For a decade, I’ve wondered whether any of the Voynich Manuscript’s circular drawings depict astronomical instruments – for before satnav there was celnav (“celestial navigation”). Here’s a brief guide to three key instrument types from the VMs’ timeframe, and my current thoughts on the enigmatic circular diagram on f57v…

* * * * * * *

A key navigational problem of the 15th century was determining your latitude. Though many different instruments (such as the quadrant, the cross staff, and the back staff) came to be used to do this around this time, I’m restricting my observations here to the three purely circular ones – the astrolabe, the mariner’s astrolabe, and the nocturnal.

(1) Though astrolabes were originally used for determining the positions of planets and stars, people realised that they could also be used for telling the time (if you knew your latitude), or for working out your latitude (if you knew what time of day it was). Astrolabes were constructed from a complex (but well-known and well-documented) set of multilayered rotating components:-

  • A backplate (the mater) whose edge (the limb) is marked round with 24 hours or 360 degrees
  • A large circular central recess (the matrix, or womb) in the mater, into which you insert…
  • A disk (the tympan) containing a stereographically projected map of the sky for a particular latitude
  • On top of the tympan goes a rotating spidery net-like thing (the rete) containing easily recognizable stars;
  • On top of the rete goes a long rotating rule (the rule)
  • On the back goes a second rotating rule-like thing with two sighting holes / marks (the alidade)

If you haven’t seen an astrolabe dissected, there’s a nice annotated diagram on the Whipple Museum website.

My understanding is that most medieval European astrolabes were inaccurate because they were made of wood, though this improved when they started to be made of metal (an innovation which I understand mainly began in the 15th century). Yet even with well made astrolabes to hand, using them can be a bit tricky, particularly when you are at sea: and they’re not very convenient to use at night either.

(2) So, step forward the mariner’s astrolabe (or sea astrolabe or ring). Though this was little more than a cut-down version of the astrolabe, its key design feature was that it was built to be particularly heavy (and so was much more stable at sea). In contrast to the thousands of astrolabes out there, only 21 mariner’s astrolabes are known: the earliest description of one is from 1551, while historians suspect they came into use in the late 15th century.

Really, this was little more than a superheavy astrolabe limb hanging from a ring and with an alidade on the front: but it did the job, so all credit to its inventor… whoever that may be. The Wikipedia mariner’s astrolabe page notes that it might possibly have been Martin Behaim (1459-1507), but because it seems he was adept at relabeling other people’s discoveries and inventions as his own, probably the most we can pragmatically say is that the idea for the mariner’s astrolabe was ‘in the air’ in the mid-to-late 15th century.

(3) Solving the astrolabe’s other major shortcoming, the nocturnal (or nocturlabe, nocturlabium, or horologium noctis) was specifically designed to be used at night. A 2003 paper notes that the first evidence of nocturlabes was not a textual mention in 1524 (as was long thought), but rather a series of actual devices made by Falcono of Bergamo and dating from 1504 to 1507 (who also made astrolabes, such as this one from the British Museum). For a nice picture, the National Maritime Museum has a 17th century nocturnal here (D9091).

As far as construction goes, a nocturnal consisted of: a rotating outer ring marked both with the months of the year and with the 24-hour time; a hole in the middle of the central pivot that you could see through; and a second rotating ring with one, two, or three pointers. Once you had rotated the outer ring to closely match that day’s date, you would hold your nocturnal at arm’s length, line Polaris up through the central hole, and then align the second rotating ring so that its pointers pointed at some well-known stars (normally Shedar [α Cassiopeia], Dubhe [α Ursa Major], and Kochab [ß Ursa Minor]): there’s some nice discussion here on why these were chosen.) Once you had done all that, you would find (as if by high-tech magic) that the major pointer on the second ring would be pointing to the current time of day marked on the first ring. (Well… pretty much, anyway.)

Here’s a simplified look at the night sky, highlighting the four key stars referred to on a typical nocturnal:-

Incidentally, an open history of science question is whether Columbus had a nocturnal on his well-equipped voyages of discovery. This well-informed page seems to imply that he did, and that it was used to determine midnight – the ship’s boy would then turn over an “ampoleta” (a little sand-glass that would take half-an-hour to empty) to start counting out the daily cycle of shifts. Unfortunately, it turns out that Columbus didn’t properly understand how to use his various astronomical instruments, and that he faked a number of his latitude records. Oh well!

