A Mandaean connection? by Darren Worley

Here I present a short paper sent to me by Darren Worley, arguing for a Mandaean connection:

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“I think that there is evidence of a Mandaean influence in the VM. I would suggest that the text might be Mandaic, a close-cousin of Syriac. This is the language of the Mandaeans.

The purpose of this posting is to describe in greater detail the similarities that I’ve found, and hopefully encourage others to find more, and test this hypothesis.

In brief, the Mandaeans follow an ancient Gnostic religion from Mesopotamia/Persia that continues to this day. Their origins are unclear; some sources suggest that they are descended from the Jewish tribes who remained in Babylon, and others suggest a link with the “Sabians of Harran”.

Not wishing to repeat what’s better explained elsewhere, these links give a good introduction to their faith and language.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandaean

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandaeans

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandaic_language

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabians_of_Harran

At the very beginning of my VM research, purely from what I could determine from a visual inspection and from what I learnt from Prof. Baxs’ paper, I wrote a list of what I could assume about the community that created the VM. It was something like this:

  • Belief in ritual cleansing/bathing
  • Use of herbs in medicine
  • Strong tradition in astrology, divination
  • Likely Persian/Turkish/Caucasus/Arabic influence
  • Absence of Christian iconography
  • Peculiar interest in nymphs/angels
  • Some catastrophic event occurred to the community resulting in their written dialect/language being lost (e.g. displacement, massacre, famine etc.)

When I started researching medieval Arabic alchemy and astrology I kept coming across repeated references to the Mandaeans (aka Sabians, or Mandeans) in the context of astrology and divination. In fact, these appeared so often that I started researching their history, customs and beliefs in more detail.

I was able to tick-off all my assumptions and identify additional similarities.

Textual Similarities/Evidence

1) In Mandaic, the constellation of Taurus is known as Taura [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934]. In the VM f68r3 Taurus is also written as Taura [eva : doaro].

2) A peculiarity of Mandaean cosmology is that they believe all the stars rotate around the pole-star (Polaris). Mandaeans pray towards this star, and the dead are aligned towards it. Polaris is their most important celestial object.

The “Dictionary of Religions” vol3  (Forlong) p213, on Sabians, states : the pole star is the “central sun, the jewelled crown which stands before the door of Abathur” , who is the “father of the door”.

(In  Mandaic, Baba  = father and thur = door, or gate, probably from the Greek; thura; θύρα). I believe  “thur” (Abathur) is synonymous with the pole-star, meaning gate, door or portal.

E.S.Drower in her paper (Mandaean Writings, 1934 p174) explains the use of an angelic or deity termination, -‘il or -‘iil, when a “son of Ur” is invoked. This is used when referring to a Deity in a cosmological context. Examples given by Drower are:

  • Taura – > Tauriil or Tauril
  • Libat (Venus) -> Zahril.

I would therefore expect “thur” (Abathur) to become “thur’iil” when used in a cosmological context.

I believe the text of on f57v at the 10o’clock position (EVA: dairol; th/o/u/r/a/l) signifies the “pole-star”. “thoural” is quite close to the predicted ““thur’iil”.  (See my other discussion on the meaning of f57v).

The slight difference might be explained by (3).

3) Drower often bemoans the poor standard of manuscript copying by semi-literate priests. [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934, p178; A Mandaean Book of Black Magic p3]. One other thing to consider is that different sections of the VM might have been copied from earlier manuscripts from different sources and possibly generations apart in age. The spelling is likely to be inconsistent and sometimes illegible.

4) Drower mentions the delimiting of passages of text using an abbreviation and a religious formula.  [ref: Drower, Mandaean Writings, 1934 p172]. I think this might explain the frequent repetition of the “eva:dain” (th/u/ur) word in the VM. I think this relates to ‘Uthra which occurs frequently in Mandaean prayers.(Drower, Canonical Prayerbook)

5) Borrowings from Persian, Arabic should be expected [Drower. Mandaeans of Iraq & Iran, p37 gives examples].

