Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript (Part 2) - Puzzling Pieces: The "Map"

The Voynich MS "map" (This link has been repaired).
(Click on images for larger views.)

"The Voynich Manuscript isn’t a beautiful book; in fact, it’s crude and cheaply done. It’s traditionally divided into four sections - herbal, astrological, balneological (pertaining to baths), and pharmacological - not for what those sections are but for what analysts, grasping for understanding, think they resemble. The symbols arranged in prosaic lines look like language, though the significance of the “Voynichese,” as it’s called, has never been established. And the illustrations don’t illuminate the mystery; they only throw further shadows on the darkness.

The long herbal section, our first indication that something is off, comprises colorful drawings of what look like uprooted plants alongside paragraphs of text. There’s something unsettling about the drawings; it’s almost like a catalogue of extinct species. Hairy bulbs sprout rust-red tubers and yellow pods. Colorless flowers perch on leaves with spikes like Venus flytraps. A creature, a mix between a dragon and a sea horse, suckles on a speckled leaf. Some of the bulbs have faces.

... Many critics believe that it is a hoax. It’s probably the most persuasive theory, as everything in the book conveniently falls under the umbrella of “total nonsense.” While the European Middle Ages are often perceived as an austere and circumscribed culture, the Voynich Manuscript was conceived by a liberated imagination. There’s a genuine joy communicated through the details, like a monk doodling racy cartoons in the margins of a scholastic text. It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it’s amusing to imagine that we’re still falling for the trick."

- Excerpts from a article by Michael LaPointe via The Paris Review (2016): The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility. Inset right is the Voynich MS folio mentioned in the quote featuring the weird little dragon/sea-horse creature.

"The top righthand corner of each recto (righthand) page has been numbered from 1 to 116, using numerals of a later date. From the various numbering gaps in the quires and pages, it seems likely that in the past the manuscript had at least 272 pages in 20 quires, some of which were already missing when Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912. There is strong evidence that many of the book's bifolios were reordered at various points in its history, and that the original page order may well have been quite different from what it is today.

...the colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.

...Five folios contain only text, and at least 28 folios are missing from the manuscript."

- From the Wiki entry for Voynich manuscript. Inset right is the rondel located in the upper right-hand corner of the Voynich map. It seems to describe a fortified castle overlooking a bay (with exaggerated ocean waves) in an easterly direction.


Apart from the indecipherable script, what is it about the Voynich manuscript that defies all attempts at definition?

Actually, let me re-phrase that: is there anything about the Voynich MS that makes sense? One has to wonder if the key to the whole dilemma was hidden within those 28 missing pages... and whether those pages were deliberately removed, rendering the remainder ultimately meaningless.

Perhaps, one problem is that we assume the various sections are intrinsically related when, in reality, the only element which ties them together is the enigmatic script. In other words, we have no reason to assume the sections were originally created in the order in which we presently find them nor even created for the same purpose. Was the Voynich MS meant to be an actual manuscript, or was it fragments of a private journal which were cobbled together and somehow survived? Do the bathing nymphs have anything to do with the plants or the star-charts or are they elements of something else entirely? Judging by the marginalia (inset left) we might be looking at a science fiction tale!

In any case, in this (my second) and my third (and last) Voynich post - I'll be tinkering with a few separate elements, without necessarily trying to stitch them into one recognizable whole, and the first of these will be the enigmatic fold-out  Voynich "map" (introducing this post): a series of interconnected vignettes or roundels defining a general locale... although, where this locale was located is anybody's guess!


Location, Location, Location

Despite being wedged between the star charts and a second botanical section, my guess is that the Voynich "map" most likely originally accompanied the bathing nymphs. Once again, contrary to the "medical therapy" hypothesis regarding this section, we might as easily be discussing a narrative: a fictional tale, a fanciful, historical account or plans for the creation of a medieval "spa town".* In other words, the nymph section might have a marginal relation to the rest of the MS and represent nothing apart from the nymphs (and their world) within the context of the narrative. After all, the ladies even seem to have been given names in the illustration (above), indicated by the words inscribed directly over their heads. And, as for their world, well, the image may actually hold a clue. While the various bathing enclosures in the nymph section have been compared to Jewish ritual baths - or mikvah (see Part 1) - or even Roman baths, the background details here more closely resemble a Turkish bath or hammam. Inset right is an example: a medieval Turkish bath in Granada, Spain (sourced here). Below the jump is one in Istanbul, followed by one of several 16th century Turkish baths (Kiraly Bath) which continue to operate in Budapest (the "City of Baths"), Hungary.

