fol. 34v – wooden apple (Challenge question)


fol 43v plant only

f. 34v


March 9th. 2013. A reader who wishes to remain anonymous  suggests that although no leaves are shown here, the plant may be described by reference to the Sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) as Mediterranean ‘base’ type.


F.sycomorus is native to the southern Africa but was cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean including Egypt. As with most figs, its  red and green stages appear simultaneously. Fruit of  F. sycomorus must be cut or notched some days before they are used – on which point see Lisa Manniche (1989), An Egyptian Herbal, pp. 109-11.  If others adopt this identification, I’d suggest crediting to A.R. Neither A.R. nor I think F.sycomorus the chief subject, given the way the fruit hangs from its stalk on f.34v


Important (28th Feb) ~ thank you very much indeed to the reader who has just pointed out to me that Dana Scott suggested some time ago that f.34v  might allude to the ‘tree of life’ motif. I simply hadn’t thought to look up earlier  identifications in this case, assuming all would refer to European plants ~ in keeping with earlier expectation that the manuscript was of European origin.  With apologies, then, credit to Dana here.


Simply to be clear, I might add that chief implication here seems to me rather that this (real) tree bears  ~ to quote Yeats),  “the golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon”.


21 April 2013. And in view of certain Greco-Egyptian elements in the manuscript, I might add the opening sentence from the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo. Full text of Cory’s English translation (1840).  Studiolum’s short  English Introduction with link to the Italian translation.

To denote Eternity they depict the SUN and MOON, because their elements are eternal


For a full view of the folio see Yale, Beinecke Library rare books site, Beinecke 408 fol.34v.



Mnemonic elements

f.34v detail confronting animals

Mnemonic figures served one purpose for the maker, but for us they serve two.


Mnemonics ‘work’ by creating a link between matter that is not so well known, and what is unforgettable. (at least that’s the theory).


So it can be presumed  this image of two creatures* under one crown was a natural and familiar image for the persons who first employed it as an aid to recall of this plant’s nature, uses, legends and marks of difference between closely similar plants.


* which I think probably the tiger and blackbuck doe


For us a mnemonic may also assist in identifying the plant, just as it did for the maker,  but also help us identify the maker’s  most deeply ingrained ideas and thus with luck and by comparison with such cues throughout this section, what his original languages and attitudes might have been.


In this case, we are dealing with imagery whose first composition (perhaps excluding the mnemonics) shows no sign of being much later than the early centuries AD, though the style of drawing implies maintenance of the older matter in regions east of the Mediterranean.


This distinction between substance and style is not so difficult to determine as it might seem. In fact determining date is more difficult when considering highly-traditional imagery.  The following examples of imagery for Christ’s mother will (I hope) be adequate demonstration.



.The layering effect – in this case as in imagery of Mary above, a basis in Mediterranean works and beliefs,  overlaid with eastern custom in art – is a regular aspect of imagery in ms Beinecke 408.


Its different sections reflect a greater or a lesser distance from its Hellenistic basis, ~which indicates in turn the migration of a people who maintained these works and/or the deliberate collection of similar matter over a route of considerable length.


Having explained the principles operating in this image, I’ll cut the rest of the explanation as much as I can.  That may make the conclusion seem a little arbitrary, but having first written up the analysis in full, with all the comparative matter, examples and stages, I thought 6,000 words a bit long for a blogpost. 😀


This ( 3500  words) is the short version.


1.2. ‘Bicorporate’ figures.


‘Bicorporate’  to ‘bicorporated’  in the strict sense, describe the picture of an animal which has been given two identical or very nearly identical bodies. This is not what is shown in f.34v. It is an important distinction that this figure shows two very different creatures, not one with two bodies.


It is certainly not a version of the two-faced  ‘Janus’ type, nor an hermaphrodite, and so since ‘bicorporated’ is the closest term in European art to what have here in  f.34v, the term will have to do.


