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.

Summary

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

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