Following the Volkskalender and Cisiojanus logical train of thought to its next station along, the question comes whether there might be any other information we have about the Voynich zodiac nymphs that could give us a second angle to drive down, to form a kind of pincer attack.

Alert Cipher Mysteries readers might swiftly point out here that there is indeed one particular zodiac nymph that might be of interest. This is the crowned nymph on the Leo page, which I first discussed here back in 2015.


(Note that the Voynich Manuscript has two other crowned zodiac nymphs, one in Cancer and the other in Libra: but in both of these cases, the crown seems to have been added as a separate codicological layer.)

If (as I’m currently wondering) the zodiac section is ultimately some kind of embellished Volkskalender month tables, then it might well prove to be that case that this crowned Leo nymph is flagging a saint’s day or a feast day that had particular significance to the Voynich Manuscript’s composer / author / compiler.

And given that the fifteenth century Volkskalender tradition normally placed the Leo zodiac roundel on the page for July, a reasonable starting point would surely be examining Saint’s days (memorials) or feast days in July during the fifteenth century.

Saint’s Days in July

So what feast days are there in July? Sadly, the scribe of the Volkskalender I was looking at before got bored of copying the Cisiojanus syllables by the time he got to July, so we’ll instead start with the version from the German Cisiojanus Wikipedia page:

júl proces údal oc wíl ¦ kili frá bene márgar apóst al
árnolfús prax mág ¦ ap chríst jacobíque sim ábdon

The (1430) Kalendarium in Ms. GkS 79 2° in Copenhagen’s Royal Library has a nice clear Cisiojanus July list, transcribed here by Erik Drigsdahl as:

1. Iul – (Jul(i))
2. **** pro – Processio Marie
3. ces
4. o – (Odalrici
5. dal
6. oc – (Octava apostolorum)
7. et – @@@@
8. ki – (Kiliani m.)
9. li
10. fra – (Septem fratrum)
11. be – (Benedicti abb.)
12. ne
13. **** mar – Margarete v.
14. gar
15. **** ap – Divisio apostolorum
16. pos-
17. tol – @@@@
18. Ar – (Arnulphi ep.)
19. nol-
20. phus
21. prax – (Praxedis v.)
22. **** Mag – Maria Magdalene
23. ap – (Apollinaris ep.)
24. cris – (Cristine v.)
25. **** ia – Jacobi ap.
26. co-
27. bi
28. pan – (Pantaleonis m.) – @@@@
29. **** oll – (Ollego) – @@@@
30. ab – Abdon (et Sennen mr.)
31. don.

For the sake of clarity, lines with @@@@ are slightly different from the Wikipedia Cisiojanus, while lines starting **** and marked here in bold were originally marked in red (“rubricated”) in the 1430 Kalendarium to indicate that they were feast days:
* 2nd July – The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary
* 13th July – St Margaret of Antioch (I believe “v.” is short here for ‘virginis et martyris’)
* 15th July – The Dispersion of the Apostles
* 22nd July – St Mary Magdalene
* 25th July – St James the Greater (the Apostle)
* 29th July – St Ollego (a saint local to the Hainaut region, according to this analysis of Ms. GkS 79 2°, but given that the Cisiojanus mnemonics were copied and adapted all across Europe, I’d point out that it’s difficult to know whether this was added here or copied as-is from a previous document’s Cisiojanus mnemonic)

The Candidates

2nd July: The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary is always going to be a likely feast to link a crowned nymph to: but there are other Marian feasts throughout the year, and why don’t they too have a similar crown?

13th July: this is the Greek feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (known there as St Marina, but normally celebrated in the West on 20th July). St Margaret was one of the saints who spoke (posthumously) to Joan of Arc. “Her remains were […] divided between shrines in Montefiascone and Venice”: many cults grew up around her, Exeter also claiming to have her skull, for example.

According to this site:

She prayed at her death that women in childbirth would, upon calling on her, be safely delivered of their child as she had been delivered from the belly of the dragon. She is also known as the patron saint of women, nurses, and peasants. She also intercedes for those who call on her from their deathbed.

15th July: The Dispersion of the Apostles doesn’t strike me as a particularly crownable feast: but perhaps some may think otherwise. It is what it is.

22nd July: oddly, even though in the modern Catholic Church this is a feast day (St Mary Magdalene), this was only made so by Pope Francis: before 2013, it was only a memorial day. Yet from the above, it would seem that it was (locally) considered to be a feast day.

“Da Vinci Code” and “Holy Blood Holy Grail” (etc) aside, there would seem to be moderately good reason to consider that what we are looking at here might be specifically to do with Mary Magdalene. She was, according to this Catholic site:

Patron of contemplative life, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries, pharmacists, sexual temptation, tanners, women.

25th July: St James the Greater. He was “the patron saint of veterinarians and pharmacists”. So it would seem as though late medieval pharmacists were spoilt for choice as to which Saint to place their trust in. But was he crownable? I’m not sure.

