Monthly Archives: April 2016

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

The Last Page But Not the Last Word

Folio 116v Revisited

In 2013, I posted a couple of times about Folio 116v, which is sometimes referred to as the last page of the Voynich Manuscript. I also suggested, as I worked through my journey of personal discovery, that it might be a healing charm. I knew nothing about healing charms before trying to puzzle out the VMS, but I was following a hunch that it might be associated with magic when I saw the strange word oladabas. I later discovered, in 2013 and again in 2015, that abracula was a charm word (a very old and and venerated one) used to cure fevers, and posted some examples of 15th century charms, which follow a format surprisingly similar to the VMS text.

Considering how little is written (and drawn) on Folio 116v compared to most other pages, it’s surprising it has generated so many questions. One of the persistent challenges is the interpretation of the characters, some of which are faded and some of which are unconventional. I can read Gothic Cursive better now than I could in 2013, but that doesn’t help when a word is a blobby mess like the one in the middle of the first row of the main body of text (marked with an arrow):


Deconstructing the Blob

I didn’t pay any attention to what others proposed as the reading for this word because I was so focused on other aspects of the page that I never followed it up, but the subject was raised on the Voynich forum today and I thought it was time to post my impression of what the letters might represent.

In 2013, I thought the word-group in question might be a messy rendition of toe because “o” and “e” are sometimes combined in old manuscripts as œ. After looking at it for a while longer, I realized the explanation might be something completely different.

Vm116Ceve2Let’s say, for example, that this was originally written as a bench character (EVA-ch). The bench char isn’t only a Voynichese char. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s also a common Latin ligature that can represent a wide variety of combinations of “t” “c” “e” and “r” characters, since they are similar to one another in Gothic cursive. In fact, in some manuscripts, it’s hard to distinguish “c” from “e” or “t” from “c” without context.

So, if it’s a bench character, maybe it’s a bench char with a cap or maybe the “cap” is part of the corrected shape or something not used anywhere else. I’m not sure. The cap is smaller and lower than usual, so it might be part of the corrected shape, but we don’t know if the script on the last page is written by the Voynich scribe or someone else who is somewhat able to mimic VMS text but doesn’t do it exactly the same. In the example above, I’ve lightened the shapes that appear to have been added after the initial shape was drawn. I left in the “cap” or “elbow”, but it’s probably best to picture it in your head both with and without the cap-shape since its connection with the other shapes is unclear.

All right. So let’s say for the moment that the scribe drew a bench character. What happened then? Why did he turn it into an unreadable mess? Perhaps the scribe was trying to correct an error. Maybe it’s Voynichese and he didn’t want to give things away. Maybe it’s a common Latin ligature and he decided it looked too much like Voynichese and could be misinterpreted later. Maybe it’s simply a mistake.

Vm116Ceve3Here’s what I think the scribe may have tried to do to correct it… I’ve added colors to the letters so they’re easier to see because I think the answer may lie right in front of us.

In this illustration, the “c” or “t” is purple, the added “e” or “c” is green, and the added “v” or “r” is bluish. Note how the bench char is still in the background, making it hard to clearly see the letters in front even when they’re highlighted with color? So… if it’s a mistake, adding the letters didn’t fix the problem.

What was he trying to write? Was it tev/ter/tar or tcv or ccv or cev or cer—all of which might have been written with the first two letters as a ligature in Latin? I think maybe it’s “cer” or “cev” (ligature ce plus v) and he never finished correcting it because it wasn’t working, so instead of taking the time to scrape away a mistake—he wrote it again correctly as the next word, spaced out better and not blobby, to create “ceve” or “cere”.



I don’t know. It’s just an idea, I can think of other interpretations, as well, but I think it’s worth mentioning in case it sparks some fresh thoughts about how to read it.

J.K. Petersen

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

Is Taurus an Aurochs?

Tracing Taurus

A drawing of a long-horned animal appears in the position one would expect to see Taurus the bull in a traditional zodiac sequence, and appears twice in the Voynich Manuscript, each within the center of a wheel populated with figures.

TwoTaurusesThe two critters have some minor discrepancies, but are basically the same, except for the way in which they are painted. The brick-red paint is sketchy and light on one, darker and more even on the other. The information circling the figures differs, both textually and visually, but this post will concentrate on the imagery. Let’s compare them to a historic image of a bull:

CHSmithAurochsThe most significant difference between the VMS bull and the one shown above is the shape of the neck. The VMS horns are also a bit more upright and closer together, but this was not unusual in medieval zodiacs. The other differences between the VMS bull and real bulls can probably be attributed to limited drawing skills.

