Category Archives: Voynich Animals & Mythical Creatures

Kantha – 4600 miles and 450 Years Later?

Is the spirit of the VMS illustrations embodied in crafts from the 1860s? I wanted to include these images in previous blogs about rayed designs here and here, but a disparity of 450 years is significant. If you believe in the VMS-as-a-modern-forgery theory maybe you don’t find it strange that a medieval manuscript resembles 19th-century textiles, but if you’re confident it’s from c. 1420, it may leave you peering at details for hours.

Medieval cultural exchange between east and west typically occurred through men. Women stayed home to feed and raise the children while men took perilous journeys by land and sea that often lasted three to six years. For those less inclined to brave searing deserts or savage seas, Arabic-speaking traders in north Africa and the Middle East served as intermediaries. Thus, Europe acquired astrology from Egypt and the Levant, numerals and exotic spices from India, ivory and ceramics from north and west Africa, and many illustrative and medical traditions from the Greeks.

In contrast, textile embroidery was practiced mainly by women in rural communities who had less access to ready-made city wares (note, it was not uncommon for men to weave, but embroidery was usually left to the women). Living in isolation from men and often being barred from education, women developed distinctive vocabularies, and sometimes their own writing systems (e.g., the Nüshu phonetic script from China).

They also developed their own illustrative traditions, passing down skills and ideas from mother to daughter. Unfortunately, textiles embellished by women were of a practical nature, they were used for clothing, food covers, and bed linens, and would wear out in a generation or two, leaving few records, and the ideas behind them were orally transmitted, making it difficult to study their origins and evolution.

The Quilts of East India

Kantha is an ancient Indic embroidery tradition, but it is difficult to find examples more than 200 years old. Most of those in museums are from the latter half of the 19th century, but the way the decorative, repetitive elements are combined is not dissimilar to the VMS.

Common themes in kantha textiles include rayed designs, flowers, starbursts, family, flora, and fauna. You can even find cloudband shapes, circular diagrams similar to western depictions of the earth and stars, and circular rows of scales and points like those on the VMS “map” folio. Remember, these are 19th-century creations, so there was more exposure to outside influences, but they nevertheless retained many historic patterns.

These are some typical rayed designs:

And some stylized plants similar to menorah-tree-of-life images, from two different quilts:

In the fauna category, elephants, snakes, birds, monkeys, and hoofed animals were popular and there are occasionally boars, sheep, and smaller cats. Being so close to China, one might expect dragons, but mythical animals were rare compared to those based on life:

In the following detail, note how the peacock feathers were drawn, almost like tubes or spikes. Even though the subject matter is different, the way it was expressed reminded me of the VMS plant that has roots with “bolts” and the rayed design on folio 69v:

Here’s a shape (left) that might be hard to recognize, until you turn it in the other direction, and add the rest of the picture and then it is less similar to the odd shape in the top-left corner of f116v as it seems at first glance. Even so, it’s an unusual way to draw a tail:

One critter that might be of interest to Voynich researchers is the long-necked maneless cat (possibly a tiger or leopard, although the tail is like that of a lion). Like many western medieval images of lions, it has a human-like face. Note that the rider is sexually ambiguous, dressed like a man but possibly having breasts.

Horses with riders are fairly common on kantha quilts, but a person riding a cat is infrequent, and similar to the astrological symbol for Leo in middle-eastern manuscripts. There is even a reference to God in Arabic on one of the quilts. In general, however, references to astrology (other than suns, moons, and stars) are not common in the kantha textiles of this era, so the image may only coincidentally resemble the middle-eastern Leo:

Storytelling in Kantha Textiles

Some designs are narrative, commemorating special occasions, journeys, Hindu legends, and daily activities:

Imagine if these ladies were nude. It’s not exactly the Baths of Pozzuoli but it is an example of repetitive use of female figures:

In fact, some of them are nude from the waist up in a quilt of a similar style:

Could these ideas have reached the west in earlier times?

