In these same characters Pt3

After a couple of shorter posts to let you get your breath back, here’s  another long one, about the sort of things which might be considered “Egyptian” treasures.

Exactly what Baresch meant by “ibique thesauros Artis medicae Aegyptiacos” is another of those vaguely troubling issues, and one I’ve explored a little in earlier posts.  By the 16th century (according to the OED)  ‘thesaurus’ meant little more to the English than a dictionary or encyclopaedia; however for scholars such as Kircher and Baresch, whose connection was maintained to the earlier centuries of western Christian Latin writings, many more overtones and undertones may have remained contemporary.

A brief look at one Jewish ‘treasure’ again, before turning to the question of ‘labels’ and the month-roundels.

bless its pointed little hatMedicine

The BOOK OF ASAF the Physician is the first extant medical work we have that is written in Hebrew.  Donnolo is the first Jewish author to quote it, and there’s no question that Donnolo’s writings link medicine with Kabbalistic works in a way which accords with Panofsky’s opinion of the manuscript.

I’ve not yet read the book of Asaf, but  in an article about Donnolo, Mancuso, (see below) mentions the forms in which Persian month-names are written, using Hebrew script. These are not the forms now treated as standard, so I thought I’d add them as an example of what seems to be a Judeo-Persian dialect,

Persian months.   (for the standard orthography see this calendar converter). In the Book of Asaf we have:

 These are the names of the months in the Persian language: Arahar, Fravartin, Horvadat, Harmin, Mitro, Satvairo, Patiz, Tir, Ataro, Zamistan, Din, Sperdarmat.

Contents of Donollo’s own Sefer Hakhmoni may interest you:

The work itself contains the medical exposition, an astrological treatise, a commentary on Genesis that has strong echoes of Neoplatonism and Merkabah mysticism and a biographical introductory poem containing an acrostic with Donnolo’s name to prove authorship

Customs (and goods) from India

In this connection, Tlalim recently considered Indian influence in the Book of Asaf, Jewish settlement in India and e.g. transoxiana being more ancient than the Roman’s term ‘Jew’. Eastern Jews before the modern era referred to themselves rather as ‘Israelites’ or Bene Isroel.  Medieval works also make the distinction though not always attaching much significance to it.

  • Ronit Yoeli Tlalim: ‘India as a source of knowledge in the Hebrew Book of Asaf’ paper delivered at University College London, at the British Association for Jewish Studies’ Conference ‘The Jews and the Sciences’ Friday, 29th June 2012 .
  • Muntner, S.B., The Book of Medicine by Asaph, New York, 1949.

A quick check online to see if any writer before me  linked the  Voynich manuscript with Donnolo’s work has turned up dozens of advertisements for Vi*gr*, and a somewhat sad-looking document in which manages to look as if it had been rejecte by the Italian wiki network.

Stones, stars and amulets.

This topic is non-trivial, though much trivial literature can be found which refers to two or more elements of it.

Because the sources from which we have information about associations between stars, angels, stones and assigned plants are the preserve of specialists (as is their discussion) I think the most accessible matter for Voynich research is that dealing with Thessalos of Tralles.

I’d recommend especially Ian Moyer’s work, including

Ian S. Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism, Cambridge University Press, (2011) esp. Chapter 4: ‘Thessalos and the Magic of Empire’ .

An earlier publication ‘Thessalos of Tralles and Cultural Exchange,’ is  in Scott Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler, (eds.),  Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, University of Pennsylvania Press, (2003).[pp.39-56].

Thessalos is of particular interest for many reasons, including the correspondence we find between his works and those espoused so much later by Ficino as well as because his story accords with that hypothetical scenario posited by Baresch.

Described as a “crucial text attributed to a Greek scholar of botany” some copies include an introduction where Thessalos of Tralles tells how he travelled to Egypt to learn about the secrets of plants from Egyptian priests. His years of study in the schools of Alexandria introduced him to the works of the famed (indeed legendary) Pharaoh Nechepso, but on attempting to practice what he had learned, Thessalos realised the method would not work for him. Thereafter he wandered Egypt looking for a true instructor and finally found an aged priest who agreed to arrange an interview with a deity of Thessalos’ choice. Though annoyed that Thessalos chose the Greek Aesculapus, the priest kept his word and Thessalos learned that while Nechepso had rightly assigned plants to their stone and zodiac constellations he had not rightly accounted for times.

