That’s a zodiac with Hours…

[update – references added, including an important one, acknowledging again Ellie Velinksa’s first noticing an important French manuscript]

This post re-examines an oft-cited diagram in, finding that it has little in common, in form, content or frame of reference to the calendar in MS Beinecke 408, though its inclusion of horae holds some interest.


Attention has often [1] been drawn in Voynich studies to a manuscript made between 813-820 AD, one containing a ‘helios’ zodiac diagram which is dated to an immediate  precedent of the 3rdC AD. The manuscript is Bib.Apostolica Vaticana, The image below – without my bright red rings – comes from the wiki article ‘Byzantine Art’. The diagram itself is very well known indeed – ‘celebrated’ as Spatharakis rightly says.

(click to enlarge)

Pisces appears here on a detail from a miniature zodiac, which is held today by the Vatican (Vaticanus graecus 1291). The Picture is copied from Wikipedia entry: Byzantine art uploaded by “Javits2000” Source: Ptolemy's Handy Tables Dated from 813-820 C.E. (during the reign of Constantine V). Center: Helios in his chariot identified by the Cross as Jesus. 12 naked female figures represent the hours. 12 dressed male figures (The Apostles) represent the twelve months. Labels: month names in Greek

Vaticanus graecus 1291.
uploaded by “Javits2000”

As you’ll see if you enlarge the image, the innermost ring shows a series of figures of which one, or perhaps two may be in a baril, but I cannot be certain from the image available to me. All are shown only from the waist or hip. They are unclothed, and with arms a little rubbery-looking.   To that extent they resemble the star-holding figures in f.70r, and that is all the positive similarity which exists between the Voynich calendar and this famous zodiac.

The differences are pronounced: MS Beinecke 408 contains no chariot-borne ‘Helios’, though it has pictures of the sun; it makes no allusion to the 12 Apostles, either, as the Byzantine zodiac does by identifying them with the twelve months, and contains no sign of first enunciation within a worldview informed by Christianity – the opposite being plainly true of

Observing that the zodiac in is an early example of reducing the usual five concentric circles to just three, Estey omits reference to Christian thought in his description, which runs:

“In the four circles [i.e. including the central emblem],  the signs of the zodiac, the personification of the months and the hours are portrayed.”

F. N. Estey, ‘Charlemagne’s Silver Celestial Table’, Speculum, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1943), pp. 112-117

The planets which were essential to Greco-Roman astrology are absent from   There appears to be no reference to the planets, either, in MS Beinecke 408, but then –  neither does it contain a zodiac. [2]

Being a copy of a third-century original, the zodiac in is a copy of a very early version of one intended for propagation through a Roman empire  newly announced Christian.  We are told that the Helios is now meant for Christ, and the months are represented by his twelve apostles – but as ‘holy virgins’, as some accounts describe them, the figures about the inner ring are less convincing.

Christianity has no tradition of ‘holy virgin’ males, and it is interesting that the classical hours, which might be pictured as male or as female, are evidently retained in some original form here.  The figures in ‘barils’ on f.70r also include both sexes.

In the  pre-Christian tradition, the Horae had been envisaged as part of the Sun’s retinue, but they were also associated with its Queen, and with Aphrodite, and Bacchus… all a bit difficult to translate by reference to the new Imperial religion.

The Hours’ quality might be expressed as fair-mindedness, of which the Great gods of Greece had no particular need, themselves. As Smith puts it, the Horae “were daughters  of Zeus and Themis, the goddesses of order in nature and the seasons, who guarded the doors of Olympus, and protected the fertility of the earth by the varied weather which they gave to mortals… they are represented as maidens or youths carrying the products of the seasons.” Others add that their task was to rally the stars and constellations.

‘Horae’ in William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

One has the impression of a group of meticulous cosmic house-keepers. Their right-apportioning of weather doubtless made them vital to the majority of Byzantine subjects in the third century, in what was a predominantly agricultural world and it was too soon yet for Christianity to remove them from perceptions about the sky and seasons.

