Lamentable days

‘Ladies’ from an Egyptian calendar on papyrus. introduced to discussion of Beinecke MS 408 by an article  ‘… and these are hours with no zodiac Pt.1’, published through Voynichimagery, wordpress, (February 14th., 2016).

In  my opinion one of the most original, and potentially revolutionary observations made in recent years – by the conservative faction, at least – was made by Nick Pelling, in a post published on June 29th., 2015.

I doubt if he quite realised the implications of his own insight, because it is offered almost as a side comment – but it is an original observation, and it is his. It is also important.

Pelling wrote:

“Not only were they [the calendar ‘nymphs’] originally all drawn with a single breast …but many specific details – most notably things such as these three crowns and the tressed head-dresses [1]– were apparently added to the original drawing in a later ‘phase’ or composition pass”.

Over the years, Nick has displayed a constant habit (frustrating for his well-wishers) of making fine, original observations which he then hurries to fit to an  auteur hypothesis neither necessary nor convincing..

In this case, having rightly observed that certain types of detail were added after the first phase of the drawing, he fails to pause long enough to ponder the  implications of those distinguishable  phases which he has noticed: Pelling assumes them “compositional” rather than editorial or redactive and so the most interesting implication of his own observation seems to slide beneath his notice..

But if one sets aside his idea of an ‘auteur’ and sets that observation in the context of other signs of alterations to the calendar and other ‘nymph’ folios, it becomes evident that this implied disparity or  conflict between the content as it was rendered immediately before (i.e. to the end of the first ‘pass’) and as it was transformed now (by the second ‘pass’) marks a  critical moment: it is that ‘rock-face’ moment when matter copied with care was  subjected to the scrutiny of a figure we’ll call – simply for want of any better description – the overseer – and it was found wanting. That person  then made his corrections, ‘fixing’ the pictures using his darker ink.

Why? – I’d suggest that while the copying (the ‘first phase’) had been perfectly faithful to the exemplars, the result failed to look quite right to a Latin European eye, and that the overseer’s job was specifically to ensure that nothing ‘not quite Latin’ was allowed  to passed uncorrected.

We see the same effect in other folios, such as 70r, where – as I described in detail some years ago  – the copyist had to make ‘corrections’ several times before the overseer stepped in and made the decision with a dash of pigment.[2]  The same thing happens in other ‘nymph’  folios, but it is enough here to make the general point; I don’t want to go too far from Pelling’s original observation.

The thing to keep in mind is that the ‘corrector’ shows himself to be a little self-important, too self-confident, and too narrow in his range of understanding – he defines what he doesn’t find a way to rationalise as wrong, and corrects it to the form most familiar to him from the corpus of Latin works. It is also evident that he had greatest difficulty with the ‘nymphs’ folios.  Yet what he added to the ‘nymphs’ in the calendar tiers is very telling of how he understood them – presumably at the time our manuscript was put together. He didn’t come to this manuscript as entirely ignorant of it as we do.

Again, what Nick observed ..

“[they are]… all drawn with a single breast..[and] many details … added later”.

Dies Aegyptiaci

Considering the strongly conservative Latin character evinced by most corrections of the ‘second pass’ type, it may seem curious that among the ‘corrections’ made are the addition of menstrual flow from some tyche/’nymph’ forms.  The example below comes from the roundel inscribed ‘Setembre’, and while the figure to our left has that among its details now  added in the darker ink, the figure to our right has only the breasts corrected.  Poor thing – given arms so bone-thin that she appears to be on the brink of starvation.


Why  would the  ‘overseeing eye’ – who corrects the way the fishes appear in the ‘Mars’ roundel; who apparently tries to make the non-‘cross’ more nearly resemble a Christian emblem on folio 79v; and who seems generally to be there to maintain Latin orthodoxy (academic as well as religious) feel  obliged to add such an off-putting detail?

Egyptian Days (Dies aegri , atri , mali , maledicti, ominosi , infortunati , tenebrosi … and dies aegyptiaci)

I think Georg Baresch told us or rather, told Athanasius Kircher. He said that that the material now in the manuscript was gathered in the ‘east’ and was related to things Egyptian: he guessed the chief subject must be medicine.

Which is why things get suddenly much more interesting.

The  ‘later compositional pass’ (to use Pelling’s term) is showing us the moment when the older, non-Latin, content is confronted with a determinedly Latin worldview.  For some reason, the ‘overseer’ couldn’t order all the heterodox matter replaced, although that is what seems to have occurred eventually with the later month-folios (that is, their tiered figures), but first he had to try and ‘sort it’ – as he did.

I’d argue that, just as Baresch did later, the fifteenth-century ‘corrector’ knew that the content had some sort of connection to Egypt, and not Islamic Egypt, but an older Egypt: that the calendar was in some sense a roster of ‘Egyptian days’.