6) Several researchers have identified St.Johns Wort as the first herb in the VM. (There is some textual evidence, as well as visual evidence, to support this attribution).  An early name by which Mandaeans were known was “St.John Christians”. The Mandeans emphasized their links with the prophet, St. John, as it conferred special status with Islamic society and reduced persecution. This provides an explanation for why St. John’s Wort [Hypericum perforatum] possibly appears first.

Historical Similarities/Evidence

1) One explanation for the disappearance of the written dialect/language is reported by (Drower: Mandeans of Iraq. p14). The end of one Mandaean magic roll records a horrible slaughter of the Mandaeans by the Arabs in the 14th century in Jazirah  [….]  This  massacre  left  the  community  broken and  with  no  priests  for  years,  resulting  in  such  an impression  on  the Mandaeans’ collective memory that they mentioned it as one of the biggest disasters of the community even centuries later.

2) As has been described elsewhere, the figure shown in f57 is believed to show an astronomical instrument (al-Bayda). This was first described by Al-Buttani, a Sabain/Mandaean astronomer in 911.

Contextual Similarities/Evidence

1) Mandaeans have a tradition of ritual cleansing/bathing/purification especially for women during childbirth and when menstruating [Drower. Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran. Chapter 7]

  • They practice baptism, and hold special reverence for flowing water. Mandaeans call themselves “subba” or “sabba” this comes from the Arabic word “to plunge in, submerge”. [Drower, Meandeans of Iraq. p 16]
  • It has been noted on this website that the word for flowing water has been suggested/identified in the VM
  • Encyclopedia of Religions v3. Pg. 212 On Sabians reports that they “dip themselves into a river naked” cf. the naked figures in the VM
  • The cult-hut (Manda, or mandi) (Drower, Mandaeans of Iraq, p126) look similar to the  huts, next of the female figures, on the inner ring f70r

2) Use of herbs in medicine

  • This is reported by Drower [Meandaeans of Iraq and Iran. p83.] cf. the herbal section of the VM

3) Strong tradition of astrology, divination

  • This is reported by Drower [Book of the Zodiac p.56 / Book of the Stars] cf. the astrological section of the VM
  • All Mandaeans have both a zodiacal name and a birth name.
  • The importance of astrology in Mandaean culture is attested by the large number of astrological/magic texts. (Ref: Drower, Book of the Zodiac)

4) Arabic/Persian influence in VM

  • Mandaeans originated in Mesopotamia/Persia and most continued to do so until fairly recently cf. several words of an Arabic origin have been identified in the VM. (see Prof. Bax paper)

Contents and Structure of VM – Similarities/Evidence 

1) The VM is collection of separately themed manuscripts cf. Drower reports in the Book of Zodiac (p.1) that most of the longer Mandaic manuscripts [are] a miscellany, a group of manuscripts of varying source and date. If the VM does follow the structure of a Mandaean manuscript then last page probably contains a colophon describing the genealogy of the priests who wrote it.

2) The mythological section of the VM (f75 onwards) is possibly an illustrated version of a Mandaean religious text. Likely candidates are Book of Esdras, or Book of Enoch. These are apocryphal books from the Old Testament. Parts of the canon of Mandaean religious books include the “Book of John (the Baptist)” and the “Book of Adam”. Mandaeans also venerate biblical figures like Enoch and Noah. Perhaps the mythological section is another of these texts? (The Book of Enoch is an astronomical text describing the Babylonian calendar and associates stars with angels, whereas, Esdras is an apocalyptic book.)

  • The association that Mandaeans make between stars and angels may also explain the appearance of the figures surrounding the zodiacal section of the VM (f70 – f73)

I should add that most extant Mandaean manuscripts date from C16th onwards and as far as I know, no earlier illustrated manuscripts exist. The iconography of the later manuscripts do not look like the VM, however the C14th massacre and the loss of the priestly class, described above, might explain why.

