Myrobalan: eastern habits fol.22r

fol.22r detail

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Where leaves are included in a diagram, they serve as a classification, telling the viewer that the other plants in the group are defined as versions of that Mediterranean plant, as the base-type.


Of course, some eastern plants having no equivalent in the Mediterranean, the usual method is not possible, and here is a case in point: fol.22r


The fact that it shows no leaf is, itself, an indication that the group is formed from plants beyond the Mediterranean region and Europe. (The green parts are pods)


Fortunately, we are also provided with means to severely limit the number of plants that might be considered. The various plants in a group have their salient features accurately drawn, so none can be ignored. In addition, there is at least one, and sometimes several motifs and a mnemonic included.


Motifs include those mentioned in the first post – the most common being the circumscription mark ~or lack of it ~ and the question of cultivated versus a wild plant must agree with any posited identification.


And on top of those factors, the posited identification must agree with our existing documentary sources about where and when a given plant was known in some particular (and related) commercial use.  Well-known, that is, in a relevant region of the east-west trade routes.  The plants’ geographic range must be appropriate (no sunflowers), and  the mnemonics must be explicable without contradicting those other factors. What keeps our feet on the ground is principally the fact that details of leaf, stem, petiole and pods (etc.) is habitually true to type, and so photographic evidence should always support the identification of each plant in a group. Occasionally that’s not possible because too little of one member in the group is included, or there is no reference to common uses (as happens with the ‘violas’).


But only two or three folios present exceptions. For the rest, those factors are present, and must be consistently explained, if any identification is likely to stand.


I will say that all these steps were ones followed in every example that I’ll present here –  though if I seem to cut to the conclusion too quickly, it’s because a step-by-step explanation including possiblities rejected would be just plain boring, and I’m well aware how most people find the manuscript’s botanical section the  least interesting.


So – back to folio 22r

Since no leaf is included, we must first glean what we can from the standard motifs (described in the two previous posts) and from any mnemonic devices.

Fol.22r contains one mnemonic device in the stem. Another more complex in the arrangement of the roots.


I’ll begin with the first.

By the way… Another indication that this folio, like many others, is not just a copy from older Mediterranean herbal pictures is the way that the potentially fruit-bearing racemes are pictured, upturned.

That convention is rare in European art, but quite common in eastern works, particularly those made in Buddhist India during the first centuries AD.


The upper traders’ roads along which Buddhism first spread were, of course, also those along which hemp grew and they crossed the regions from which came many of the plants used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine.  Plants from the foothills of the Himalayas – from Tibet and Nepal – were regularly traded down the Indus, and by sea thereafter, so it is not surprising to find that the type of the Medicine Buddha is (or was) especially popular in the north.


The Medicine Buddha is always shown with sprigs from the myrobalans group of plants, the right hand holding or near a myrobalans sprig while  the other hand holds a fruit, or a container. The first example shown below (right) is from Tibet, and this vessel’s unusual form is, to my eyes, evocative of the mnemonic set into the stem of fol. 22r.










In itself, that is no proof, nor grounds for any final identification, but it gives us an idea to be tested against other elements in the drawing, both the realistic and the schematic.


As it happens, though, there was at least one person from the west who had known the Medicine Buddha no later than the ninth century, for a figure in Gandharan style was recovered from a grave of that date in Heligoland.


Buddha in Gandharan style, recovered HelgoAs you can see, it has been damaged, but its style is recognisable, and the typical sign of mercy and of the Medicine Buddha is visible: that is – the right hand is shown open, turned outwards, and down.





It was found with an Egyptian metal sieve and an Irish bishop’s crozier,  so could have come from either of those places, but it is also true that by the tenth century the Scandinavians – probably the Rus – were raiding and perhaps trading on behalf of Byzantium at least as far as the southern Caspian shores ~ the same region that Clavijo and others later passed through. So the statue might have been carried by a more adventurous man directly from its original home to his own, in the far, cold north.


(above, right) Here is a Thai version, just to show how widely the Medicine Buddha was known in the east,  and that it was always associated with the Myrobalans.



Our botany separates this traditional group but elsewhere the various Myrobalans were considered merely as different grades, not as distinct genera or species and it is that same habit which is carried in fol.22r


As we compare the plants/parts in this picture, it is clear that they match those of the different types/grades of  the ‘Myrobalans’ group.



Two myrobalans have a three-fold head:  Emblica officinalis – which is considered the highest grade – and Terminalia belerica. (Why the full fruit isn’t pictured in this case, I’ll explain later).

(left) Emblica officinalis (Myrobalan) fruit; (centre)

(left) Emblica officinalis (Myrobalan) fruit = gooseberry; (centre) terminalia belerica (Myrobalan) fruit; detail from MS Beinecke 408 fol 22r



Racemes are characteristic of two more of the most-used myrobalans Terminalia belerica and Terminalia chebulaT. chebula‘s racemes being the more sparse.

Myrobalans racemes

(Left) detail fol.22r; (centre) Terminalia belerica pop. “Beddha”  (right) Terminalia chebula


At the lowest level are drawn pods having the characteristic form of those from T. belerica, the myrobalan known popularly in India as ‘Beddha’.

fol 22r detail pods

fol 22r detail pods

One might easily describe the whole of fol.22r as describing T. belerica alone, though if that were the intention the whole figure would be most unlikely to be about medicine, for the custom in traditional medicine was to speak of the three together – which is why so many images of the Medicine Buddha include parts taken from each of the three.

The allusion is to the various ‘Cure-alls’ (raysana), such as Triphala or Chyawanprash.


To resolve the question one must, again, turn to consider the mnemonic element: and here the type used is that quieter sort expressed by the form given the root – a point deserving a separate post.

In the meantime, we can posit a label for fol.22r:  Myrobalans

Additional notes


By the end of the fourteenth century at least (fifty years before the Voynich manuscript) Myrobalans were being imported into Venice and Genoa through Acco and Tunis. In this case, the only use to which they were put by Europeans seems to have been medicinal, though this impression may be due to our lack of documentation more than to their lack of information about the plants.

In larger quantities, Venice and Genoa imported the top two grades:-

the ‘Emblic’ (Emblica officinalis in our taxonomy) and the ‘Beleric’ (Terminalia belerica) and only in very small quantities two more: the ‘Chebulic-‘ (Terminalia chebula) and the ‘Citron-‘ myrobalans (Terminalia arjuna).

That is:

‘Emblic-‘Emblica officinalis Syn. Phyllanthus emblica (Amla or Amalaki).

‘Beleric-‘Terminalia belerica, sometimes called the ‘lesser-‘ or ‘bastard-‘ myrobalan. (In India  Bibhitaki, or popularly Beddha).

‘Chebulic-‘ Terminalia chebula ( Haritaki; Chebulic)

‘Citron-‘ Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna Arjun; Citron)

So depending on which of these the reader associates with each level in fol.33r, it is possible to see the whole as describing the three grades or just one.

My experience has been that none of the folios save perhaps fol.1v (Cloves) is a portrait of a single plant.


This is published to assist study of MS Beinecke 408.
It constitutes the results of the author’s original work.  To fellow professionals: Each of these posts is to be considered a formal publication, and is declared copyright of the author.  You may use it for personal research, but publication of the papers, unacknowledged adoption of their conclusions and/or  proposed analytical method without citation or due acknowledgement, in any media, will be deemed a breach of copyright. Permissions – see email address.

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~ Next post

fol. 22r (concluded): root mnemonics and the  Myrobalans’ non medicinal uses.

Sherwood sees this folio as depicting Verbena officinalis.

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