It should also be noted that the VMS bull appears to be standing in front of or eating from a basket-like container. The lines on the baskets are respectively diagonal and square. The face of the second bull is turned slightly more to the side. The month-name “May” has been written between the legs, probably by another hand, perhaps by someone trying to decode the manuscript.

Background on the Bull

TeodorGhisiBullI was curious about how closely the VMS bull resembles other illustrations of Taurus and collected more than 500 zodiac cycles so I could look for precedents and trends. I discovered that images of Taurus vary widely in style and color, and long curved horns are not uncommon on bulls that inhabited Europe and Asia in the middle ages, but the long neck that is more reminiscent of a deer, goat, or horse than a bull provoked my curiosity and I wondered whether there were others drawn the same way.

Many of the oldest depictions of Taurus, from about the 1st and 2nd centuries CE,  show the bull leaping to the right (and may not include the hindquarters, as the stars in the hind area were not considered part of the constellation). In others, the full animal is shown and may be facing either direction. In later centuries, Taurus is more docile, sometimes not running at all, perhaps reflecting a transition from wild to domesticated cattle.

Taurus from the Hamat Tiberias synagogue mosaic., c. 300 BCE.

Leaping Taurus with a hump, from the Hamat Tiberias synagogue floor mosaic, c. 300 BCE. The 9th century Tetrabiblos bull is very similar except there is less emphasis on the hump.

The early images, usually executed in stone or tile, are quite naturalistic and easily recognized as bulls. Many have humps, as is characteristic of certain species such as Brahman bulls. The hump shows up less frequently in later zodiacs.

Humped bulls are thought to have originated from a central Asian aurochs, a form of cattle that had spread to the Mediterranean area by at least about 2,000 BCE. The European aurochs, an aggressive trophy animal with long curved horns, is possibly the one depicted in ancient cave paintings, and was still living in the wild during the middle ages, but unfortunately became extinct in 1627 when the last cow, living in a forest in Poland, was killed by a poacher.


Spotted 14th C Taurus from the Kitab Al-Bulhan, courtesy of the Oxford Digital Library.

ArabBullImages of Taurus in the early Persian manuscripts were usually white with black spots or vice versa, often with a prominent hump, while the European Taurus was typically solid colors in beige, brown, black, or red, sometimes with a hump, sometimes not.

By the 15th century, Arabic manuscripts frequently included solid-color bulls, as well.

ReichenauTaurusThe drawing of Taurus on the right, from a 9th-century manuscript from the Monastery of Reichenau, Germany, differs from typical bulls in being more slender and graceful (possibly a stylistic preference of the illustrator who also drew slender Aries and Leo). From this point on, most images of Taurus did not feature a prominent hump.

HyginusTaurusThe 12th-century Hyginus Taurus from France (left) and a 12th-century Taurus from Augsburg, Germany, are similar to the Reichenau Taurus in being slender with long horns—but differ in having necks that are uncommonly narrow, similar to the VMS. The Taurus symbol from the Gallia Liber floridus has extravagantly long curved horns and the suggestion of a hump.

WeingartenTaurusSome bulls are stylistically embellished with dashes and dots, like this long-necked red Taurus from Weingarten, Germany (right), but are still essentially a solid color. Note, this is a very rare instance of Taurus without horns (Morgan m.711). There is also a bright red Taurus in a manuscript from Augsberg, Germany, from around the same time.

BlueSuitGiorgio Armani would approve of this stylish 13th-century Parisian Taurus stepping out in a bright blue suit with a gold-leaf background (Morgan m.92). Note that this bull also has a fairly long neck, although it doesn’t have long curved horns. The tail coming out from between the legs is a stylistic choice that is usually reserved for Leo, but is occasionally seen on Taurus, as well.

TaurusShadedSometimes solid colors are applied with a lighter touch to create a shaded look or the illusion of a lighter pigment, as in this long-horned bull from the mid-13th century (Morgan m.730). There are places in the Voynich Manuscript where the paint has been brushed on very lightly, as well, as though the painter might have been trying inexpertly to achieve the effect of a softer-color pigment.

TaurusHighStepArtists can get pretty creative with whatever pigments they have at hand, and cattle vary widely in hide color, so it’s not surprising that Taurus has been painted almost every shade imaginable, but I was surprised to find slender bulls with long necks and long curved horns as often as I did. I wondered if this might be a local custom, limited to one area, but they don’t seem to be tied to any specific region.