In summary, I believe –

1) The VM has a strong Mandaean influence. I believe it probably originated in a Mandaean community, or from a breakaway sect.  They were a persecuted minority and it appears there have been several break-away groups and migrations in the past (the Yezidis, Parsees in India). So I concede that it may originate from one of these other sects that have retained some of their earlier customs.

2) The VM is probably a copy of an original text, since Mandaeans revered the cow/bull and they didn’t write on vellum (ref: uncertain.).

Predictions

1) I would also expect to find frequent occurrences of the words for “Subba” (their word for themselves), and words associated with submersion, baptism and flowing water, and also words for their numerous Gods and Deities.

2) Close textual analysis may also reveal matches with extant manuscripts:

  • Perhaps the mythological section can be matched against other known manuscripts (not all known Mandaean manuscripts have been translated yet)
  • Maybe the text accompanying the “al-Bayda” astronomical instrument on f57v, can be matched against known Al-Battani (or similar) writings.

3) Expect to find a Babylonian influence within the astronomical/astrological sections. There will also be similarities with the Hebrew calendar as a result of their common Babylonian origin.

 

Most of the books I’ve referred to are freely available for download on the web. The books by Drower are all quite readable in their own right.

This website gives a good summary of the Drower books I used: www.farvardyn.com/mandaean.php

 

Finally, I just wanted to give some reasons why I rejected an alternate hypothesis that the VM is of early Jewish origin.

Many of the similarities I found could also apply to a Jewish community:

  • There is a Jewish mystical tradition (Kabballah) with regional variation (eg. Chassidei Ashkenaz)
  • The Jewish “Sefer Evronot” (Book of Intercalations) is a compilation on Hebrew calendars, for use  in the planning of religious festivals.(similar to VM f57v)
  • The “Book of Enoch” is an apocryphal Old Testament text.
  • Jewish communities also have been subject to displacement and massacres
  • Ritual purification exists within the Jewish faith
  • The similarities of the VM with a Jewish midrash – a commentary on a book of the bible.

However, the textual matches, the possibility that the astronomical instrument (f57v) is of C10th Sabian/Mandaean origin and the possibility that the first plant is St. John’s Wort, leads me to believe that a Mandaean origin is slightly more probable.”

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Thanks to Darren Worley. Any comments welcome.

 

 

22 Comments

  1. One reason why there is no punctuation in VM, could be that these are a series of astrological or astronomical readings. So, it may be a short hand script using various astrological and/or astronomical symbols. The text might read something like “The Moon at 129 degrees rising in the house of Scorpio with Pisces descending”. I notice that the taller characters in VM usually come close to the beginning of each grouping of symbols. Is it possible that these symbols are actually some sort of mathematical cipher grouping, similar to those of the Cistercians? They often included ciphers in their Latin text. The calligraphy in VM is beautiful. I can’t really say that about all of the drawings though. So, the author may have wanted to make the number ciphers just as beautiful and florid as the other symbols. My husband is a calligrapher, so I appreciate the perfection of the symbols in VM.

    I have been working on a table of astrological/astronomical/cipher symbols that I think might make excellent matches for the Voynich script. Note: I am not a calligrapher.

    This is all speculation on my part as I am also not an astrologer nor an astronomer. However, as a musician I have been reading a universal language most of my life. I am trained to read symbols at a very rapid speed and as accurately as possible. According to Professor David King, the Cistercians could read their mathematical ciphers very rapidly. I am only guessing at how the VM script could be using a veiled form of cipher math disguised by beautiful calligraphic strokes. I will post what I have so far, but please to not judge me too harshly on my artwork. I have also included a few of the cipher stick figures at the end of my table for comparison. If I missed any obvious period scientific symbols, please let me know, so I can add them to my table. Thanks!

  2. Mike Brady

    Consider if you wanted to hide a sample of medicine derived from a plant, what better place than in the drawing of that plant using the plant matter as pigment.

  3. I thought everyone accepted that the visible heavens appear to rotate about the Pole star – whichever Pole star was recognised by a given people at any given time.

    • Darren Worley

      The significance of the Pole-Star, is not just that the heavens appears to rotate around it, but that whoever wrote the VM has named this star with the -il suffix, which suggests that it was an object of veneration or worship.

