The Zodiac afresh: can we link it to known medieval astrology?

I earlier looked at the 12 pages of the Voynich Zodiac and dismissed them as forming part of a horoscope. Mere terminology really, but woolly thinking does no-one any good. This article is a continuation of that one.

Abstract: I examine early Medieval astrology systems to find a good match to the Voynich Manuscript Zodiac pages, and find one which has the same form and number of attributes as the Voynich: the Myrogenesis astrology system of the early Christian rules of the Spanish kingdoms, in particular the magical works of King Alfonso X “el sabio”. This article is more an general knowledge article than an in-depth analysis, which remains to be done, but is interesting none the less (to me at least) and is a starting point for future research.

The Voynich Manuscript has put the Zodiac as the subject of the central rings, so it is logical to assume the subject of the each page is the zodiac itself, or whatever the Zodiac represents. It could be, for example, that the author is actually talking about months and has used the zodiac image as the representation of the month, which is my current bet (and that of the Renaissance francophone who scribbled the names of the months on each drawing). I’ll use the term zodiac here, but understand that the possibility is that this isn’t about the Zodiac at all. I won’t enter into the question of whether or not the text has meaning at this point, let’s just look at influences that could indicate a tradition we can fit this into.

What medieval system puts the zodiac as the subject? Well, interpretations of the zodiac, obviously. Except… such a concept didn’t exist in early modern times. Astrology had rules, if you went outside of the rules you weren’t using an ancient system of knowledge passed down from time immemorial, you were making it up as you went along.

The zodiac itself and its qualities were set in stone, so to speak. The problem was the authority of the ancients – since people were indoctrinated into believing that the Ancients had all knowledge, they were perfect happy to carry on using these ancient sources without bothering to subject them to critical analysis. The subject is much too broad to go into here as it involves the whole philosophical mentality of the late Middle Ages and Pre-Renaissance, but the Authority of the Ancients combined with the Doctrine of Signatures made it perfectly clear that the attributes of the zodiac were as they were.

Not to say that debate didn’t rage, but the debate was always over the charlatanry of astrology. Faced with constant attacks from sceptics (Pico’s 1495 discoursas is a prime example – I particularly love the fact that he had a weather horoscope made for 120 successive days, then checked the real weather and found his horoscope was accurate only 6 times) any attempt to overhaul the basics of the system would only have made it weaker. Now, 200 years earlier was a different matter, but that’s discussed in a bit.

In fact, it doesn’t make any sense to me to have individual zodiac figures in the arrangement of the Voynich. I did wonder if the charts show figures of the zodiac surrounded by astral influences, but then why are some zodiacs duplicated? I then realised that that is a separate question which we’ll get to at the end of this article.

So…. let’s assume that actually we’re looking at the months of the year, as whoever left the French marginalia also assumed. Then we’re out of the realms of pure astrology, and looking into the characteristics of the months. What medieval system shows the months of the year represented by the zodiac, and surrounded by 30 “aspects” (the stars, for want of a better word)?

Well, actually, there is one, as admittedly has been suggested in the past although I found this out by searching for it independently. Let’s flesh it out here.

The illustrators and scribes of the 13th century had almost forgotten the classical Greek attributes of the signs of the Zodiac, but a resurgent interest in magic and lost knowledge propelled by Alfonso X of Spain and other Spanish kings meant the subject was examined anew. The scribes thus recurred to the Arabic influences available to them to recreate their powers. So Mars became once again the God of War, of fire, etc; Venus love, and all the other signs that we still know and love. The scribes drew on Arabic sources available to them, which in turn came from the Greeks, to recreate their lost attributes, and assumed in general that they were recreating their past.

The attributes of Taurus (Libro de Astromagia)

Miguel Escoto, for example, astrologer Royal to King Fernando II (grandfather to Alfonso X), in his Liber introductorius attributed wisdom to Mercury, mainly because of his King’s horoscope. He then tried to illustrate Mercury as a Bishop, no less.

These illustrations came out of the need to reinterpret ancient and purely written sources, but that’s another subject. Here is another illustration, this time of Leo, from the libro de astromagia from the same era

Libro de astromagia

These influences have been traced back to Indian sources (see the works of David Pingree), but I won’t go into that here, other than to mention in passing that the chap with a crossbow in the Voynich zodiac (Sagittarius) is usually depicted in the West as a centaur (some northern German counter examples exists). However, the Hindu zodiac traditionally depicted Dhanu (Sagittarius) as a human archer, as we have the VM. (In the last few centuries it seems he’s become corrupted into the centaur we all know and love – but until the 1800’s he was a human archer). Not sure if that’s relevant here, probably not, I expect the Germanic influence is the one we need to look at.

Anyway, what the scribes were doing here were two different things.

  • They were recreating their lost heritage, usually by creating visual imagery based on rediscovered Greek works kept by the Arabs (an imagery that still remains with us);
  • and they were using Paranatellonta to identify attributes, creating a whole new chapter in the annuals of astrology, a purely European one. They would find specific stars associated with each sign of the zodiac, and then assume they were linked to the sign, and modified the sign giving it an aspect. How many aspects? Well, 30, the same number as in the Voynich.

30 is an important number in these early Christian works, derived from the Arabic, as it is a number related to the number of degrees of the epileptic: 360º / 12 signs of the zodiac. Alfonso X’s works codified this number, although later astrology works tended to start splitting up the degrees of each zodiac according to their real occupation of the skies. But that would come later centuries later. Let’s stay with the fascinating libro de astromagia and its ilk.

The Libro de Astromagia (book of astral magic), the most complete copy of which is preserved as ms. Vat. Reg. Lat. 1283a, was a 13th century book commissioned by King Alfonso X. Its aim was to collate the distinct Arabic and Christian sources of astrology and try to create a book of magic to use celestial influence. It consists of invocations, prayers, chants and general lithurgic influences to use celestial influence to create talismans, oracles and influences – astrology. Some of it is taken from the Picatrix, the rest of it from distinct sources, many of which are now lost to us, including Jewish works.

