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!

For the recent Hungarian Voynich summer camp, I offered to do a couple of IM sessions over Skype, both of which seemed to go down very well. I thought many Cipher Mysteries readers might enjoy going over the transcript, so here it is (lightly edited for house style, as usual, and with after-the-event section dividers to make it not quite so unwieldy). I’ll be posting the Sagittarius spreadsheet mentioned here to the the blog very shortly, have no fear! 🙂

Note: Skype IM session on 27/08/2009
vc = “voynich camp”
NP = “Nick Pelling”

o. Introduction

[19:01:42] vc: Thank you very much for the possibility.
[19:01:57] NP: No problem – may I ask who is there this evening?
[19:02:41] vc: We are currently five pople but we are six and tomorrow we will be seven.
[19:02:50] NP: five is fine 🙂
[19:03:11] NP: Do you have names, or are you Devo?
[19:03:19] vc: Two linguists, and 3 geekz.
[19:03:46] NP: I’m not sure who would win the fight. Best to work together.
[19:03:57] vc: Zsolt, Ancsi, Norbi, Miklos, Anna, Andris.
[19:04:13] NP: OK, got it. Where shall I begin?

1. Page Reference Discussion

[19:04:49] vc: can you speak about your own theory about the seem to be page links?
[19:05:29] NP: OK – the apparent page references
[19:08:00] NP: Large medieval documents were bound into quires, and the quires were numbered
[19:08:16] NP: But for centuries, people used letters rather than numbers
[19:08:21] NP: a b c d e etc
[19:08:46] NP: folio numbers were then given in roman numerals for that quire
[19:08:50] NP: i ii iii iv v etc
[19:09:11] NP: The side of the page was also given, with r for recto, v for verso
[19:09:57] NP: So, for centuries people referred to page numbers pimarily in tiny little letter patterns of the form: air, aiv, aiir, aiiv, aiiir, aiiiv
[19:10:38] NP: Few people nowadays (apart from codicologists) bear this in mind, but this was the primary way in which books were structured circa 1400
[19:11:22] NP: So, if we were to look at the VMs through the eyes of someone living 500 years ago, the aiiv / aiir patterns would immediately jump out a t them as being page references.
[19:12:05] NP: Specifically, page references to the first bound quire of a book (for there is no bir biv biir biiv pattern in the VMs)
[19:12:30] NP: So, you might say, what if these are indeed page references to the first quire?
[19:13:09] NP: Well… if they are page references, they’re quite strange ones: references to recto (r) pages would then be vastly outnumbered by references to verso (v) pages
[19:13:51] NP: Ultimately, it comes down to a paradox of vision – we’re presented with something that *looks* like page numbers, but which does not have the statistical profile of page numbers. How can that be?
[19:14:26] vc: We are listening, go on
[19:14:36] NP: Once you start saying “well, these are only designed to resemble page numbers”, then you’re into the realms of cryptography and steganography
[19:15:36] NP: I think that the presence of these non-page-number page numbers is a persuasive reason to look for cryptographic solutions in preference to linguistic solutions
[19:15:43] NP: But then…
[19:16:13] NP: You have to ask the question, what are these non-page-number page numbers actually doing? What is their function?
[19:16:43] NP: When I went to the Beinecke in May 2006, I spent an hour looking at a single page of the VMs trying to work it out.
[19:16:58] NP: f38v
[19:17:32] NP: I had borrowed a magnifying glass from the front desk and went over every aiiv-style pattern on the page, over and over again, looking for a clue
[19:17:46] NP: And then I noticed it, one tiny piece at a time
[19:18:15] NP: And in the two years since, I’ve fleshed it out into a complete story of how they came about, and why they have the shape they do.
[19:19:20] NP: In the first phase, the author wrote a simple “v” shape and added a carefully placed dot above the row of i’s. This indicated one of the Arabic numerals 1-9 (I think)
[19:19:55] NP: However, after that early Herbal A phase, the author revisited it and thought it was too obvious, and so added scribal flourishes.
[19:20:20] NP: These loops start from the dot, go up and around, and rejoin the unflourished “v” shape at the top right
[19:20:54] NP: In the Currier B phase, the author used a completely different way of enciphering numbers (but using the same aiiiv family pattern)
[19:21:13] vc: Yes, we can see it in Psp
[19:21:26] NP: So, you can see the layers of development of the cipher over time. Voynichese wasn’t a static system, it was an evolving system
[19:22:13] NP: The problem with using statistical tools on Voynichese is that the system moves over time, which is why it is important to apply tests to each phase in turn
[19:22:21] vc: That’s why you are so eager about to reconstruct the original binding order…….
[19:22:32] NP: That’s one of the reasons, yes
[19:23:02] NP: Mainly it comes back to the evolution of the cipher, though. By tracking the evolution, we can perhaps find a way into it
[19:23:08] vc: because the question arises – why one can observe this on 38 v first?
[19:23:37] NP: I chose the page because it was clearly written and had plenty of aiiv patterns on to work with.
[19:23:54] NP: Some herbal pages are clear but don’t have much text
[19:24:50] NP: I suppose one of the cutting edge research things I’d like you all to come away with from this is the idea that the Voynich grew and developed
[19:25:13] vc: Is it observable on other pages? for example, on a page written by another Currier hand?
[19:25:14] NP: It was not a “fait accompli”, a huge static thing.
[19:25:24] NP: Only on Currier A pages
[19:25:31] NP: Hand 1 pages
[19:25:40] vc: Hmmm…
[19:25:58] NP: On Hand 2 pages, the “v” flourish is written in one go, but takes a number of shapes
[19:26:11] NP: I think that the Arabic numeral is enciphered using those shapes
[19:26:17] NP: Look for yourself
[19:26:41] NP: I should say: “the v and the scribal flourish are written together in one go”