Here they are described arrayed about Phoebus Apollo, when he was visited by Phaeton, his son:

… Phœbus Apollo, arrayed in purple, on a throne that glittered with diamonds. Beside him stood the Day, the Month, the Year, the Hours, and the Seasons. Surrounded by these attendants, the Sun beheld the youth …

but ..

Of the statues of Hera, the most celebrated was that made by Polyclitus for her temple between Argos and Mycenæ. …The goddess was seated on a throne of magnificent proportions; she wore a crown upon which were figured the Graces and the Hours …

and here is Dionysius in an image said to show him leading his sector of the Hours (note the form of his beard, and how the draperies might easily be misread as ‘dagged’). However, the translucent garments suggest that the Romans have confused the Hourae with the wild μαινάδες, mainádes, or (as the Romans called them) the Bacchantes, who were of a rather different character.

Dionysius leading the Horae neo-Attic Roman relief 1stC

neo-Attic Roman relief 1stC

Hours two image007The Hours of the older Greeks were gels of very decent family, depicted modest, though richly dressed (right) even those under  Dionysius’ quarter.  The vineyard remained a popular theme in funerary urns well into the Christian era, and indeed in medieval imagery of the earlier period, ‘climbing the vine’ becomes at once a metaphor for the hard ascent of the scholar through the vineyard of the text, and of the soul’s ascent after death.

But to return to our theme: it is clear that neither the Greeks nor the Romans depicted the hours just from the waist up and totally unclothed – unlike what we see in 1291 or in folio 70r of MS Beinecke 408. They clearly have ancestry in common, despite their differences in all other details – but where did it come from?

To find similar imagery we have to go, yet again, to the eastern Mediterranean. Our example (below, left) comes from Heliopolis/Baalbek in modern Lebanon.  The example is one of a series shown high up, around the edge of the roof, and Baalbekas you see these were shown also from the waist up, and with attenuated limbs.  Whether these were meant for the hours, we don’t know, but the style for representing the human form is obviously similar, despite later damage by iconoclasts.

In fact, speaking of 1291, Hachlili also notes connection to the Holy Land, observing that its zodiac shows closer affinities to examples from early Jewish sites than to early Roman examples. For example, where the early Roman zodiacs depict only [Roman-style] Scales for Libra, the early Jewish ones show a human figure holding the scales in its right hand – as the Byzantine figure does, though MS Beinecke 408 does not – another proof if any more were needed that and the calendar in MS Beinecke 408 are only distantly related. As I have explained, the Voynich ‘Scales’ also come from the eastern side of the Mediterranean.

Rachel Hachlili, ‘The Zodiac in Ancient Jewish Art: Representation and Significance’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 228 (Dec., 1977), pp. 61-77.

The temple at Heliopolis-Baalbek was certainly well-known to the Roman world and in the third century AD its temple was still an astonishing sight;  a succession of Roman emperors  spent staggering amounts of money in its restoration, presumably to appease the patron deity, Baʿal Haddu, who (as I explained long ago) [3] became known across the trade-routes to as far as China, and was worshipped in centres about the Black Sea even before the rise of Imperial Rome. This Heliopolis stood on one of the great trade routes and its presence offered many positive benefits in promoting that trade.

Temples served as banks, as safe depositories, even as schools and scribal centres; the priests knew medicine, and maintained libraries, and even sometimes had special quarters for travellers and the ill. It was an old custom of the region, and would be remarked upon in the fifteenth century by a Venetian lad in Damascus, another such trading hub between east and west – although of course by then the hospitals were independent institutions and the schools were in churches or mosques.

The pattern which covers that figure from Heliopolis from the waist down is usually interpreted as water, but similar patterns are employed on some of the ‘barils’ in f.70r.