      I believe this is significant as the Gnostic Mandaeans are known to venerate this star, as described. Does anyone know of any other cultures that venerate this star?

      The use of the -il suffix when referring to a Deity, seems to originate within early Hebrew/Jewish culture. This apparently is the reason why the -iel or -el suffix is frequently used in the names of Biblical figures and angels.

      eg:
      Uriel
      Remiel
      Gabriel
      Zadkiel
      Jophiel
      Haniel

      and
      Daniel
      Ezekiel etc.etc

      A comprehensive list can be found here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theophory_in_the_Bible

      I was fascinated to learn that the use of the -il termination when referring to a Deity, was also practiced by another religious sect related to the Mandaeans, namely the Bogomils.

      Quote: “He had now become the angel Michael in a human form; as such he vanquished Satanail, and deprived him of the termination -il = God, in which his power resided.”

      This appears to suggest a linguistic link, in addition to the religious similarities, between these two Gnostic sects.

      Re: Dualist beliefs and customs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogomilis

      Interestingly, the Bogomils – a Gnostic sect that originated in Turkey and migrated into Europe in the from the 10th century. [ref: Wikipedia in the section on “Dualist beliefs and customs”]. The Bogomils are generally thought to be a Manichean religious sect – but this link is tenuous [ref: Wikipedia].

      The Wikipedia entry provides a map of the migration of the Bogomils from the 10th to the 15th century. They originated in Turkey and migrated through the Balkans, before dividing and migrating either northwards into Central Northern Europe or taking a Southern Route across North Italy into Southern France.

      What I find fascinating about this is that it shows Gnostic religious ideas (the Mandaeans are also Gnostics) were circulating in Europe in the medieval period. It also suggests that Gnostic communities were located in Northern Italy around the time the VM was copied/created. (It has been suggest that the VM may originate from Northern Italy.)

      A Bogomil origin for the VM might explain some of the various influences researchers have proposed:

      1) Greek influence – Bogomilism thrived in the Balkans, Bulgaria and Macedonia prior to the Ottoman invasion. These regions were earlier under Hellenistic influence.

      2) Gnostic influence – there is a strong similarity between the cosmological diagram described on f57v and Gnostic/Mandaean cosmology.

      3) Left-right direction of writing, perhaps suggests a Slavic/Greek influence. The Bogomils are thought to have written in the Slavic Glagolitic script.

      4) Some of the European imagery proposed in the VM could be explained if it originated within the medieval Bogomil community.

      Its also interesting to note that the Bogomils were virtually exterminated firstly by wars with Hungary in the 13-15th century and latterly with the Ottoman advance through the Balkans in 1462 – shortly after the date at which the VM was created. If the VM is a Bogomil text, this could explain its uniqueness, as this community would have been exterminated soon after the VM’s creation.

      This also fits in nicely with one the earliest known owners of the VM : Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1576–1612), King of Hungary and Croatia (as Rudolf I, 1572–1608) and King of Bohemia (1575–1608/1611). Perhaps the VM represents a text acquired during these wars?

      I believe this is an interesting line of investigation. Even if the Bogomil connection proves groundless, I am certain that the VM contains many references to Gnostic beliefs. I intend to post a longer paper identifying these similarities in more detail.

      Has anyone else identified any similarities between the VM and Bogomilism? Is anything known about Bogomil cosmology – are the Bogomils known to have venerated the pole-star?

      • Derek Vogt

        Have you identified more words in the manuscript which seem to use EVA-L as /L/ and EVA-O as /i/?