The thin-necked bull drawings are not frequent, but neither are they rare, as can be seen by the high-stepping examples to the left, so the long neck and horns on the VMS bull are not as distinctively different as I originally thought. Maybe the illustrators were unimpressed by bovine anatomy or less familiar with cattle than horses or deer, and drew according to what they knew.

Considering Other Details

Ulm1465TaurusThe detail that makes the VMS stand out as different is not so much the bull as the basket. It’s very unusual for a basket to be included with Taurus—cattle usually graze unless it’s a very arid region. Sometimes there are trees and shrubs in the background with Taurus, but it’s difficult to find even one incidence of a basket, except when month’s labors have been combined in the same drawing with a zodiac sign, which is not the case with the VMS symbols.

Not only is a basket unusual, but the VMS illustrator gave each bull a different style of basket. Whether the basket is a whim (or misconception of bovine feeding habits) or a detail that might help identify the illustrator’s locale, is still to be seen.

J.K. Petersen

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

The VMS Cycles of Life

What do the Wheels Represent?

VirgoWheelThe Voynich Manuscript has a series of wheels with zodiac symbols in the center, but the images around the symbols have no apparent relationship to constellations, seasons, or months of the year. Instead they are mostly populated by naked nymphs in gaily decorated baskets or loges, each with a star.

TubNymphIn some cases, the maidens look somewhat generic, in others they look like they might represent real people, and there are different characteristics to the imagery in different wheels. In some wheels the figures are fully clothed and more heavily painted.

I don’t know if there’s an overall theme or interpretation that covers all the wheels, but some of them appear to illustrate cycles of life.

Take for example, the nymphs surrounding the two fish commonly associated with the zodiac symbol for Pisces (folio 72v)… if you start with the figures that look like pre-teens and follow the progression around the two circles, it could be seen as the cycle of life from youth to old age. When you consider the older-looking figures are stepping into sideways loges (or tubes) that are oddly reminiscent of coffins, it reinforces this general impression.

NymphWavingIn the chart below, I’ve extracted each nymph while retaining their order to make it easier to see this pattern. There are three figures that look like children, followed by one that looks like a teen with longer hair. More mature women follow until there’s one with its stomach above the edge of the basket to expose what looks like a baby bump. Continue on for three more baskets and then there’s another exposed stomach showing what looks like another baby bump (before birth control, it was not uncommon for women to have a dozen pregnancies).

A few baskets later, the orientation of the basket changes from vertical to horizontal, and the nymphs look older. There’s one that might be pregnant, but others appear to be showing middle-aged spread until, at the end, the figure is almost entirely within the basket.

Interestingly there are two or three men in the wheel. One shows up next to one of the nymphs with a baby bump, one is in the middle-aged section, and one near the end (old age?). It’s also possible that one or more of the pre-teens are boys.

CycleofLifeThis is, of course, a tentative interpretation. I don’t know what the labels say and I don’t know if I began reading the figures at the right spot, but there does appear to be an aging sequence.

StretchMarksOn the same folio is a wheel with a ram in the center and a smaller number of nymphs in the surrounding wheel.

If one starts reading the figures at the youngest, then once again it appears to illustrate a cycle, but this time it’s the cycle of pregnancy rather than a full cycle of life. It progresses through childhood, puberty, maturation, marriage (one figure has a distinctive veil that may represent marriage), baby bumps, and possibly stretch marks, although it’s hard to tell if those are fabric folds, stretch marks, or both. Some of the figures are clothed, a possible symbolic reference to a woman’s “confinement”, a late-pregnancy custom in which women were hidden away. The cycle is illustrated in sequence in this chart:

CycleMaturThe stomachs and sometimes the groin area are visible in most of the drawings, but the last one covers up the stomach. Could this be menopause, when a woman is no longer ovulating or becoming pregnant?

ManWomanNymphI’m not going to upload all the wheels, it’s too much information for one blog, but you can look at the originals, and you will see another wheel that looks like a cycle of menstruation and one that appears to be a cycle or commentary on relations between the sexes (right), with a man whose genitals are clearly included and a nymph who is leaning down more than the others in a provocative pose. I can’t quite figure out what’s going on with his genitals, they’re not drawn as clearly as one in the biological section, but it might be an animation with two positions (flaccid and erect). Since most of the men are modestly depicted, this more explicit image is making a point about the meaning of the drawings.