Fox-Davies found only one example of bicorporated animal  in medieval arms  ~ a bicorporate lion rampant  for  a pre-Conquest family named Attewater (also Atwaeter etc.) of Lincolnshire. An online site also notes (do I detect a tone of disapproval?)   “some singular combinations of two or several lions’ bodies, but with only one head” giving as a first example arms of John Northampton, Lord Mayor of London (1381 and 1382).


In other contexts bicorporated figures were a  little more common in mainland Europe, appearing most often in earlier manuscripts from the English and Irish, but even in the earliest European examples, these are marginal and rejected types.


The following examples, from thirteenth century Exeter, give the foreigner’s wrapped headwear to the bird on the left, and a demon’s face to that on the right.

 Exeter Misericord39 conjoined sphinxExeter Misericord38 2bird head

In the  mnemonic on f.34v, no such distancing is evident; rather it is used as an instantly meaningful form, usually (pace Hugh) for its ‘natural’ familiarity.


So to cut the so-much-longer  story very short, the best piece for its clear similarity and explanatory value is this clavus (clothing insert) made in Coptic Egypt during the 7thC – 8thC AD. It is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) details here).

Met coptic tapestry insert

Another example of Egypt’s characteristic interest in the theme of day-and-night, sun-and-moon, this complementary-united-opposite pair of day and night had been a theme expressed in Egypt’s imagery from the earliest period of its history, as characteristically through use of the blue or the white lotus, earlier mentioned.


Faces may be absent from the mnemonic on f.43v out of concern for a Muslim, Christian or Jewish sensibilities, but such antipathy was not restricted to the Abrahamic religions. In ms Beinecke 408 it extends – apparently – to realistic depiction of any living creature’s form.


Animals with human faces, like the bicorporate form itself, are not traditions which were ever acclimatised in mainland Europe.  The  ‘tree guardian’ is another quintessentially eastern motif, but one taken up in mainland Europe through the examples of Greek, and then of Biblical precedents . Left is an Achaemenid silver plate; right a coin made for Sicily under Carthaginian rule and before the rise of Rome. At this time, though not later, Sicily and southern Italy are rightly considered north African and Greek, rather than ‘Italian’.


plate lion face Achaemenid blog

coin Sicily 4thC BC

coin Sicily 4thC BC

Bicorporate forms appear first in the Mediterranean as Assyrian and  Persian influence extended through the near east and eastern Mediterranean.


Below is a detail from an alabastron of the 6thC BC, that when Persia under the Achaemenids took Egypt (525 BC).

motif unihead beast alabastron 1stquarter 6thC bce

(These same shorter wings can still be seen in Delos,  as in Iranian,   Indo-Greek and Bactrian works dated to the centuries AD. A version of them occurs, exceptionally, on a trumpet-blowing angel in the Liber Floridus.)


Another important indication of the implied link between that bicorporate mnemonic in fol.34v and the line across the horned shore of North Africa is the design for this mosaic (below), and the form given the tree, in this mosaic recovered from Tunis and dated to the early centuries AD. Its border is a version of the old Punic lily, and its ‘heaven tree’  drawn in a style strongly reminiscent of some figures in ms Beinecke 408 and also – especially in the depiction of fruit as set on a horizontal line – of that clavus shown above. It may be compared, or contrasted, with the next example, a detail from a twelfth-century mosaic made in Sicily.


There the work has been variously described as Persian, or Greek and I see little reason to believe the one influence should exclude the other. Indeed, marking the tree-trunk with that ‘V’ is a habit seen in dynastic Egyptian wall-painting.  I would tend to think that while the workmen who made the Norman-Sicilian mosaic might have been brought from Byzantium itself, the design was provided by reference to Egyptian, Persian or Syrian Christians.

mosaic Nth Africa Tunis

leopard mosaic sicily

f.34v detail confronting animals

For images of the bicorporate- and the guardian- pair, the common theme might be expressed as that of the margins and limit: the uttermost, the eternal, the primordial, the  father-and-mother of all ~ whether such foundation and eternal presence is related to the pair of sun and moon, Adam and Eve, or (to use Dante’s phrase) ‘the primal people’.


