Star names: more than textbook Ptolemy or astrology.

An instance in point


translation from the medieval Italian, from The Book of Michael of Rhodes.

page 111a, from which that passage comes, can be seen online (here).  Translation from the same source (Michael of Rhodes’ Project).


As a test for translations of the Voynich star ‘labels’, I’m certain of this one as it appears on  f.68r-1. This is the star taken to mark the northern Pole.  I’ll go a bit further and against my usual practice, hazard a guess ..the inscription means something like  fenice, poineke , phoenix..

folio 68r-1 North Star

(detail) Beinecke MS 408 fol 68r-1 Image ID 1006196

because ..

Constans_Phoenix_on_Globe Paphlagonia

coin made for Paphlagonia under Constans


coin Sinope Paphlagonia

coin of Sinope, Paphlagonia (Black Sea coast)


tyches ill 1 fol 80v detail

(detail) f.80v [the constant guide]

fol 86v detail northwest angel only

(detail) from the Voynich map (folio 86v; Beinecke foliation “fol.85v-and-86r”)


Pietro vesconte Genoa 1321

detail from a maritime chart made in 1321 by Pietro Vesconte of Genoa


For the record ~  my opinion about the detail on f.80v –  associating it with the North Star – was published for the first time in ‘Emblems of Direction: North (Paradise and Guards)’, Voynich Imagery Notes (blogger blog), Sat. January 7th., 2012.


Among numerous posts related to this,  I’d suggest:

‘The north-west roundel: Angel of the Rose’

‘Events of the late thirteenth to late fourteenth century and the evolution of an emblem in ms Beinecke 408 Pt iii-a’

‘fol 70r star-hours & months for the mathematicians’

and discussion of the  emblematic object:

A detail on folio 80v reconsidered Pt-1  and … Pt 2


In a recent pers.comm. Koen Gheuens has drawn attention to the detail on folio 82r (Image ID 1006222) which shows the same ‘constant guide’ star obscured.

He also observes -correctly in my opinion – that this part of the image refers to a southern latitude.



(detail) Beinecke MS 408 f.82r



  • Anyone who’d like recommended hard-copy reading from me can  get in touch though voynichimagery gmail com



In the detail (above, left) from f.79v, the ‘peg’ indicates the home port, possibly Canopus, and south in terms of the Mediterranean. That sense for the ‘peg’ is constant where it appears above the ‘aegis’ or canopy (and see post of Dec.12th., 2012)


  1. It’s strange in how many different cultures these figures can be interpreted. Like they are universal. An attempt at illustrating astronomy that can, in some brilliant way, be understood from various different backgrounds.

    Now, of course, there is also the fact that these cultures around the first century had certain things in common, like particular measuring tools and their symbolism, as well as more general items like serpent symbolism etc.

    Those Chinese figures are interesting as well. I found a quote which seems quite spot-on about the VM figures, though in a way this can apply to “archaic” images from other cultures as well. “The Chinese picture illustrates in true archaic spirit (which means that only hints are given, and the spectator has to work out for himself the significance of the details) the surveying of the universe.”

    I think we are both right about these images, we just read a different layer. You picked up on the difficult ones, which I would never be able to understand. A pole meaning Canopus. The thing above her head confirming it as a canopy. The cross as a measuring tool.

    I just saw that she refers to the constellation Argo Navis , standing on the stern of a ship and evoking the shape of that small mast or stylis poking out, exactly like on the Farnese Atlas. And I got to Canopus through that way, because Argo Navis = Canopus star = Canopus in Egypt.

    I think if you published more concrete identifications for the nymphs in this section (q13a), we would see more overlap between our results.


  2. EEK – Koen, we do *not* quote from Hamlet’s Mill these days, especially not in connection to ethno-astronomy. 🙂

    You are right that our views about that figure have come to converge.

    Canopus was the Greeks’ name for the ancient sea-port of Egypt, over which the star Canopus (our alpha Argo navis) once used to stand. Depending on how old the imagery is, we may both have reached the same identification, and there’s no question that your id isn’t independent, since I closed the old research blog (where I discuss this) long before you came to this study. But as I say, it depends on when the imagery was first enunciated. The old port of Canopus was lost soon after Egypt was taken by the Arabs and Herakleion too.