But for a Latin cleric, a scholar who was a little ‘high’, a little too-confident, it would seem obvious that the only correct sense in which ‘Egyptian days’ (‘dies Aegyptiaci’) applied was in calculating the days of ill-omen: those poisonous and corrosive influences associated also with women’s ‘menses’ in medieval thought.  They were believed to have …

“the power to turn new wine sour, make fruit fall from trees, kill bee hives, give dogs rabies and make crops turn barren. A child in a cradle could be poisoned by the gaze of an old, pre-menopausal woman, whose accumulation of blood would lead to poisonous vapours being given off by her eyes!”[3]

At the end of this post, I’ll add bibliographic references for the Latins’  Dies Aegyptiaci, selecting studies by scholars who also knew something about the Voynich manuscript before the Friedmans made it their baby.

Colonel William Friedman himself had a bustling,  over-forceful sort of attitude to scholars in disciplines of which he himself was ignorant: basically all save English literature and cipher-breaking.  Towards other and earlier opinions about the manuscript – and sadly especially that of Fr. Theodore C. Petersen – his tone seems to have been dismissive: as if to say  ‘We needn’t pay attention to that vague and unscientific stuff; not now that the real professionals and higher minds have arrived’.  Friedman’s ridiculing Newbold was classic hubris and it is rather more sobering than ironic to realise that Friedman’s mind also broke in later life.

To more positive things: Marraccini’s recent draft paper  recognises the ‘corrosive’ theme in a general way, but misses that critical point which Pelling had already noticed, namely that the  ‘menses’ details are a late (15thC)  addition to the imagery and not helpful as a means to explain what the imagery originally meant: only how it was interpreted and then ‘translated’ by means of that ‘second pass’ in the early fifteenth century.

‘Egyptian days’ as  days of ill-omen;  the corrosive effect of women’s menses… these are Latin ideas routinely found in the Latin manuscript tradition and not at all limited to alchemical texts. The interesting fact, as far as we’re concerned, is that such an imposition of Latin ideas upon the original appears to have occurred first when the ‘overseer’ became involved in the manufacture of the fifteenth century manuscript.  Until that point the tiered nymphs do not appear to have been ‘Latin’ in character at all.

Marraccini missed that point – possibly because she has always supposed the manuscript a curious variant of some standard Latin genre, or because mislead into believing that most Voynich writers and thinkers are wild-eyed lunatics. (In fact most are university educated, with the older guard living quiet professional lives, and the younger keen to impress their peers.. so what’s new?)


To make that “translation” of the material so that it would accord with Latin customs,  the overseer had to have been given some reason to believe that the calendar is about the ‘Egyptian days’ – and the implication of Latin allusions to those ill-omened days is that they are connected indeed with the Sirius [Sothis] cycle and its  ‘dog-days’.

So this series of additions as ‘translation’ cannot be dismissed as a result of ignorance of the simple kind – but rather of the more offensive sort to which history has accustomed us: the ignorance of supposing that Latin Europe serves as arbiter of rationality and ‘correctness’. This is the sub-text to the ‘overseer’s’ corrections, and it is informed by book-based studies of the Latin sort, in which we find the ‘Egyptian days’ as fearful from as early as the tenth century, but more constantly after the advent of the Normans in England, France and Sicily.  (On which see recommended reading  in the previous post (below).

The Voynich ‘ladies’ themselves deny the probability that the ‘Egyptian’ calendar of the  Hijra’ is their subject, even though that calendar remained in daily use in Egypt until late in the nineteenth century.[4]  These figures around the tiers still speak clearly of their Hellenistic – and possibly Alexandrian – origins[5] and bear some evident connection to the papyrus of which a little serves as as header to this post. Not so the Voynich calendar’s central emblems, but I’ve said enough about them too, in other places.


[1] ‘Tressed hair/headdress’.  Pelling gave too much notice to this matter. At the time he wrote the post, the ‘buzz-word’ was current among the central European theorists who gained an idea that plaited or  braided (“tressed”)  hair could be cited as  ‘proof’ of Germanic culture. Nonsense, but when such nonsense is allowed to pass, it soon comes to be credited as fact.  In this case, though it was before anyone followed me in speaking of [Hellenistic] Greek influence in the imagery, I contented myself with just one Hellenistic image. It was deemed irrelevant by some.

[2] See ‘fol. 70r ¬ Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery. wordpress, (October 27, 2012). One of the ’emulators’ who constantly neglects to cite his precedents recently announced this as if struck by direct inspiration – or perhaps by ‘suggestions’ from another Voynchero of that sort.  One tires of trying to correct a notion common to that little band that their belief in their own self-importance is insufficient excuse for dishonesty.

[3] Amy Licence, ‘To Bring on the Flowers: Medieval Women Menstruating’,Blogger, (Tuesday, 11 December 2012).

[4] see On Barak, ‘Outdating the time of culture in colonial Egypt’, GreyRoom, [53/9] available online.  The following from that article:

[5] as I’ve been informing readers since 2010. See also ‘The Rise of the ‘Greek’ in Voynich Studies’, Voynichimagery.wordpress, (January 7th., 2017).


errata corrected 5/04/2017.  My typist has much to endure.



  1. Just to note that as of today, I find no earlier mention of the Dies Aegyptiaci in connection with the Vms, though I daresay one will soon see it quietly added to various web-pages etc., without readers’ being permitted readers to know the context in which the subject arose.


  2. There were genuine Egyptian lists of unlucky days.
    In his note 19 , Skemer says, ‘On the Egyptian calendar and unlucky days, see Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12; Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39; W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64; E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.


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