  4. This is all a fascinating read, to be sure. I’m left, however, with quite a few questions.

    1. Mandeans bathe clothed in their white robes. Why are the Voynich women all naked?
    2. Mandeans wear just the white robe. Why do the Voynich women sport head-dresses?
    3. Mandeans go into the water holding nothing. Why do three Voynich women hold torcs, one a staff, another a large spoon, another a bucket, another a drop spindle, and another a sponge?
    4. Being Semites, Mandeans are overwhelmingly dark-haired. Why are the Voynich women overwhelmingly blond and fair-skinned?
    5. Mandeanism is dualistic with a mother/father deity and male and (perhaps?) female religious leaders. Where are the men in the Voynich?
    6. Where is the most prevalent graphic in Mandean scripture, the stick-figure with his rectangular body, Abatur?
    7. Are the zodiac symbols used in the Voynich Mandean? Are the charts based on the Mandaean solar calendar consisting of 12 months, each consisting of exactly 30 days, with an additional 5 days added at the end of the year which do not belong to any month? If so, that would be an impressive correlation.

    18 Correlations to Northwestern Europe

  5. MarcoP

    While researching the Paranatellonta (a subject related with the Voynich Zodiac pages) I read about the interesting figure of Ibn Wahshiyya. This X Century scholar (possibly of Syrian origin) translated an Arabic text about magic (the “Nabataean Agriculture”). The book includes a list of Paranatellonta and “contains valuable information on agriculture and superstitions, and in particular discusses beliefs attributed to the Sabeans” (wikipedia).
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Wahshiyya
    http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2830904536.html
    http://goo.gl/Y11LuN

    Ibn Wahshiyya was an expert in complex alphabets. He studied the Egyptian hieroglyphs and apparently was also involved in cryptography.
    His book about Egypt is available on-line in Arabic and English (“Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained: With an Account of the Egyptian Priests, Their Classes, Initiation, and Sacrifices”, by Ahmad Ibn-‘Ali Ibn-Wahsiya -or Ahmad Bin Abubekr Bin Wahshih-, translated by Joseph Hammer):
    http://books.google.it/books?id=8GZEAAAAcAAJ

    The connection of Ibn Wahshiyya with the Voynich manuscript has been suggested before. For instance it is mentioned in a comment by Diane here:
    http://www.ciphermysteries.com/2009/06/08/jewish-arabic-voynich-theory

  6. Darren Worley

    I believe that I have identified the origin of the prefix that is used to name many of the Deities and Angels.

    I’ve been researching the etymology of the Mandaic word “Aba”. I first mentioned this word in relation to the proposed identification of the pole-star in f57v.

    In Mandaic, “Aba” means father [Ref: A Mandaic Dictionary, Drower & Macuch, 1963] and it is derived from the Aramaic root “Ab”. Here is some explanation of its origin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ab_(Semitic)

    (Interestingly, the English word Abbot derives from this word)

    Curiously, the similar word “Baba” also means gate, door or portal in Mandaic. [ref: as above] This also seems to derive from Aramaic. (Mandiac is variety of Aramaic. ref: wikipedia)

    (I have previously noted the Judeo-Christian symbolism linking a Door/portal with a guiding star.)

    It would therefore seem that in Mandaic “Aba” possibly has a dual meaning – its means both Father (a parent and a male Deity) and it is closely related to Door/Portal, and this is synonymous with a star. Per hasps the two words share a common origin?

    The connection of a Deity with a star is relevant given that so many of the VM angel/figures also seem to be associated with stars. Crucially, I also noticed that many of the angels have names starting with (eva:ot). This, I believe, is from is the Aramaic “Ab”.

    I therefore suggest that the common prefix to many of the Deities in the VM is “Ab” (eva: ot) meaning a Deity and also a Star. (This is one of the most common prefixes in the VM.)

    The symbol looking like a large pi – therefore signifies the letter “b”.

    I would suggest that rather than being exclusively applied to male Deities, this naming scheme relevant to both male and female Deities, based on its appearance and usage in the VM. This prefix doesn’t appear to be used exclusively for all Deities, but very often.

    I have managed to translate a couple of Sabian/Mandaean Deity names, (starting with the “Ab” prefix), and I’ll post these to the relevant thread. (starting with f57v)

    • Darren Worley

      Further to my proposal about the meaning of the eva:ot prefix, I have some comments about the pronunciation of “Abathur”. This is the text (eva:otodar) that appears on f57v on the innermost ring at 7 o’clock position. This is the name of a Sabian/Mandaean deity.

