Monthly Archives: April 2017

Cultural Pollination

In the days before overpopulation and “private property” made it difficult to travel without getting permission or a passport, humans were nomadic. They followed the seasons and, when they had “used up” the resources in a particular spot, they moved to another one, eventually colonizing the whole planet, including places where the snow never melts. As resources dwindled, they changed from colonizers to conquerors, often displacing or assimilating earlier cultures.

From Watering Holes to Warfare

The Mongols have long been known for their great equestrian skills, and for their ability to travel long distances through harsh climates. In the 13th century they were ambitious invaders, making repeated efforts to conquer China, parts of Russia, and even eastern Europe—their campaigns ranged over thousands of miles. In so doing, they came in contact with diverse cultures, sometimes absorbing their ideas, other times influencing or extinguishing them.

Some theorists say the Asian style of dragon that is especially prevalent in China, and to a lesser extent in Persia, was influenced by Mongolian art. I don’t have time to research this, it seems to me that 13th-century Mongolian art has a different look and different themes, and that a phoenix with flowing lines existed in early Japanese art and is found in Uzbekistan mosaic art, so perhaps it was indirect rather than direct influence that brought the extravagant flames and curlicue clouds to Persia in the middle ages. There were surely multiple lines of transmission, Mongol caravans with foreign goods, and new trade routes opened by Mongol incursions, but land-roving nomads were not the only visitors—seafaring traders were constantly moving goods between east and west and ship technology was constantly improving. Whatever the source, the ties with Asia are readily apparent in 13th-century Persian art.

Click to see a larger version.


This fabulous textile art, created around the 11th or 12th century in east-central Asia, is thought to have been crafted by the Turkic Uyghur people, and might represent another route of transmission for east-to-west dragon imagery:

Note: Uyghur dragon textile was added a few hours after the blog was published. Note the tail snaking through the legs, a motif often seen in Mediterranean and western European drawings of lions. [Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

With reference to the Persian Ilkhanid Period (1256–1353):

“In [book] illustration, new ideas and motifs were introduced into the repertoire of the Muslim artist, including an altered and more Chinese depiction of pictorial space, as well as motifs such as lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes.” –Suzan Yalman, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Cockerel images added April 8, 2017] These examples from a group of Arabic manuscripts that were inspired by Al-Qazwini’s 13th-century bestiary, illustrate interesting differences in style:

Al-Qazwini’s bestiary, created around the mid-13th century, was reproduced in different versions. The top example of a cock from Walters MS 659 (1500s) is a traditional depiction, with no exaggeration in the landscape or details, the bottom one, from Bibliotèque Bordeau MS 1130, clearly shows eastern influence in the curlicue clouds, undulating landscape, and extravagant flame-like tail-feathers. The cock has almost been transformed into a phoenix.

Within the next few centuries, the eastern influence becomes even more apparent…

The British Library holds an illustrated Arabic romance of the adventures of the Persian King Darab, originally composed in the 12th century by Muhammad ibn Hasan Abu Tahir Tarsusi. The library’s copy dates to between c. 1580 to c. 1585, so it’s not as old as the phoenix tiles, but it shows a similar adaptation of eastern style in dragon art.

In this dramatic scene, Bahman and his horse are swallowed whole:

The nose looks like a camel, and it’s clearly a malevolent beast, but the tendrils on the lower jaw, the whiskers, eye-stripe, and mane are in the flamelike undulating style that is common to Chinese dragons.

[I had an example of an Asian-style dragon from western Europe that I found about three months ago but, unfortunately, despite a concerted hunt through my files, I can’t find it. If I do, I will upload it here.]


This is, in a sense, a follow-up to the post on the jongleurs, where the French illustrator used a different style to express itinerant performers (who may have been of eastern origin), but I also have a personal interest in Asian art and looked up some more specific examples that relate to cultural transmission to see when these particular styles were introduced to the Arabic world. Persia has had political ties with China at least since the 6th century (royalty intermarried), so there may be other examples, but unfortunately I can’t pursue all of them.

The images are interesting in their own right, so I decided to post them for Voynich researchers who may be curious about cultural influences between east and west.

