Category Archives: The Voynich Zodiac Wheels

The Catch to the Crossbow

I’ve written several posts on the VMS bowman and didn’t think there was more to say about his bow, but after looking at hundreds of crossbows, I feel more strongly than ever that the origin of the Sagittarius bow might remain a mystery until the text is deciphered.

It’s difficult to find crossbows that originated before 1500. They’re made of natural materials that wear out or easily perish in fires. There are a few rare examples that are claimed to be from the late 15th century, but even those dates are speculative—a home-crafted bow from the 16th century can look very much like a typical 14th-century bow.

Crossbow artisans kept their trade secrets close to the vest, so most of what we know about crossbows was passed down by scribes and illustrators. Fortunately, a few descriptions are relatively detailed. Most of them, however, are not, including the drawing of a crossbow in the Voynich Manuscript.

To recap, here is a picture the VMS crossbow that was previously posted to point out its main features. The shape of the stock-end is speculative, since it’s hidden by his hand.

In terms of locating the origin or time-period of the bow, there are four features of particular interest:

  • the rounded stirrup,
  • the long trigger,
  • the extra curve at the tips of the lath (also called a prod), and
  • the position of the nut or tumbler, also known as the catch (in a small, rough drawing it’s impossible to determine the style of catch).

Details of Interest

Lugs and Lath Tips

Most stocks in the Middle Ages were straight or narrowed. After the Renaissance, some evolved into gun-stocks like those on a rifle. Later bows were fitted with lugs for attaching a crank (these are usually positioned a couple of inches behind the nut), a feature that was less common in the 15th century, but quite prevalent by the 17th century.

The VMS drawing is not detailed enough to show the style of cord, whether there were lugs, or how the stirrup was bound to the lath. It is interesting, however, that so much care and attention was given to the graceful curving tips at the end of the lath, a feature that was not common to crossbows (longbows didn’t always have long tips either). Medieval laths were usually wood, or composite materials such as wood and bone, with blunt tips, as in these examples:

Sometimes when the cord is quite thick it gives the appearance of longer tips (as in the center image that follows), but the VMS drawing doesn’t look like an extended cord—it looks like the tips of the lath extend beyond the wound cord.

So what could account for the relatively sharp lath-tips in the VMS crossbow?

Could the illustrator have combined features of the longbow and crossbow? Or might the lath have been made of steel (as in the two images to the right above), a material that was gradually introduced in the 12th century, but did not become widespread until the late 15th or early 16th century? Steel prods were narrower than composite, sometimes with longer tips.

Or maybe the answer is more complicated… the lath in the following picture looks like it could be composite materials (it is moderately thick), but the tips are quite narrow and very hooked, as though they were reinforced and extended by metal caps. I’m not aware of any historic prods with caps, and the glue would have to be very strong to hold against the pull of a loaded cord, so I looked for another explanation. Perhaps the bow in the picture was wrapped in a material like snakeskin, with the tips left unwrapped… but that still doesn’t account for the extra curve in the tips—these kinds of curves are not easily incorporated into wood or composite bows, and the tips become fragile if sharply tapered—a broken tip could lead to death on the battlefield or the loss of a week’s food on a hunting trip.

If the tips were “caps” rather than a protruding unwrapped part, these drawings from 1459 (Thott.290.2º) might illustrate a part of crossbow history that isn’t well documented. Either way, even if the curve is not literal, but simply an artistic embellishment, drawings like the VMS, with an extra curl in the tips, are definitely in the minority. I found very few compared to bows with blunt tips or only a slight curve. Here are some drawn with an extra curve:

Note how the laths in the Thott illustration above have darkened tips.

