Why Clone the Crayfish?

Shellfish Anatomy 101

In a previous blog, I described the unusual placement of the legs on the “crayfish” in the “zodiac” section of the Voynich manuscript. Like traditional zodiacs, the crayfish or lobster occupies a position between images that we associate with Gemini and Leo. In the VMS, these positions include a courting couple and a large feline. In a traditional zodiac, in this order, the crayfish symbolizes Cancer but I’ll refer to it as a “crayfish”, which is a freshwater cousin of the lobster, because we can’t be certain this is a zodiac. Crayfish can be found in other zodiacs, but the VMS differs from them in some unusual, almost eccentric ways.

Dinner for Two?

You have to wonder why the illustrator drew two crayfish, especially when they are surrounded by naked nymphs. Could this be a romantic dinner for the courting couple? Both lobsters and crayfish have been eaten for thousands of years. Even if dinner wasn’t on the illustrator’s mind, the pairing of crayfish in a zodiac setting is unprecedented. It’s long been acknowledged that the naked nymphs are unusual, but the details of the crayfish deserve some points for originality, as well.

It is traditional for Pisces to be drawn with two fish, but why are there two crayfish? One crusty critter is the norm.

The “string” is unusual, as well. In the VMS, the crayfish are joined by a line. This little detail is usually reserved for Pisces. The VMS fish are joined by a traditional line, but the line itself is unusual. It curls outside the fish instead of in-between and, like many other parts of the manuscript, it ends in a star.

It’s not unusual for a line to connect the fish, many images of Pisces have a string or garland connecting them, due to a row of stars that occurs in this position. The extra fins are not unusual either as there are depictions of fish, in zodiacs and bestiaries, that have more fins, but the VMS is unusual in that the line curls outside of the fish rather than between them, as in the examples on the right from BNF Latin 924 and 1176.

So, the VMS crayfish are arranged in a way that is typical for Pisces, not Cancer. Normally only Pisces and Gemini are paired.

I’ve collected almost 500 zodiac cycles created prior to 1560 and have only found one that pairs several of the symbols, and it stops pairing them after Gemini, almost as though someone came along and tapped the illustrator on the shoulder and said, “Uh, no, you don’t have to pair all of them, just Pisces and Gemini.”

Morgan M.511 is an attractive calendar created in Bologna, c.1326. The zodiacs and months’ labors are drawn within circles, with trees in the background and, in an unusual departure from tradition, the first five symbols are paired.

There doesn’t appear to be a direct stylistic connection between the Bologna zodiac and the VMS. Morgan M.511 follows the Greco-Roman style—Cancer isn’t paired, and is depicted as a crab rather than a crayfish, the scorpion is naturalistic, and Sagittarius is a four-legged centaur with a longbow. The circular motif and the trees may be similar, but everything else is different. The VMS symbols include a bull-like animal eating from a basket, a “lizard” Scorpio, and a very uncommon two-legged Sagittarius with a crossbow.

So where do crayfish-style zodiacs originate?

An early example of Cancer the crab was created at the Monastery of Reichenau, in Germany, around 900 C.E. Obviously, the crab as a zodiac symbol was known in central Europe. But Vatican Reg.lat.123, created at the St. Maria Rivipulli monastery in 1056, diverges by using a crayfish rather than a crab. I mentioned this manuscript in previous blogs because it breaks from tradition in a few other ways.

Rivipulli (Ripoll) is not far from the Spanish coast, less than 60 miles, so one might expect a traditional crab, but it is at an elevation of 2300 feet at the confluence of two rivers, where the small monastery community may have been more familiar with freshwater crayfish than saltwater crabs. Before it was overharvested, crayfish was a popular food in Spain and the name for crayfish in Spanish is congrejo de rio “river crab”.

Not long after the Rivipulli manuscript was created, a zodiac cycle was carved into the Basilica of St. Madeleine in Vézelay, in Burgundy, France. The building has been sacked and neglected over the years, but the main tympanum is said to date from the 1100s. I don’t know if any of the stone zodiacs have been replaced, but Cancer is a crayfish or lobster with a curled tail.

Travel and Traditions

Is there a connection between S. Maria Rivipulli and the Burgundian basilica? Maybe. Both were Benedictine monasteries and there appears to have been regular communication among monasteries even in the days when travel was difficult. The Digital Walters collection includes another very early example of a crayfish zodiac from France, said to be from the 12th century. Like the Burgundian crayfish, it has a curled tail (Walters W.734). Similarly, Walters W.26 includes a four-legged crayfish from circa 12th century, from Augsburg, Germany.

One has to be cautious when tracing geographical transmission from scant examples, and similar traditions sometimes emerge independently in different areas, but looking at some of the other zodiac symbols in conjunction with this one, it seems possible that the crayfish “tradition” may have started in Catalonia and spread to France and, from there, to Germany.

The following diagram illustrates crayfish/lobster zodiac symbols that were substituted for crabs and when they appeared. Note that the dates and geographical origins of these manuscripts is often unknown and have been estimated by the repositories holding them. This map is specific to the VMS and does not illustrate all the crayfish zodiacs (I found 165 of them). It includes the ones that most closely resemble the crayfish with the curves on the carapace in the Voynich Manuscript. You can click on the map to see it full-sized and to read additional statistics about examples not illustrated:

So Why Two Crayfish?

Is the paired crayfish somehow related to the paired ram and bull pages, or was the VMS illustrator intending something specific to Cancer? I’m not sure, but I have a couple of ideas…

Each constellation has a naturalistic image, representing the position of the stars, but there is also a shorthand version for textual references. As mentioned in the previous blog, the symbol for Aries is similar to the “red weirdo” on the first page of the VMS. It looks like a ram’s head with two horns.

