This image can be read at two levels, and very cleverly uses the same set of mnemonic emblems to convey a double, but interwoven narrative.
Heracles and the Apples of the Hesperides
In one way of reading it, the picture shows Heracles; the fruits in the basket behind him are the ‘apples of the Hesperides‘ which he had to fetch from a place whose location he did not know. In the end, Heracles must have wandered to somewhere near the southern (celestial Pole) because he met Atlas who holds the world on his shoulders, and by temporarily taking Atlas’ place – so that Atlas could fetch the apples – Heracles was able to complete his own eleventh labour.
By this reading, the curvus Saturnus behind his shoulder signifies the realm of the Dead – that is of the Roman deity, Saturn – and the plant in the background is the plant of the underworld, the Asphodel. Thus, we learn that the Pole to which he points is the ‘broken’ or ‘split’ southern Pole, and his blazing torch, again, shows the need for light to be carried in the ‘underworld’. (OK so far?)
Persia, Perseus and the ‘Persian Apple’
On the second level of reading, the ‘curvus saturnus‘ refers to a group of stars in the constellation of Perseus, whose name means “the destroyer” and which was the eponymous star of the Persians, as Herodotus knew as early as the fifth century BC. In Roman times, the rulers of Persia were the Sassanids.
The torch’s blazing reminds us that June is the mid-summer month and that the people of Persia were fire-worshippers – Zoroastrians. The figure’s being naked alludes to the Roman’s inflated idea of themselves as the only civilized people on earth: even the Persians are shown ‘barbarians’ by this means. The ‘apples of the Hesperides’ are to be understood as peaches, which the older Greeks and Romans called the ‘Persian apple’.
On folio 86v of MS Beinecke 408, which is a map of the original maker’s ‘world’, there is placed in what is now the north-west roundel, but which was originally, I believe (and as I explained in treating that folio) set as the North roundel – a figure at the ‘top’ of the world axis.
It has a bird-like head, where the opposite end has none. Otherwise, the object is made symmetrical at the line of the ‘Rose’.
It is the lower, or southern, end which is formed in just the same way as the ‘blade-like’ top for the Pole in the Chronograph of 354. Apparently, for the Persians, South was ‘up’, whereas for the ‘bird-headed’ people, ‘up’ was North.
It is not only the form of that ‘double-‘ or ‘split-‘ southern Pole which is in common here, but a common significance. At the same time, the June image in the Chronograph was intent on Greek and Persian ideas, not those of Rome itself, so we may assume in this case, I think, that the informing ideas in folio 86v derive again from the Greco-Persian rather than the Roman.
In folio 86v, as it now is, the ‘axis’ has been shifted, I believe, in order to make space for a vignette in which the Mediterranean is presently represented by what I have called a ‘mini-map’, and without which there would be no reference to the Mediterranean sea or Europe at all, save for one site which is found in the West roundel. It was evidently of great importance to the makers of the original map. The building is in classical style. The site I have identified, with a little reservation, as Ceuta.
Of interest is that the larger part of the map appears to show that site as approached overland by the sub-Saharan corridor – not by sea through the Mediterranean. Nor does any part of the map reference Rome or Jerusalem. For these reasons and more, I concluded that for most of its existence, the content in this folio had been preserved by the Radhanites or their remote predecessors, and not by Jews or Latins. The month folios present a different case; I doubt if they ever left the shores of the Mediterranean-and-Black Sea, unless preserved in the old Greco-Bactrian region, perhaps near Maragah. I admit that some ancient centre of Greco-Roman trade and settlement on the shores of India or perhaps Soqotra is not impossible.
In association with the Heracles-Perseus figure for June, the ‘Chronograph’s calendar includes a feast of the Summer Solstice : “Fortis Fortunae“. The date isn’t that of the Persian New Year, but of Roman, celebrated as Orion’s belt began to rise above the horizon. Nevertheless its title well describes that twin reference to Heracles and the Persians.
Like Heracles, the Sasanids had been ‘miraculously’ fortunate, time after time. Of all the nations attacked by Rome, they alone had retained their independence – and more. One Roman emperor was taken and kept a prisoner-guest for the rest of his life by a Sassanian king; another named Julian – called ‘the Apostate’ – had been defeated against all expectations. Fortis Fortunae indeed.
While the ‘Chronograph’ did elucidate the ‘Greco-Persian’ axis motif for me, nothing in its imagery suggests to me that it is likely to illuminate the Voynich calendar, whose format, style of drawing, attitudes and details show no common connection to f.86v except in what I take to be origins in the Hellenistic period, and common revisions during the period from the mid-twelfth to the fourteenth centuries – and, of course, the copying in common in the early fifteenth to make our current manuscript.
