Orthodoxy and ignorance

History suggests that it is a perfectly natural instinct in human beings faced with a seemingly impenetrable – or at least intransigent – mystery, to settle for a story (or ‘theory’) which makes sense to their fellow locals.

The phenomenon of lightning –  being inexplicable but appearing “very like” the form of a jagged shaft –  may produce the notion (aka ‘theory’ in Voynichland) that lightning is the result of a deity’s displeasure. It will be pointed out that those who displease the deity have certainly been reported struck by lightning. Heads nod wisely “yes, that sounds like common sense”.

The story soon becomes “what everyone knows”, and  painters imagine the deity with the lightning bolt; people create written texts about the theory of the deity with the lightning bolt. Buildings are erected with the help of many hands, all in service to Zeus, the lightning-bolt chappie.

Evidence is growing  –  yes, it surely is, but not about lightning’s cause; the evidence which will now be used to ‘prove’ the theory in fact proves nothing but that the theory has been around for a while.

Supported by revered texts,  elaborated by popular legend and enforced by the ‘need to belong’, what started as a fantastic tale eventually becomes an ‘orthodoxy of ignorance’, enforced by theologians and others with an interest in homogeneity and peace in the village.

By now, anyone who dares  wonder what causes lightning will find few inclined to engage in the conversation. After all, Zeus might become offended.

By this time, it has become impossible even to think of asking a question which could be construed as an effort to undermine the theory: to suggest diminishing the greatness of the lightning-god.  Such things cannot be allowed.  After an initial whipping, and perhaps a bit of flaming and branding and unmoderated aspersions on the question-asker’s character, the penance will be ordered of re-reading yet again the ‘sacred text’.  (In Voynich studies, this is a little book published in 1980 about some work done in the 1950s).

With that salutary example before them as ‘encouragement’ all other heads bow. Everyone ‘knows’ now that the cause of lightning is Zeus, and not a few really believe it.

Zeus and bolt statue


Voynich studies has not produced an interlinear translation of the text.

The underlying language has not been identified (or if it has, the researcher has been unable to gain a hearing).

The ‘official Voynich herbal’ is a masterpiece of creativity. Whether there’s a single identification that rightly represents the original draughtsman’s intent is one of those basic questions which may not be asked any more.  To question is not permitted, unless the question invites further indoctrination.  There is an Orthodoxy  to uphold; no study may be done save that which elaborates the Orthodoxy, or serves to lend it greater circumstantial support.

Those expressing doubts about “The Theory” are to be ostracised and ignored as ill-educated; those asking questions which “The Theory’ does not admit, will be treated rather worse.

However, if you happen to be one of those bolshie sort of people who likes getting information about things no-one wants to admit they don’t know, you may like to try some of these questions:

  1. Where is the raw data from any study done to determine if the Voynich script shares a proportion of its glyphs with one or more ancient or medieval scripts?
  2. Why has Barbara Barrett’s assessment of the Voynich hand as Caroline not been included in discussions of the script.  What was wrong with it?
  3. Don Hoffmann has recently identified the month-names’ orthography as northern French. Why isn’t that being paid attention?
  4. Why don’t the centres in the calendar section conform to the usual series of a zodiac?  Where does the ‘red bull’ with the antelope-like horns come from?  What does its inclusion imply about provenance?
  5. Why is the sun shown with an artificial beard and what looks like a female face?
  6. Is Marco Ponzi going to spend more time on Spanish and Jewish astronomical works in future?
  7. Why do people still treat Mary d’Imperio’s publication as the ‘last word’ on this manuscript? Has there been no analytical work done since then?
  8. The University of Arizona dated the manuscript to the first decades of the fifteenth century; why does the Beinecke library site date it to as much as a century later?
  9. Why did Irwin Panofsky attribute the content to Iberian Jews? 
  10. What was it in the manuscript which Panofsky saw as a reference to Cabbala?

No doubt you’ll be able to think of more items which might benefit study of the manuscript. If you are merely a trouble-maker for the sake of it, hoping to infuriate the believers, then shame on you – but try referring to something you’ve read on my blog. Or if you really like living dangerously, say where you read it …

Lightning Mike and Sean 300dpi free


  1. Nice parallel. Let me add this story about our very own Athanasius Kircher, and how he dealt with similar problems:

    “Kircher was called to the ancient city soon after Galileo’s trial — in a large part because the Jesuits wanted someone in their camp whose flamboyance rivaled the famous astronomer’s. Like a lot of bright scholars of the time, Kircher probably quietly believed Galileo was right, though he didn’t dare say so in the proximity of Pope Urban VIII. These were dangerous times. […] Kircher navigated this tricky terrain skillfully, sometimes switching allegiances to better-positioned patrons.
    He calculated that the height required for the Tower of Babel merely to reach the moon would catapult the Earth out of its orbit — an interesting assertion considering, after Galileo’s trial, Kircher wasn’t supposed to talk about the Earth even having an orbit.”

    So basically you have to pretend to be part of the establishment while subtly planting seeds of truth in their heads 🙂



    • Dear KG
      When I looked into this I was a little shocked. The correspondence suggests that the majority of people had no problem at all with Galileo, and that includes the Jesuits. For some peculiar reason, possibly just jealousy Kircher began a campaign insisting that Galileo be paid no attention, and when Galileo’s science was admired, Kircher instead began arguing that Galileo should be ignored as “inferior” or “morally suspect” person – therefore beneath notice. Kircher seemed an amiable sort of chap but his vanity was overwhelming. When that didn’t seem to end the matter, Kircher used his personal contacts, including his access to the Pope, to begin urging that Galileo be charged with heresy. When you read the comments made by Kircher’s confreres among each other, most express embarrassment about Kircher’s ‘one man’ led campaign, but they felt powerless to stop his attack on Galileo because Kircher was the “great name” of his day. And of course others wanting to be, or to remain, in Kircher’s favour dared not offend that “great man”. ‘Great’ of course is a relative term; Kircher certainly had plenty of publicity and knew how to work the public circuit. But basically, it was Kircher’s influence over the Pope of the day which was responsible for the hoo-ha. The lower orders did what the pope told them to do, and the Pope did what Kircher insisted needed to be done – his argument was that Galileo’s ideas were contrary to scientific as well as religious truth. It’s another example of the truth that there’s no necessary connection between religious belief and intellect, nor between intellectual potential and the limits on it created by personal and moral weaknesses – Kircher’s being an unwillingness ever to take second place.


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