fol.86v Ways to the east: the river roads – Revised post

Aachen mosaic Euphrates detail sml

“… the fourth river, by name EUPHRATES…”


The folio is referred to in this article by the original foliation published on Yale University’s bibliotecapleyades site.  The Beinecke Library site now gives the same diagram the foliation  “folio 85v and 86r” (Image scan 1006231) – note added 24/02/2016


[1370 words] From the north point, indicated by a still- undefined walled enclosure which I describe for convenience as the pairi.daêza, and apparently beginning higher than the waters earlier identified with the Black sea two ‘river roads’ emerge. Both completely bypass the minimap and its depiction of the Mediterranean. One goes towards the west, uncoloured for most of its length. It debouches through what appears to be a marsh or delta and in three branches. The surface through which it falls appears to be sheer or artificially cut, something indicated by the use of parallel hatching.

river road – western side

The other tends towards the east, and again ends in an outfall where the surface is shown sheer.

river road – eastern side

The present question is whether the drawing also reflects classical habits, or simply the facts of geography, or contemporary beliefs held by Christians, Muslims, or others.  It may be another case of the common imposition of received theories (including religious beliefs) upon the actual form of the world.

Some people interested in  the Voynich manuscript may find details of medieval beliefs tedious, but since the manuscript can be expected to reflect medieval, and even ancient antecedent works, the matter is crucial.

One important point is that, by as late as the time of John de Marignolli, (i.e to the mid-fourteenth century), the opinion of  Christian Europe, was that all the world’s major rivers originated from an eastern ‘paradise’. The fact that the river-roads on fol.86v are shown emerging from the North  and are placed outside the map proper offers one argument for its origin outside western Europe, or at least outside  Marignolli’s time.

Not that Marignolli was untravelled. He had been to China and back, one of the early Franciscan ambassadors. His travels in the east gave him no reason to change his belief ~ derived by glosses on a text of the Jewish religious law ~ that the rivers of ‘paradise’ all arose in Sri Lanka. It was apparently a belief also widely held there, and John not  only believed that the paradise lay in the eastern seas, he believed that he had seen their font while in Ceylon!

The Hebrew text says nothing so detailed. It reads:

A river issues forth from Eden to water the garden, and from there it is divided and becomes four headwaters / the name of the first is Pishon…/The name of the second river is Gihon…/ The name of the third river is Hiddekel … and the fourth river is the Purat”.(Gen. 2:10sqq)

Commentaries then identified Dijla with the Tigris and Purat with the Euphrates.

John’s account of the rivers is far more elaborate, and describes each of the four: Compare with a copy of the  Beatus worldmap. East is to the top

GYON is that which circleth the land of Ethiopia where are now the negroes, and which is called the Land of Prester John. It is indeed believed to be the Nile, which descends into Egypt by a breach made in the place which is called ABASTY. The Christians of St. Matthew the Apostle are there, and the Soldan pays them tribute on account of the river, because they have it in their power to shut off the water, and then Egypt would perish.

The second river is called PHISON, and it goes through India, circling all the land of Evilach, and is said to go down into CATHAY, where, by a change of name, it is called CAROMORAN, i.e. Black Water, and there is found bdellium and the onyx stone. I believe it to be the biggest river of fresh water in the world, and I have crossed it myself. .. On the other side of Caffa the river is lost in the sands, but it breaks out again and forms the sea which is called BACUC, beyond THANA.

The third river is called TYGRIS. It passes over against the land of the Assyrians, and comes down near NYNEVE, that great city of three days’ journey, to which Jonas was sent to preach; and his sepulchre is there. I have been there also, and stopped a fortnight in the adjoining towns which were built out of the ruins of the city. There are capital fruits there, especially pomegranates of wonderful size and sweetness, with all the other fruits that we have in Italy. And on the opposite side [of the river] is a city built out of the ruins of Nyneve, which is called MONSOL (Mosul).