This kantha quilt (below) caught my eye because there was a certain aesthetic that emerged in southern France in the early medieval period that included “spinner” flowers (similar to those below right) and a stronger emphasis on deeper, brighter, warmer shades. I mentioned this in a previous blog about troubadors (some of which may have been Roma). There is a hint of this style in a few of the VMS flowers, as well:

More About the Circular Motifs

The following image, on the same kantha quilt as the long-necked cat, includes an infurled scalloped shape similar to a cloudband. Note also the dots inside the “scales” and the row of pickets around the outer edge, each with a spot attached to a string. The VMS “map” page has a number of similar patterns:

There are many instances of overlapping scale textures in the VMS. Scale patterns were common to many cultures, including Persian, Chinese, and many others, but it was interesting to see that scale and flame patterns are also found in the Bengali kantha:

It’s not surprising that kantha from southern Asia have a mandala-like quality, but there are also distinctive differences between the mandalas associated with monasteries and those created by Bengali quilters. Many of the monasteries are Buddhist. Today, the religions in Bengal are split east-west between Islam and Hinduism (with only about 8 to 27% overlap). Not long after these quilts were made, a sizable portion of the east Bengalis moved farther east to Assam.



It was not my intention to draw direct parallels between 19th-century Bengali textiles and 15th-century manuscript drawings, but I was struck by the similarities when you look at some of the repetitive decorative elements.

For years, I’ve searched the world for strong overlap, without much success. It’s easy to find a few examples here and there, but not all in the same place, and yet these interesting images occur within a dozen textiles.

Even when I scoured the cultural traditions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, and western India (many times since 2007), I didn’t locate as many similarities as I did in the Bengal/Bangladesh region, which surprised me because Bengal is near Nepal and SW China, and eastern India was never ruled by the Greeks and Romans in the same way as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trade with this specific area was almost nonexistent in 15th-century Europe.

The odds of mostly rural Bengali textiles reaching the west are quite small (the Roma are said to be from the Sindhi area near the Pakistani border, not from eastern India, so it doesn’t seem likely they brought these). The designs are specific to the Bengal region (Pakistani, Afghani, and Persian textile designs have more in common with each other than with Bengal quilts), and whether it’s coincidence or not, they share  a certain design aesthetic with the VMS in the way that repetitive textures are drawn.

Even if there’s no connection to the VMS, I thought you might enjoy them… you almost expect a string to connect the hands of these figures to the star-like medallions nearby:

J.K. Petersen

Copyright  (c) 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Ther i c Galen

Have you ever come across a single piece of information that gives everything a different perspective?

In 2008 and 2009, I obsessively perused every herbal manuscript I could find, going back to them again and again (you know you’ve been looking at too many herbals when you recognize crudely drawn plants without looking at the labels).

But I didn’t know this… I didn’t understand why some odd ingredients like storax (styrax), turpentine, and castoreum showed up together with leaves and roots, sometimes even interposed between plants that were not in alphabetical order. Not that it’s unusual to find these items in medicinal concoctions, but why these particular ingredients, and not the dozens of other commonly used non-leaf-or-root ingredients?


First let’s summarize castoreum, sometimes written as “castor”. Castoreum/Castore is not the same as the Ricinus (castor oil) plant. Ricinus is included in many herbal manuscripts—it’s an ancient medicinal plant—but castoreum or castore (castor) is an animal product that seems oddly out of place with sage, rosemary, and thyme. In fact, references to castoreum can be startling when you first see them as images of animals castrating themselves by biting off their testicles:

StagCastore CastoreHarley3244

These animals can be stags or mythical animals, but a favorite is the poor beaver, which can look like anything, including a deer, fox, boar-with-webbed-feet, or dog-with-fat-tail to an anatomically correct (or sometimes anatomically bereaved) beaver:

CastorBeaver1CastorBeaver5CastorBeaver4 CastorBeaver3


As can be seen from these examples, the animal is recognized more by context (and labels) than the accuracy of the drawings. And their bizarre actions are not as masochistic as they seem. The beaver (shown here as a boar with webbed feet and scaly fat tail) knows the hunters are after his jewels and discards them in their path so he can escape with his life.


Theriac apothecary jar courtesy of Wellcome Library.