I’m not suggesting that the maker of this image believed the ‘first parents’ to have been quadrupeds! I mean that these are a symbol which the maker associated with the primal pair ~ in the same way that horses are associated with sun-and-moon on the Coptic clavus.

fol 34v detail crown


‘The primal crown’ takes a form once very common throughout the region through  Africa, including Egypt and its eastern horn, and then through the southern seas,  including the Easter Islands to as far as New Zealand. Dynastic Egypt’ s imagery shows a stylised form of what is essentially the same, ancient type.


As example, I might illustrate the Oromo crown-headdress, since these were the other half of that people who originally occupied Africa’s western extremity, as classical authors and north African imagery tell us, and as Majid repeats as late as the fifteenth century.

char Oromo

Costume differed, but (according to Majid) their unique and highly developed astronomy and navigational methods were shared by themselves and no others in the Mediterranean. In the thirteenth century, when the rulers of Baghdad and of Egypt were at odds, Egypt called for Barbary mariners – and Baghdad called for the Genoese.


The men of the eastern horn, the Oromo, are commonly agreed that land’s oldest inhabitants. With this opinion Bates agreed (1979), saying that they are:


“.. a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of eastern Africa have been grafted”.


It was also the Oromo who made so much use of the Ensete or ‘false banana’ as a source both for food and for drink that it was introduced into whatever regions they came (see commentary on f.28r, which in my opinion represents the Ensete).


So this mnemonic doesn’t inform us of what specific beliefs the maker had, except that he or she is unlikely to have been a Christian from mainland Europe, but more likely a native resident of lands along that line of travel across Africa’s ‘forehead’ to as far as the Spice islands.


Before turning to the eastern side of that route – where most of the botanical folios apparently concentrate, here are two images of Africa as the ‘horned’ face. Left is a Coptic sherd, where Africa with its two horns is made a microcosm of the world, a version of the Arca noe and also a near relation of Europe’s “T-O” maps, though based more nearly on ancient Egyptian than on Babylonian prototypes.

ship Arca Noe Measures Coptic

At right, another heaven-and-earth image of Africa, with the City of God between its horns. This bull with its uneven ears and asymmetrical brows, is pictured together with the vine of sea- and of wisdom.. and much more.ship bull north Africa

A beautiful mnemonic figure that  was reproduced in a printed medieval text.


And so now, eastwards:

“That the style here employed for the mnemonic in f.34v was most recently affected by those employed in the Great Sea ‘east of Eden’ is clear enough. The creatures’ elongated sinuous bodies are not drawn in classical Roman, nor Byzantine, nor medieval western Christian style.


The layering effect, again.


Though I should suppose that the original sources might have known a world which ended with India, there is no disputing that the route to the Moluccas had brought goods as close as Egypt or Syria even before the days of Alexander.


But I’ll pass by Africa’s eastern horn ~ already a centre for the spice trade in the 1stC AD ~  and though it is doubtless more relevant to the period before the 3rdC AD, I’ll pass southern India too, turning directly to Java, which by Europe’s medieval centuries was a vital centre on the ‘textiles-and-spices’ routes and, again, for the trade in Asian trade ceramics.


map routes maritime Periplus Muziris Quilon Spice

This not only because of the type of headdress (see below) but because the Balinese style employs similarly sinuous line, elongated bodies for both animal and human), with plump (rather than muscular) thighs for an animal – and the same habits appear to me to have influenced the last or next-to-last copy of  f.43v.


 In the usual way – it almost goes without saying – no single, and recent example  would count for much.


In this case, though, the carving  maintains a traditional style and  genre. It is also found within the same line of travel through which – as the map shows above – spices and other goods were transported by sea, via southern India,  and thence to the Mediterranean ~ even in the 1stC AD.