2. The vertical column on f49v

[19:27:15] vc: Speakin’ bout arabic numerals, have you checked with your own eyes on the real thing F49v?
[19:27:20] NP: yes
[19:27:27] NP: not original
[19:27:31] vc: There are arabic numbers on the left margin.
[19:27:40] NP: Yes, 16th century Arabic numerals
[19:27:52] NP: Yet the quire numbers have 15th century Arabic numerals
[19:28:09] vc: It seems on the reproductions that they are about the same color and style as the Voynichese letters nearby
[19:28:10] NP: Doesn’t add up, unless the f49v letters were added later
[19:28:19] NP: They’re pretty close, but they’re not the same
[19:28:28] vc: 🙁
[19:28:44] NP: It fooled Brumbaugh – he erected a huge theory on that alone
[19:28:54] vc: Next Q from us:
[19:29:22] vc: Then how would you interpret these single character lists on the left of some pages?
[19:29:56] NP: (1) Page titles
[19:30:00] NP: (2) cipher keys
[19:30:02] NP: (3) both
[19:30:05] NP: (4) neither
[19:30:07] NP: 🙂
[19:30:10] vc: XD
[19:30:46] vc: …So you were able to turn the original pages with your bare hands?
[19:30:49] NP: Oh yes
[19:30:52] vc: Jeez…
[19:31:00] NP: They were clean
[19:31:01] NP: 🙂
[19:31:20] NP: Seriously, the Beinecke loves people to look at its books
[19:31:36] NP: But they do insist you take your tinfoil hat off at the door
[19:32:26] NP: Actually, I looked at the VMs for three whole days, which was extremely generous of them, and that was much appreciated

3. Steganography or cryptography?

[19:32:20] vc: Right. So: (we haven’t read your book…yet) Steganography or cryptography?
[19:32:30] NP: Both
[19:32:55] NP: It is a cipher that has been disguised as a language
[19:34:05] NP: One of the back-end ciphers (the verbose ciphers I blogged about earlier today) turns a dense, information-rich series of tokens and turns it into an information-sparse language-like entity
[19:34:21] NP: XYZ –> BABEBI
[19:34:33] NP: is a trivial example
[19:34:57] NP: where X –> BA, Y –> BE, Z –> BI
[19:35:38] vc: Right -we have just thinking about the same conception.
[19:35:44] NP: This gives the apparent CVCVCV behaviour that makes the VMs seem so language-like
[19:35:56] vc: Just to reveal some of our works —
[19:36:03] NP: ok…
[19:36:14] NP:
[19:37:36] NP: And here’s a test I did in 2003, so I’m pretty consistent:
[19:37:45] vc: We will definitely read your article later…
[19:38:41] NP: And here’s the article I couldn’t find earlier:
[19:41:27] vc: Ok, we have just made a quick look on them for some of us have’nt seen these before.
[19:41:49] NP: There’s lots of good stuff on my blog. Lots!
[19:42:06] vc: The author knows 🙂
[19:42:25] NP: I wouldn’t post it if it wasn’t good. 😉
[19:42:42] NP: You should see the stuff I don’t post! ;-o
[19:42:57] vc: We downloaded your whole blog and copied it to identical CD’s