The following examples are the same crane-hunting scene from the Tacuinum Santitatus tradition, drawn by different illustrators almost a century apart. Except for drawing style, the later version is a fairly faithful reproduction of the storyline, but notice how the illustrator took time to change some of the details, like the sleeves of the tunic, and the color and shape of the crossbow tips:

The earliest example I could find of a relatively clear crossbow with slender long tips was in an ecclesiastical manuscript from the 11th century (BNF Latin 12302), probably from France. It doesn’t have a stirrup, however, and the trigger is almost vertical, in contrast to the mostly horizontal triggers of later crossbows:

I did locate a photo of a long-triggered steel bow from Portugal with slender tips curved a little more than average, from the late 1500s, but the stock extends a couple of inches beyond the lath, and there was no stirrup attached.

Coloration in Drawings of Medieval Crossbows

By the 15th century crossbow laths with dark tips are not uncommon. Here are examples of a battle bow from BNF Français 9342 and a hunting bow from Bodley 264, with darker tips. In these drawings, it looks like the bow might be wrapped (possibly with snakeskin) and the tips left unwrapped, as opposed to the tips being capped:

The VMS drawing doesn’t have dark tips but it does have a rounded stirrup, like the bow on the right.


The rounded stirrup, the style in the VMS drawing, appears to be more common than squared-off stirrups:

When comparing the VMS bow to historic crossbows, keep in mind that they were functional items, subject to wear-and-tear, and the stirrup bindings and cords were replaced as they wore out. Thus, the stirrup itself may also have been replaced, especially if the original was lost due to disintegrated bindings, which were usually leather or cord. The nut would sometimes also break and be replaced with a slightly different style.

By the late 16th and 17th centuries, many crossbows, especially those for the nobility, showed significant artistry, with ivory, bone, laminate, and incised decorations along the full length of the stock. In the 17th century, pompoms (rounded tassels) were added to some of the laths. This remarkable bow from Dresden, Germany, has elaborately carved bear-hunting scenes, a tooled lath tip, and pom-poms. It dates to about the late 17th century or early 18th century (it has similar characteristics to a 1663 bow in The Met collection).

The VMS drawing shows no signs of decoration (possibly because it is so small), but judging by other medieval drawings, embellishments were less common in the 15th century than later.

And now to the important part… a little detail that is scarcely a blot on the drawing of the VMS stock.


The catch to this whole VMS crossbow identification effort, is, well… the catch, the nut, the little protruding knob that secures the power of the spanned cord, like a capacitor, until the bowman releases its energy.

The catch is approximately a third of the way down the stock from the stirrup, depending on the length and style of bow. The trigger “catches” on the underside of the nut so that pulling the trigger moves it just enough for the catch to rotate freely and ZING! the cord is freed and ejects the bolt. Here are some examples of the nut/catch. Notice it is clawlike, to grip the cord securely:

Catches are pretty much alike… or so it seems if you look only at the shape and ignore the mechanics. There’s quite a bit of variation in the distance of the catch from the trigger, and how they connect inside the stock, but there are some things that are necessary for the trigger to work… And this is the important detail that throws all VMS identification efforts out the window… the VMS catch is like the legs on the lobster’s tail in the zodiac roundels, or like the joints in the back legs of the ruminants—it’s in the wrong place.

I looked at the catches of almost 200 historic crossbows, and all of them were located above or slightly ahead of where the trigger attaches to the stock (usually about 1/2″ to 2″, up to a maximum of about 3″). If you look at the VMS drawing again, you’ll see that the catch is about 2″ behind the trigger. This never happens, as far as I can determine. The portion of the trigger inside the stock rotates in a specific way when you squeeze it and the nut has to sit at the right junction to efficiently respond to this movement.


I would love to say I found bows that closely resemble the VMS bow, and I did have some success, but if this important detail of the crossbow-catch is wrong, maybe others are too.

Maybe the tips are artistic, maybe the trigger is lengthened to make it look like it’s touching his hand, not because it’s long, maybe the attachment point of the trigger was moved up to show that it is long… It’s possible the position of the catch is the only thing that’s off, but there’s no way to be sure. We have to look to other factors, like the style of the bowman’s tunic (which is echoed quite well in the hunting scenes of Gaston Phoebus, right) and aspects of the manuscript that seem mostly but not-quite-right.

