Crux and Ursa minor in the Voynich manuscript

Started out re-formatting a post from 2015; ended up with something rather different.

(detail) folio 67 v  1.  Crux.

It is evident that the cardinal directions are represented several times on folio 67v-1 and that the astronomical markers are late additions to the diagram.  By ‘late’ I don’t mean post-production.


It is undisputed by historians of European astronomy that Crux remained unknown to the educated elites for a century after the Voynich manuscript was made (1400-1438).  It follows then that the inclusion of Crux on folio 67v, and even more its inclusion in other folios, denies most of the more prevalent  historical-fictional narratives and theoretical ‘histories’ invented for this manuscript: the great majority being no more than variations on Wilfrid Voynich’s sales pitch about association with the intellectual and social crème de la crème.


The Beinecke library’s decision to reformulate the date for Ms 408 to read “1400-1599(?)” and I can find no reasonable explanation and the site offers none.  Why the librarians should have lit upon that range, or decided against all the solid and scientific evidence, and the evidence of specialists who evaluated the work long ago,  I simply cannot begin to imagine, especially since these dates appeared on the site AFTER the radio-carbon dating.   Like the majority, I sigh and shrug, and turn to the University of Arizona’s dates as the best-established estimate we have. 1405 to 1438 give or take a couple of years.


It is clear that the astronomical ‘cross’ is on 67v-1 is meant for Crux, not for those stars in Cygnus which formed Gregory of Tours’ “Greater Cross”[1].  Apart from anything else Cygnus has never served as a marker for South.


[1] On  McCluskey’s description of a relief in Narbonne see further below.


Crux was visible to mainland Europe during the stone age, and some of it was visible, still, in Egypt when Claudius Ptolemy composed his works, though Ptolemy knew its stars only as some among those in or around the constellation of the Centaur.  By 400 AD, some of its stars could still be seen in Athens, but thereafter those now forming Crux were forgotten, and if referenced at all were included only by a rough idea of where Ptolemy meant the stars to be placed.


This remained the situation of astronomy in Europe until after the Voynich manuscript was made and even thereafter wherever Ptolemy was the standard work, the stars of our Crux were omitted or wrongly placed.  To illustrate this fact which is so well known should be unnecessary, but a majority of Voynicheros have their heart set on some variant of Wilfrid Voynich’s  fictional ‘history’ and this matter is another instance of the primary source’s refusing its consent.


Islamic astronomy continued to rely very heavily on Ptolemy’s tables, and wherever we find that dependence Crux is not separately defined.  The following detail makes the point.  It is from a celestial sphere made in Islamic India during the seventeenth century and adheres to the Ptolemaic type, even though Tamil and Hindu India had known Crux before the Mediterranean’s classical era, and it had been commented upon even by western astronomers from the late fifteenth century.

(detail ) Celestial globe. 17thC Islamic India, probably made in Lahore. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


The first documentary evidence for any  European Christian’s noticing Crux occurs in notes and correspondence sent to Manuel I of Portugal.  The first was written about twenty years after the Vms was made, when in 1455, Alvise Cadamosto mentions an astronomical ‘carro dell’ostro (“southern chariot”), which suggests that he had read Manilius and adopted the idea that the southern constellations would mirror those in the northern sky.   Each of the Ursae was sometimes known in Europe as the ‘chariot’.



Manilius speaks of the ‘mirroring’ idea in the early years AD, saying in a matter-of-fact tone:


‘Adversas frontibus arctos uno distingui medias claudique dracone credimus exemplo, quia men fugentia visus hunc orbem caeli vertentis sidera cursu tam signo simili fultum quam vertice fingit.’


“We assume by analogy that Ursae with faces averted are separated and encircled by a single draco, since the mind imagines that this southern circle of heaven, turning in its rotation those constellations which shun the gaze, is supported by similar signs just as it is by a similar Pole”.


(Astronomica I.447-455; note that some editions have  I: 451-454)


It had evidently been an idea once more widely known and despite the Roman world’s adopting Ptolemy’s system, and then Aratus as official description of the constellations, something of the older view survived, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean and near east, for though ‘Abbasid Baghdad adopted the Greco-Roman heavens, the brilliant Kwaresmian scholar, al Biruni, mentions the older idea as the general among the ‘uneducated masses’ – by which he might have meant only those without an education in Arabic.


A similar idea also informs the ‘mirroring’ we have noted in Abraham Cresques great world-map, but otherwise the next reference from a European is again from a servant of Manuel I of Portugal.


