Monday, June 18, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3a) - The Star

Three classic versions of the "The Star" tarot card, 17th of the 22 trumps.
From left to right: "Hope" from the Visconti Bergamo deck, 1452; "L'Étoile" from the Tarot de Marseilles (Pierre Madenie), 1709; "The Star," Rider-Waite deck, 1910.
(Click on images for enlargements throughout the post.)

"Early tarot images may seem exotic to us, but they were very familiar to 15th century card players from wall frescoes, illustrated books, plays and pageants. From the start, all tarot decks exhibited a great deal of consistency. They all had the same twenty-two images we’re familiar with, and no other. For instance, the Star card could depict an astronomer, the Magi following the star of Bethlehem, or a woman holding up a star; but the card was easily recognizable as illustrating the concept of Star."

- An excerpt from the Tarot Heritage article: Italian Tarot in the 15th Century. Inset right: The Star from the contemporary Silver Era Tarot.

"The 14th and 15th centuries were a major period of popularity for alchemy, which continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. Alchemical works used a combination of text and pictures. It presented its material in discreet stages, many with accompanying illustrations, with both a spiritual and a material goal. The stages usually involved symbolic death, transformation, and spiritual rebirth...

... Some surviving alchemical texts antedated or were contemporaneous with the first tarot. The Turbo Philosophorum, an anthology of Arabic sources, was part of the Visconti Library in Milan. A so-called "Arnaldian" work (from Arnald of Villanova) called the Rosarium Philosophorum existed in manuscript by the end of the 14th century... illustrated versions circulated by 1400, called 'Rosarium cum figuris'."

- Excerpt from the introduction to Tarot and Alchemy: Two Parallel Traditions, 2012, Michael S. Howard.

"Secrecy is virtually inseparable from alchemy.  Already in the Greco-Egyptian period, alchemists had devised ways of speaking to hide the very information they claimed to transmit.  They used “cover names” to conceal the identity of key ingredients, and called one substance by many different names and many different substances by a single name.  This culture of secrecy had partly been inherited naturally from the craft traditions that sired alchemy, where keeping proprietary secrets was equivalent to maintaining one’s livelihood.  But the secrecy that accompanied alchemy from its origins intensified in the Middle Ages."

- Excerpt (and inset images) from Primer 2 - Alchemy (.pdf), 2013, by Lawrence M. Principe and Laura Light. The subject matter of the photograph above (inset left above): three alchemical miniatures (circa 1450-1475) from Southern Germany or Austria. Inset right is the cover of a MS from Northern Italy (circa 1425-1450) which is described as including: "Recipes and Extracts on Alchemy, Medicine, Metal-Working, Cosmetics, Veterinary Science, Agriculture, Wine-making, and other subjects." Although difficult to see, the beaded metal work on the leather binding is in the shape of a six-pointed star within a circle. For an  investigation of the alchemical meaning of the six-fold star see: The Restoration of Symmetry: The Philosopher's Stone.


From the Voynich MS: the top portion of the zodiac page for Scorpio featuring
4 nymphs (apparently named). Two other zodiac pages also feature this same
arrangement of nymphs placed outside and above the chart: Gemini & Sagittarius.

One of the most striking things about the Voynich MS is the almost obsessive repetition of what must be one of its key figures: the naked (skyclad) blonde nymphs who (more or less) hold large stars aloft with their left hands. They appear in the majority of the zodiac pages in varying numbers, marching clock-wise around the charts, and although a handful of male figures* appear as well - inset left is one male nymph amid the females on the Gemini page - for the most part the star-bearers are women... and women of all ages. Although their appearances change somewhat throughout the zodiac sequence, there seems to be no obvious rhyme nor reason for their presence except to possibly establish the importance of their presence. Once again, they seem to have been individually named - like the bathing nymphs in Part 2 - and, in light of this possibility, I'm inclined to tentatively agree with Voynich researcher Claudette Cohen in that the authors were, in fact, a group of actual women whom the nymphs represent... a sort of Sisterhood of the Star. Well, that's one of the more plausible interpretations anyway.

But, what's most odd about the star-bearing nymphs is that they are uncannily familiar, similar to an esoteric figure that, certainly, some of us have encountered before: the nude, blonde woman with a star (or stars) on the 17th trump card of the tarot: The Star. The interesting thing about The Star is that it corresponds with the astrological sign of Aquarius, the Water Bearer, which just happens to be one of the Zodiac pages missing from the manuscript. (The other is allegedly Capricorn.**) In any case, as you can see in the three versions of the card introducing this post, in the first and oldest image (first documented in the mid-15th century), the position of "Hope" - inset left - who is cloaked and holding a star aloft - is similar to that of the nymphs. One gets the impression that this symbolic figure may have had an even older precedent...

