Interrupting the series – a botanical folio

Anton Alipov, a recent arrival who has quickly earned respect across the spectrum of Voynich studies, is preparing two analytical papers referring to examples of text.  His samples include text from some botanical folios, one being folio 28r.


I have already treated folio 28r but it was in 2011,  a time when the “lift-and-twist-without-acknowledgements” virus was rampant among a small group pretending to compile an ‘authoritative Voynich Herbal’, and protests about the misuse and abuse of my research being ignored, closing off those posts was the only sensible option.


I sent Anton a copy of the post I’d published on Wednesday, December 21st., 2011, but then realised that it does assume a lot of matter which had been covered earlier in the same year, and so this version combines the text of that post with additional explanations and comments.  I haven’t read anything similar, or seen the same plants treated in any other Voynichero’s writings, but if you know better, do please comment.)


fol 28r Ensete ventricosum (formerly E. edule; E. edulis) – the “false Banana” of Ethiopia and finger millet (Eleusine coracana)

fol 28r smaller

folio 28r. for large image see Beinecke new scan id 1006128

A custom which had originated in Egypt is occasionally reflected in western herbals, chiefly in illustrating Dracunculus. Parts of a plant which are coloured naturally in the purple-to-black range are omitted.  In the Voynich botanical imagery, the prohibited range is evidently wider: pink-mauve-purple-black.  When the part is not omitted, it is coloured differently – usually by using red or blue.  This isn’t attributable to the final painter’s palette: people knew how to mix red and blue, or to lighten red to a pink.


In folio 28r, this avoidance is also present, affecting the way the head is drawn.


I identify the chief plant in the group as the Ensete though to my knowledge the identification is not only the original, but still the first here.  Western taxonomy originally included Ensete among the Musaceae or true bananas, but now distinguishes it,  just as the original makers knew it should be.  As one would expect, the  drawing on folio 28r does not include the purple-coloured bud-leaves. Below, two views of Ensete superbum. 

banana Ensete_superbum Syn Musa superbum

Ensete Superbum (Roxburgh)

Ensete superbum

Attempting to identify plants in any of the botanical section in Beinecke MS 408 using nothing but photographs would be a foolish thing to do. A constructed image is a qualitatively different thing from a photograph, and the Voynich drawings differ from even the sort of drawing which attempts ‘photographic’ likeness.  The drawings must be approached as drawings, and an effort made to read the maker’s ideas and intentions in the image as it is. To use a little jargon, the Voynich images are not “portraits of..” the plant, but “pictures about…” them.


True, learning to read rather than ‘look at’ drawings takes time, effort, training, practice and in this case even historical, ethnographic and other matter.  The aim is to understand the picture from the first maker’s point of view, to understand what he assumed his readers would recognise and how he expected them to interpret what he set on the page.


To show why the photograph is a poor basis from which to make identifications for drawn imagery, let me illustrate by reference to folio 3v – another in which Anton happens to be interested.  I identify the drawing’s subject as the group of Cordylines native to the eastern sea.  All the comparative drawings below, bar one, represent Cordyline fruticosa. None ‘looks like’ the Voynich drawing, but the photographs look nothing like any of the drawings.

folio 3v comparisons

C fruticosa pics

In fourteenth century Java, C. fruticosa was (as now) Andong[1] and among the many terms for Cordyline Fruticosa I might mention Dracaena Javaensis, cabbage tree, palm lily and many more.( see those listed at


The Voynich botanical imagery is “constructed’ imagery is the most technical sense.  To understand what the original maker built and what he intended his construction to convey to readers of his own time, the image has to be de-constructed, considered in detail, and each part explained in a way not only consistent with the rest of the image, but by reference to similar forms and/or motifs employed across the full range of this section in the manuscript. Every part of the image (including any mnemonic devices) must be demonstrated as being consistent with the proposed ids – and again by reference to the context suggested by the rest, as well as conventions evidenced across that section.  Well, that’s my approach; I’ve little sympathy with the old habit of being indifferent to geographic, cultural, practical and historical context, or of tossing aside any part of the image found inexplicable by imagining it the maker’s fault: asserting his childishness, incompetence, insanity, or ‘difficulties in drawing’.  I’ve seen no evidence of anything of the sort.  The drawings appear to me admirably intelligent, informative and lucid.


Thdetail fol 28rat the plant’s head should appear without its sheath of purple bud-leaves is understandable, and without them we see it has a form and colour like enough to the appearance of the ensete’s fruit, the end of which is, indeed, red).