4. Occitan sources?

[19:43:17] vc: Ok. Next q:
[19:43:36] vc: About the Occitan language.
[19:44:06] vc: Where does the info on the month names come from?
[19:44:30] NP: Jorge Stolfi asked a load of Occitan researchers back in 1997
[19:44:46] NP: There’s a page on it, it’s certainly in the 1997 vms-list archive
[19:45:29] NP: Here’s this week’s post on it:
[19:45:36] vc: hmm…
[19:45:53] NP: Basically, the closest match was with Toulon Occitan
[19:46:05] NP: But with a bit of German thrown in (for “augst”)
[19:46:26] vc: (also: “may”)
[19:46:36] NP: But is it maij or may?
[19:47:41] NP: However, it’s very likely that the Toulon Occitan was merely one person (Jaume Deydier) so it’s a bit of a small sample to be doing inferences from
[19:48:17] NP: Unless anyone knows better, there aren’t that many written examples of pre-1600 Occitan to be found anywhere
[19:48:34] NP: And spelling was a bit of a fluid thing back then, too
[19:48:58] vc: yes, our lingusist here told us 🙂
[19:49:03] NP: I’ve just read a book on artisan autobiographies, and many artisans deliberately spelt things how they sounded
[19:49:22] NP: a kind of anti-academic independent spirit

5. Voynich Marginalia questions

[19:50:27] vc: Do you think that the marginalia and other features written with latin alphabet originate from more than one person?
[19:50:40] NP: Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you might think
[19:50:51] vc: ?
[19:51:03] NP: The problem with the marginalia is that they have Voynichese embedded in them
[19:51:18] vc: This is not a problem. 🙂
[19:51:36] NP: Well.. you’ll see why it might be…
[19:51:48] NP: If you look at f17r under an ultraviolet black lamp, there’s a piece of Voynichese tacked on the end
[19:52:04] NP: it reads: oteeeolair
[19:52:28] NP: Rene Zandbergen independently observed it earlier this year, so I didn’t just imagine it
[19:52:30] NP: 🙂
[19:52:48] vc: Do one usually have a portable ultraviolet black lamp when you go to the Beinecke? 🙂
[19:53:00] NP: Luckily they have one behind the desk you can borrow
[19:53:06] NP: I left mine in the car
[19:53:07] NP: 🙂
[19:53:36] NP: Similarly, there’s Voynichese embedded in the f116v marginalia
[19:53:48] vc: But that can be seen.
[19:54:02] vc: It would be really nice if they could be used as cribs
[19:54:23] NP: That’s what Newbold thought…
[19:54:37] NP: But why can’t we read the marginalia on f116v?
[19:54:47] vc: Yes… Why?
[19:55:10] NP: I think the answer is that successive owners have emended (altered incorrectly) the text, trying to rescue fading words
[19:55:52] NP: And so f17r, f66r, and f116v have all been rescued but worsened
[19:56:44] NP: Unfortunately, the Beinecke’s scans aren’t good enough for us to be able to do forensic uber-restoration on these
[19:56:56] NP: I’ve tried, though, believe me I’ve tried
[19:57:25] vc: We have consulted with a hungarian medieval scholer who suggested that text on the 116v is actually a prayer or something like that in the realm of magic
[19:57:31] vc: a rune
[19:57:38] NP: Well, a prayer is close
[19:57:46] NP: ahia maria
[19:57:51] NP: + + +
[19:57:57] vc: the characters like + as separators justifiy this theory.
[19:58:00] NP: yes
[19:58:35] NP: However, if you look at the “rescued” letters at the beginning of the same line, you can see the contrast with the faded “ahia maria” letters
[19:58:57] vc: He said that this is usual at medieval spells. At these places one might draw a cross in the air. how is it said in english?
[19:59:20] NP: the same, probably “trace a cross shape in the air”
[19:59:33] NP: “trace out a cross shape in the air” probably better
[19:59:49] vc: As Catholics still do
[20:00:16] NP: It could be a prayer, or a curse, or a spell (protection?) or anything
[20:00:52] NP: Remember that the boundaires between magic and liturgy in the 15th century was painfully thin – both were usually carried out by broadly the same people.
[20:01:17] NP: See Richard Kieckhefer’s book “Forbidden Rites”, recommended
[20:01:19] vc: (What is lighter than a witch? A stone perhaps? Or a duck?)
[20:02:00] NP: I’m getting that sinking feeling
[20:02:47] NP: necromancy, charm, spell, prayer – pretty fluid lines between them all
[20:02:58] vc: Whatever the main language of the spell, the last words seem to be in german. What is your opinion about this?
[20:03:31] NP: I think that this was probably added by the first obsessive Voynichologist (who just happened to be German)
[20:03:34] vc: (The duck comes from Monthy Python and the holy Grail…)
[20:03:39] NP: Georg Baresch
[20:03:44] NP: 🙂
[20:04:17] NP: I think it was probably Baresch who is responsible for most of the attempted rescuing of the marginalia
[20:04:32] vc: So you are saying that this last page is from at least 2 or 3 hands?
[20:04:39] NP: But it was Baresch who ensured that it got passed down to us, so we should be grateful to him
[20:05:03] NP: Yes, but on top of each other rather than side by side
[20:05:20] NP: Blow the page up and look again at the varying density of the ink and quills
[20:05:33] vc: We will certainly do that.
[20:06:34] NP: Also, put the various marginalia side by side to scale (all blown up), it’s an interesting viewpoint
[20:06:53] NP: Print them out at A1 scale – huge!