So, I’ve put crossbow identification on the table for now, but I’ll keep my eyes open for other imagery that might help us understand this roundel, and if I find some, I’ll post it.

J.K. Petersen

© 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Archer in Cod. 1842

Discussions about the Earliest Crossbow Sagittarius

There is currently an interesting (and lively) discussion about Voynich Manuscript history on K. Gheuen’s VoynichTemple site. I tried to post a long comment, but I’m not sure if it got through (maybe it was too long—several error messages popped up), so I’ve decided to expand it and post it with images as a blog instead.

This blog was inspired by the following comment:

“Nick: On Stephen’s site, Marco and Darren discuss a number of examples and the earliest crossbow-sagi-roundel is from Poland…

This is an easy mistake to make, even by good researchers like those mentioned. Political borders are constantly changing and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of where they were at any particular point in history, but Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 1842, the earliest manuscript so far that depicts Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, is not from Poland. It originates in Bohemia, in the Holy Roman Empire.

Some Background

The zodiac-symbol roundels are perhaps the most recognizable series of images in the VMS next to the plants, and I have always been interested in the history of astrology, so in 2014 and 2015, I was independently researching every Sagittarius with legs that I could find because I was used to seeing centaurs with longbows, not people with crossbows (I had also researched the other symbols but have posted them as separate articles).

In 2015, I superimposed my findings on a map of the Holy Roman Empire because that is where the majority of images originated. I searched far outside these borders (including Russia, Persia, India, north Africa, and the far-east because I am interested in zodiac imagery from around the world, but was not able to find anything similar to the VMS zodiacs outside of western Europe and the Levant.

The crossbow-Sagittarius map can be seen here.

The crossbow-Sagittarius mentioned by researchers on Bax’s site is listed by the Österreichichische Akademie der Wissenshaften as Cod. 1842, originating from Prague and Breslau (now known as Wroclaw). From 1335, Breslau was in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Even in 1386, the Kingdom of Bohemia stretched just beyond Olesnica, and Breslau was still well within its borders (the Bohemian Kingdom is sometimes also called Królestwo Czech—the Czech Kingdom).

For the half century that is most relevant to the creation of the Voynich Manuscript, Breslau/Wroclaw (300 km NE of Prague) was within the borders of the Bohemian/Czech Kingdom ruled by a German-born Bohemian King who also served as Holy Roman Emperor. [Underlying map detail courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Bohemia/Czech Kingdom was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 14th and early 15th century, reigned at the time by Wenceslaus IV, who was both King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. Wenceslaus was German, born in Nuremberg. Prague is about midpoint between Nuremberg and Breslau.

During the search for crossbow-Sagittarius, and while gathering several hundred historic zodiac cycles, I found

  • about eight Sagittarius with legs and a longbow (all within the Holy Roman Empire, with the exception of the Beit Alpha mosaic), and
  • a dozen Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, all within the Holy Roman Empire, and all except one (Cod. 1842 from Bohemia) were from Germany or very near the border between what we now call Switzerland and Germany.

Although I tried to locate crossbow-Sagittarius from a wider geographic distribution, I was not able to find any from Scandinavia, the Baltic, the British Isles, Italy, Russia, Georgia, Persia, Greece, Africa, Spain (I did have difficulty accessing some of the Spanish image browsers, so I don’t know whether I missed any Spanish zodiacs due to technical problems), or Asia. This is an ongoing project. If I see additional examples, I will update the map.

Political borders change. Other than the usual local skirmishes, there wasn’t much distinction between Bohemia and Germany during the long reign of Wenceslaus, HRE and King of Bohemia, so it’s difficult to argue that any of the crossbow-Sagittarius images found so far come from outside Germanic culture.