One must also take the root-mnemonic into account too. That used on f.28r has been noted in other folios, as for example in folio 13r which shows a group of ‘true bananas’ and includes the striped leaf of the ‘blood banana’ from which beer was made (and still is). On folio 21v it appears with a group that includes hops (I accept Dana Scott’s original identification for that plant).  However, another included in that drawing I’ve identified as the bitter melon – which served an equivalent purpose in the far east.  So that particular root-mnemonic appears to refer to plants used to make brewed drinks –  ‘beers’ –  and we should expect the same is true for folio 28r.  Beers usually begin with some form of grain-mash.


It is certainly true that Ensete ventricosum (x edulis) yields a type of flour, and this has been a staple food in the region of modern Ethiopia  since the third millennium bce. (For those who may feel a slight touch of panic about non-European character for these plants, I might mention that a number of the early Franciscans prepared for a journey east by going to Ethiopia and/or Anatolia).


As an allusion to that ‘false-grain’, the granular pattern given sections of the stem might be explained, for although removal of the bud-leaves does leave close-set ‘scars’ (see detail in header) I’m not sure it’s the only meaning supposed to be taken and it does suggest the close-set seeds of that flour-gain used by the same groups for whom the ensete and the teff were regular staple foods.


Today, the false-grain ‘flour’ of E.ventricosum is gained from the root, but older ethnographic and other accounts show that in earlier times the stem had also been used.   For example, Marcus reported that in Ethiopia in his own time, flour for bread was derived “from the stalk (actually a pseudo-stalk) of Ensete adulis(sic)” adding that “the pulp was …after a complex process..  made into a flour for the bread or porridge still eaten in large parts of southern and southwestern Ethiopia.”


So that use for the stalk  to create a kind of ‘grain’ flour is, I’d suggest, one reason for the peculiar pattern applied in three places to the stem.  Not unlike tapioca, or – more likely – by the model of the typical grain used in the same region: Finger millet, or “Teff”. Ensete and teff are so closely associated in their region, in their complementary uses, that I’d suggest teff another plant referenced by the image on f.28.

Teff Eleusine coracanaRussell wrote of them as a natural pair, as most accounts do:


“[a] grain in just as common use throughout Abyssinia [as the Ensete] is the teff (Poa Abyssinica) [now Eragrostis tef] [from which]  common bread of the country is made ….  From this bread, when fermented with water till the mixture acquires an acid taste, is prepared a kind of beer in general request by the Abyssinians”


So here we have flour-producing ‘grains’ at least one of which was traditionally used for a brewed drink, or ‘beer’.  The group on f.28r appears to be another of those which may have relevance to trade on the east-west routes, but as with others it appears chiefly to do with provisioning the trader’s caravan or ship. Ensete and teff were obtained around the shores of Africa’s east horn – once called the ‘horn’ or ‘cape of Spices’ – and whose ports continued to be major points for importation of eastern products into the west, well into the twentieth century.


Teff is called ‘Nagli’ in some dialects.  So the image, deconstructed, has parts which are intelligible individually, and together when re-constructed.  Consistent not only with the general system used in constructing these images, but consistent across the section, and again consistent with the content and range of the map on folio 86v (now “85v-and-86r”). Their being combined in a single group-image also makes sense; both plants are staples; both occur in proximity to one another; their cultural and practical association is habitual where they grow and even in more recent secondary literature. “Ensete and teff” provided bread and drink. Although we know teff-flour was used to make a form of beer, I have found no record of the same for Ensete: which doesn’t prove that its flour was never used so, but only that no record of it, and no similar practice, apparently survives.


We’ve already had reason to mention Africa’s east horn when considering the form of ‘crown’ worn by the bicorporate creature on folio 34v.  Its ancient Oromo people were called ‘Galla’ by colonial writers, but it is a term considered derogatory by the Oromo themselves.  They are agreed by tradition, historical authors, and by modern DNA tests to be the oldest inhabitants of the east horn of Africa – a “primal people” to use Dante’s words.  Precisely the same implication of a “first people” is, in my opinion, intended by that head-dress in folio 34v.