J.K. Petersen

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

Daisies and Dusters

A quick glance at VMS Plant 10r reminded me of a daisy (family Asteraceae). It has serrated leaves and the characteristic flower whorl that is common for plants in the daisy family. The illustrator has also taken some pains to emphasize the serrated leaves, which gave me some ideas for the identity of the plant… I thought one possibility might be Senecio alpinus (Alpine ragwort) but… many daisies look the same, and the color of flower petals doesn’t help because the VMS is painted with a limited palette and some of the colors might be symbolic.

More importantly, daisies don’t have big red roots that look like yams or water balloons. For a while, I was at a loss to explain the roots.


Prior Plant IDs

I had a suspicion VMS 10r might be Dittrichia viscosa, a plant common to the Mediterranean that has medicinal uses as an astringent, and a strong fragrance (that not everyone finds agreeable). But, I don’t think the red objects are meant to be noses, so what else could they be?

I hadn’t previously looked up other IDs for this plant. I wasn’t even sure what Sherwood had chosen, so I looked around while I was composing this blog and found Sherwood’s ID of Cichorium pumilum. I’m very familiar with chicory, it grows wild in this area, and 10r doesn’t look like chicory, so I searched again…

This time I found Ellie Velinska’s description of the plant as mountain cornflower (Centaurea montana). Except for the discrepancy in the leaves, I like this ID, because it more closely matches the characteristics of the plant and Velinska gives a plausible explanation for the roots as a mnemonic for an ocular medicinal use but, I think there might be another possibility…

Deeply serrated Dittrichia viscosa leaves, courtesy of Wikipedia and Rickjpelleg.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time googling plant IDs, so I stopped looking so I could talk about Dittrichia viscosa, also known as false yellow fleabane. It is also called “aromatic inula” for its strong fragrance and resemblance to Helenium (Inula).

I’ve said many times that I believe the VMS illustrator cared about leaf margins and drew them quite accurately for some of the more naturalistic plants. This is unusual compared to traditional herbals where leaf margins are often sloppy or wildly inaccurate. Dittrichia viscosa has very distinctive leaves that are deeply serrated and the VMS seems to convey this.

D. viscosa flowers are typical for plants in the daisy family, a sunny ray of yellow petals and a rayed whorl after the seed-fluff has blown away. This plant is well-known around the Mediterranean, from Provençe, Spain, and Sicily to the Levant, and has long been the subject of folklore. For example, Wiki notes a Catalan saying, “Els raïms són madurs quan floreixen les olivardes.”, the grapes are ripe when the yellow [false] fleabane blooms. Unfortunately, the roots don’t look like grapes, at least not entirely.

Is there another way to explain the roots? I couldn’t think of a reason why Senecio alpinus would be drawn with red water-balloon roots. And if it’s Dittrichia viscosa and they’re not grapes (or eyeballs as Velinska suggested), what else could they be?

[Addendum: One idea I forgot to include when I posted this blog earlier today is that the big red “balloons” might be breasts—lactating glands. Lactuca plants are widespread Eurasian plants named for the milky white sap that oozes from the stems when you break them and Lactuca is part of the daisy family. However, as tempting as this idea is, I wanted to suggest one further possibility…]

Farther Afield

If the VMS were created after the conquest of the Americas, the roots might represent red potatoes, oca (Oxalis), or prickly pears (Opuntia), those mouse-ear-shaped lumps that form on the top of cactus plants. The Nahuatl called them Nopalli, and while their origin is not completely clear, they are thought to have originated in Mexico. Prickly pears are now grown worldwide, and D. viscosa is used like a duster to clean off the pear-like fruit after it is harvested.

Using false fleabane to clean prickly pears, courtesy of Carmelo Rifici.

But the New World theory is problematic. The VMS probably predates Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. Is it possible that the practice of cleaning prickly-pear fruit with daisy dusters comes from a long-standing Mediterranean tradition of cleaning similar-looking crops native to the Old World?

What about red-skinned shallots, which are smooth and fairly oval and have a little bump on the ends? Or radishes or beets? All of these come from the ground and need the dirt dusted off, and even radishes, which originated in Asia, have been grown in Europe since before Roman times. The toothy leaves of false fleabane are well suited for dusting. If the VMS roots are meant to express a characteristic of the plant, maybe the roots are breasts. On the other hand, if they show the use of the plant, maybe Velinska is right, maybe they are eyeballs, or maybe they are tubers that need a daisy-leaf dust-off before dropping them in the cart for market.

J.K. Petersen

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