Tag Archives: sagittarius

Dissecting the VMS Crossbow

The Bard with a Bow

VMSArcherIn the Voynich Manuscript, Sagittarius the archer has two legs and carries a crossbow. Most depictions of Sagittarius show a four-legged centaur with a longbow, so I searched for those that were similar to the VMS archer and described them in a previous post. This time, I’m more interested in the details of his dress and his bow. On the right, I’ve removed some of the text that was crowding the picture so you can see his crossbow and costume more clearly.

WarArcherIt’s unlikely the archer is dressed for warfare like the 14th century warriors pictured left. The long tail on his hat would be a distraction and a liability, but his dress is not uncommon for archers participating in crossbow tournaments or involved in recreational hunts.

TourneyClothesA pleated tunic is typical for the middle ages, as is the style of the VMS archer’s hat. The broad sleeves are not as common as narrow sleeves, but are not unusual either. On the right is an archer at an English crossbow tournament wearing a similar outfit sans hat.

Hat tails made from fabric or sometimes from the tails of animals, like foxes, were common in many areas. The VMS archer also sports a goatee and booties and appears to be wearing leggings, as his legs are painted blue.

The Style of the Crossbow

Most zodiac drawings don’t have enough detail to determine the style of crossbow, but perhaps the VMS does.

To help identify the archer’s bow, I removed it from his hands and labeled the visible parts. Fortunately, the trigger was visible, along with the shape of the stirrup. The style of the lathe is fairly clear and shows recurved tips. The catch, an important component that holds the cord until it’s ready to fire, is barely shown, but it clearly doesn’t have the crank called a cranequin that is found on some of the later crossbows. The stock looks pretty basic—this is not one of the high-octane automatic crossbows from China nor does it resemble earlier Greek and Roman crossbows that lacked a stirrup.



A hunting bow from a French manuscript from the mid- or late 1300s was drawn with a rounded stirrup, recurved lathe tips, and an angled lever. The bolt has a traditional arrowhead rather than a narrow spike.

Who Used this Style of Bow?

This simple style of crossbow isn’t difficult to find in medieval imagery—it can be seen in English, Czech, French, and Lombardic manuscripts from about the late 13th century to the mid-1400s. After that, some of the crossbows include accessories for drawing the cord and some have spikes on the stirrup, which I assume is to stabilize them in the soil when stepping on the stirrup.

I don’t have enough images to know if it’s a general pattern, but many of the images of battle bows had straight stirrups while some of the hunting bows, like the one on the right, had rounded stirrups. It’s not a hard-and-fast distinction, however.

An early Hussite bas relief also has a crossbow with a rounded stirrup, but the trigger is not shown and the lathe is not as broad as the one in the VMS, so it’s difficult to know if it’s the same kind.

Sometimes the bolts have narrow tips, sometimes the classic arrow shape. Crossbows in a c. 1380 manuscript from France are similar to the VMS, but the stirrup is quite thick and the trigger is not shown.

SaintsCrossbowThe image on the left is not a zodiac crossbow, it’s a marginal embellishment from an English psalter created around 1330, but it’s interesting because it shows the joint between the lathe and the stock more clearly than most (the illustrator has rotated the trigger, probably to make it easier to see). The stirrup is rounded, like the VMS, but the lathe has a narrower span and doesn’t have recurved tips.

CzechCrossbowA number of the French manuscripts illustrate narrow bolts, probably developed because they could penetrate armor, while the one on the right, from the Czech region, shows arrow-shaped bolts. How accurately illustrators have represented the bolts (and the crossbows themselves) is hard to assess.

Quite a few crossbows from France, Switzerland, and the upper Rhine are depicted with a different style of stirrup that is  flatter at the end and more angular than the rounded stirrup in the VMS.

RecurvedFlatStirrupThis flatter stirrup is illustrated in a Germanic image of a hunting bow from the early 1300s (right). The lathe has probably been rotated in the image to show it more clearly, as the triggers were usually on the bottom rather than on the side of the stock. The image is thought to depict a nobleman from eastern Lombardy. Note the recurved tips.

AustriaCrossbowThe symbol for Sagittarius on the left from c. 1469 was created in southern Germany or possibly eastern Austria and has recurved tips and a flattened stirrup similar to the previous non-zodiac image. Notice also the pleated tunic, wide sleeves, and typical leggings. The pointed hat is a different style from the VMS, but it’s one of the few examples of Sagittarius with a crossbow wearing a hat.


