Tag Archives: Holy Roman Empire

Voynich Location – What Can Libra Tell Us?          14 Jan 2016

The Constellation Libra

The constellation Libra hit the news at almost the same time I discovered the Voynich Manuscript. A comet was visible, in February 2009, at the topmost point of the stars we associate and identify as Libra. It delighted stargazers by being as bright as stars in the Big Dipper, visible to the unaided eye.

ConstellatLibraMy previous post discussed the unusual depiction of Scorpio in the VMS, and since Libra is adjacent to Scorpius, from our earthly point of view, this is probably a good time to post some of my findings about the VM illustrator’s drawing of Libra.

If you turn your head to the right when looking at this chart of Libra and Scorpio from NASA Science, you can see that Libra looks like a set of scales. Scales in the middle ages were different from what we have now. Modern scales are based on springs and pressure sensors. Medieval scales were based on comparisons of similarly weighted items.

LibraMorgan632f9vIf you fasten cups to both ends of a pole and place a known weight in one of the cups, you can find out if another object, like a piece of silver, weighs more or less than the known object by how much the pole slopes off the horizontal.

To aid in determining whether the pole is horizontal, people in antiquity added a spike in the center of the pole that would poke out in one direction or the other to indicate whether the objects in the cups (or the cups themselves, if they were empty) were off-balance.

Scales and the Concept of Justice

The idea of a balancing scale has long been associated with concepts of fairness and equality and sometimes ventures into the allegorical, as in this Egyptian depiction, from the Book of the Dead (a collective term rather than a literal form of book), of a scribe’s heart being measured against the feather of truth. The goddess Maat, Egypt’s spiritual representative of truth and justice, is identifiable at the apex of the scale, wearing the feather of truth.

ScribeHeadScaleSometimes additional stars are considered when envisioning Libra. In fact, in antiquity, the “feet” of Libra were sometimes seen as part of the claws of Scorpio. The inclusion of additional stars explains why some illustrators show Libra held aloft by a Virgo-like figure.

This interesting variation, scales by themselves, or scales held by human figures, is what brings us back to the drawing of Libra in the Voynich Manuscript. Can the VM illustrator’s choice tell us anything about the temporal or geographical origin of the manuscript?

By Itself or Held Aloft

Images of Libra as a zodiac symbol can be loosely classified into two kinds: those that include only the scales (or sometimes a hand holding the scales), and those that have most or all of a human form holding the scales.

I assembled two charts to compare their geographical distribution. I confined the search to images of Libra that accompanied other zodiac symbols in the same document and which were created prior to about 1560. I found more images of Libra as scales than could fit on a chart and selected ones that were generally representative. It was more difficult to find examples of Libra held by human forms and they fit fairly well on one page.

MapRomanEmpireLibra1Some of the scales are drawn level and straight on, so you can’t see the balance spike that shows when the scale is off balance. Others show the spike even though the pole is more-or-less horizontal. It’s noteworthy that the Voynich illustrator went to some pains to make the spike visible, even broadening the distance within the housing and painting it blue so it can be clearly seen.

Now let’s take a look at Libra in human form…

MapRomanEmpireLibra2Examples of Libra as a person holding scales are harder to find. This may be due to interpretation of the stars and how many constitute Libra or there may be a simpler explanation—humans are harder to draw. It might also be a combination of the two.

There aren’t enough samples to drawn any conclusions and most of the Libra-as-human examples appear to be from the same general geographical areas so we’re not looking at divergent data sets. The paucity of examples from southern France and Spain probably has to more to do with lack of access to digitally scanned files than it does to the number of examples that are extant.

With research, you never know where it will lead or which little details might become important later so sometimes you just have to gather it, present it, and offer it as information, without trying to extract too much meaning.

Thoughts about Scale and the Voynich Scales

As far as the Voynich manuscript goes, I’ll leave you with one little thought…

Did you notice that the cups of the Voynich scale are small and deep (almost round), rather than wide and a bit flatter like most of the others?

LibraCupsThe shape of the cups might be small so it’s easier to draw them within the circle, or perhaps they are small for the same reason they are small in the Arabic document shown in the lower right of the above chart.

Or, there may be a practical reason for drawing them this way. Scales for weighing food, or perhaps coins, need to be somewhat broad so it’s easier to move the items on and off the scale. Scales for herbs and powders need to be deeper and narrower so they are not blown away by a draft, or by a breath of wind, if the scale is used outside in a marketplace.

We can’t really know if the small deep cups are intentional, subconscious (if that is what the illustrator was used to seeing), or simply a space or time consideration, but given that the spike and the connection to the main pole are carefully included, perhaps the shape of the cups was intended as well.

J.K. Petersen


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

Voynich Location – Sagittarius with Legs and Crossbow                      16 Dec. 2015

Voynich Manuscript Origins – Does Sagittarius Hold Clues?

