The Voynich ‘albarello’. Deconstructing a phantom Pt 6 (final)

Stars, bread and ascended souls: sitella, cista and capsa.

The form of the ‘barils’ has important implications for dating the origin of the Voynich calendar, and for discussions of how and where its content might have survived the centuries to about the fourteenth, for it is clear enough that by the fifteenth when our manuscript was made, ideas informing these containers in relation to astronomy were regarded very poorly in Latin Christendom.

A cylindrical container made entirely of metal, clay or glass needs no broad, vertical seam.  Those made of solid fibre – and of metal – may show a thickening where the material overlaps, but again the seam is not so broad.  The implication must be these containers are of woven fibre and in this context of star-holding figures  that they relate to the older tradition of the ornate, woven cista and of another type of container which the Romans called a capsa. Originally it was coloured red with cinnabar. Both those types in their earlier form vanish from the historical record before the third century AD, and indeed by about the middle of the first  – which is about a century before introduction of the Romans’ 12-figure zodiac, and at least two before our first extant version of the ‘helios’ zodiacs.

Today, there is just one town in Spain – and until recently only one family from that town – which knew how to make a cylindrical container of this type, able to stand upright without the addition of wire hoops, yet not of wicker. The secret was the making of that vertical seam.  The baskets are made of esparto grass.  (Note the rolled rim at the base).

seam fol 70rcontainer traditional esparto LaMancha







The red, stcapsa black with wireraight-sided scroll-holding capsae simply vanish in about the 1stC AD, while devolution of the basketwork cista from its ornate type to an ordinary grain bag can be followed through imagery on coins from the 1stC BC onwards.

In parallel, we find that the looser basketry capsa is now black (a telling detail in itself) and that Roman capsa are made of plain metal, of plain leather,  of ordinary cloth or of basketry reinforced by wire hoops, while versions of the cistae become, increasingly, indistinguishable from them and capsae often appear from that time as made of metal.

These later types are found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and would be the only type of capsa known to the later Roman and Byzantine.

The cista mystica, similarly, becomes a grain-sack, and it is this late type which is borne by a medieval ‘griffin’ ( shown earlier). Our manuscript shows a similar idea, but represents containers of the earlier period. And I think they are intended to be read as bread/grain baskets in addition to any association with the sort of urn used to contain ashes.  A coin of Commodus (3rdC AD) now shows the cista mystica as a lidded urn, not unlike the type later depicted in Rheims Cathedral as current warning against pagan practice in cremating the dead.

coin cista as urn

The presence of that wide, vertical seam, on cylindrical containers of ornate pattern suggests, then, and with or without the patterning, that the imagery on folio 70r originated before the 1stC AD, and most likely from regions most influenced by Egypto-Mesopotamian culture, including parts of Asia Minor, the whoe of the eastern Mediterranean lands, Iberia and North Africa. Byzantium itself would retained control of Egypt, North Africa and south-eastern Spain until the first Islamic invasions.

In this way, the imagery agrees with so much else in the calendar section; explains why its centres have no direct connection to the Roman zodiac; the bowderlization of later folios; and the very evident efforts made later to bring the central emblems into some sort of accord with the forms used in a Roman and Latin-style “labours of the months” calendar.

Since I suggest that the same type of container was used as a bread- or grain- basket, I should show evidence of equation being made between ascended soul, stars, and ‘bread’.  The following are chosen to illustrate the range in time over which such ideas occur, and how older ideas survived by translation into eastern Christian thought and ritual.  As one would expect, ancient people took such ideas more literally, but the Christian allegorically.  The second passage comes from a description of the Greek ritual in the eighteenth century, by a person not of that faith.

From the Pyramid of Unas:

As the ancient stars, his bread is high above in the light..

Unas becomes a thing in motion ..

Unas takes the path in the middle of the turning of those rising above

Unis goes to his place among the constellations.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

stars bread Gk rite 18thC acctSo here we have at least two examples, and the second suggests that such implications would not have seemed so alien to the eastern Christian [1] as to those of the  western, Latin, rite.

The bread used in Greek Orthodox ceremony was always leavened bread; thus the commentator speaks of ‘loaves’ rather than of the ‘host’ which describes the Latins’ discs of unleavened bread.

The following ivory from sixth-century Ravenna shows the Egyptian factor measuring the bread-grain with a modius, and pouring it into a loose-woven sack.  The crown worn by the seated figure is another version of the modius.

ivory pattern Egypt grain Serapis modius hat

Another reason for my coming to this view that the barils are meant to be seen simultaneously as holders of star-souls or angels and asCornucpia containers for bread is a suspicion that the ‘star-holders’ did not originally hold their stars on strings, but held a form of cornucopia. A not dissimilar line of figures appears in a Roman building – one figure from it illustrated here – but where that figure holds a basket of fruit or bread in the other hand, those in folio 70r emerge from what I think is probably meant for a larger version of the same, one like that still made in Spain, and whose finish gave it more enduring character.

