Quire 13 (Q13) of the Voynich Manuscript is traditionally known as the balneological section because, at first glance, it appears to show baths and bathers. A closer look at these folios, however, reveals that a strictly balneological interpretation is impossible to maintain.

More than just bathing.

Back in 2016, I started exploring the idea that these images were structured along a popular narrative. This narrative is hard to see at first, for two reasons:

  1. Each character is replaced by a nude female figure
  2. The figures are layered, they portray two different narratives at once

Both reasons are likely related. If the exercise is to tell two stories in polyphony, this is easier to do with blank slate (i.e. nude) figures and minimal attire. I suspect there are deeper reasons why they opted for the nude female form, but for now the “poor actors” analogy will suffice: think of each figure as an underfunded actor doing her best to play two parts at once.

Today, we will focus on one layer that connects f80r and f76v. Remember that the folios are currently out of order, and originally they may have been side by side.

The narrative layer in these folios is the story of Philomela, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work which was extremely popular in medieval grammar schools. I already touched upon Philomela connections in 2016, but would now like to improve this analysis and focus on new insights.

The story

I will first briefly summarize the plot of Philomela’s story. The translation I consulted is A.S. Kline’s, and the Latin version can be viewed at Perseus Digital Library.

The protagonists in our story are the sisters Philomela and Procne, princesses of Athens. It all starts when Procne is married off to the Thracian king Tereus. Even though the Thracians were allies of Athens, they were also commonly regarded as bloodthirsty, warlike barbarians – a bit of a meme in Antiquity. Needless to say, Procne started feeling lonely in these foreign lands, and she asked her husband if her sister could come and visit.

Tereus volunteers to travel to Athens himself to pick up Philomela. Once he is with her, however, he is overcome by desire and as soon as they arrive in Thrace, Tereus violates Philomela, his wife’s sister. Philomela proclaims that she will tell everybody about this evil deed, so Tereus rips out her tongue and locks her away. He returns to Procne with lies about how her sister died.

In her prison, Philomela finds a loom and she ‘weaves purple designs on a white background, revealing the crime’. A messenger takes the cloth to Procne, who learns of her sister’s fate and comes to her rescue. Once reunited, the sisters want revenge. Furious, they kill and cook Terus’ son, Itys, serving the flesh to an unknowing Tereus. During the meal, Philomela appears, tossing Itys’ head at Tereus.

Upon learning that he has been eating his own son, the king draws his sword and chases the sisters. All three are then promptly turned into birds. In other versions of the myth, the transformation is done by the gods in order to save the women, but Ovid does not elaborate on this: one moment they are chasing each other, the next they are birds.

Indications of Philomela

Given the scarcity of attributes and interactions on f80r, or any Q13 folio fo that matter, an unusual amount of those can be connected to the Philomela story.

  • A young woman with long hair, holding a spindle (for spinning thread), closely followed by a man.
  • A figure with a red-patterned white piece of fabric standing before a queen.
  • Two nymphs interacting, one holding thongs (used by Tereus when he severed Philomela’s tongue.

Even though there are several common themes between f80r and Ovid’s Philomela, the VM clearly does not literally illustrate the story. So what gives? If we read Philomela’s story in these nymphs, then what can we learn about the way they were constructed? In the following, I will discuss each figure, trying to separate Philomela’s thread from this seemingly simple yet intricate tapestry.

I. Tereus binds Philomela

Similarly to Callisto’s story on f80v and f82r, the dominant direction here is right to left, which is also the direction two thirds of the figures on f80r are facing. In continuous narrative illustrations, the way characters face is a common method to indicate the flow of the story, as in the example from the 6th century Vienna Genesis below. Nobody accustomed to this type of illustrations will think of reading these from left to right.

We enter the story at Metamorphoses Bk VI: 549. Tereus has just violated Philomela, and she has sworn that she will tell the world of his crime:

I, without shame, will tell what you have done. If I get the chance it will be in front of everyone. If I am kept imprisoned in these woods, I will fill the woods with it, and move the stones, that know of my guilt, to pity. The skies will hear of it, and any god that may be there!

The following line is where our VM folio takes off:

The king’s anger was stirred by these words, and his fear also. Goaded by both, he freed the sword from its sheath by his side, and seizing her hair gathered it together, to use as a tie, to tether her arms behind her back.

Pay special attention to the last part: Tereus takes her hair, and uses it to tie her hands behind her back.

To the modern viewer, the figures below may look like a pair of lovers, but to medieval eyes, there would not have been any doubt that the woman is a prisoner. An important detail is that her hands are crossed. In medieval images, it was most common to draw captives with crossed hands.

