In the previous post, I explained how f82r and f80v relate to Ovid’s version of the Callisto myth. However, it is clear that the Q13 images don’t simply illustrate Ovid; if this were the case, we would have found out a hundred years ago. What I will try to demonstrate here, is that the Voynich images are hard to recognize because they artificially communicate two distinct layers of meaning at once. Compare it to playing the most essential notes of two symphonies at the same time. One “symphony” is Ovid’s Callisto, the other is a section of the night sky.
There is some thematic overlap between the Callisto story and these constellations; Callisto is an example of a catasterism, “the transformation of a hero or mythological creature, into a star, constellation, comet or other celestial object.” When Callisto is turned into the Big Bear constellation, the narrative layer and constellation layer coincide.
The constellations I will discuss here are all found in the same area of the sky, the classical “summer hemisphere”. Celestial hemispheres are extremely rare in medieval manuscripts, and accurate ones even more so. For reference, I will use the summer hemisphere from MS Vat. Gr. 1291. This manuscript is so notable for its Helios illustration in Voynich studies, that it’s got its own page at voynich.nu. René Zandbergen even wonders: “Could the writer of the Voynich MS have been inspired by this very MS?” The fact that precisely this relevant manuscript contains illustrations of summer and winter hemispheres may not be a coincidence.
As you can see, the hemisphere is unusually dark, like the night. The figures are drawn on in an eerie white glow.
Remember that this is only one “half” of the night sky, and of this half we are again focusing on a contingent section (apart from the Bears, who sit all the way on top). To demonstrate this, I highlighted the relevant section below. I will not claim that the VM images form a reliable representation of the night sky, this is clearly not its intention! But the selected constellations do belong to the same area of the traditional “summer constellations”.
1. Orion cluster
There are a number of reasons why Orion is one of the most important constellations. The three stars in his belt are bright and easy to spot. Additionally, as a mythological hunter surrounded by celestial beasts, Orion ties a lot of star myths together. His lore is connected to the nearby Dog, Hare, Bull… Homer even mentions how the Bear keeps an eye on him:
Sleep never fell upon [Odysseus’] eyelids as he watched the Pleiades
and late-setting Boötes, and the Bear that men also call the
Wagon; she turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion,
and she alone has no share in the baths of Ocean.
The constellation of the River (Eridanus) is traditionally depicted starting at Orion’s foot, and winding past the sea monster Cetus. And Lepus, the Hare, is one of the few constellations that has hardly any lore connected to it, apart from the fact that it is hunted by Orion.
These four constellations – Orion, the River, Cetus and the Hare – also form a cluster in the VM. Allow me to explain.
Again, we are thinking of the Vm “nymphs” as poor actresses playing two parts at once.
In the story of Callisto, discussed in my previous post, the figure that corresponds to the celestial hunter Orion is the hunter Arcas. This is one of the places where both layers come together: hunter = hunter.
The myhtographers describe Orion as an exceptionally tall and handsome hunter. Some myths say that he is able to walk on water, or tall enough to walk across the ocean. Everything about Orion is large, especially his arms; Manilius writes that “Orion may be seen stretching his arms over a vast expanse of sky and rising to the stars with no less huge a stride.” You will not find any nymph in the VM with larger arms than this one.
In the story layer, we see Arcas as he has been penning up the glades with woven nets. These nets are represented in the thing by his hand, but also in the pattern of the river (it is not common for VM rivers to be drawn like this).
The river, of course, is also the constellation Eridanus which emerges at Orion’s foot and flows south towards Cetus and the Hare. This remarkable river on the VM folio connects all relevant figures in the expected way, starting at Orion’s left foot and running south towards Cetus and the Hare.
When nymphs dislocate their shoulders, it is generally because they want to go all the way to portray an animal. This one is forming the ears of the Hare.
Between the Hare and Orion, along the River, we should find Cetus. Nowadays, Cetus is thought of as a whale, but it used to have a much more varied appearance: fish, dog, dog-fish, sea monster. Over at the Warburg Iconographic Database, the “sea monster” variety is most numerous. A typical feature of such sea monsters (which also includes Capricorn) is the presence of a long, coiled tail with a split end. Many examples can be viewed at the above Warburg link.
In the Voynich, Cetus’ tail is depicted in plain sight, right where it belongs. This comparative example is from MS Pal.lat.1368 part1 (1426). Original color and rotation maintained, Voynich lines traced for clarity.
Cetus is part of a mythologically connected set of constellations. As JK Petersen remarked, it might be relevant that the monster was slain by the hero Perseus, traditionally depicted holding Medusa’s head by the hair. On the narrative layer of Callisto, this is the scene where Juno grabs Callisto by the hair of here forehead, making this one of those places where both layers coincide. Admittedly, the convergence of Perseus with his trophy and Juno with her victim is absurd and comical, but that is exactly what you want for mnemonic purposes.
