Here’s a vogue-ish detail from the Voynich Manuscript – the (claimed) “armadillo” in the middle-left margin on page f80v. Of course, if this can be proven to be intentionally depicting an animal from the New World, then a lot of other dating evidence becomes secondary. But of course, this kind of controversy is nothing new: you only have to think of the decades-long hoo-ha over the (claimed) New World sunflowers.


Armadillo proponents “read” this image as having a tail (on the left), three legs (with the left foreleg therefore tucked behind the head on the right), and a kind of upside-down armoured armadillo head facing backwards (with a sort of smiley cartoon mouth). Fair enough.

By way of contrast, I argue that because everything else in Quire 13 appears to be water-related (plumbing, baths, steam, rainbow, pools, etc), this is probably a depiction of a catoblepas – a fearsome creature Leonardo da Vinci (and doubtless many of his contemporaries) believed lived at the source of the Niger river, and whose bull-like head was so heavy that it permanently hung down to near the ground.

Specifically: what appears to the pro-armadillo contingent to be a tail (purple arrow), I read as a left rear leg, making all four legs visible – and what they read as an armoured armadillo head, I read as a pair of bull-like flat horns at the back of a down-turned head.


All the same, it’s not like I can’t ‘see’ the armadillo: it’s a lot like one of those optical illusions (such as the famous old lady / young girl drawing) where you can flip between two parallel readings almost at will.

But the odd thing here is that both the armadillo and the catoblepas might be equally correct. It doesn’t take a great deal of sophisticated codicology to look at the line strengths (in the areas ringed blue above) and note that a few key lines are in a darker ink, quite different from the ink used for the wolkenband-like decoration just below it. Could it simply be that some 17th century owner (for whom the catoblepas was probably never part of their conceptual landscape) thought this picture somehow resembled an armadillo, and emended it to strengthen that resemblance? I think that this is very probably precisely what happened here.

Now, this is precisely the kind of contingent, layered, conjectural historical explanation (basically, an intellectual history of art) that Richard SantaColoma has long enjoyed lambasting. Specifically, he sees any explanation that appeals to layered codicology as fully worthy of his scorn – as though it’s merely constructed as an apologium to keep the faith with the existing ‘mainstream’ dating evidence.

But actually, layered codicology hypotheses are among the most brutally (and easily) testable of historical ideas – unless two layers of ink added many decades apart just happened to use exactly the same raw materials (and in the same proportions), we will ultimately be able to differentiate them… or not.

However, unless people explicitly propose such layering hypotheses, nobody would think to do such tests – they’d perhaps spend all their codicological efforts on f116v (a valid investment, to be sure, but it’s only one of many possible areas of the Voynich Manuscript that should be tested for revealing information).

Indeed, the whole point of such historical hypotheses is not to prove historical narratives in and of themselves, but rather to lay the underlying ideas open to physical mechanisms of disproof. Bluntly put, any given hypothesis is usually of little or no value if it cannot be specifically disproved (because direct causative proof is as rare as hen’s teeth in history).

In the absence of any suitable tests on f80v, however, both viewpoints (and indeed all other fairly sensible viewpoints) remain in a suspended state of vague possibility, hypothetical kites floated carelessly into an unthreatening breeze.

Hmmm… how I long for such tests!

24 thoughts on “Is this the way to Armadillo?

  1. Myriad on May 30, 2009 at 9:31 am said:

    This Wild Beast, a bull with a boar’s head, is stampeding on a cloud, causing the rain, which is the source of the Niger. So I guess the woman below him is trying to control him with that bronze nose-ring she is holding?

    /lor ar ol olor/, written in the text next to this image, strikes me as someone trying to spell out an unusual word…

    Is this our smoking gnu?

  2. Hi Myriad Falcon,

    Given that the same water nymph is touching her bottom with her other hand, I think you have to be pretty wary about reading too much symbolism into these drawings. 🙂

    But I’d certainly second the idea that lor ar ol olor is an unusual word, and it even seems to be slightly highlighted on the page (not sure why that should be). And as I see almost all of these as verbose pairs, I’d parse it as, i.e. an ABCDDB pattern. All the same, be careful because word-initial “l” is a real Currier-B phenomenon, and so probably represents something more than just a single letter. My guess is therefore that the plaintext for this will turn out to have the pattern “ B C D D B”, where all the letters encipher consonants. Unfortunately, that seems likely to be neither CaToBLePaS nor NiGRiCaPo: but feel free to come up with a better suggestion!

