Incidental words – 3 labels

Koen Gheuens’ latest post talks about methods used to tackle the Voynich text.

  1. Label reading
  2. Computer attacks
  3. Block paradigm

I’d add a fourth –  Linguistic analysis –  but I guess it could be described partly as a computer attack (e.g. Jorge Stolfi’s statistical analysis), and partly as the slow, careful identification of patterns, either in themselves (as Emma Smith is doing in her study), or combined with ‘label reading’ as the late Professor Bax did.


Bax’ error, I think, was his placing too much faith in others’ recommending ‘mates’ ideas.  It resulted in Bax’ introducing himself to the study by trying to read the label for a plant whose identification he seemed to believe not only proven but unquestioned and without alternatives.  That identification was no more than bald assertion published on a website online.  I’m among those who think culpable the persons posing as offering impartial advice, but the fact is that  Bax was left to suffer the consequences, which included false perceptions of him as a less than competent scholar.


My own habit is to regard with great reserve any ideas presented to me as assertions delivered with more self-confidence than appropriate supporting evidence or reasoned argument. History shows that scholarship and demagoguery are natural opponents but not that scholarship necessarily wins out in the shorter term.


‘Label-reading’ efforts started before 1921, with Professor Romaine Newbold being the first to employ it in his efforts at decryption, so far as I know.


‘Computer attacks’ begin with Wilfrid Friedman in the 1930s or ’40s.


The ‘block paradigm’ as I understand (though do correct me if I’m wrong) is a relatively recent angle, introduced by Nick Pelling in 2014.


I don’t  know how to classify my happening on a reading of meaning or of sound for three labels. It is no more than three-words-and-a-bit in ten years, and a by-product of my work on the manuscript.  Since I never wished to treat the written part of the text, I place no particular importance on them, and neither (it seems) has anyone else. 🙂 But here they are, together, for readers’ convenience.  With explanations and some of the historical and comparative matter.

(detail) Beinecke new foliation folio 102v(part).  formerly folio 102r.


Fabric and dye/mordant.

In the detail from folio 102-v-part, (earlier known as folio 102r), the upper and lower labels suggest a related theme, with three of the  glyphs in the upper ‘label’ being repeated in the first part of the lower.  If the last glyph of the upper label is read as a final form, and the fourth in the lower label as the medial version of that same glyph (which is not certain, at all) we could have four glyphs in common.


The lower label then adds three glyphs more  at least:   ‘at least’ because the last could be an abbreviation;   ‘9’-shaped abbreviations not  uncommon (for example) in Latin manuscripts –  as I’m fairly sure many of the linguists and cryptographers have noticed. Here’s an example showing a ‘9’ abbreviation in two successive words.

(detail) from Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis T510.

Others might take the Voynich glyph not as a ‘9’ as a kind of ‘q’ – but such questions are for the palaeographers, so I’ll move on.


IF  the blue pigment which is now shown in the lower drawing rightly represents the intention of the original, I would read the block above it as a vegetable substance used to dye the fabric blue, or to serve as a mordant in that process.  My reason for thinking so is that the historical sources (including the Zibaldone da Canal) say that when a merchant wished to buy indigo it came in a block that was stitched into a fabric cover, and that sometimes (not always) the merchant was permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the quality of the dyestuff.   So to picture a blue-smudged plain cover for a block would not be out of keeping with the historical record, nor the fact that the similarly-formed label below it is found adjacent to a type of fabric- edging which was, indeed, often dyed deep blue.


My reason for hesitating about reading the colour at face value is that  – as  I first noticed some time ago and have since been reminding readers regularly now for several years –  – the manuscript’s avoidance of colours in the pink-purple-black range is so consistent (and yet so easily avoidable) that I take it as another indicator of cultural character.  Since Latin Europeans had no such tradition or ‘tabu’  it provides another in the number of instances where the imagery testifies to a non-Latin European origin.