Astronomical studies  in Harran – yet another of the great near-eastern crossroads –  offer another possible source in this region for Byzantine Romans seeking an alternative to the Roman traditions.  The Greco-Egyptians of the city were intensely proud of their acknowledged mastery of all aspects of mathematical studies including astronomy and astrology.  As late as the eighth century AD, when they were invited to teach these subjects in the newly built city of Baghdad, they were regarded so highly that it is said in Islamic tradition that from them, and not from Egypt itself, Pythagoras had learned his wisdom.

But all in all, it would be reasonable for the Byzantines, seeking an acceptable alternative for classical figures ‘in the skies’ to look eastward towards the Holy Land and Syria for their models, and as we see from the Tabulae found at Grand, there were already customs by which the separate traditions of the east, and of the Greeks, might be united with the Romans’ zodiac. That synthesis existed well before the first model for the zodiac in, the tabula having been broken and dumped in the 3rdC.

In the third century, however, there was one work which might have provided an equivalent in its ’12 good virgins’ imagery. The Shepherd of Hermas had enormous popularity within the Greek-speaking world at that time, and was very nearly included within the official Christian canon, along with the Gospels and Epistles. Its author was extremely fond of parables and allegory.  In one section he describes figures which do sound as if they had come from the Greco-Roman vision of the Hours.

Round about the gate were standing twelve virgins. The four who stood at the corners seemed to me more distinguished than the others— they were all, however, distinguished— and they were standing at the four parts of the gate; two virgins between each part. And they were clothed with linen tunics, and gracefully girded, having their right shoulders exposed, as if about to bear some burden. … I was perplexed about the virgins, because, although so delicate, they were standing courageously, as if about to carry the whole heavens.

but later he rather spoils things for a modern reader.  He discourses on what he perceives to be the angelic virtues and devilish vices of women, then writes:

The names of the twelve holy virgins are Faith, Continence, Power, Long suffering, Simplicity, Guilelessness, Chastity, Cheerfulness, Truthfulness, Understanding, Concord, Love; those of the black clad devil-women are Unbelief, Intemperance, Disobedience, Deceit, Despondency, Wickedness, Lasciviousness, Choler, Falsehood, Folly, Slander, Hatred”  (p.284/293.)

 The ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ can be read in English translation online, as Chapter XVI (pp 264/273 – 292/301) of Volume IV, Pfleiderer’s Primitive Christianity, Published as Vol. XXXI of the Theological Translation Library, published in London by Williams and Norgate, and in New York by G.P. Putman’s Sons c.1906.

Perhaps by some such analogy, the hours were retained long enough to appear in the diagram of Vat. gr.1291, though somewhat awkwardly, and having no enduring Christian equivalent, are not seen again in the western zodiac tradition until the fifteenth century, when they re-appear in very different context, and never in that form.

They are absent in an otherwise veryzodiac 11thC Bib Nat interesting zodiac from 11thC France (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 7028, fol 154r) but so are the standard Pisces – which shows that even so late as this, the classical twelve of the Roman zodiac were everywhere accepted.  I should not make any argument from this zodiac that it is a precedent for the Voynich calendar’s two goats and two bulls, though I daresay others might. (click to enlarge).  Of more interest is that the version of Pisces seen here appears as Cetus on classical globes, but appears again in a manuscript first noticed by Ellie Velinska in regard to Voynich studies. (on the last point see my post, ‘Ellie Velinska and the French Connection’.

But what we learn from as  the last allusion to the hours as part of the cosmic machinery, until the fifteenth century – when they appear in very different form and purpose – is that  the Voynich calendar’s imagery reflects habits older than the third century, and cannot be an original invention of any Latin European draughtsman. I have, however, found a drawing of a  mosaic which tells us more, and which will be the subject of the next post.