If the gap between the Voynich calendar’s first enunciation and last copying is as great as I think it was – the c.3rdC BC until c.1427 AD – then we can hardly follow closely the changing perception of the ‘barils’ and their occupants until we know more of the hands through the matter in this section passed during those centuries, if indeed, it were not simply desposited during most of that time.
But let’s suppose that the first maker, and all later owners, understood Greek, or Latin, or both. (Greek was spoken by the Radhanites and served as the lingua franca of the Mediterranean for everyone, including the Jews, until about the end of the tenth century AD).
Let’s also suppose, as a first proposition, that the figures in the ‘barils’ represent days of the month, stars of the year, the roster of feast-days or something of that sort.
The Voynich Calendar folio 70r
Whether the barils were first imagined of iron, or of basketry, or of ceramic, remains uncertain, and even more uncertain whether interpretations altered as the matter passed finally into the hands of the last scribes in the early fifteenth century. They, at least, were probably Latin Europeans.
Were our present manuscript made in fifteenth century England, from a thirteenth century English precursor, then the thirteenth century scribe might have seen the ‘barils’ in terms of the iron boilers which I showed (here). So as he copied the figures, he might have seen the connection between their stars and containers in terms of the Latin Ferrum for iron and feriae for ‘feast days’. So each figure might represent a feast-day in the Latin Christian calendar, or some version of it used in thirteenth-century England (there were regional variants).
Before him, perhaps, the persons who had it might have spoken Greek, as indeed might the persons who first made it. In Greek, the term for something ‘made of iron’ was sidéros – closely linked to (Gk.) sidera, which was one term for a star, the other being aster, which also named a flower.
But in this case, the circuit of figures in ‘barils’ might be purely astronomical and have nothing to do with the liturgical calendar, either that of the ancient Greeks, or of the Persians, or of classical Rome, let alone of medieval Latin Europe, and the later copyists, even if Latin Europeans, might have copied the original without changing it.
In a third case, if it had been made in Egypto-Greek Alexandria, then the circuit of stars might only refer to those closest to the northern celestial Pole, because the first iron known to Mediterranean peoples was meteoric iron, and its description as “imperishable metal” was also that by which the Egyptians described the circumpolar stars. (I’ll come back to this when treating the mosaic) .
I quote Isidore of Seville so often, not because he invented ‘etymology’ of this sort, but because his upbringing and his later encyclopaedic Etymologiae provide us with a bridge between the classical world of imperial Rome, and the very different culture of early medieval Christian Europe.
For him, sidus meant ‘constellations’ – not individual stars – and he also adheres to the usual belief of older peoples that mariners were the only ones who needed very detailed knowledge of them. He writes:
Constellations (sidus) are so named because sailors ‘take bearings on’ (considerare) them when they set their course, lest they be led elsewhere by deceptive waves and winds. And for that reason some stars are called signs (signum), because sailors observe them in steering their rowing, taking note of their keenness and brightness, qualities by which the future state of the sky is shown. But everyone pays attention to them for predicting the qualities of the air in the summer, winter, and spring seasons, for by their rising or setting in specific places they indicate the condition of the weather”.
To finish – baskets from the Chronograph.
None has the same profile as the calendar’s ‘barils’, though that of May (upper left) comes closest. In the ‘Chronograph’ – and in this case I’m certain that the plant is meant for asphodel – the feast meant, I think is LVDI HONOR ET VIRTVS ZINZA though I cannot explain ‘Zinza’ except perhaps by way of ‘cinza/cinsa’, which (according to the linked page) is Galician. It means ashes or cremated remains, but comes from Iberia: ” Old Portuguese cĩisa, from Vulgar Latin root *cinisia, from Latin cinis“: Any Latinist care to comment? (It is not among the feasts listed here).
A standard history of the Chronograph of 354, without analysis of the imagery but with a good codicological history is offered by R.W. Burgess, ‘The Chronograph of 354: its Manuscripts, Contents, and History’, Journal of Late Antiquity 5 (2012) 345-96. (also available through academia.edu).
So, altogether: if you can put aside any idea that the Carthage mosaic refers to medieval Latins’ “Labours of the Months” or the Romans’ 12 constellations (because it doesn’t, and neither did the Voynich calendar for most of its existence), we can move on.
In 1938, Webster believed the mosaic was in the British Museum. While I’m waiting for confirmation, and perhaps a nicer image, here’s the drawing reproduced in Webster’s book, where René Cagnat is credited.
I wonder what you’ll make of all these occupants of the field?
Until next time… (click to enlarge).