Testicles as ingredients are popular worldwide for a variety of medicinal concoctions and were featured in Galen’s famous Theriac recipe, originally developed as a cure for snake bites, but which was gradually marketed as a tonic and general panacea, one that remained popular for almost 2,000 years. Galen was a highly revered physician and scholar, and theriac became a staple in apothecary houses that catered to wealthy patrons.

I must have compartmentalized my familiarity with Galen and my reading of the contents of medieval herbals, because I never directly connected the herbals with theriac. I assumed castor and storax and a few other oddballs were in herbal manuscripts due to their general use in remedies but now I realize due to the express absence of other similar ingredients, they may have been there specifically because they were part of Galen’s famous remedy.

ViperBirthSnakes have long been used in medicinal concoctions and continued to be popular in the middle ages. There was a widely perpetuated myth that male vipers inseminated the females through their mouths and their young would later gnaw their way out of their mother’s body (right). This magical property probably elevated the status of viper as an ingredient in herbal remedies.

Snakes have many meanings in herbal manuscripts.

VMSSnakeRootOften, they indicate a plant that is suitable for curing snake bites. Sometimes they refer to the name of a plant (like snake-weed) or the shape of a plant (e.g., one with a snake-like root). Snakes and dragons can mean a plant is toxic, the way we use a skull-and-crossbones symbol.

But… there are times when a snake appears on its own, and I now realize it might be because viper was an essential ingredient in Galen’s formula, along with castoreum.

Relevance to the VMS


Mining sulphur, Egerton 747, c. 1280–c.1310.

In the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a distinct lack of non-root/leaf ingredients. There are no pictures of bitumen or chalciditis, nothing that looks like styrax or gum arabic in its chunky resinous form, and no gated balsam orchards, as there are in many other herbals. There are a few drawings that resemble snakes or worms, but they appear to be associated with the roots of plants, not with snake as an ingredient on its own. In other words, if there’s a strong Theriac influence in some of the other herbals, there’s no obvious corollary in the VMS.

But… is there a reference to castoreum?

PongolinEngravingIs it possible the strange unidentifiable critter that looks like pangolin, sheep, and anteater all rolled into one could possibly be a beaver? Could the scales be like the scales sometimes depicted on medieval beaver’s tails but applied to the whole body in the VMS?

I honestly don’t think the VMS “pangolin” looks anything like a beaver, but neither do many of the other medieval depictions of beavers.

Maybe it’s a pangolin, an animal that curls up like an aardvark to protect itself, as has been put forth by quite a few Voynicheros (I like the idea of a pangolin), or a rain dragon, as been suggested on the Voynich forum, or if we glance back at a similar curled-animal drawing on another page…

VMSCurledCritterResearchers have suggested the dead-looking creature on folio 79v might be a fleece (see earlier post). Could the pangolin-like creature also be a fleece? Could the curled-up creature be a pointy nosed lamb? Maybe those lines are nebuly lines after all and they indicate a dearly departed creature rather than a live one. The problem is it doesn’t look like the other sheep-like creatures in the VMS, it has a very sharp snout and the others are blunt, and the illustrator has made the back very scale-like—quite different from most sheeply creatures.

Could it be a beaver about to become a beaveress or some other animal making a lifestyle change? Looking at the drawing by itself, it seems possible that it is eyeballing its undersides but… context should never be overlooked, and beneath the critter is a woman with a ring, and the animal seems to be suspended above her as though on a cloud or canopy. That seems an odd place for him to aim his teeth at his chestnuts.

Well what about the fleece idea? Golden fleece pendants were worn by members of the order of the Golden Fleece in the 15th century, but could a door above a meeting place have a suspended fleece as a sign? They have them now, but that doesn’t mean such a thing existed in the early 1400s. As usual, the way it’s presented in the VMS makes it hard to pin down.

J.K. Petersen

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


What is a sheep doing in a pond?

Voynich researcher René Zandbergen posted a picture of the emblem for the Knights of the Golden Fleece, an organization that was apparently founded in 1430 and, in the same thread, Koen Gheuens pointed out the similarity between the pangolin-like critter and the critter in the upper right corner of the pond that I mentioned in a previous blog.