Alfonso also commissioned some more “Solomonic” works such as the Liber Razielis, again based on Jewish works of magic, which aimed to control spirits – demonology. A subwork of the Liber is the Libro de las piedras, a four tome book which aimed to capture celestial spirits in stones in order to enslave them. Alfonso was reputed to have ordered its compilation in 1250, when he was just 4 years old. Ah hem. He is reputed to have been a precocious little bugger.

Miguel Rodriguez Llopis in his excellent work on Alfonso X (called simply Alfonso X) describes the above mentioned three books, as well as the first European translation of the Picatrix, and another book called Libro de las Formas as the main magical works of the Alfonso X scribes. They were compilations of Jewish and Arabic magical works translated into Spanish or Latin and I shall skip over further description here. Some of them are lost to us or known only through later copies inserted into third party works.

The important fact to take away from all this is that there was an attempt to use celestial “spirits” to influence human matters. The usual use was to use them as oracles, to divine when to sow the harvest or attack the enemy, or for medicine. Why isn’t important here, the important fact is that the method and the books existed… and in them, we have a precedence for the 12 pages of the Voynich Zodiac.

Now, we can dispense with the magic spells. Aby Warburg and later Antonio García Solalinde describe the “Harranian magic” spells from the Alfonso X era which we can find in astromagia and other tomes, such as a spell that gives specific instructions to wait until the moon is in the third grade of Scorpio to collect herbs at a specific time, a long method of preparing them, before getting dressed in a specific way, sacrificing an animal and chanting the ritual words SARAFIHA SARAFIHA. This would command an astral spirit to you who you could then command to reveal the truth of your question.

Instead, let’s look at the Solomonic magic, magic derived from the Jews – Kabbalah ma’asit, practical Kabbalah, which consisted of a wide range of ideas on cosmology and the control of angelic spirits.

It was to illustrate this that the scribes of Alfonso X started to illustrate these wheels with 30 aspects. Some of them illustrate the paranatellonta, others the mansions of the moon, an aspect of Arabian astrology important because the Arabs used a lunar month calendar.

Mansions of the Moon. Libro de astromagia.

Let’s get back to the illustrations showing the 30 aspects of each sign of the zodiac. In three different books from Alfonso’s time (astromagia and the Libro de Piedras also known by its Latin translation name of Lapidarium, a work that concerns itself with the use of magic via stone and ores; and the Libros de saber astronomico, Books of Astronomic Knowledge) we see exactly the same type of illustrations but with different aims. The interesting thing is that the same people were compiling all three books, so the different interpretations all interlink and show how it was supposed to work in practise.

The astromagia shows the 30 aspects (as illustrated above in Leo) to explain the different characteristics of the spirits that influence each zodiac sign. The Libros de saber astronomico shows the 30 signs saying they are the Constellations of Ptolemy (as recorded by al-Sufi) and attempts to locate them in the sky. The Lapidarium again shows the 30 divisions, but this time corresponding to stones. Which is interesting. The astromagia and saber astronomico books are creating the system and explaining it. The Lapidarium is showing how it works, by linking 30 stones to each of the zodiac aspect explained away in astromagia, and found using saber astronomico.

The implication of the Lapidarium is clear – you could in theory use the Doctrine of Signatures to find any natural stuff to use in your magic and link it into the system. So you could substitute the stones for herbs and have 30 herbs for each zodiac, each one to be used for healing in a specific case and for a specific person. It’s astrology in action.

Now, this style of astrology didn’t stay in this form. It mixed with other interpretations from other points of Europe and diluted into the general astronomy of the 15th century onwards. But it was an important cornerstone of the whole system, and what’s more important, Italian and French works were still being penned in the late 15th century which copied the Alfonsian astrological magic system. It’s called Myriogénesis in the original Spanish (from the Greek monomoirai), or Myrogenesis in English, the attributing of specific characteristic to each degree of the zodiac.

Now, the style of illustration is very different in the Voynich. But this is a superficial choice of the scribe. The signs of the zodiac in the astromagia don’t correspond to the Voynich – Mercury is a peacock for example – but the Voynich illustrative influences have been analysed elsewhere and can be linked to Germanic influences.

If we compare the Voynich to the Myrogenesis system, we see a clear influence there. 30 degrees of the Zodiac, each one with a specific attribute. It corresponds. We don’t know the content, but we can see that there is an early European philosophy into which it fits quite nicely.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why:

  • the zodiac starts with Pisces (could this be as simple as just being mis-ordered?)
  • why two months (Aries & Taurus) are split into 15 aspects each
  • what the aspects refer to

But hey, that comes down to whether you believe the text has meaning or not. 🙂

47 thoughts to “The Zodiac afresh: can we link it to known medieval astrology?”

  1. Hi David!
    This message didn’t reach the list, so I place it here and in my blog (comments to “Zodiac” (Зодиак))

    I want to say that I understand your point about European medieval traditions, but I’m not so sure that alfonsine books Libro de astromagia and Lapidario are traditional themself, I’d say they are quite unique, without regard for their later copies. They include Jewish, Arabic and Christian traditions and influences, all in one. I can’t affirm for sure, but precedents for mentioned alfonsine books seems to be unknown for now. Yes, we saw many different diagrams in that kind of manuscripts, but, generally, they are not the same as alfonsine manuscripts (for instance, zodiacal sign in the centre of the diagramm with 30 sectors) and not the same as the VMs. But some part of the alfonsine library, I think, is a good precedent for the VMs. There is difference in style, but that’s nothing to find fault.
    So, on my view, the matter is not in European traditions in this case, but, possibly, exactly in alfonsine library.
    Concerning the Liber Razielis:

    “*SeferRazi’el ha-malak. *The Spanish version is supposed to have been translated more or less directly from the Aramaic & Hebrew original. The names of the
    angels you refer to are part of Kabbalistic magic. It’s supposed to have been transmitted to the Jews by the Angel Raziel, hence his name in the book. It was still being used in the 18th century when it was first published by Eleazar of Worms.”

