Reconsidering the Columns

The Mystery of the Columns

i-initialn May 2016, I posted a follow-up blog about the faint letters visible on the right-hand side of folio 1r and speculated that it might be a failed attempt at decoding the manuscript. That was a guess based on seeing the Latin alphabet in the first column paired with Voynich shapes in the second, and the fact that it was later erased. Two more columns are also faintly visible, but there’s not enough detail to discuss them in depth.

In my previous blogs, I was reluctant to guess the date of the columnar writing because only a few letters are clearly visible, but I went out on a limb and estimated that it might be late-16th- or possibly 17th-century script, based on the small round shapes, the long unlooped ascenders, the slant, and the overall look and feel. I wasn’t completely sure, however, because important clues about how the writer connected the letters and spaced the lines aren’t available.

As soon as I posted the May 2016 blog, I started this blog, to describe the writing further, but was pulled away by other interests and responsibilities. The column text is a sideline for me, but studying it might reveal a few details about the VMS’s provenance, so I come back to it from time-to-time.

Who Added the Columns to the Voynich Manuscript?

My paleographic collection includes thousands of writing samples, but most are focused on Carolingian or Gothic time-frames and the VMS columnar writing is different. It looks more recent than other parts of the VMS, and more like a casual or correspondence hand than a scribal book hand, and most of it has been erased. Nevertheless, there is enough to sample some of the letters.

Voyf1rColumns1To recap: on folio 1r, the first column (to the right of the main text) is moderately clear. An alphabet has been written from top to bottom in a tidy script with small, relatively smooth curves and unlooped ascenders/descenders. I have colorized the letters to make them easier to see.

The second column starts with the VMS figure-8 glyph, followed by a small c-shape, and then some shapes that resemble the “red weirdo” at the top of the columns. I’ve colorized the “weirdos” red to distinguish them from the regular Latin alphabet in Column 1 and the VMS characters above them.Columns 3 and 4 are almost completely erased and crowded by wormholes, and column 4 appears incomplete (it’s even possible that columns 3 and 4 are one column worked in around the holes), so this blog focuses on the letters in column 1.

A Brief Background on Writing Styles

Voyf1rColumns3From a paleographical point of view, the style of writing in Column 1 is quite distinct from the angular looped ascenders and proportions of 15th-century Gothic scripts. Gothic book and cursive hands (and those that closely resemble them, like Anglicana) were predominant in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century and were in use all the way north to Scotland and Sweden and south to the area around Naples, partly through the influence of Benedictine and Franciscan monasteries, and partly due to commercial scriptoria that offered handwriting lessons.

Gothic cursive styles were less common in the central Italian states and western reaches of Portugal and Spain, but were used in Flanders, eastern France, and Bohemia.

Gothic handwriting is relevant to Beinecke 408 because the labels on the zodiacs, and the marginalia on the last page and a few of the other pages, are in Gothic cursive hands. The latter appears to be in an older transitional style, between a Gothic book hand and Gothic cursive (I have a detailed paper on this that I will upload in a future blog).

The folio page numbers also appear to be different from both the main text and the last-page marginalia, and it has been suggested that John Dee may have added the numbers. I have not read the prior research on Dee and the folio numbers because I wanted to determine for myself whether there is a match so I could independently corroborate or refute existing opinions and will post my observations on a separate blog. For this blog, I thought it might be interesting to ask the question…

Did John Dee Write the Marginal Columns?

johndeesmallJohn Dee was a pious family man with a thirst for learning. His broad interests included mathematics, medicine, astrology, and many other subjects. He avidly collected books, dreamed of establishing a national library, and was eager to communicate with angels in the hope of uncovering universal truths.

Dee is often described as an alchemist but he did not engage in alchemical experiments to any great degree, except in a secondary role if they were related to angelic communication. He was interested enough, however, to read about alchemy, to have some lab materials, and to leave marginal notes in this handwritten manuscript that may have been from his library:


Dee’s margin note about “the grene lyon” (the green lion) is a reference to one of the ingredients of alchemical distillation processes. Interestingly, something I noticed as I looked at page after page of Dee’s writing, is that he appears to have picked up scribal ideas for ligatures and flourishes from some of the texts that he read or copied. I noticed the scribe on the left used a ligature for “th” and, in some places, a flourished “e” that are not found in Dee’s marginal notes for this page, but which show up in Dee’s later notes in adapted form.


In note form, Dee’s hand can be scrawly and difficult but is elegant and comprehensible when applied to finished charts and formal correspondence. Dee could draw reasonably well, valued good handwriting, and is said to have encouraged his sons to write well so as to make a good impression. (Image detail of Dee’s autobiographical notes courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians exhibit.)

In his search for knowledge, Dee ardently tried to communicate with angels and kept profuse notes of these sessions. He made efforts, sometimes on a daily basis, to contact these heavenly messengers. As a consequence, his notes, diary, and correspondence provide enough samples to get a good sense of his handwriting.

Evolution of Handwriting

By the 17th century, handwriting in academic circles had evolved from the upright, heavy, angular Gothic styles of the 15th century to a lighter, quicker, more slanted script. Compared to early 15th-century scripts, Dee’s 16th-century lower-case letters are small and rounded, the space moderately wide between letters, and the ascenders and descenders long and not always looped, more similar to the example on the right.


On the left is a typical example of mid-15th century Gothic script from a commercial scriptorium that taught handwriting. By the 16th century, paper was more widely available, making it easier to engage in correspondence and quicker, lighter hands became prevalent in academic circles, as in the French example on the right. Dee’s hand also reflects this change in style and bears similarities to the hands of a number of scholars and nobles in France, distant parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and what is now northern Italy.

With regard to the VMS, Dee’s script is distinctively different from the Gothic cursive on folio 116v and a few other folios, so I think we can rule out Dee as the author of the last page and the zodiac wheels marginalia. It also doesn’t seem likely that he was one of the primary scribes for the VMS—the slant and spacing don’t match, the time-frame is wrong, and he handles the pen differently from the main text (more about that and the folio numbers in separate blogs).

Overall Impression

As I collected samples of Dee’s handwriting, it struck me that it was similar to Marcus Marci’s correspondence about the VMS, penned by a scribe on Marci’s behalf several decades later. I haven’t seen this similarity mentioned anywhere else in connection with Voynich studies, so I sampled one of Marci’s letters, as well, based on the image at As far as I am aware, the identity of Marci’s scribe has never been determined.

Most of Dee’s available notes were written between 1550 and 1600, about a century earlier than Marci’s letter, and yet you will see the similarities in style in the image below. The only significant differences are the following:

  • Dee sometimes wrote “e” with an ascending tail rather than a loop,
  • Dee’s “g” descender is shorter (although not always), and
  • the starting leg of the “h” is frequently truncated so it doesn’t reach the baseline—in combination with the flourished “e”, this is a distinctive marker in Dee’s handwriting but the pattern can be found in a few others, including that of Isabella d’Este who was raised in Ferrara, far from Dee’s London, England.

