Most sections of the Voynich manuscript are easy to link superficially to existing medieval genres. We have many surviving manuscripts dedicated almost entirely to plants. Cosmological diagrams are found in all sorts of works, and one can hardly imagine a manuscript without some Zodiac signs. However, this basic link to the outside world is harder to make for Quire 13 (the “bathing” section), especially when considered as a whole. It may well be unique in its genre, its purpose and methods unattested elsewhere. When we interviewed Beinecke curator Raymond Clemens (2017), he said as much:
I really don’t know what to do with the bathing women […]. We don’t have anything to compare that to if I’m honest, we can’t say exactly what’s going on, so it’s a generous research problem.
Generous indeed. Back in 2016, I hypothesized that one subsection (Q13a) is a set of narratives in disguise. However, my original approach was rudimentary and flawed; it bore the signs of one having been recently exposed the Voynich, entirely unprepared. After a recent inspiring conversation about these pages, I am now ready to present a more coherent and consistent analysis.
Before we start, there are a few important “rules” to keep in mind.
- There are two separate layers of meaning to each image, which is why we don’t recognize them immediately. To keep this post simple, I will only discuss the narrative layer. (The other layer in this case relates to the constellations).
- It helps to think of the figures (usually called nymphs) as actors. So for example, if the story asks for a mermaid, the illustrator will not draw an actual mermaid, he will draw an actress doing her best to portray one. The actors are nearly all female and they are very poor: they hardly have any clothes or attributes.
I do not insist the nymphs are meant to represent actors. However, whatever the real philosophy behind Q13a might be, it works really well to think of them as a penniless all-female acting company. So once again: the nymphs are like actresses doing their best to play two stories at once using only their bodies and a few items.
The performance takes place on folios f80v and f82r. Currently, these are separated by one folio 81, but Voynich researchers generally agree that the bifolios in Q13 are out of place. It has been suggested (see Voynich Views) that 80 and 82 originally followed each other, which would present the reader with the following view of the opened manuscript. This is our stage:
As outlined below, the story moves from the top-right (f82r) to the bottom, then back towards the top-left (f80v). It feels a bit unnatural for Western readers to move from right to left, but this is also the direction most figures in the bottom pool face. The direction figures face tends to be an indicator of narrative flow.
Our Voynich actresses use a script, and luckily we have access to it; after all, it was one of the most popular classics in the Middle Ages (and still is today): Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I will argue that they used Ovid’s version since the actresses portray actual sentences from the text. They take verbal cues from Ovid to direct their performance.
The story is that of Callisto (book II). I used A.S. Kline’s translation, which is freely available online. For reference, I also consulted the Latin text here. Since we will focus on individual sentences, the overall story may get lost, so here is a very short summary:
- Jupiter (god of thunder) notices a beautiful mortal woman (Callisto), a follower of the goddess Diana.
- When Callisto lies down in the grass to rest, Jupiter disguises himself as Diana and approaches her.
- Jupiter rapes Callisto and she becomes pregnant. Since she has sworn an oath of chastity, she is now in trouble.
- Nine months later, Diana wants them all to bathe together in a pool. Callisto is made to take off her clothes, her pregnancy is revealed and she is banished.
- Callisto gives birth to a son, Arcas. Now Juno, Jupiter’s wife, takes revenge on his mistress. She takes Callisto’s beauty away by turning her into an ugly bear.
- Years later, Arcas has grown up to become a magnificent hunter. One day as he is hunting, his mother (in bear form) spots him and approaches. Arcas wants to kill the bear, but Jupiter intervenes at the very last moment. He transforms them both into the Bear constellations and sets them in the sky.
- Juno is left even more insulted: her rival has now been promoted to godhood. She uses her connections to banish the new constellations from the ocean. This is why, unlike the other constellations, the Bears are always visible above the horizon.
Now let’s get to the images.
I. Setting the stage, literally this time
Since our story starts top right, we must first explain those arches. I believe their function is simple: they mark the start of a story. They may also evoke the thought of a stage. Here are some examples from a medieval puppet show (14th century):
In more general terms, the arches and the ornament in the middle are clearly related to existing architectural practices (see image below, left). Moreover, it was common in certain manuscript traditions to have figures on top integrated in the architectural elements, flanking the scene (right). Such figures might be part of the scene, like the shepherds below, but typically don’t advance the narrative.
