f.5v mnemonic ~ recap and texts

Some sources for those working on the text’s written part.

The post looks in parallel at classical texts and images referring to the Didymoi/Dioscuri, comparing them to details in the ‘dancing man’ mnemonic on folio 5v. It nicely demonstrates the age, and the intelligence of these drawings.

Other than the quotation from Isidore, and others given with bibliographic details, these passages can be found online in Smith’s Classical Dictionaries (including the – Geography), or else at mythagora.com. The mirror-back shown further below is also from  mythagora where it is uncaptioned, too.


folio 5v all

In the earlier post I noted Isidore’s quoting Virgil about the elm’s bast fibre:

Liber is the inner membrane of bark, which clings to the wood. With regard to this, Virgil thus: The bark (liber) clings to the high elm.

Orphic practice is said to apply the epithet Liber, not to Dionysus, but to  Zagreus, a son of Zeus permitted to sit on his father’s throne and play with the lightning bolts. Connection of Orphic beliefs to storms at sea is suggested by a passage in James Augustus St. John, Manners and Customs.. where he writes that “when matters came to extremities, and the waves appeared about to engulf both crew and passengers … the whisper passed around the bark (barque) ‘Have you been initiated yet'”? ~because those who had been initiated at Eleusis were believed better prepared for meeting death. (Vol.3, p.318).

In general, though, the mysteries of Samothrace are indicated and  another son of Zeus, Polydeuces/Pollux, one of the Twins, who was associated with the mariners’ ‘safe-fire’ or ‘play-fire’ – what we now call St.Elmo’s fire –  appearance of which above a ship in storm was widely taken as a good omen, as ‘harbour fire’. It may be an ancient term, since the Greek hormiae (good harbour) provides the root of that town, Formio, whose “St.Elmo” is the Christian patron of the flameless lights: as “St Elmo’s Fire”.

folio 5v flowers

Their  benefit to beleaguered mariners lay in the illumination they shed on storm-built waves in the darkness, aiding pilot and wheelman in times when no flame dared be left alight on a tossing ship.

This twin son of Zeus, though the higher in other ways, was yet identified with the β star of Gemini and  is envisaged by Alcaeus, as:

Leaping on the peaks of their well-benched ships,
brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays,
bringing light to the black ship
in the night of trouble.
from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, trans. Alexander Nikolaev

fol 5v detail dancer

and in the words of Diodorus Sicilus:

sailors when caught in storms always direct their prayers to the deities of Samothrake (Samothrace) and attribute the appearance of the two stars [α, β Geminorum] to the epiphany of the Dioscuri.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book 4.43.2

The Great Gods [of Samothrace] were especially known for protecting those who traveled by sea, so it is not surprising to find a room devoted to the Samothracian deities within the building constructed by the guild of fishermen and fish-dealers at Ephesos (mid-first century). …. There were unofficial associations devoted to the Great Gods at various locales in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, including the association (koinon) of Samothraciasts on the island of Rhodes, which are attested in several inscriptions (Cole 1984:155-58, nos. 33-39).

from an online resource published by Prof. A Harland, York University, Toronto (here)

… and the writers .. point out “that the Celts who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskuri (Dioscuri) above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean”.

Diodorus Siculus, op.cit., Book 4.56.4.

And, speaking generally, their manly spirit and skill … have won them fame among practically all men, since they make their appearance as helpers of those who fall into unexpected perils.

ibid. Book 6.6.1

In the Black Sea a promontory was named by them

… past the Temple of Hera Lakinia (Lacinia) at Cape Lacinium at the extreme western end of the Tarantine Gulf, and doubled the promontory known as Dioskurias (Dioscurias).

ibid. Book 13.3.4

Speaking of that market in Dioskurias, Strabo reports (Bk xi) that as many as seventy languages were spoken there. Pliny tells us that the traders required 130 interpreters.

Georgia is still considered the most ethnically and linguistically diverse region in the world.  It was from Sara in the Crimea that Pegolotti would instruct medieval traders heading east to take with them a couple of interpreters, people able to speak Cuman, while as late as the early twentieth century, Goldschmidt was bewildered at first by the polyglot naming of places about the Caspian. [1]

These low-lying coasts were a natural home to the elm, and its wood was plentiful there in Hellenistic times.  Isidore later derives the Latin Ulmus from ‘damp’, thus: “the elm prospers better in damp, naturally moist, uliginosis et humidis places, Ety. XVII.7.43 [2].