It was necessary to hunt through several hundred documents to find a few hands that closely resembled the style of writing on folio 1r and this is still a work in progress. It may require hundreds more to get a sense of when and where the columnar letters were written. As it is, Dee’s handwriting is somewhat close, and he sometimes wrote the “e” with a hook as in the columnar text, but the slant and pressure dynamics differ, so it’s not an exact match (click to see a larger version).

The hand of Isabella d’Esté (far right) is surprisingly similar to Dee’s (with the exception of the “g”), which demonstrates not only that geographically distant writers can end up with similar letter forms, but that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions when finding something that “almost” looks the same…. there might be others that match even more closely that may lie undiscovered.


When I first saw Dee’s handwriting, I noticed similarities between it and the VMS columnar text, but after sampling the handwriting of other writers, it appears that this style of script was widespread geographically even if it was not entirely common (I encountered many other styles in the search for this handful of samples).

My gut feeling, until more data is available, is that the columnar text was probably added sometime between the late 15th century and the mid-16th century. This is very tentative, as there is so little to go on, and certainly will be revised if additional examples that match more closely are found.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Blue Cube

Voynich researchers have been discussing the “blue cube” on the small plants page in the Voynich forum and there are various ideas about why this anomalous object is in a section dedicated to plants and objects that look like containers.

It’s painted blue and pale yellow and is roughly book-shaped.

I wanted to know what was under the paint, so I tried to remove the paint without disturbing the faint brownish lines underneath. This is difficult because brown also includes a certain amount of blue which tends to disappear when the overpainted blue is lightened.

I didn’t expect to find anything under the blue paint. I assumed those faint traces of brownish color were just lines but was very surprised when shapes emerged that resemble writing.

Is There Writing Out of the Blue?

There may be two, perhaps even three lines of text and I don’t know if they’ll be sufficiently visible in a blog pic. The first one (the top line) I can’t be sure. There’s a shape that resembles an “M” or possibly “a M” but it might be irregularities in the parchment where the paint tends to pool.

bluecube bluecube2








The second line is less ambiguous. It looks like Voynich characters. I can almost discern an EVA-ell, then something faint that’s hard to see, perhaps another EVA-ell or EVA-r or maybe it’s a space. The following glyph looks like a figure-8, then there’s a space, then a messy shape that looks a bit like a c-shape with a blotchy descender that probably isn’t a descender at all. It looks to me like a darker paint-brush stroke.

What’s even more surprising is that there seems to be another line at the bottom in another hand. It’s not small and neat like Voynichese, and it doesn’t look like Voynich characters. It’s reminiscent of the large straight angular block letter scribbles that are drawn by children, somewhat like the scribbles on a few of the VMS pages. It looks like it might be “S A L” which is “salt” in some languages, and which might apply to a cube in a page of plants. Salt was a preservative, an ingredient in medicinal recipes, and was, of course, used in food.

If you’re wondering if I projected an expectation of the word “salt” on the shapes, I think that’s unlikely. I shook my head when I first saw it. I thought the cube might represent some resin or mineral more commonly associated with various herbal compendiums and would not expect salt to be drawn this way.

I’m not claiming the cube is salt or even that this interpretation of the shapes is correct. Why would someone represent it as a cube and paint it blue? Why would the sides be yellow with an added line that makes it look like two blocks laminated together? Salt crystals are whitish, irregular and very small. They’re grainy like sand. Rock salt looks more cubical than modern table salt but it doesn’t look like this.


bluecube4So… I’m not absolutely sure it says SAL—maybe it’s “S AL” or a parchment wiggle followed by “AL” or pressure marks from a knife as are found in a few places in the manuscript. You can click on the thumbnail right to see the larger version).

I’m not sure of any of the text—but there’s something under the paint that appears darker and more systematic than irregularities in the vellum that I have tentatively marked with dots in the bottom image.


In medieval manuscript preparation, it was common to write a color name on an object that was later to be painted. Finding text isn’t unusual in itself, but this text doesn’t show any obvious signs of indicating color.

The only glyph that is reasonably clear (on the unmarked image) is the EVA-ell, and we have to remember that all of this is very small—the marks might be artifacts created by the texture of the vellum.

Once again, you’ll have to decide for yourself if there’s writing under the paint and what it might mean.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

A Maw in the Map?

The VMS Portal

I have an overfull schedule that makes it difficult for me to blog regularly, but the subject of apocalyptic cartography came up on the forum today and reminded me of some thoughts I had about the Voynich “map” section.

VMSRosette1ThumbI first set eyes on the rosettes page in the Voynich Manuscript in 2008 and immediately had several thoughts about it, including the impression that it might be a map (obviously this has occurred to many people but up to that point the only opinions on the VMS I had seen were Edith Sherwood’s plant identifications).

I started with the top-left rosette and expended a lot of energy following up ideas that came to mind from this one rosette alone. Unfortunately, most of this research was done very late at night, after a 12 to 14-hour workday,  which means the notes only make sense to me, and are not suitable for general consumption and I still don’t have time to whip them into human-readable form (hopefully I can do so one of these days). Now I’m shocked to see that 8 years have gone by and I still don’t have time to post them.

So… since ideas have a way of going stale if you hang on to them for too long, I decided to summarize my first impressions, in case they are of interest to fellow Voynicheros. I haven’t looked to see if any of these ideas were original when I first had them (or if any are still original now). I simply have given up hoping for more free time and, for what it’s worth… decided to share them. These were my thoughts on first seeing the VMS “map” and Rosette 1 (top left).

  • I thought it might be a volcano (the wiggly lines in the middle looked like flames to me and probably did to other people, as well).
  • I thought it might be the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (I considered the possibility of the illustrator documenting a crusade, but try as I might, I couldn’t reconcile the individual parts to Jerusalem—they  don’t fit quite well enough to pass the sniff test, even if some of the tombs at the time looked a bit like the tower coming out of the hole).
  • That it might be a coliseum and the mounts might be the hills of Rome (coliseums were sometimes flooded for water sports and, if games continued into dark, may have had torches lining the arena and there’s a she-wolf teats-like picture in the bathing section).
  • That it might be a “portal” to another world and, since those look like flames around the inner edges, perhaps it was meant to be a portal to hell or something along those lines (which is why the apocalyptic cartography thread twigged my memory).

I’m going to have to win a lottery to make enough free time to whip my hundreds of pages of notes into shape, and since that’s not likely to happen in the near (or distant) future, I finally decided to post these ideas as food for thought.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Tracing the Twins


Cesare da Cesto copy of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci showing Leda, Zeus in the guise of a swan, and the two eggs that hatched from their union—one with the sisters, the other with the brothers, Castor and Pollux.