In regular manuscripts, we would not expect these figures to be part of the action. The one on the left is pretty generic, but the one on the right matches Ovid’s description of our lead role, Callisto, when he writes that “a white ribbon held back her loose tresses“. For some reason the Voynich omits all clothing apart from headgear, so this is the only part of the description that applies. The Latin also includes her holding a bow, “sumpserat arcum”, which is technically true: she is holding an “arcum”, though not the kind Ovid envisioned.
II. Jupiter takes on the appearance of Diana
Just below our architectural header, we get the first actual scene: Callisto lies down in the grass to rest, while Jupiter disguises himself as her mistress Diana.
The sun was high, just past the zenith, when she entered a grove that had been untouched through the years. Here she took her quiver from her shoulder, unstrung her curved bow, and lay down on the grass, her head resting on her painted quiver. Jupiter, seeing her there weary and unprotected, said ‘Here, surely, my wife will not see my cunning, or if she does find out it is, oh it is, worth a quarrel! Quickly he took on the face and dress of Diana…
This is one of the most crucial parts of my interpretation. We see two figures who are connected. The one on the right is lying down covered in green, while the one on the left has quite a bit more going on.
Let us start with the central symbol. Years ago, Ellie Velinska noticed a similarity with a labelled thunder symbol in a manuscript of Hildegard’s Scivias. This has since been the most widely accepted explanation.
Jupiter is the god of thunder. On the Voynich.ninja forum, Marco Ponzi even noticed similarities with an actual Roman emblem for Jupiter but, given the uncertain origin of Hildegard’s symbol, I think he was right to advise caution.
What about the cross-shape? The supposed thunder emblem connects to storm-like patterns (still Jupiter), which in turn connect to the shape of a cross. Note that there is no opening drawn at the connection, the tempest turns into the cross.
With modern readers, Diana is mostly known as the goddess of the hunt and maybe the moon. But Ovid also calls her Trivia, in reference to her other function as goddess of the crossroads. Thunder turns into crossroads. Jupiter turns into Trivia. And this whole thing connects to Callisto innocently sleeping in the grass.
III. Jupiter-as-Diana is quite pleased with him/herself
We now move towards the green area in the bottom of the page.
[Jupiter] said ‘Oh, girl who follows me, where in my domains have you been hunting?’ The virgin girl got up from the turf replying ‘Greetings, goddess greater than Jupiter: I say it even though he himself hears it.’ He did hear, and laughed, happy to be judged greater than himself, and gave her kisses unrestrainedly, and not those that virgins give. When she started to say which woods she had hunted he embraced and prevented her and not without committing a crime. Face to face with him, as far as a woman could, […] she fought him, but how could a girl win, and who is more powerful than Jove? Victorious, Jupiter made for the furthest reaches of the sky: while to Callisto the grove was odious and the wood seemed knowing. As she retraced her steps she almost forgot her quiver and its arrows, and the bow she had left hanging.
One thing to notice is that Ovid does not actually mention rape, it is simply implied (not without committing a crime) and confirmed when Callisto later turns out to be pregnant.
In the following detail, Jupiter is still disguised as Diana. He is smugly looking at himself in the mirror, because Callisto has unknowingly given him a double compliment. You are greater even than yourself! The difference in size between Jupiter and Callisto possibly indicates their unequal power. She is a simple mortal, he is the Great Thunderer (in drag). The object (s)he is holding is often interpreted as an oversized ring, but I think that its size, together with the figure’s pose, is also suggestive of a mirror with a decorative element on top of the frame.
In other words, this nymph acts out this sentence from Ovid’s story: “He did hear, and laughed, happy to be judged greater than himself”. Jupiter-as-Diana is greater than Jupiter himself (the one he might see in the mirror).
