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.
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
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.
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. 🙂