Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meet the Authors

Who wrote the book?

Elda Toroi
Fire breaks
My guess is that the authors are not at all a mystery. They even put portraits of themselves enjoying their favorite past-time--a place quite sacred in various cultural traditions, especially, lo and behold, in northern Europe--the sauna/banya/spa. These women are neither Middle Eastern nor Pakistani nor Chinese nor Mexican. They just are not the greatest plant artists. Nor are they from outer space, as has also been postulated, although their ideas about how nature works might strike us as a little alien. Nor are they nymphs, though being called that would probably give them a tickle.

Rather, they are real women, quite a few of them obviously middle-aged, and they are talking among themselves and sweating. They most likely were the midwives and healers of that day--the vǫlur, tietäjäseiðkonur, vísendakona, vǫlva, seiðkona, seiðr, noitacailleach,  emjas'kis' or noaidi. A main job of theirs was to start lives off on the right foot. Toward this end they employed plants, spa/sauna, naming, perhaps chanting, and knowledge of the seasons, and that is what the Voynich mss. deals with. Here is a quick history of midwifery.

But what evidence is there within the manuscript?

To blow = to heal

The woman inside the sun below right looks like she is blowing out air. To the left of her is a scene from the movie "The Cuckoo." In it, the Sami widow Anni blows on near-death Finnish Soldier Veiko to turn him back to the land of the living.
Below is Veiko's soul being beckoned toward the land of the dead.

Below is an excerpt from Vladimir Napolskikh's "Seven Votyak Charms" from Estonian Folklore.
The common Votyak word for the healer (or witch-doctor) is emjas'kis' "healer" - a participle (= nomen agentis) from emjany; "to heal" - or pel'l'as'kis' "blower" - a participle from pel'l'as'kyny "to blow"; the last word describes one of the main ways of magic treatment, well-known throughover all the Europe, when the healer blows upon the water with charming and gives it to the patient to drink. 

Women "in the know" were also known as the vǫlur, tietäjä, seiðkonur, vísendakona, vǫlva, seiðkona, seiðr, noita, cailleach,  emjas'kis' or noaidi.

 Their Knowledge Base

These women were not what we call formally educated. As a rule, with precious few exceptions, women during this era were not supposed to pen anything or paint anything, and certainly never put together something like this. They may not have known how to fashion a sentence. They certainly knew nothing about punctuation or capitalization. Their knowledge of the classics would have been scant at best. And the language they used may have been utterly specific to this purpose.
Seloi Sorei
Tending wounds

They would also not have known the taxonomic nomenclature for the plants they were depicting. In fact, the elaborate receptacles they depict for keeping plant parts may have been visual keys for those who were unable to read. It is common knowledge that folk wisdom tied the shape of the plant's parts to its resemblance to parts of the human body (liverwort's supposed benefits to the liver being the prime example; to learn more about this correlation, go to Ellie Velinska's blog.). Hence the depictions of the plants reflect folk, not scientific, knowledge. As organic as their plant knowledge would have been so would have been these women's map-making skills. I doubt they got their hands on a published work and copied it, for the manuscript is entirely too homespun. Thus, far from the esoteric, the wisdom of the Voynich manuscript is that of the folk.

Their Importance

Soisa Soids
Sounding the Swamp
As discussed in the What They Carried post, involvement by men in the process of childbirth was extremely rare during the century when the Voynich was written. It is good also to keep in mind that in the rural countryside of places like Karelia, the local form of Orthodox faith remained somewhat primitive, incorporating many features of older religious praxis. Literacy among the Orthodox population was low. As late as 1900, it was estimated that of all persons over the age of 15 in East Finland, 32 percent were illiterate. The Orthodox population knew very little of their faith except the outer forms. If this was true for the general population, imagine how much more scarce classical literacy was specifically among women. 

Yet at a time when as much as one in three children did not survive to adulthood and perhaps as many as 1 in 100 women died during childbirth, the value by other folk placed on women assuming the role of ensuring successful births cannot be underestimated. Hence, they probably grew relatively wealthy and powerful healing and helping with births, and well-trained in their art/folk practice.

Their Position in History

The manuscript is radiocarbon dated from between 1404 and 1438. During this time, one of the earliest large-scale witch hunts was taking place in Valais (Switzerland). In Germany, Johannes Nider was writing Formicarius, in which he described the witch as uneducated and more commonly female, blaming the sex's supposed vulnerability to evil on what he considered women's physical, mental, and moral inferiority. The Czech Republic has an ancient tradition known as Burning of the Witches, where in celebration of the coming of spring straw effigies of old women symbolizing winter/the old/evil get thrown onto a pyre. It was the slightest twist of medieval imagination to accept an actual, flesh and blood old woman to be tossed on there instead.
The ball hanging above the figures bears the letters "OGH" - meaning
"Odium generis humani -
odium of the human race", or possibly "Oh Gott hüte" (Oh God Forbid). 
In 1409 pope Alexander V commissioned Pons Feugeyron to prosecute people for witchcraft. In 1437 Eugenius IV authorized inquisitors to prosecute people for sorcery. In 1451 Nicholas V authorized the head inquisitor of France to prosecute diviners. What, I wonder, had them so alarmed?