To summarize: though the astrolabe had been used and developed since antiquity, there was little about it that was secret circa 1450. However, this was the moment in history when people were starting to apply their formidably Burckhardtian Renaissance ingenuity to get around the limitations of the traditional astrolabe, by adapting the basic design for use at sea and at night. Yet for both the mariner’s astrolabe and the nocturnal, the documentary evidence is silent on who made them first.

* * * * * * *

What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript?

I have been trying to get under the skin of the ringed diagram on f57v for many years: even by the VMs’ consistently high level of (well) anomalousness, this page has numerous anomalies on display that seem to promise a way in for the determined Voynich researcher:-

  • Its drawings most closely matches the circular astronomical drawings in Q9 (‘Quire #9‘), yet its bifolio is bound in the middle of the herbal Q8
  • It has a curious piece of marginalia at the bottom right
  • There’s a spare ‘overflow’ word at the top left [marked green below]
  • The second ring comprises essentially the same 17-character sequence repeated four times
  • Each 17-character sequence contains an over-ornate anomalous “gallows” character [marked red below]
  • The 17-character sequence contains a number of low-instance-count letter-shapes
  • The fourth ring contains another long sequence of single characters [marked blue below]
  • It has four strange ‘personifications’ drawn around its centre (seasons? winds? directional spirits?)
  • It is far from clear what the four personifications are depicting, let alone representing
  • Finally, it has a ‘sol’-like dotted sun at the centre

I therefore think that any proper account of f57v should therefore not only offer a high-level explanation of its intent and content, but also a low-level explanation of these anomalous features. The problem is that any reasoning chain to cover this much ground will almost inevitably require a mix of codicology, palaeography, history, astronomy, and historical cryptography… so bear with me while I build this up one step at a time.

First up is codicology: Glen Claston and I agree that f57v was probably the very first page of the astronomical section Q9 – by this, we mean that the two bifolios currently forming Q8 have ended up bound upside-down. So, even though the current folio order is f57-f58-(missing pages)-f65-f66, the original folio order ran f65-f66-(missing)-f57-f58. The page immediately preceding f57v (i.e. f57r) has a herbal picture on it, which is why Glen and I are pretty sure that f57v formed the first page of the astronomical section: while both sides of f58 have starred paragraphs (and no herbal drawings), which also makes it seem misplaced in the herbal section.

A second clue that this is the case is the marginalia mark at the bottom: I think this is a scrawly “ij” with a bar above it (i.e. secundum), indicating the start of Book II (i.e. where Book I would have been the herbal) – this probably isn’t a quire mark because it doesn’t appear on the end folio of a quire. And a third clue is that the page we believe originally facing f57v (i.e. f58r) has an inserted blank block at the start of the first paragraph, which I suspect is a lacuna [highlighted blue below] deliberately left empty to remind the encipherer that the unenciphered version of this page began with an ornamented capital.

As for the odd word at the top left, the odds are that this is no more than an overflow from the outermost text ring: a similar overflow word appears in one of the necromantic magic circles famously described by Richard Kieckhefer as I described in “The Curse” (though of course this doesn’t prove that this page depicts a magic circle).

I think codicology can also help us to understand the mysterious 17-glyph repeating sequence, a pattern that has inspired many a high-concept numerological riff over the years: for if you look carefully at the four over-ornate gallows, you might notice something a bit unexpected…

Even though I’d prefer to be making this judgment on the basis of better scans (which seem unlikely to be arriving any time soon, unfortunately), I’m pretty sure that what we’re seeing here is a pair of characters which have been joined together to resemble a non-existent gallows. I’d even go so far as to say that I think that the decision to make this change was probably made while the author was still writing the page: from which I infer that 18 x 4 would have been too obvious, but 17 x 4 was obscure.

If you accept that this is right, then this changes the number patterns completely, because whereas 4 x 17 = 68 doesn’t really have much numerical (as opposed to numerological) significance, 4 x 18 = 72 does – for you see, 72 x 5° = 360°. And if we are looking at some kind of 360° division of the circle, then all of a sudden this page becomes a strong candidate for being some kind of enciphered or steganographically concealed astronomical instrument, because division into 360° has been a conceptual cornerstone of Western astronomical computing for millennia.