The Wiki entry for Turkish Bath tells us: 

"As a primarily female space, women's hammams play a special role in society. Valerie Staats finds that the women's hammams of Morocco serve as a social space where traditional and modern women from urban and rural areas of the country come together, regardless of their religiosity, to bathe and socialise. While al-Ghazali and other Islamic intellectuals may have stipulated certain regulations for bathing, the regulations, being outdated and fundamental, are not usually upheld in the everyday interactions of Moroccans in the hammam. Staats argues that hammams are places where women can feel more at ease than they feel in many other public interactions. In addition, in his work "Sexuality in Islam," Abdelwahab Bouhiba notes that some historians found evidence of hammams as spaces for sexual expression among women, which they believed was a result of the universality of nudity in these spaces."

From the bathing nymph section. Once again, the girls seem to have
been named... and what is the that curious scene in the upper right-hand corner?
It appears to be a man pushing a nymph forward... is she restrained?

Meanwhile, this Voynich researcher compares the baths to cisterns, which is also a possibility and one we'll return to later, but, for now, here's a cistern in Morocco.

Returning to the map, however, specifically it's center roundel - possibly the main focal point of the bathing nymph section - we have the detail shown below.

The central roundel.

And, what do we have here? Oddly enough, it looks like pillars topped with onion domes! At first glance I saw them as a row of domed pillars, but, if you look carefully, the pillars are arranged in a circle around a field of black stars. Looking closer, the "field of stars" appears to be a roof or platform supported by arches or by the pillars themselves.

Now, our Voynich artist was obviously not an architect, but if these structures represent onion domes, then we've narrowed our general location possibilities down a tiny bit. That is, either we're talking about Russia (inset left), India (inset right, below), Iran, or any of the countries influenced (and/or absorbed by) the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century onwards:

"The Ottoman Empire... was a state that controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia and northern Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt (modern-day Bilecik Province) by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman Beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a multinational, multilingual empire controlling most of Southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, parts of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. At the beginning of the 17th century, the empire contained 32 provinces and numerous vassal states. Some of these were later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, while others were granted various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.

With Constantinople as its capital and control of lands around the Mediterranean basin, the Ottoman Empire was at the centre of interactions between the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries." (See map)

As for the field of black stars, well, if we look at the domed ceilings in the photos of the Turkish baths shown previously, you'll note an arrangement of numerous small holes or windows. Below is a photo of one of those small openings found in the walls of the bath at Granada.

On the other hand, the black stars may also (or, instead) represent water, and in this case the Turkish bath indicated in the roundel might have an open pool similar to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest (below).

The central roundel also seems to have a direct relationship with the roundels north, south, east and west of it; that is, each seems to flow into (or out of) the center. Oddly enough, each representation of the flowing substance seems to be described somewhat differently. This is especially evident in the north and south roundels (which are the easiest to make out).

The roundel directly north of the center.

Note that the substance flowing into the bottom of the (north) roundel is composed of small circles. Do the circles represent air or steam, as opposed to water? Note also that this 26-sided pinwheel appears to lie above a larger (possibly) stone structure. So, are we talking about something similar to the medieval windmill (inset right) found in the Astra Museum complex in Romania? Or, contrastingly, a structure more similar to the medieval cistern found in Dubrovnik, Croatia (below)?

As for the southern roundel (below), note the medium flowing into the top of the roundel is represented by diagonal lines or arrows. Note also that this 14-sided structure appears to be secured with ropes or poles like a tent or a pavilion

The roundel directly south of the center.

Detail from The Field of the Cloth of Gold (Camp du Drap d'Or),1545 (?).

Now, these two roundels are interesting for another reason: those pinwheel shapes in the center, which, apart from resembling a windmill, dome, or tent-top (inset left is a bathing scene which features a pavilion-like canopy), also bring to mind a birds-eye view of an umbrella or parasol.** And, this parasol shape is repeated several times throughout the MS, both in the bathing nymph section and, to some degree, even in a star chart.

For another example, two of the "parasols" are featured at the top of the page in bathing scene below.