João Faras sketched and described the constellation in a letter written from Brazil in 1500, and he too seems to have followed the idea that the southern stars should mirrored the northern, for he speaks of these as ‘Guards’ and it is a fair description;  Crux was used by mariners of that other sea in just the same way that Mediterranean mariners used their ‘Guards’ – two stars in Ursa Major by which the position of the Pole was established.  In the Great Sea (i.e. that beyond Arabia),  Crux and its two pointer-stars Crux served the equivalent purpose, though there was no true southern Pole star to be seen.  =


Because Crux is referred to not only by that relatively-late diagram on folio 67v  but in at least one other folio from the ‘bathy-‘ section (as I’ll show), it is beyond what history permits us to assert – if not quite beyond possibility – that the whole content in the Voynich manuscript should be thought to have been composed by a Latin Christian ‘author’ before 1415.


From that it follows  the content in this manuscript was either not composed by an ‘author’  born in western Europe, or that such a person travelled and learned a number of foreign languages and had access to remarkably rare material, or on the other hand that he lived before the early centuries AD.  In fact we have no need to posit any ‘author’, but in that case the questions are much the same, save they have more to do with opportunities for aquisition.


It is surely more probable that the content in much of the manuscript is (at it plainly appears) gained from Hellenistic sources and its arrival in western Europe late. Further, for this rare information to have made no discernable impact on Europe’s astronomers would suggest – as does the quality of the vellum and the ‘untranslated’ appearance of the female figures – to have arrived first into a  community or profession in which the Latin elites felt no interest before the second or third decade of the fifteenth century.


The fact is that even the usual supposition of manufacture within mainland Europe is far from being known, and is still open to question, if anyone cares to ask and find answers to the questions.

In my opinion, such as it is where codicology is the issue, is that the radiocarbon range, together with the unusual dimensions of the bifolia and foldouts, as well as the orthography used for the month-names suggests manufacture = along the corridor between England and the Veneto, and I should think more likely Padua or the Veneto than northern France.


The content manifestly did not gain its first enunciation near the time of this manuscript’s manufacture.



The ‘ladies’ astronomical imagery bears witness to its antiquity in both the form of the Tyche-style head-dresses and absence of the Roman habit of amalgamating the various city-patrons into one generalised ‘Tyche’ identified as the emperor’s personal Fortuna.


The details below depict (as I’ve shown before, but will repeat in brief here) paired images for the markers of the southern (f.79v) and northern (f.80v) Pole markers.  The first point I want to make is their being depicted in ways closely parallel, each having its emblem in the left hand of an outstretched arm.  Where that for the north is shown as a figure elevated high above the mundane world (the base includes motifs signifying all four earthly elements), the figure for ‘south’ stands in a basin or pit.

(details from folios 79v and 80v) Tyches holding (left) emblem for South; (right) emblem for North, each emblem evoking an astronomical figure for the celestial Poles viz. Crux/South (f.79v)  and Ursa Minor/North (80v).  As far as I can discover, these identifications and their explanations were first offered by the present author, though others may later have found the same e.g.  Koen Gheuens or Marco Ponzi. If readers know of any earlier than myself, I should most grateful to receive a detailed comment.


Their emblems are shown as a  “cross that is not quite a cross” and as a “cornucopia-that-isn’t-quite-a-cornucopia”, but as I have explained earlier in detail, the second finds a clear comparison in coins from Sinope, a city on the southern shores of the Black Sea.  Here the object appears between the two emblems which denote the traveller’s great companions, the Dioscuri and the wings to each side of the head seen on the obverse, like the sharp-pointed nose, are those of the Persian messengers, called in Greek ‘angeloi’ and by whom (so we learn from the later Christianised legend reported by friar Willem van Ruysbroec, a temple had been built on an island off Cherson (fSevastopol).

coin of Sinope, Paphlagonia 120-100 BC


Note that this object, and the drawing on f. 80v  shows ridging on the coin, and a line of dots or roughly-parallel short lines in f.80v.


An early Greek mirror again shows the Dioscuri or an equivalent pair, and now the object between them takes the form of a great star and/or the ‘rosa mundi’ as compass of the world.  That conception of the ‘rosa mundi’ as compass rose appears in ancient form as the Egyptian Nymphaea (called ‘lotus’) in another Voynich diagram (f.67), but our present point is that the Dioscuri being identified with astronomical figures on the coin from Sinope, so we may posit an identification in this case between the object shown on that coin, the object held by the Tyche on folio 80v, and this great star.    (More was said about the Dioscuri and their being made patrons of the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty in the series of posts called  ‘Clear Vision’)

The Kabeiroi or Dioskuroi with a ‘compass rose’ star. Patrons of the traveller.