It is even theoretically possible, though unlikely, that Latin had once been heard in  first-century Java.


But it was here, and  more exactly (as it is thought) in  Sabah of adjacent Borneo that John de Marignolli was cured so notably by a female physician to the person he understood to be the current  ‘queen of Saba’.


Marignolli had set out for Avignon en route to China believing that the primal paradise and its ‘first parents’ had lived far towards the sunrise. His experiences along the routes by both land and sea showed him nothing to change that belief. Indeed, he found that belief entirely prevalent throughout the eastern seas, where indeed it appears to have originated, though the west knows it best from its being included in the corpus of Jewish law.


Botanical id

fol 43v plant only

In my draft version there was more lead-up to the proposed identification, but trying to shorten this –


In my opinion, the plants represented in f.34v are  Xylocarpus, a small group which are mangroves within the  Meliaceae, or mahogany family. Its pendant fruits do display a  split-line  apparently emphasised in the drawing and they break naturally along that line into two almost equal parts.


The red fruits, then, would be from  Xylocarpus granatum  and the green from Xylocarpus moluccensis. That these fruits attach to their bough exactly as they are drawn on f.43v  is well illustrated by this photograph. The botanical imagery is always precise about such detail. These are effectively ‘wooden apples’, one type – the red X.granatum, being considerably larger than the other and so naturally evoking the relativity of male-female, sun-moon, Adam-Eve etc.


and see also the Indian wood apple,  edible fruit of which our taxonomy describes as the only member of the monotypic genus Aegle. A. marmelos is  also known as Bengal quince, stone apple or wood apple.


Its name in India is Bael, Bilva or Bilvapatre or வில்வம் (Tamil).  Native to India, it is present throughout Southeast Asia as a naturalized species.  The tree is considered to be sacred by Hindus. Its fruits are used in traditional medicine and as a food throughout its range. (- wiki ‘Bael’)

Xylocarpus granatum

Xylocarpus granatum see this site for description

Xylocarpus moluccensis. Credits

Xylocarpus moluccensis. Credits

..If my identification as ‘wood apples’ including Xylocarpus and A. marmelos is correct, it would explain why the flowers have been drawn so like those given mangroves some folios further on:

f 34v detail flower

f 34v detail flower

fol 43r detail flower Mangrove





Aegle marmelos Indian wood apple flowers

A. marmelos flowers- additional images

Xylocarpus - flower

Xylocarpus flower


I would not deny that a very reasonable case might be made here for arguing the fruits (alone)  ‘sea-beans’, as seeds of  Avicennia germinans. This despite the implied anachronism.

* A.germinans is a new world species found chiefly around the Mexican Gulf.


Overall though, and in the context of everything so far considered from this manuscript, and by reference to the mnemonic, I think it more likely that the Xylocarpus’ “wooden apples”  were being considered the original ‘forbidden fruits’ of sun and moon (or of Adam and Eve etc), and have been pictured here as if they were beans without pods simply because for the original maker the bean was the quintessentially ‘forbidden fruit’.


People of  older Egypt and some Greek-speakers ~ not only but most famously the Pythagoreans –  considered beans the most tabu of foods.  (Pythagoras’ works were nominated among their works of holy writ by the Greco-Egyptians of Harran, when challenged by the incoming Muslim forces to prove themselves ‘people of the book’).


Fruits of the X. granatum are the size of a small coconut;  of X. moluccensis approximately 10 cm in diameter. That a legend of the fall might have attached to them is understandable, especially given that version of it which Marignolli learned while  there. (see following quotation).


Xylocarpus are native to  coastal mangrove forests of the Western and Central Indo-Pacific, from eastern Africa to Tonga. The linked photographs are from Singapore. The wooden apples of A. marmelos are eaten after preparation (see previous link).

Aegle marmelos indian wood apple


Medieval accounts of the original parents and  forbidden fruit:


In constantly quoting John de Marignolli, I don’t mean to present any subliminal argument for him as ‘author’ of the Voynich manuscript, but his is the most accessible description of this region, within the full route, and of its connections with mainland Europe where, and in the early fifteenth century, the manuscript is presently thought to have been made.


