demeaning nature of the assignment.
[Herakles] received a Command from Eurystheus to cleanse the stables of Augeas, and to do this without the assistance of any other man. These stables contained an enormous mass of dung which had accumulated over a great period, and it was a spirit of insult which induced Eurystheus to lay upon him the command to clean out this dung. Herakles declined as unworthy of him to carry this out upon his shoulders, in order to avoid the disgrace which would follow upon the insulting command; and so, turning the course of the Alpheios river, as it is called, into the stables and cleansing them by means of the stream, he accomplished the Labour in a single day, and without suffering any insult.
– Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 13. 3
5 or 6: Slaying the Stymphalian Birds.
The Stymphalian Birds were a flock of man-eating birds which haunted Lake Stymphalis. They lived in a dense thicket, so Hercules used a rattle to make them fly out, then shot them with his arrows.
7. Capture the Cretan Bull.
There roamed a bull in Crete, which Seneca calls “the crushing terror of a hundred towns”. It was, according to some accounts, the father of the Minotaur. Hercules captured it alive and calmed it to the extent that he was able to ride it across the sea. He released it in Micenae, where it resumed its activities of being a crushing terror. This is again one of those labours with a clear connection to the constellations.
8. Steal the Mares of Diomedes.
Diomedes was a Thracian king. In Greek myth, Thracians are usually violent, crude barbarians (the rapist king from the story of Philomela is also a Thracian). Well, this Diomedes had trained his mares to eat human flesh. When the horses devoured Hercules’ companion, Abderos, Hercules killed the cruel Diomedes and fed his body to the mares to still their appetites.
Most accounts focus on the horses’ culinary preferences, and the cruelty of their owner. In some versions Hercules slays the beasts, in others he captures them. The number of horses is usually omitted, but some sources mention four. Hyginus even names them: Podargus, Lampon, Xanthus, and Dinus.
9. Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.
In one of the few labours that don’t involve slaying beasts or stealing livestock, Hercules must obtain a belt from the amazon queen. In some versions, he receives it freely. But usually, turmoil ensues and Hercules ends up fighting the whole amazon army and killing their queen.
10. Steal the cattle of the monster Geryon.
Geryon was a giant with three bodies. He lived on the Sunset Isle, where he possessed a fabulous herd of oxen, their skin stained red by the ligt of sunset. Pseudo-Apollodorus describes how we should imagine the creature:
“The tenth labour assigned to Herakles was to fetch the cattle of Geryon from Erytheia. Erytheia was an island, now called Gadeira, lying near Okeanos. On it lived Geryon, son of Khrysaor and Okeanos’ daughter Kallirrhoe. He had the bodies of three men joined into one at the belly, but splitting into three again from the flanks and thighs down. He owned crimson-colored cattle, which were herded by Eurytion and protected by Orthos, the hound with two heads born of Ekhidna and Typhon.”
– Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 106 – 109
Hercules slew the two-headed guard dog, the herdsman and Geryon himself, and took the cattle back to Micenae.
11. Steal the apples of the Hesperides.
In ancient statues, Hercules is often depicted holding apples in his hand. These are the golden apples of the Hesperides, nymphs of evening and golden sunset. There is quite some variation in the stories, but there are always golden apples guarded by nymphs and a dragon/serpent. Sometimes the number of nymphs is given as four. This labour is featured in the header image, from Harley 1766.
Let [Herakles] . . . bring back the apples from the cheated sisters [the Hesperides] when the Draco, set to watch over the precious fruit, has given his ever-waking eyes to sleep.
– Seneca, Hercules Furens 526 ff
The ancient scene of Hercules fighting the treebound serpent was transmitted to the Middle Ages through constellation imagery, as it was a common representation for the constellation of Hercules.
12. Capture and bring back Cerberus.
As a final task, Hercules was sent to the very depths of Hell to bring out the three-headed hound Cerberus. This tale already appears in both Homeric epics.
“[The ghost of Herakles addresses Odysseus in Hades :] ‘He once sent me even here to fetch away the hound of Haides, for he thought no task could be more fearsome for me than that. But I brought the hound out of Haides’ house and up to earth, because Hermes helped me on my way, and gleaming-eyed Athene.’”
Ovid connects the story to the origin of the plant Aconite:
“For that son’s death Medea mixed her poisoned aconite, brought with her long ago from Scythicae’s shores, said to be slobbered by Echidnaea [i.e. Kerberos, son of Ekhidna]. There is a cavern yawning dark and deep, and there a falling track where Hero Tirynthius [Herakles] dragged struggling, blinking, screwing up his eyes against the sunlight and the blinding day, the hell-hound Cerberus, fast on a chain of adamant. His three throats filled the air with triple barking, barks of frenzied rage, and spattered the green meadows with white spume. This, so men think, congealed and, nourished by the rich rank soil, gained poisonous properties. And since they grow and thrive on hard bare rocks the farm folk call them ‘flintworts’–aconites. This poison Aegeus, by Medea’s guile, offered to Theseus as his enemy, father to son.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412
II. The Labours of Hercules in the Voynich
Finally, it’s time to get down to business. Originally, the folio, or rather part of a foldout (f89v) I focused on was this one. The three plants I thought of as Hercules-related are framed in red:
As you can see, there are only six plants on this page, so if there is anything like a more complete set of labours, the range has to be expanded. Since we don’t know in which order and orientation the folios were originally bound (and whether the supposed twelve labours were actually grouped), this is a tricky question with many possibilities. Let’s leave this aside for now and focus on the current six plants. I don’t know what to do with the relatively plain one top left, but I think I can place the remaining five plants in a Herculean frame.