In a previous post, from July 2013, I summarized zodiac symbols that are illustrated in the Voynich Manuscript (Beinecke 408) and included examples of symbols from other manuscripts.

Since then I’ve collected many more examples, far too many to include in one post, so I’ll constrain this one to Sagittarius, the archer, because, as I mentioned previously, it is somewhat unusual for Sagittarius to be represented with legs and a crossbow when the actual constellation is typically a centaur with a long bow.

SagitCodSang250Examples of Sagittarius as a centaur are far more frequent, such as this one (left) from Codex Sang. 250. And, with the exception of a rare example from Israel in the 6th century, most of those with legs occur between 1395 and the late 1400s, the same approximate time as the creation of the VM manuscript.

If we further narrow the examples to those with both legs and crossbows, then only a handful remain. To make it easier to understand the importance of these examples, I created a chart which shows the extents of the Roman Empire in the late 1300s overlaid with Sagittarius symbols. This made it easier to visualize the approximate origins and dates of creation of the ones drawn with legs

I felt it was important to include the political boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire because it provides context. I was not specifically looking for zodiac symbols in this region, I sought out every Sagittarius with legs that I could find, but discovered after collecting them that they had commonalities not only in attire, but in geography. It’s probable that others may surface that have never been digitized and uploaded to the Web but until that happens, one has to work with what is available.

MapSagLegsRevisedThe above chart illustrates Sagittarius with legs from a variety of documents. The one in the upper right was pasted into a manuscript and may not originate at the same time or place, but was probably created sometime before 1468.

The image in the lower left of the chart is technically not a zodiac symbol, although the volume from which it originates has astrological references. I included it because it resembles some of the zodiac drawings and might provide a clue as to why crossbows appear in zodiacs. The painting is from the Netherlands and shows a crossbow tournament. It occurred to me that the popularity of the crossbow for warfare and for competition may have inspired drawings of Sagittarius for a brief period of about three decades.

SagittariusP457I didn’t include this image of the archer squatting because it’s from a fragment that has been assembled with a longer document, but it is assumed to be from Germany, with an estimated date of about 1457 or earlier. By the mid-1400s, most of the Sagittarius symbols had reverted to longbows and, by the 1500s, the legged version of Sagittarius had almost disappeared (other than obvious copies from older texts). Most of the examples that include crossbows are from the early to mid-1400s.

Note that the examples I’ve located so far tend to be from the same general region. Most are within the Holy Roman Empire, near to what is now the border between Germany and Switzerland. An early one appears to originate in Czech. The legged symbols from Israel and Italy are longbows.

The zodiac symbols in the VM do not appear to be copied from one specific source. If they are, that source has not yet turned up on the Web or may no longer exist. At least for now, it appears that the VM illustrator was inspired by a number of sources. Clearly Beinecke 408 is not a work of pure fantasy—many parallels to European culture are evident.

Location Clues

LastPageWhat is most significant about the Sagittarius crossbowmen is that they originate from a fairly specific time period (clustering around the 1420s to about 1475) and a fairly specific area of central Europe, the same region that matches the handwriting found in the marginal notes and on the last page of the VM (I refer to this handwriting as second script because there’s no definite evidence yet that the VM author (first script) and the author of the Germanic/Latin text on the last page are the same person—there are significant differences in the handwriting).

We also don’t know for certain whether the person who created the drawings is the same as the person who added the text. It probably is, but it should not be assumed that only one person authored the manuscript. In fact, it appears that the paint may have been added by someone other than the person who drew the lines, given that the lines are fairly careful and the painting rather sloppy, so we have to keep open to the possibility that the artist and author may be different people, as well.

NantesSagittariusVMSagittariusThe clustering of legged crossbow symbols isn’t sufficient evidence to assume Beinecke 408 was created in S.W. Germany or Switzerland (there are some perplexing oddities in the manuscript that are not typical of this region), but It’s certainly possible. The style of the plant illustrations and the handwriting on the last page are similar to others originating in the same general area (including northern Italy). The manuscript’s provenance, which includes Czech and Italy, and the organization of the content (and materials used to create it), also suggest a central European/Holy Roman Empire origin, so it may be that the person (or persons) who authored the Voynich Manuscript was born there or migrated to the area.

If you have seen any examples of Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow in documents from the 15th century or earlier that are not scanned and uploaded to the Web, I would be interested in hearing about them.


J.K. Petersen

Postscript: I should mention that I didn’t include examples of Sagittarius with goat legs (of which I found several examples, one from about four centuries before the VM), because it struck me that the Pan-like representation of Sagittarius was as distinct from Sagittarius with human legs as it was from Sagittarius as a centaur, individual enough that it deserves a separate article.

2016 Jan 11 Postscript: It was brought to my attention that David Jackson has located a further example of Sagittarius with what appears to be a crossbow, described in his article here.

© Copyright 2015 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved