Concerning stars

[This post was going to be part of my review of the history of Voynich studies, but it side-tracked, so now it isn’t.]

Mythical astronomy.

I can’t do better as introduction to this area in the  madness history of Voynich writing than re-print Norm Sperling’s caustic post of 2012. It’s ok for me to quote it all here, because I wrote and asked him first. I’ve reformatted slightly and added a couple of links and comments, but otherwise –  what-he-said.


folio 68v-1

from: ‘Spiralling Into Folly‘ (© blogpost, December 26th., 2012)

William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.

The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better.

Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn’t know what he was talking about.

While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today’s visual telescopes. It doesn’t even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: “[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected”. Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold’s own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).

The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world’s then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse’s new 72-inch-wide “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral – the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 – with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.

D says: Let me repeat that:


Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon’s time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.

The content of the post given above is still copyright to Norm Sperling, so if you ever want to quote it,  go to his site ‘Everything in the Universe‘ and write asking his permission. The email address given there.  I don’t say I agree with everything else Norm Sperling has written about the manuscript.


I also liked the first half of Rich Santacoloma’s post about this (31/05/2013), to the quote from Newbold’s posthumously published The Cipher of Roger Bacon, viz:

“…that in [Doolittle’s] opinion it unquestionably represented a nebula, and that the man who drew it must have had a telescope”.

After that…  well, sorry Rich.

While here, I’d like to mention that I find some points of agreement with the views expressed (here) by P. Han.  I’ve always held that the ‘ladies’ are not meant to be read literally, but as figures representing – among other things – stars employed in navigation and time-keeping. I came to that opinion independently, and a tad earlier, I think, than P.Han’s page, but since I didn’t read much that he wrote, and I doubt he read much of what I wrote, it’s a case of the evidence itself being interpreted by two people to achieve two independent conclusions.   It might be just as well to be very specific here about where I do  and don’t agree with P.Han’s views.

re folio 75r. [ 72v on the Gallery site]: I do think the figures represent stars (and deities associated with those stars and at a second tier of reading – possibly also alluding to sites for whom each of those stars-and-deities were tutelary/Tyches – and thus through reference to the ‘ouri, houri, hawari homophony, there may be a simultaneous reference to the ships and peoples who travelled the Red Sea from those harbours or towns).  I read this waterway as a literal depiction of the Red Sea from the old canal cuttings as head, to about Aden or so in the south.  Whether all the stars/figures belong also to the Milky Way, is not impossible ~ most stars that named points on the eastern [here – Yemeni] sidereal compass were within it. But I think that point is one for a conclusion after each is positively identified, not one that can be adduced from any reading of the image.

“gnomon” – I don’t think this is correct. Shadow sticks need to be placed firmly in the ground, or attached to a wall.  On the other hand, it might be an insignia – an indication of identity.  The system by which saints’ pictures were identified without inscriptions was by such insignia (“emblemata”) and the system is known to derive from the customs of dynastic Egyptian image-making. I’d ask whether there is any reference to a deity/star “of the gnomon”. Could be.

“Mercator projection of the world”- P. Han thinks it possible; I don’t.

re folio 76v: [ditto on the Gallery site]. P. Han writes “the figure in the top right of the folio is showing the specific position of SN 1572 in relation to the North Celestial Pole” –  I don’t think so. Not at all; not in the merest vestige of a smidgen of a skerric. But notice the lame looking foot.  Now there’s a hint for you.

“Virgo” – possible I suppose. I find the figure much closer to certain tyches and a certain interesting cameo figure inscribed ‘Servant of the Flower’, that last found in India. (I wrote about this type in the second half of a long post on 24/01/2013, though I’d dealt with it in far more detail in another post not available to the public now).


gem 4th-5thC AD Flower servant blog

I think the major difference between P. Han’s idea of the manuscript’s astronomical referents and mine is that where he tends to think in terms of western (or eastern) formal mathematical astronomy, focussed on whole constellations and great circles, I tend to see it in terms of practical astronomical lore and thus having far more to do with individual stars, the horizon and Poles. To exaggerate the difference ~ I see  azimuth and altitude where he sees declination and right ascension (sort of thing).

folio 77v: I think it’s a bit of a fussy picture to be just a picture of one constellation.  Whoever made the manuscript was/were absolutely economical with space and depiction of forms. I don’t think the corpus of highly elaborate, decorative astronomical pictures meant for the gentleman’s library and schoolroom, are a suitable match for imagery in the Vms.  But that’s an opinion, not a conclusion.

“Kugel globe”.  I’m glad to see that P. Han also refers to astronomical items from the early centuries AD.  That’s the period appropriate for much of the Vms imagery in my opinion, and I’d earlier referred to the same object among other early examples.  I came to the view that much of the ‘formal’ cosmographical information in some of these early items (i.e. implied astronomical-geographical parallelism) had probably originated in Asia minor.

folio 78r  “ring with wavy lines”.  Sorry – can’t see it.  I have the feeling that this far down his page, P. Han has stopped asking the manuscript what IT means by this or that image, and is now running with his own theory, trying to see which bits of the imagery can be made to suit it.  THE major problem and the oldest of all temptations to error within Voynich studies.  Don’t go all “Newbold” on us, P. Han.  Much of your work is really great.

“Coma Berenices” – oh, no.   Apart from anything else, the items have to refer fairly consistently to a given community, or time, or place – or explain why those things might differ over time, or from section to section in the manuscript.  Need I say that Tycho Brahe listed the figure in his star catalogue in 1602, and is usually credited with the formal recognition of Coma B. as a constellation.  Tsk. 

oh, and it all gets worse from there.

About 79v, P.Han writes:

“I suggest this this part of f97v shows constellations, including some that were not in existence before the end of the 17th century.  If this is the case then it puts the dating of the Voynich Manuscript of late 16th – early 17th century into question, and the letter that accompanies the manuscript indicating it belonged to Rudolph II of Bohemia (1552 – 1612) could not be factual unless the Voynich Manuscript was written in sections over centuries and the letter specifically refers to the earlier parts.”

Now that really has drifted into pure Newbold-ism.  But the first half of the page is fine, I think. It is about the imagery, not excuses created to explain why the imagery won’t be good and conform to a writer’s pet theory.  

My attitude is that if the imagery doesn’t fit a Voynichese “theory” aka flight of imagination, then you dump the “theory” and do some more work to discern just what the imagery was made to convey to its contemporary readers, and they lived somewhere-or-other no later than the early fifteenth century. 

P. Han, please come back. Reality is just fine. And the beginning was great – could we have more of that, please? 









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