Crossbow1463It’s difficult to find examples of Sagittarius with both legs and a crossbow but those identified so far are from central Europe. It’s even more difficult to narrow it down to crossbows with a curved stirrup, because the stirrup is usually not clearly drawn in medieval Sagittarius symbols. In fact, the crossbow in the VMS shows more details than most examples of Sagittarius with legs, with the exception of one from approximately the mid-1400s shown on the right.

The VMS archer is also unusual in that he’s wearing a long-tail hat and a beard. The other zodiac symbols with crossbows and legs don’t include these features except for the one mentioned above. You have to look at images of crossbows that are not related to zodiacs to find them.

Did the VMS illustrator add the extra details based on seeing non-zodiac illustrations or based on personal observations? As with so many aspects of the VMS, there’s a level of uniqueness in the images that adds to the mystery.

J.K. Petersen

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

Additional image added Oct. 27th, 2016:

Sometimes I come across a picture on the Web or in my files that relates to a previous blog that is worth including with the original material. I thought this image from BNF Lat. 9333, folio 68v, (created in the early 15th century) was particularly relevant. The book was inspired by an earlier copy of Tacuinum Sanitatus—a manuscript on living a healthful life.

The image is more detailed than the VMS crossbowman, including a loaded bolt, twirled cord, and lamination seam in the stock, but what caught my attention was the long trigger, and lath tips that are curved slightly more than those in many medieval crossbow drawings. I thought readers might enjoy seeing it.


Additional image added Nov. 11th, 2016:

Another interesting crossbow image in a siege commentary from BNF Latin 6067 (later 15th c) illustrating three archers. The first is loading a bolt, the second pulls the string while his foot supports the bow with the stirrup, and the third has a more automated form of crossbow with a crank to pull the string. The crank provides more leverage but also more weight and would be more appropriate for seige warfare than hunting. Quivers of bolts can be seen attached to belts. The two fully visible triggers are relatively long (the one on the right might be slightly stylized).


Additional image added July 7, 2017:

This image post-dates the VMS, but I felt it worth including because it illustrates a long-triggered crossbow drawn with considerable detail for the time. (The source is a c. 1475 painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian from a region of Munich, Germany, now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne):


Additional image added August 7, 2017:

There is a clear drawing of a crossbow in Thott 290 2° (c. 1459). I was aware of it but didn’t include it in the original blog because it probably postdates the VMS. However, I’ve decided to add it because it has a long trigger and curved ends on the lath, similar to the VMS crossbow (note, however, that it has a straight stirrup), and because I noticed recently that it is similar to the crossbow and bolt in BNF Lat. 9333 noted above:

Voynich Location – The Fantasy Scorpio          12 Jan 2016

Discerning a Big Picture from Small Clues

The zodiac pictures in the Voynich don’t appear to have much to do with zodiacs, they are mostly surrounded by ladies in loges, but the images themselves are recognizable as traditional zodiac symbols.

The depiction of Sagittarius in the Voynich manuscript as having legs and a crossbow is unusual and is, for the most part confined to a certain time and place, with the time being contemporaneous with the creation of the VMS. Since details like this may offer clues to the identity of the author or provenance of the document, it seemed worthwhile to examine some of the other symbols as well.

The Scorpio Zodiac Symbol

ScorpioF73rDetailFolio 73r features a lizard-like yellowish-green creature with a long tail and a line in its mouth leading to a drawing of an 8-pointed star. It is surrounded by successive circles of texts and naked women.

It’s assumed this is Scorpio because it would fit the overall theme of zodiac symbols on adjacent pages. Whoever labeled the creature in a hand that differs from the main body text of the VMS, apparently thought so too, and labeled it novembre.

Scorpio15thMany medieval European ideas about astrology and astronomy came from concepts expressed in Arabic documents.

Scorpio is based on the constellation Scorpius, a clump of stars with a long curving chain of a tail that resembles a scorpion, a venomous creature in the same family as spiders. You might not guess it was cousin to spiders, because it resembles a crustacean more than a spider (picture a crayfish with an upcurved, pointed tail). Depending on the species, the scorpion has six or eight legs plus specialized pointed claws called pedipalps, and a distinctive claw-like stinger at the end of the tail.