The constellation Gemini is traditionally represented by male twins who were born to the legendary Leda, daughter of King Thestius.

The god Zeus desired Leda, but she was married to the Spartan King, so he came to her in the form of a swan that was fleeing an attacking eagle, thus contriving to fall into her protective arms with the intent to seduce her. In the process he impregnated her and she bore two sets of twins.

In one version, the male twins Castor and Pollux were fraternal twins, one born of King Tyndareus, the other of Zeus. In another version, two eggs result from the illicit union—one hatches into Castor and Pollux, the other into their sisters.

The twins were close, as many twins are, so when Castor was killed, his brother Pollux was devastated and begged Zeus to reunite them. To soothe the twin’s grief and perhaps to atone for his adulterous sin, Zeus turned them into the constellation Gemini, so they could be together forever.

Based on this legend, Greco-Roman images of Gemini typically show male twins closely associated, side-by-side.

The VMS Interpretation of Gemini

In contrast, the Voynich Manuscript Gemini shows a man and a woman clasping hands crossways (a posture that was noted by a number of Voynich researchers) in the center of a figural wheel.

VoyGeminiLet’s look more closely at the details…

The man wears a traditional belted pleated tunic, boots, and the larger floppier medieval version of a beret. The tunic and hat are painted green.

The woman is decked out in a flowing blue robe with wide sleeves with a scalloped edge (probably trimmed with ruffles or lace). An undergarment or shirt can be seen poking out past the outer sleeves. She has long hair and a blue band across her forehead. It’s interesting that the illustrator included this level of detail in the boots and sleeves considering this drawing is very small.

I wondered whether the VMS image were unusual or whether Gemini traditions changed during the middle ages, so I looked through hundreds of zodiac cycles to study the pattern of evolution.

Traditional Depictions

GeminiMithraicIn ancient and early medieval zodiacs, male twins are usually shown side-by-side with their arms around each other’s backs as in this Mithraic Gemini (right) from the 2nd century CE (now in the Modena Museum). From about the 9th century, the twins are sometimes shown standing side-by-side holding weapons, musical instruments, or symbolic items. Ancient Geminis were usually nude or wearing scanty togas. The ones in Jewish synagogues were usually clothed.

GeminiPersianIn Persia, we see a variety of cultural influences.

Some followed the Greco-Roman style of side-by-side twins and some depicted the twins with one body and two heads as in this 11th century “zodiac man” Gemini on the left. The Codex Vindobonensis (Austria? c. 13th C) has a similar image but the twins wear Phrygian caps rather than crowns. It would be easy to assume the two-headed Gemini was based on Janus, the ancient god who symbolized the beginning and the end and was often shown with two heads, but it doesn’t fit well with the legend of Castor and Pollux or the culture that created this variation, so it’s possible it’s based on something else…

GeminiBeitAlphaThe two-headed Gemini is mostly seen in Hebrew manuscripts or those written by Jews in other languages, so it may have descended from the mosaics in the Jewish synagogues. In the Beit Alpha mosaic (6th C), for example, Gemini is two figures clothed in one garment. Even though each twin has two legs and two arms, it’s an image that could easily be interpreted as conjoined twins because we can’t see what’s going on under the shared clothing.

Gemini in the Middle Years

GeminiFranceIn other cultures, the Greco-Roman tradition of nude male twins (sometimes with and sometimes without genitalia) and, in some cases, a nude male Virgo, continued for a few more centuries. The 11th-century image on the left is a Frankish zodiac that retains Roman influence.

So when did the creators of manuscripts decide to go their own way and clothe the twins?

GeminiMonasteryOne of the earlier examples of the break with tradition is Vatican Reg. Lat. 123, created at the St. Maria Rivipulli monastery c. 1056. The influence is clearly Greco-Roman, but Virgo and Gemini are fully clothed (right), thus imposing Christian modesty on legendary Pagan characters. Note that they also separated the twins with a wider space. The addition of clothing was picked up by some of the English and Frankish illuminators at around the same time, as in Arundel 60 and Royal 13 A XI, but some continued to depict the characters nude.

Some illuminators compromised by drawing mostly naked twins in scanty breech cloths (e.g., Egerton 1139, c. 1130s CE) or, in later years, by hiding them behind a bush (the green kind).


Hunterian Psalter, England c. 1170, British Library

In the Hunterian Psalter (left), the twins are fully clothed but display a further innovation… they share a common shield—an iconic representation of their commitment to stick together to defend one another as brothers. This detail is important because the shield becomes widely adopted later, first in England, then in other areas. Note also that the clothing is becoming more local than Roman.

One of the transitional zodiacs is the Stammheim Missal (Getty Ms 64, c. 1170s) which includes a mixture of Greco-Roman and biblical elements. Virgo is female, as in Jewish and Christian zodiacs, Sagittarius is a satyr with an animal head (Jewish), and Capricorn is a Roman-style sea-goat. I thought Gemini might be male-female, but on looking at a higher-resolution image, it appears that both are male.

Gemini Gender Reassigment

GeminiClariciaOne of the more significant changes in Gemini is the introduction of male-female twins, and one of the earliest unambiguous examples is the c. 1300s Claricia Psalter (right). Why alter a tradition that had remained virtually unbroken for more than 1,000 years? Maybe the female twin was introduced because this psalter was created by nuns—most scriptoria were staffed by males.

Hildegard von Bingen’s drawing of Gemini (c. 1200) might be male-female, but it’s hard to tell. There are definite differences between the twins, but the drawing is small and somewhat ambiguous. I suspect it’s male-male.

The Shared Shield

GeminiBloisComing back to the shield, the Henry of Blois psalter is an Anglo-Norman manuscript created in England in the late 12th or early 13th century that includes two seminude twins, probably both male, leaning toward each other over a shield-like central embellishment. Its identity as a shield is less definite than later manuscripts. If you separate out the blue background and orange cloaks, it’s unusually narrow, more like a decorative element than a shield, but it may have been perceived as a shield because shields became popular from this point on.

GeminiHoursVirginThe introduction of the shield allowed the nude tradition to continue without offending people of more modest sensibilities, as in the Hours of the Virgin (right), which interestingly shows conjoined twins (as does Trinity B-11-7 from c. 1400). Morgan Ms M.153 and Ms M.283 (France) follow the same illustrative tradition. Note that the twins are still typically male. You may also have noticed from the examples (and as mentioned in the previous blog on Libra) that medieval zodiacs are frequently enclosed within circles.

Diverging from Tradition

GeminiShaftesThe Shaftesbury Psalter (England, c. 1237) is similar to the previous three in many ways, but introduces a new motif for the twins. They’re not standing or holding weapons, they’re not hiding behind cloaks or shields. Instead they are clasping each other by the shoulders and floating together in a boat with a nordic-style figure-head. The sign for Capricorn is also unique from other zodiacs. It is bright blue, has been liberated from his fish-tail, and is marching and blowing a horn, a theme possibly inspired by marginal drawings in manuscripts that don’t include zodiacs.

