… and these are hours with no zodiac Pt.1

Here again is that drawing of the mosaic from Carthage.

At first glance, it looks like a ‘Helios zodiac’ diagram, with its central figure, and each corner space occupied by one of the four seasons, and the procession of 12 figures around the inner circle, each named for a Latin month  ….

Mosaic Carthage Brit Mus quer Webster Labors Plate V cropped

The labels give the season’s name in Latin, though some in a curious orthography.

four seasons Carthage mosaic Brit Mus query

In other early zodiacs from the middle east and elsewhere, the seasons also occupy the corners, though at times we find their place taken by four winged figures, medallion Hellenistic celeb Nearchus voyagenot (as in Beth Alpha)[1] as ‘angels’ of their season, but as winds. This was the case with the tabula from Grand,[2] with its fusion of the Egypto-Mesopotamian, Greek and Latin heavens.  Medieval Latin Europe, as we’ve seen in the case of the Sawley map, adopted with enthusiasm the custom of depicting the four winds as angels, but nothing of the sort occurs in MS Beinecke 408, whose only two winged figures ( fol.86v and folio 72r-3) refer, I think, to the same ‘spirit of the wayfinder’ depicted on a Hellenistic medallion as Nearchus’ inspiring genius.

Seasons Beth Shean

Seasons from the Beth Alpha Synagogue in Beth Shean.

(Newcomers might be surprised to learn that the Beth Alpha mosaic provides our first example of Sagittarius as a standing human archer).[3]

The Carthage mosaic is of different line, though here again our near example (shown below) was made in Beth Shean in the sixth century, in a building known as the ‘Monastery of Lady Mary’. It is organised to resemble a Roman zodiac – but it isn’t one.  These months are not identified with constellations, nor with the Apostles, staying a little closer to the notion of the 12 Horae, before those were amalgamated with other sets of  twelve.

Here the inscriptions are in both Greek and Latin, and quite unusually each month is inscribed with its allotted number of days.

The detail below is from a painting which was made at the site by A. Bentwich. A larger image and detailed commentary are online (here), in a paper by Stephane Hagen, originally  published as: Stephane Hagen, ‘Time, Memory and Mosaics at the Monastery of Lady Mary’,  Expedition 55, no. 1 (2013): 37-42.

Calendar mosaic Monastery of Lady Mary Beth Shean

Mosaic from the  “Monastery of Lady Mary” Beth Shean. dated to the c.6thC

It may be compared with the Sun-and-Moon centre of that tabula recovered from Grand, often supposed idiosyncratically Gallo-Roman, and dated to the 1st or 2ndC AD. Below, a detail showing the side of the moon. Its “twelves” are triads, Egyptian or Egyptianised deities.

GRAND ivory

About the same time that tabula was being used in Grand, and a century before the zodiac diagram was made which we have copied in Vat.gr.1291, the official Roman ’12’ were appearing (as in the Grand tabula) in ivories and imagery.  A Christian appointed to Lyon at the time had come from the old “astronomer’s coast” in Asia minor. His name was Irenaeus (d. 202 AD) and he denounced a custom which, apparently, was already present in Gaul – by which the constellations were being equated with the Apostles. By the next century, the Christians of that valley rising above Lyon had attacked the sanctuary at Grand and destroyed these tabulae.[5]

One assumes that Irenaeus meant the zodiac constellations – as a set of twelve – and he is evidently right about it being a ‘gnostic’ habit.  At much the same time, in Alexandria, a prominent follower of the gnostic, Valentinian, was  asserting that the Apostles had “replaced the signs of the zodiac”. His name was Theodotus.

When one considers the zodiac in Vat.gr.1291, therefore, and then those which were to come later in Christian imagery, it looks as if the Gnostic influence won out for quite a while, though those employing the idea would have supposed it an exercise of great orthodoxy.

The ‘Lady Mary’ mosaic, though made in the sixth century, gives no suggestion of that kind, and nor do we see any hint of Apostles in the Carthage mosaic or the Voynich figures – neither those in their ‘barils’ nor the a-typical emblems which now occupy the centres of those roundels.