The rest of this pool is the part of the images I’m least certain about, especially the way their order works in tandem with the story. This is one possibility:
Then, when Jupiter fled and the other nymphs return:
IV. From green to blue, grass to water
At this point, the nymphs’ movements take us towards the bottom of the other page. Here is the overview again:
The gaze of the nymph in the middle draws our attention towards the scene in the corner:
From the green groves, we enter a blue pool. Callisto, now nine months pregnant, is forced to bathe among the other nymphs. When Diana finds out, she is furious and banishes Callisto from her company. The nymph all the way on the left is portraying the following sentence from Ovid’s script: “Terrified she tried to conceal her swollen belly.”
Unfortunately, this corner is badly faded, but it is still possible to trace the lines. Note how her belly is much larger than that of the other nymphs, and both of her hands are trying to conceal it. Usually, Voynich nymphs have one arm behind their body, but this one has them on her belly, exactly at the point in the story where we expect a pregnant woman to hide her belly in shame.
V. Enter the Juno
Juno, Jupiter’s wife, has been absent from the story until now. She has been aware of the nefarious events, and after Callisto gives birth to her son Arcas, she decides it is time for her revenge. Not on her cheating, raping husband, but on his victim.
Now, insolent girl, I will take that shape away from you, that pleased you and my husband so much!’ At this [Juno] clutched [Callisto] in front by the hair of her forehead
She clutched her by the hair of her forehead. These are the next figures moving up. To the right, a 19th century engraving from an illustrated Metamorphoses.
Normally it would be entirely not-done to compare these two images, but in this case the comparison makes sense: they illustrate the exact same sentence: “At this she clutched her in front by the hair of her forehead”. This sentence is important, because it initiates Callisto’s transformation into an ugly bear.
But remember, the nymphs are like poor actresses, so bearification is not something they can pull off. Our next actress gives it an honest try, though. This is the next nymph up, and there are a few remarkable things about her. She has a strangely saggy face, and most notably her arms are arched and her hands twisted around, palms outward. This corresponds to the following sentence of Callisto’s metamorphosis: “her hands arched over and changed into curved claws to serve as feet: and her face, that Jupiter had once praised, was disfigured by gaping jaws“.
You know, it’s a decent attempt…
VI. Eye see you
Next up, we have these two, eyeing each other from across the page:
Remember, most of our actresses are female, even those that play men or bears. The story now takes us fifteen years further, to the confrontation between Arcas the hunter and a bear who (unbeknownst to him) is his mother.
And now Arcas, grandson of Lycaon, had reached his fifteenth year ignorant of his parentage. While he was hunting wild animals, while he was finding suitable glades and penning up the Erymanthian groves with woven nets
This figure has always confused me. What is that, some kind of plant? Why is one nymph in the section that is so stingy with attributes fondling a random plant? Why do the stick and upper parts appear disconnected?
How would the VM draw a “woven net” being “penned up”?
Placed directly across from him is his mother, eyeing him fiercely. These two could not be set more eye to eye, as I indicated with the red band above, and her gaze could not be any more intense.
he came across his mother, who stood still at sight of Arcas and appeared to know him. He shrank back from those unmoving eyes gazing at him so fixedly
The red item she is pointing at him is harder to explain within the narrative frame (but see notes below).
VII. Turned into constellations
At this very moment, just as Arcas decides to kill his mother, Jupiter snatched them up and turns them into constellations:
All-powerful Jupiter restrained [Arcas] and in the same moment removed them and the possibility of that wrong, and together, caught up through the void on the winds, he set them in the heavens and made them similar constellations, the Great and Little Bear.
This, dear reader, takes us to one of the most discussed and disagreed upon images in the manuscript. At first sight, the being is scaled, but people have pointed out that fur was also represented by this texture. Indeed, there are medieval images of lions with “scaled” manes. This poor creature has been interpreted as the following, but the list is far from exhaustive: armadillo, pangolin, dragon, sheep, ram, lizard, dog, hedgehog, sea monster, Catoblepas (a mythical cow-monster), Golden Fleece… Shortly put, the image is extremely unclear, largely due to the fact that the thing hardly has a head. For me the reason is clear: it has been drawn ambiguously on purpose to allow both layers of meaning to be read.