      Drower (in Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran) refers to both “Abathur” and “Awathur” (with a line above the w). The spelling with “b” is used predominantly but these terms are used interchangeably.

      Drower makes occasional remarks on Mandaean pronunciation, one relevant example concerns the God/Planet Mercury. It is written as Nebo or Nbo, but pronounced as Enwo. [Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, p240]. Again the (eva:t) is pronounced as “w”.

      Is the pronunciation of (eva:t) as “w” significant? Does the shape of the VM character for eva:t relate to the “w” sound in other known languages? (perhaps a question for Derek)

      • Derek Vogt

        Once you have a theory for a letter’s sound based on its apparent use in names, looking for another similar-looking letter with a similar sound can be intriguing, but isn’t useful for validating or refuting the phonetic theory. There are just too many odd things that can happen in an individual letter’s history, with the end result that the ones that are connected to each other often don’t resemble each other while some that aren’t coincidentally do. You can compare whole alphabets once you have multiple letters that seem to match, and you can make phonetic predictions based on patterns among the letters within an alphabet, but these things are very exception-prone. For example, the fact that [B], [D], and [P] look similar and represent plosives could lead someone who isn’t already reading this alphabet to expect [R] to be a plosive, which it isn’t. In fact, [R] once looked like [P], and [P] looked like [Π] but was influenced by the other three letters in this group to converge on them so much that [R] needed a recurved extension just to stay distinct from it.

        And the Voynich alphabet’s tall two-legged letters with the loops & spikes on top are even worse about that than usual because they’re not only so different from most other letters (except for about half of the Glagolitic alphabet, which is just as useless to us as none) but also so much like each other. That means they’re likely to be more influenced by each other than by their own previous forms or counterparts in other alphabets, whether by convergence & redifferentiation (like in the above example) or by one of them being derived directly from another, as with our [C] & [G], [I] & [J], and [U] & [V] & [W], so such a derivative would have no separate connections of its own to earlier or outside letters.

        So, whatever sounds you get just from the letters’ use in names, just go with that. If it looks like something else with a similar sound, it does, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t but that’s normal too. I actually can come up with connections from this letter to some other letters, even if I assume other sounds including “L” (as possibly indicated by star names, which tend to start with Arabic “al”) or some other sounds that aren’t indicated by phonetics anywhere I know of at all, but obviously most of the results would have to be examples of what scientists call “confirmation bias” (the tendency to see what you were already expecting).

        And just going by the Voynich letters’ apparent use in names, I see one pretty sound reason to expect your inferred sound here to be /b/, not /w/. We already have another letter to which we can assign /w/ (and it’s one of the list of Voynich letters that do seem to resemble their Syriac phonetic counterparts, in this case Waw), and we don’t have another /b/ yet. Also, in your own example where the idea of /w/ in these cases even came up, it was with a letter normally associated with /b/, after a sound shift was applied, like our tendency to pronounce [s] as /z/. In that case, if the letter we’re dealing with has any other connections elsewhere, it would have to be to something equivalent to our [b], Greek beta, and Aramaic-derived alphabets’ bet/beth, and we would have to treat it as representing /b/ until a solid argument can be made otherwise (which we don’t know nearly enough for yet).

        • Derek Vogt

          Something else to keep in mind in general about assigning sound values to letters…

          There aren’t many voynich letters left compared to the number of sounds in most languages or even letters in most alphabets. That means this alphabet is bound have more cases than we’d otherwise expect of letters forced into double-duty, either representing two different sounds on their own or participating in digraphs (two-letter combinations like our [th] & [sh]) to represent more sounds. The /k/ we have so far is already an example of the former, equating to not just /k/ but also /q/ and possibly even /’/ in Arabic words.

          In fact, I’ve been going through a long list of suggested plant identifications and looking up foreign names for them, and was planning on writing up some of what I’ve seen so far although I’m nowhere near done with the list, including proposing both a letter with a combination of two related sound values and our first possible Voynich digraph.

