events … and evolution of an emblem on f.86v. III-c

fol 86v Northwest Rosa mundi

folio 68r-1 North Star

Claudius Ptolemy, Phoenicians and Greeks of the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras.

Claudius Ptolemy did not consider himself to be creating a novel opus, but preserving and annotating the work of the Tyrian and Phoenician ‘Marinos’. Writing in the 2ndC AD, Ptolemy says,  “We have  taken on a twofold task: first to preserve Marinos’ opinions as expressed through the whole of his compilation… second to see to it that the things he did not make clear will be inscribed… using the researches of those who have visited the places, or their positions as recognised in the more accurate maps (pinakes). “when one is putting the cities in their positions, one might have an easier time labelling those that are on the coast, since in general some indication of position is noted for them [in Marinos’ work], but this is not so for the inland ones…”

– Claudius Ptolemy, (Geographica 1.19; 1:18)

Awareness that Ptolemy’s work preserved Phoenician-Tyrian know-how also explains why coins apparently celebrating the completion of Ptolemy’s work show the Phoenix and its world  now resting in Roman hands.

phoenix globe aeternitas Faustina I

‘Rosa Mundi’.

1295 is the date usually given for the ‘rediscovery’ in Constantinople of Claudius Ptolemy’s  Geographike hyphegesis, and 1397 for its arrival in Latin Europe.  Yet from Sicily in 1154 we have the maps of al-Idrisi which their author says explicitly had used Ptolemy, and from 1375 the great south-facing and rhumb-gridded image of the world made by Abraham Cresques for the court of France. Clearly that later ‘discovery’ was not the only one.

Although Claudius was an Alexandrian, and the idea of the earth as a  ‘rose’ finds first expression in dynastic Egypt where it is also associated with the bennu, in avian or in human form ….

a_bennu-phoenix from papyrusThe-Phoenix-from-Wilkinsons


ben ben bird and tree tomb Egypt funerary wilkinson465

…. the style in which the bird and rose are drawn in MS Beinecke 408 indicates a later period. From the 4thC BC – 1st C AD, the rose was the quintessential mark for   Rhodes –  and Rhodes had been for Marinos, as it became for Ptolemy, the principal point of reference, its latitude effectively the centreline of a conceptual graticule. It was, then, the point from which all directions radiated, and thus very naturally in conception if not in graphic form, the ‘compass rose’ of Ptolemy’s world, too. (Geog. 1.11; 1.12)

Rhodian rose and rosa mundi

This, I’d suggest, is the origin of the ‘rosa mundi’ on which our Phoenix stands in folio 86v (85v and 86r Beinecke foliation). It contrasts with the habit of the Roman, and then the Christian Roman (Byzantine) rulers, too, in representing the earrth in this way, and not as a globe

Throughout the fourteenth century until the first quarter of the sixteenth the island of Rhodes was held by the Latin order of the Knights Hospitaller (1309-1522).

It had originally been a  Carian island in which a Phoenician enclave existed for centuries. Carian links to the Phoenicians are attested in the Aegean, in Egypt and in India. Their shared religious centres included Didyma [3]and their ‘twin brothers’ imagery – the Kabeiroi – informs many representations of ‘twin’ figures translated often into their  Greek  counterparts: the Dioscuri, an equation formally expressed in the Argonaut myth. By either name, that pair appears to me to inform the mnemonic in folio 5v of MS Beinecke 408 – something about which I’ve already written.

How old the links were between Tyre and Rhodes is uncertain, but the history of both centres, the eminence of ancient Tyre and the practicalities of the maritime lanes made regular connection inevitable. [1]

By Ptolemy’s time, the roads  from Tyre, from the coast of Asia Minor and from the Black Sea towards the east were already well known.  The priestly family from Didyma had been carried east from Asia minor to Bactria along them before  Alexander took them. The same roads brought eastern goods to medieval Byzantium by both the upper, overland routes and the southern, maritime ones. That circuit needed no reference to Jerusalem and did not include Rome; neither of those cities referenced either by the Voynich map – not even with its inset ‘mini-map’ describing the Mediterranean.  Omission of Jerusalem, or of Rome, from any Latin’s mappamundi is almost impossible to imagine and I know of no example.

(click to enlarge.)

Routes China to Constantinople maritime overlandNor – contrary to what is often asserted – is there any ‘T-O’ diagram in the Voynich map, though another folio (f.67v-1) shows that a painter transformed a fourfold “little world” ( in an astronomical emblem for North) into a version divided into three by its colour.  That same detail includes a plainly Asiatic face, in a portrait which again inclines one to posit the Mongols’ century for the addition. Like certain other details in that diagram (already treated) this portait is at odds with the customs found throughout the manuscript.

fol 67v-i quarters

folio 67v-1 (detail)

fol 67v i Guards detail Asian







The mid-twelfth to early fourteenth centuries, to which I date one chronological stratum in this manuscript’s imagery, saw the loss of Constantinople and a  transfer of Byzantine administration to Trebizond,. An ’empire of the Trebizonds’ was formally established in 1204, surviving until it fell at last to the Turks in 1461.