    As much as I know, Castillian version was translated from previously translated from Hebrew Latin version, original of which is a compilation of different texts from quite different times, supposedly, written and compiled by Eleazar of Worms, who lived in XII-XIII centuries, not in XVIII c. Eighteenth century version just became popular later, although, if I’m not mistaken, it contains mostly 6th book (Liber Sameyn), which is very close to the Sefer Zohar, Sefer Ha-Razim or so and consists only of a few pages.
    Pretty detailed information I found in the book of Claire Fanger “Invoking angels:…” (pages 86-112)

    Liber Salomonis, part Liber Razielis 2r-57r (in early modern English):

    I don’t know Spanish, but something understand with Google translate, so, I think, very good article on this theme – “Alfonso X y el Liber Razielis: imágenes de la magia astral judía en el scriptorium alfonsí” (Alejandro García Avilés)

    The list of different MSs included or named the Liber Razielis (Sefer Raziel etc.):
    Regards, YM

    P. S. I’d like to look at links to the articles in Spanish, if it’s possible to translate them with Google Transl.

    1. Hi Yulia!
      I agree with you 100%, I think something is lost in my abbreviated writing / lost emails via the mailing list.
      The Alphonsine books, as you say, are unique. They draw upon supposed lost Greek traditions via Arabic and Jewish sources to recreate partially remembered Christian sources
      ” It was still being used in the 18th century when it was first published by Eleazar of Worms.”.
      Rereading what I said before on the mailing list in my short email, I admit it looks as if I said that Eleazar of Worms published the original Razielis in the 18th century, which obviously wasn’t the case and I mistyped. It was published in the 18th century and attributed to him. But Spanish historians still link that version to the original Alphonsine version; it has evolved, but it can be traced back to the original, and Eleazar bought it back to public attention with his first publication (based apparently on 16th century manuscripts). That’s not important to the thrust of our argument which is regards to the Alphonsine version.

      1. Hi!
        Well, share your imressions after reading!
        I think, it’s even better that we both came to the same or similar conclusion, but regardlees of each other.
        I’m going to dig along these lines in what follows.
        To the point, vms-list didn’t strip my link, I just missed this moment and therefore inserted it here to repair my ommission. Sorry!
        Regards, Yulia.

        1. Hi Yulia! A very interesting article of yours. Here’s a link to the google translated English version of your Russian original to save people fiddling around.
          We’re both in agreement that the reason for the 30 nymphs is the 30º assigned to each zodiac sign; and that the nymphs represent some type of attribute related to the paranatellonta.
          However, I don’t however think we’re seeing the names of stars here. Instead, we are seeing (as we see in the Lapidaius) some attributes linked to the concept which is represented by the zodiac.
          Why? Two reasons:
          1) If these were the names of stars, I’d expect them to be in an astronomical format. A simple list of star names is no good to man nor beast, we’d see ways of using that information, whether in calculating the stars or in Toledean tables or the like.
          2) Repeated names. The labels are quite repetitive (as predicted by my Volvelle theory, ah hem).

          I am leaning towards the theory that the intention here is to display a system that would have been recognised in the pre-Renaissance as linked to the herbal sections. We’re seeing an attempt to display astrological and magical knowledge that connect with the herb section – the “aspects” of the zodiac.

          1. Hi David!
            For now, I’m not ready to suppose strongly what the stars in the diagrams mean, dut, yes, I’m almost sure that there are not the names of stars there. You correctly pointed that there are too many similar words (inscriptions). Maybe, they mean something like in the Libro de astromagia and then – in Peter D’Abano’s emblems (figura…) or so, maybe, they mean some influence of that paranatellonta or degree… I’m working on it 😉

  2. Hi David,

    Very interesting post!

    Recently there has been a revived discussion on Nick Pelling’s blog about these “Zodiac pages”, don’t know if you’ve been following it, so here’s the link:

    Don’t know how it fell under the New Year’s post, but anyway. Look for the comments starting from April 7th.

    You are right that there are certain crucial questions in regard to these pages, and in addition to what you already outlined in your post, that discussion adds some more, e.g.:

    a) Why Pisces have 29 figures, not 30?
    b) Why the complexity of the drawings declines throughout the progression of the pages?
    c) Is there any special meaning in the dresses of the represented persons and in the apparently sophisticated ornament of the tubs?

    The researcher Out*Of*The*Blue (don’t know his/her real name) suggests allusions to contemporary heraldry and even develops the rather complicated “theory of pairs”. I’m not sure that he is ultimately right in his conclusions, but anyway I think that his observations deserve attention.

    About the misplacement of Pisces, I think that’s out of question, if we look at the folios layout (as represented e.g. in Dr. Zandbergen’s website). They’ve been placed intentionally to where they are. I agree with Out*Of*The*Blue and others that from the perspective of astrology that’s weird. The only explanation that I am able to produce is that these pages do not represent the Zodiac, neither the Zodiacal signs per se, they just use the Zodiacal signs to indicate the months. In this way, if the scribe’s intention was to depict a calendar, then a Lunar calendar would naturally start from the vernal equinox which was already under Pisces back then. The weak point in the “calendar theory” (which I kinda defended in that discussion), nonetheless, is that there are too many “months” with 30 “days” (supposing that each figure stands for a day). I think that the lunar calendars that we know of do vary number of days in a month to a certain degree around the synodic value of 25.9.