So the ‘indigo’ reading is conditional.  Not so my reading of the lower object as some form of fabric.


I am not discounting the possibility that the fabric is paper, but I  have seen cloth-bands with such a cut that were intended for decorating canopies, tents and imposing umbrella-parasols in religious festivals and rituals (especially in southern India).  The example I’ve chosen as comparison is valuable as evidence for the antiquity of that design as border-pattern and – by comparison with present-day practices maintaining the same cultural traditions, may be understood as a formalised version of the leaf-and-seed ‘bunting’ illustrated further below.


In other words, once again, the imagery speaks to a natural environment beyond Arabia, and adjacent to the eastern trade-routes.   There (as both the historical texts and the archaeological record attest) Hellenistic influence was present in various areas and in varying degrees from the 3rdC BC to at least the 3rdC AD. It then covers the period formally described in Mediterranean history as the ‘Roman’ period.


(btw – Stewart Gordon wrote a neat history of the umbrella for Saudi Aramco)

The next word to have intruded is one of the inscriptions on the map (that is, the content on  folio 86v now re-foliated for the Beinecke scans:  ‘folio 85v(part)-and-f.86r(part)’.


Having followed the map’s directions and paths, I arrived at a point of embarkation from/to the ‘Great Sea’ (i.e. the eastern ocean), at an area I identified as near  Thebaid, there noticing the following  inscription:

At that time – 2011 – I wrote (here) that  if the first two glyphs were supposed some type of geographic or other classification, then rather curiously the last five are easily read: Th-B-a-i-d.


A recent postscript (Jan 31st., 2018) adds the suggestion that the first two glyphs could even be ‘o P’ for ‘oppidum’, a view which cross-references another observation about a ‘label’, this on folio 68v. 

Of this reading I feel most certain.

What is less certain, for me, is just how much of the historical and other contextual matter to present to readers. On the one hand it can be very easy to look up keywords, but on the other a modern reader is accustomed to expect consistent orthography, standardised spelling and writing deriving from formal – and even printed – texts so that it is all too easy to suppose variations  as ‘wrong’ – which they need not be in the context of practices during the early 15thC, even in Europe where phonetic spellings are not uncommon.  As comparison, consider how well Chaucer’s spelling captures the sound of his contemporaries’ English, but how ‘wrong’ that spelling seems by current habit.


I do hope  the following information won’t seem too arcane, or TMI.  Of course if you’re willing to take my word for everything without needing an explanation or argument – feel free.


Having identified that star, first,  as meant for the North star, and then as surely meant for for Polaris and/or Ursa minor (not U.major), it became clear that a great many potential textual sources could be struck off our list.


Classical Roman thought had Ursa Major as North-marking constellation, treating use of  Polaris and U.minor as a peculiarity of the Phoenician mariners, of whom the Romans were less than fond.


Speakers of Greek had called U.minor (and/or Polaris) ‘the Phoenician’ [star] well before the rise of Rome.   We know this because  the Katasterismoi which preserves the  information is a late epitome from a text composed around the end of the third century BC or in the early second century BC by Eratosthenes ( 276 BC -194 BC), and  of U.minor it says that “most call her Phoenike” (i.e. Φοινίκη ‘The Phoenician’).


(note that Eratosthenes was  born a year after Theophrastus’ death).


I think some variant on the pure Greek Φοινίκη – as Phoenix or Phenice – informs the label on f.68v-1.


After about the 12thC or so, practical men in the Mediterranean began using a magnetised needle.  As a result, mariners paid far more attention to Polaris, but even Dante has two ‘North points’,  leaving  Beatrice at physical North to advance to the magnetic North as that which draws all things to it – i.e. the place of deity.


Literate men of Latin Europe had also known about the association between U.minor and the Phoenicians’  steering star, because that sentence from the Katasterismoi (aka Kastarismos/Catasterisms) was repeated by Aratus (315 BC- 240 BC) and in Roman times by the Astronomica (written c. AD 10–20) and attributed to Marcus Manilius.