For several years, I therefore wondered if f57v might be depicting an astrolabe: but I have to say that the comparison never really gained any traction, however hard I tried. However… the question now comes round as to whether f57v’s circular drawing might instead depict a mariner’s astrolabe or a nocturnal.

That this might be a mariner’s astrolabe is perfectly plausible. The ‘overflow word’ might denote a ring, the second 360° ring could be the scale round the edge, and the four people in the middle could simply be decorative “fillers” for the four holes normally placed in the middle.

Comparing f57v with a nocturnal, however, is particularly interesting. The obvious thing to hide in the central design would be depictions or denotations of the constellations and the sighting stars so crucial to the operations. Given that there are plenty of different strength lines and curious shapes in the four characters to be found there, let’s take a closer look…

Now, the four elements we’d expect to see in a description of a nocturnal are Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Ursa, Minor and Polaris: and I suspect that this is what we have here. Look again at the woman’s face on the left, and I wonder whether her name has been quite literally written across her face:-

As for the top and bottom characters here on this page, they have long puzzled Voynich researchers – why are they so wildly hairy and apparently facing away? What kind of a person is being shown here? Perhaps the answer is simply that these represent not people but bears, specifically the Great Bear (Ursa Major) at the top and the Smaller Bear (Ursa Minor) at the bottom.

The final character of the four would represent Polaris (short for stella polaris), which in the 16th Century (?) came to be called ‘Cynosura’ (the Greek mountain nymph who nursed Zeus in Crete). I have to say that I don’t really know what is going on here – perhaps other people better versed in astronomical history or mythology might be able to tell me why this person should be carrying a ring or an egg (?), and what the character’s curious strong lines (nose and top of upper arm) might be denoting.

Yet perhaps the biggest clincher of all, though, is the ‘sol’-like shape right at the centre of f57v. We might be able to discount the possibility that this represents the astrologers’ glyph for the sun, because this only came into use around 1480 (as I recall). For in the context of a drawing of a circular astronomical instrument, is this not – almost unmistakeably – a depiction of Polaris (the dot) as viewed through a hole in the pivot (the circle)?

As always, the evidence is far from complete so you’ll have to make up your own mind on this. But it’s an interesting chain of reasoning, hmmm?

Spookily, the kind of analogue computing embedded in nocturnals has a thoroughly modern equivalent. Polaris does not sit precisely on the Earth’s pole but rather rotates around it very slightly, and so requires a correction in order to be used as a reference for true North (on a ship, say). Hence a spreadsheet can be constructed to make this fine adjustment – essentially, this is a nocturnal simplified and adapted to yield the north correction required. Some good ideas can remain useful for hundreds of years!

[Here’s a guest posting from my friend, the well-known Voynich contrarian Glen Claston. Though he originally intended it as a comment to my recent post on Voynich Manuscript Quire 8 [Q8], it actually deserved a whole post to itself. I’ve lightly edited it to house style, and added a couple of pictures.]

Nick asked me to look at the blog, and though I don’t plan to be a regular poster, he’s going on about things that matter a great deal, so we need to examine them very carefully.

The [“ij”] mark at the bottom of f57v is in line with two other erased marks on folios, as well as erased symbols in Q1 and Q2 that Nick and I discussed some time ago. The original author apparently used a symbol system instead of a standard system, and much of his work has been removed. Quirization and foliation are not the work of the original author. I plan to publish this in a book entitled “The Curse of the Curse of the Voynich”. 🙂

Voynich Manuscript f42r folio number

Rene Zandbergen also brings up an interesting observation about f42r, that the crystals appear to be on top of the foliation. Yes, I’m certain that is the case, but I don’t reach the same conclusion that Rene does in this regard. In the image above, the foliation clearly overlaps the drawing lines and the color pigment, but at the same time, this entire region is a section exposed to water damage, which might explain Rene’s observation of the crystals overlapping the burned-in ink. IF the pigment includes mineral salts as many commonly do, this would explain Rene’s observations, as they would have re-crystalized over the existing material. It would require a rather closer inspection to see if this is the case.

If Rene’s observation holds, there is indeed something seriously wrong with the Voynich, since foliation before coloration has a very dramatic implication on known VMs construction, and I for one would have to throw out years of research and start anew, as would many. I recall that I had issues with Rene before on “retouching” because these darker patches fell into areas that were also affected by moisture. As it happens, I do apologize much belatedly to Rene for suggesting that just because some of these didn’t match, his identification of retouching in the astrological section was wrong, when it proved to be spot-on. It was my fault for generalizing, and to say that we all make mistakes is not a good enough excuse, I owe it to myself and to the VMs to be as precise as possible.