      1. Hi Anton,
        Thanks for the link. I am very suspicious of this attempt to link the Zodiac pages to heraldry or some sort of mysterious pairing. The proponents of these systems seize a couple of examples that could equally well just be coincidence, and the majority of the work doesn’t support their theories. I’m not dismissing it out of hand, but unless we get into the content meaning we’ll never know, and I’d like to try to separate the supposed content from the context layer.
        The Arabian lunar month on the Iberian Peninsula in the 13th century had 27 or 28 days IIRC. I don’t remember how they squished the extra days in, no doubt they had some complicated system.
        Yes I tend to agree with you about the ordering. Pisces came first. Why? Well, no reason it shouldn’t (unless we’re actually drawing up a horoscope! Different thing!), if it is an allegory for something else, like months of the year – or even healing attributes or herbs…
        30 days * 12 = 360. Not a calendar. The degrees of the circle, as I say in my article above, split evenly between each zodiac sign.
        In response to your list:
        a) There is a good analysis out there, I think by René Z (On another computer here, don’t have the link) which shows the scribe could simply have been confused and didn’t leave enough space. He then angrily scribbled it into the centre above the fishes.
        b) Maybe the illustrators hand got tired? 🙂
        c) Who knows? Personally I doubt it, my guess is they’re astral spirits and so get given a special little bit of extra decoration.

        1. 30*12 = 360 is a valid proposition, but I think we should be careful with it nevertheless.

          First, Pisces do not have 30, they have 29. I am not familiar with the analysis that you refer to, but the assertion as put in your comment does not look very convincing. We do have other cases where the scribe presumably did not leave enough space. Look e.g. at the Gemini drawing. The four figures are placed on top of the circle. Why not do just the same with Pisces?

          Second, we don’t know what was the number of figures in the missing drawings, was it 30 or, say, 78. 🙂

          Third, we are not that sure about “12”. Because we don’t know what actually was there in the missing pages. (This, of course, is only a formal consideration, logic suggests that there were two “missing” Zodiac signs there indeed.)

          I am not familiar with “Libro de Astromagia” beyond what is written in your post, but the comparison, however tempting at the first glance, yields some objections in succession. The sectoral objects in “Libro de Astromagia” are heterogenous, while in the VMS they are all homogenous (i.e. they are all human figures). In “Libro”, objects are arranged in one circle, while in the VMS they are arranged in two or even three concentric circles, which undermines the very notion of “30 sectors”, because those “30” fail to represent “sectors”.


          For decorations and reduced complexity, my own thoughts are that the former should be attributed to the scribe’s personal amusement (not excluding incorporating some heraldic knowledge), and the latter – to his having been progressively bored with the decorations. I expressed that in the discussion that I referred to.

          1. Hi Anton!
            If you don’t mind, I’ll answer to you. The Pisces diagram contains 30 signed stars. This is an important detail, as well. Remember, it’s wasn’t the aim of the author – to make a clearly understandable manuscript. Of course, all details are important, but they must be drawn only in one picture in the end.

        2. It is also not true that 30*12 = 360 may not represent a calendar. I understand that, in fact, some historical lunar calendars such as Babylonian or Zoroastrian (derived from the former) had 12 months of 30 days, and to adjust this cycle to the solar cycles they introduced an additional padding month say, every nineteen years. See e.g.

          These history of calendars is a field in itself, and I am not a specialist here, but the quick glance shows that we should not dismiss the “calendar theory”.

          1. As you say Anton – calendars are a nightmare. However, most western calendars in the last 1000 years have had irregular months and more than 360 days.
            I’ve found the reference, it was Prof Stolfi who suggested the star was accidentally left out:
            Stolfi thinks the artist had planned to draw 20 nymphs in the outer band, by drawing 4 small ones at the top, then 4 more in each of the four quadrants. This he did in the first three quadrants, going clockwise; but then he got confused (perhaps by the fold), and drew only 3 nymphs in the last quadrant, from 09:00 to 12:00.
            As Yulia points out above, there are 30 stars on this page – it’s just that one of them is (uniquely) in the centre circle. After thought?

  3. Yulia:

    It’s evidently not that simple. Unconditional generalizations may be dangerously misleading in the Voynich research.

    You argue that there are 30 “signed” stars in the Pisces page. But actually, there is 31 star in this page (30 “signed” and 1 “unsigned”), so we then need to distinguish between “signed” and “unsigned” stars, which is a new layer of complexity. Why some stars are named, and some unnamed? The Pisces pages is not an exception in this regard. Look at the Virgo page, where there is an “additional” unnamed star in her hand.

    I would be careful about “signed stars”, because it is not evident what is actually labeled there – stars or figures. One may argue that within the concentric circles the scribe did not have much space, so he placed his alleged “star labels” just in places convenient for him, and not necessarily right next to the respective stars. But let us have a look, e.g., at the top figures in the Gemini page, where there is plenty of space for labeling, especially for the rightmost figure. Does the label refer to the star? No, it apparently serves to label the figure, and not the star. The same in the Scorpio page.

    Note that some figures do not hold stars at all, like in the Sagittarius page at eight o’clock.


    There is absolutely no evidence that all this scheme is “Western” in its roots. This well may be some Eastern tradition gated through a Western worldview.

    Thx for the reference to Dr Stolfi. I would say that the topmost figures in the Pisces page are placed much closer to each other than all other figures of the outer circle. This indeed suggests that the scribe fell out of available place in the process of putting the figures down. There even is not enough space for labels, so they continue to the second line. But the spacing is largest around 6 o’clock, does this mean that he began from the bottom? The labels were evidently put after all the figures were complete, because they occupy the entire space available for them.

    Some speculative explanation might have been thus. The scribe began with the Pisces page, but, due to the lack of solid planning, sadly lost one figure. He then decided that it would be easier to fit figures into the circles if each “Zodiac” sign were split in two, thus requiring to fit only 15 figures instead of 30. Having put down a couple of Zodiac signs in this way, the guy saw that this will double the required vellum space, which was undesirable. So he invented a new approach – to fit the figures as they fitted themselves, and then to place the “excess” just on top of the outer circle. Looks reasonable, but… is this the same man who carefully planned the even more complex f86v? :-/


    I think that the “Zodiac” pages are the worst candidate for the script deciphering attempts, due to the degree of their sophistication and to their irregularity (which may be attributed to the abundance of the scribe’s mistakes or to the additional layer of complexity).