HangingSheepEmblemI had never seen the dead-looking sheep emblem before today (it’s apparently a fleece, not a dead sheep), but I have heard of the knights of the Golden Fleece and I am familiar with the mythical story of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

The reference on the forum to the golden fleece immediately brought to mind this famous depiction of Jason on a piece of beautifully crafted ancient pottery (Vatican Museum, ca. 5th century BCE):

JasonRegurgitatedThe serpent or dragon is guarding the Golden Fleece which is hung in the sacred tree, and Jason is emerging from its mouth with some help from Medea who worked a spell on the dragon.

GoldenFleecePendantIn later depictions in the middle ages, a pendant with the hanging fleece can be seen around the necks of some of the early members to the order. The painting on the right, which I discovered after learning about the founding of the Order, includes the pendant worn by Baudouin de Lannoy, who was inducted in 1430.

But getting back to the more ancient depictions… does that image of Jason half-swallowed seem familiar to those of you who have looked at the pond images in the VMS?

I’ll post the picture of the pond again, which I’ve mentioned both in the post about melusines and with reference to the images in the left margin of folio 79v. Below left, a figure is standing in a fish (or perhaps a serpent?) and, on the far right, a somewhat sheep-like critter (it has always looked somewhat sheeply to me) lies in a strange posture reminiscent of the symbol of the golden fleece:

VMSPondFleecePaintingA coincidence? Probably, especially considering it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about the meaning of the pond images without assessing the drawings along the left side (described in a previous blog). Plus, there’s no sign of the other personalities in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, or of a sacred tree… or  is there?

I recently digitally removed some of the paint from the pond and found a strange branch-like appendage apparently coming out of the sheepy creature’s behind. It’s positioned like a tail, but is it a tail? Is it actually attached to the critter or coming from behind it?

VMSSheepCould it represent part of a tree? It looks more like roots than branches, but I suppose it might be branches. As mentioned previously, flower- and tree-like tails were popular embellishments in medieval manuscripts so it may be an idea for a tail that was abandoned or painted over by someone else. And what is that faded line that stretches up from the critter’s back? A smudge? a mistake? an idea that was shelved and partly erased?

I don’t know if the sheep-like image is in fact a sheep, maybe the red color indicates a fox… and I’m not sure it’s related to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece but, from a purely visual point of view, it’s an interesting parallel that might be worth keeping in mind.

J.K. Petersen

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



Aries by a Nose

The Greener Pasture

There are two zodiac “rings” or “wheels” devoted to Aries in the Voynich Manuscript. One has the ram painted a mossy green next to a very dark green bush, with the surrounding human characters mostly unpainted, the other has an unpainted ram by a roughly painted bush, surrounded by mostly painted figures.

There is much that can be said about both these folios, but I want to zero in on one small but potentially important detail.

Overall Style

First let’s look at the two rams. They may seem superficially different because of the paint and the extra hairs on the green Aries, but they are essentially the same—both of them with their noses in or in front of a bush, both standing on bumpy ground, both walking with the right leg forward and the right leg behind, both with relatively short tails, and both with curved horns with dots that may indicate texture.

We don’t know whether the original illustrator added the paint or if painting was done by someone else (or by more than one someone else), so let’s ignore the paint for now and look closely at the way the images are sketched. Notice anything unusual?

GreenWhiteAriesIt’s hard to tell from such a small image, so I’ve zoomed in on the heads below so you can see them more clearly. Don’t worry about the fact that the ears are missing on the ram on the left, look at the other features:

GreenWhiteAries2Can you see it?

The nose was drawn by someone else—someone more deft and skilled at drawing. It’s not only stylistically different, it’s anatomically different. Whoever drew the nose on the green Aries had a better sense of structure. Note how ill-defined the lines are in the Aries on the right in comparison.

Notice also the difference in the eye, but it’s the nose that’s really important. It’s also possible that the forehead and the outline of the bush were drawn by someone else but it’s harder to tell. The nose of the ram is not ambiguous, however. That’s a different hand and eye—a different artist. I’ve emphasized the strokes to make them easier to see in the following picture.