One might read this as a failure to incorporate the eastern lunar agricultural rosters into the quintessentially Latin zodiac system, but the remaining texts belong to the Latin and Byzantine traditions and fail to recognise what was meant by [agricultural] timing in that part of the world. What we end up with is a set of correspondences between stones, stars and 12-month calendars that became influential in Late Antiquity, in the Byzantine and in the Latin medieval world, including among the Jews and finally in some parts of the Islamic empire.

Since both the story of Thessalos and the habit of making correlation between plant, stone and calendar (including the zodiac) is clearly attested in later Byzantium as in the Avignon papal court or,later, among European literati, it is notable that the text is one of those translated  in the fifteenth century. I’ll come back to this myself, but for anyone in a hurry, I add the following – as given in a note of Moyer’s.

one version of the Greek text with Thessalos’ introductory narrative has survived: in a manuscript copied in 147 by Konstantinos Laskaris and now in the national librbrary of Madrid. Frtunately, a Latin translation including the narrative was also produced as early as the thirteenth century and survives in four closely related manuscript versions… Greek text; in Codex Matritensis Bibl.nat 4631 (formerly 110) fos. 75-79v (T in Friedrich). Of the four versions of the Latin trans. only Code Montepessulanus 277 fos 31-35v (14thC) was known to Friedrich. For descriptions of the other three and an overview of scholarship on the Latin translations of the Thessalos tradition, see Pingree (1992) pp330-31. The three manuscriptos containing versions of the Latin translation of the Thessalos narrative are: London, Brit. Lib. Add 41623 fos 128, 134, 133, 11, 140, 135 (15thC): Padua, Biblioteca del Seminario Vescovile 454 fos. 14-22 (16thC)’; Vat LIb. Pal. Lat. 1277, fos 1-7v (16thC)/.

There are also medieval versions without the narrative, and a Late Antique translation of parts of the Thessalos text (excluding the narrative frame and the dates for picking the plants). On the Latin translations see (in addition to Friedrich 1968) Sconocchia 1976: 265-68;  1984;1996 and Ferraces Rodrigues 2004. The late Antique Latin retranslation may have been derived from a Greek version of the text without the narrative or dates. Such a text appears to be the source for the Antinoopolis Illustrated Herbal (P. Johnson and P. Antin. 3.214, late fourth/early 5thC CE) which ultimately derives its botanical information from the Thessalos tradition (Leith 2006).

Talismans and Amulets

Stones, stars and plants are recorded again in amuletic use – another suggested by the way the ‘barrels’ are patterned and via contemporary beliefs about the roster of stars as roster of angels or of liturgi.

Shoam-Steiner’s discussion of amulets made by medieval Jews makes an interesting point: that recipes and other matter which a modern reader perceives as ‘magical’  turns up regularly in works which, overall, are perfectly conservative and orthodox, and that this is equally true in the Christian communities as in the Jewish. There is no need, then, to suppose that if the Vms contained reference to such things it should be categorised as ‘magical’ for that reason.

Among examples  cited here are MS. Florence Ashburnham 82 and MS Parma 2343, of which Shoam-Steiner writes:

MS Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Ashburnham 82 (32), fol. 16v-17r contains some formulae for divination, and prodigies scribbled into some blank spaces and on the margins not long after the original text of the codex was copied. The manuscript itself is a canonical-liturgical manuscript intended to assist a priest in the execution of his pastoral duties. (op.cit., p.56)

MS Parma 2343 (folios 262-267):

between two much larger bodies of rabbinic material, we find a long list of various medico-magical entries designed to meet a large variety of physical, mental, and other needs. Unlike some other cases in which the scribe specified the origin of the text copied, here the origin of this list is not clear and was not specified. Nonetheless, the added-on text appears to be a properly-edited list and not just a random collection. It may have been compiled by the scribe of the manuscript himself or copied from an existing list, perhaps a Jewish physician’s notebook. This last hypothesis is strengthened by the words Bakhun u’mnuseh, which mean ‘tested and proven’, written next to some of the entries, indicating that someone had systematically checked their efficacy. (ibid., p.56).

Donnolo’s text is another which is genuinely about medicine while interacting with ideas concerning angels.


Jefrey Spier has written on ‘Byzantine’ amulets now in Russian collections, and describes the range (cultural and linguistic) over which closely similar terms and practice are found.

  • Jeffrey Spier, ‘Medieval Byzantine Magical Amulets and Their Tradition’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 56 (1993), pp. 25-62.