Some representative examples:

“Study of a Young Man with his Hands tied behind his back” by Pisanello (1438), “Flagellation of Christ” from MS M.90 fol. 65v (1375) and “Moorish troops with captives”, MS: Cantigas de Santa Maria, 13th C

When tied hands are visible in manuscript art, those tend to be in the front – hands tied behind the back are usually obstructed by the body. But look again at the VM example. Since Ovid states that the hands are tied behind her back with her long hair, the VM artist needed to show both “captive” and “behind back”. He pulled this off by some strange perspective, which allows us to recognize the crossed hands (captive) pose, with the figure still facing forward. Note also how the man is driving her forward, just like the Moorish troops do with their prisoners.

In short, this image does it best to capture Ovid’s phrase: “[Tereus], seizing [Philomela’s] hair gathered it together, to use as a tie, to tether her arms behind her back.”

II. Philomela offers her throat

The very next sentence is: Philomela, seeing the sword, and hoping only for death, offered up her throat. This appears to take us to the next figure down:

Philomela, on the right, is kneeling and thrusting forward her throat. Her arms are still behind her back, in an awkward position (the fingers of her right hand appear to bend under her left arm?). The nymph on the left is making a move towards her (even pointing at her throat), but clearly there is no sword. Using a sword is impossible for VM nymphs, since they rarely get attributes to identify them, let alone actual objects to use.

III. Philomela is mutilated

The very next sentence is when Tereus, instead of outright killing Philomela, decides to sever her tongue, rendering her mute and unable to testify against him. This is his reaction to Philomela’s solemn vow that she will tell the world about his crime.

But he severed her tongue with his savage blade, holding it with pincers

The interpretation of the next image is complex, so bear with me. We do have pincers, but they are held by the wrong figure.

We can understand that Tereus (portrayed by the nymph on the left) does not hold pincers, since VM nymph don’t use objects. When a VM figure holds an item, this appears to tell us something about the figure. In other words, they are attributes.

So why does Philomela, the nymph on the right who is still bound and kneeling, get to hold the pincers? To understand this, we must learn about martyrs. What do the items held by the figures below have in common?

Is the woman top left holding tongs a dentist? Is the one top right an architect with a newly finished miniature? Is the king with the arrow an archer? Does the queen with the wheel repair carts for a living? No, of course not, these objects are emblems that allow us to recognize the figures. Typically, these emblems relate to a crucial part of their story, or to the way they were tortured or killed.

They are Saint Agatha, holding the tongs her torturers used to remove her breasts. Saint Barbara, holding the tower where she was imprisoned. Edmund the Martyr, holding one of the arrows that killed him. Catherine of Alexandria holding the breaking wheel upon which she was martyred (actually the wheel shattered, so they had to behead her). There are many more examples, and medieval audiences were used to seeing handheld items as emblems. The intention of art was to bring across an idea, not show a vision of what actually happened.

Nowadays, the word martyr is understood solely in the religious context: someone who died for their faith. But in the Middle Ages, the Latin martyrium, from Greek marturion, “testimony”, still carried the original meaning: a witness, like in court, someone who gives testimony for their faith. The related “confessor of the faith” draws its vocabulary from the same sphere. A martyr (witness) was someone who declared their faith and was killed for it, while a Confessor was someone who declared their faith publicly in times of prosecution, but was not killed for doing so.

In short, martyr means “witness”, as in someone who testifies, someone who speaks up about what they believe to be the truth. Christian martyrs were among the prime figures to be depicted with attributes in the Middle Ages, and these attributes were often tools of torture or execution.

Now back to Philomela. The reason why Tereus removes her tongue is because she has sworn that she will tell the world about his crime. She says that she will testify, be a martyr in the original sense. “I, without shame, will tell what you have done. If I get the chance it will be in front of everyone”. If I am correct that the Q13a images are a mnemonic construct around Ovid’s text, then the image now makes sense. We are reminded that Philomela’s intention to testify is what led to her tongue being removed and, like the Christian saints adorning church walls, she displays the instrument of her torture.

IV. & V.

So far, we started top right and worked our way down the page, which now brings us to the two figures at the bottom.

The bottom figures face each other from across the page, but one of them is not connected to the rest by the usual waterways; she sits isolated at the bottom left, merely pointing her enigmatic attribute towards the one on the right. Let’s start with the latter figure, who more clearly fits into the narrative.