    1. Hi Anton!
      “It’s evidently not that simple. Unconditional generalizations may be dangerously misleading in the Voynich research.
      You argue that there are 30 “signed” stars in the Pisces page. But actually, there is 31 star in this page (30 “signed” and 1 “unsigned”), so we then need to distinguish between “signed” and “unsigned” stars, which is a new layer of complexity. Why some stars are named, and some unnamed? The Pisces pages is not an exception in this regard. Look at the Virgo page, where there is an “additional” unnamed star in her hand.”

      So, too simple or too complicated?
      Why do we must be so careful in our suppositions? In affirmation – yes, but not in assumption. No one knows who are really misled. Heraldry? It was everywhere in that time (that’s just for instance).
      Yes, “Virgo” keeps the unnamed star in her hand, but one of the nynphs doesn’t have it, as that one on the Sagittarius page, the difference only in that that there is no additional star in the Sagittarius diagram. Too simply this or not, but my explanation is that nymph keeps her hands behind her back, because she hides her star. Maybe, those special signs mean something too and play the role of some indications, but now is too early to talk about it.
      In general, my suppositions are related not only to the diagrams from the Alfonsine books “Lapidario” and “Libro de astromagia”, but also to the “Liber Razielis” as I think that the inscription in the left upper corner on the Rosettes page – “Rasiel”, one of the variant spelling of the name angel Raziel (or Rezial, Razial etc)
      As for me, I don’t consider the VMs Zodiac the best candidate for deciphering, but the one little thing for understanding what the VMs is.

      1. I think that scientific suppositions should be consistent, they should not dismiss “embarrassing” peculiarities that don’t fit into the proposed picture. Rather, some reasonable hypotheses should be developed that would allow the researcher to account for those peculiarities; and if they fail to be developed, then the “suppositions” stand at least undecided. Frankly speaking, in the VMS research it’s too easy to get obsessed with some shaky speculative idea, that has happened in the past (and still continues to happen) with many people. To not lose the Ariadne’s thread of scientific methodology, we should carefully consider not only facts that seem to support our ideas, but also the facts that tend to disprove them.

        I don’t have any accomplished idea of these Zodiac pages myself, I just note the obvious caveats of the blind paralleling to the drawings in that “Astromagia” book. That does not mean that I consider the very idea downright invalid; on the contrary, as I noted above it’s very intriguing and for sure should be investigated further.

        Regarding the “Rasiel” stuff, yes I’ve already seen the image in your blog before, through a link from the Brian Cham’s blog. I think that this inscription is Voynichese beginning with EVA “s”, just the corner of the folio is curved, so that the scan is distorted and has misleading appearance of some plain text.

        BTW, how did you manage to exhibit that dragon? I tried some sorts of image processing but could not achieve the same result. Could you please share what filters you applied?

        1. There is absolutely no evidence that all this scheme is “Western” in its roots. This well may be some Eastern tradition gated through a Western worldview.
          True. But we haven’t found anything yet. Although Sagittarius was often depicted as a human archer in the Hindu zodiac…. but then again, he pops up again in this style in Germany during the correct era.
          But the overall influences – nobody is arguing that the VM is a direct copy of anything – fit better with European traditions than the orient.
          There is also the argument that precisely because the East was new and strange to people, those in contact with it went out of their way to exaggerate and explain the differences – they didn’t try to “interpret it” in their own worldview in the way that the “VM is oriental” theorists propound. A cursory look at any 16th century report of India, Arabia, Africa or China sent back to Europe shows that the majority of the theories are…. how to put it? ungrounded in the reality of the era.

          1. Maybe. My knowledge of the subject is not sufficient for such in-depth discussion. My idea is, as I expressed it in the other place, as follows:

            “In modern jugglery (especially if it’s related to medicine or politics) it’s common to mix different traditions and cultures and make a complete mess of them. Since the things just stay the same in the process or their change, this, I presume, might have been the case in medieval alchemy as well. A guy familiar with different traditions could just make a mix of them, to make his work look more enigmatic and important. Take Eastern Calendar, add Western Zodiac, don’t forget a stylish archer and here you get your exclusive lore.”

        2. Hi Anton!
          “I think that scientific suppositions should be consistent, they should not dismiss “embarrassing” peculiarities that don’t fit into the proposed picture.”

          Quite true!
          I’d like to leave this moot point as I don’t consider those peculaliarities to contradict my conception.
          As for the dragon and another faded notes and images, I use Photoshop and Photoscape: just usual actions with contrast, exposition, brightness, photofilters, but I do it in a few stages. I won’t describe the whole process, it’s too long. Actually, look at the original copy, although they’re too obscure, “Serpens” is still there along with the “Sol” and the “Terra (ipsa)”.

  4. David,
    I’ve explained the origin and development of the standing archer figure for Sagittarius as it existed in the Mediterranean world. Our earliest examples of the type are not German, but are found in Carolingian manuscripts from the south. The habit derives, as far as I trace it, from the older astronomers of Asia minor; it is retained, or less likely revived, within zodiacs as such, in the Levant during the early centuries AD – so its late appearance in some German mss is more likely a reflection of contemporary fascination with the Carolingian era than any evolved tradition in that region.

    I describe its form in German works as a devolution, but have also sketched the earlier period when it was introduced – at Fleury and in Spain. I wrote three or four posts on the subject, but this is probably most useful for general interest:

    1. Hi O’Donovan, Yes I can see the procession from Asia minor to medieval Spain for the human archer, but I have yet to come across the steps that link it to Germany. You’re saying that it was preserved during the Carolingian era? The whole subject is worthy of a PhD dissertation from what I can see, I admit I stopped following the trail after a bit.

  5. I might also mention that there is no evidence, so far as I know, to justify any expectation that the Voynich manuscript refers to astrology or to magic.

    The first idea appears to me to be due to a general ignorance about any other use for the motifs – but that’s a product of our society, and does not reflect the medieval era, when they were perceived primarily as a reference to the *actual* constellations, appearing month by month. There was a very large corpus of moralia on the reason for each constellation’s being set in its place, within the order of the “12”. Apart from the many other correspondences, they were associated with the 12 apostles. Not that I’m positing that particular set-of-12 relevant to the Voynich months.