6. About the Hungarians…

[20:06:59] vc: We still have a lot of questions… do you still have some time?
[20:07:14] NP: I have about half an hour now
[20:07:50] vc: Great.
[20:07:51] NP: but I’d like to rest my fingers for five minutes – so, please, tell me what you each think of the VMs (one sentence each, please!)
[20:09:22] vc: (Miklos): Hi. I personally think that this is a kind of constructed language or maybe a written glossolalia.
[20:10:04] NP: it’s still 100x more rational than believing the moon landings were faked 🙂
[20:10:26] NP: even if it is wrong. 🙂
[20:12:57] vc: We are by the way started our searches on a few different pathes. One group is investigating the mythological context of the drawings with girls (if there’s any). The geekz are rather trying to draw some consequences using the digram and trigram entropies, and comparing our results with various 17th century documents, on different languages (and even as exotiic stuffs as Tamil and Hebrew)
[20:13:29] vc: On the other hand
[20:14:23] vc: we’d like to produce some “grammar” here, as well, so, we decided (similarly as Stolfi did it once) to look at the distributions of different words.
[20:14:26] NP:
[20:14:58] vc: If we concider the first words in the herbal the names of the plants, than maybe that could bring us somewhere.
[20:15:22] NP: There have been many grammars proposed over the years – though I would strongly caution you to treat Currier A and Currier B separately, as the language changed along the way
[20:15:56] vc: Also, we are comparing the Hungarian flora with the drawings, and meanwhile with other old herbals (e. g. ashmole codex). We also about to address a hungarian herbelist in this topic.
[20:16:22] vc: Sure, we’d like to treat the two couriers differently.
[20:16:29] NP: Have you seen the “De Aqua” Voynich theory that was posted to YouTube last month? Its German author has invested a lot of time trying to identify the plants depicted.
[20:16:48] NP: Erm, don’t shoot the Currier 😉
[20:16:49] vc: Not yet, but we are most curious about it
[20:17:20] NP: If you can read German quickly, there’s plenty of interesting stuff (but a lot of filler too)