[Nick: as far as the paints go, I think the consensus now is more that different paints were added at different times, though I suspect the “light painter” / “heavy painter” binary division may well prove to be far too simplistic – because of the large number of paints present, I can quite conceive that these might have been added by four or five later “heavy painters”.]

As far as the rosettes section [Q14] goes, Nick is suggesting here that Q14 belongs to Q8, and though I wouldn’t exactly state that in the way Nick has suggested, I entirely agree. The rosettes is a part of the astronomical discussion, so it’s not in its right place. A large folio can get ripped out rather easily, and be placed back in the book in random order. It’s an hypothesis, but is it testable?

It turns out that the rosettes contains a record that helps us place some items in order. There are tears in the unused fold of the rosettes, damage beyond what normal foldouts have seen, and these tears hold information. The quire mark only works if the rosettes was bound in this torn seam, and the foliation only works if the binding of this foldout is in its current place. That says that the maker of the quire marks was not the maker of the original foliation, that the foliation was a product of at least one successive binding. There are two distinguishable hands in the foliation, two successive bindings after the quire mark binder. Two inks that I can identify in the foliation bindings, and places where quire marks were added that weren’t there originally.


[Nick: GC is proposing that the nine rosettes fold-out f86 was originally attached to the rest of the manuscript along the (now badly damaged) crease highlighted green (above), rather than along the crease highlighted blue. The shape of the whole codex is highlighted in red.]

It’s a complicated picture that needs a degree of clarification, but there is no way around the idea that the manuscript went through at least three bindings. The big question is – does any of these bindings reflect the original order of construction? The answer is a resounding NO.

Again I go to the rosettes for history, and I need only look on the back of the rosettes to see that the discussion includes the four seasons and the four winds. All my research into parallel texts says that this is the meterological part of the astronomical discussion, and belongs firmly in the astronomical section. This also says that the rosettes on the reverse is a meteorological mappa mundi, and read in that venue of comprehension it’s imagery becomes meaningful and schematic to other VMs imagery. It helps that one page in the first astronomical section [in Quire 8] exhibits similar damage to that of the original rosettes page, and Nick is right that the pages in this section appear to be inverted.

I’ve been through the whole range of arguments over the years, and I weary of argument that doesn’t move me forward, but this is a discussion that needs to be moved forward on several fronts, and I will follow this discussion with interest.

What I am seeing is that the quire numbers were placed on probably the first binding, but I’ve always been of the opinion that the manuscript existed unbound during much of the author’s life. I now have much more information to back up that idea, and as you know, I was once of the opinion that it was the author that first quirized, which is something I can now disprove in abundance. Order changes and shuffling I can’t comment on, but there is evidence that the author himself made some major changes, and these changes were substantially reflected on the first binding but the manuscript was not in a permanently bound condition when the author left off/died.

Rene for one would understand that in making these decisions, I’m weighing intelligent choice against mishap, and using a set of parallel texts on these subjects to determine which is which. One doesn’t even require these options in viewing the interlacing of herbal-a and herbal-b herbals. One does however, need to know why the herbal-a herbal pages were separated from the herbal-a pharmaceuticals and additional information stuffed in between, much of this in a different script. Herbal-a herbals are congruent with herbal-a herbals in the pharmaceutical section, the latter sometimes drawn on the same bifolio/foldouts as the pharmaceuticals, and as Nick and I discussed recently, there is physical contact information that ties them together in a time-line of construction. These are connected in multiple ways to the same time line, and the intervening information is connected to a separate time line, and the construction is a progressive construction, so could this have been the act of binder and not the author? Could this intelligent construction occur passively, and not actively? There’s an argument in there somewhere.

Grant for a moment that I don’t think the book was bound during the author’s life, and I am certain it was not bound before the drawings/text/ paints were added (it’s damned hard to draw, paint, and write all the way into bound gutters on so many pages – common sense observation, eh?). What’s just as important is when quire marks ceased and foliation began. Dee used bifolio quire markings in his book of 1562, and though page numbering was becoming popular in printed documents by this time, Dee chose not to use it, choosing a manuscript format instead. It’s a generational thing, and I feel that the foliation is at least 17th century. The quirization has a problem with dating as Rene pointed out, that it could be someone older that didn’t use the modern format, or it could have been someone before the modern format became prominent. The rosettes’ gutter damage however, says that there was a good deal of time between the quire marks and the foliation, because they couldn’t possibly have happened at the same time, and the quire marks are apparently a good deal older than the foliation.