Crossbow-Sagittarius Details

In my opinion, the crossbow itself is not drawn well enough to determine its origin. The only truly distinctive part is the long trigger (and maybe the recurved ends of the lath) and it’s hard to know whether the length of the trigger is literal, or a convenient way to draw it so it connects to the hand. It might be literal (the illustrator took time to draw the laces on the boots, a faint goatee, and the lacy edge on the sleeves of the Gemini female), but it’s a very tiny drawing, and the illustrator has difficulty with detailed structures like hands and rotating connections between body joints, so… even though all the basic parts are there, one has to wonder whether the finer details are accurate.

When I tried to find tunics and hats that matched as closely as possible to the archer’s garb, I also searched worldwide. After almost three years of keeping my eyes open, I had very few examples.

Nothing outside of Europe bore a close resemblance, but I found six manuscripts with similar tunics in the Holy Roman Empire, two in France, and two in England (one of which was a series of tapestries rather than a manuscript). Thus, more than half of this small sample originated within germanic cultures. Most illustrations of medieval tunics differ from the VMS archer. Some are gathered, rather than pleated, many have high or wide collars rather than a simple collar. Many are wide at the wrist, or have split sleeves, whereas the VMS tunic is narrow at the wrist and wider at the elbows. If the VMS tunic is intended to represent a specific garment (which is difficult to determine), it’s not a common style.


I haven’t stopped looking for examples of zodiac symbols (I’ve added about 200 zodiac cycles to my database since the Sagittarius map was posted), but additional crossbow-Sagittarius symbols are exceedingly difficult to find. Maybe some will show up as more manuscripts are digitized. And as I keep repeating in blog after blog, if there is an exemplar for the VMS archer, it’s not necessarily a zodiac, it could be inspired by a hunting scene, a tournament, or a book on archery, or perhaps a zodiac with a longbow that was given a crossbow instead.

What I have observed, so far, is that manuscripts with crossbow-Sagittarius are primarily from the Holy Roman Empire between c. 1395 and c. 1496, and tunics that are similar originate in the HRE, France, and England, and range from c. 1400 to c. 1433.

By the way, I don’t have any germanic or central European theories. I have almost no theories about the VMS—I am still at the information-gathering stage—but I think it’s clear from what has been observed so far, that influences from within the Holy Roman Empire appear in the Voynich Manuscript.


J.K. Petersen

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

Mi Casa No Es Siempre Su Casa

In a previous blog I wrote about the VMS cycles of life, the circles of nymphs that surround the zodiac symbols. This blog discusses why there are two zodiac symbols missing, why some of them are paired, and why some of the nymphs are clothed, something I was trying to work out when I wrote the original blog in April 2016.

Mi Casa

The Spaniards are legendary for their hospitality. Mi Casa Es Su Casa is a common expression and I certainly received cheerful greetings everywhere I traveled in Mexico some years ago, even though I was a foreigner who knew nothing of the language. The locals immediately started teaching me Spanish and never frowned or rolled their eyes if I used the wrong word or pronounced it badly. Instead, they cheered my efforts and clapped me on the back for even the smallest effort.

In astrology, things are a little different. My house isn’t necessarily your house. The stars are in different positions every time a child is born, and their relative positions are said to reflect one’s destiny.

Most people are familiar with the zodiac, the twelve symbols that make up a cycle of constellations, but ask them about astrological houses and the majority have no idea what you are talking about.

In a nutshell, in medieval astrology, the heavens were divided into twelve parts, working from east to west and the houses are organized into groups of three, each group having its own general character (masculine, feminine, choleric, melancholic, etc.).

The Twelve Houses

The twelve houses are not the same as the twelve zodiac symbols—even though they are related. In astrological forecasting (horoscopes), the influence of the constellations and planets on a person’s life is based their positions at a specific time and place and this will depend on where they appear in relation to each other in various houses. In other words, a planet can show up in more than one house or not at all, and each planet, in turn, was said to govern specific zodiac symbols. It’s more about influence and the precise position of a constellation in the sky than sequence. A constellation can cross the boundary from one house to the next and thus be attributed to two houses.