Today, scorpions have spread to almost every part of the world. In the middle ages, however, they may have been infrequent (or absent) in northern latitudes because illustrators who did a good job of drawing the other zodiac symbols sometimes created fanciful versions of Scorpio, or perhaps retained a different concept of the animal that the Scorpius constellation resembled because they were unfamiliar with the creature after which it was named.

ScorpioNaturalThat’s not to say that all northern Scorpios were difficult to recognize as a scorpion, many were quite accurate, as can be seen by the examples above that range from about 1425 to the later 1400s, but there are a few that deserve attention because, like the Voynich Scorpio, they could easily be mistaken for lizards, mammals, or dragons.

Unusual Depictions of Scorpio

The following chart illustrates some unusual depictions of Scorpio that would be difficult to recognize unless they were labeled as such or included with the other traditional zodiac symbols for context.

MapScorpioLate14cNaturalistic Scorpios are far more common than examples like these. Note that the origins of unusual Scorpio symbols trends more to the north and west than Sagittarius with a crossbow and legs. There is noticeable clustering of Sagittarius in the southern German and northern Swiss area. In contrast, the unusual Scorpios range from Germany and Switzerland to France and England. The two examples from England look more like mythical creatures (perhaps dragons) than any natural animal.

I haven’t yet found any reptilian or mammalian Scorpios from eastern Europe or the Mediterranean. They may exist, but if they do, they are not common. There are some that are debatable because they are not of expert quality. I tried to steer away from illustrations where you really can’t tell whether Scorpio’s quirks were a deliberate choice or attributable to weak drawing skills, and concentrated on those that were drawn well enough or deliberately enough to classify them as one or the other.

The date range of odd Scorpio symbols is not as tight as Sagittarius. Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow tends to occur very close to the time the VMS was created (estimated to be in the early 1400s). Unusual Scorpios, however, range from about 1200 to the early 1500s and since they are rare, are more broadly separated in time. In fact, only one Scorpio in this sampling is contemporaneous to the VMS.

Drawing Conventions

There are three examples that cluster around the German-Swiss border that resemble turtles and which don’t resemble the VM Scorpio at all. Give the scarcity of turtle-Scorpios and their geographic proximity, you might expect them to originate around the same time, but they were actually created about 100 years apart.

The two examples that most closely resemble the side-on posture, orientation, and lizard-like qualities of the VMS were created about 70 years earlier and about 80 years later than the estimated time of the VMS. There’s little likelihood that the brownish Scorpio with stegosaurus-like bumps influenced the VM since it was probably created later and has numerous legs, but it’s possible the one from the mid-1300s did if it was stored in a library or other location where people had access to the manuscript.

ScorpioGreenThe green one from c. 1475 was probably created after the VMS, but note that both the VMS Scorpio and the green Scorpio from France have spots on their backs. There are a number of lizards, native to Portugal, Spain and southern France that are green with spots. Perhaps there was an oral tradition for the names of the constellations that influenced the choice of a lizardy creature that actually lived in north or central Europe.

Other Astrological Traditions

When you consider that most Scorpio symbols in the 15th century looked fairly realistic, even those from the north, you have to wonder why the Voynich illustrator chose this form. In some cultures, the stars that form Scorpius are perceived as a palm tree or as a bird, by why a lizard or mammal?

I considered that depictions of Scorpio in the north might be influenced by Nidhogg, a Norse serpent constellation that shares some stars with Scorpio but the resemblance is slight. The serpent is very long and doesn’t have legs. So, it appears that the Voynich manuscript, as it does in so many respects, serves up another mystery, one deserving of further study.


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

The Voynich Zodiac Symbols


In the center of the Voynich manuscript is a set of wheels spanning a number of pages (some of them foldouts) that resemble zodiacs except that they have no obvious references to Medieval astronomy or astrology other than the figures in the center.

There are two inks on the page and the script in the darker ink under each zodiac symbol is in a different handwriting from the regular Voynich script. I refer to this as Third Script* for the sake of discussion and I have written a paper on Third Script that I will upload when I have time. For now, let’s look at the labels under each zodiac symbol. They give us information about the Third Script writer, and perhaps clues to where the VM originated or travelled prior to its acquisition by Wilfred Voynich.