The traditional zodiac symbol for Cancer is a long-tailed 69, reminiscent of the claws of a crab (or perhaps two crabs in a whirling duet). Could the duplication of the two crayfish in the Voynich manuscript be a reference to the zodiac glyph? Would someone go to the trouble of drawing a second crayfish to mimic a symbol when the identity of the animal is already pretty clear?

That’s one idea but it lacks that special feeling you get when you cast your hook in the water and get a big tug on the line. So, I have another idea… if you look closely at the two crayfish, you’ll notice the green one has the two curved shapes on the carapace, but the red one does not. Was this an oversight, or do the two crustaceans represent different things? Maybe the upper one is a crayfish and the lower one is a lobster and the illustrator wanted to include both fresh- and saltwater species. It’s clear from the plant drawings that someone working on the manuscript had a strong interest in the natural world. But how do you explain the line running between them? Why would a Pisces tradition be applied to the crayfish as well? Is it a way of saying there’s a relationship between fish and crustaceans and between lobsters and crayfish? or is the anomaly somehow related to the text?


The paired crayfish are puzzling indeed, but it was worthwhile surveying zodiacs to discover that about 1/3 of those created between the 11th and 16th centuries specifically use crayfish instead of crabs and that they cluster in certain geographical regions.

Cancer as a crab from British Library Royal 1.D.X psalter (c.1210).

Even if the pairing remains a mystery, it’s useful to know that zodiacs from England, Switzerland, Italy, and Arabic-speaking regions were almost entirely crabs. Manuscripts from France were a mixture of crabs and crayfish (as were Hebrew manuscripts), but the crayfish/lobster was the crustacean of choice in Germany, comprising 75% of the medieval Cancer symbols surveyed so far.

Looking back at the map for zodiacs with a crossbow, we find that Sagittarius symbols created in the early 15th century also cluster around southern Germany, with one earlier example from Prague. Unfortunately, two is not enough to prove a pattern…

So what about lizard-Scorpio, another unconventional animal-symbol in the VMS menagerie? Is it also primarily from southern Germany? Nope. Nothing is ever easy when trying to understand the VMS. In southern Germany, when Scorpio diverged from tradition, it was usually in the form of a turtle. The dragon Scorpios are mainly from England and the lizard Scorpios from northern France.

How does one explain the geographical discrepancy? Was the VMS illustrator someone who traveled and dropped in on libraries along the way?

It was not unusual for scholars to do undergraduate work in Heidelberg or the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire (what is now northern Italy) and then travel to Paris or Naples/Salerno for graduate studies, or the other way around.

The Voynich manuscript is very orderly but would be atypical if it were created by monks. It’s not impossible for it to be the work of monks—merchants and sailors sometimes took up the cloth in later years and brought their secular ways with them—but it feels more like a secular document.

I’ve long suspected that the creator was exposed to a variety of sources and didn’t rely on one exemplar or one kind of exemplar. Whoever masterminded it had the discipline to work out the separate parts and stick with a project that may have taken months or years, skills that could have been learned in a scholastic environment. It seems a bit esoteric for a merchant’s reference. Why would a merchant want wheels full of naked nymphs and pages and pages of naked nymphs bathing? Merchants are practical and time-conscious and even though trade secrets were heavily guarded, a medieval merchant probably wouldn’t have any more patience for an encoded reference than today’s businessmen.

I’m more inclined to think the VMS was for personal use of a college professor, an apothecary, or a physician to a royal court. Whether it was for a patron, or created by whoever intended to use it, I really can’t tell. Either way, a lot of work went into it and the eccentric details probably aren’t accidental.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved





2 thoughts on “Why Clone the Crayfish?

  1. D.N. O'Donovan

    This is just off the top of my head; I just haven’t time to spend at the moment. But I think the Bologna manuscript is derived either from Byzantine and North African sources, or from Sicily.

    Particularly telling is the fact that all the doubled ones, as well as the ‘Leo’ are associated with a tree. This arrangement has a long and well-documented history and passes from Mesopotamia through Egypt to as far as North Africa, influencing Coptic textiles too. Apart from mosaics made in Sicily under the Normans, and the old coins which might well have had some influence too, I can’t think offhand of similar forms likely to have been known in Italy in the fifteenth century. Not that we can be sure. There may have been an entire cycle of this sort in some church’s stained-glass windows or a mosaic since destroyed. One works with what happens to survive. 🙂

  2. R. Sale

    The use of paired crayfish has examples with historical precedence. What does that tell us? Was the VMs illustrator a native of such cultural traditions? Or did the VMs author choose between several known possibilities?

    “So why two crayfish?” Because two make a pair. The same reason as you almost stated regarding Aries and Taurus both being split. They are split to make pairs. The same reason (at least in part) that Pisces was put first in the VMs Zodiac. The purpose is to establish a construction where the first five houses of the VMs Zodiac sequence are all pairs. Pisces and Gemini are natural pairs, Cancer is a cultural variant. Aries and Taurus require more drastic measures. Additionally the pairing in Cancer corresponds with the pairing in Pisces, because both are aquatic animals, making a pair of pairs.

    The purpose of paired medallions is to introduce the idea of pairing as a basic pattern. Most any investigation of the VMs, having arrived at the start of the Zodiac section, is probably quite confused already. And generally, from here, the situation only gets worse. But what could be more clear than a simple, basic pattern where nothing but random confusion exists before? Look for further examples of pairing at this (Zodiac) location.

    And yes, sometimes they are together and sometimes they are split.


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