7. The f1r paragraph “titles”…

[20:18:13] vc: You can see on f1r that the text is separated to 3 paragraphs.
[20:18:54] vc: Each paragraph ends with some words flushed right.
[20:19:06] NP: Yes… and let’s not forget what John Grove called “titles”, short pieces of text appended to the bottom right of the paragraphs
[20:19:14] vc: is it possible that these are quotations?
[20:19:20] NP: could be anything, who knows?
[20:19:43] NP: As an aside, I should say that the word “possible” sets my teeth on edge
[20:19:50] vc: quotations and the name of the persons who said them
[20:19:58] NP: Probably not
[20:20:28] vc: Not matches with the age?
[20:20:28] NP: My prediction is that they are section titles
[20:21:09] NP: book 1 – agriculture
book 2 – astronomy
book 3 – water
[20:21:10] NP: etc
[20:21:24] vc: hmmmmm
[20:21:43] NP: I would also predict that they relate to the first phase of the VMs’ production
[20:22:20] NP: because the final object has many more sections
[20:22:27] NP: they’re also in A, not B
[20:22:44] NP: but you don’t have to believe me
[20:23:13] NP: I don’t have a gun to your heads
[20:23:28] NP: 🙂

8. Plaintezt language?

[20:23:29] vc: Personally what do you think abozt the plaintext language and the plaintext alphabet length?
[20:23:48] NP: Plaintext language: Italian.
[20:24:05] NP: Maybe German, but if pressed I’ll stick to Italian
[20:24:24] NP: Plaintext alphabet length: just normal, nothing fancy
[20:24:41] NP: I do, however, think that there is something quite special about the enciphering
[20:24:54] vc: namely?
[20:25:21] NP: I think that it was enciphered on wax tablets using a combination of shorthand (to compress it) and verbose cipher (to expand it), such that the overall size of the text matched the original

9. Copy or original?

[20:26:11] NP: I think that there is evidence that the original layout and manuscript features were duplicated, even though the text was enciphered – and so I think that each line of ciphertext corresponds to a line of plaintext
[20:26:23] NP: key evidence for this:-
[20:27:13] NP: (1) the fake vellum hole on f34r – this is a hole that was made in the vellum to copy a a hole that was present in the original copy
[20:27:58] vc: (VBI index of this very feature of your theory?)
[20:28:01] NP: (finding a page number for you…)
[20:28:09] vc: Sorry, could’n miss that one
[20:28:51] NP: (2) f112 has a space on the right hand side. I think that this was a vellum flaw in the original, which was faithfully copied as part of the enciphering
[20:29:35] NP: 10000 VBI points! Ding ding ding!
[20:30:12] NP: Look up close at the hole on f34 – it was rubbed through the vellum, but why?
[20:30:53] NP: Sergio Toresella suggested that the author rubbed through the vellum in some kind of sexual frenzy, but I think he may just have got that wrong
[20:30:55] NP: :O
[20:31:31] vc: VBI index of THIS one is not small.
[20:31:38] NP: Plenty of people have proposed that the VMs is some kind of copy – I just added in some other evidence to say what kind of a copy
[20:31:57] vc: Yes, We have the same opinion.
[20:32:15] vc: It can’t be done in one iteration.
[20:32:28] NP: Essentially, that it’s an enciphered copy but one retaining many aspects of the original layout
[20:33:12] NP: There are also a number of places (particularly in Q13 and the pharma section) where you can see two layers…
[20:33:36] vc: Checkin’…
[20:34:38] NP: f77v (the house at the top)
[20:34:57] NP: f79v (the woman in the pool)
[20:36:39] NP: f88v or the page next to it (curious two-layered spherical jar)
[20:37:13] NP: Sagittarius page – the top left nymph and her odd barrel
[20:37:22] vc: So how these two layers point to the original layout?
[20:37:33] NP: I also think f57v was written in two or more passes
[20:37:50] NP: It’s hard to tell what to think
[20:38:26] NP: What I *suspect* is that there is an odd game of expressing and hiding going on here
[20:39:06] NP: I don’t honestly think that most of the water nymphs have any function apart from distracting your eye from what is really going on on the page
[20:39:22] vc: Mhm