GreenAriesNoseNote that quick-and-dirty colorizing of the above image to emphasize the nose has distorted the lines, they’re not as smooth as the original. The confidence and smoothness of the lines is one of the things that distinguishes the green Aries from the unpainted Aries, but you can look back at the previous picture above after looking at this one to see the parts that are distinctly different.

So what does this mean?

Was the green Aries left unfinished and someone added the nose? That seems unlikely since the other body parts are there but… the text around the inner circle is missing, as well (assuming it was intended to include text as in the other zodiacs), so perhaps it’s possible that the nose was left undrawn. Was the nose drawn first and the rest added later? That also seems unlikely although I suppose it’s not impossible, either

Were two people working on this project, one more skilled at drawing and visualizing structure than the other? Were the fuzzy hairs on the green Aries added by the person who drew the nose? They seem a bit more natural than the scalloped hairs on the Aries on the right.

Assuming the text on these illustrations was added after the drawings, did the person who added the nose know what kind of text would be added?

So many questions, but this folio does add weight to the argument that more than one person was involved in creating the VMS, and it makes you wonder if the illustrator had a mentor or elder who gave occasional assistance or advice.

J.K. Petersen

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

A Tail in Several Cities

The Roots of the Tail

In a previous blog, I did some image processing on VMS folio 79v and discovered some odd-looking tails under the green paint.

VMSPond2It’s not unusual to find a feathered tail on images of animals that look like lions, but the critter top-right has a very strange branch-like (or root-like) appendage where one would expect a tail and the lower-left one is unusual too.

RomanDolphinTail2So I looked around and discovered that the Imperial Roman era had quite a tradition of embellishing tails—especially those of sea critters (including fish-legged gods). Even dolphins, which are not fish and do not have fish tails, were created with flower-like tails.

Here are some examples from Greek and Roman mosaics and frescoes. I have intensified the colors on some of the monocromatic mosaics so you can see the imagery more easily.


Dragon with frilled or firey tail in a 3rd century BCE mosaic from Kaulon (Magna Graecia, s. Italy ) courtesy of Wikipedia. Below are Roman mosaics with dolphins or porpoises.

TurkeyDolphinTailTunisDolphinTailRomanDolphinsRomanDolphin3Dolphins or porpoises were a common theme in Roman art, but sea-goats and gods were also drawn with embellished tails.


Sea-goat tails were frequently embellished, as in this Roman floor mosaic from Housestead, England, but lions and horses were sometimes drawn with flowery tails, as well (Housestead mosaic photos courtesy of Mary Ann Sullivan).

RomanGodTailThe natural question to ask is whether Roman imagery (or its later copyists) could have influenced the VMS illustrator and, if so, where was this tradition prevalent? The answer isn’t helpful—the fancy tails are everywhere. Roman flower-tails have been found in every corner of the realm from Rome to Turkey and Tunis to England.

The tradition appears to have inspired manuscript artists in later years, as parchment became more widely available. Embellished tails can be found in marginalia in many manuscripts and not just on sea-critters, the idea expanded to include many forms of mythical beasts, gods, and hybrids. These are just two examples from Ms Trinity B-11-22:

TrinB11-22SplitTail2 TrinB11-22SplitTail


Flowery tails adorn marginalia dragons in many of the English manuscripts, perhaps inspired by the Roman mosaics at Housestead and Bath (Ms. Add. 62925 c. 1290).


A manticore was a creature with a lion’s body, a man’s face, and the tale of a scorpion. As can be seen from this example in Ashmole 1511 from early 13th century England, the interpretation could be quite imaginative and unlike a scorpion’s tail.


This lavishly embellished tail is in a late 14th c Hebrew manuscript in the British Library (Add Ms 26878).

Are There More Telling Tails?

Given the popularity of fancy tails in medieval manuscripts, it’s possible those strange painted-over tails in the VMS were intended as traditional embellishments that didn’t quite work and were covered up by the original illustrator, or maybe they were painted over by someone else. It’s hard to tell, but at least it appears they may not be as unusual as I originally thought.

DragonThumbThe flower-tail critters may also give us additional insight into the strange animal nibbling on a leaf in folio 25v, the one that several have claimed is a mandrake plant with a dog pulling on it.