Pomegranate wood was also gained from the same region – a little unexpectedly.[3]


Hands and flowers

fol 5v detail fire sticks

Protopunica flowers

a wild pomegranate flower

English Elm Leicester by Graham Calow detail 2008

Elm flower – detail from photo by Graham Calow ‘Wych Elm, Leicester’ 2008

Hat, and star/flower

from image uploaded by 'Uploadalt'

from image uploaded by ‘Uploadalt’

…  the other, the son of Tyndareus, was like a star of heaven, whose beams are fairest as it shines through the nightly sky at eventide.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, Bk 2 line 30.

folio 5v flowers

detail dioscuri  Kaberoi mirror back star

whereas the other twin is  associated with earth, and reputed a great horseman. The motif on the mirror back (above) combines the directions of sky-and-sea with those of earth to form the ‘twin’ star set between the figures. It now resembles the compass rose.

Thus again Alcaeus:

They who go on swift horses,

over the broad earth and all the sea,

and easily rescue men,

from chilling death,

from: Alcaeus’ Hymn to the Dioscuri, Alexander Nikolaev


By the Arabs, Gemini’s two bright stars  (α, β Geminorum)  compose a  lunar mansion known as, among, other things, the “ell-measure” which (as one sees by reference to the ancient and medieval works) was once the ‘hand’-measure of Egypt, and remained that of the Yemeni pilots in the fifteenth century as they measured distances between stars.  (division of the horizon by the mariners’ measures may inform some versions of the welkin-band seen in fifteenth century manuscripts from Latin Europe).  Of this manzil, however, Hinkley-Allen writes:

As a convenient measuring rod it may be noted that α and β stand 4½ degrees apart; and this recalls an early signification of their manzil title, Al Dhira’, the Arabs’ Ell-measure of length that the stars were said to indicate.

Richard Hinkley-Allen, Star-Names and their Meanings (p.234).


.. and a note on correspondence between Gemini’s second manzil, Al han’a and the nature of elm wood.

‘This [lunar mansion,  Al Han’a] rises at dawn on the 221st day of the year and is a windy and good omened group. It consists of stars formed like [the Arabic letter ‘n’] and is given this name because it is bent around, that is, its ends come together, as the Arabs say hana’at i.e some such thing is bent around, meaning that part of it is turned round towards some other part..’

– Ibn Majid (trans. Tibbetts) p.88-9.[4]

and – to refer again to Hinkley-Allen (p.234) – the stars of that manzil, with a couple more, are remembered as the Bow.

Elm, similarly:

The elm’s wood bends well … making it quite pliant. The … trunks were favoured as a source of timber for keels in ship construction (in medieval Europe). Elm is also prized by bowyers; of the ancient bows found in Europe, a large portion of them are elm. During the Middle Ages elm was also used to make longbows if yew was unavailable.

from a wiki article ‘Elm’

with the figure being made just so, and thus ‘bow-legged’.

fol 5v detail dancer

 We might also note that elm was often used in English ships for the Cap: The wooden block at the top of a mast through which the mast is drawn when being stepped or lowered. The link is to an online glossary of ship and shipbuilding terms which includes a diagram.



1. E. P. Goldschmidt and G. R. Crone, ‘The Lesina Portolan Chart of the Caspian Sea’, The Geographical Journal , Vol. 103, No. 6 (Jun., 1944), pp. 272-278. (Previously reported in my post ‘fol. 86v: of Portolan Charts and Tabizond’ (blogpost), voynichimagery.wordpress.com, August 15, 2012.

2. Theophrastus (Historia Plantarum, 4.5.3) describes the resources gained about Panticapaeon:

There are many well grown fig-trees and pomegranates, which are given shelter; pears and apples are abundant in a great variety of forms and are excellent. These are spring-fruiting trees, except that they may fruit later here than elsewhere. Of the wild trees there are oak, elm, manna-ash and the like (while there is no fir, or pine, or indeed any resinous tree). But the wood of such trees in this country is damp and much inferior to that of Sinope, so that they do not use it much except for outdoor purposes.


For convenience, I’ve quoted the passage above from Lise Hannestad, ‘Timber as a Trade Resource of the Black Sea’, available online as a pdf. Hannestad treats the archaeological evidence which shows varying availability during the ancient and classical periods and then discusses evidence for (and against) trade between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean before the Byzantine era. Interestingly, elm is found grouped with cedar and nettlewood (Celtis Australis) in some of the older sources, notably among the materials used for the shrine at Delos. Nonetheless, I hold to my view that since folio 5v lacks the motif which would indicate a plant used for its timber, the reference there is to nettles as such (genus Urtica). My readers may judge differently.

3. Hannestad, op.cit.


4. Savage-Smith (13th Century divinatory device.. p.44) agrees that of two likely roots for the Arabic term one is that meaning to fold or to bend.


  • J. Rendel Harris’ The Dioscuri in the Christian Legends may prove helpful for the late classical and medieval periods, if treated with care.


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