10. The Sagittarius spreadsheet…

[20:39:30] NP: The zodiac nymphs’ poses probably do encode some kind of information, though
[20:40:06] NP: I’m sure a page full of naked women was probably even more distracting to the eye 500 years ago
[20:40:23] NP: talking of which…
[20:40:31] NP: I have a spreadsheet you might like to see
[20:40:41] vc: Sure
[20:40:50] NP: It’s taken from the Sagittarius page of a 14th century manuscript
[20:41:15] NP: and it might just contain basically the same data that is enciphered on the VMs’ sagittarius page
[20:41:42] NP: would you all like to have a look?
[20:41:53] vc: YES
[20:42:06] vc: Take a Y! an E! an S!
[20:42:25] NP: I heard you the first time. 😉
[20:43:27] NP: I should mention that what you have here is an annotated version of a scan of a photocopy of an old b&w photograph that is copyrighted by the Warburg Institute
[20:43:57] NP: I added in the red lines to try to reconstruct the table.
[20:44:24] NP: Which means “please don’t post this on the internet or I’ll get busted”
[20:44:21] vc: Ok, we are seeing the reference. Now what?
[20:44:33] NP: Now, here’s the clever bit
[20:45:00] NP: What the table is encoding is an astrological table per degree.
[20:45:00] vc: ok… won’t post
[20:45:45] NP: That is, each of the 30 degrees has a specific planet, fortune, gender, unlucky day assigned to it
[20:45:58] vc: aham
[20:46:32] vc: so if i transform it into circles, I basically get something very similar semantically to the VMS astro circles?
[20:46:48] NP: Theoretically – the tricky bit is working out how that mapping works
[20:47:32] NP: What it needs is a bunch of clever people looking at it and throwing around ideas for a couple of days
[20:47:49] NP: Which I why I thought of you lot 🙂
[20:48:25] vc: I think we are getting your suggestion. 🙂
[20:48:58] vc: Psp: rectangular to polar
[20:49:20] vc: my very first idea
[20:49:21] NP: The other tables didn’t align half as well as Sagittarius, so it would introduce too much uncertainty into the range of maps to choose from
[20:49:24] vc: of course it’s just me
[20:49:33] vc: Ok, ok
[20:49:42] NP: I think… it might not be the answer
[20:49:52] NP: …but it’s a start 🙂
[20:50:20] NP: Sagittarius is interesting because all the nymphs are facing right
[20:51:02] NP: If there is stuff being encoded in poses / clothes / accessories… look for crossed legs, outstretched arms, arm behind hip
[20:51:15] NP: head-dresses, stars
[20:52:21] NP: Incidentally, I think most of the breasts on the page were added in the second phase.
[20:53:11] NP: However… it may be that the breasts from the first phase (I can barely believe that I’m typing this as a sentence) encoded some kind of information. So you might usefully look for breasts that weren’t added later. :O
[20:53:33] vc: (VBI)
[20:53:50] NP: Bearing in mind that the author seems to have a predilection for adding dots in the first phase and hiding them later
[20:53:55] NP: VBI 100000!
[20:53:59] NP: off the scale
[20:54:12] NP: But… look at it for yourself, and make up your own mind
[20:54:29] vc: ROTF
[20:54:52] NP: At least you have something to compare with the page that nobody else (apart from me) has seen in the last 550 years
[20:55:04] NP: Real data (even if does have drawn on breasts)

11. Finishing up…

[20:55:41] NP: OK, team Voynich Budapest
[20:55:50] NP: I have to go now
[20:56:03] NP: I hope you’ve all broadened your view of the VMs
[20:56:12] NP: And not been exposed to too much VBI
[20:56:22] NP: 🙂
[20:56:23] vc: Thank You very much indeed for the most fruitful conversation.
[20:56:36] vc: Not enough i must say
[20:56:46] NP: Plan A is to return for a second session on Sunday
[20:56:55] NP: Is that correct?
[20:57:11] vc: Yes
[21:01:06] NP: Right – good luck, everyone & talk with you on Sunday!
[21:02:02] vc: Ok, all the best until then
[21:02:06] NP: byeeeeeee
[21:02:13] vc: bye 🙂

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…

One very early cipher involved replacing the vowels with dots. In his “Codes and Ciphers” (1939/1949) p.15, Alexander d’Agapeyeff asserts that this was a “Benedictine tradition”, in that the Benedictine order of monks (of which Trithemius was later an Abbot) had long used it as a cipher. The first direct mention we have of it was in a ninth century Benedictine “Treatise of Diplomacy“, where it worked like this:-

  • i = .
  • a = :
  • e = :.
  • o = ::
  • u = ::.