Between that river and the fourth, there is a long tract of country bearing these names; viz., Mesopotamia, i.e. the land between the waters; Assyria, the land of Abraham and Job, where also is the city of King Abagarus, .. Christian city, but now in the hands of the Saracens. There also I abode four days in no small fear.

We come lastly to the fourth river, by name EUPHRATES, which separates Syria, Assyria, and Mesopotamia from the Holy Land. When we crossed it we were in the Holy Land. In this region are some very great cities, especially ALEP, in which there are many Christians who dress after the Latin fashion, and speak a language very near the French; at any rate like French of Cyprus. Thence you come to Damascus, to Mount Lebanon, to Galilee, to Samaria, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and to the Sepulchre.

Both Christianity and the Muslim faith traced their origins to the Jewish law, writings and prophets, so Muslim works also contain elaborations on the Hebrew text. In Muslim traditions, two rivers of the four were not visible:

As an hadith about the Prophet of Islam says:

Behold! There ran four rivers; two were hidden and two were visible. I asked, ‘What are these two kinds of rivers, O Gabriel?’ He replied, ‘As for the hidden rivers, they are two rivers in Paradise and the visible rivers are the Nile and the Euphrates.’

So we know that conception of the ‘4’ was current by, and certainly after the seventh century AD.  Muslim tradition also associated the rivers with milk, wine, and honey.

In Medieval Europe, the theme was popular and is often  found illustrated, as for example in the twelfth century mosaic at San Clemente, at Cluny and in the chapel of St.Nicholas in Die. The header picture ‘Euphrates’ comes from a mosaic in the narthex of Aachen’s cathedral. Its classical character is clear enough, and we know that in 787, Charlemagne wrote to the Pope (Hadrian I), asking for “mosaic, marbles, and other materials from floors and walls” in Rome and Ravenna. Some may have been included in the cathedral.

The question about the ‘river-roads’ in fol.86v is whether their representation expresses the ideas of Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions, or some other custom.

Stylistically, fol.86v has some few similarities to medieval Christian maps before the advent of the  portulan chart. Its portrayal of rivers, for example, is not unlike those in the English Psalter map ( c.1262-5), in that the waters are shown emerging from hills and mountains.

That style can be contrasted with the ‘Beatus’ maps, in which every watercourse in earth is supposed related to the four which issue from the eastern ‘paradise’.

In the Psalter map, too, hills are drawn in way not unlike that used in fol.86v to represent a hilly slope or ‘mountain seat’.

And again, if the Psalter map is cleared of its details, the arrangement for the ‘four rivers’ does show some similarity to fol.86v. But unlike the two river roads on fol.86v, none rises from the north.

Differences between the Psalter map and fol.86v are equally obvious: the pairing of these large rivers, their placement external to the map proper and their being shown emerging upon cliffs or canal-walls which are given a three-dimensional effect by the use of parallel hatching.

Within a century, the remarkable rose-gridded portolan-style maps would appear, but if Cresques’ map is not east facing, it is focused on the line of the sun. And such maps represent the shorelines with care, but rivers are often no more than a single even line.

So while the larger part of fol.86v has some features in common with thirteenth-century European maps, and the inset minimap (and, I’d suggest the architectural objects) suggest the subsequent era of the portolans, neither of the types known in western Christendom contains the sort of detail which would permit any identification of those on fol.86v.

For that, the topographical detail and architectural features must be relied upon.

The river-road to the eastern side is discussed in the following post and is identified, fairly tentatively, with the appearance of the Oxus river (Amu Darya) and the route by the Aral sea towards inner Asia.


  1. I was trying to avoid being too technical in these posts, because whatever was not general knowledge then had to be explained – and so the posts lengthened to beyond what people wanted to read. In this case, though, I think I should have been less general than to speak about the ‘line of the sun’ as the division. In fact the ‘facing line’ is that of the ancient geographers, the latitude of Rhodes. Interestingly, early in Charlemagne’s reign, there came ambassadors from south of that latitude who asked a treaty confirming that it marked the division between Charlemagne’s territories and their own. It appears to have been an ancient convention.


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