The Male-Female Theme Goes Mainstream

GeminiMorganBy the mid-to-late 13th century, male-female pairs show up independently of the Claricia Psalter. The Amiens Cathedral, near the north coast of France, has a stone-carved Gemini of a man and woman holding hands and gazing at each other with warm affection, exemplifying the break from Roman tradition. Closer to the source of the Claricia Psalter (and perhaps influenced by it) is Morgan Ms M.280 (right) with male and female clasping one another.

GeminiRoyal2BWhat is not known about these early examples of male-female Geminis is whether illustrators had lost the connection to the legend of Castor and Pollux or if this was a deliberate choice to create their own zodiac traditions at a time when the idea of “courtly love” (medieval chivalry) was gaining popularity.

In Royal 2 B II, a French Psalter, the figures aren’t just sharing a filial hug, they are kissing one another, in a manuscript created for a nun. After the mid-13th century, many manuscripts include a shield (usually with male twins) or male-female twins clasping one another or holding hands.

Hebrew Traditions

GeminiMMahzorThe Michael Mahzor (right), a Hebrew document from the mid-13th century, has a unique interpretation of the twins. They are drawn with animal heads and face away from one another, with no physical contact. Virgo is also drawn with an animal head, possibly due to the prohibition against graven images.

The Schocken Italian Mahzor,  Add 22413 mahzor (c. 1322, lower right), and Oxford Mahzor (1342) similarly have animal heads, but the figures face one another.

The Add. 26896 mahzor (c. 1310s) harks back to older versions with conjoined twins but with animal heads (rather than human heads wearing crowns, as in the Persian Gemini previously shown).

The Dresden Mazhor from 1290 contrasts with the previous examples by having male and female figures with human heads facing one another.

Innovations in the 13th Century

GeminiSwissThe twins-in-a-boat was an early 13th-century English creation. Half a century later, in Switzerland, there was another creative variation in which the twins (who may be male and female) are shown in a bathtub (or a wine-stomping barrel). The other zodiac signs in the Swiss manuscript follow traditional patterns for the region, so it’s not clear why the bathtub was added. The bathtub shows up again about a decade later in a manuscript from Liège that follows some of the conventions of central Europe.

England diverged from tradition again in the early 1300s by drawing the Gemini twins and Virgo as merpersons. Around the same time, a manuscript from Bologna included two sets of twins (possibly because Leda’s swan eggs produced twin boys and twin girls).

Persian Manuscripts

Persian astronomical/astrological manuscriptsGeminiFishPersia before the 11th century typically didn’t include a full zodiac but, by the mid-1300s (right), we see male twins with a conjoined fish tail facing one another, holding a head on a staff. Later manuscripts from the 15th century had male conjoined twins sitting crosslegged in eastern-style dress. Clearly the VMS Gemini is not based on this model.

The Exception Becomes the Norm

GeminiGermanBy the 14th century, male-female zodiacs were common in the Anglo-Frankish and Germanic regions (which included most of the Holy Roman Empire, including northern Italy down to Rome and Venice).

Not all illustrators made the switch, however. In Tractatus de sphaera (c. 1327), the traditional nude male twins and Virgo with wings are seen.

A Catalan breviary differs from most zodiacs by illustrating Gemini as a pair of male warriors going at each other in a very unbrotherly way.

Zeroing in on the VMS

GeminiRegenBy the mid-1300s, Gemini twins start to more closely resemble the VMS Gemini.

There were still many Geminis with shields in France and England, and zodiacs from Genoa (c. 1365) and Padua (c. 1378) that include a traditional pair of nude males, but Germanic manuscripts (especially Swiss, German, and a few of the Czech zodiacs), and a few of the English and French manuscripts, illustrate the idea of “courtly/chivalric love” and are possible precedents. Getty Ms 34 (1395) takes it one step further and has the twins in an unusually tight hug.

Small Stylistic Changes in the 15th Century

Around 1418 there was a re-emergence of nude male twins in both France and Germany, but rather than drawing them like Roman warriors or gods, they look more like young men and boys. A manuscript from Germany takes a different approach and casts the twins as Adam and Eve holding branches against their groins.

The poses change as well. Rather than clasping one hand or hugging each other’s backs, the figures are commonly clasping arms at the elbow or stretching their arms so their hands are on each other’s ribs. To date, I have not found one in which the arms reach across each other as in the VMS.

GeminiProvenceBy the 1440s, modesty again takes hold in parts of France, and the twins hide behind bushes. In one case conjoined twins hide their shared groin behind an oversized fig leaf (BNF Latin 924) and then the trend swings again toward depicting the twins as completely nude (and not hiding behind anything). In this way the French manuscripts generally differ from the VMS, which shows the twins modestly clothed with high necklines.

While central and northern Europe were developing their own styles, the illuminators in southern Italy retained many of the Roman traditions into the 15th century, including togas, two-legged Taurus, and Virgo with wings (e.g., Codex Bodmer 7 from Naples). A 15th-century zodiac by Cristoforo de Predis of Milan follows the central-European models except that the nude male twins stand back-to-back.


LoversLombardThe early 15th-century image on the right is not specifically from a zodiac cycle, but I’m posting it because it includes a clasping couple with text around the circle, reminiscent of the VMS, and helps to remind us that the VMS illustrator may have consulted non-zodiacal sources, as well

It can be seen from the examples that the VMS Gemini bears little resemblance to the Persian, traditional Jewish, or southern Italian zodiacs, and only slightly resembles those from France and Spain. Like Sagittarius with a crossbow, the lizard/dragon Scorpio, and Libra without a figure, the ones that most nearly resemble the VMS in terms of subject matter, pose, and painting style, are the zodiac Geminis from Germanic Europe (the Holy Roman Empire).

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved



Voynich Text Underpinnings

A discussion about the Voynich Manuscript zodiac pages (with examples by Marco Ponzi) came up today on the forum and I wanted to post something I’ve been sitting on for a while that relates to the structure of the VMS text.

I’ve selected some of the imagery from one of the small-plant pages and included an example from Chinese. This does not mean the underlying language is Chinese but that the structure of the VMS text is similar to quite a number of languages that have a syllabic structure that is based on concept-modifier or concept-concept in various combinations of simple building blocks. I think this structure argues against a basic substitution code but might enlighten how the manuscript is encoded.