The following simulations show the sky above Rome, Italy, courtesy of I thought this might make it easier to illustrate how the constellations move through successive houses. The red line is the ecliptic, which makes it easier to find the familiar zodiac constellations:

Note how Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer are related to one another in a curve from top right to middle left. In the second illustration, two hours later, Aries has moved outside our viewport, Taurus has moved close to where Aries was before, but Gemini and Cancer are still somewhat in the middle, a little farther apart (you have to remember that the Earth is round and our drawing is flat). Now imagine a grid with the twelve houses superimposed on this view of the sky and you can imagine how some of the constellations may have crossed a house boundary, some might be in the same house, and some might be in transition from one to the next. Thus, the position of the constellations in the houses is not as rigidly geometric as a zodiac wheel might imply.

Medieval Houses in Brief

The houses are somewhat hierarchical and express cycles of human life. Astrologers have given specific significance to each house and those designations have evolved over the centuries, but here is how they were understood in the 11th to 15th centuries:

  • The first house governs one’s life, soul, and general physical form.
  • The second house relates to one’s household, property, business dealings, and relationships.
  • The third house is kinship. It refers to one’s siblings, neighbors, communication, and local travels.
  • The fourth house relates to one ancestors, assets, house and land, and local community.
  • The fifth house is pregnancy and procreation, children and events in which people come together to celebrate and enjoy one another’s company. In modern astrology, it also relates more broadly to enjoyment and recreation.
  • The sixth house refers to illness, calamity, and loss of property in the earlier manuscripts, and to living property, including servants, herd animals, and contractors in later manuscripts. In modern astrology, it relates to nurturance, health and well-being.
  • The seventh house relates to marriage, matters of intimate relationships, partnerships, quarrels, lawsuits, agreements, and disputes.
  • The eighth house relates to death and murder in earlier manuscripts, and to one’s estate, wills, inheritance, dowries, and other aspects of property in later manuscripts.
  • The ninth house relates to journeys and long voyages, and also to philosophy, visions, and matters of religion.
  • The tenth house relates to authority, including sultans, kings, dukes, judges, and generals, as well as one’s image and status in society. In modern astrology, it relates to status, career, and ambition.
  • The eleventh house is friendship, trust, praise, and fidelity.
  • The twelfth house relates to sorrow, enemies, debts, imprisonment, curses, secrets, and mischief. In modern astrology, it relates to clandestine activities, mysteries, privacy, and secrecy.

Medieval Horoscopes

In the middle ages, the twelve houses were typically represented as twelve geometric divisions within a square. This form was still in use in the 17th century but was gradually superseded by the wheel-and-spokes style of chart.  [Cambridge MS Peterhouse 75.I]

When casting a chart, the houses are typically represented as spokes on a wheel or as geometric divisions within a square (right).

The positions of the planets are then added to each segment based on the time and location of the chart (volvelles were used to help calculate the positions), along with any constellations that have influence over that segment at the time. Specific planets and constellations do not always show up in every house or with equal frequency.

Astrology was a lucrative business. Manuscripts were hard to come by and those who owned books on astronomy that included charts for computing star positions could sell their skills to the nobility.

In a natal chart cast for King Henry VI in the 15th century (shown below), the sequence begins with Gemini in the first house, and Cancer in the 2nd and 3rd. Sagittarius is noted in the 7th house and Capricorn in both the 8th and the 9th, followed by Aquarius and Pisces in the 10th and 11th.

In other words, in a medieval chart, the sequence doesn’t necessarily start with Aries, as is typical of zodiac cycles, doesn’t necessarily include all the constellations, and sometimes repeats a constellation if the sign is in transition from one house to the next.

This method of plotting the positions of planets and stars might explain the peculiar arrangement of the VMS zodiac sequence. Imagine if you expanded out the twelve houses into twelve separate drawings rather than trying to fit them all into one grid.