Make of this all what you will! — Glen Claston

I’m just collecting my thoughts after an exhilarating lecture by William Kiesel (the publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press) on magic circles at Treadwell’s in Covent Garden (Christina’s post-lecture blog entry is here). William presented a long series of images of magic circles (manuscripts diagrams, woodcuts, paintings, etc) from the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century, including many of John Dee’s strange diagrams.

Voynich Manuscript, page f57v (the ‘magic circle’ page)

The reason I’ve been trying to find out about magic circles for years is because, as you can see above, page f57v in the Voynich Manuscript apparently contains one. Or (more precisely), whatever f57v actually contains, it seems on the surface to follow the constructional rules and layout of genuine magic circles. However, this is hard to research because the topic of magic circles has attracted relatively little academic interest over the years, Richard Kieckhefer’s (1997) Forbidden Rites (an in-depth study of a 15th century necromancer’s manual) being one of the few honourable exceptions. Which is why I was so excited about the lecture.

Having said that, there are many things about f57v that cast doubts on its ‘magic circle-itude’. For example, I could find no other magic circle with the directional spirits given faces rather than simply named: depictions in every other magic circle I had seen were instead abstract diagrammatic renderings (swords, pentacles, rings, sigils, etc), and names of the directions (to help orient the circle, the first thing any proper necromancer would want to do). But even more brutally: when magic circles are all about the power of names, why ever would someone want to replace them with images?

And so… after the lecture, I asked William for his thoughts on f57v (which, delightfully, he had looked at before). As far as the directional faces go, he agreed that this was pretty much a unique feature: though a tiny number of magic circles he had seen do have sigils shaped to broadly resemble faces, that would seem to be a completely different strand of development to that which we see in the VMs. Overall, even though he did note that it was intriguing that the postures of the four “people” on f57v were all different, the main impression the page left him with was that each of the four faces faced in a different direction (though he didn’t know what that meant).

On the train home, I sat there wondering what this might have caused this, letting all the various aspects swirl around me (though, no, I didn’t have any of Treadwell’s wine that night). And then all the bits clunked into place, with that sound very familiar to any Simpsons fan: “d’oh!

I should explain. Perhaps the biggest trap Voynichologists fall into is that of overthinking issues: when many complex explanations for a given phenomenon exist, sometimes simple ones gets overlooked, or (worse) rejected for appearing too simple. And the simplest explanation here is that, because almost every magic circle has the directions of the compass written on it, that would be both the first thing you would want to keep and the first thing you would want to hide. And so it seems highly likely to me that the four faces on f57v code for N/E/S/W. In short, I think that (like the VMs’ “Naked Lady Code” I described in my book) the four faces employ a misleadingly elaborate way of enciphering something very simple – the compass directions. But which is which – and how – and why?

  • The left figure is facing forward-left
  • The top figure is facing backward-right
  • The right figure is facing forward-right (and holding a ring / egg)
  • The bottom figure is facing backward-left

But how do these four map onto N/S/E/W? The first thing to notice is that magic circles are very often written in Latin, with the four points written Oriens [E], Meridies [S], Occidens [W], Septentrio [N]: and so an encipherer would only need to hide one in order to hide them all.

While I don’t know for sure… I do predict that the nose and eyebrow of the left figure’s face was elaborated around an “S” to denote “Septentrio” [i.e. North]: and that the only useful information is that a ring (as rings are far more common than eggs in magic circles, The Black Pullet notwithstanding) should be placed opposite it [i.e. South]. The flower-like shape at the centre is probably an elaborated shape around the central o-shapes, which probably denote locus magistri, the place where the exorcist / conjuror / master of the magic circle should stand. Finally: might the heavily-drawn straight line on the shoulder of the ring-carrying person denote a sword? Very possibly.


Voynich Manuscript, page f57v – four central figures

This doesn’t answer every question about f57v (how could it?): but it does give a good snapshot of my current thoughts on how (beneath all the deception) it is actually a magic circle (though perhaps not as complex a magic circle as you might initially think).

Part 2 will move on to the VMs’ other magic circles…