We may  sense some echo of the older Hours’ role in the watchful ‘gatekeeping’ angels about the perimeter of a Christian heaven as “Olympus”, but these figures hold weapons, not the produce of earth. The Byzantines were first to adopt the idea of the repelling angels, which is also pronounced in Muslim tradition. The image below shows the same notion in a fifteenth century manuscript from France, the Rohan Hours.

motif wolkenband rohan hours 15thC

Rohan Hours. France. 15thC. The idea might have come from Byzantium, but the figures are from India: vasudevas.

(For more on the Horae, including their names, see the wiki article ‘Horae’ or any classical dictionary.  For a revived interest in the Hours found in Renaissance Italy, and their sudden re-appearance into western art see Seznec, Survival of the Pagan Gods, Princeton (1971) p.131. In frescos dated to c.1420, within consciously syncretistic imagery, they are equated with the Seven Ages in the Palazzo Trinci, Foligno.  Seznec adds a curious note about Natale Conti, who was born about 1520, that he composed “a poem on the Hours for Cosimo de’ Medici” but this can hardly be right; Cosimo died in 1464. (ibid. p.231) I expect the dedication was a posthumous one in Conti’s De horis liber unus

Voynich studies and

1. Rene Zandbergen has been the most constant in referring to the Helios zodiac in Vat.g. 1291 in connection with Voynich studies, though whether he was the first to notice it in this connection I cannot discover. On the old mailing list it appears to have been ‘old news’ already by  2002.

2. Given the regularity with which Voynich writers refer to the calendar section as a ‘zodiac’, I note with pleasure that Rene Zandbergen appears to have accepted my argument that the Voynich manuscript’s calendar is no more than that.  More exactly, he has repeated that it includes two goats (and thus no sheep).  Whether, in repeating my conclusions he cites my original argument in full, ( published here in 2012) or simply reiterates my sources, I do not yet know, but it is still a pleasure to hear of it.

I maintain not only that two goats and no sheep are pictured in the Voynich calendar, but that of those goats, one is meant to be understood as wild, and the other domesticated, the same being true of the two Bulls, and further that the Scales do not represent any type used in Roman or medieval Latin imagery.


3 Haddah…..

Hadad on the silk roads

There is another character – a ‘lord of the winds’ – so widely known across the northern roads that his type, or that of his devotees, is believed to have influenced the idea of the ‘wind-daemons/demons’ to as far as China. He is distinguished by reddened, upswept hair and he’s generally called Hadad, though I have my doubts about whether that’s how his red-haired followers called him in earlier centuries. Hadad was Edomitic or Semitic deity, and as that linked picture shows, if the spike-haired northern figure is the same, his appearance and character changed in the far north”.

from my research blog ‘Findings‘ Tuesday, April 17, 2012.   I was talking about the spiky-haired figure on f.57v when the topic came up.


Additional note:

Fr.Petersen, who spent forty years in study of the manuscript thought the imagery most like a work which is referred to in the Voynich literature as “Vatican MS 1906”. I am unable to find any manuscript with that description, but MS Ottobon.1906 is a copy of Gersonides‘ text on logic. (see also University of Pennyslvania LSJ 229 for commentaries by one of Gersonides’ students). Gersonides is credited, among other things, with invention of the Jacob’s staff. Perhaps a re-discovery is the more appropriate description, since it is attested long before, and in any case Gersonides deserves to be remembered for more than that.  If anyone has seen a text “Vatican MS 1906” or has a better description for it, I’d be very happy to hear from you.


  1. ERRATUM: As some readers will have worked out for themselves, a word was dropped…

    Where the text says:
    They are absent in an otherwise very interesting zodiac from 11thC France (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 7028, fol 154r) but so are the standard Pisces – which shows that even so late as this, the classical twelve of the Roman zodiac were everywhere accepted

    the last phrase should read:

    … which shows that even so late as this, the classical twelve of the Roman zodiac were NOT everywhere accepted.

    Sincere thanks to B.P. K for having picked this up, and been kind to write to me about it.


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