After Tereus mutilates Philomela and leaves her imprisoned, two things happen. He returns to his wife Procne with lies about how her sister died, so Procne enters a period of mourning. Meanwhile, Philomela comes up with a plan to overcome her muteness: she weaves her misadventures into a piece of cloth. This is why the spindle, used for preparing thread, is a good attribute for the defiant Philomela.

The weaving itself is done on a loom, and there are various types in medieval manuscripts. A frequent type is that where the woman is working a narrow strip of parallel threads, as in the example of Arachne below (Royal 20 C V, early 15th century).

Similarly, the nymph bottom right is seen manipulating parallel lines. At her touch, they change texture, taking on the typical up-and-down look of woven fabric.

On the surface, this is the stream of water that connects her to the rest of the story, but it does not take much imagination to see these uninterrupted lines as threads. In fact, at the top of the page, the pretense of water is gone and only a thread remains:

So if we follow Ovid’s story, it seems clear that this figure represents Philomela picking up the thread fate spun for her, and weaving it into fabric. The one opposing her is more problematic. Following the story, this must be where Procne mourns her sister’s supposed death. To some extent, this works: the figure is isolated from the “thread of events” that connects the others. She appears to face Philomela, who is in her prison, weaving this very thread into fabric. But what is she holding?

The dominant impression is that she is holding some kind of fruits. This was reinforced by similar images I found in various versions of the Tacuinum Sanitatis, all representing a woman holding pears. Remarkably, these are also held by the narrow end, in bunches of three.

What sets the VM ‘pears’ apart, is the little protrusions at the end, which are not really pear-like; we would expect such stems on the narrow part, where the pear was connected to the branch. So maybe they copied a pear image, somewhat awkwardly? Or adapted it to represent another fruit?

Linking Ovid’s narrative to the thread spun between our nymphs, this figure most likely represents something from this passage:

He controlled himself sufficiently to return to Procne, who, seeing him returned, asked where her sister was. He, with false mourning, told of a fictitious funeral, and tears gave it credence. Procne tore her glistening clothes, with their gold hems, from her shoulders, and put on black robes, and built an empty tomb, and mistakenly brought offerings, and lamented the fate of a sister, not yet due to be lamented in that way.

The most relevant part is probably where she brings offerings, in Latin: falsisque piacula manibus infert. Literally: “and she mistakenly brings a piaculum to the deceased spirit (manes)”. The fact that this isolated figure points something towards our weaving Philomela across the page seems appropriate: unbeknownst to Procne, this “deceased spirit” is very much alive and trying to contact her.

EDIT 13 December 2020: I need to add something here based on comment to this post by Ruby. It is so clear and works so well that I feel stupid for not having thought of it myself 🙂 The key bit of information is that to a Greek speaker, Philomela’s name would have meant “lover of fruit”. (The “mela” element is still present in our word melon). By linking Philomela to the nightingale, Ovid implicitly seems to support the reading “lover of song”, but “lover of fruit” is the real meaning, as explained in this article. So Procne’s sister is literally called Fruitlover.

Procne now finds herself in a situation where she believes her sister, Fruitlover, has died, and she is devastated. According to Roman custom, she must now bring an offering to Fruitlover’s spirit. Not to the gods, not in general. Directly to Fruitlover’s manes, as Ovid writes. What do you offer to the spirit of someone who is literally called Fruitlover? That’s right, some generic fruits. So perhaps we are not even meant to identify the type of fruit – just recognizing the things as fruits is enough to know which line of the Metamorphoses this drawing is about. “Falsisque piacula manibus (= Philomela’s spirit) infert”. Fittingly, the fruit-bearing figure is extending her gifts to the other side of the page where, unbeknownst to her, Philomela the lover of fruit is trying to reach her by woven message.

VI. Philomela liberation sequence

Now we return to the separate line of figures at the top of the page. Philomela has finished her work and sends it with a female servant to her sister the queen. The woven fabric is described as “purple designs on a white background, revealing the crime”. The Latin word is purpureus, which translates as “purple, dark-red”. Obviously, the VM does not have actual purple, so we are looking for red designs on a white background being presented to a queen.

This series of figures is brilliantly composed, and shows just how much thought went into the composition, even though we are far from understanding much of it. As soon as the servant with the red-on-white design appears before the queen, she now sees the event that set everything in motion, Tereus abducting Philomela. The whole page hinges on the “abduction” pair, with Philomela’s imprisonment thread going down (blue line) and the thread of her liberation going to the left. Quite literally, these are story-lines.