If the critter by the plant is a dragon, rather than a sheep or a dog (note that the ears are similar to the upper-right pond critter), maybe that curious appendage on its butt isn’t a badly drawn foot—maybe it’s a mini flower tail.

J.K. Petersen

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


In Greener Ponds

A Closer Look at the Pond Critters

Have you ever wondered what is going on underneath the green paint in the VMS “mermaid” pond? I was curious too, as a result of a post by Koen Gheuens, one of the other researchers.

The green paint on folio 79v is laid on fairly thick, so it’s hard to tell, but I took some time to digitally remove as much as I could without destroying the outlines of the animals and discovered more than I expected.

Here is the original picture of the bottom right side of the folio, with three of the pond critters that are hard to identify. The upper right one looks a bit like a dead lamb except that it is painted a brick-red color. The lower left looks a bit like a reptile or a badly drawn weasel-like mammal. Oddly the tail has been painted over (I’ve mentioned this on a previous blog). The bottom right resembles a lion rampant with the head of another animal:

VMSPond1When I digitally removed some of the green paint and lightened some of the parts that were outlined and filled in, it ended up like this:


Something I noticed when I removed the green is that the back and stomach of the lower-left critter have been overdrawn with a darker ink and the bumps on the back of the reddish creature look like they may have been added or emphasized later.

The biggest surprise was that tree-branch like shape coming out from or behind the reddish animal. It appears to be the animal’s tail but I’m not completely sure. The same thing happens lower left—there’s possibly and extra “branch” to the tail but it doesn’t appear as strongly connected as the tail-shape on the upper right.

SpotLizardAt first I thought the extra tail lines in the lizard-like creature to the left were a mistake, a slip of the pen, but after seeing the branched tails under the green paint on the right, I realize it was probably deliberate. The creature on the left may look like a lizard but it has a very unlizard-like fuzzy tail.

The dog-lion looks essentially the same, after removing the paint, except that you can see the ears better. I’m not sure if this reveals anything more about the identities of the pond creatures, but whoever covered over the “tails” with green may have done so intentionally as it alters their appearance quite a bit.

While adjusting the scans, I noticed something on the left-hand side of the pond that is hard to discern. Some of it is green, which makes it difficult to separate out from the pond-paint and some is brown (near the bottom) but it’s such a light brown, it’s difficult to make it show up better. The only part that seems somewhat clear is the shape at the bottom that looks like a bowl. The rest is subject to interpretation but could be a flower with an onion-like bulb and spidery roots. You’ll have to look closely at the high-res scans to see it.


The two rows of dots at the bottom, by the bowl-shape seem very ordered but they might be pores in the parchment and not part of a drawing. This reminds me a bit of the flower-like shapes in the yellowish-leaf on folio 1v, but they aren’t terribly clear either.

I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decide if there’s an overpainted image on the left side of the pond and whether it bears any relationship to the underlying penstrokes on other folios.

J.K. Petersen

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




Sirens, Sailors and the Lovely Melusina         25 Jan 2016

The Lure of Mythical Creatures

We are fascinated by mysteries—the glimpse through a keyhole, a whisper behind the door, a rabbit pulled out of a hat, the Loch Ness monster, unicorns, fairies and the Voynich Manuscript.


Lady and the Unicorn tapestry. Courtesy of the Cluny Museum.

We also have a propensity for mutating our favorite myths into something more glamorous than their original models. Hence the cloven-hooved goat—the original unicorn—becomes a silvery horned horse and the horse, already a fleet animal, becomes even fleeter when it takes to the skies on Pegasus wings.

The Water Sprite Who Desired a Mortal Existence

The legend of the melusine, a fairy with scaly legs, was passed down through oral history with certain monstrous characteristics not unlike those of the serpent in the Garden of Eden or the sirens of the seas, but also with qualities of beauty and sincerity and, in later retellings, of maternal devotion. Her union with a mortal resulted in children with defects, yet she and her husband loved them all.