NymphColoredNot all the wheels appear to be cycles. The colored wheels give a different impression. They feel more like political commentary or perhaps genealogical images. The wheel around the symbol for Cancer is more similar to the life cycle wheels and has a large number of figures, quite a few of whom are male, but the pattern and their significance is not clear.

These interpretations are entirely subjective but I offer them to get the idea out there, especially since I’ve been posting articles on the VMS zodiac symbols without discussing the content surrounding them. The cycle of pregnancy is paired with a symbol of a ram (presumably Aries), which represents spring in many countries, and the procreative wheel is paired with an intimate picture of a man and woman representing Gemini, so perhaps there’s a discernible reason for specific symbols anchoring the wheels, but I’m really not certain.

If these wheels do, in fact, represent life cycles with a strong focus on women, it strengthens the impression that the VMS could be, at least in part, a historic treatise on gynecology.

J.K. Petersen

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

The Path to Medieval Zodiacs

The Birth and Breadth of Zodiacs


Examples of constellations, not all of which are included in the traditional 12-sign zodiac. Courtesy of NASA.

The zodiac, the twelve symbols we associate with astrology, evolved from a mixture of ancient astronomy and myth. Familiar star clusters, which came to be seen as animals, heroic figures, and deities, helped the ancients anticipate the seasons and navigate on land and sea. Celestial events, like comets and eclipses, were taken as portents of events to come.

Both eastern and western zodiacs are divided into twelve segments. Since there are far more than twelve constellations and they do not appear for equal amounts of time, this division into twelve was probably based on lunar cycles. This article will concentrate on western zodiacs, rather than those associated with China, because the Voynich Manuscript includes ten of the twelve western astrological signs.

Ancient Origins


Symbol for Aries on a 2nd century Egyptian coffin that includes the twelve zodiac symbols we are familiar with today. The artifact is housed in the British Museum.

Diagrams of the constellations go back thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians adorned their temples with many astronomical and astrological references, but they assigned  personalities to several of the constellations that were different from those of the Babylonians and Sumerians. The Nabatean zodiac in Petra also differs from the modern form both in the order in which the signs are presented and in some of the individual signs, which represent gods rather than animals.

Astrological concepts that developed in Chaldea, Babylonia, and S.E. Syria in the millennia preceding Christianity formed the basis for the zodiac we know today and were transmitted to Egypt through Persian incursions across the Mediterranean in the 6th century BCE and the rise of Greco-Roman cultures. While some of the ancient Egyptian astronomical concepts remained, astrological symbology changed. By the 2nd century CE, modern iconography was showing up on Egyptian coffins (upper left) and the old gods were no longer prominent as zodiac symbols.

Thus, the earliest pictorial representations of contemporary western zodiac symbols can be seen in

  • Greco-Roman temple mosaics and frescoes, such as Hathor and Esneh,
  • Mithraic temple sculptures and Roman coins and works of art, and
  • Jewish temple mosiacs.

A 9th century interpretation of Ptolemy’s zodiac from Constantinople, now housed in the Vatican library.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to assess the impact of astrological writings stored in the research institution and library at Alexandria because it was largely destroyed in the Roman conquest of Egypt in the 1st century BCE.

It’s also difficult to chart the influence of Ptolemy’s Almagest and handbook that included a zodiac, as an original copy of the manuscript no longer exists, but Mithraic symbolism had reached as far as England by the 2nd century and reproductions of Ptolemy’s works began to circulate a few centuries later. Astronomer Theodore Meliteniodes (c. 1320–1393), of Constantinople, dedicated his second book to Ptolemaic concepts.

Earliest References

Flavius Josephus (37–c.100 CE), a Jewish scholar who became a Roman citizen, reported that there was a Babylonian curtain before the doors of the Temple of Ierusalem decorated with a pictorial representation of the elements and images of the heavens (possibly constellations) but specifically remarks that it lacked the [twelve] signs. This might indicate that he was familiar with and would have expected zodiac or month signs to be included. Unfortunately, we have no way to confirm this interpretation of his words or to see the curtain for ourselves—fragile relics rarely survive to tell their tales. Most of what we know about ancient zodiacs is recorded in ceramic and stone.

