folio 9v – a short note on ‘hands’.

The form of the image on folio 9v has always troubled me. Its proportions and style are in some obscure way ‘off’ compare with the rest of the botanical folios. I’ve mentioned this discordant quality before. The image looks too European; its emphasis or visual ‘weight’ feels wrong.

In addition it contains micrography which, in the fifteenth century, was a specialty of Jewish scribes and is rarely referred to in other contexts. Gem engravers, and perhaps ivory carvers were capable of similar precision but in manuscript art only Jewish scribes are credited with such custom.

The scale of micrography which I mean is not merely half-size; that may be found in European manuscripts of the Latin and the Greek traditions.

text and notes blog

I mean micrography which is a fifth, and even a sixth the size of a manuscript’s plain text – as occurs in folio 9v.

9v detail9v micrography large detail

Thinking about one sort of ‘hand’ led to my noticing that the flowers, and the leaflets were given five sections, the leaflets especially made to look like digits, which if we consider that flower second down from the left, would place the very fine writing in the position of the fourth finger, which the Latin-speaking world termed the  ‘medicus’.

Why would someone write a string of letters so small that even when you use the largest possible view on the Beinecke site, it  is not sufficient for them to be seen clearly?

I suppose it might be a magical incantation, or a prayer to strike down the oppressor or infidel… or that string might be part of a cipher key.

While that ‘r’ shape on the petal below this one can be read as the letter ‘r’, and again likened to Javanese, it might also be a disguised Hebrew among other things. I’m thinking of tsade (also spelled Ṣādē, Tsade, Ṣaddi, Ṣad, Tzadi, Sadhe, Tzaddik), but a disguised qoph is not impossible. Or – what you may have is indeed r.o.t… not for ‘red’ but for ‘rota/rote’.

(I can think of litmus reversal as indication of time-space reversals, but they can wait).

Especially when the five-fold world of the Manichaean, or the five beyond which the Voynich’s internal numbers seem never to go, and the way the leaflets are all given 5 points, so I think this similarity is not unintentional, and we might also recall that the ‘hand’ and ‘star’ were inseparable ideas in dynastic and even in later Egypt.

What this image suggests to me is ‘Rota’-‘Viola’ (also – tinctorius).

So it occurred to me (the rote/rota referred to memorisation) that the key to this cipher may lie with the sort of mnemonic hand with its five divided digits, known best in its use for music, but which has earlier antecedents as well as more general application.

There is a ‘Hand of Maryam’ known in regions of North Africa and Spain. Now associated with Kabbalah, although whether the Jewish preceded the Muslim conquests of those areas is uncertain. In Muslim belief, a similar form is known as the Hand of Fatima.  Here is an example of the Jewish version (a 19thC example); Those in the Muslim style are normally inscribed with ornamental patterns reminiscent of henna decoration.

Hamsa graphicHere is the mnemonic hand known as the  Guidonian Hand, used in music – in relation to which I might mention that measures need not only be musical ones but refer to length and volume. In this case, the ‘viola’ as instrument has its elder as the viola of the ‘arm’ – Viola di braccio, thus allowing an association with measures of length, since the arm from elbow to tip of the middle finger was the cubit measure. Length can also serve as a measure for volume, given a container of standard size.

hands musicalAnother mnemonic for musicians comes later, and is the wheel style  ‘rota’.

hands musical 2

Both these images are as they appeared in 1587, in John Cousin the Younger’s  Musique .

Mnemonic ‘hands’ are generally associated with Guido of Arezzo, who lived at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century.

Again, the general idea here is a great deal older, just as the origin for the Viola di braccio  can be traced to an instrument described as a type of lyre.

In response to my initial note about this, sent to the Voynich mailing list, I received one (May 28th., 2013) from Steve Ekwall who in 2004 had made a note of the flower on folio 9v as viola (though he says ‘heart’s ease) and of the number of five-pointed items in the image.

(I have long harboured a faint suspicion that perhaps Ekwall can already read this manuscript, but it’s just one of those ideas).

Antiquity of these systems:

Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (1994) points out the long history of this tradition, and that it reached far back into misty time: Leupold knew that Appian, the Venerable Bede, and Aventinus had been fascinated by manuloquio, or natural language with the hands. He thus linked counting to a global….medium of prearranged gestures…”

In case my rapid transition from Jewish scribal traditions to Manichaean emphasis on ‘5’ and then to Pythagorean or Hermetic ideas is bewildering – we are considering a manuscript whose sources I should date to not later than the 3rdC AD for the last and not later than 3rdC BC for the earliest. In that time a community’s religious affiliations might have changed more than once. Added to which, before the dominance of monotheistic religions in the Mediterranean, interaction between communities of people whose religion was Jewish, Manichaean or polytheistic was more common – the example of Kellis or of Lycopolis in Egypt as illustration.


I now have myself a Bibliography that is  least a cubit in length, and it will take me a while to read through it all, so the next few posts which appear are ones earlier prepared,  chiefly about codicology and related matter.

Others may notice, as I did, that there is a pair of leaves shown on folio 9v whose arrangement is curiously reminiscent of the hands on Michaelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam.  (The Sistine chapel is another example of religious synthesis).

I’ve always seen that painting in terms of a line from the Hermetic work whose first English translation was included in a text of Roger Bacon’s: his Mirror of Alchemy. I’ve bolded that sentence in the excerpt below.

This leap to Hermes (and to Pythagorean ideas)  may seem a bit far,  but consider the section below from the Tablet’s text (fron Adam McLean’s site) and think how the Vms imagery seems to accord with:-

The Sun is its father, the moon its mother,

the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nourse.

The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here.

Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth.

 Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great indoustry.

It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior.

People who’d prefer to get on with their own research  and not wait until I’ve read my cubit, will be able to find books easily enough but here are some among the articles that are, or promise to be to the point.

  • Weinstock, Horst, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium, 11, (1992), pp.160-178.
  • Russel, Tilden A., Hand of memory: A Poetic Key to a Pre-Guidonian Palm and the “Echemata”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 1981), pp. 109-118.
  • Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, ‘Chanting to the Hand: Some Preliminary Observations on the Origins of the Torah Pointer’, Studia Rosenthaliana, Vol. 37, Jewish Ceremonial Objects in Transcultural Context (2004), pp. 3-35.
  • Janka Szendrei, ‘The Introduction of Staff Notation into Middle Europe’, Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, T. 28, Fasc. 1/4 (1986), pp. 303-319.
  •  Kenneth Kreitner, ‘Very Low Ranges in the Sacred Music of Ockeghem and Tinctoris’, Early Music, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Nov., 1986), pp. 467-479.

Anything to do with staff and measures requires:

  • Joscelyn Godwin, Harmony of the Spheres: the Pythagorean tradition in music.

apropos of which,  Ray Tome’s website.

anyone who’d like to correspond – my email address is in the left margin.


Postscript – June 14th.  With regard to Guido d’Arezzo and music, and the inclusion of herbal information in an Anglo-Saxon florilegium, a good explanation of musical notation (‘neums’) is offered here.

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