When Procne finds out what her husband did to her sister, she “has no time for tears, but rushes off”. At this time, the festival of Bacchus is going on, and many young women wander the streets at night in a frenzy. So Procne and her companions blend in with them and make their way to Philomela’s prison. She then liberates her sister, disguises her as well as a “wild bacchante” and returns her to safety.

This might be represented by the next nymphs, but the details aren’t entirely clear to me. Are these Procne and her companions pretending to be bacchantes? One of them is a queen, and they do appear to move in a special manner. Additionally, Ovid talks of ivy in their hair, which might be represented by the blue (though why not green?) streaks. Or is the front nymph Philomela? She is hiding something behind her back, which might be her emblematic spindle.

Finally, we get a pair of nymphs, one of them (indicated with the spindle) gesturing wildly. The other nymph does not look particularly cheerful, though it is dangerous to read too much into these tiny figures’ facial expressions. Either way, this pair matches well with the following part of the story, when the sisters have returned home:

“[Philomela] made signs with her hands in place of speech. Procne burned, and could not control her anger”

VII. Procne’s son Itys is killed and prepared for dinner

Once reunited with her sister, Procne desires revenge on her rapist husband: “I am ready for any enormity: but what it should be, I still do not know yet”. The solution presents itself when Itys, the son Procne has with Tereus, comes over to hug his mother. Procne, “with an unchanging expression, struck him with a knife, in the side close to the heart, while he stretched out his hands, knowing his fate at the last, crying out ‘Mother! Mother!’, and reaching out for her neck.” They then chop him up and prepare him in various ways (“part bubble in bronze cauldrons, part hiss on the spit”).

At the top of the page, facing the sister pair and strangely tucked into the text, we find exactly this: a young man with arms outstretched. Behind him on the floor stands a cylindrical object, perhaps one of the cauldrons. He is connected to the other page by a pattern of dotted lines.

The subject shows parallels to the most spectacular miracle of Saint Nicholas. Three boys were murdered and chopped into pieces by an evil butcher, who hid their remains in a tub. St Nick found the boys and restored them to life. This was a popular scene for manuscript illustration, with the three boys typically extending their hands in a similar way.

Since the St Nicholas illustration is found in a wide range of manuscripts, it is possible that the VM artist had this association in mind; after all, the stories overlaps in the rather awful subject of little boys being chopped up and treated as food.

VIII. Philomela emerges

Then Procne “invites the unsuspecting Tereus to the feast”. When Tereus starts to get suspicious about the type of meat he is consuming, Philomela “springs forward, her hair wet with the dew of that frenzied murder, and hurls the bloodstained head of Itys in his father’s face.”

Granted, this nymph is not holding a bloodstained head, but she is holding “something” round by the “hairs”; it has red parts and a “neck”… Why not just draw a head? Probably because it represents something else in the second layer, so they drew something in between.

On a side note – this post is well over its expected word count already anyway – this very scene was often selected to illustrate the story, perhaps because of its dramatic and dynamic potential. Below is Peter Paul Rubens’ version, held at the Museo del Prado.

I don’t quite know where the nymph above this one fits into the story. Her attribute isn’t clear, and the structure above her is confusing. It does have a lot in common with the hair and crown of a nymph of f82r: the “crown” on top, the blue color, the “braids” on the sides.

IX. They are turned into birds

Finally, it is Ovid after all, Tereus draws his sword and as he chases the sisters, the three of them abruptly change into different birds. These are the final sentences of the story:

You might think the Athenian women have taken wing: they have taken wings. One of them, a nightingale, Procne, makes for the woods. The other, a swallow, Philomela, flies to the eaves of the palace, and even now her throat has not lost the stain of that murder, and the soft down bears witness to the blood. Tereus swift in his grief and desire for revenge, is himself changed to a bird, with a feathered crest on its head. An immoderate, elongated, beak juts out, like a long spear. The name of the bird is the hoopoe, and it looks as though it is armed.

These two nymphs remain under the one with the “head”:

If there are any nymphs in the MS attempting to portray birds, these are excellent candidates: they both “spread their wings”. One appears to rise up (from a cloud? water?) about to take flight. The other dives down into another cloudy formation.


These nymphs are not a literal illustration of Philomela’s story. But I hope I have presented sufficient arguments to show that the threads of Ovid’s tale are woven into these folios. A woman identified by a spindle being abducted by a man, a servant presenting a white cloth with red patterns to a queen, a young man in a pleading posture, nymphs in clouds flapping their arms like wings, and much more. The challenge remains to fully discover the intentions of the illustrations, tease out the other layer of meaning, and find out if/how this can help us with the text.