    Sorry for not being more specific! 😮

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Dennis on May 30, 2009 at 5:53 pm said:

    Hi Nick! I live in armadillo country and I don’t see an armadillo here. The tail is long and thin, not like a tail interpretation of the rear appendage would suggest. The head held down isn’t typical armadillo behavior – when frightened they do roll up in a ball but they do that on their side. The shape of the ears don’t quite fit what’s seen here.

    It’s interesting that German settlers in Texas called them “Panzerschwein.” That’s something we Americans could have called Germans in WWII. 🙂 We weren’t very creative or even very derogatory, we just called them “Krauts.”

  4. Hi Dennis,

    Even if I had sufficient mental agility to defend the armadillo hypothesis against all-comers (as a kind of debating society exercise), I must confess that I would still be sorely tempted to duck the challenge. 🙂

    Incidentally, my only brush with the world of the armadillo was many years ago when I unknowingly ate some stewed armadillo tail… but that’s a long story. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. Nick: Thank you for an interesting post. Your readers might also be interested in the page I put together, showing various armadillos in engravings and pictures, along with some other suggested interpretations. I will add your catoblepas interpretation to the page as soon as possible:

    I have no interest in, or habit of, lambasting anyone’s opinion or interpretation. It may well be a catoblepas, or wolf, or pangolin, as well as an armadillo. I do not know what it is. I personally think it looks most like an armadillo. But even if I and a million people think it looks like an armadillo, it will not make it one, any more than if noone thinks it is an armadillo will make it more “not one”. It is what it is, whatever that is.

    What interested me most… and I did not expect this when I first discussed the f80v animal… is the fact that overwhelmingly, those who hold a pre-columbian dating for the Voynich thought it was not (or said they thought it was not) an armadillo, while overwhelmingly, those with no knowledge or interest in the Voynich, or who held a later dating for the Voynich, thought it looked quite like one. This strongly implies that the identity of this animal is being driven by a preconception of the date range of the Voynich. I don’t mean to personally impune any one person’s well meant interpretation, only that the overall numbers practically insist on this conclusion… “in general”. It looks like a case of the tail wagging the armadillo.

    The only two pre-Columbian Voynich researchers who thought it still looked like an amadillo had this reasoning: One said that it may have floated up to Europe, before Columbus, and the other pointed out that it looked “so much” like an armadillo that it probably was not one… because the art in the Voynich is generally so inaccurate.

    I do not know the date of the Voynich, I do not say this is an armadillo. So don’t shoot the messenger… I am only giving my opinion of it, and my opinion of the feedback of others. You and others may well be right, and I full well respect that possibility. Rich.

    My blog
    on the issue, for those interested.

  6. Nick: When I wrote the above, I had missed the point you made, with “…and note that a few key lines are in a darker ink, quite different from the ink used for the wolkenband-like decoration just below it. Could it simply be that some 17th century owner (for whom the catoblepas was probably never part of their conceptual landscape) thought this picture somehow resembled an armadillo, and emended it to strengthen that resemblance? I think that this is very probably precisely what happened here.”

    That seems to be a stretch. It adds to the three points I made in my previous points made by pre-Columbian Voynich adherents. I had washed up on the European coast before Columbus discovered the New World, and that it looked too much like and armadillo to be one… and yours, now, where you suppose it might have been modified later from a catablepas to an armadillo. To suppose that a later, 17th century artist went through the VMs and corrected this, and added that, to match their contemporary expectations, is, I think, once again projecting a complex solution to a some straightforward evidence… I prefer to simply believe the simple solution… that it is probably a newer
    than previously believed. Rich.