  3. I’ve been flipping back and forth between late Hellenistic and Roman period for a while, but evidence for Roman period is increasing. Though not necessarily Roman culture, of course 🙂

    I still maintain that there is no evidence for significant post-Arab-conquest additions to this section.


    • So would I be right in thinking that you attribute the distortion of the human-like figures either to a group or culture which existed before the 3rdC AD (or to as late as the early 7thC AD), or else to the fifteenth-century copyists? Or would you not call alterations to the drawings additions if they are stylistic rather than object-centred. Are you suggesting that a text from before the 3rdC AD had come in near-pristine form to the fifteenth century copyists? These questions aren’t meant to sound confrontational; but I think it is important to account not only for the perceived content, but for the implied gulf between your posited enunciation and the early decades of the fifteenth century. Without positing any continuous transmission through an explanatory culture or community, you would have to imagine that the early fifteenth-century persons who commissioned or made the Vms were able to make sense of both drawings and text: that is, relate to the substance and *significance* of the imagery in a way that so far as we know no European Christian had been able to relate to it between the early fifteenth century and .. whenever. These sort of questions need to be addressed, I think, and exactly as happens in the ‘world out there’ when opinions are offered about problematic artefacts.

      – I might add that ever since I assigned the ‘bathy-‘ section’s first enunciation to the pr-Christian era – and here you are fortunate because the reaction to my saying that, at that time, was not what you experience now, so much later – I have always qualified it by saying “no substantial additions…”


      • I am only speaking about the contents of the imagery, I don’t think this has been updated much after the Roman period.

        The stylistics may have been altered by later copyists. I don’t think Europeans in the 15th century would draw people like this unless they were copying them from somewhere. So I definitely don’t argue for a transmission straight from the originals to the 15th century.

        As things stand now, we have not yet found a completely satisfying parallel for all aspects of the figures.

        – The one breast on the side is Egyptian, very pronounced in the Ptolemaic period.
        – The proportions of head-to-body are found in many different times from Nubian statuettes to carvings on French churches.
        – If the red marks on the cheeks are scars, then the best parallel I’ve actually seen is Nubian. If they are a blush, then parallels are easy to find.
        – People being portrayed with wide upper legs and a belly is also found in a wide range of places and times, again from Nubia to Carolingian copyists.
        – I’m not certain that the figures were deformed on purpose (like the weird foreheads and so on). I think there is evidence that the copyists focused on the outline of the figures rather than the inside. Sometimes, when a figure is supposed to be read as a male as well, the outline of a beard is suggested, resulting in the chin looking deformed. Just look at these two, for example:

        The script is a completely different issue. It is one of the few things that binds all sections of the MS together, and hence must be relatively late. If we assume that the text was always understood, i.e. transcribed and translated when necessary, then I see no problem in the images maintaining a form that would be, in isolation, incomprehensible to 15th century eyes.

        Since I believe the text has been kept up to date, or at least intelligible, the images would have been as well, even in their original form. Stylistics were likely altered, just like in the plant sections, but when, where and how exactly, that’s a question I have not seen adequately answered. Partial solutions can be found in too many different places…


      • Koen,
        In most of these things you agree with me, which is nice. The topic of this post was star-names, and the point of it was to show (a) that any word-lists should include less formal designations and (b) that I have reason and evidence for my identifying the Pole star with that star-detail shown, and with the ‘chord-making instrument’ held by the nymph on that folio.
        I’m not sure where best to address your other statements in this comment. I suppose since they are not framed as questions, there is no need to address any. I will say that I see absolutely no reason to suppose those two very female nymphs from folio 80v were supposed to be interpreted as having beards.


  4. Koen
    I might add that so far as I’m aware, Nick Pelling was the first person to notice that the ‘nymphs’ originally had one breast. Like Nick, I think this is significant, although the comments made to Nick’s post tended to try dismissing this detail.
    As usual, the first person to classify the ‘nymphs’ as originally a product of the Greco-Egyptian period, and to demonstrate similarities to works of the Hellenistic world (before and during the Roman era) was the undersigned. I’m only sorry that it is necessary for me to say this: it shows a woeful lack of good form in some of the more often used Voynich writings.



    • Diane

      Of course I know these were your observations, that’s why I mention them to you because they support the point I’m trying to make: that many of the stylistic elements are early as well.