We are today accustomed to presume that the Pole star will always refer to our Polaris (alpha Ursa Minoris) but this was not always so, and we have the authority of classical authors to attest the opposite.  In fact they treat use of Ursa minor, and of the Pole star as a somewhat perverse habit of the Phoenicians, and more exactly of Phoenician mariners.


Thus Manilius


The top of the Axis is occupied by constellations well known to hapless mariners, guiding them over the measureless deep in their search for gain. Helice, the greater [-Bear], describes the greater arc; it is marked by seven stars which vie with each other in radiance; under its guidance the ships of Greece set sail to cross the seas. Cynosura [the lesser Bear] is small and wheels about in a narrow circle, less in brightness as it is in size, but in the judgement of the Tyrians it excels the larger Bear. Carthaginians count it the surer guide when at sea they make for unseen shores.


Manilius, Astronomica 1.294-302


while Edwin Browne points out that this became a proverbial distinction:


It became a literary topos that the Greeks guided themselves by the Greater Bear, the Phoenicians by the Lesser … And Gundel is surely right in giving this Phoenician practice as the primary reason why “the majority’ ‘ according to the Eratosthenic Epitome call the Little Bear Phoenice.


and ‘Poinike/Phoenike/Phenice’ etc. also became labels for Polaris, while Cynosura became a common term for its constellation, Ursa minor.    But that name for Polaris also deserves a reminder to readers that the label by the North star in folio 68r-1 is, in my opinion, meant to read similarly.

(detail) fol 68r-1.  The North Star.


So an identification for the ‘cornucopia-that-isn’t’ as image for Ursa Minor is one that finds support in the practices and associations made by Hellenistic and earlier works,  though it does not occur much later than Ptolemy in Roman-held territories.


It is not certain that the mirror illustrated above is meant to represent the Dioscuri; these may be figures for those ‘Guards’ who then as now assist finding the position of the Pole and its star.  (For the medieval period see E.G.R. Taylor, The Haven Finding Art or  online e.g.  Alan Hartley’s site.)


The stars have not changed too much since the middle ages, and the Guards still aid the traveller now as they did then, although the habit today is to use the easier, Roman method and go by stars in Ursa Major.  A clock is a compass too, and there’s no necessity that North should be ‘up’ or if ‘up’ be straight up.  Fortunately, each of the Voynich manuscript’s circular astronomical diagrams includes a mark of the circuit’s point of  beginning and end –  or so I read them.  I admit I haven’t noticed the information being taken up, or if taken up put to any fruitful use… so far.



Why the emblem for ‘north’ in folio 80v should also be meant to be read as a ‘traveller’s friend’ – that is, the astronomical object understood by seeing the form of the terrestrial one  – has already been discussed in what I hope is sufficient detail in earlier posts, so I’ll be brief about it here.


I read that emblem on f.80v as meant for one of the Ursae and (in my view) more likely U.minor as Cynosura, for which the token form is identified as the usual  instrument by which those journeying measured time and direction during the day. The implication is of course that the suspended ‘viatorum pensilis’ (we only know the Romans’ words for it) does during the day what this astronomical  ‘clock-and-compass’ does during the night.. precisely as they do.  I’ve treated the  ‘viatorum pensilis’ fairly well in earlier posts, so all I’d like to do here by way of adducing evidence is to show that such instruments were not rare, and that they might take various forms before the 1stC AD.


Virtuvius’ Ten Books.. were composed a century or so later than that coin for Sinope.

(Please don’t use the image to try counting hours by U.minor).


Phoenician star – Phoenician Cynosura.

We know why the Pole star gained its name as ‘ Phoenice’  because a couple of classical authors record the reason and by good fortune their works have survived.  But no such record exists of how Ursa Minor came to be called  Cynosura  and the question had puzzled historians of astronomy and etymologists.  In 1981, Edwin Brown again addressed the question and satisfactorily resolved the question, though his paper is not well known, and is all too rarely cited.


  • Edwin Brown, ‘The Origin of the Constellation Name “Cynosura” ‘, Orientalia, Nova Series, Vol. 50, No. 4 (1981), pp. 384-402.


He wrote,


What the Phoenicians themselves called the constellation thus closely identified with them is, unhappily, nowhere attested either in written or in pictorial form. Yet a number of Semitic languages possess a word built apparently on the root knr and signifying a stringed musical instrument. The word occurs in Akkadian … [and in Ugarit] … The name appears as a loanword knnr in a New Kingdom text (Pap. Anastasi IV, 12,2) from Egypt, where the instrument itself was frequently depicted… It appears also in the Hittite compound kinirtalla ‘lyre-player’ (from which the base form kinirri may be assumed).