Yet another reason relates to the disappearance of the original form for red, cylindrical capsae from the historical record.  Capsa is what the Romans called the container of papyrus scrolls, but since the papyrus was exclusively a product of Egypt, and existed before the Roman era, one expects that the Egyptians and Hellenistic Greeks had some other term for it.

capsa Tunisia mcmanus

capsa and scrolls. from a mosaic in Tunis.

Papyrus was widely used not only in Greco-Roman Egypt, but throughout the Mediterranean until the early centuries AD, and thereafter still used for the best quality documents and official records, even to the eleventh century in Spain and Sicily.

Like any hand-written book, a scroll was a very valuable thing, and in this context we always see the capsa provided with a lock.  One might suppose that containers of that sort might be made without one if they held less valuable goods.

By the time the ivory was made which is in Ravenna, the older sitellae, cistae and capsae were made no more.  But the reason why the older type appear red is that they had been covered with clay, probably cinnabar in this case. To cover fibre including basketware with clay is a well-known means to render it impervious to moisture and air.  Cinnabar earth, however, had to be sealed, because on exposure to air and moisture it oxidized rapidly and turned black.  Vitruvius refers to this fact in the middle of the first century, saying that while the Romans had recently developed a fad for painting their houses with cinnabar (as the Phoenicians had earlier done in Carthage), the means to seal it properly had been lost.  He, himself, only knew that one needed ‘Phoenician wax’ but the aftermath of the Phoenician genocide had seen the secret of ‘Phoenician wax’ lost, and it was not until quite recently that the astonishing discovery was made that this wax was probably the same as that used to seal the painted timbers of Phoenician ships – and that its chief constitutent was esparto wax, known today only as a by-product produced when paper is hand-made from esparto grass.

And that is why the later capsae are black. The habit continued of using cinnabar, and it came to be accepted as blackening. In time this in itself became a convention, and again in Spain, that convention remains for containers of just the same type, reinforced with wire hoops and now coated with black wax.  They are used to hold cheese.

However, what this tells us, at least, is that there was a custom of coating containers, and sealing the colour, in the same way.  Whether any of the barils shown on folio 70r were meant to represent cinnabar-coated work one cannot say, but all the barils in the lower tier use the same motif, and evidently meant for some ‘red earth’ – possibly terracotta or ochre – because on folio 78r we find the same pattern applied to a material impervious, the sort which might be used for water-channeling.

channels f.78r

Terracotta has been used for waterpipes since the 6thC BC (as the linked image of the Aqueduct of Peisistratus in Athens* shows). In Roman Judaea terracotta was used equivalent to the  capsae, so well preserving its scrolls that they survived the elements for almost two thousand years near the Dead Sea.  * linked image is from  ‘Water Technologies of Ancient Athens, Greece’, post to “Ancient Water Technologies” (wordpress blog), December 31st., 2012.

Dead sea scrolls jar2

model of the Dead Sea Scrolls containers.

My speaking of red-coloured cylindrical containers will make readers wonder if this is the nature of those other red cylinders seen in the lading, or ‘pharma’ section of MS Beinecke 408.

My own opinion is that they are not directly related, for the botanical matter in those sections (in my opinion) relates to the goods of the eastern sea, and as a rule containers are produced where the produce is gained.  In that region, too, containers of similar form are still made, their red colour not from cinnabar but from vegetable lacquer.  Whether some of those forms evolved as imitation of the ‘capsa’ type, or vice versa, or neither, is for others to decide.

The examples illustrated below show containers made of wood, and of basketry, both red and black.  They come from Burma, but similar containers are found throughout regions touching the maritime routes, and along the high ‘silk road’ – wherever the materials for lacquer are available. The handles shown here are added for transport, and removed at their destination.

containers Burmesecapsa







Unlike the botanical and lading sections, the calendar section in MS Beinecke 408 shows no sign of affect from eastern customs in drawing, nor any apparent influence from the various Asian cultures.  For this reason, among others, I do not think the containers in the lading section are to be classified in the same way as the barils of the calendar section.


Esparto, Bread, Stars and Red Earth

In the esparto regions of Spain, another example is found of influence from older Egyptian belief, though apparently mediated by Phoenician and possibly even by Celtic peoples.

Sirius with sandal and water bearer. detail from the Palette of Narmer.

In Cartagena, one of the original Phoenician colonies in Iberia, there was a cult to the Lady of the Esparto, whose signs we are told were the sandal and the water jug. The combination signals derivation from a very old idea of Sirius as “water bringer”, an idea later transferred to Isis within Egyptian religion itself – naturally enough, since the rise of Sirius marked that of the Nile each year. (for more evidence of the pre-Roman cult in France see e.g. Jean-Claude Schmitt, Le Saint Lévrier. Guinefort, guérisseur d’enfants depuis le XIIIe siècle (Flammarion, 1979) published in English by Cambridge Uni Press as The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the Thirteenth Century (1983).