A fifth-century papyrus from Egypt shows, at least, a set of months in the form of female figures pictured only from the waist or hip. They are clothed, and wear the usual combination of ‘crown’ and veil which was standard womens’ costume through much of the Mediterranean, from before the Hellenistic era until after our manuscript was made. I add a comparison from folio 80r for the figure on the right and a comparative example of braided hair at the end, plaited (‘braided’) hair being just common and widely found. (Webster’s comment on the papyrus is reproduced as footnote.[4]

Webster Plate 14 months from an Egyptian papyrus of upper Egypt

Headdress red paint f80r

detail from fol.80r, Yale University, Beinecke MS 408.

From these various examples of  time-related imagery originating from the eastern side of the Mediterranean, our chief examples stand apart – not least by the absence of divisions drawn between the figures, though most notably by their both infusing their figures with very human emotion, in a way which suggests interaction between the figures, and expresses certain expectations of the viewer.  Both also show an undivided circuit – not only made without radial divisions, but so designed that to include them is impossible.  In both cases, the result is more immediately evocative of the Egyptians’ “rotating year”[5]  than the set divisions of the Roman calendar and zodiac.

Even the necessarily passive figures of the Voynich calendar convey an air of life, and by their postures and expressions manage to suggest an awareness of each other. In the detail below, the aged figure looks dejected, while that to her left looks joyful; the male figure looks ostracised; the female towards whom he looks, disdainful.  These are figures passing as a crowd,  in procession, as we stand and observe – not as one of  whom the gods, and hours, are unaware, but as a fellow being.

f70r detail barrels brightadj blog

A similar feeling is expressed by the Carthage mosaic, which again implies the maker’s expectation that the viewer is an active agent. Even dreary October seems to walk with a spring in his step, and (if Gagnet’s drawing may be relied on) catches our gaze.  All hold their offerings aloft in what appears as a festival procession.  Not only are there no divisions drawn between these people but the design permits none. 

 Their costumes are not those of Greeks and Romans, not even the figure one might interpret as a Heracles – all the varieties are apparently of local dress.  The type of long headscarf seen on February – the  curiously named  ?Ariamus? – is the same Tunisian costume which one sees in painted tiles there as late as the tenth, the intervening centuries having seen Visigoth and Byzantine come and go, and the Islamic conquests finally succeed. But the costume changed not at all, apparently.

month figures from Webster Carthage Mosaic Brit Mus query

month figures from Carthage mosaic, Webster (after Gagnet)

The Voynich manuscript’s folio 70r may not show all its characters so cheerful, but does express a similar energy as Roman zodiacs do not.  There, the Twins may express companionship, or the Archer aim at the creature before or behind, but in general each exists in isolation, and one cannot imagine them otherwise.

It is true that the Carthage mosaic contains only twelve figures – Horae as months – where the Voynich figures on f.70r  seem each meant for a ‘day’,  but the numbers aren’t quite right, overall, and in folio 70r – unless I’m badly mislead – the figures were designed initially to represent the whole year.

What the Carthage mosaic can explain for us why is why, there, the figures are each  provided with a container which they hold yet the original draughtsman for folio 70r saw it as perfectly natural to suppose star-souls might travel in them.

Explanations in the next post.



…  Part 2,  due to appear tomorrow.




1.  I am given to understand that I was the first to refer the Beth Alpha mosaic, or to any other eastern mosaic in connection with this section of MS Beinecke 408. If I am mistaken, I’d be glad of correction.

2. see note 1.

3. see note 1.  Also: the world’s “four quarters” and the full circuit as named by winds  carried an implied connection to physical geography and the supposed character of the nation from which each wind arose.   That each also had its “star” was an ancient belief, whose assignments appear to have remained remarkably constant until the proliferation of Hellenistic astrology, which began from a garbled understanding of the more ancient custom,  attested in Egypt and in Babylonia.  The point will be important.  I accept that the biblical Book of Daniel is a work of the Hellenistic era and it first records this idea for the western tradition, representing each nation-star a messenger as ‘angel’.