29th July: St Ollego (presumably Oleg, perhaps a Polish saint?) I don’t know anything about.

And So My Candidate Cribs Are…

Putting all the above together, the most likely crib for the crowned Leo nymph’s label would seem to be one of:
* “pro” (for “Processio Marie”), [though I suspect this may be the weakest of the three]
* “mar” (for St Margaret of Antioch), or
* “mag” (for St Mary Magdalene)

This may not sound like much at first, but when you combine these possibilities with the labels that appear for adjacent nymphs, it may well yield surprisingly fruitful results. Hopefully we shall see… 🙂

21 thoughts on “A Cisiojanus July Voynich crib?

  1. Perry D. Edwards on August 11, 2017 at 11:23 am said:

    Hello Nick!

    Your idea that a crowned nymph is flagging a saint’s day or a feast day makes sense at first sight. But there’s an immediate problem: there are only three crowned nymphs but numerous saint’s day and feast days. You would surely reject this idea if it would be not your own.

  2. Perry: the odds would seem to be even worse in that two of the three crowns seem to be later additions. However, given that I’m only talking about the Leo crowned nymph, and I noted early on that (in Volkskalender B mss where zodiac roundels accompanied the text) Leo is usually linked with July, I thought it a reasonable guess to limit my looking to late medieval July feasts. Which is what I did. 🙂

  3. Perry: I forgot to mention that the Leo crown is rubricated, which would be consistent with a feast rather than merely a memorial.

  4. Major feria.

  5. Emma May Smith on August 11, 2017 at 8:07 pm said:

    I think this is a good theory. It’s based on the art history of the manuscript, it assigns an overall meaning to the zodiac text and individual meaning to each label, it has only a few possible ‘fits’, and is easily testable.

  6. Emma May Smith: what I like about it as an hypothesis is that it incidentally offers an explanation for why and how the zodiac ‘labelese’ differs from the rest of the text.

  7. Out of your three suggestions I’d put my money on Margaret of Antioch. According to the Wiki, “as Saint Marina, she is associated with the sea, which ‘may in turn point to an older goddess tradition’, reflecting the pagan divinity, Aphrodite.”

    The best visual parallels for this nymph are Roman period bronze Aphrodite statuettes, which were found by the dozens in the eastern Mediterranean (i.e. not far from Antioch itself), pointing to an Aphrodite cult in that region. Well, Aphrodite and similar deities, it’s not that simple.

    See here for a fine example:

    So, you know, it might be that you’re on the right track here. But the mnemonics you are studying are christian, and the Voynich nymph looks pagan…

  8. Koen: as I’m sure you know, they also reflect the circular set of nymphs in Vat Gr 1291, which was in Brescia circa 1460, and which passed through Milan in 1465 on its way to Rome (which I covered in Curse).

    Rene’s page on it is here:

  9. Yes, and as you know this image *also* has “pagan” roots. In fact, the constellation imagery in the same manuscript is known for its exceptional faithfulness to its ancient sources.

    So you think the Voynich author saw this particular manuscript and liked the nymphs so much that he made a whole army of them?

  10. Koen: it would be a reasonable explanation, one that bridges the (very large) gap between antiquity and the fifteenth century. If you have a better suggestion as to what kind of transmission might have happened, I’d be delighted to hear it. 🙂

  11. There is an absurd notion among Voynich researchers that our current collection of manuscripts reflects everything that once existed.

    After the relatively sudden shift from Christianity being outlawed to its becoming the state religion, vast amounts of “pagan” material were destroyed.

    During the middle ages, then, how many libraries were plundered? Burned to the ground? During the reformation, how many books were confiscated and destroyed?

    So the answer is simple: undocumented transmission. The ties between the Voynich imagery and its origins have been severed, and there have been countless occasions for that to happen.

    Gospels and books of hours were likely to be left alone. Books full of pagan nudes, much less so. Unless they belonged to an established, medievalized tradition like the Aratea.

    Still, I like your approach and I even see a possible connection to my preferred reading of this nymph (as I explained above). I’m curious to see how you would test your hypothesis.

  12. A completely different idea: could it be that the nymph with the ‘real’ crown represents an astrological sun sign, and that the two added later crowns are for the moon and rising signs of some person (perhaps the author or owner or the person for whom the manuscript was prepared, or intended to be given/sold to). I know little of the history of astrology, but was there a time (& place?) when these second two signs became more used? Also, and somewhat related, was there a time when the ‘equal house’ (using 30 degrees for each zodiacal sign rather than the actual degrees of the zodiac spanned by the constellation) method became more prevalent?