  7. Hi Rich,

    The overall point I was trying to make is that different hypotheses have different (and testable) ramifications. The ramification of post-1600 dating is that everything that implies a pre-1600 date must be bogus and/or misinterpreted: that’s a stretch, too. Hopefully spectroscopy and physical dating will resolve this for you in a way that art history evidence seems not to be able to.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  8. Emily on June 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm said:

    The catoblepas interpretation fits the creature’s posture, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the catoblepas being depicted as scaly.

    That creature looks a bit like a dragon to me(although the long body and big scales, and the connection to rain clouds, are more reminiscent of Chinese dragons than Western ones…); there’s a dragon eating a plant root elsewhere in the manuscript, so this too could be an imaginary being.

  9. Travis on June 3, 2009 at 11:19 am said:

    Ole Worm’s Cabinet features an Armadillo in the upper right corner published in 1655 after Ole Worm’s death. My understanding is he kept some detail records of his finds or items he wanted.

    much later than the voynich but still some evidence that they were likely collected? Your thoughts

  10. Hi Travis,

    There were all kinds of natural history collections in the late 16th and 17th centuries: if you’re interested, you could have a look at any number of books and monographs describing such collections (such as “Cultures of Natural History”), though I’m not sure what you’d be wanting to prove or disprove.

    The word “armadillo” itself (‘little armoured thing, basically) apparently dates from 1569 in Spanish and 1577 in English – see “Joyfull Newes out of the Newefound World” by Nicolas Monardes, where the armadillo is first named and described – and I guess there would be drawings of it in other early books too.

    Never mind that some people thinks it looks more like a pangolin, never mind a catoblepas. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  11. Yolanda on July 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm said:

    Hi, I have been reading all this with fascination for a couple of days. I had never even heard of the Voynich Manuscript before and your site is really compelling & interestingly written.
    Since I’m into zoology, I was very interested in this picture. I looked at some catoblepas accounts and only a few of them indicate that the animal had scales. More frequently they describe it as having not only a very heavy, but a LARGE head, and having shaggy hair on or around the head; and as being bull-shaped, which would suggest longer legs than in the picture. It also doesn’t much look like most earlier representations of the catoblepas, which look pretty wildebeest-ish (at least, the ones I could find on the internet…I’m no expert).
    If the artist was indeed attempting to represent a real animal, it’s consistent with an armadillo or a pangolin (and not a perfect match for either). It doesn’t seem necessary to invoke North American animals at all to explain this picture, since (probably dead) pangolins and descriptions of them could easily have been brought to Europe from Africa OR Asia by this 1400’s, maybe with royal menagerie collections.

  12. Anton Alipov on June 17, 2015 at 10:08 pm said:

    Found this post through a link in Prof. Bax’s blog, so I decided to comment in both places 🙂

    What do you think of a basilisk? In his book “Promethean Ambitions” (partly available at Google Books), W.R. Newman quotes Paracelsus and Tostado Ribera who linked basilisk with “impure” (i.e. menstruating) women.

  13. Stoyan Mihov on August 12, 2015 at 4:42 pm said:

    When I saw this drawing, I had no doubts what is. I’m biologist and scientific artist. For me that is quite good drawing of an Amphipod, probably freshwater Gammarus. The anntenae, uropods, telson etc, are clearly visible.

  14. I don’t know, it doesn’t look much like an Armadillo to me.
    I have seen it said elsewhere though that it could be a Pangolin (rather than an Armadillo).
    Pangolin scales supposedly having medicinal properties.

  15. RobLaw on August 12, 2015 at 8:21 pm said:

    When I saw this I first of all thought on a different scale…..insects. The creature could bare quite a resemblance to a wood louse or giant wood louse.

    Then I looked at what the creature was standing on and came up with another angle. This could be argued to look like some kind of jellyfish, prehaps even a portuguese man o’war. So what is that on top ‘attacking it’ ? One of the few creatures able to attack and survive are sea turtles, due to their extremely thick skin. Squint a bit and you can just see it! 😉

  16. Anton’s comment is very interesting, given the representation of a crowned figure in the ‘Cancer’ roundel.

    Ideally, it would better fit the ‘Leo’ roundel, but is still worth a mention.