If you look at various sections of the manuscript, you will see the same patterns. The VMS is written mostly in Latin characters and numerals (with some original shapes included), but the conceptual foundation (that of basic building blocks combined in similar ways for similar items), exhibits some of the structural characteristics of syllabic languages (or of a constructed/synthetic language).

vonBingenScriptConstructed languages were not a novel idea in the middle ages. Magical languages have a long history, as do kabbalistic symbols as a means of communication. There are some interesting arguments that much of the Bible is allegorical and that there are numbers embedded in the text that provide secret information to those who are schooled in the hidden arts. Hildegard von Bingen created a cipher and partly constructed language in the 12th century.

In the 17th century, John Dee had a strong interest in ciphers, symbols, and magical languages and expended considerable energy on recording them, and Athanasius Kircher developed a universal script in the hopes that communication could reach a wider audience.

But coming back to the Voynich Manuscript…

The VMS has many properties that suggest a constructed language or perhaps one that is a hybrid of natural and constructed language. I’ve remarked before on its singularly regimented style and seeming rigidity and its similarity to syllabic languages (anyone who has practiced their ba, be, bo, bu, and ma, me, mo, mu while studying Asian languages knows what I’m talking about).

The likelihood that the labels are names or regular nouns (as opposed to combinations of noun-concepts) seems low, given that no one has managed to decode them in a way that relates to the labels as a whole or illuminates any of the rest of the text. Anagramming the characters to come up with a handful of labels that look like words isn’t sufficiently convincing either. It seems more likely that the labels represent attributes or information about the items’ composition or use than the names of the items.

Will this unlock the information on the pages without illustrations?

The structure of the “labels” is similar to that of the main text, which also appears to be made up of simple building blocks and includes a high degree of repetition, but there are some additional dynamics in the longer passages that go beyond the kind of glyph-combinations that are in the labels. The very fact that many lines end with the same characters, characters that rarely appear midline, suggests an added level of complexity. Nevertheless, a better understanding of the labels might help unlock the rest.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Weighing in on Libra

Stylistic Variations

Medieval scribes were copyists. Before the invention of the printing press, it was difficult to mass-produce text other than by carving woodblocks or creating ceramic molds that could be impressed into wax or clay, both of which were inefficient, laborious processes for texts of more than a few pages. So they copied by hand, one letter at a time.


Medieval scribe copying a manuscript (Vatican Reg. Lat. 12).

Many of the copied manuscripts were sacred texts and it was considered sacrilege to alter the wording. Exact copies were encouraged and in some cases required by cultural law (as in the Hebrew Torah).

Since the idea was to reproduce the book as closely as possible, not to create an original composition, the basic template was often the same and regional patterns can be recognized, some of which can help us trace the origins of a manuscript.

That’s not to say there was no room for originality. Often the text was accompanied by embellished initials or illustrations, and variations were introduced by some of the more creative (or rebellious) individuals, variations that were then copied by subsequent generations.

Copying Zodiac Symbols

Aquarius9thCDrawings offered a little more leeway for artistic expression than the text. Over the centuries, zodiac symbols have been drawn or sculpted with small variations that point to certain regions or illustrative traditions. Ancient zodiacal figures, based on Pagan or Mithraic beliefs (which were broadly disseminated by Roman soldiers), often depicted figures as nude or dressed in scanty togas, while those from the late middle ages more often were clothed.

Animal symbols underwent small changes, as well. Capricorn started out as a seagoat with a distinctive fish-tail, and gradually took on a variety of forms, including goats in shells, goats with dragon tails, or a naturalistic goat with four legs. Cancer could be a crab, crayfish, or lobster. Scorpio was originally a scorpion but was later shown in some areas as a lizard or dragon. Sagittarius could be a centaur, satyr, or human figure.

Tracing the Traditions

Over a period of several years, I collected hundreds of examples of zodiac cycles. Almost 400 of them were western-style zodiacs (most of them full cycles with 12 signs). After comparing them for stylistic patterns and trends, I was surprised to notice a change in the depiction of Libra in the early 12th century that I haven’t seen others remark upon but which may tell us something about the VMS.

Libra in Hand


Roman-style Libra with male figure, c. 9th century St. Gall, Switzerland.

Prior to the 12th century, Libran scales were usually held in the hand of a human figure, except in a few instances where space was very constrained. There are a number of exceptions where the scales are shown alone, including

  • a Roman mosaic in Tunis
  • the 9th century Leiden Aratea zodiac, and
  • an 11th century mosaic in Otranto Cathedral (south of Brindisi, Italy).

But these are exceptions rather than the rule—scales-only Libras are less common than those where the scales are held by a human or human-like figure (usually a Roman god), as will be seen from examples that follow.

Exploring the Imagery

Male Libra holds scales aloft in this Carolingian zodiac from the Reichenau monastery, Germany. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library.

Male Libra holds scales aloft in this Carolingian zodiac from the Reichenau monastery, Germany. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library.

Prior to the 12th century, most treatises on astronomy and astrology were not illustrated, but there are some and they derived from Greco-Roman styles.

The painting on the right is from a Carolingian manuscript, illuminated at the largest scriptorium in S.W. Germany. The face has been damaged, but based on the clothing treatment of other figures in the cycle, the figure holding the scales appears to be male. This example illustrates that the figure-with-scales imagery was in use in central European manuscripts by the 9th or early 10th century, but that local styles of dress had not yet been incorporated into zodiac drawings.

About 200 years later, something changed and that change appears to center around southwest Germany.

What stands out after comparing hundreds of sets of pre-1500 zodiacs is a temporal and geographic cluster of Germanic zodiac signs that depict the scales alone (mostly in missals and psalters but also in medical and astrological texts). There is also a 13th-century zodiac from Georgia without a figure that could be an isolated example or which might be related in some as-yet undetermined way to the others that I have included in the diagram below.

In the following chart, I have grouped the images according to whether Libra includes a figure (top) or only the scales (bottom). It is further organized according to approximate date of creation (exact dates are not known but are probably correct within about 10 to 70 years):

MedievalLibrabyJKPI thought I had found a 12th-century example of scales without a figure in the Soissons Cathedral stained-glass windows but then discovered that most of the glass had been replaced in the late 1800s.

[Addendum: I forgot to post this map that accompanies the above chart, which shows a sampling of the approximate temporal/geographical distribution of these symbols. I include it now (May 7, 2016)]

LibraMap15thCAs with most research, the above chart, assembled over several years, is still a work-in-progress. Nevertheless, some interesting patterns are apparent between approx. 1130 and 1460:

  • Most zodiacs signs were enclosed by circles unless they were a spoke in a zodiac “wheel”. A few were on plain backgrounds. By the 15th century, some were becoming more elaborate, especially those from France.
  • Zodiacs in Frankish and English manuscripts typically feature a figure holding the scales (Trinity B-11-5 from Normandy is an exception to this general pattern) until around 1460.
  • The figures holding the scales are usually standing, except those from Persia and possibly Armenia, which are usually sitting cross-legged.
  • Libra images in traditional Roman garb are usually male. Others are usually female.
  • By the mid-13th century, most of the zodiacs are drawn with medieval dress rather than Roman togas.
  • Ancient Roman zodiacs were often created in tile or stone, but Carolingian-era and early-medieval zodiacs from English and Germanic regions (Germany, Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy) showed up frequently in manuscripts, whereas Frankish zodiacs tended to embellish physical structures such as churches (stone-carved portals and stained-glass windows were popular).
  • Before 1455, scales without figures were mostly Germanic.
  • Simple versions of scales without figures don’t show up with any regularity in England, Italy, or France until about 1260, and even then they were a distinct minority compared to those with figures.

