Astronomy and orthography (brief note)

A good deal of hard work has lately been invested by correspondents to Stephen Bax’ site, in attempts to identify the stars depicted on various diagrams in the manuscript, and in that way to ‘crack’ Voynichese. Darren Worley and Marco Ponzi are among the most regular contributers to that site, and I recommend my readers visit it and see how much work has been produced.

One concern I have, however, concerns orthography and an assumption by Ponzi (especially but not only) of a standard, post-1888 list of stars and constellations.

As some of you may know, the number of presently recognised constellations was established then, and at the same time some older constellations (such as Argo ratis) were broken up; newer constellations which had amassed were ratified in some cases, and removed in others, and many other matters were settled by agreement of the international scientific bodies.  Not that this would change the habits of people whose knowledge was gained by tradition, or maintained by habit, but in some cases the stars which are identified with items in MS Beinecke 408 assume that later period, and more to the point – assume and require for their identifications by Ponzi etc., a set standard orthography, not only in Latin but in other languages, and as early as the fifteenth century.

As I’ve said so often – I haven’t come to this manuscript as a linguist or cryptographer and have never claimed any expertise in those areas, but I do think it worth  mentioning that the standard set of stars and constellations, and the standard names, and spellings, are not necessarily going to be relevant to what is in MS Beinecke 408.  Assuming the opposite may lead to identifications’ being made, but not necessarily the right ones. Between ‘Alfard’ (α Hydrae)  and ‘Alphacha’ (now standardised as Alphecca – α Coronae Borealis)   the distinction may appear small, but it is important.

Arabic and even Persian star-names did take standard designations and orthography earlier than in the west, but even so there are many variant forms and terms still known to us, and it is a mistake to rely as so many do on little but Hinkley-Allens book, immensely valuable though it can be, if correctly used and constantly cross-checked against more recent scholarship by Pingree, David King, Paul Kunitzsch and other such references to whom I have constantly urged Voynicheros to refer.

Any having Arabic: I commend most strongly the Dictionary written by Jurdak, even if you have to do as I did, and make a complete photocopy of that lamentably rare book from a library copy.

As illustration of why one must not rely on present-day standardised orthography in working on the astronomical section, I reproduce the star-names from two astrolabes in the Ashmolean collection, as transcribed by me in pencil notes taken thirty years ago, from the transcription first made by Gunther (who would have got it right and whose text is much, much clearer than my old notes).

The first is dated by Gunter to c.1450:

Pectus Cassiop.

Cauda Ceti

Venter Ceti

Nares Ceti


Destrum… Persei

Caput Algol



Ocu [and symbol for Taurus]









Corona Sept

Lucida Hidra


Cor [and symbol for scorpius]

Cor [and symbol for Leo]


Do [and symbol for Leo]

Ca [and symbol for Leo]



here’s another list c.1350. This astrolabe attributed to Italy







Adirach M

Calbala Ceda








Bn β Caitous


see what I mean?

The examples above are numbered  #163 and #166 in Gunther’s Astrolabes of the World.

Robert Theodore Günther, William Hook Morley, The Astrolabes of the World: based upon the series of instruments in the Lewis Evans Collection in the old Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, with notes on astrolabes in the collections of the British Museum, Science Museum, Sir. J. Findlay, Mr. S. V. Hoffman, the Mensing Collection and in other public and private collections, OUP, (1932).  2 volumes. Indispensable reference.

Another that I’ve been recommending since 2009 and just as often to Voynich researchers working on the astronomical folios is Emilie Savage-Smith’s Islamicate Celestial Globes... but that reference, I’m happy to see, has been taken up of late with much more enthusiasm. Which is a fine thing.


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