    The ‘Cancer’ roundel shows a crowned figure who appears to be urinating or menstruating. If menstruating women are equated with the basilisk, then of course one’s first expectation would be that the star should be Regulus in Leo, whose name in the Greek is the same as that for the basilisk: i.e. basiliskos.

    It properly means ‘little king’, but for the basilisk as such, or more exactly the basilisk-serpent, we have an association with North Africa. Pliny the elder says it is a “native of the province of Cyrenaica” in Libya.

    I see that a star features on some Hellenistic coins from Cyrenaica, but what star might be meant as the ‘basilisk star’ I do not know.

    Perhaps where we see a crab, others saw the Cyrenaica shrew? 🙂

    The problem might be solved by reference to terrestrial and astronomical co-ordinates, if one were of a mind to it. Or indeed to investigate the Cyrene-ehoie according to Hesiod.

  17. A Hellenistic coin from Cyrenaica showing the crab.

    I might add that most of the emblems at the centre of these roundels find their closest comparisons on coins of the Hellenistic period – even the fairy-wand bearing figure used to represent Virgo.

  18. GeorgeC on August 13, 2015 at 9:20 am said:

    It seems to me that the scales – if they are scales, are pointing the wrong way. As far as I know, all scaly animals on this planet have scales which point away from the head, which makes perfect sense when moving forward, however the scales in the Voynich drawing are clearly pointing forwards.
    I have no idea what to make of that.

  19. Helmut Winkler on August 13, 2015 at 9:29 am said:

    To me, it looks like an ordinary sheep with horns lying down. There are similar pictures in bestiaries and scenes of the Nativity. The coat of these animals mostly looks wavy like scales. And the woman over the animal looks like holding a spindle full of wool and a whorl at the tip.

  20. I’m not sure what breed would be an ordinary sheep, and since this is not exactly like a Christian image of Christ’s birth in a stable, I’m wondering what meaning might be conveyed here. Could it be an instruction to the ladies only to do whatever they’re doing after they’ve done their chores around the farm? Or perhaps advising them to dry off using raw sheep’s wool. Could it mean that whatever-they’re-doing requires the preliminary sacrifice of an ‘ordinary sheep’ – nicely laid to rest. The possibilities are so intriguing.

  21. Helmut,
    ‘fess up now – you’ve never used a drop-spindle, have you?

  22. Helmut Winkler on August 13, 2015 at 7:18 pm said:

    there is something we call Experimental Archaeology. I have watched some women using a spindle and whorl and tried using it myself, though I was not very successful.

  23. Out*of*the*Blue on August 13, 2015 at 7:33 pm said:

    In addition to the creature in question, also note directly beneath it are two meandering horizontal lines. According to *heraldry*, (see: heraldic lines of division) this is a nebuly line. A nebuly line differs from a wavy line because it is bulbous in comparison to a sine wave. The term nebuly is derived from the Latin ‘nebula’ or cloud. A much elaborated version of the nebuly line is often found in so-called cloud bands that often accompany the appearance of Christian and classical religious figures in some medieval illustrations. See Christine de Pizan and the Angers Apocalypse tapestry. Don Hoffmann has recently collected a number of such illustrations.

    Not all cloud bands are nebuly lines. And not all such bands are pretty blue and white clouds. Some are fiery and solar, red, orange, yellow and gold, and they use indented and raonny lines from heraldry,

    A nebuly line was also used as a cosmic boundary in the Nicholas Oresme illustration, which has been compared to VMs f 68v3 by Ellie Velinska.

    VMs Quire 13 contains a number of examples of the use of simple nebuly lines. A couple plants have nebuly leaves. And in contrast, the central rosette of the Nine Rosettes illustration has a more elaborate example – with blue paint!

    So what about the little creature? Do the nebuly lines figure into its identification? Do the lines mean that the creature is sitting above the clouds and that the little marks scattered about represent drops of rain? Could it be some sort of ‘rain dragon’ loosely based on a pangolin? But the rain dragons have their scales on backwards to catch the mists and collect them into droplets. Everybody knows that.

  24. to nickpelling

    your letters, remember???
    lor ar ol ol or

    lo raro e olor

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