Meanwhile, in the latter cards, the woman is now sans clothing and synchronistically pouring water from two urns. From her right hand she appears to be emptying one vessel onto the ground, while, from the other, she appears to be replenishing a larger body of water. Or, is she creating that body of water? In any case, the woman is by water, and possibly in the act of bathing. Interestingly, in the Marseilles decks, this card is often misspelled "L'Estoille" (sans the apostrophe) when, as I've indicated, the correct spelling would have been "L'Étoile" or (plural) "Les Étoiles." While I've read that "estoille" is an old Provençal spelling for star, Michael S. Howard notes on his website, that it might possibly be a play on words regarding the French word for washing: "toilette."

So, this is all very interesting, but, although there are all sorts of myths surrounding the tarot's history,*** it seems that it made its actual debut in Europe slightly later than our early 15th century Voynich time period. Which is not to say that the carbon dating of the Voynich vellum necessarily proved it was actually used in the early 1400s because, as it stands, there seems to be no hard evidence regarding exactly when the ink was applied. As Wiki tells us: "It has been suggested that McCrone Associates found that much of the ink was added not long after the creation of the parchment, but the official report contains no statement to this effect." (Inset right: Stars appearing in the center of the two charts in the Voynich MS.)

That being said, although tarot mythologists place its invention in far more ancient times, the earliest (documented) tarot and tarot-like decks supposedly appeared around the mid-15th century in Europe, and certainly no earlier than 1425****. But, in the last analysis, this doesn't negate the possible connection between our Voynich nymphs and the symbolism of the The Star... because long before the tarot became integrated in Western esoterica there existed another body of secret knowledge with similar symbolical imagery: alchemy. And, keep in mind that our designated time period coincides with the early part of the Renaissance, a period when alchemy began to thrive in Europe. Moreover, the tarot seems to have incorporated a number of symbols from alchemy.

"The Star represents the washing or purification that is now made possible through the processes of the Opus. This is called the baptism. The Moon, or the White Stone, is the result of this process. It is an embryonic stage of the Philosopher's Stone." - A quote found on this Llewellyn pageInset left is an alchemical emblematic drawing found here. Note the 7 stars... which may allude to the 7 planets known at the time or the seven transformational processes in alchemy.

Above and below are alchemical illuminations from the Clavis Artis (Italian Wiki only) which is an alchemical manuscript from the 1700s written under the pseudonym of (the ancient magician) Zoroaster. There are several copies of the manuscript in Germany, and several different styles of illumination (found here and here) but, as is stated on the title page: "(the) following text was translated from Arabic into German in the Year of Christ 1236," there's a possibility Clavis Artis might be older.

In any case, the MS contains a number of images that might interest us here. In the image above, the King (Sun) and Queen (Moon) are conjoined (in a "chemical wedding") by an androgynous mermaid figure (alchemical Mercury) in a small body of water. Interestingly, a female figure with a star above her head - possibly Lady Achymia, the spirit, muse, and guiding light of alchemy (inset right and found in an article about female alchemists) - is pouring a red liquid (blood?) into the water from a flask.

In the illustration above (from Clavis Artis), a woman, thigh-high in water flowing from a spring, is confronting a fire-breathing salamander. Now, while there are neither mermaids nor salamanders in the classic tarot decks, the mermaid is an important alchemical symbol, as is the salamander which 17th century alchemist Michael Maier compared to the Philosopher's Stone (see image section below).

As it so happens, in the Voynich manuscript we find all of the above and other important alchemical configurations (such as the aqua vitae symbol noted in Part 2 of this series). Inset left and below are two nymphs from the Voynich MS sporting fish-tails. In the lower image, however, we have what also looks like an alchemical vessel above the nymph's head, and what looks very much like a spotted salamander in the foreground.

There's another salamander in the margins of the VMS, but the most conspicuous salamander would have to be the one on the zodiac page for Scorpio (below).

When I first began studying the Voynich illuminations, the salamander (in lieu of any animal resembling a Scorpion) was the image which impressed me the most. But then, I posted about salamanders on Trans-D in 2016 (see Eye of Newt), so I already knew of its alchemical symbolism. I can't say I immediately assumed that the Voynich MS had anything seriously to do with alchemy (or anything else for that matter), but the presence of the salamander made the alchemical connection more likely. Not that substituting salamanders (or lizards) for scorpions was all that unusual at the time (see J.K. Peterson's The Fantasy Scorpio), but, somehow the salamander on the Scorpio page (detail inset right) informed me that possibly something genuinely arcane was underfoot, and, in a convoluted way, it immediately alerted me to another possibility.