Walker Labors note on papyrus Plate 14

5.  For this and other matter relevant to the content in MS Beinecke 408, I recommend the article by Frederico de Romanis, ‘Romanukharattha and Taprobane: Relations between Rome and Sri Lanka in the First Century AD’,  pp.161-237 in Romanis, F. and Tcherina, A. (eds.), Crossings: Early Mediterranean Contacts With India, Manohar (2005).  The first pages of Romanis’ article discuss  intelligently and in depth distinctions between, and contemporary ways of interacting with, both the Egyptian and the Roman systems of time-measurement during the early centuries AD. Also of interest is Tcherina’s following article, ‘The Dromedary of the Peticii and Trade with the East’ ibid. (pp. 238-249).

Irenaeus and Gaulish beliefs.

For an insight into Byzantine thought about the stars, and the reason for replacing the 12 Horae with angels, Irenaeus is an appropriate source. Born in Asia Minor, in a city on the edge of the ancient “astronomer’s coast”, he had been appointed to take Christianity to the Gauls only to find that they evidently had their own well-established traditions. In what was then the usual way, he attempts to improve their ‘inferior’ (because pre-Christian) understanding, re-interpreting their ideas in the light of the ‘fulfillment’ of Christian doctrine.  In parts, this was plainly hard-going:

His ‘angels of the day’ must have numbered at least 366 if we include the ‘angel in the sun’. One assumes that his speaking of the star’s ‘rising to take an abode in the sun’ is to its heliacal rising. Here are some passages from his teaching:

‘Shine forth as the sun’ (Matt. 13:43) or: in the sun (sic!) since an angel high in command is in the sun.

For he is appointed for rule over days; as the moon is for ruling over night. Now angels are called days.

Along with the angels in the sun, it is said, they shall have assigned to them one abode, to be for some time and in some respects the sun…. And, besides, they also are the rulers of the days, as that angel in the sun…. And again destined to ascend progressively, they reach the first abode, in accordance with the past He has set: so that the first-created angels shall no longer, according to providence, exercise a definite ministry, but may be in repose, and devoted to the contemplation of God alone; while those next to them shall be promoted to the post which they have left; and so those beneath them similarly.

There are then, according to the apostle, those on the summit, the first-created. And they are thrones, although Powers, being the first-created, inasmuch as God rests in them, as also in those who believe. For each one, according to his own stage of advancement possesses the knowledge of God in a way special to himself; and in this knowledge God reposes, those who possess knowledge being made immortal by knowledge.

And is not He set His tabernacle in the sun to be understood thus? … And that which is above all rule, and authority, and power, and every name that is named, are [N.B.] those from among men that are made perfect as angels and archangels, so as to rise to the nature of the angels first-created. For those who are changed from men to angels are instructed for a thousand years by the angels after they are brought to perfection. Then those who have taught are translated to archangelic authority; and those who have learned instruct those again who from men are changed to angels.

The stars, spiritual bodies, that have communications with the angels set over them, and are governed by them, are not the cause of the production of things, but are signs of what is taking place, and will take place, and have taken place in the case of atmospheric changes, of fruitfulness and barrenness, of pestilence and fevers, and in the case of men. The stars do not in the least degree exert influences, but indicate what is, and will be, and has been.

[but this is not a reference to divination] –

For already Enoch had said, that the angels who transgressed taught men astronomy and divination, and the rest of the arts.

The treatment of mystical hierarchies and angels which is found in pseudo-Dionysius would have its earliest European reception in Paris and in particular St.Denys, but it is to the point that one of its earlier translators was the Irishman Eriugena, who also knew something the mysterious ‘liturgi’: and why not, Irish monasticism came direct from  Egypt and North Africa, and in those times the Irish thought as little of  Rome as of  Byzantium.


hair braids Greek





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