What we can see is that the being is positioned above a wavy line or cloud band. These typically represented a cosmic boundary, a line between the realms of the earthly and the divine. And this is exactly the place in our story where this transition takes place: “caught up through the void on the winds, he set them in the heavens”. When we expect an animal in the sky, we get an animal in the sky. We can even imagine it rising, being lifted up by divine power.
VIII. Top of the sky
This leaves us with two figures, those all the way on top of f82v. One is proudly holding an ambiguous object (affectively known as “the Thing” at Voynich.ninja), the other is glaring across the page.
We have now entered the epilogue of the story. Callisto has been given the highest spot in the heavens. Juno on the other hand, sees how the punishment she inflicted has been turned into a reward: her rival has become a goddess instead of a bear.
Let us start with the Juno figure, on the right. She sits atop not one, but two cloud bands. Medieval depictions tend to focus on Juno’s association with the sky, often depicting her with clouds and/or rain. The most striking example was found in one of the works of the Vatican Mythographers (From Reg.lat. 1290, c. 1420, Northern Italy). The text explains that this is Juno, raining on the fields.
Our Juno, however is not looking down towards the Earth: she stares menacingly at the figure to her left. This is Callisto, no longer an earthly bear, but a goddess. She has regained her beauty and her “loose tresses”. This echos Ovid’s text, when Juno laments that Jupiter “took away her animal form and restored her former beauty”.
Juno was angered when she saw his inamorato shining among the stars, […]’Another has taken my place in the sky! I tell a lie, if you do not see, when night falls and the world darkens, newly exalted stars to wound me, set in the sky, where the remotest and shortest orbit circles the uttermost pole.’
And this is the conclusion to our story. Callisto has been given a position as high up as Juno herself, above the clouds. Her location is now “ubi circulus axem ultimus extremum spatioque brevissimus ambit”, she is at the axis of the heavens where it revolves around the pole. The Thing is thus, in my opinion, best interpreted as a full spindle, with the axis of which Ovid speaks marked as a dotted line. The spindle was, since Plato’s myth of Er, a go-to metaphor to describe the rotation of the heavens and the poles.
Here’s a summary of the second page, start below and follow the red arrows:
And that concludes this story. Below are some additional ideas that may or may not help with the analysis.
I tried to keep the main post as to the point as possible, in order to keep our focus on the parallel progression of Ovid’s Callisto and the VM images. Here are some more thoughts about the various stages:
- About the arches: more subtly, perhaps, the architectural arches suggest what we would call in English an arcade. The English word is too recent, but is has plenty of early cognates in Romance languages, like French arcade, Italian arcata. Remember that the story which begins here provides the origin for the name Arcadia, from the character Arcas.
- About the blue star: Ms. Ludwig XII 8 (1464) personifies Jupiter as a bishop, and the planet as a blue star. Although this manuscript is a bit late, it surfaces regularly in connection to the VM, specially for its astrological imagery.
- This might also explain the red band in the figure where Jupiter starts molesting Callisto and exposes himself as not-Diana. Unfortunately, medieval depictions of the planets are variable and not always equally well understood. This subject needs further study.
- About the “crossroads“: Diane is the goddess of the crossroads, but also of the moon. In medieval times, the moon was most often represented by a full circle of which part was obscured, rather than the crescent as we know it. It is possible that Jupiter’s transformation into Diana is not only symbolized by thunder and lightning turning into crossroads, but also by three phases of the Moon.
- About the red item: the focus of this image is a confrontation whereby both parties look at each other. I cannot quite place the red ball in the narrative layer, but its meaning in the second layer (constellations) is complementary to this theme. It represents the red star Aldebaran, the bloodshot Eye of the Bull. In the sky, he is the opponent of Orion, the hunter constellation.
- About the beast: for its posture, there are two additional optional explanations. Ovid writes that when Juno turned Callisto into a bear, she “pulled her face forwards onto the ground”. This might be an echo of that line. More interestingly perhaps, the blue beneath the beast has also been interpreted as water. This would reflect the Bear’s inability to sink beneath the waves.