Tag Archives: zodiac

The VMS Cycles of Life

What do the Wheels Represent?

VirgoWheelThe Voynich Manuscript has a series of wheels with zodiac symbols in the center, but the images around the symbols have no apparent relationship to constellations, seasons, or months of the year. Instead they are mostly populated by naked nymphs in gaily decorated baskets or loges, each with a star.

TubNymphIn some cases, the maidens look somewhat generic, in others they look like they might represent real people, and there are different characteristics to the imagery in different wheels. In some wheels the figures are fully clothed and more heavily painted.

I don’t know if there’s an overall theme or interpretation that covers all the wheels, but some of them appear to illustrate cycles of life.

Take for example, the nymphs surrounding the two fish commonly associated with the zodiac symbol for Pisces (folio 72v)… if you start with the figures that look like pre-teens and follow the progression around the two circles, it could be seen as the cycle of life from youth to old age. When you consider the older-looking figures are stepping into sideways loges (or tubes) that are oddly reminiscent of coffins, it reinforces this general impression.

NymphWavingIn the chart below, I’ve extracted each nymph while retaining their order to make it easier to see this pattern. There are three figures that look like children, followed by one that looks like a teen with longer hair. More mature women follow until there’s one with its stomach above the edge of the basket to expose what looks like a baby bump. Continue on for three more baskets and then there’s another exposed stomach showing what looks like another baby bump (before birth control, it was not uncommon for women to have a dozen pregnancies).

A few baskets later, the orientation of the basket changes from vertical to horizontal, and the nymphs look older. There’s one that might be pregnant, but others appear to be showing middle-aged spread until, at the end, the figure is almost entirely within the basket.

Interestingly there are two or three men in the wheel. One shows up next to one of the nymphs with a baby bump, one is in the middle-aged section, and one near the end (old age?). It’s also possible that one or more of the pre-teens are boys.

CycleofLifeThis is, of course, a tentative interpretation. I don’t know what the labels say and I don’t know if I began reading the figures at the right spot, but there does appear to be an aging sequence.

StretchMarksOn the same folio is a wheel with a ram in the center and a smaller number of nymphs in the surrounding wheel.

If one starts reading the figures at the youngest, then once again it appears to illustrate a cycle, but this time it’s the cycle of pregnancy rather than a full cycle of life. It progresses through childhood, puberty, maturation, marriage (one figure has a distinctive veil that may represent marriage), baby bumps, and possibly stretch marks, although it’s hard to tell if those are fabric folds, stretch marks, or both. Some of the figures are clothed, a possible symbolic reference to a woman’s “confinement”, a late-pregnancy custom in which women were hidden away. The cycle is illustrated in sequence in this chart:

CycleMaturThe stomachs and sometimes the groin area are visible in most of the drawings, but the last one covers up the stomach. Could this be menopause, when a woman is no longer ovulating or becoming pregnant?

ManWomanNymphI’m not going to upload all the wheels, it’s too much information for one blog, but you can look at the originals, and you will see another wheel that looks like a cycle of menstruation and one that appears to be a cycle or commentary on relations between the sexes (right), with a man whose genitals are clearly included and a nymph who is leaning down more than the others in a provocative pose. I can’t quite figure out what’s going on with his genitals, they’re not drawn as clearly as one in the biological section, but it might be an animation with two positions (flaccid and erect). Since most of the men are modestly depicted, this more explicit image is making a point about the meaning of the drawings.


NymphColoredNot all the wheels appear to be cycles. The colored wheels give a different impression. They feel more like political commentary or perhaps genealogical images. The wheel around the symbol for Cancer is more similar to the life cycle wheels and has a large number of figures, quite a few of whom are male, but the pattern and their significance is not clear.

These interpretations are entirely subjective but I offer them to get the idea out there, especially since I’ve been posting articles on the VMS zodiac symbols without discussing the content surrounding them. The cycle of pregnancy is paired with a symbol of a ram (presumably Aries), which represents spring in many countries, and the procreative wheel is paired with an intimate picture of a man and woman representing Gemini, so perhaps there’s a discernible reason for specific symbols anchoring the wheels, but I’m really not certain.

If these wheels do, in fact, represent life cycles with a strong focus on women, it strengthens the impression that the VMS could be, at least in part, a historic treatise on gynecology.