Pisces the Fish

Piscium, Pisces, Mars, March

deBerryPisces   VMPisces

Pisces the Fish is the first zodiac symbol represented in the VM. We don’t know if the illustrator intended to begin with March or if January and February have been lost. Another possibility is that not all the months were relevant.

The fish illustration is not original in concept.

Note that the fin arrangement (two groups both top and bottom) is similar to Pisces in the du Berry Book of Hours, and that the fish have long snouts. Both include curved embellishments (which represent cords or garlands in some depictions of Pisces) leading out of the mouths of the fish. These details are not common to all depictions of Pisces at the time, but they were not unusual either.

The zodiac fish carved into the L’Église St. Nicholas in Civray depict Pisces in a manner similar to the du Barry fish, two fish with two sets of fins top and bottom, the bottom fish upside down, and a curved garland linking their mouths. The VM illustrator drew both fish facing the same direction, akin to the fish in the Codex Schürstab (Nürnberg) and in the 15th century Book of Hours thought to be from Nantes, France (below right).

SchuerstabPisces   NantesPisces

Upright fish like the VM Pisces can be found in the Codex Schürstab and the Book of Hours thought to be from Nantes, France. both are from approximately the same time period as the VM. The one on the right features a similar curved line connecting the fish by the mouth. The fin arrangement is slightly different in the VM but the overall arrangement is the same.  In turn, the French Book of Hours painting of Pisces harks back to even earlier depictions of fish connected by a cord from the region that is now Germany and Switzerland.

The text between the fish, which may have been added by a hand other than the VM author, and which looks similar to the text on the last VM page, says Mars (French for March). The stem of the “a” is a bit disconnected, but if you look at the other labels, you will see that the writer frequently writes the “a” this way.


Aries the Ram

Arietis, Aries, Aberil, April

deBerryAiries   VMAries

The VM ram isn’t a copy of the du Barry ram, but neither does it differ significantly (if you accept that the VM illustrator was not a skilled artist) The du Barry ram’s coat and horns are longer and curlier but the hooves are very similar. The VM ram’s neck is thinner and the illustrator has put a green tree in the background similar to Aries the Ram stepping out in the Codex Schürstab.


Underneath the VM ram, in a loose script that is similar to the script in the other zodiac pictures, is written aberil. Avril and abril represent April in French and Spanish respectively.

I suspect that the zodiac labels were written by somebody trying to decode the manuscript, and since zodiac symbols are familiar to many people, even today, it’s a logical place to start. I don’t think there are any secret codes written in Third Script (like “Leonardo” spelled backwards). I think these are what they appear to be, labels to help sort things out.

The ram is repeated on the next page and the whole page painted a little differently and this too has been labeled in a darker ink with aberil representing April.


Taurus the Bull

Taurus, May

duBerryTaurus   VMTaurus

The bull representing Taurus is essentially the same as the du Berry bull except that it’s facing the other direction, has a thinner neck and, like Aries, is nibbling on something green. Under the bull’s belly is written may. In French, Spanish, Italian, and German, May is currently written with an “i” rather than a “y”. Also, oddly, there appears to be a symbol over the y resembling a caret. Like Aries, the VM author has created two copies of Taurus, with the animal essentially the same as the previous one, except that the brick red paint is smoother and more heavily applied. There’s a little more room for a longer tail on the second drawing and the anatomically male bull is more clearly outlined. In the second drawing it’s a bit easier to see that the bull is eating (or drinking) from what may be a bucket and one can also see, from looking at both the rams and bulls, that the Voynich illustrator has’t quite figured out how to draw hind legs. They mimic front legs rather than orienting the joints in the other direction. The bull from the Codex Schürstab (below right) has more anatomically functional legs.

VMTaurus0   SchuerstabTaurus

There are many clues that suggest the illustrator was cleaning up small details in the second bull. The information surrounding the duplicate Aries and Taurus pages are different, however.

Note that there is no mark above the “y” in the second drawing of Taurus. The Third Script writer may not have intended the mark on the first one.


Gemini the Twins

Graduum, Gemini, Iune, Juni, June, Yuny/Yony

duBarryGemini2 VMGemini SchuerstabGemini

Something to note about the VM Gemini twins is that they are fraternal male and female. Not all zodiacs were depicted in this way—many show the twins as the same sex (see the Codex Schurstab twins on the right). The du Barry zodiac also depicts male and female twins. Interestingly, the du Barry twins are naked, similar to Adam and Eve before The Fall, yet the VM twins, in a manuscript overflowing with naked characters, are clothed and the twin on the right is drawn almost the same as the female figure in the VM Virgo.