Some time after the Peninsula’s conversion to Christianity – obligatory under any Greek ‘Roman’ ruler – the seat of the Bishopric was moved from its original home in Cartagena north to Madrid.  There, to this day, the Basilica is dedicated to  ‘Nuestra Señora de Atocha’ (Our Lady of the Esparto) and the legend associated with the cult says that “a child came regularly at midnight to those imprisoned and starving, bringing a basket of bread, and so long as the child’s esparto-grass shoes were renewed regularly when they appeared thin, the food continued to arrive”.

If you look for any of these legends online, you may or may not find them, for increasingly the Christian Nuestra Señora de Atocha is provided with another and  impeccable Christian origin and of late even a new etymology for her name. ‘Atocha’ is no longer accepted as being the indigenous word for esparto, but said to be a corruption of the word ‘Antioch’.  One could hardly expect otherwise of official hagiographers, given the people’s deep attachment to their black ‘Lady’, whose origins they cannot know. The child’s jug is now a book, and the small flat loaf which the Lady holds has over the past few years become larger and more like an apple. Ironic, perhaps, since the pre-Christian ‘lady of the sandal’ was also type for Aphrodite, who, like paper and esparto wax were ‘born of the foam’.

“Red Earth” and the Granary are again the significance of the “X” shape seen on the temple-like building in folio 86v.  We find the sign on coins of Miletos on the coast of Asia minor, Miletos being so named for the cinnabar  ‘red earth’ which it mined also in colonies of the Black Sea.

agadir Miletos f86v west roundel

Mineral cinnabar is highly toxic, containing a high proportion of lead.  It must be roasted before use, which makes the business all the more dangerous, although in Spain this did not later prevent its use in the production of lustre-ware.

Sending Phoenicians to the cinnabar mines in Spain was one means favoured by the Romans in prosecuting their Phoenician genocide. The usual life expectancy for a healthy man set to roasting cinnabar was between 6 and 9 months.

However, the significance of this form of  “X” was not so much of danger, or poison, but rather of the red earth’s relation to the underworld and its proliferation of seed and life ab origine.  That is the significance of the figure seen on the tabula from Grand: the deity of the red earth, patron of the original man and tiller of the earth.  The last idea in slightly different form was inherited by Judaism and so by Christianity, for whom the name of the first man, Adam, is derived from “red clay”.

The same sign remains the symbol for the protective seal on the granary, and is used in that way to the present time by tribal peoples across the line from the upper Nile to the Niger valley, the southern limit of the old Egyptians’ world, beyond which nothing was said to exist.

It also came to be equated with the idea of the walled city which protects it ‘seed’ within earthen ramparts: the term agadir is found fairly commonly throughout North Africa, accepted into Arabic, and the basis of a number of Spanish place-names.

The site so marked on folio 86v I have tentatively identified as Ceuta.

I end here, but for those who have been good enough to read these long posts, I’ll write one more in complete (non-bullet) form, about a particular mosaic which offers, in my view, the closest comparison to the forms and themes evident in the tiers of fol 70r.

Below is a detail from a sandstone relief in Burgos. Dating to the Visigoth period it unites without  distortion  elements shared by art of the Egyptian, the late Roman and  the Byzantine.  It is quite remarkable, and not least because despite the medium of sandstone, it evokes the style of combed clay or terracotta work, and shows no objection to ‘bendy bodies’.


Burgos. c. 1170 AD. Relief from Quintanilla-de-las-viñas.


not as argument, but for the joy of it:-

Burgos detail and bendy body from f.70r




1. The night watches of the Egyptian monks in the earliest Christian centuries were intended – as the records show – to sing the stars securely in place, affixed to a mobile heavens – the same theme discernable in the Voynich roundel’s tiers, reinforced by its representation of weak-limbed figures. The sky moved; they did not. It is a view which Isidore records, but the idea of stars fixed to a moving heavens was characteristic of Egypt, as I mentioned first some time ago, citing Joanne Conman’s important paper, ‘It’s about Time: Ancient Egyptian Cosmology’, Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur , Bd. 31, (2003), pp. 33-71 . With relation to tidal charts (another first in Voynich studies, I’m told), I treated the Egyptian element again here on October 13, 2012.

Works from earlier medieval Europe also show clearly that there lingered at least in England and to as late as the ninth or tenth century, an idea (later set aside)  that the Milky Way was a celestial road along which were seen the bright souls of saints and martyrs, and whose highest point touched the northern celestial island: not now as the Pharaoh’s mound but the ‘City of God’, an idea first enunciated for the Latin tradition by a man of Phoenician heritage, a former Manichaean and one of the greatest names in the history of Latin theology: Augustine of Hippo, near Carthage.

A similar theme, in Christian Ethiopia, is expressed in a calendar-fan which I’ve illustrated before, and most recently here .

While I realise that all this ancient history may be tiresome for some ‘Voynicheros’, I think all would agree that our task is not to provenance a theory, but the script and imagery in a six-hundred year old manuscript, made when Latin Europe was especially keen on learning more about the ancient world, and in discovering the ways east.




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