          Unfortunately, the former would contradict what you’ve got here in a couple of ways (a different sound for this letter, and a different letter for this sound) and the latter is a fairly zany idea with only two dubious examples, so I’m holding off on that for a while…

    • Darren Worley

      A more straightforward argument, to the same end, would be to to suggest that the (eva:ot) prefix, used at the beginning of many of the VM angels, is an abbreviation of the Mandaic word “abr’ill” meaning genie [as in a spirit or demon]

      Interestingly, the origin of this word is Sabian. [ref: A Mandaic Dictionary, Drower & Macuch, 1963]

      This gives me greater confidence that the underlying VM text is Mandaic
      (specifically a Sabian dialect of Mandaic dating from the 10-13th century).

      I would therefore expect to find further similarities with Mandaic (and Aramaic) words from this time period.

  7. Derek Vogt

    In Mandaean tradition, or for that matter any other that includes the use of medicinal herbs and ritual bathing, is there any precedent for bathing in herb-infused water? I know this has been done in Japan, and although I’m pretty sure what we’re dealing with here isn’t Japanese, it would explain why the water is green: even if whatever’s in there didn’t dissolve thoroughly enough to make the liquid truly green, a large number of tiny clippings from plants would have been too much to depict separately and would make the liquid seem generally green from more than a meter or two away. And this low-resolution style of drawing often calls for a simplifying visual shorthand like that anyway, like using fishnet lines to depict chain maille armor or exaggerating the differences in dress between two parties interacting with each other… or not coloring in alternating leaves when too many leaves are jumbled together, as seen elsewhere in this book.

    • Marnix Hoekstra

      I have an alternative idea about the green water: a low-budget style of drawing 😉 Blue pigment was expensive and the VM artist uses it sparingly, for example a flower in f38v.

      • Darren Worley

        Good point Marnix.

        I also noticed the lack of yellow pigment too – I would have expected the VM to contain many more yellow flowers. (This absence has also been noted by the “Anonymous Biologist”.)

        Has anyone else noticed the Arabic looking text at the centre of the flower on f28v? Can anyone translate it?

        I wonder if this text is referring to a colour? Perhaps the illustrator simply wrote the colour here as they lacked the appropriate coloured paint?

  8. Derek Vogt

    Well, I didn’t know all of that about Mandaean culture before (and the bit about polytheism is particularly surprising), and don’t know enough about any alternatives to compare & contrast them myself. I am intrigued by how close your conclusion is to one that I came up with by completely different means, that resemblances between certain Voynich and Syriac letters indicated possible derivation of the Voynich alphabet from a Syriac or a slightly pre-classical-Syriac (late Middle Aramaic) precursor. The fact that you mentioned Syriac a couple of times as closely related linguistically, but but didn’t include it as fitting your description of the Voynich culture, tells me that Syriac culture isn’t a good fit. Your essay made me take another look at the Mandaean alphabet as a potential source for the Voynich alphabet, and I still don’t see such a resemblance there like I did with the Syriac one. But I think the VM’s actual origin still fits both of our theories, in a way. I think the Voynich people & language were neither Mandaean nor Syriac nor anything closely related to them, but borrowed heavily.

    When the VM was written, and centuries earlier when Mandaean and Syriac separated (which must have been around the end of the period identified with Middle Aramaic, about 1200), they had already had an alphabet for ages and no reason to replace it or heavily modify it. Known derivatives of the Aramaic alphabet (Mandaean, Syriac, modern standard Hebrew, a bunch of Medieval takes on cursive Hebrew, Nabataean, modern Arabic, and more) all use the same original 22 letters for close to the same sounds. In Arabic (which is in a separate branch of the Semitic family from the others), there are a few cases of duplication with dots added or lost (which is a bit like counting German [ä] separately from [a]), one of which was a sibilant that replaced another sibilant. No other Semitic language did even that much, and neither Arabic nor any other Semitic language made any other kinds of changes, such as adding any purely new or extra-Aramaic letters, more thoroughly altering the appearance of a duplicate, dropping any of the originals, or entirely replacing any letters’ sound values. All that changed is the way the letters look.