Let’s start with this one since it was already present in my initial proposal and I see no reason to reassess it.
The root/stem (?) has a quadruped shape, and three branches suggest three heads, of which one is realized. A green shape bursts forth from the “head”. Initially I interpreted this as the vomit/drool Cerberus emitted when he arrived at the surface, as in Ovid’s version, from which the poisonous aconite was born. However, it might also represent fire-breathing, which would be a more medieval interpretation of the hellhound.
A comparison might illustrate how I believe this image should be read. Add MS 19587 is a c.1370 CE manuscript of Dante’s Divina Commedia. In one scene, the poet and his guide play fetch with a Cerberus, breathing fire out of his three mouths.
Right next door to Cerberus lives another many-headed favourite, the hydra. This was also part of my initial proposal and I still think she’s a fine specimen.
The body is serpentine, with many long “roots”, like limp, slain necks or other appendages. Two swooping heads remain.
A remarkable detail is in the empty stalk that bears no “head” but splits in two – which is exactly what the hydra does when a head is chopped off.
The Ceryneian Hind
This is where my initial idea was probably wrong. I thought the pale plant was Hercules himself, somehow putting two clubs up in the air. But that’s a bit weird isn’t it? When we discussed these plants on the Voynich.ninja forum years ago, I remember Anton Alipov remarking that this plant reminded him of a deer. Only now I am putting two and two together, realizing that there is in fact a deer among Hercules’ targets. Thanks, Anton.
To show how this works, I inserted the plant into my favorite medieval deer-scene, from one of the Parisian copies of the Livre de Chasse. Behold.
This means that on the bottom row of the “Herculeaf”-folio, we would have the Hind, Cerberus and the Hydra. Now on to the top row, and we’ll start with the easy pickings.
The Nemean Lion
The “lion paw” plant is one that has drawn researchers’ attention for ages, since the parallel is fairly obvious, claws and all.
But what’s with those leaves. doesn’t the top arm look anthropomorphic, with two outstretched arms and a “neck”? And huge hands? Remember the one detail all sources mention about the way Hercules killed the lion? He could not use weapons, so he strangled it with his bare hands. Or crushed it in a hug, crushing its bones against his half-divine body.
If this is the true interpretation, then it means that “icons” can be used (hands, lion part) to represent key aspects of a story, rather than literally picturing the scene. This might be worth keeping in mind for finding any missing labours.
Cleaning the Augean stables
Imagine you have (for some reason) taken the task upon yourself to hide the following story in a plant: the course of a river is diverted in order to flush out ages of accumulated manure from huge stables. How would you do it?
I should probably prime your mind with a typical Voynichese body of water, which might make my proposal seem less crazy.
Note the shape and colour of the water. And then this plant’s huge ugly leaf:
How I would read this plant/diagram is as follows: the course of the river (1) is diverted and funneled (2) into the stables, where an ungodly amount of gloopy manure (3) is flushed out the other side (4).
Now remember that all of these are on the same folio. An overview:
I don’t quite know where any other labours might be, and as I said before, it is difficult to understand the original order and orientation of these foldouts. However, on the recto side of this same folio there is one plant that drew my attention as a possible Labour. Or rather, a pair of plants, both unusually horizontal as if laid out on the ground.
Remember the story of Diomedes, the cruel Thracian king? Hercules killed him and fed his body to the king’s own man-eating horses. So a good icon for this tale would be horses eating a dead man, right?
I will split this up because the image is very long and hard to take in all at once. First look at these guys:
It’s unfortunate that they are right in the fold, but enough remains to see that they are zoomorphic: we see necks with heads, eyes and mouths. Let’s expand:
I don’t know what to make of the central part, but it’s not a stretch to see the rightmost part as a horse tail, right? What are they looking at? Well, this:
It’s a bit anthropomorphic, lying down with the head on the left, with locks of hair. The leaves of this plant are again slightly zoomorphic, with “ears” this time. Maybe a “mouth” on the front one?
Taking the whole scene into frame, we get this:
Or four zoomorphic leaves surrounding a “dead” anthropomorphic root. Hercules fed the dead king to four man-eating horses.