Between the twins, in Third Script, is written yuny  or yony (the second “y” is slightly smudged, but these are calligraphic “y”characters consistent with other y letters written in Third Script). In many areas of northern Europe. a “j” is pronounced like a “y”. For example, in Danish, June is spelled “juni” but pronounced “yooni” like a y. The Third Script writer may have been transcribing the sound of a word rather than the technical spelling. Given that borders were constantly changing, and nobility and their retinues were constantly on the move, this was not unusual.


Cancer the Crab

Cancri, Cancer, July, Juli, Iollio

duBarryCrab    VMCrab    SchuerstabCrab

If it appears, from the other zodiac symbols, that the VM illustrator might be copying The Book of Hours, Cancer the crab makes it clear that the VM may be similar in some respects to the du Barry manuscript, but is not copying slavishly (if at all) from The Book of Hours. The du Barry illuminations show cancer as a crab. Many zodiacs at the time, however, depicted cancer as a crayfish or lobster (perhaps the crayfish were drawn by illustrators who lived near lakes rather than oceans) and the VM illustrator’s crab not only follows the crayfish rather than crab style, but it is duplicated in the same manner as the pisces fish (the du Barry crab sits alone). The crayfish/lobster version of the crab is illustrated in the Codex Schürstab (right).

In second script, under the crabs is written iullio or iollio. One of the other zodiacs has a letter one would expect to be “u” but which looks like an “o” so perhaps the scribe writes a u like an o or is transcribing a local dialect. The letter “i” followed by a vowel was often used to represent the “j” sound at the time. When spoken out loud, iullio would sound like julio (yoo-lee-oh) which is a cross between the Scandinavian juli (yoo-lee) and Spanish julio (hoo-lee-oh)—both words for July. It comes even closer to the Italian word for July, which is iuglio (yoo-lee-oh) or, in Catalan, juliol. These are the modern words for July, but they are all in the same basic sound family and close enough to fit the VM label.


Leo the Lion

Leonis, Leo, August, Augst

duBarryLeo   VMLeo

There’s quite a bit of similarity between the du Barry Leo and the VM Leo, other than the thinner. In fact, the VM illustrator might have intended a female lion (without a shaggy mane), or perhaps thinner necks is simply the VM illustrator’s way of drawing necks (a number of other animals have thin necks, including Taurus the bull) just as the hind legs of hoofed animals aren’t quite right. Note the lifted right-front leg, extended tongue, and tail curling up between the hind legs are similar to the duBarry lion.

In contrast to many zodiac wheels, the VM illustrator appears to have a genuine interest in plants, and included a tree behind the lion. This clue suggests the VM author and illustrator might be the same person since whoever created VM 408 was interested enough in plants to spend months or perhaps years studying and documenting them. Or, if it were a different person, the VM author might have directed the illustrator to include plants. I think the first is more likely, but it’s an open question and there are a few zodiacs by other illustrators that include plants. For example, the Codex Schürstab Leo doesn’t closely resemble the VM Leo, but it includes trees in the background.

As an aside, note that the Voynich illustrator rarely depicts anything as fierce. The du Barry fish have the predatory expression and teeth of aggressive fish like barracudas, and the lion has a ferocious look as well, but the VM fish are rather cheerful looking and the VM lion’s expression is quite neutral.


Virgo the Virgin

Virgo, Virginis, Septembris, September, Septembre

duBarryVirgo   VMVirgo   SchuerstabVirgo

The du Barry Virgo (left) is rather demure and alluring, with a sassy pose, long wavy hair down to her knees, and a low neckline. She holds what appears to be long elegant feathers, or perhaps fronds.

The VM Virgo is more modest, dressed in a higher neckline, short hair, or hair hidden by her cap. Like many of the other VM zodiac symbols, the composition includes a plant to the lady’s bottom left. The long folds of fabric and cap are painted blue. The star-line held in her hand perhaps symbolizes her status as a zodiac symbol. The Schürstab Virgo is also dressed in blue, with head ornamentation, and a small bouquet of flowers. In this case, the VM Virgo is closer in style to the Schurstab rendition than du Barry.