However, by then Trebizond had been a Greek centre for about two millenia, and Christian for almost a thousand years. Nor had the ’empire’ been as independent in reality as in appearance while it survived. Already by the mid- thirteenth century (1253-55) and as the Flemish Franciscan William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck) notes, the emperor in Trebizond was effectively a vassal of the Mongol Khan.

By 1461 Trebizond was the only remaining city of imperial Byzantium, and with its fall that era ended.  Like Sinope to its west, and Cherson in the Crimea, Trebizond  had been founded in the 8th-7thC BC by Miletos, a great city on the ‘astronomer’s coast’ of Asia minor. Initially  a minor outpost, it had been a village to the magnificent urban centre of Sinope.

Byzantine control of the Black Sea shore and hinterland had been greater during the eleventh century. The map below shows the Byzantine districts (themes) as they were then. The  eleventh century also sees unusual forms of ‘Eudoxan’ astronomical figures appear in Latin works, though their source is uncertain. One shows  Sagittarius as a standing human figure. [2]

Byzantine southern Black Sea early 11thC

detail from a map of the Byzantine Themes in 1025 AD. The whole map can be seen here.

It was also from “the empire of the Trebizonds” in the fifteenth century that the “Greek renaissance” in Italy took its spark.  Cardinal Bessarion came from Trebizond, and although ‘George of Trebizond’ was actually from Crete, he prided himself of his family’s origins in that city. Not greatly liked, George was admired for having brought and translated a number of important classical Greek texts.

Texts of that sort were not as rare among the eastern Greeks as is often imagined, and had the western Church not considered all other Christian sects heretical, the western ‘renaissance’ might have occurred centuries earlier. Byzantine Greeks were immensely proud of their heritage, and the study of the Greek classics formed an unbroken tradition in their education. As Jonathan Harris says: .

“reading classical Greek and even composing in the same style were an integral part of Byzantine higher education. Whereas in the West secular education had tended to die out in the early Middle Ages, in Byzantium it was sustained. In each generation, those who took their education beyond the age of fourteen would be instructed in the works of the ancient Greek poets, historians, dramatists and philosophers. Thus any educated Byzantine in the imperial service would have had a knowledge of these [ancient and classical] works which would have been the envy of many educated Italians.”[3]

This was less pronounced in relation to their imagery, although a coin produced for Zeno in the fifth century (474-491 AD) depicts its winged ‘Victory’ as if standing on one foot, and puts a globe in its hand. As we’ll see, the form descends from a type employed centuries before in Sinope and first attested in the late Achaemenid period. Its original significance is almost lost by Zeno’s time – yet is still discernable in the Voynich ‘angel of the rose’.  The emblem on Zeno’s globe may be read as the cross upon an imperial orb, but remains curiously reminiscent of living creature. As we saw with the Antioch ‘phoenix’, the great star is set low which once embodied the figure’s nature.  These comparisons constantly indicate an earlier and pre-Christian origin for the Voynich emblem.

coin Zeno Tremissis detail

Zeno coin of Tremmissis from Byzantium VictoryAnd so, on to Sinope …





[1] see the valuable work by Irad Malkin, A Small Greek World: Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean, OUP (America), 2011, not only for its text but its bibliographic notes.


For convenience, the quotations and dates from a brief essay by Leif Isaksen, ‘Lines, damned lines and statistics: unearthing structure in Ptolemy’s Geographia’, e-Perimetron ,Vol.6,No.4,2011[254260] online as pdf.

[2] on which see e.g. Elly Dekker, ‘A Watermark of ‘Eudoxan’ Astronomy’. The Sagittarius is seen in Monza MS B 24/163 (228), fol.67r. Dekker has also noted, elsewhere, that the star-maps in the former MS Sasson 823m now MS Schoenberg LJS 057(pp. 112–13), ” appear to represent the sky as it would have been observed in the middle of the tenth century whereas the star catalogue [in the same manuscript is adapted to the epoch 1391 in keeping with the date of the manuscript]. The second comment is from a paper delivered at the University of London in 2014.
[3] see e.g. Naoise Mac Sweeney (ed.), Foundation Myths in Ancient Societies; Dialogues and Discourses, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (esp. p.198).Fontenrose notes that “Phoenician traders, speakers of Cannanite, brought the cult of the Kabeiroi to Greece, where we find it established in Aegean islands..[and] coastal cities (e.g. Miletos)… The principal centres of Kabeiroi worship were Samothrace, Lemnos, Miletos, Didyma and Thebes”. Joseph Eddy Fontenrose, Didyma: Apollo’s Oracle, Cult and Companions, University of California Press, 1988. (p.153). The Kabeiroi are also found as Cabiri, or Kabiri. Greek: Κάβειροι.
[3] Jonathan Harris,  “Byzantines in Renaissance Italy”  (pdf)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s