To put it more simply, the VMS zodiac sequence might not represent a zodiac cycle, it might be an illustration of twelve houses and the sign that has the most influence within that house at the time and location for which the chart was cast.

Medieval horoscopes are usually organized into geometric triangles within and surrounding a square. The name, date and time of birth (or of a specific event) are inserted into the central square. The houses usually begin in the triangle on the middle-left and follow twelve divisions counter-clockwise around the central square. This chart was drawn up for the birth of Henry VI (1421) in Cambridge, England. [Image credit: British Library, Eggerton 889]

Assigning Cycles to Houses

If the VMS zodiac folios represent an expanded natal (or other special-event) chart, it should be possible to identify the twelve houses by their subject matter.

The order of the houses doesn’t really matter. In less elaborate charts, they are identified by number, or simply by their position within a square as shown above. In the VMS, if the twelve wheels, taken together, represent a horoscope, it is a clever way to combine the meanings of the houses along with whichever constellation was visible in that house at that particular time—a two-in-one solution to schematic representation that makes it mnemonically easier to understand the houses.

Relating VMS Wheels to Traditional Houses

It’s not difficult to find commonalities between the VMS zodiac wheels and traditional descriptions of the astrological houses, but do they relate well if taken in sequence?

  1. First House—One’s life and physical form. The first VMS wheel appears to be a cycle of life, from birth to death as discussed here, so it matches quite well to the first house.
  2. Second House—Household and property. The second VMS wheel looks like  a cycle of pregnancy to me, from childhood through puberty, to pregnancy and post-partum, which doesn’t seem to fit the second house’s relation to material goods and property.
  3. Third House—Kinship. The third VMS wheel has always looked like a medieval family tree to me, and the traditional third house relates to kinship and relations, so maybe this one matches.
  4. Fourth House—Ancestors and assets. Once again we have something that resembles a family tree and shows fancy clothing (material goods and assets). This relates well to the theme of ancestors and assets.
  5. Fifth House—Pregnancy and Procreation. I would have expected the second VMS wheel to be here, the one that looks like puberty > pregnancy > post-partum. The sixth VMS wheel would also be appropriate in this slot, as it has men and women together with the man’s genitals clearly drawn. Perhaps the fifth VMS fits, as it shows what appears to be a cycle of menstruation followed by a fat stomach (pregnancy?) followed by a more slender waistline, and there are men in this wheel, but I’m not completely sure.
  6. Sixth House—Illness and Calamity. The sixth VMS wheel has a high proportion of men and relates to romance and sex in both the inner circle (with the courting Gemini figures) and the images that surround it, so I can’t see any relationship here between the VMS figures and illness or calamity. The sixth wheel would fit better in the fifth house.
  7. Seventh House—Marriage. It’s difficult to see what is going on in this wheel because many of the figures are male but some of the male-like figures appear to have breasts added in darker ink in a  style that is slightly different from the other female nymphs. It’s also difficult to know if this represents marriage when sex has already been shown in a couple of the previous wheels and there doesn’t appear to be as much sex going on here (some of my friends would probably joke that that is typical of marriage).
  8. Eighth House—Death and Murder. Death and murder is not a topic we frequently see in the VMS. Most of the nymphs are going about their business quite happily and the animals have paws instead of claws and never show any teeth, not even the one that vaguely resembles a lion. So, I’m not sure how to interpret the eighth VMS wheel other than to note that many of the nymphs appear pregnant.
  9. Ninth House—Journeys. What can I say, more nymphs, some of them heavily pregnant. It was mostly the men who went on long journeys… sailors, crusaders, soldiers, explorers, merchants, so it’s hard to know if this wheel relates at all to the ninth house.
  10. Tenth House—Authority. This is another wheel in which many of the figures look like they are male and where some of them look like they’ve had breasts added. A few have fancy head-dresses. It doesn’t overtly seem to represent authority unless it means medieval authority of men over women.
  11. Eleventh House—Friendship. The eleventh VMS wheel is a mixture of male and female nymphs (once again, some seem to have had breasts added) and there are four figures across the top with long hair, two with fancy headdresses. I can’t tell if this represents friendship. There’s nothing overtly indicating friendship other than the nymph top-right and the one middle-left (inner ring) who are touching the the nymphs beside them and this isn’t enough to know for sure.
  12. Twelfth House—Sorrow and enemies. Are these nymphs more sorrowful than others? Look at their mouths. Also, note that there are nymphs across the top of this one in the same manner as the previous wheel. If wheels 11 and 12 represent the yin and yang of friendship/trust and sorrow/enemies, they might conceivably be drawn in similar ways. Note how the nymph directly above the crossbowman has a line of red dots on her cheek, rather than the usual blotch of  blush. One can sometimes find dots on the other nymphs, but not usually in a vertical line. I’m not sure if this is a sneaky way to represent tears or just an anomaly, so I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.