The Missing Link


In Bodley Ms 614 and Digby 83 (both English manuscripts), a scorpion (rather than a human figure) holds the scales. In the German version (right) the scorpion is close to the scales but doesn’t hold them, which may have led copyists to assume the scales and scorpion were completely separate.

I searched extensively through zodiacs to discover a reason for the simplified Libra and finally had enough examples to guess what may have happened. Ancient depictions of Libra sometimes show the scales held by a scorpion rather than by Virgo.

The examples on the right serve as a tentative explanation. The one with a scorpion holding the scales is from England from c. 1150. The one on the right is from S.W. Germany from around the same time. They both derive from the Hyginus tradition (which traces back to Greek sources before the 2nd century CE), but the second one visually separates the scorpion from the scales. Since Scorpio is a constellation in its own right, copyists may have overlooked or dismissed the association between Scorpio and Libra and further separated the scales from the Scorpion in subsequent copies, thus creating a stand-alone Libra that was particularly prevalent in Germany.

The Spread of the Illustrative Tradition

FranceArchiLibraThe simplified scales in the Germanic manuscripts are not due to lack of space—the images of Sagittarius and Aquarius in the same zodiac cycles are quite detailed—so it appears to be a stylistic choice that contrasted with that of surrounding regions.

By the second half of the 15th century, it is apparent that figureless scales had spread to other countries, as in this example from France from c. 1457 (right). The French zodiac cycles (which were sometimes painted by Flemish artists) tended to be more ornate and more richly colored than earlier Germanic Libras and were often shown within architectural settings, an innovation that set them apart from the Germanic examples.

Simplified Libra and the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Libra most closely resembles the Germanic zodiacs, regardless of whether this was coincidental or deliberate. It doesn’t look like conventional Libras from France (with the exception of  few isolated examples from NE France or Flanders) or from the eastern Mediterranean. It particularly resembles those from Switzerland, southern Germany, eastern Austria, and England (note that England had strong ties with St. Gall at the time).

This by itself doesn’t prove an association, but taken together with Cancer as a crayfish, Scorpio as a lizard or dragon, and Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow (which is a rare combination), there are multiple illustrative choices that point to the same region.



A German Libra from c. 1460s probably post-dates the VMS but I’ve included it here because it is a rare example of a zodiac with text written around the sign in a circle (BSB CGM 312).

There may not be an exact model from which the VMS was copied (if there is, it may not be publicly accessible or may have perished along the way). It’s entirely possible that the VMS illustrator was exposed to a variety of styles if a manuscript library or scriptorium were nearby, or if his profession involved travel.

If the illustrator researched multiple sources and then filled in the blanks with original ideas, the Voynich Manuscript’s association with other documents may never be clear, but the examples in the above chart show that this style of Libra was particularly prevalent in central Europe from about the early 12th century to the 15th century, which includes the period during which the VMS was created.

It hasn’t been determined where the VMS illustrator was born or lived, but it appears that he or she was influenced, at least in part, by documents from central Europe.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


Colorizing the Columns

Wormhole1The Voynich manuscript has quite a few holes and “worm trails” from some kind of infestation that appears to have especially affected the outer pages (possibly because the pesky critters preferred the mmmm, mmmm good-tasting binding over the inner pages). I like to think of the one on folio 1r (right) as the portal to the medieval dimension.

In middle ages terminology, “worms” was a catchall word for things that make you sick, much as we use the word “germs” today, except that medieval “worms’ had superstitious associations because “germs”, as we see them through microscopes, weren’t yet discovered.


A worm-riddled manuscript cover in the Chicago University library. Detail of photo courtesy of CU and Melina Avery.

“Worms” also referred to the little wiggly things that infested medieval folks, such as lice, ringworm, round worms, pin worms, and some really nasty worms I’d prefer not to list. And then there are worms that like to gnaw through books, such as silverfish and various kinds of beetles.

Worm trails can make it particularly difficult to interpret parts of a manuscript that have been eaten away, especially if the text is small and faint. Worm trails are very intricate shapes and can sometimes look like letter forms, which makes small surface nibbles hard to distinguish from real letters.

Making Sense of the Columns

On folio 1r, on the right-hand side, there are three columns of letters and a few shapes that somewhat resemble the “red weirdos” on the same page. The first column appears to be the alphabet in Latin characters. The second column doesn’t follow an alphabetic pattern and may have been someone’s attempt at decoding the manuscript with a substitution code. The third column is faint and doesn’t appear to have as many characters as the others.

Voyf1rColumns1I had considerable difficulty trying to determine which marks were worm marks, which were variations in the parchment, which were chemical abrasions, and which were letters or other glyphs, but I did my best to colorize the forms so they can be more easily seen.

This is a very subjective process based only on scans, since I have never seen the original document, but I thought it might be helpful or at least of interest. I used a different color for the two shapes that look more like “red weirdos” than the other letters (the upper one, at least, the one that resembles a Y shape and is next to the “c”, looks like it was filled with a brush rather than a pen).

I asked myself what would motivate a person to scrape or chemically remove the columns on the right? The two most likely explanations seemed to be 1) to hide the original code or 2) to remove an unsuccessful attempt at decipherment.

Voyf1rColumns2Since the column script doesn’t match the handwriting for the marginal notes or the zodiac labels, and has a different look and feel than the original VMS text, I’ve been assuming for now that it was written by someone else and may be a failed attempt at decipherment. The problem with this idea is that some of the shapes in the second column are not regular shapes in the VMS and the Y shape that resembles a red weirdo may have been part of the original document, considering there’s an oddly placed red weirdo above it. Is it possible there were shapes in the margin before the columnar text was added?

The age of the column text is difficult to determine. The ink appears to be old, but the style is not Gothic cursive, as are the marginal notes. Gothic cursive was especially prevalent in the 15th century, which suggests that the marginal notes might be as old as the VMS, or almost as old, but the columnar text is different—it could range from about the 16th century to perhaps the 20th century, depending on the region. If I were forced to guess, I’d probably guess late 16th or 17th century.