To the left of the Voynich Virgo, in Third Script, is written septembre in the style of Greek miniscules, which often use a short dash above the lowercase letters to represent an unwritten letter from common letter combinations such as “em” “per” “tem” and “er”. These conventions were adapted in days when parchment was precious, expensive, and small. It also helped relieve tedium and writer’s cramp for scribes. The Codex Shürstab and Codex Manesse use these dashes to represent abbreviations, as well, so it wasn’t a practice restricted to Greek literature—parchment and time were precious everywhere.


In this example, from the 14th century Codex Manesse, the dash above the “o” represents the letter “n” (or “m”, depending on context) so the text on the middle line reads “von hohenburg” (or, in other circumstances it can represent “vom (von dem)”. The Third Script writer used this form of abbreviation when labeling the VM zodiac drawings.

Together, the style of writing of the Third Script author, which is more calligraphic than the Voynich Manuscript (the thick and thin dynamic of the quill is more effectively used), and the abbreviations characteristic of miniscules, suggest that the Third Script writer may have had experience in creating manuscripts, or had studied miniscule-style literary works. When interpreting the label next to Virgo (and the other zodiac labels), keep in mind that the 15th century letter S looked more like our modern-day f than the snaky S we use today, depending on its position in the word. For example, in the du Barry book, “septembris” is written with a final “s” that curves, but an initial “s” that resembles a modern-day, lowercase “f”.


Libra the Scales

Libre, Libra, October, Octobris, Octembre

duBarryLibra   VMLibra

The du Barry scales are shown with one end higher than the other (so the tip in the center is at an angle) to fit within the narrow ring full of stars and stil remain upright. Since the VM scale is in the center of the wheel, it’s possible to show it straight on (and easier to draw), with the cups level and the gauge in the center upright. Essentially it’s the same kind of mechanical scale, just a little less embellished than the du Barry example. The way it is drawn is similar to the Schürstab Libra (below, left), with a straight-on view, slightly deeper cups, and supporting cords without a twist in the upper portion. The main difference is that the VM illustrator has turned the fulcrum to one side to show the pointed gauge (painted in blue) that shows the level/angle of the scale.


Beneath the VM scale is written octembre in miniscule abbreviation style.


Scorpio the Scorpion

Scorpronis, Scorpio, November, Novembris, Novembre

The du Barry Scorpio (below left) bears a strong resemblance to a real scorpion. The VM scorpion looks more like a lizard, but I don’t think there is any intent to obscure the scorpion’s identity. Many zodiacs of the time have scorpions that resemble lizards, perhaps because the illustrators had never seen a scorpion and were going by spoken descriptions.

duBarryScorpio   VMScorpio   FalstofScorpio

The fairly naturalistic scorpion on the left is from the du Barry book of hours, the one on the right is from a mid-15th century book of hours known as the Falstof Master. Except for the legs, the Falstof Scorpio looks more like a mammal crossed with a reptile than a crustacean. The scorpion carved into the L’Église St. Nicholas in Civray looks like a fat lizard with a pair of front claws. Scorpio on the Benedictine Abbey Church of Sante-Marie-Madeleine resembles a goat with extra legs. The Schürstab Scorpio resembles a somewhat more crustaceous version of the “weasel-Scorpio”. Many northerners have never seen scorpions, which might account for the anatomical anomalies.

Beneath the VM Scorpio, in Third Script, is the label novembre, using miniscule abbreviation.


 Sagittarius the Archer

Sagittarius, Sagitarii, December, Decembre

duBarrySagittarius   VMSagittarius

Sagittarius is a particularly interesting VM illustration because it goes against the more common conventions. Sagittarius is usually depicted as a centaur—part man, part horse (or goat, since some have cloven hooves). The VM archer has legs. Also, it is typical for medieval and Renaissance Sagittariuses to have traditional bows rather than the crossbow in the Voynich Manuscript. The few examples of Sagittarius that can be found with legs tend to be from northern rather than southern Europe.

Here is an example of a Sagittarius with legs from a 15th century Nürnberg manuscript—Codex Schürstab. Other than the head dress, his clothing similar to the VM archer. To the right is a more conventional Sagittarius, depicted as part man, part cloven-hoofed animal.