Many of the VMS wheels can be related to medieval astrological houses, and several appear to be in the right sequence, but is the similarity strong enough to support the idea? Let’s go back to the horoscope and see if there’s anything that can help confirm or deny this impression…

Looking at Henry VI’s chart, shown above, we see Gemini listed in the first house, Cancer in the second and third, “Leon9” (Leo), in the fourth, and so on, with Pissz (Pisces) in the 11th, and “Taur9” (Taurus) in the twelfth.

Thus, in King Henry’s chart, Gemini is first, Cancer and Capricorn are each represented twice and Aries and Libra are missing. Why is this? Because a natal chart is drawn up for a specific time and place. It doesn’t have to start with Aries, it starts with the person’s “birth sign” or ascending constellation. At the same time, some of the constellations may be transitioning from one house to the next, and others may not be expressly visible.

This is very similar to the way the VMS zodiac symbols are represented. The cycle begins with Pisces, not with Aries, and Aries and Taurus are shown twice, while Capricorn and Aquarius are not shown at all.

If the VMS zodiac-symbol sequence is a natal horoscope (or one for a specific event, like the investiture of a king), whose is it? Does it relate to the creator of the VMS or perhaps to a patron, or to one of the prominent individuals of the time? Or is it a teaching tool, to give an example of how a prognostication chart might be organized? Is it perhaps an example of “judicial astrology” in which a legal judgment for some infraction is said to be written in the stars?

Here is a simulation of the sky above Rome, Italy, at midnight on January 1st, 1408. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and Virgo are clearly visible and the others are outside our current point of view:

If we want to see how the sky might have appeared after Pisces came into view (for the same location) we have to look later in the year—around the end of November or beginning of December:

This, of course, will change as you go farther north or south (and east or west). For example, if you go south to Cairo, Egypt, and look up at the same time and date as the previous example, Pisces will not yet be visible.


I’ve said this in the past, but wasn’t sure how to explain it in a blog before now, but I think the VMS sequence may be a horoscope, rather than a zodiac cycle or calendar. Many aspects that seem strange in the context of a zodiac cycle are not, if the entire sequence is viewed as the chart for a specific event. It would also be a credit to the VMS creator, if he or she found a unique way to pictorially combine the concepts of astrological houses with an “expanded” prognostication chart.

As a bonus, if the VMS zodiac series is a horoscope for a specific event (rather than a teaching example using arbitrary zodiacs) then, with a bit of computing power, it may be possible to calculate the specific times and places during which Pisces was rising, Aries and Taurus were on the boundary between houses, and Capricorn and Aquarius were not visible enough to be included.