The Denderah Zodiac. The Denderah sky chart, one of the earliest and most complete examples of a modern zodiac cycle, was found in the ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Egypt. Many of its early investigators jumped to the conclusion that the organization of the constellations was intended to represent the date at which it was created and projected it to two or three millennia BCE (and sometimes even older) based on astronomical calculations. They failed to consider that artistic choices may have influenced the proximity and orientation of the figures and that the architecture and inscriptions of this and two other nearby temples are clearly Greco-Roman. A more rational estimate, based on a broader base of observations, is that the Denderah temple originated around the 1st century BCE.

In the following Denderah star chart, I have lightened the background and highlighted the figures so it is easier to see the zodiac symbols. Virgo is shown on the left and is possibly depicted twice, once touching Libra, the scales, and again holding a sheaf of grain (it’s also possible there is an intervening constellation of an Egyptian god but it’s worth noting that Virgo is sometimes duplicated in later depictions, both standing alone and holding the scales).

DenderaZodiacEven though it is one of the oldest remaining examples of modern astrological symbols, the Denderah zodiac is probably not the most influential in terms of spreading the iconography to other regions. Roman soldiers were the primary influence, and the Jewish diaspora contributed, as well.

EsnehScorpioThe Esneh Zodiac. The Greco-Roman Temple of Khonsu at Esneh (Ta-Esna), not far from the Denderah site, dates to approximately the time of Adrian (Emperor Hadrian), though construction and renovation occurred over a couple of centuries until it ceased around 250 CE. Ancient Egyptian influence can be seen in the style of both the Esneh and Denderah carvings (particularly the clothing, orientation of figures, and scarab-like representation of Cancer), but the astrological symbols are of the Chaldean/Babylonian form of modern zodiacs.

A distinctively contemporary-looking zodiac was created in Tunis during the Imperial Roman era and is now on exhibit at the Bardo Museum, and a village on a Greek island sports a c. 5th century zodiac mosaic that demonstrates that astrological concepts and reverence spread to even tiny remote communities.

Mithraic Astrological Imagery

MithraZodiacThe Mithraic belief system predated Christianity, and played a role in spreading the concept of the twelve signs. Mithraism developed in Persia and the Mediterranean (and may have been inspired in part by the Indian/Zoroastrian god Mithra), but Roman soldiers developed their own version with some distinct differences from eastern iconography.

The personification of Mithras (right), rising from the ground, or possibly from an egg, is commonly shown slaying a bull. It has been suggested the Roman Mithra may have been inspired by the constellation Perseus, a warrior figure located between Aries and Taurus in the northern hemisphere, or perhaps by one of the older gods that represented war and was associated with bulls. The slaying of the bull may even have been a symbolic nod to the astronomical precession from Taurus to Aries.

Dispersion Through Roman Soldiers

Roman Mithraic zodiacal monument, possibly representing Kronos.

Roman Mithraic zodiacal monument, possibly representing Kronos.

The only way the Romans could maintain their supremacy and expand their territories was to deploy soldiers to new regions. As they traveled, they took their belief systems, their crafts, and their coins with them.

It’s not surprising that there are early Mithraic zodiacs on the island of Ponza, in Ostia, and Rome (where politicians in high positions were members as well), but a sandstone relief has been found in Croatia, and many of the most significant Mithraic artifacts, dating to about the 2nd century CE, are in Germany, Bohemia, and northern Italy.

The egg-shaped zodiac surrounding Mithra above right is from Hadrian’s Wall in Housesteads, England, and is now in the Great North/Hancock Museum along with a Mithraic tauroctony sculpture. The oval one to the left may represent Kronos rather than Mithra, but it too is ringed by a zodiac.

It’s said that Mithraism was a secret society, but given the number of temples and artifacts that survive, I doubt it was any more secret than the Masons are today. What went on inside closed doors may have been kept hidden, but general knowledge of the constellations was not secret knowledge. Astrological prognostication was, at times, a profitable business, and medical and judicial applications of astrology were common, so the subject of the signs no doubt came up in conversation. Despite the fact that Mithraic gathering places were deliberately destroyed in the rise of Christianity, more than 500 Mithraic temples are known and there may be others waiting to be rediscovered. Mithraic artifacts number in the thousands.

RomanAugustusCoinNot all Roman soldiers belonged to Mithraic societies, which included initiation rites (most still worshipped Pagan deities and mercenaries brought along their own belief systems), but the Pagans embraced astrology, as well. For example, the Roman Second Legion, based in Wales early in the 2nd century, chose Capricorn, the “sea goat”, a sign dedicated to Emperor Augustus, as one of their emblems. Zodiac symbols were also minted onto Roman coins (right), most notably Libra, Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. They were also widely impressed into seals, gems, and decorative ceramics (examples can be seen in the British Library collection).