To see Ursa Minor in this way, we must imagine the larger and the smaller type of lyre, with the smaller called the ‘boat lyre’, like the one found made of silver, in Ur (below, right, lower register), or that shown inset which is  said to be Greek.   As you see the knr from Ur has all its ‘chords’ or bow-strings emerge from a single point.



Now, as English-speakers we are rather fortunate  because having taken up the term ‘chord’ from the Greek, we are able more easily to appreciate the associations for that word: the implied kinship between  measures of music; geometric chords; the chords of cosmography and of trigonometry.   The last is illustrated by a detail from Soler’s map of c.1380.

nor should we neglect the ship, for whose master and men the charts were made and the lyre brought on board in ancient and medieval times.


The ancient design for that ‘knr’ lyre was still to be seen among tribal peoples as late as 1899, when the image on the right was published.  The object seen (below, left) is very like it, and was bought by  Mauricio Lasansky in 1953-4. (information from Southeby’s Auction catalogue).


Which I hope will help readers make sense of why I should hold that  Cynosura, the ‘suspended travellers’ friend’, and the drawing on f.80v  are all talking about the same things.  A purpose fulfilled by the one in daylight was fulfilled by the other through the watches of the night.


f.79 (detail)

And the complement-and-opposite for the Northern ‘friend’, the suspended guide there was, naturally, a Southern.  But no-one in Europe knew it or what it might look like so they still hypothesised as late as 1500 that it was some mirror reversal of what appeared in their own sky: as a chariot or as the ‘Guards’.



Against this is the clear evidence that not only was the form of Crux as south-marker known (as evinced by the emblem on f.67v 1), but that the original maker of the image on f.79 knew what it looked like.  (I think it probable that Magellan’s “canopus of stars” was also Crux).


Whoever made this figure knew, and more importantly could assume his contemporary audience knew, the form of Crux – not at a figure of four points, but of five.


This doesn’t exactly resolve the question of which starry cross was intended, for the group we define as an asterism rather than a constellation, and which we call ‘the false cross’ lies to the north-west of Crux proper, within the boundaries of what was once the enormous southern constellation called by the Latins Argo navis, or Argo ratis, much of which does appear to northern view. It appears (minus either cross) in an English manuscript of the eleventh century (Brit.Lib., Cotton Tiberius B. V, Pt 1, fol. 40v).  In a copy of al-Sufi’s ‘Book of the Fixed Stars’ made in Damascus between 1430-1140, it is shown in full, including the ‘false cross) composed of   δ,κ Velorum , ι, ε Carinae.   Crux lies from it E-S-E.


Now, as you see either cross could be allowed to include a fifth element above its left-hand (eastern) arm.  The issue is a little more complicated by the fact that constellations could be depicted with East to the left or to the right as the viewer looked at it.  I won’t go into why that is, but it is the reason that al-Tusi’s drawings show a constellation in both positions, facing right and facing left, though of course all face towards the west.


But in fact it is Crux, known to ancient India as Sulbar – ‘the measurer’s cord’ and subsequently to the Arabs who made it Sulba’ which means ‘the beam of crucifixion’ which served as did the northern Ursae.. and still does.

As the Ursae served to mark the night hours and   determine direction in northern latitudes, so did (and does)  Crux in the southern.  A good first introduction to this subject is offered by a wiki article, ‘Sidereal Time


By these stars celestial South can be determined but, as I’ve said,there is no star at Southern Pole.  What there is, is a sort of hole or pit which we now call ‘the coal sack’ and which was apparently seen as the maw of the underworld upon which Crux served as door, or seal.  Schiaperelli pointed out, early in the twentieth century, that this region of the sky contains the stars which the  ancient Jews called the  ‘inner chambers of the South’ Hadre theman.  (Schiaparelli posited with them Canopus and alpha Centauri, on which latter point I dare differ).


Schiaparelli’s Astronomy in the Old Testament has recently been put online, so you can read his comments yourself (here). Oddly enough, Schiaparelli’s discussion – unrealised by him – leaves open the possibility that the ‘hadre theman’ actually meant our ‘false cross’ for he says,


“As a matter of fact, heder is derived from the root kadar, which means in Arabic latuit. It denotes properly the inmost and most strongly defended portion of a dwelling, where the articles of greatest value are kept, penetralia; it is also used in a metaphorical sense to indicate the most internal and most secluded part of anything. As for theman, it means the right side, and, for the Jews, who took their bearings while turning their faces to the east, it meant further the south side and the south wind”.


-which, if one envisaged the southern ship a little differently, would allow the ‘false cross’ to mark the place of the hold, or (as Schiller would later do so very brilliantly), the southern ship’s  sanctum sanctorum – the cabin of Noah, father of the remnant to survive.