    As for magic: the only basis I know for that particular waste-of-time-theory is that Wilfrid Voynich imagined that Dee had carried the manuscript to Prague. No evidence for it. Also – it’s worth remembering that one of the most important researchers in the subject of early western science and “pseudo-science” was very contemptuous of any suggestion that the Voynich manuscript has anything of interest in relation to either field. Thorndike might have been mistaken, but so far I’ve seen no evidence that he was. The corpus of Kabbalah to the early fifteenth century is one of religious thought and metaphysics, not magic. D’Imperio’s categories notwithstanding.

    1. they were associated with the 12 apostles. That was an attempt by the Church to legitimise interest in astrology; unable to overthrow it, they tried to assimilate it (as they did with so many other pagan traditions).

      Without wanting to take anything away from Thorndike, most of our academic understanding of “magic” (properly, superstitions attempting to control the natural order) in the Middle Ages comes from the 60’s onwards.

  6. and re the comment:
    “But the overall influences – nobody is arguing that the VM is a direct copy of anything – fit better with European traditions than the orient.”

    I don’t know that I’d say I was arguing it, but such was my conclusion after analysing the imagery in MS Beinecke 408: that it reflects the styles and attitudes of a non-European people and environment. In nearly seven years, I have yet to find any solid evidence for the ‘Latin Christian European’ theory, apart from those relating to manufacture of the artefact – and even then it’s probable rather than proven.

  7. re lunar months.

    The lunar calendar was an ancient system, which worked perfectly well. Of course it needed intercalations, and ones more frequent than are required by the luni-solar calendar.

    When the Prophet of Islam said that no-one should tamper with the lunar calendar, his later followers construed this to mean a prohibition against intercalation, so that the regulatory mechanism being prohibited, the religious (lunar) calendar fell out of step with seasonal phenomena and most westerners think no lunar calendar practicable, as a result.

    Actually, the system for intercalation was not particularly complex, and if you look at any of our records of the Yemeni agricultural calendars, you’ll see they have regular extra or dual months. These are sometimes also called ‘star calendars’ because the lunar months are marked by the series of asterisms known as the manazil. Again, Europe came to know that series, but had a poor grasp of its original purpose, and tended to think the only uses for these lunar mansions was astrological or magical.

    The motifs for the zodiac constellations never ceased to be represented in mainland Europe, and medieval works of art and architecture constantly show the series. The Church did try to exercise a rational restraint against astrological superstition, but such things are always appealing. Interestingly, most books and writings about magic occur in the regions outside its jurisdiction, and flourish most during the period of the “Enlightenment” so-called. Go figure. 🙂

    1. You’re right there. When I said calendars are a nightmare I meant trying to figure out who used which calendar when is the nightmare 🙂

  8. Darn – I should have seen this a week ago!
    I’ve just put up on Stephen Bax’s site a comment about a great article in Spanish (with Eng. translation) at the Biblioteca Virtual de Miguel Cervantes, by Alejandro García Avilés, Imágenes mágicas. La obra astromágica de Alfonso X y su fortuna en la Europa bajomedieval’. English title: ‘Two Astromagical Manuscripts of Alfonso X the Wise’.

    I’ll add a reference to your post as footnote to one of my own pretty soon. I’m in the middle of taking a whole new look at the crossbowman on f.73v, separating assumptions from fair certainties, and ideas based mainly on habit from those which are historically verifiable.

    This is a great post, even if I disagree with some of its premises, but that’s the nature of research isn’t it? Once everyone has decided to opt for one canonical truth, there’s no point in study.

    We really do need a massive online dictionary of Voynich research and research-topics, past and present, don’t you think?

    1. Why does my site persist in thinking you are a spammer? Darn it and apologies.
      The English title of that article has little in common with its Spanish original!

  9. Can’t believe that I’d forgotten your blog. I’ve now bookmarked it.

    However –
    “Now, the style of illustration is very different in the Voynich. But this is a superficial choice of the scribe. The signs of the zodiac in the astromagia don’t correspond to the Voynich – Mercury is a peacock for example – but the Voynich illustrative influences have been analysed elsewhere and can be linked to Germanic influences.”

    I don’t know where you got the first idea – that the scribe had a ‘superficial’ attitude to imagery OR that he had any choice about what he set down. A scribe isn’t an author, and in most cases, including this he copied as well as he could what he was given. That idea of ‘scribal choice’ sounds to me like someone else telling you so, to avoid dealing with an anomaly which went against their own preferred story-line. Not historically viable in this case.

    As to the your saying that “the Voynich illustrative influences have been analysed elsewhere” – that is true. But whoever said they can be “linked” to Germanic influences was (a) not a trained iconographic analyst, evidently, because (b) “linking” is much too vague and waffly a term and (c) the imagery is most definitely not Germanic – at all. In no way. No chance.
    What you do find is that some of these forms come up into German-speaking regions from France, and from Spain, the precursors there being attested anything up to two centuries and more before they appear in German manuscript art.

    Sorry, David, but your informant has mis-read the situation, and the imagery. Pretty badly. My guess is that they are specialists in some very different discipline, or they wouldn’t be so careless about getting it right.

  10. Hi Diane,
    I did not say the scribe had a ‘superficial’ attitude to imagery – I said this is a superficial choice of the scribe. IE, the scribe had a choice of what imagery to use to illustrate his concepts and chose the ones we see today. He could, I see no reason why not, have come up with an entirely different (ie more traditional) list of illustrations to give his ideas form. When I use the word scribe, I am referring to the eventual creator of the VM, not the people who actually wrote it all out – possibly this is a bit lax on my part.
    And when I say that they can be linked to Germanic influences, well, it’s exactly the same as you saying that some of these forms come up into German-speaking regions from France, and from Spain, the precursors there being attested anything up to two centuries and more before they appear in German manuscript art. ie: The overall artistic influence of the VM appears to be more European in nature than, say, Judeo-Arabic.