By the 4th century, as the Empire faded and Christianity expanded, the Mithraic movement became all but extinct, but the custom of creating zodiac mosaics spread to Jewish synagogues and showed up around the necks of statues of Artemis. Despite objections by certain church officials who condemned astrology as a Pagan tradition, the carving of stone zodiacs into sacred portals spread to Christian churches.

Jewish Astrological Imagery

BeitAlphaZodiacIn the Talmud, the twelve constellations are associated with months of the year. Pictorial representations can be found in temple mosaics from the 3rd to 7th centuries at Beit Alpha, Beit She’an, Hamat Tiberius National Park, and Sepphoris.

Even though Beit Alpha and Beit She’an are near one another, their zodiacs aren’t identical.

Unfortunately, many of the tiles are missing from the Sepphoris site, so it’s difficult to compare the imagery among all three sites, but the Beit She’an Sagittarius is a centaur, while the Beit Alpha Sagittarius has human legs. It should be noted that both Virgo and Libra are often male in some of the early eastern zodiacs, but sometimes Virgo is female, reflecting the Pagan worship of goddesses. In the Beit Alpha mosaic on the right, Virgo is shown as female next to Libra as male (the Hamat Tiberias zodiac is female and male, as well). One other difference is the presence or absence of clothing, Some of the Hamat Tiberius figures are nude, as in the Pagan style, while figures at the other sites are clothed.

Christian zodiacs often represent Virgo as female in honor of Virgin Mary while still retaining a male image for Libra. In some, the scales are alone or shown only with a hand (which later came to represent the hand of God).


A goat by a bucket or well can represent both Capricorn and Aquarius, as in this mid-13th century Jewish Mahzor from the Bodleian Library.

One interesting detail in the evolution of zodiacs in Hebrew manuscripts is the change in the symbol for Capricorn.

In the Hamat Tiberias mosaic, Capricorn is a traditional sea-goat, as in the Roman zodiacs, but by the Middle Ages, it was common for Capricorn to be shown as a goat standing by a bucket or a well, a symbol that could stand for both Capricorn and Aquarius.

Outside the Jewish community, Capricorn as a sea-goat remained popular, although sometimes the Roman fish-tail morphed into a shell or a dragon tail.

In the Arab world, court astrologers, some of whom were Jewish, are known to have existed in the 7th and 8th centuries, and books on astrology were written not long after, but zodiac imagery of the modern form didn’t show up in Arabic manuscripts until around the 9th century. They differed from most earlier zodiacs in that they included the location of the stars (shown as dots on the animal or figure that represented the sign), which indicates their interest in astronomy.

I’ll be describing details of some of the other zodiac symbols and their relationship to the Voynich Manuscript in subsequent articles as I have far too much information to include in one blog.

Continued Interest in Subsequent Ages

In the 9th century, zodiacs were included in astronomical texts in France, Germany, and Switzerland (examples include Harley 647, the Leiden Aratea, and AN IV 18). Some of the imagery from this time period still had a distinctly Greco-Roman flavor, with figures that were nude or dressed in scanty togas. By the late 990s, the dots to indicate the astronomical aspect of the signs were included, as well.


Pisces carved into the Basilica de San Isidoro in Leon. Courtesy of ParadoxPlace.

The efforts of certain Christian clergy to suppress astrology failed and the custom of carving zodiacs into the portals of sacred gathering places became particularly popular in France and northern Spain in the 11th century. Cathedral builders across Europe began adding zodiacs to their tiled floors and stained-glass windows. Labors of the month often accompanied the twelve signs, as well

Zodiac imagery was enlivening Psalters and formerly dull calendrical manuscripts by the 12th century (and were particularly popular in the 14th and 15th centuries). Interest in the twelve signs continues today.


To give a visual sense of how the earliest astrological symbols that directly influenced contemporary zodiacs spread to the outer reaches of the Roman Empire by about the 3rd century, I have created a chart using a Johnson map with a sample selection of historic sites where these items were created or located. Note, it is not known for certain if the coin on the far right follows the same zodiac sequence as western zodiacs. Generally, zodiacs from Petra and eastward differ in a number of ways from Greco-Roman zodiacs.HistoricZodiacsYou can click on the image for a larger version and I’ll continue the discussion of VMS zodiacs in subsequent blogs.

J.K. Petersen

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