MelusinaInitialThe legendary half water-sprite, half mortal, was sometimes shown as serpent, sometimes as fish, but was usually distinguished from mermaids and sirens by being a fresh-water fairy or sprite, rather than a temptress of salt waters. Not always, however. It depends who is telling the story. In coastal locations, the melusine sometimes comes from the sea or, in others, Mélusina is a fresh-water sprite but her mother was a salt-water siren.

In the story, Raymond is wandering disconsolate through the forest because he accidentally shot an arrow through his host while aiming at a boar and can’t go back because he will be charged with murder. Unexpectedly he hears a sweet singing voice and is enticed by a lovely sprite by a fountain and she, in turn, falls for Raymond, a mortal of noble blood. Unfortunately, his fate is insecure and his material prospects not too bright, so Mélusina helps him avoid the gallows and attain his desires, and gives herself to him on the stern promise that he never watch her on Saturdays, the day that she bathes. Raymond readily agrees.

Mélusine and Raymondin in Marital Bliss


Bibliothèque Nationale de Luxembourg

At first, Mélusine’s husband honored his promise and they had a happy union. She furthered their fortunes by clearing land and building castles. But first Raymondin needed to acquire the land, so he asked for as much land as would fit on a hide. Laughing, a nobleman granted his wish—how much land can fit on a hide? But the clever Mélusine instructed Raymond to cut the hide into long fine traces that would stretch for miles and surround a good bit of property. Then she blessed him with numerous children.

Being a mixture of mortal and fairy blood, the children were robust but born with unsightly disfigurements. Nevertheless, their parents loved them dearly and the family grew large.


Mélusine in her bath. Book of Hours of Duc de Berry, 1392/1393.

Then a zealous (or perhaps jealous) brother put a bug in Raymond’s ear to erode his faith in his wife and convinced him to find out what she was doing behind his back. So Raymond spied on her during her bath and discovered she had the legs of a serpent.

Mélusina cried out in anguish at his betrayal and he swooned when he realized she had done no wrong and that his actions had doomed her to spend eternity in an uneasy spirit world.

In some versions, she disappears into netherlife with the children, in others, she stays but the children spiral downward into unspeakable acts and Raymond blames her because she is an unnatural creature. Either way, the trust is broken and the relationship irrevocably destroyed.

1401, ilustración tomada de la Historia de Melusina, del trovador Codrette, París, Biblioteca Nacional de Francia

Mélusina with her numerous children from Historia de Melusina, by Couldrette, París, 1401, Courtesy of Biblioteca Nationale de Francaise..

Written Versions. The legend of the melusine, passed down through oral history, was popularized in Roman de Mélusina, written for Jean, duc de Berry and Guillaume l’Archèvesque by Jean d’Arras in 1392/93. In 1401, it was retold in verse by Couldrette, with Mélusine depicted not only with a serpentine lower body, but also bird legs and wings.

The story spread through textual and illustrated manuscripts across Lombardy through the 14th and 15th centuries. A “mermaid” illustrated on land, keeping company with her children or being spied upon in a bath isn’t a mermaid at all, it’s a melusine, a water sprite. Mélusine is sometimes shown combing her hair in the bath when she is discovered by her husband, but she is not typically shown with a mirror.

Mermaid, Melusine or other Mythical Creature?

HuntPsalterMelucineIn the Hunterian Psalter, an ecclesiastical manuscript of the early 12th century, “Psalm 89” has been illuminated with an initial of a long-haired man or woman with a comb, climbing out from a scaly tail. There’s not enough context to know if it’s a reference to the legend of Mélusine—a story of faith, trust, and betrayal—or to something else. There are a couple of mentions of the sea and other water in the verse, but they are not central to the words of Ethan, the Ezrahite, who rebukes God for making and breaking a promise and cries out, “Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

Voy79vMelusineThere is also a mermaid-like creature in the Voynich Manuscript, at the bottom of Folio 79v—half-woman, half-fish, immersed in a pool of green water. Except, like the embellished initial, it’s not one creature but two—a woman with regular legs and what looks like a spotted fish with two eyes and an unusual mouth. You almost expect to see a zipper. The mouth looks more like a costume than a natural fish, especially if you consider the rest of the fish looks more natural than many drawings of mermaid tails. I wondered sometimes if this were a variation of the Noah’s arc tale, but somehow it doesn’t feel that way to me.