  11. What I meant that the ‘scribe’s concepts’ have really nothing to do with the way the manuscript was produced in the early fifteenth century.
    The persons who inscribed our present copy had little latitude, and given the nature of the imagery at least, were as faithful as they could be to their immediate exemplars, which appear to have taken form by not much later than the early fourteenth century, mostly from very much older sources again.

    To imagine that they could, or would, indulge their personal preferences in dealing with ‘antique’ texts in the fifteenth century runs contrary to what we know of early fifteenth century European scriptoria – including of course, the Jewish.

    My tracking the passage of a the ‘standing archer’ as a new way to represent Sagittarius shows it appearing in the southern part of Europe before passing from the region of Picardy into regions which shared the same higher language of Latin, but where German was the common tongue.

    Before it is adopted into Latin art, the figure is known only in the eastern Mediterranean, and our extant examples are unquestionably an innovation, and one made specifically by Jews for their synagogue’s zodiac wheel, thus departing from the Roman ‘classic’ model.

    The line of transmission overall therefore, is logically from that part of the eastern Mediterranean, through Spain and France, to much later arrive in whatever you may mean by “central” Europe.

    The most logical explanation is that the Jews of southern Europe brought their unique image for Sagittarius into Europe, the Latins then gaining and using it from about the twelfth century.

    I believe that the notion of it as a European idea, and more narrowly, a German idea must have been gained by taking a very narrow group of samples: perhaps only comparing a few Latin manuscripts with a few other Latin manuscripts, which would naturally lead to inaccurate results having been a choice determined by a pre-existing expectation of all-Latin, and probably all-European origin.

    1. Well, I bow to your knowledge here on the archer as you’ve been investigating it more than I have, I’ve only been coasting off the back of articles. However, I seem to remember from my research that apart from the Jewish ones the Hindu zodiac sometimes depicted Dhanu (Sagittarius) as a human archer until the 1800’s when it became corrupted by Western tradition.
      Here’s an ancient (Jewish) image of him
      BTW, this rather cute little zodiac has a sitting human archer for Sag., the webpage I found it on just describes it as “medieval image of the zodiac” with no further info. Any idea if it’s genuine?

  12. But apart from that David, I wanted to ask your advice. I have read that Florence had it’s horoscope done. To do this, did they refer to the time when a city was supposed to have been founded (i.e born), or were constellations assigned to each geographic area by some medieval system? What cities or regions would have been considered ‘Piscean’ or ‘Capricornian’ or ‘Sagittarian’? Do you know?

    1. I have never heard of an inanimate object having its horoscope done, and can’t see how this would fit into the overall concept of a “horoscope” – how can a city have a birth date and time or be affected by astral influences?
      In “Astrometeorología y astrología medievales” by Prof. Julio Samsó, an excellent resource for this sort of thing, he does not mention any horoscopes being cast for inanimate objects in any of the dozens of medieval examples from the Arab and early Spanish examples he looks at.
      What he does mention are horoscopes being cast for the war leaders who capture cities or win battles in order to see their future prospects; I suppose someone could try to cast a horoscope for a city based upon the date & time the articles of surrender were signed, but I also doubt that anyone would have given credence to such a thing. (Although of course the Arabs loved casting horoscopes for building projects and other short term projects, to decide when the most propitious moment was to start the project).
      One thing is a horoscope, which is supposed to be the prediction of your life; it’s quite another to assign an influence to an area.
      Constellations weren’t assigned to geographical areas AFAIK, although your birth location was an important part of casting your horoscope and horoscope tables were drawn up by geographical locations (so you’d have one table for London, another for Paris, a fourth for Madrid, etc etc – three kids born at the same time in different cities would have different horoscopes).
      What was done was to assign latitudes to signs of the zodiac depending on their correspondence with the astral sphere, which then lead to a massive amount of arguing over the characteristics of various nationalities and nations, etc, etc, etc. Ptomely started it all off when he drew a line through the known world and started ticking off every 30º to a sign. IIRC, Florence’s influence was Aries, and I only know this because of Dante (it’s mentioned in his comedia).

  13. david,
    Thanks – I had an idea it was called “chorographic astrology” but can’t find anything about it online at the moment – my search engine is tempramental that way. It may turn up heaps, tomorrow.

    I smiled at the the “ancient Jewish” picture. That’s the mosaic in Beth Alpha – at Beit She’an/Scythopolis – that I’ve been batting on about now for.. well, a while.

    Save you reading those posts… It is the earliest and only one of two examples of the standing archer for Sagittarius that we have from the earlier period.

    I’ve been writing about Sagittarius lately and explaining that the ‘standing archer’ for Sagittarius was invented by that town and another not far away and *used no-where else*, by anyone but Jews, until it appears (possibly via Spain or England) around the region of Picardy about four or five centuries later, and probably introduced by one particular artist, who was working on the new style of glass-rich architecture (Opus Francigenum) – so called ‘Gothic’ style.

    By imitation from France (around Picardy) we can follow it into more northern regions, including ones where German was the common tongue. Certainly didn’t start there, and isn’t remotely a sign of German origin for the figure in the VMS. Became pretty popular there, though, especially among printers because it was a more versatile block, I suppose.

    aWhether it was ever combined with a crossbow as depiction of the *constellation* is less certain than people suppose. With a crossbow it seems to represent the “saggitarian character” only. So we may not have a figure for Sagittarius in folio 73v at all – raises interesting alternative possibilities that I’m publishing about now.

    Writing the revisionist history is proving fun, with some of my own ideas having to go onto the rubbish-pile along with rather a lot of those which have been repeated so often, and so confidently that we all just supposed that at sometime they’d been argued out, and properly researched and proven. Nup. Not so. Most began with “cause I say so” and then a whole century of “because he said that he said that he said so”.
    About the other thing:
    Could you give me some references to follow up on this. I do tend to avoid reading about astrology. Sends me instantly to sleep. But I need to know about this, and no longer have some of the books I used to.
    Like Fanti’s Trionfo di Fortuna, which would have helped.