Meanwhile, I've posted a few more alchemical images below for your review, before moving on to the one Voynich image that might just give the game away... Alas, that won't be till the next (and next-to-the-last) posting in the series: The Voynich Manuscript (Part 3b) - The Empress & the Alchemist.

In this Clavis Artis illustration an aristocratic woman is holding a strange star-like flower.
Note the circle in the center. In the Voynich MS, a number of stars have circles in the center
and some of them are attached to strings or stems like the salamander
on the zodiac page (above). I have yet to find an an explanation for this symbol.

See Ellie Velinska's related article.

Another view of the salamander from Clavis Artis.

"Ut Salamandra vivit igne sic lapis.
(As the Salamander lives in the Fire so does the Stone.)
- Emblem XXIX from Atalanta fugiens, the 1617 alchemical text by Michael Maier.

Alchemical apparatus from (left to right): 1. From a 12th century Arabic alchemical text, Nuggets of Gold2. & 3. From a 1651 alchemical text by Annibal Barlet.
More examples can be found here, here, and here.

A woodcut of a double-tailed (dual-natured) alchemical siren - sometimes 
referred to as a Melusine (Jung's interpretation of the Melusine) -
who has been compared to the woman on the Star card.

Another Melusine; this odd image is from the early 15th century German alchemical MS:
Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit ("Book of the Holy Trinity").

An odd representation of Mercury - sort of a cross between a star and an alchemical
siren (in this case, the serpentine Melusine) -  apparently tidying up after decapitating the white queen (the Moon) and the red king (the Sun) with an ax... from the
15th century alchemical manuscript,  Aurora consurgens.


* Regarding the male nymphs, there's a number to be found throughout the MS (although rarely fully described anatomically). It is probably notable, however, that they are found in greater numbers on the Cancer and Gemini zodiac pages, and on the zodiac pages featuring what appears to be members of a royal court. A marginalia detail (from the bathing section) is inset right and a detail from the Cancer page is below. (Note that many, if not all, the figures in the detail are male.)

So, regardless of the strong predominance of female images in both the bathing and zodiac sections of the VMS, it is not safe to assume the entire text is devoted solely to the female gender.

** Apparently there are two versions of the Aries zodiac page and two of Taurus in the VMS, but I'm not convinced that the darker version of Aries is not, in fact, Capricorn. While some medieval astrologers regarded Capricorn as represented by the mythological sea-goat, most often its image was almost indistinguishable from Aries (the ram). See the medieval zodiac below.

*** Historical records are a little sketchy regarding the origin of the tarot, allowing esoteric mythologists to speculate it originated anywhere from ancient Egypt, to the doomed Atlantis. In reality, it is alchemy which is truly ancient.

That being said, I recently read James Wasserman's The Templars and the Assassins -The Militia of Heaven, in which Wasserman speculates that occult symbolism and esoteric knowledge (originating from the Middle East) entered Western consciousness via the Crusades and the Order of the Knights Templar... enhanced by the Order's clandestine relationship with the Islamic Order of the Assasins (also known as the Nizaris or Hashashin).

At the end of the book Wasserman describes the history of a number of esoteric subjects and societies. His view on the tarot:

"The introduction of the Tarot cards to Europe closely corresponded with Parzival's publication in the last quarter of the 15th century. The Tarot itself was said to have been designed by a council of initiates who met in Morocco around the year 1200."

****  "A lost tarot-like pack was commissioned by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti and described by Martiano da Tortona probably between 1418 and 1425, since the painter he mentions, Michelino da Besozzo, returned to Milan in 1418, while Martiano himself died in 1425. He described a 60-card deck with 16 cards having images of the Greek gods and suits depicting four kinds of birds. The 16 cards were regarded as "trumps" since in 1449 Jacopo Antonio Marcello recalled that the now deceased duke had invented a novum quoddam et exquisitum triumphorum genus, or "a new and exquisite kind of triumphs."

- Excerpt from Wiki's entry for Tarot.

This "lost tarot-like pack" might have been similar to the Mantegna Tarocchi (several cards are pictured above). For more info see Adam McLean's article: An Hermetic Origin of the Tarot Cards? A Consideration of the Tarocchi of Mantegna. For more images of the deck go here or here. There is a German version of the deck at the British Museum.

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