Some  record oppositions established between a particular pair of stars, as between a given angel (or saint) and its opposite ‘demon’ but the stars concerned are evidently too well known to require naming. For much the same reason I doubt if the small labels found in the month-roundels wiill name the stars, or if they do will use the pedestrian scientific names.

I expect that such oppositions would be more likely determined between the higher and lower celestial hemisphere than by opposition across the  ecliptic, as happens in diagrams of the Parantellonta.  I may be mistaken on this point; but as I say, the stars are not named by those texts.  A couple of extracts from Spier’s paper:

Among demons encountered in the Testament of Solomon .was a wild-haired ‘medusa’.

There came before me [Solomon] one who had the shape of a woman but she possessed as one of her traits the form of one with disheveled hair. I said to her, ‘Who are you?’… She replied, ‘Obyzouth. I do not rest at night, but travel around all the world .. divining the hour [when women give birth], … When I, Solomon, heard these things, I was amazed. ..I, Solomon, said to her, ‘Tell me, evil spirit, by what angel are you thwarted?’ She said to me, ‘By the angel Raphael; and when women give birth, write my name on a piece of papyrus and I shall flee from them to the other world.

(Papyrus ceased to be produced in Egypt (we think) from about the eleventh century and where here we have papyrus specified for the amulet, clay and ‘gnostic’ gems follow the same principle by the early centuries AD.

Languages and Amulets in medieval times.

Spier notes the range of regions and languages using very similar names for protagonists in a closely similar story to that above:

A parallel and probably more ancient tradition regarding the female demon is preserved as a historiola, or folktale, in numerous medieval manuscripts written in Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Rumanian, Slavonic, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew. Recently the earliest preserved versions have come to light on an Aramaic silver lamella and two incantation bowls, all probably of fifth- or sixth century date. The story tells of ‘helpers’, usually two or three in number, who aid a woman whose children have been taken by the child-killing demon. The helpers pursue the demon, finally defeat her, and make her promise not to harm the woman again. The demon then reveals her secret names, which when recited or written on an amulet will protect the woman – as will the names of the helpers. There are often ‘twelve and a half’ names and sometimes as many as seventy-two.”

… In the Aramaic versions the woman is smamit, and the demon (f.) is called sideros (Greek for ‘iron’); on the silver lamella the helpers are swny, swswny, and snygly.  In Greek tradition the woman is usually called Melitene, the helpers are the saints Sisinnios, Sines and Senodoros (with variants),” and the demon is usually named as Gylou.

Spier, op.cit.


This description of earlier Syria I found most useful:

Especially important is the question of the relationship between the [Russian-Byzantine] medieval amulets [which are dated to the 10th – 12thC AD] and a large group of engraved bronze amulets found in Syria and Palestine, which are firmly datable to the sixth/seventh century. A brief description of these earlier amulets is provided [his Appendix II]. It is notable that they share with the medieval series some inscriptions and iconographical features, such as the appearance of a ‘rider saint’. However, they never depict the motif of the face with serpents, and there seem to be no examples of individual amulets which might serve to link the two groups. (my emphasis.  ibid. p.31)

So labels on the stars/star-holders might name an angel, or a plant, or notes on the calendar. That is, a star marking (e.g.) Michael’s Day might be given an inscription which names not his star, but himself or his stone.  Many readers mayprefer not to have to engage with angelology, or Kabbala, but internal evidence and Panofsky’s opinion require some study of these things.

I can’t but regret that  Panofsky never published anything about ms Beinecke 408.



MS Brit.Lib. Harley MS 13, ff 165r-173r. Very plain format and two columns, typical of medical and scientific texts. Includes works translated in the ‘Toledan school’ and  ‘paragraph initials’ of the same kind, and with the same variations as we see on the Itinerary which was mentioned in an earlier post ‘Castles by the Sea’.  I feel fairly sure that a conventional art historian would dismiss any possibility of meaning in them.   A diagram from the Harley MS (f.3r).


Book of Asaf the Physician ~ a good biography and discussion


Cairo geniza astrological almanacs

Bernard R. Goldstein and David Pingree, Astrological Almanacs from the Cairo Geniza, Part 1 Journal of Near Eastern Studies , Vol. 38, No. 3 (Jul., 1979), pp. 153-175.

_______________________________________, Astrological Almanacs from the Cairo Geniza, Part II, Journal of Near Eastern Studies , Vol. 38, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 231-256.

_______________________________________, Additional Astrological Almanacs from the Cairo Geniza, Journal of the American Oriental Society , Vol. 103, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1983), pp. 673-690.

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