    “What was done was to assign latitudes to signs of the zodiac depending on their correspondence with the astral sphere, which then lead to a massive amount of arguing over the characteristics of various nationalities and nations, etc, etc, etc. Ptolemy started it all off when he drew a line through the known world and started ticking off every 30º to a sign.”

    1. Fascinating stuff Diane! The centaur is supposed to be *I’ve forgotten his name* who trained Achilles in Greek mythology, the Scythopolis Jews obviously didn’t know their mythology and disapproved of the hybrid. Or is there another reason? I’ve always wondered about the Jews accepting shellfish in their Zodiac….

      Ptolemy writes about this in book II of his Tetrabiblios, an excellent English language transcription of Frank Egleston Robbins classic translation is available here. You want Book II (3). I must admit I haven’t studied the whole thing in depth, it’s a bit obtuse for me.
      From the Editors Notes (47)(on section 4): Ptolemy divides inquiries about cities and countries into four heads; what place is affected, the time and duration of the event, the generic classification of the event (i.e. what classes, genera, it will affect), and the quality, or nature, of the event itself. His terminology is Aristotelian. The next four chapters deal with the four phases of the inquiry.

      I’m not sure off the top of my head what else to recommend in medieval reading, I’ll look at my notes later and see what occurs to me.

      1. The centaur you are thinking of was Chiron, but he’s correctly the centaur of Centaurus, with a branch and more-or-less the patron of the rhizotomoi, or ‘root gatherers’, the original herbalist-medicine men in Europe.

        The other is a more complex character and originally distinct (Egyptian-Mesopotamian), but once in medieval Latin Europe the two get confused. Already so by the time the ROmans formed their 12-figure, equal division zodiac.

        But not everyone went along with it. You see the more ancient eastern-Greek bow-bearing Pan along side the Roman centaur for Sagittarius as late as the time of Charlemagne.. and so on.

    2. As an afterthought, are you sure the reference wasn’t to some sort of local almanac rather than to a horoscope?

  14. Apparently the term common now is not chorographic astrology but “zodiacal geography”.

    I used to have a copy of Getting’s Dictionary of Astrology (Arkana) but no longer have it. Sure there’d be something in that. I may have to get another. Will let you know how it goes.

  15. Hey David.

    So far the references are
    * Manilius, Astronomicon

    * Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos.
    relevant passage online at:

    Have no idea whether this will lead anywhere, but given the links I’ve demonstrated between f.86v and the Genoese-and-Venetian Vesconti chart-makers, plus the use of the radii stellarum as a means to grid the charts, it seems a fair possibility.

    I’ll look into it.

  16. .. and this is what I was looking for though the preliminary calculations when overhead with a distinct “whooshing” sound. 🙂

    Tuscany, Celtica, and Spain, are connected with Sagittarius and Jupiter; and their inhabitants are lovers of freedom, simplicity, and elegance…

    yesss. So, Ptolemy. Now to cross-check with Manilius.

  17. David,
    I hope this is interesting for you. It’s more your area than mine. I’m at the baby-steps stage with anything astrological, though astronomy as such is easier.

    Here’s the news – though it’s all becoming a bit arcane.
    First, to try and explain why Sagit. has only 30 stars, not 31 (as per Ptolemy and al-Sufi) I’ve been trying to find alternatives. The Leiden Aratea has 26 for Sagittarius, so not that source, apparently.

    In an article for the History of Astronomy journal, Evans said that in the fifteenth century, other star catalogues apart from Ptolemy’s were still being used, including one supposed to be Hipparchus’ (now lost).
    He says:
    In 1892, Ernst Maass published a previously unknown Greek list of the constellations from a manuscript in the Laurentian Library. Other copies were soon turned up elsewhere. In some lists, the text lists only the names of the constellations. In others, the name of each constellation is followed by the number of stars that the constellation contains. Again, in some manuscripts, the constellation list is attributed explicitly to Hipparchus, while in others it is anonymous. A collation and study of the manuscripts was made by Franz Boll. The new constellation list was also discussed at length by Dreyer.
    One of the best texts is found in a fourteenth century manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Grec 2506). Here the text is entitled, ‘From the stars of Hipparchus’ and lists 46 constellations with the number of stars in each..

    Evans, J., ‘On the Origin of the Ptolemaic Star Catalogue – Part One’, Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol.18, NO. 3/AUG,( 1987) pp.155-172.

    BNF Grec 2506 appears not to be online .. unless anyone finds it. 🙂

    Also, Neugebauer says that correspondences between stars and countries is something which at least one early Greek astrologus treated at length. His name is Hephaisto of Thebes… and there is a translation of Hephaisto’s work online – at least in theory. Scribd seem to be a bit conflicted today about whether or not I can download the translation.

    The whole idea of matching stars or constellations with geographic/national regions seems to have been more common in the Hellenistic times than in the Roman period, but I shouldn’t be at all surprised if the Vms’ informing text were pre-Roman in this section; the imagery certainly is, at base, though ‘modernised’ later. That’s why no centaur and no Pan/satyr for Sagittarius.

    Hoping to hear more from some specialists, if they don’t shy away on hearing that they’ll be contributing to Voynich studies. 🙂

    1. Hi Diane,
      I’ve been away for a bit… and then it was too hot to think about these matters 🙁
      The whole notion of linking geographic locations to astrological conditions comes down to us from the Hellenic era, the Romans didn’t seem to have much truck with the idea. Ptolemy of course is one (Coptic but Greek in tradition) and he was but one of several peddling this notion at the time. It was back in the Renaissance that people picked up on the idea afresh and started examining it – Ptolemy was simply the best preserved source that came down to them via the Arabs, and who had most influenced the Arab tradition that would kick start European astrology afresh from the 13th century onwards.

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