Voyf1rColumns3You might notice something interesting toward the bottom of the second column—the shape at the bottom is rounder and more elaborate. It’s difficult to tell if it was written at a different time or by a different hand (or whether the column writer switched to a different style of writing, which seems less likely). To the left of it, in the first column, are a pretty standard y and z and possibly an x above the y, but it’s very faded and hard to tell. Above the curly letter in the second column is a shape I can’t make out.

A Little Dessert

I have one more image that strikes me as interesting. It was difficult to adjust the colors because it’s very small.

Voyf1rTinyTextIf you turn your head to the left next to the top right weirdo, there are three lines of what look like erased text. Nothing is clear except perhaps the shapes at the end of the second line, which look a bit like a modern era capital-F followed by an a (or maybe a g), but it’s scrawly, so I really can’t tell. It doesn’t look like Arabic, Hebrew, or any other language I recognize. The problem with identifying scrawls is that there are some shapes, like n or r, that look like letters in many languages (Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, and many others) even if they mean something different in another language.

The VMS has gone through many hands, so who knows who may have added notes. Why the note would be so tiny is a bit of a puzzlement. Maybe you can make it out.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Character Glyph or Plummeting Rock?

This is a detail of part of the text on the last page of the Voynich manuscript. It appears to be a mixture of an unknown language or charm language, Middle German, and Latin, with a strange shape at the end of the last line:

F116vGasMichIs that an “o” following the word “mich”? I don’t think so, for the following reasons:

  • It’s not in line with the rest of the text.
  • It’s not shaped like any of the other “o” shapes—it’s irregular, like a rock, not like a letter and the stroke order is different.
  • It’s not only shaped differently from the “o” shapes, it’s bigger.
  • It’s drawn with four dots above it and a fifth to the left of the lowest. In contemporary iconography, it looks like it’s falling. I like to call it the plummeting rock and whether it’s falling or not, I consider it a drawing (like the drawings on the far left), not a part of the text.
  • It’s textually out of character with all the other words, which resemble Latin and old German, even if they’re hard to interpret, and an “o” would be linguistically out of step with what immediately precedes it.
  • Five dots is not an accent or diacritical mark in any language that I know. Two is usually the maximum; three is rare.
  • I don’t think the dots are pointing to anything. There are many snaky lines throughout the VMS pointing to things. Dots were sometimes used in Malaysian documents to point to important paragraphs, but dots are rare as pointers in most other documents—lines, arrows and manicules are more common. When scribes fixed mistakes, the corrections were rarely written underneath or so far away, usually they were written above or after the error.

So if it’s not an “o”, what is it?

As mentioned in a previous post, it looks more like the drawings on the left than a letter of the alphabet to me. I’ve been calling it a plummeting rock for lack of a better term, but that was simply a “working title”… I wasn’t expecting to find information to confirm or deny the identity of this little graphic because it’s small and appears unrelated to the other objects on the page.

Then I came across something of interest in alchemical documents. In medieval alchemy, the substances mercury, sulphur and salt were considered important and much has been written about Mercury, in particular, since it shares its name with the legendary Mercury of the gods.

Mercury was also widely used in medical remedies and was still used to treat syphilis in the 19th century (with questionable results). Mercurialis, a medicinal plant, also shares the name.

So what could Mercury have to do with this curiosity on folio 116v? I didn’t know this until recently, but Mercury is sometimes depicted as falling from the sky:

MercuryFallingSky StoneMercuryMaier1617









Illustration from a book on the art of distillery by Hieronymous Brunschwig (1512).

Note that physical mercury and “celestial” mercury are not always considered the same thing and the word “mercury” was sometimes loosely given a variety of meanings.

Celestial mercury is sometimes called aqua vitae (which can also refer to aqueous ethanol) and is sometimes depicted with falling drops or falling chunks (as in the images above).

Aqua vitae, in turn, is associated with alchemical and apothecarial activities. Distillation was a common procedure for creating alcoholic beverages, but it was also used for alchemical concoctions and medicinal tinctures (in fact there may be visual references to distillation elsewhere in the VMS).


Is there a connection between falling mercury and the falling rock? I don’t know. There’s too little information to decide and there are no overt indications that the VMS is an alchemical document but it could possibly be a medical document.

I’m not even sure the text on this page will ever give up its secrets. If it’s a healing charm, as seems possible, then some of the words might be “magical” words (words not meant to be understood but which are intended to hold or transmit power by their shapes or sounds) and cannot be interpreted by anyone other than the person who created them.

If the VMS is ever translated (including the last page which may be in another hand), and contains a reference to Mercury, then perhaps a plummeting rock isn’t so far-fetched after all. In the meantime I think of it as a curiosity, something to keep us guessing.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Of Wolves and Women

I held off writing this blog for about two years because I simply couldn’t decide which one of two legends fits better and I was hoping to find something definite that would lead me to one or the other (or to a third interpretation if the first two weren’t correct). Unfortunately, almost nothing about the Voynich is definite except its enigmatic nature, so if I wait for a revelation, this might never get posted.

So here we go, I’ll post both alternatives and let the reader decide if one or the other (or neither) has any validity. Here’s the central part of the image (folio 77v):

Maidenf77vThere are some pipe-like biological structures connecting various figures and the maiden is standing in some kind of “pool” (perhaps bodily fluids?) with three pendant shapes below her. At a glance, the image could be interpreted as a womb in the center with ovaries to either side, but could it mean something else, or have a dual meaning?

Diana or Sabine?

KircherDianaWhen I first saw this VMS page, it reminded me of two things. The first was the Ephesian Diana. I have a multitude of pictures of Diana and the evolution of her image from the early days of fancy necklaces to symbols of plenitude (acorns and possibly bull’s testicles) to the inevitable depiction of Diana with a multitude of breasts rather than testicles, ready to feed the world. The version of Diana at the Via d’Este displays a chest full of breasts. The image on the right, from one of Athanasius Kircher’s books, is not as clear, but might be testicles. The appendages under the central figure in the VMS could be interpreted as either testicles or breasts.

But… I wasn’t sure this was a metaphor for Diana, and the ejaculating phallus in the left-hand margin seemed to suggest something other than goddess worship (which was a sacred rather than a carnal adoration to many of the ancients). It’s possible this page is about procreation and insemination, fertility and abundance, as befits Diana, but maybe there’s another explanation…

A More Primal Interpretation

SheWolfBronzeThe second idea that came to mind at almost the same moment as the first was this… Could those pendant shapes represent animal teats and thus be a reference to Rome? They reminded me of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the twins who had a disagreement over where to place their new city, an altercation that led to Romulus killing his brother Remus so he could have his way.

If the pendant shapes weren’t breasts or testicles as would be associated with the goddess Diana, could they be the teats of the she-wolf that fed Romulus and Remus? Is this a reference to the founding of Rome or to the capture of Rome in the 8th century BCE?