    And the Voynich alphabet is clearly not just another example of Aramaic with a new look. If it came from an Aramaic-based alphabet at all, then it dropped some letters, either gained some new ones or reshaped some originals beyond recognition, and reassigned/replaced some sound values, including creating a new class of letters, the dedicated vowels. Alphabet remodeling on that level only happens when an alphabet jumps from one language family to another, such as Phoenician to Greek, Greek to Latin to modern English/European, and Greek to Cyrillic/Slavic. Also, by that time, Aramaic derivatives had settled on right-to-left as the standard direction, which a Voynich-as-Aramaic alphabet would have needed to reverse.

    So the alphabet’s changes look like what would have resulted from the adoption of an Aramaic-derived alphabet by people whose language is not Aramaic/Semitic. Either that, or its origin is thoroughly independent of the Aramaic alphabet, which still indicates that the culture & language were not Aramaic/Semitic. I don’t think they were Greek-speakers either, for the same reason: Greek language had also already had an alphabet for ages and no need for a new one.

    The Voynich people’s willingness to use cow hide for a book would be another example of something they didn’t get from the Mandaeans. They would have just imported & modified late Middle Aramaic (pre-Syriac) writing and parts of late Middle Aramaic/Mandaean natural philosophy, and/or might even be the source from which the Mandaeans imported some of the latter.

  9. Marnix Hoekstra

    This is a very fascinating paper. I’ll concede that you have a stronger argument than my Persian-Mongolian hypothesis 😉
    Talking about Revelations, in 4:1 it mentions θύρα ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ: a door in the sky/heaven (same word in Greek). This could have been interpreted as referring to a star.

  10. I think the Mandaic alphabet is already sufficiently incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Why the author of the manuscript tries to disguise it?
    Best regards
    Ruby

  11. Darren Worley

    I have a feeling that the fact that the word I’ve identified for the pole-star (thoural/thur’ill) is related to the Greek for door or gate, is quite significant.

    This has strong Judeo-Christian symbolism.

    I’m certainly no Biblical scholar, but what springs to mind is a passage from John 10:9 (another St.John reference!) “I am the door, through me if any one may come in, he shall be saved […]”

    Knowning that the pole-star is used for navigation, and the link with door/gate. This passage could be interpreted as “I am the guiding star, …”

    I’m suggesting that the VM shares a common Judeo-Christian origin. This again fits with a Mandaean/Sabian attribution.

    Another parallel, I’ve identified, is taken from Drower (Mandeans of Iraq and Iran, p240) concerns the Mandaean alphabet.

    Quote: The alphabet is called by the Mandaeans the Abaga. Each letter according to them represents a power of life and light, and the first and last letters, the “alpha and the omega” are the same and represent perfection of light and life.

    The phrase “alpha and omega” is used an appellation of Jesus in Book of Revelation (verses 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13).

    • Derek Vogt

      If the language is not a Semitic language but instead one spoken by some other group of people who interacted with them and shared some philosophical & religious ideas with them, then you don’t even need the last letter of “Thoura_” to turn out to be an “L”. It could just as well be the root word you’re talking about, with a Voynichese suffix, like when English conjugates imported foreign verbs with the English “s/ed/ing” or pluralizes imported foreign nouns with the English “s”.

  12. Darren Worley

    I just wanted to report one correction.

    There should have been one additional prediction:

    4) A Greek influence in the text would be possible. Contemporary Muslim sources refer to Sabians as Syriac-speaking pagans and Greek immigrants. (ref : Gündüz, The Knowledge of Life, p.131-32, p. 51, p. 37). The Sabian astronomer, Thabit ibn Qurra (826-901), a contemporary of Al-Battani, was reported to be fluent in Greek and Arabic, in addition to his native Syriac. I realize this is just one individual but I just wanted to use this to illustrate the possible Greek influence. Various other sources refer to the Hellenised Sabians.

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