In Augsburg, around the beginning of the seventeenth century, some few cartographers with an interest in non-canonical astronomies and their visual or verbal images gained access to information that was very old, and very rare.  Of those whose work shows evidence of that knowledge, Schiller’s is consistently shown by the results of later archaeology and textual studies to be the most accurate and best-informed.  That he decided to present what he knew dressed in Christian form: that is, by using Christian equivalents, was doubtless wise but it is also a custom which occurs in the early medieval manuscripts as more ancient ideas had their central message ‘translated’ to suit the Christian environment and world-view.  We have already noticed one example of this type, the illumination for Gregory’s Letter to Leander in his Moralia in Job.


By profession, Julius Schiller (1589-1627) was not an astronomer, nor a cartographer, but a lawyer  and a contemporary of Jakub Hořčický (1575 – 1622) whose name was at some time after 1607  inscribed on the first folio of Beinecke MS 408.  Researchers have differed in their opinion of whether or not the inscription is in Hořčický’s own hand.  Schiller’s figure for Ursa Major makes it a ‘northern ark’ in the form of St.Peter’s barque, but this reflects the tradition otherwise preserved only by a fifteenth-century Yemeni navigator, Ibn Majid, the most renowned sidereal navigator of his generation, who describes the ancient figure and names it the Ark of Noah.


However – Schiller depicts Crux as follows, setting it on the knee of Abraham and subtly referring to the ‘knotted cord’ of the Indian Sulbar.  More to our present subject, he shows that this other Cross was associated with regular measures, for it was by means of the knotted cord that the mariners on the ‘Great Sea’ east of Arabia measured their stars’ declination and right ascension, just as a similarly knotted cord was used to plumb the depths and take the soundings (a practice so old it is recorded by Herodotus). The Greeks called land-surveyors harpedonaptes, ‘cord-fasteners’ or ‘rope-stretchers’.


Altogether, I do not think it unreasonable to argue first, that to correctly understand the content of this manuscript requires more than inspiration, semi-fictional narratives presented as ‘theories’, or decisions based on whether or not an assertion sounds plausible to an audience consisting chiefly of twenty-first century, urban, western persons whose cultural history is entirely Christian and whose knowledge of pre-modern, and non-European astronomies is between the range of minimal and non-existent.


The reason that Herodotus is called the ‘father of history’ is not that he theorised more plausibly but that he asked questions.  ‘History’ means ‘Enquiry’, and that into which one does not care to enquire is better left for others to research who will.


The image in folio 79v is presented in a way that suggests the figure was envisaged as it would be seen looking towards a southern horizon and not, as we now do, by imagining all set upright on a north-oriented map or globe.  I do not know what the protruberance above the right arm was meant to be, but evidently something round and solid, since the arm has been provided with a socket in which it sits.


detail from a Genoese map of 1457. This figure is set in the sea near India. Cf. detail in the Voynich map. Canopus and Sulba/Sulbar.


1.’Sulbar’ among the Omani pilots came to refer to alpha Eridani, and in that way the word appears as early as the fifteenth century, but the shifting of names as the appropriate position was moved by precession to a different star is a constant in the history of ethnoastronomy.  In the same way ‘Jawzar/Jauza etc.’ was an early name for Orion, but was shifted over time to refer to Gemini.  There are many more instances of the phenomenon.

  1. A good blogpost about the history of Argo Navis is here.
  2. The harp which Schiller shows adjacent to the Arca Noe is put in the hand of David, with whom the Bedu associated Canopus, the brightest star of Argo navis and its usual master.

  3. The primordial father and mother, in Asian thought, were those known to the Chinese as Nu-Gua and Fuxi.  They also created human kind from red earth or mud, and in certain early imagery, each is provided with a measuring device, presumably those of the earth below and of the heavens above.  In these images the emblem given the male Fuxi is constant, while that given the woman varies to the point that one imagines the original already lost.

measuring/surveying instruments associated with female and male creators of mankind, Nu Gua and Fuxi. 1stC AD. Stone carving.  Han Dynasty period (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) see Jim Shi Suo Research on Bronze and Stone Carvings (1821).

Painting on hemp. Found in Turfan. details and description See UNESCO ‘Silk Road’ site.

This post began life as one published as (Part 3 – Postscript and Comments) in the series   “East-Left. Fol. 67v-1 and precedents”,  published through voynichimagery on January 5th., 2015.  What began yesterday as a simple re-formatting exercise ended up seeing substantial updating; new and better illustrations; additional information, links and references.

I can’t exactly re-issue it as if it were the original post, so here it is as a new one.  Enjoy.


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