In summary, I believe parts of f89v/r allude to Hercules’ adventures. Some of the plants have been modified to an absurd degree. It certainly helps to know what you are looking for, but I feel like a lot of details make sense within this framework. There are more plants on these foldouts that have similar fantastic shapes, but I don’t know how to read those yet. A lot of them appear animal-themed, which can also be said of Hercules’ adventures.
f90r2 might actually be the tasks of stealing the apples of the Hesperides. The root looks like a very strong guy (note the Popeyesque muscles all over his body) holding up a ball-shaped plant and ontop is a tree with a few parts having seeds (those flowery parts). I suggest interpreting this as Atlas holding the earth (or Hercules as his replacement during the task). The tree is then the apple tree, with the parts having seeds being the apples. Also notice the abundance of leaves, which might actually be the 100 heads of the dragon guarding the apples (as it’s descibed in some versions)
Looking more at f90r1 I get the impression it might show Geryon. The plant has 3 leaves (which might be his heads), a stem with three pipes (triple body) and the roots are clearly 6 arms with hands. What remains are the two very prominent flow buds. Maybe those are his wings.
The leaf of the very first plant tells us that it’s an oak and if we speak of Hercules, therefore it’s Dodona’s oak, which predicted to Hercules, according to Sophocle, by the voice of two doves, the end of his life.
Good continuation !
Thanks, Moritz and Ruby, it’s more fun when others think along 🙂
The thing about the oak is interesting, I had not considered it. I was thinking that the first plant may also be a labour because that would make six, which is half of twelve.
Come to think of it, all labours I think of on this page are from the first half of the list, aren’t they? Apart from Cerberus.
The Lion is definitely number one. So if there is some order, it might start at the top left.
Hydra is number two, so from there it moves down, same position on the bottom row.
The boar is number three or four – is Cerberus in its place?
The Hind is number three or four, so we jump over Cerberus to the right.
Stables number five, so back to the top line.
That would supposedly leave the Birds, but this is a lesser-known labour isn’t it? And I don’t quite see it or the Boar in the remaining plant.
It would be very interesting to know which text, if any, underlies the structure of these drawings. But there are so many options, both classical and medieval adaptations. I do not think we should look at a particular illustrative tradition for this matter, so a text is the most likely inspiration.
For example in Sophocles’ text, the Labours are mentioned like this: “Oh my hands, my back and shoulders! My arms whose strength once killed the beast of Nemea a beast that sent a chill of fear through the shepherds’ bones; arms whose strength has tamed the Hydra of Lerna, the awful army of monstrous Centaurs, mighty in their strength and arrogance, horses feet. Arms that killed Eurymanthus’ beast and the three-headed dog of Hades who lived below the earth, Echidna’s scion and the snake that guarded the golden apples in the remotest lands.”
That is: Lion, Hydra, Centaurs (not even on my list), Boar, Cerberus, Apples
Moritz: I don’t know what to do with those large plants, it’s so annoying that we don’t know their original position. You may be on to something, those two definitely look like they have a lot of symbolic elements, don’t they?
I was thinking (hoping?) though that if the four man-eating Mares are on the recto (f89r) we might find the remaining labours there, though perhaps depicted in a less obvious way.
A problem with Geryon is that he is a very hard to imagine monster. A giant with three bodies, how does that work? I’ve seen three separate men standing together, triple siamese twins, one man with three heads… There is a thing here with three heads and six legs, but it looks more like some animal, doesn’t it? https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f89v2/0.586/0.842/4.30
So anyway, I am full of doubts. The ones I wrote about are those I feel kind of confident about right now.
The top of f89v2 actually has a cute creature with a triple-belly and two legs per torso:
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Ha! Can’t get much better than that. Although on the same row all the way on the left there is something else with many limbs and two.. wings? Something about these particular plants works well with the many-headed-many-limbed creatures faced by Hercules. But the bulbs you point out really appear drawn as three conjoined torsos.
The roots of the oak leaf plant can be interpreted as Dejanire (two legs on the right) followed by Nessus (four legs on the left).
You might be on to something, Ruby. There are also oak branches on Hercules’ funeral pyre after he died by the poisoned shirt. And the story of Hercules, Dejanira, Nessus and the poison was extremely popular in the Middle Ages.
So we’ve got oak “framing” Hercules’ death, in the beginning and the end. Notice that the “snake root” I put at the end of this post has a similar leaf. So might this leaf symbolize the poisoned shirt?
Perhaps the Pythia and the Delphi’s Oracle?
The label of our Oak Leaf Pythia is ararcho8aun. Arar can come from αρα – curse and cho8aun from κοτος – rancor. Apparently it was a fatal oracle.
Going on a limb here: The body of water in the stables labour looks like a beaver. Which is the exact animal associated with redirecting rivers.
You know, it could be, but I feel like I am already pushing my luck with this proposal 😉
Glad to see you’re still up and about, Koen. All the best to you and yours.
Thanks, Diane, glad to see you around as well. Everything still under control here 🙂