Describing his experiences in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Marignolli records an addition to the Biblical story:


[It says] And God forbade Adam to eat of the Tree of Life. See, said He to the Angels, that they take not of the Tree of Life, and so live for ever. And straightway the Angel took Adam by the arm and set him down beyond the lake on the Mountain Seyllan, where I stopped for four months.


He also suggests an emendation to the Latin translation of Genesis:


[it says] And he made them coats of skins… pelliceas,”of fur,” but we should do better to read filiceas, “of fibre”; because [those garments] were no doubt of a certain fibrous substance which grows like net-work between the shoots of the coco-palm; I wore one of these myself till I got to Florence, where I left it.


Marignolli was not in the least a stupid man, and while certain that his received texts  had provided him with better knowledge of truth than ‘heathen’ natives about him, he does nevertheless pay attention to the real world, and is willing to note (however diffidently) discrepancies between what he observes and what the Bible contains. Thus:


 [the texts say] God pronounced sentence after the confession of their sin, first against the serpent that he should go upon his belly creeping on the earth ~ but I must say that I have seen many serpents, and very big ones too, that went with half the body quite erect, like women when they walk in the street, and very graceful to look upon though not –  to be sure – keeping this up for any length of time….


If, as is possible (though I have no authoritative opinion to offer yet about this point), that the type of thinner parchment used for the Voynich manuscript is similar to what was used in thirteenth and fourteenth century Avignon (a place where, rather curiously, Kircher is said to have studied hieroglyphics),  then it is possible that the mnemonic on f.34 v and others was first designed so late.


Against this is a use of a bicorporate form without token avoidance, and the style of drawing for that creature, and the fact that medieval Christians had no aversion to representing the human form, although as de’ Conti and others discovered,  Muslims in the eastern sphere were not inclined to agree to differ on such matters. In other parts of Islam, imagery was acceptable, to a point.




Comment and additional notes


I am increasingly less inclined to think that  Baresch was merely theorising in his account of the manuscript, included in his second letter to Kircher. Indeed, if any provenance had been offered in that first letter (now lost), this might be read rather as an urging that the given provenance had not been incredible, or readily discounted. Kircher was not interested in the manuscript, it seems, as yet.


So when Baresch uses the term  probabilé (which Neal rightly translates ‘plausible’) I wonder if Baresch hadn’t hoped rather to convey his belief that on balance the story was   ‘reasonable’ or ‘credible’.


* (and see Philip Neal’s translation)

” …After all, this thing cannot be for the masses as may be judged from the precautions the author took in order to keep the uneducated ignorant of it. It is easily conceivable that some man of quality [Lat: virum bonum] went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). Partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, he would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. my emphasis – D). This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants …”


Now that, I think, is a very fair statement of what the imagery in this manuscript has so far conveyed, although I repeat that I have not found its plants ones that are known now chiefly for medicinal value. It is not only possible, but I should think highly probable that time and my own ignorance are to blame for the difference.



Yet again, a depiction of not one plant, but a group; yet again referring to imagery current in the earlier Hellenistic period; yet again a style of drawing affected by what was evidently retention of the informing texts in the eastern world, and finally – yet again a style of mnemonic not illegible even to a modern reader equipped with the sort of knowledge common in medieval western Christendom. But – again – no sign at all of specifically Christian, Jewish or Muslim custom.


Christians, Jews and Muslims have no prohibition against beans, and bicorporate animals having distinctly different bodies (especially headless ones) were not natural to their artistic vocabulary.


f.34v detail confronting animals


General notes:


  • I neglected to note in the original post that the striped back of the left-hand animal can be supposed a reference to the tiger so often pictured as the sun’s steed. In the same way, the deer is sometimes associated with the moon, though n Hindu tradition, this occurs in specific contexts.