In this illustration we find the "seven sisters" in a small, tiled pool into which water streams down from two parasol-topped objects. Do these represent the two locations we just addressed on the map? Is that acorn-shape (or pineapple shape) beneath the parasols representative of a stone container? Or, like a structure in the roundel which follows, is it representative of some variety of plant part? ***

Also, note that the streams of water are passing through what appears to be 7 sections of pipe... and then note the very similar barrel-shaped containers from which the nymphs are emerging in the Voynich astrological chart for Pisces (inset right); specifically the nymphs in the innermost circle.

(Note: In regards to those blue and red frames highlighting some of the words in the bath scene, they're mine: the red frames highlight repetitions of one word, the blue frames highlight repetitions of a different word. Strangely enough, the blue-framed words (especially) are repeated several times in one line... a device used in ballads or poetry.

The next to last roundel I want to address is the one above, located in the upper left-hand corner of the map. Note what looks like a group of five large pipes emerging from its perimeter.

In keeping with the general waterworks theme, if the various lozenges are meant to be rocks surrounding the large mouth-like central area, then it closely resembles a medieval cistern in Jordan which can be seen here. As for those weird tooth-shaped features lining the "mouth," well, we saw them before in Part I, in the image of the (proposed) goddess-head... but they are also featured in the Voynich blossom inset left. As a matter of fact, the interior of the roundel is almost identical to top of this enigmatic flower!

Apart from that oddity, if you look to the right of the same roundel, there lies a fountain. Beyond that - and not shown in this image (although you can see it on the left of the northern central roundel) - is possibly a well... which together might indicate an actual landmark which existed at the time... well, that is, unless it's all a fabrication!

The last roundel featured in this post is the roundel (above) found in the lower left-hand corner of the map. While almost everything here is impossible to identify, the four-sided shape in the center might introduce another water-feature to our mix: the mineral spring.
Once again, the small black stars seem to indicate a body of water. Here's a hot spring from the spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. Although founded in the Middle Ages it has been extensively renovated.

There's one other feature in this detail that has been somewhat cropped off but I recently found an interesting correlation involving it, so I'm posting it in full below.

(right) Label form the bottom left-hand corner of the Voynich map.
(left) Alchemical symbols for Aqua vitae (Water of Life) from
Medicinisch-Chymisch- und Alchemistisches Oraculum, Ulm, 1755.

While I'm not sure just what sort of label or notation it is, the symbol in the middle of the circle closely resembles the first among a number of alchemical symbols for aqua vitae (Water of Life) which seems altogether appropriate when you think about it... since the map seems to be all about containing water and/or distributing it. In Alchemy, however, apart from symbolizing ethanol (alcohol), aqua vitae also symbolizes Mercurius (Philosopher's Mercury), and the 5th element, aether or the Quintessence. (See this .pdf.)

So, is this evidence that our Voynich author(s) were, at least, aware of alchemy?

Which brings us to the end of Part 2 of the Voynich series and (cunningly) sets me up with a hook for the third and last post: The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3) - The Star(s), the Empress and the Alchemist . Till next time, then!

(Later note: I was forced to break up the third post into two parts: The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3a) - The Star.... and The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3b) - The Empress and the Alchemist.)


* A list of important spa towns can be found here. Most of the spa towns existent today were created in the 18th or 19th century... but many of them were built on or around sites with bodies of water (mostly thermal water springs) known to be therapeutic since the Middle Ages or even Pre-Roman times.

** From a quote found here:

"History of parasol reaches much further back than those of umbrella. Discovered countless millennia ago parasol finally evolved into modern form around 4000 years ago in ancient Egypt, Assyria and China. Initially made from natural sources (tree leaves, eucalyptus and palm branches), advancement of technology finally enabled creation of parasols with their canopy made from animal skins, cloth, and other materials (such as very popular and expensive paper umbrellas in 9th century BC China). Because of their high cost and limited manufacture, parasols of that early age were almost exclusively used by nobility, royalty and clergy, symbolizing wealth and power."

Inset right is a detail from Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, by Anthonis van Dyck, 1623 from the Wiki entry for umbrella. Also see: In the Shade of the Royal Umbrella.

The "seven sisters" in a tub fed by one of the weird "parasols"...

*** Apart from representing stone vessels or cisterns, perhaps the strange objects beneath the parasols are plant parts (see below). In fact many of the odd shapes we see in the margins of the bathing section may be plant parts as opposed to the human body parts a few Voynich interpreters have suggested.

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