R:.:lly“, you might well say, “wh:t : l:::d ::f b::ll::cks” (and you’d be r.ght, ::f But for all its uselessness, this was a very long-lived idea: David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers” (1967) [the 1164-page version, of course!] mentions the earlier St Boniface taking a dots-for-vowels system from England over to Germany in the eighth century (p.89), a “faint political cryptography” in Venice circa 1226, where the vowels in a few documents were replaced by “dots or crosses” (p.106), as well as vowels being enciphered in 1363 by the Archbishop of Naples, Pietro di Grazie (p.106).

However, perhaps the best story on the dots-for-vowels cipher comes from Lynn Thorndike, in his “History of Magic & Experimental Science” Volume III, pp.24-26. In 1320, a Milanese cleric called Bartholomew Canholati told the papal court at Avignon that Matteo Visconti’s underlings had asked him to suffumigate a silver human statuette engraved with “Jacobus Papa Johannes” (the name of the Pope), as well as the sigil for Saturn and “the name of the spirit Amaymom” (he refused). He was then asked for some zuccum de napello (aconite), the most common poison in the Middle Ages (he refused). He was then asked to decipher some “‘experiments for love and hate, and discovering thefts and the like’, which were written without vowels which had been replaced by points” (he again refused). The pope thought it unwise to rely on a single witness, and sent Bartholomew back to Milan; the Viscontis claimed it was all a misunderstanding (though they tortured the cleric for a while, just to be sure); all in all, nobody comes out of the whole farrago smelling of roses.

(Incidentally, the only citation I could find on this was from 1972, when William R. Jones wrote an article on “Political Uses of Sorcery in Medieval Europe” in The Historian: clearly, this has well and truly fallen out of historical fashion.)

All of which I perhaps should have included in Chapter 12 of “The Curse of the Voynich“, where I predicted that various “c / cc / ccc / cccc” patterns in Voynichese are used to cipher the plaintext vowels. After all, this would be little more than a steganographically-obscured version of the same dots-for-vowels cipher that had been in use for more than half a millennium.

As another aside, I once mentioned Amaymon as one of the four possible compass spirits on the Voynich manuscript f57v (on p.124 of my book) magic circle: on p.169 of Richard Kieckhefer’s “Magic in the Middle Ages”, he mentions Cecco d’Ascoli as having used N = Paymon, E = Oriens, S = Egim, and W = Amaymen (which is often written Amaymon). May not be relevant, but I thought I’d mention it, especially seeing as there’s the talk on magic circles at Treadwell’s next month (which I’m still looking forward to).

Finally, here’s a picture of Voynichese text with some annotations of how I think it is divided up into tokens. My predictions: vowels are red, verbose pairs (which encipher a single token) are green, numbers are blue, characters or marks which are unexpected or improvised (such as the arch over the ‘4o’ pair at bottom left, which I guess denotes a contraction between two adjacent pairs) are purple. Make of it all what you will!

Anyone of a Voynichological leaning who is near London on Wednesday 19th March should consider popping by Treadwell’s in Covent Garden for a lecture by William Kiesel on “The Circle of Arte – Magic Circles in the Western Grimoire Tradition” (Ouroboros Press). It’s £5 (though reserve a place earlier if you can, it’s only fair): as normal with Treadwell’s, arrive there at 7.15pm for a 7.30pm start.

The reason, if you don’t already know it, is that there is a mysterious magic circle in the Voynich itself, on page f57v. In my book, I briefly (pp.124-125) discussed a number of similarities between this and folio 105v of Clm 849, the 15th century Munich manuscript analyzed in Richard Kieckhefer’s reasonably well-known book “Forbidden Rites“: but despite my best efforts, this probably only scratched the surface. I am thoroughly looking forward to learning more about this fascinating subject: let me know if you’re coming, and I hope to see you there!