Because it  may later prove relevant to the linguists and cipher-people, I’d add here that the pair could also be read as signs for western and eastern India, or as denoting specific communities among whom one or the other animal was especially revered.  How the situation might have been in the early centuries AD is difficult now to determine.  The Blackbuck antelope (m) does still serves as steed [vahana] for Vayu, the Hindu God of wind. The blackbuck (m. or f.) is also associated with Chandra, the Hindu moon-God. The blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) is sacred (still, today) to the Bishnoi tribes of Rajasthan and there was recently a trial which reached India’s supreme court when outsiders slaughtered the now-endangered species.


Worship of the Bengal tiger would appear to have been very general in earlier times, and today  many tribal communities deeply revere the tiger. “The Warli tribe of Maharashtra worship  ‘Waghia’ or the lord of tigers in the form of a shapeless stone. The Gonds of Madhya Pradesh worship ‘Waghai Devi’; the Bhils worship ‘Waghaika Kunwar’ (tiger prince) to who fruit, wine and sheep are offered. ‘Dakshin Rai ‘ is the folk deity presiding over the tiger-cult in Sunderbans, West Bengal.”


Imagery of sun-on-tiger is very widely found, even in Islamic Persia and Christian Ethiopia.


Warli details montage

Warli style

  • A recent account of an Oromo headdress says it is (and was?) made from hair of the gelada baboon.


  • Java’s formerly peaceful co-existence between religions is evidenced by its temples, the earliest of the Hindu dating to the fifth, and sixth century. Buddhism had probably reached the island by that time, but its Borobudur temple is dated to the 8thC. Thereafter, for reasons which are unclear, the centre of trade and political activity in Java shifted towards its eastern side.


  • By the fourteenth century, when Marignolli arrived in Sabah, the Indonesian archipelago was dominated by the Mahapahit kingdom. In 1478, it was attacked and conquered by an adjacent Muslim kingdom. Islamic kingdoms tended to be oppressive of different religious ideas, and in this case the Hindus of the Mahapahit kingdom, and doubtless many other communities were obliged to flee. Bali became predominantly (but not only) Hindu. Java’s northern coastal centres were generally made Muslim.


  • The creatures’  ‘fifth limb’ may indicate sexual congress, but the red mangrove ~ among which the Xylocarpus grow ~ is also known as the ‘loop-root’ mangrove.


  • This  alchemical image has points in common with f.34v but shows a two-headed figure, which is not what is pictured in f.34v


  • An illustration of why research into this manuscript should never confuse date of manufacture for date of content, may I note in conclusion that it is from Budapest that Europe gained its first knowledge of  Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Tale, a work whose author described himself as ‘”a Phoenician of Emesus, son of Theodosius, and descended from the Sun”.It turned up during the sack of Buda (now the western part of Budapest).  From the library of Matthias Corvinus, it was printed in 1526, and in Basel in 1534. It was not the only copy: other codices (note – not manuscripts) have since been found.

f.34v detail confronting animals


Afterword (Friday, July 3rd, 2015 – 1:57 pm)


In the Yule-Cordier edition of Marco Polo’s travels, Henry Yule mentions (in exactly the appropriate tone) that “.. oracular Trees of the Sun and Moon, somewhere on the confines of India, appear in all the fabulous histories of Alexander, from the Pseudo-Callisthenes downwards” CHAPTER XXII.


There were indeed trees sacred to sun and moon in India, and trees were the religious basis of the Nair’s ritual and faith. It is not so much that the tales of Alexander had become by medieval times no more than romances, but that even so they must have been based on sources which had some genuine knowledge of India’s religious ideas. Those sources weren’t necessarily textual, but I do not think there is a chance in a thousand that the image on this folio reflects a medieval Romance of Alexander. Compare the structure and content of this drawing with any copy you like of the Romance… whether Persian, Ethiopian or Latin. If you find in any the drawing of two distinct animals sharing one head that is crowned in the same way.. I may yield the point.

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