34v and Oromo crown


I’ve found no reference to Ensete flour’s being used to make a beer, but traditional customs may vanish.  Knowledge even of that flour made from it, which was recorded in the nineteenth century, in 2011 is unknown to Ken Albala:


Until recently teff and ensete were not cultivated anywhere else in the world (but Ethiopia) .. Among the cereals, Teff is most important to the Amhara, though it is highly desirable in the cuisine of much of Ethiopia… All of the cereals are used to make porridge, fermented or unfermented flatbreads, raised breads or hard bread balls carried by travellers. ..Some of the cereals have other uses, for instance in the making of beer (talla)… Next to cereals, Ensete edule .. Although it grows to a height of 43 feet, only the underground shoots and stem are used for food [although] the seeds of the fruit are sometimes boiled and fed to children. ..[2]


But as late as the nineteenth century, other parts of the ensete were those used, and the usage remembered by ethnologists early in the twentieth century. At the time when Bruce wrote,  it was the stem and not the root which was used for food, and he explained that the plant was cut:


” immediately above the small detached roots, and perhaps a foot or two higher, as the plant is of age. You strip the green from the upper part till it becomes white ; when soft, like a turnip well boiled, if eaten with milk or butter, it is the best of all, wholesome, nourishing, and easily digested.”


Quoted by Russell, M., Nubia and Abyssinia: ..Civil History, antiquities, arts, religion, literature and natural history (1901).


Albala is mistaken about finger millet’s being cultivated no-where but Ethiopia. Together with other plants native to that region it was being grown in southern India from the second or third millennium BC.  Ensete was also known more widely.  By the ninth or tenth centuries, some ‘exotics’ were growing about the Mediterranean and it is said that some sort of banana plant is reported in Norman Sicily but I have not seen the original documents, and even if they refer to a banana (as accounts from Muslim Spain do), we cannot be certain whether the plant was one of the true bananas (Musaceae) or an Ensete as  ‘false’ bananaThe Ensete (or Enset) is native to tropical regions of Africa and Asia.


the region traditionally occupied by the ‘Galla’ (Oromo) is said by an encyclopedia of 1913 to have been the region of Healal, lying between the junction of the two Niles and the River Baro. The same source notes that the “Galla are divided into two principal branches, the Borana or Western Galla, and the Barentouma or Eastern Galla, both of them subdivided into numerous tribes. Eventually, about the fifteenth century, they began to invade Abyssinia, where they soon became so powerful that they shared the power with the Negus of Ethiopia. There exist among the Galla other important tribes, some African and some Muslim…” (Arab?)


As its association with Java or Madagascar suggests, C. fruticosa and C. gloriosa are native to the same part of the world, and a maritime context is suggested by that alone, but also by the reference made (f.25v) to  Dracaena cinnabari which is found nowhere but Soqotra, along the same line of sailing in medieval and later times. Soqotra, like Java, were most important trading ports, and points of transfer from traders of the eastern to those of the western sphere throughout the medieval and early modern times.



[1] On the fourteenth century see Theodore G.Th. Pigeaud, Java in the 14th Century: A Study in Cultural History (2013), p.36. Medicinal uses are listed in a modern site, here. Cultural associations referenced by Helen Creese, Women of the Kakawin World: Marriage and Sexuality in the Indic Courts of Java and Bali (2015) pp.142-3.

[2] Ken Albala (ed.), Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia [4 volumes], (2011), pp.61-62.

Additional references.
A number of blogs by archaeologists, ethnologists and others provide useful and rare information about the animals and customs of regions within Africa or the east sea. On the topic of cultivated plants, for example see:



Postscript Notes and Comments:

Koen Gheuens (Saturday, July 16th, 2016 – 8:23 pm)


Ahh, so this is the finger millet. I remember you mentioned this post when I wrote about finger millet in the root-section, so it’s nice to read your analysis.


Now interestingly, I read the label in the root section as “nakalai”, a clear form of the “nagali”-root, which is Indo-Iranian in origin. It seems likely that the root section plant refers to the Indian cereal crop, as most plants on the “mythological foldout” refer to Indian products.




After Artocarpus elasticus, this is the second plant we have both identified, and that looks totally different in their respective sections. Works for me 🙂


Bobette Douglas: (Friday, July 22nd, 2016 – 7:32 pm)

Ah, Diane !

I’m doing my best to catch up with you, Ellie V., and Edith S…… We all go ‘way back’. I began with Edith. After discussing ‘oil palms’, and the Benin bronze works, and El Mina….Edith was apparently hacked (from my point of understanding). I am so relieved that you have corresponded lately with Edith. The last correspondence I had with Ellie was about how interest her boys were in the women’s ping-pong tournament at the Olympics of several years ago.

I’m hoping that you and Edith may be able to read (via large print now being displayed by Boenicke) and that you will be able to keep me posted via my email address. Please give Edith my email address. Gotta eat…




Post author: (Saturday, July 23rd, 2016 – 4:01 pm)

Bobette – I haven’t corresponded with Edith Sherwood, and cannot send her email address.  I’ve never had it. I wondered what had happened to Ellie.

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