During such hunts, torture led to confessions of flying on poles, kissing Satan's anus, casting spells on neighbors, having sex with animals, and causing storms. By the mid-1400s, the distinctive crime of witchcraft had begun to take shape. By the end of the Valais hunt alone, over 350 persons had been either tortured to death, burned at the stake, or decapitated.

Why at this time? What prompted the church leaders to act? Surely heresy abounded, but why now all this talk on sorcery? Why, of a sudden, is it time for folk wisdom to be deemed occult and for systematic persecutions to be organized on a large scale?

Soilor Jeloi
Sign: Glow of the Northern Lights
The following is from Vladimir Napolskikh's article in Folklore titled Seven Votyak Charms:
"Though the healers - and it seems to be an old traditional feature - do never use to demonstrate their power in public, they are always highly respected and guarded (especially - during the Soviet age) by the local population because of being regarded as good people who can never make any harm. Thus, they stay in opposite to the witchs or sourcerers (vot. vedin /vegin< rus. vedun "witch, sourcerer (masc.)")."
It is similar to this description of Saint Walpurgis:
"However, St. Walpurgis was not a witch, on the contrary, she had the power to protect people against witchcraft. She was a renowned simpler and healer."
What you have been if you were a woman helping people give birth, overcome illness, dispel bad wishes, or make sense of lives has no comprehensive English term. We say healer, we say midwife, we say simpler. We would never, unless we were looking to have that person burned, say witch
There are similarities between Iceland's magic books of later centuries and the Voynich manuscript.

In the Voynich manuscript, we have an eye into that more innocent time and place. At the very cusp of impending disaster, every page blithely celebrates women's wisdom. Viewed in this light, the Voynich manuscript has gone from being the most mysterious manuscript in the world to being its most poignant.

Seen through the lens of their time, the 15th century, the Voynich women manage a pretty impressive rap sheet.
Let's say you're a bunch of women who have made nude pictures of yourselves bathing in caves and holding up various implements that are coming to be highly associated with witchcraft: a staff, a drop spindle, and a torc. And you've written, and you've drawn lovely star charts, and you've painted even funny little creatures, and you've put down all this knowledge about medicinal herbs, and your book falls into the hands of people who neither understand nor appreciate what you're up to, despite the fact that there is not a hint of satanism, devil worship, the occult, or even alchemy, but simple folk wisdom.
For one hundred years or more, the Voynich manuscript's whereabouts are unknown. Yet, notice it survived, being neither burned nor otherwise destroyed. Was it circulated? Did it sound an alarm among church and state to a perceived circumvention of authority? Might it have helped start the authorities' fear of the occult in folk wisdom?

“Where we burn one man, we burn maybe ten women.” 
—von Kaiserback, Die Emeis, early 1500s

Make no mistake. During this time in Europe's history, men in authority were at war with women community leaders on the scale of the genocidal. This manuscript has the names of these women and their descendants. If the authorities could have read it, and perhaps they could have, then it made for easy pickins for the stake.

If the women resided more toward the south or west, then I do not doubt that many of those depicted and named in the Voynich manuscript became terrified for their lives and the lives of their families. I seriously doubt they survived past the manuscript's writing. The Jesuits, who were known to be lukewarm to the witch hunts, may have acquired the manuscript and decided to keep it.

If the women resided more toward the north or east, then they and their people would have lived relatively free of religious cleansing until around a century later. Many of the folk who might have kept this manuscript during that time as part of their heritage lost their lives and possessions to Ivan IV during his reign of terror.

Water Ordeal
The next person who with a certainty owned the Voynich manuscript was Jacobus Sinapius, Jakub Hořčický of Tepenec, around a century later. He appears to have put his name on it and possibly then rubbed it out, as if he thought better of claiming it. Could some of his pharmaceutical knowledge, like the water of mustard recipe that a hundred years later made Sinapius so rich, have come from the Voynich manuscript?

For centuries afterward, women's status did not get better, it got worse. As time marched on into the age of rationalism and the rise of professionals (see Michel Foucault for the history of institutionalization and the usurpation of authority) women's power and play with knowledge did not go unchecked or un-usurped. Thus, we know so little about these women or their work today that some have even assumed this remnant came from outer space. In fact, even women scholars would rather hunt for Leonardo da Vinci's name in the plants' leaves than recognize the obvious.

We could keep groping for some other history. These women have survived this long in plain view with very little thought to them. For anyone who opens the Voynich manuscript, they'll just keep being there, quietly smiling.
Ela Ika
Life's Span

Soisa Jelus
Performing Music
Sia Ora
Foretelling Alder
Eilka Eluia
Cleansing Oak 

Ploi Alusa
Rain (either to make beer or watercraft)

Nymphs are young, brain-dead pieces of hypersexualized flesh that serve no purpose other than to be depicted by painters and poets as the personification of the allure and danger of nature and as targets for rape. Consequently, in art and literature nymphs so rarely hold any implement or tool or device that one may wonder why God gave them hands. To the contrary, the Voynich women hold quite a few things, many of them symbols of women's power, such as seidr staffs, distaffs, spoons, and a drop spindle. In addition, they are much older than your typical nymph, and their faces contain a great amount of individuality and personality. They are not nymphs.

Hey wait a minute, that guy's naked.
We'll just ignore the lettering above him and call him a nymph.

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