Postscript [3 hours later]: I don’t know if I was clear enough about how I think the VMS wheels might relate to medieval horoscopes, such as the one cast for Henry VI, so I have expanded each of the sections of the Henry VI chart and added the influences of the houses, so they can be compared more easily to the VMS wheels. With the exception of the Gemini nymphs (which seems better matched to House 7 than House 6) and the 8th House (Death, Murder, Estate), the correspondence between the houses and the VMS figures is not too bad. You can click on the images to see them larger:



J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved.      Citations: J.K. Petersen, 12 July 2017,

Nosing Around Again

In March 2016, I posted details of the noses of the green and white rams in the Voynich Manuscript, to point out that they were drawn by different people (I am quite sure of this). The first is a more confident hand with a better sense of anatomy, the second is drawn with less dexterity and the person who drew it was less aware of the structure of the bones underneath the form.


There are other parts of the manuscript with slight differences in drawing styles, and there appear to be at least two painters and at least two scribes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there might be more than one illustrator as well.

Quite unexpectedly, when looking at commonalities between some of the drawings in a Welsh book of law, and the Picatrix, I came across something in one of the illustrated versions of the Sachsenspiegel (The Saxon Mirror, a book of Saxon law) that reminded me of the VMS. It took me by surprise because the two different drawing styles are evident in rams and goats and makes one wonder whether the VMS rams might represent goats (we only assume from their position relative to the other roundels that they are probably rams, the drawings are not expert enough to know for sure).

Two Pairs of Noses

The Sachsenspiegel illustration includes human figures, a building, and various herd animals in pairs. If you look closely at the two goats with their heads raised, you will notice the one in front has a nose and neck that is more deftly and confidently drawn (marked with a red arrow). Note how the upper lip is more clearly modeled with a better sense of line and the underlying anatomy. In contrast, the other animals have rounded indistinct features with a much weaker sense of the structure under the skin. I instantly had the feeling of a teacher/apprentice or parent/child relationship. The teacher (or team leader) draws in some of the key points, to give an idea of what is desired and where things go, and the apprentice fills in the rest.

Could the Sachsenspiegel have been drawn by the same illustrators who created the VMS?

The more accomplished hand in the VMS is similar to the drawing style of the more accomplished hand in the Sachsenspiegel and the less accomplished is quite similar, as well, but it seems unlikely that they had any involvement in the VMS. Both the more and less accomplished hands in the Sachsenspiegel show stylistic differences from the two hands in the VMS. Note especially that the hind legs of the animals in the Sachsenspiegel point in the anatomically correct direction and the hooves look more or less like hooves.

In contrast, in the VMS, the hind legs of most of the animals are anatomically strange, with the middle joint almost nonexistent. The VMS hooves are also unusually round and include prominent dewlaps. These characteristics, especially the missing joint, are very difficult to find in other medieval drawings and are not characteristic of either hand in the Sachsenspiegel.

So, the drawing styles in the Sachsenspiegel and the VMS do not match, but perhaps they are similar in the sense of a mentor-student relationship.

If I had to guess, I would say that the more skilled illustrator drew many of the human figures and perhaps some of the buildings in the Sachsenspiegel—in other words, a substantial portion of the drawings. In the VMS, I get the opposite feeling… that most of it was drawn by the less expert illustrator, with only a few possible additions by someone with more skill (and perhaps some later additions by a third person with even less skill).


I keep hoping I’ll find other drawings by whoever drew the VMS, but haven’t been lucky so far, but maybe the Sachsenspiegel goats can explain the dots on the horns of the VMS animals.

In the Sachsenspiegel, the goats have bumps on the horns like the Ibex, a form of mountain goat. On the VMS, there is a series of dots that might indicate the more shallow ridges on the horns of most other species of goats and rams.

I’m not 100% certain the VMS white and green rams are actually sheep/rams, I never have been. I’ve always wondered why there are two, which is not typical of a zodiac sequence. It occurred to me that the white one might be Capricorn and the green one Aries, for example, but their position in sequence with the others seems to argue against this. I do have one idea as to why they might be out of sequence, however, which I’ll blog about as soon as I have time.

J.K. Petersen

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

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, 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





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



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


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

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