Manilus’ Astronomica is mentioned by Gebert d’Aurillac as found, bound  with a copy of Boethius’ Arithmetic in the library of Bobbio, but otherwise it seems that Manilius was largely forgotten until a nearly complete copy was found and disseminated by Poggio Bracciolini.


Not that it mattered.  Copies of Aratus provided the text-book for the Latins’ astronomical knowledge from the time of Charlemagne, and so we can suppose that anyone with a basic education, even if so basic as just study of the Psalter, may have known of U.minor as ‘The Phoenician’.


The point is, however, that few would have used that term in preference to the Romans’ ‘Ursa minor’.   Not if they were sedentary Latin Christians, nor even if they were non-Latins of the Mediterranean.   As far as I’ve found so far, astronomical texts written in Arabic make no mention of that sentence from the Katasterismoi.


‘P’ on ‘o’


About the ‘P’ being attached to, and above the ‘o’ – I’d offer this analogy of the Phoenix over the world, because it seems to me that the only reason such a form could be supposed intelligible to the original readers is by familiarity with such a form.   The type is seen in works of the eastern Greeks, and in the Black Sea much earlier than the late example I’ve chosen here.  This is one of the very latest examples: a Christianised image set on a coin made for Constans, son of the emperor Constantine who moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople.


I’ve spoken of the Phoenix-motif in connection to other folios in Beinecke MS 408.   See for one example:  D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Some Events...’, voynichimagery, (15th March 2016).


  1. Oppidum is a good idea, but why the small o and large p? Is it supposed to look like some kind of standard or banner? Either way, I like your proposed reading.

    The blue cube and blue thing are difficult. Note that the cube is in nice clear blue but the “cloth” is in suspicious “hiding other colors blue”.

    I also think that the cloth is still a leaf because it’s got a stalk. This means that its shape highly symbolic. You suggest cloth, but I’ve seen a crown being suggested as well. The orientation of the spikes adds some weight to that proposal. Interestingly, the origin of the word crown has to do with ships, if I recall correctly.

    I wouldn’t even mention the crown if the label didn’t look like it starts with KORO… cfr Greek “korone”.


    • I think the ‘o’ has a value in addition to any phonetic one and that the form of combined ‘o-P’ is a deliberate allusion to the (once) stock image of a Phoenix at the top of the world. This independent of any phonetic value for each glyph. Fortunately that idea is well-known today; we see it all the time in logos where, say, a real-estate company’s logo might have the initials of their name arranged to resemble a house, or something of that kind. In non-Latin scripts derived from Aramaic such ‘P’-like forms usually have the value ‘S-to-T’. I looked into that question a while ago… maybe before I began this blog, but the ‘Routes and Scripts’ page shows one example in the Ubyk/Abkhaz table. That Page hasn’t been overhauled, yet, so its formatting is still a mess.

      There seem to be no large initial ‘O’s in the Vms’ text proper, so it may indicate that the user instinctively saw the ‘o’ as similar to the Greek article. I said this yonks ago when writing that the calendar nymphs ‘speak Greek’, but a few years later I was chuffed to notice that Emma Smith (I think it was) considered the same possibility, which cheered me up no end. 🙂

      I’d say that the stalk is retained to remind the reader of a banner. Obviously, both that fabric and the ‘block’ are formed of vegetable substances, so we can presume there is still, as throughout this part of the ms, a direct connection to plants. I suppose crowns could be made of plant materials or fibre, and some are called ‘crown..’ such as Stephanotis – but the crown is your idea, so let me know how it develops.

      PS – the design of what I describe as the cloth band certainly has significance, but as I think I mentioned, I’ve seen exactly the same cut for bands used to trim such things as religious canopies and umbrellas. Only sorry I haven’t pictures of them to add to the blog.


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