Given their proximity and the fact that they are connected by the River constellation Eridanus, the constellations Cetus, Orion and the Hare are often depicted in the same page in constellation manuscripts. They form a similar cluster in the VM, also connected by the River.
2. Hydra group
There are a few constellations that are usually depicted as a group, even though technically they are separate. The most obvious example is the trio of Hydra, Corvus and Crater: a Serpent, a Crow and a Cup. The Crow and the Cup are always standing on the Serpent. Again, I refer to the Warburg database for many examples.
Nowhere in the manuscript do we find this arrangement of nymphs, apart from on this very spot where we expect them. In the narrative layer, this is the scene where Diana discovers Callisto’s pregnancy and banishes her for breaking her vow of chastity. There is an unexplained nymph “bathing” at their feet. It is the constellation layer that explains why a “random bathing nymph” was required in this awkward position, with a reptilian slit for a mouth.
Again, the coincidence is humorous in a rather cruel way. The pregnant Callisto, now herself a “vessel” has been given a round hat, and she uses both her hands to hide her round belly, thereby mimicking the shape of the vase. (Ovid: “Terrified she tried to conceal her swollen belly”). The stream of water ends in her hat, perhaps reinforcing the thought that on a different layer, she portrays a vessel.
3. The Dogs
In this section of the hemisphere, we have two constellations left: Canis major and Canis minor. The latter is, well, minor, but the former contains Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. It is also known as the Dog Star because of its place in Canis major. Remember that celestial hemispheres are traditionally mirrored, but this does not matter for Sirius since it is placed right on the summer solstice, i.e. the middle.
There is also only one, admittedly rather generic, nymph in the middle of the page.
Taking into account hemisphere mirroring, both the VM and the hemisphere show one figure in the middle (the Dog, red), with the Orion/Eridanus/Cetus/Hare group (green) on one side and the Hydra/Corvus/Crater group (yellow) on the other.
This leaves us with the Little Dog in this section, but this is really a minor constellation. Aratus generally talks about “the dog”, referring to the one that holds Sirius. However, since Canis minor sits right next to the Hydra group, it may be the beastly nymph right above them. I am far from certain about this one. In the narrative layer, this is where Ovid describe’s Callisto’s starting to turn into a bear, so in both cases this “actress” would be playing an animal.
4. Bull’s Eye and Sheep’s Clothing
There are a few stars the ancients described as red in color, one of them being Aldebaran. It is also known as Oculus Tauri, the Bull’s Eye. With it, it glares at the hunter Orion. In the narrative layer, we have come to a scene where Callisto observes her son Arcas, now a great hunter, from a distance. So just like in the sky, beast and hunter come face to face. The red orb held out by this nymph likely refers to the “Bull’s fiery eye” Aldebaran. It even looks as if the figure has removed one of her own eyes to point the fiery red ball towards the Orion figure.
Immediately following the “Bull” nymph, we get one of the greatest tricks the Voynich ever pulled, a beast that can be interpreted in a hundred different ways. There is no denying that it is ambiguous, but I suggest that this ambiguity has a reason. In the narrative layer, this is the bear Callisto being lifted into the heavens.
For the constellation layer, we need only look at the Bull’s neighbor as well: Aries, the Ram. I would not insist on this myself, but in fact a considerable section of the public opinion considers identifying this animal as exactly that: Aries. The most convincing piece of evidence was pointed out in 2015 by Darren Worley on Stephen Bax’ site. It is an illustration of Aries from the early 15th century Tübinger Hausbuch.
5. The Bears
For the actual Bear constellations then, the focus is on their exceptional position all the way in the north of the sky, with several layers of cloud bands and meteorological events beneath their feet. Callisto is now holding a spindle, the symbol of her rotating close to where the axis of the heavens meets the northern Pole. The figure opposite to her adopts a similar stance, but is remarkably smaller, so this might be Ursa Minor.
Both layers have taken us on a similar journey across the page: from Callisto’s downfall to her glorious redemption to godhood, being granted the highest place in the heavens as Ursa Major. And on the constellation layer, from southern constellations like Cetus, over the ecliptic, all the way to the northern Pole. From the bottom of the page to the top.
The purpose of this strange synthesis? I don’t know… But as I have pointed out a few times, there are indications that this activity may have served the ancient art of memory. Several intersections of both layers are grotesque or humorous, and the spatial component is activated throughout. But this remains only one option, we will not know for sure until we understand the text.