Without the text, it’s difficult to explain this creature or the tube-like drawings up along the left side, or the other critters on the right side of the pool but I believe there are some important clues on this page and that the fish-woman may relate to the tale of the melusine, either directly or indirectly.

Similar Story and Illustrative Traditions


Das Buch der Natur, Lauber Workshop, Hagenau, Alsace, c.1440s

A few years ago, I began tracing the script styles on the last page of the VMS and discovered some illustrations, accompanied by Gothic Cursive text, that were hauntingly similar to the “mermaid” page in the VMS.

Even though the mer-creatures aren’t the same as the VMS woman-in-fish creature, the way the animals were drawn and the pigments used, have many commonalities. I’m fairly certain it’s not the same artist—the water is always drawn differently, as is the fish-like creature in the VMS version, and the parchment of the commercial document appears smoother than the VMS—but otherwise, except for the obvious difference in drawing skills, they are so similar, it’s tempting to wonder if the two illustrators might be related in some way or if the VMS illustrator were somehow connected to the workshop by friendship or by blood.

VoyFoxLionFirst notice the pigments—simple greens, blues, bluffs, and browns, quite subdued compared to Spanish and French illuminations of the time that included vibrant blues, greens, and golds.

In addition to the limited palette, note the indistinct way the animals are drawn—you can’t quite tell what they are. This is also true of the critters on Folio 79v. They are not quite a dog, a lion, or a fox and the creature below the fish tail doesn’t quite resemble a lizard or salamander, either, not with that kinky tail.

NaturMelucineNow, if you inspect the illustration of the “melusine” from Das Buch der Natur (note the serpent’s tail rather than a fish tail) and look closely at that little creature caught up in the tail on the top right you might note its resemblance to one of the VMS critters. Also note these details:

  • the little animal has a happy face,
  • the tail belongs to the melusine, not the little animal, and
  • the VMS critter (which I have rotated to make it easier to see the similarities), has the tail originally drawn, but then painted over.

This painted-over tail is likely a coincidence (rather than a sign that the VMS illustrator may have copied and corrected the little critter) as Das Buch der Natur probably post-dates the VMS by as much as 20 or 30 years, but is it possible that both the VMS and Das Buch der Natur were taken from a common source? The workshop that created Buch der Natur is thought to descend from a similar workshop that operated in the early 15th century (one with a more formal and traditional illumination and script style but in the same region).

SmilingCritterAlso, note an even more important detail that I mentioned in my 2013 post on the zodiac symbols—the VMS illustrator had difficulty drawing hind legs.

Look again at Taurus and Aries. The illustrator doesn’t quite get that the “elbows” of the hind joints point backward rather than straight down or forward, an anatomical detail that is usually drawn correctly in medieval manuscripts and which is semi-flubbed in the VMS.

In Das Buch der Natur, we find this same quirk! In both drawings, the hind quarters are indistinct and ambiguously drawn—the illustrators apparently can’t envision the inner structure of the bones and joints even though the other parts aren’t drawn too badly. In fact the illustrator on the right drew a pretty good face.

Summing Up

So what does all this mean?

Pigment and writing traditions can sometimes help identify a place of origin as can the way parchment is obtained and prepared. The palette and writing style on the last page closely match those of Das Buch der Natur. The VMS main text doesn’t match anything that can be specifically identified and we don’t know if the person who did the drawings and the person who added the text are the same.

MermaidMirrorIt’s not certain whether the woman in the fish (if it is a fish) is separate from the fish or allegorically related to the fish, but the drawing could be derived from one of the popular legends at the time, especially considering there are other critters on the same page that evoke the same “feel” as the critters in Das Buch der Natur.

Maybe the woman on Folio 79v is a melusine donning her fishtail during her Saturday bath, or maybe there’s no connection to mythical creatures at all. I think we can say, however, that it’s probably not a mermaid, since the fish and woman appear to be separate creatures, and there’s no sign of a mirror as seen in most pictures of mermaids.

J.K. Petersen


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