J.K. Petersen

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

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 Crusty Conundrum          15 Feb 2016

Cancer the Crayfish

The zodiac symbol for Cancer in the Voynich Manuscript is odd in a number of ways, but not in the ways I originally thought.

CancerF7bCancer is drawn as a crab in most Mediterranean areas (left), as well as in much of England (possibly due to the abundance of salt water and crabs) but was often depicted as a crayfish, as well, particularly in regions away from the coast, so Cancer as a crayfish is not unusual, but the VMS crayfish has some strange quirks that might not be immediately apparent.

VoyDoubleCancerTo begin with, there are two critters, not one. I’ve never seen a medieval Cancer symbol presented as a double image, with each crayfish facing in a different direction. Pisces is usually drawn this way, but not Cancer. Also, the line connecting their mouths is typical of Pisces, not of Cancer. Something unusual is going on.

The Anatomy of Crayfish

Crayfish2When I first saw it, the VMS crayfish looked unrealistic to me—skinny legs, tiny claws. I thought all crayfish and lobsters had fat hunky claws. Apparently not.

After some research, I learned that there are crayfish with slender legs and small claws. I also discovered the claws of the female are sometimes smaller than the male.

Skinny-limbed crayfish don’t live in one particular region. They range from Korea to the Caribbean and probably beyond, so the skinny limbs don’t help pinpoint the geography.

Crayfish1Nature is endlessly creative and the patterns on the backs of crayfish are quite varied. Some are like helmets, others have bands, some connect over the top in two layers.

CrayfishCBackZodiac crayfish are sometimes drawn with two C-shapes mirroring one another on their backs, a pattern that is also found in nature. There are some where the C-shapes connect over the top and others, like the drawing on the right, that don’t connect. From the side, they look like a piece of armor protecting the shoulder. The VMS crayfish appears to have a smaller version of this detail.

From Life or From Manuscript Tradition?

CancerF13vI wondered whether the VMS illustrator got the ideas for the zodiac by looking at a real crayfish or at other drawings. The upper one is green, the lower is red. Green or a greenish-gray is a common color for crayfish. When they are cooked, they turn bright red like lobsters, so the colors don’t provide many hints to the origin of the VMS. But that’s when I noticed the VMS crayfish was anatomically incorrect.

I was so distracted by the double image, the skinny legs and claws, and the line connecting the mouths that I overlooked a rather glaring defect—the VMS crayfish legs are attached to the tail! This unbalanced crayfish would have a hard time getting around. Given this anomaly, it seems unlikely that a real crayfish modeled for the VMS. Whoever drew it probably took the concept from other drawings and may have drawn it imperfectly from memory, since other Cancer symbols (at least those similar to the VMS) aren’t drawn this way.

CancerF48rAlmost all the medieval zodiacs I found that were similar to the VMS (slender limbs plus C-shape backs) were Lombardic and Frankish and were typically green or red. I haven’t had a chance to map them yet, and the overall impression may change when I do, but it’s true of the ones I’ve found so far.


CancerCastiilleThe VMS zodiac animals, such as the ram and bull, don’t seem to be drawn from life. They’re reasonably well done but, like the crayfish, they have some anatomical oddities. It seems likely they were inspired by other manuscripts—they follow the general format and style of the time. But there’s also a certain individuality to them. Enclosing the zodiac in a ring is very typical, but combining two crayfish in the same circle is quite unusual.

The ecclesiastical library of St. Gallen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ecclesiastical library of St. Gallen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the drawings were done from memory, then perhaps it wasn’t easy for the illustrator to copy directly from manuscripts (assuming the VMS author even wanted to do that). In the Middle Ages, the main repositories for manuscripts were libraries: ecclesiastical, university, and the personal libraries of the nobility. Some were probably housed by commercial calligraphy and illustration services, as well. Books were entirely handcrafted and, as such, were rare and expensive. Many books in libraries were chained to prevent theft—they could only be seen during viewing hours.

The VMS depiction of Cancer leaves many unanswered questions. Why two symbols? Why the line connecting two crayfish? Why is one green (with red highlights) and the other red? Why such diminutive C-shapes, compared to other zodiacs, and the ultra-skinny legs? Why are the C-shapes drawn so much smaller than other zodiacs?

Is the crayfish quirky because it was drawn from memory, or is it different because the VMS illustrator had a unique way of doing things?

Posted by J.K. Petersen


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

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

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.