  13. Koen: undocumented transmission over many centuries (let alone a millennium) is the kind of obstacle that novelists have to hand-wave their way around to tell their stupid stories. But as for any theory that requires it to stay afloat, please count me well out. It’s not hard to work out why. 😐

    As for testing the Vat Gr 1291 hypothesis, going beyond what we already know about the MS (which is actually quite a lot) would probably require going through many, many unedited North Italian letters from the mid-15th century looking for references to it: and there’s a high chance there would be nothing to find. So I suspect we’ve pursued this as far as we can. 🙁

  14. Nick: undocumented transmission over a millennium is really not that weird. All you need is a rare (set of) document(s) that was adapted into the VM, and then have it lost or destroyed (or as yet undiscovered).

    Discounting this to the realm of novelists is unfair and underestimates the likelihood of this happening.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume the VM somehow descended from Vat Gr 1291. The contents of the latter are not unique, nor is the Helios diagram. But the circle of nymphs , which is the only crucial aspect for us, is unique. Or if it isn’t, at least it’s extremely rare. Rene himself writes that the appearance of the nymphs is that of late classical times.

    In other words, the hypothesis you want to test is that this manuscript which we happen to know of is the stepping stone from antiquity to the VM.

    Now imaging that Vat Gr 1291 had been lost. This is not hard to do. It could have been burned in a disaster or religious turmoil, for example. Or it could be sitting in someone’s attic for all I care, without us knowing about it.

    So there you have undocumented transmission of over a millennium. It belongs as much to the possibilities as the hypothesis you propose yourself, with the one difference that the key manuscript happens to be lost.

    I wonder what the odds were for early medieval manyscripts to survive until the 20th century. Which percentage of manuscripts that once existed have we left?
    Probably impossible to know.

    About testing the hypothesis, I meant the crowned nymph crib.

  15. If the crowned ‘nymph’ is meant for St.Margaret of Antioch, it is either entirely unprecedented as a way of representing any saint of the Christian calendar or it stands as the sole example of a tradition otherwise undocumented.

    Unless anyone else has encountered such a custom in Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, Latin, Syrian or other Christian iconographic tradition.
    And if this ‘nymph’ is supposed to be Margaret of Antioch then why can’t the old idea of the ‘nymph’ below the fringe of that cover on f.78v be taken as proof positive of Christian iconography in the Vms?

    I don’t believe either figure – or any similar figure in the Vms meant for a Christian saint – it flouts everything I know of Christian iconographic traditions.. full stop.

    That doesn’t mean the figure mightn’t mark a day that, in one or other of the various Christian liturgical rosters, was associated with a female saint, but as presented I cannot see that you have established your initial assumptions very solidly in historical terms or in terms of iconographic conventions, Nick.
    Why a ‘nymph’? Why not a basic, ordinary sort of ‘Margaret of Antioch’ image? Why mystify something so very ordinary as the calendar and/or liturgical roster?

    We have plenty of examples, I believe, of mss that are only partly enciphered, – so again – why do you think anyone would bother rendering a common or garden calendar in such a way?

  16. Diane: you’re asking questions I’m not trying to answer (iconographic questions and ‘why’ questions), because I’m coming at the problem from an entirely different angle.

  17. It is easy to overlook what was going on when the VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT was written. Roman Catholicism had failed it was the time of the Babylonian Captivity and Great Western Schism. Need you be reminded of the Black Death ? It is a miracle the book survived.

  18. Nick,
    Thank you.

    Koen, the scenario you describe agrees with the history of a number of ancient and classical texts and so in general is not unreasonable but question-marks remain – such as why the Vms imagery – was not translated into Latin or Byzantine style. 1291 is perfectly legible in those terms, though when carefully considered reveals so little in common with the Vms that it comes down to the Byzantine model’s having tried to incorporate the ‘hours’ by rendering them as 12 holy virgins. That the style in which the ‘virgins’ are drawn is reminiscent – vaguely – of the Voynich nymphs is due more to mutual connection to the pre-Christian culture of the eastern Mediterranean. The connection does not appear to be particularly close to me, and the many, marked, points of difference would seem to deny arguments for direct descent.

  19. Diane: “direct descent” is one of the many Voynich chimeras that make fools of all researchers – anyone arguing that the manuscript directly inherited from Classical traditions either has to form a diffuse, indirect argument (as you do) or must place their faith in silent transmission across many centuries (as novelists tend to do).

    For me, I’m more persuaded by the Art History that we’re looking at a mid-Quattrocento document influenced (in a modest way) by some newly-found Classical trope (this was the Renaissance, after all), and Vat Gr 1291 would fit that bill admirably.

    But I only suspect that, I don’t know it.

  20. Nick – let’s just say you don’t know it *yet*. You might yet find time to investigate the question – let’s stay optimistic.

    I am much intrigued by your reference to ‘the Art History’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘art history’ used with the definite article before. Is it the title of some book, or are you imagining there exists a published, definitive study of the imagery in Beinecke MS 408, beyond which no further opinions are possible or permitted? What is “The Art History” and where can I read it?

  21. Diane: I investigated this from 2002 to 2006, but ran out of time and money to pursue it further. 🙁

    I’m sorry to hear that you have nothing better to do with your time than try to rattle my cage over differences of opinion over phrasing.

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