      Do you know any art form that really has *all* the elements of the nymphs? It’s impossible, some aspects are always missing.

      If you remember my post about Nubian tribal scars you’ll know that I am also concerned about stylistic aspects and not afraid to leave my comfort zone – which has increasingly become the southeast part of the Mediterranean. In retrospect Nubia was a dead end, though fascinating.

      What I don’t understand though.. you also mention things that would not have been recognized anymore in the 15th century. So much of the imagery is so incredibly ancient. I just don’t really see the problem.

      It is evident from Aratea copies that some copyists didn’t understand what they were copying at all. Yet still they were copied. I just don’t think every aspect of the manuscript must have been of practical relevance in the 15th century for it to have been copied.


      • Koen,
        If our common aim is to reach an accurate understanding of the ‘nymphs’ imagery, then appropriate method will permit this while avoiding the awfully common habit of attempting to avoid discussion by turning on a person who argues against a pet theory, aiming to dismiss or denigrate the researcher rather than addressing the content of their evidence and argument. “Just pay no attention” is not a scholarly response. we sometimes see a strangely-housewifely thing happen, too. “I’ve just tidied the place, and got everyone in their places, and you are messing it up by these questions”. 😀 As if history might be amenable to being ‘settled once and for all’. 🙂

        This is an observation on the state of things as we saw it develop from 1912, and with only a brief respite during the time of the first mailing list. It is not meant as a personal comment, and especially not any comment aimed at you.

        My constantly striving to emphasise that iconographic analysis is a formal study, with regular method and approaches is part of this effort to take attention from the ridiculous notion of ‘theory wars’ and return to the matter of giving a true evaluation of this manuscript’s imagery. Part of the ‘honest’ thing, too, is correctly attributing to ANY researcher a given first insight or opinion. That’s for several reasons. First, they have the right to publish their research in non-internet form if they wish and publishers are entitled to take research for publication on the basis that the content is the result of that writer’s own investigation of a given topic. They should never be put in the position of having to sue (or be sued) for plagiarism or unauthorised re-use of original work and conclusions. But the other reason that I harp on proper form in both methodology and attribution is that once an idea takes hold – as the non-Christian Hellenistic’ idea is now so rapidly taking hold – then persons coming from other academic disciplines, and other new-comers have a basic right to be told truthfully about the origin for that now-prevalent view, so that they can go back to the source and not only evaluate its author’s use of primary or secondary documents, but see whether those who follow that path have distorted, misunderstood or positively added something to the original. This is the basic premise of historical study: that sources and treatments need to be openly discussed and re-evaluated. (Not surreptitiously stolen and an ideologically ‘corrected’ version disseminated.)

        The same applies to methodology. Most of what has been written about the Voynich imagery, when read by specialists in the relevant fields: history, technology, classical literature, comparative philosophy, religion, art history and so forth… appears so ill-informed that it is dismissed out of hand.

        You say
        “Do you know any art form that really has *all* the elements of the nymphs? It’s impossible, some aspects are always missing”.

        I would say that it is not an “art form” which we need to consider so much as cultural attitudes, and just how the imagery reflects matter that is also found in documentary evidence, and our knowledge of history from times and places where similar forms occur. For example, the head-dresses preclude our supposing influence in regions where no Hellenistic culture is known so far. Similarly, in classical Greek, pure Hellenistic, Roman and Latin tradition we find different cultural attitudes to the human body, and different attitudes to the stars. The task of the iconographic analyst is to direct attention to the intersection of compatible forms and ideas. So that those who want to build on these insights can do so, every honest person will make a point of correctly attributing their sources. And this includes the first person.

        I will admit a difficulty in my own case. Sometimes I’ve known a thing for so long (after all, it was my profession for decades) that I simply cannot recall where I first read a given point or argument – such as that the Asian pattern which came to be called by German historians a ‘wolkenband’ and by more modern English language writers a “cloudband’ is, indeed, a motif whose philosophical and religious significance has a very long history, but the motif itself became a fad in medieval Latin Christian works due to its introduction from Asia during the Mongol century. It is something so well known (outside Voynich studies) that it’s as difficult to recall when I first learned that as to remember when I first learned how to use some other basic tool.. like a knife and fork, perhaps. 🙂


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