SchuerstabSagittarius     NantesSagittarius

Even northern documents tend to show Sagittarius with an animal body. The very dynamic Sagitarrius with horse’s hooves shown below left is from Walters MS W.17, a scientific manuscript from about the 10th century. While the uncommon examples of Sagittarius with legs tend to come from northern Europe, there are exceptions. A particularly notable one is the 5th century Beit Alpha synagogue zodiac (below right) in Israel.

WaltersSagittarius   BeitIsraelSagitarrius

Why is Sagittarius shown with an animal body, even in earlier centuries as in this 8th century Geographia of Ptolemy (below left)? Because the arrangement of the lower stars traditionally assigned to the constellation Sagittarius are widely spread, suggesting the lower part of an animal, as illustrated in this 15th century drawing from the Genus Arati (Naples, Italy, below right). The red dots are the stars that make up the constellation.

PtolemySagittarius2   GenusAratiSagittarius

Capricon the Goat and Aquarius the Water Bearer are missing from the VM set, and both Aries and Taurus appear twice, suggesting either that the series was left unfinished or that the other zodiac symbols were not directly relevant to the information surrounding the center symbols.

The VM zodiac months may have been specifically chosen to represent the timing of certain events or, I suppose, drawn as a ruse to throw off a viewer from the textual content (which might have nothing to do with zodiacs), but I don’t think the pictures are a ruse. The content in the surrounding wheels shows cycles of life, and people in the Middle Ages (and many people even now) believed that cycles were influenced by the constellations and would ask astrologers to suggest good days for major events, such as marriages or journeys.


The Voynich author was surely exposed to medieval literature or the Voynich Manuscript probably wouldn’t have followed many of the conventions evident in the document, but it doesn’t appear that the zodiac symbols are copied straight from one source (unless that source has been lost). Inspiration seems to have come from a variety of sources, perhaps from carvings or documents in a monasterial or royal library. Many kings prided themselves on their collections of oddities, manuscripts, and other treasures available only to those of wealth and stature and the VM illustrator may have had access.

The zodiac labels are mostly, but not entirely written in French. I’ve drawn up a chart to make it easier to see the names for people who are not familiar with reading calligraphy or older style writing. As noted on the chart, an “e” with a slash consistently represents “em” as in miniscule abbreviation style, and the old-style “s” is represented by a shape that looks like a lowercase “f”.


The fact that some of the labels are not pure French as we know it is not unusual. Language changes, people of the Middle Ages did not have radio or television to “cinch down” a language and keep it consistent. Reading and writing were not widely taught as they are now. Also, among literate circles (usually clerics and nobility), there was a great deal of travel and many battles—the constant struggle to acquire and hold on to wealth and power kept people on the move. The king of Spain or Naples could also be the king of Jerusalem, even though these regions are geographically distant (especially in the days before cars and trains). Cross-pollination of languages in wealthy circles was probably common. It happens even today.

When I was traveling in Europe, I met a jovial fellow who managed one of the Swiss youth hostels. He could understand half a dozen languages through contact with a constant stream of travellers but he admitted he had lost most of his mother tongue and I noticed, when conversing with him, that he spoke a polyglot that could only be understood by those who knew a mixture of German, French, Italian, and English.

I get the sense that the Third Script writer (possibly someone who never met or knew the identity of the VM author) may also have been a polyglot or lived in one of those regions where the borders changed and languages blended.  It’s likely that the writer lived sometime in the 15th to 17th centuries, based on the style of writing, and there is a document in almost the same style written in the mid-1400s that suggests the Third Script writer may even have been a contemporary or near-contemporary of the VM illustrator.

What if the text underlying the Voynich Manuscript were also polyglot? A mixed language would be more difficult to decode.

[Image sources: Codex Schürstab (ca. 1472) courtesy of the Zentralbibliothek, Zürich. The Nantes? Book of Hours courtesy of the Bibliothèque de Genève. Tetrabiblos of Ptolemaios from the Geographia of Ptolemy, courtesy of the Vatican Library.]

J.K. Petersen

* Note that I renamed the Zodiac scripts as “Third Script” to disinguish the handwriting from the “Second Script” on the last page of the Voynich a year or so ago after analyzing them in more detail. I believe there are probably (at least) three hands represented in the Voynich, the main script, last-page script, and Zodiac labels (I haven’t yet posted my notes on the page numbers). One of my blog entries includes a chart showing their distinct characteristics.