If so, then perhaps the VMS is allegorical imagery of the abduction of the Sabine women. I searched for a picture that might express the same ideas as the VMS, but in a more literal way and found this 18th-century painting by Jacques-Louis David:

SabineWomenPaintingNote how the posture of the maiden trying to intervene in a battle somewhat echoes the arms-wide pose of the nymph in the VMS:

SabineWomenDetailThis might fit the VMS imagery more closely than the story of Diana. It could also explain the ejaculating phallus in the margin. Technically, the legend of the Sabines is about the abduction of the Sabine women, not the rape of the Sabines, but how often in history have warriors abducted women without an expectation of having sex with them, especially when they were kidnapping them expressly to take them as wives? Note also that two of the nymphs at the top are wearing veils. There are other places in the VMS where veils are associated with marriage-related imagery, but I’m not sure of their intended meaning here.

Voyf77vThumbThe story of the she-wolf and the founding of Rome might account for the dangly bits below the nymph’s feet (rather than being on her chest as might be expected if she were Diana) and the nymph with chin up and arms spread might represent the Sabine women who cast themselves between opposing forces, willing to die rather than to subject themselves to impious relationships with their kidnappers, an action that supposedly ended the battle and forged a truce between the Sabines and the new colonists.

Either way, it’s another example of a page where biological imagery and mythical imagery might both be intended. If so, they are expressed in an obtuse but rather original way.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Ther i c Galen

Have you ever come across a single piece of information that gives everything a different perspective?

In 2008 and 2009, I obsessively perused every herbal manuscript I could find, going back to them again and again (you know you’ve been looking at too many herbals when you recognize crudely drawn plants without looking at the labels).

But I didn’t know this… I didn’t understand why some odd ingredients like storax (styrax), turpentine, and castoreum showed up together with leaves and roots, sometimes even interposed between plants that were not in alphabetical order. Not that it’s unusual to find these items in medicinal concoctions, but why these particular ingredients, and not the dozens of other commonly used non-leaf-or-root ingredients?


First let’s summarize castoreum, sometimes written as “castor”. Castoreum/Castore is not the same as the Ricinus (castor oil) plant. Ricinus is included in many herbal manuscripts—it’s an ancient medicinal plant—but castoreum or castore (castor) is an animal product that seems oddly out of place with sage, rosemary, and thyme. In fact, references to castoreum can be startling when you first see them as images of animals castrating themselves by biting off their testicles:

StagCastore CastoreHarley3244

These animals can be stags or mythical animals, but a favorite is the poor beaver, which can look like anything, including a deer, fox, boar-with-webbed-feet, or dog-with-fat-tail to an anatomically correct (or sometimes anatomically bereaved) beaver:

CastorBeaver1CastorBeaver5CastorBeaver4 CastorBeaver3


As can be seen from these examples, the animal is recognized more by context (and labels) than the accuracy of the drawings. And their bizarre actions are not as masochistic as they seem. The beaver (shown here as a boar with webbed feet and scaly fat tail) knows the hunters are after his jewels and discards them in their path so he can escape with his life.


Theriac apothecary jar courtesy of Wellcome Library.

Testicles as ingredients are popular worldwide for a variety of medicinal concoctions and were featured in Galen’s famous Theriac recipe, originally developed as a cure for snake bites, but which was gradually marketed as a tonic and general panacea, one that remained popular for almost 2,000 years. Galen was a highly revered physician and scholar, and theriac became a staple in apothecary houses that catered to wealthy patrons.

I must have compartmentalized my familiarity with Galen and my reading of the contents of medieval herbals, because I never directly connected the herbals with theriac. I assumed castor and storax and a few other oddballs were in herbal manuscripts due to their general use in remedies but now I realize due to the express absence of other similar ingredients, they may have been there specifically because they were part of Galen’s famous remedy.

ViperBirthSnakes have long been used in medicinal concoctions and continued to be popular in the middle ages. There was a widely perpetuated myth that male vipers inseminated the females through their mouths and their young would later gnaw their way out of their mother’s body (right). This magical property probably elevated the status of viper as an ingredient in herbal remedies.

Snakes have many meanings in herbal manuscripts.

VMSSnakeRootOften, they indicate a plant that is suitable for curing snake bites. Sometimes they refer to the name of a plant (like snake-weed) or the shape of a plant (e.g., one with a snake-like root). Snakes and dragons can mean a plant is toxic, the way we use a skull-and-crossbones symbol.

But… there are times when a snake appears on its own, and I now realize it might be because viper was an essential ingredient in Galen’s formula, along with castoreum.

Relevance to the VMS


Mining sulphur, Egerton 747, c. 1280–c.1310.

In the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a distinct lack of non-root/leaf ingredients. There are no pictures of bitumen or chalciditis, nothing that looks like styrax or gum arabic in its chunky resinous form, and no gated balsam orchards, as there are in many other herbals. There are a few drawings that resemble snakes or worms, but they appear to be associated with the roots of plants, not with snake as an ingredient on its own. In other words, if there’s a strong Theriac influence in some of the other herbals, there’s no obvious corollary in the VMS.

But… is there a reference to castoreum?

PongolinEngravingIs it possible the strange unidentifiable critter that looks like pangolin, sheep, and anteater all rolled into one could possibly be a beaver? Could the scales be like the scales sometimes depicted on medieval beaver’s tails but applied to the whole body in the VMS?

I honestly don’t think the VMS “pangolin” looks anything like a beaver, but neither do many of the other medieval depictions of beavers.

Maybe it’s a pangolin, an animal that curls up like an aardvark to protect itself, as has been put forth by quite a few Voynicheros (I like the idea of a pangolin), or a rain dragon, as been suggested on the Voynich forum, or if we glance back at a similar curled-animal drawing on another page…

VMSCurledCritterResearchers have suggested the dead-looking creature on folio 79v might be a fleece (see earlier post). Could the pangolin-like creature also be a fleece? Could the curled-up creature be a pointy nosed lamb? Maybe those lines are nebuly lines after all and they indicate a dearly departed creature rather than a live one. The problem is it doesn’t look like the other sheep-like creatures in the VMS, it has a very sharp snout and the others are blunt, and the illustrator has made the back very scale-like—quite different from most sheeply creatures.

Could it be a beaver about to become a beaveress or some other animal making a lifestyle change? Looking at the drawing by itself, it seems possible that it is eyeballing its undersides but… context should never be overlooked, and beneath the critter is a woman with a ring, and the animal seems to be suspended above her as though on a cloud or canopy. That seems an odd place for him to aim his teeth at his chestnuts.

Well what about the fleece idea? Golden fleece pendants were worn by members of the order of the Golden Fleece in the 15th century, but could a door above a meeting place have a suspended fleece as a sign? They have them now, but that doesn’t mean such a thing existed in the early 1400s. As usual, the way it’s presented in the VMS makes it hard to pin down.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved