Sunday, October 18, 2015


Some say the women in the Voynich manuscript stand for anatomical agents and that the craft they stand in represent organs of the human body. Others see these figures as dwarfish fairies sitting in various plant parts illustrating oil and essence extractions. Still others see perhaps baths that were meant to be and are purely fantastical. Looking at these, you have to ask yourself, what in the name of all that is rational are they doing?
Certainly, the contraptions lend an outlandish air to the Voynich which has made others wonder even if the manuscript is of this earth. In fact, they are as strange as anything a religious figure has been depicted standing in since the first artist applied paint to wet plaster.
Lohja mural

Whether or not these vehicles are meant to be figurative or real, it is likely that the artist took inspiration from actual craft.

Let's just take a look at the various types of contraptions rendered and compare with things in existence.
This graphic perhaps most resembles the typical modern boat. What I find most fascinating about the vessel above is its deep almost rudder-like keel at the stern to stabilize and perhaps catch a river's current, plus the bow's slope up under her head as if ready to take on chop from a storm. An interesting experiment would be to construct a miniature model of it and set it in water just to see how it would fare. 
Pictish inscriptions include the Weymiss cave image. 
Likening the crescent or horned moon to a boat is a theme that runs throughout art and mythology.

You may immediately point out that so deep a rudder/keel would snag on hitting the first shallow, but I believe these deep rudder/keels were made of soft, flexible material that while affording stability would slide over shallows without snagging. 

The Currach

Skinboats like the coracle and currach may have plied the waters of Norway and the British Isles as early as the Neolithic. The following is an excerpt from Internet Archaeology.  
While it is true that little evidence for skinboats has been identified in the archaeological record, this does not necessarily imply an absence of these craft, and indeed they may once have existed in abundance and played an important role in maritime movement during prehistory. Skinboats are used by some ethnographically known fishing communities, and are more effective than the dugout in rough waters. They are inherently more flexible and are consequently better at absorbing wave action. Although forms such as the umiak and the Irish currach were capable of open-sea travel, they were normally used for inshore hunting, fishing and transport.
Cooney (2004) envisages skin-covered keeled currachs, plying the western seaways from the Neolithic onwards. These larger skinboats would certainly have been suitable for making journeys around the coasts of Britain and across the English Channel and Irish Sea. Case (1969) argued cogently for Neolithic skinboats, and suggests that they may have been of considerable size, capable of transporting livestock as well as people. Skinboats have greater cargo capacity than wooden boats, but are light enough to be carried by their own crew (Case 1969; Rowley-Conwy 2011). 
Peacock and Cutler (2010) have recently questioned whether Neolithic coastal communities would have had the necessary technological skills and resources, to build seaworthy skinboats. They argue that in order to construct a skinboat large enough to be used in the open sea, a number of hides would require to be sewn together and fitted over a wooden boat frame. Skin hides and their fittings would require the application of a sealant; making the joins between hides and sewing-holes watertight would have been a major problem (Peacock and Cutler 2010, 121). They argue that no practical waterproofing agent would have been available during prehistory and that the construction of skinboats during the Neolithic would have been much more problematic than scholars have allowed for (Peacock and Cutler 2010, 122). However, ethnographic evidence from the Arctic suggests that the tools and resources necessary to build watertight and seaworthy boats were well within the capabilities of Neolithic and Bronze Age coastal communities within the UK and Ireland. The complexity of the construction and significance of skinboats is perhaps best illustrated by ethnographic accounts of skinboat use and manufacture in the Arctic.
BY DAVID MACRITCHIE, F.S.A. SOOT, printed in the 19th century:
The Finns of Norway are even yet regarded by the uneducated Norwegians as "uncanny," and as possessed of attributes corresponding to those which Shetland tradition assigns to them. In the past, indeed, the word " Finn" was almost synonymous with " wizard." Tenth-century illustrations of this will be seen in the case of a brother of the semi-Finnish Halfdan, referred to as a temporary lord of Orkney, who was famous as a wizard, and indeed was burned on this account, " along with eighty other warlocks," by his own half-brother Eric (Bloody-axe) which seems a little inconsistent in the part of Eric, as his own wife was versed in the "magic" of the Finns. Thus although the Shetland traditions may relate to a period more recent than the tenth century, we see from Harald Haarfagr's Saga that as early as that date people of Finn blood "came ow'r fra Norraway " to the Orkneys, as exactors of tribute from the islanders; and that the race of the Finns was at the same time famous for its knowledge of " witchcraft." 

...The "little Boat" of the Finnmen was "made of Seal skins, or some kind of leather," and that the skin-clad rower sat in the middle of the boat " with a little Oar in his hand." ...They have this advantage, that be the Seas never so boisterous, their boats, being made of Fish Skins, are so contrived that he can never sink, but is like a Sea-gull swimming on the top of the water. His shirt he has is so fastned to the Boat that no water can come into his Boat to do him damage, except when he pleases to untye it, which he never does but to ease nature, or when he comes ashore." 
What's the outstanding characteristic of these little watercraft? They're astonishingly fast.
Sometime about this Country are seen these Men which are called Finnmen; In the year 1682, one was seen sometime sailing, sometime rowing up and down in his little Boat at the south end of the Isle of Eda, most of the people of the Isle flocked to see him, and when they adventured to put out a Boat with men to see if they could apprehend him, he presently fled away most swiftly. ...There are frequently Fin-men seen here upon the Coasts, as one about a year ago on Stronsa, and another within these few Months on Westra, a Gentleman with many others in the Isle looking on him nigh to the shore, but when any endeavour to apprehend them, they flee away most swiftly; Which is very strange, that one Man sitting in his little Boat, should come some hundred of Leagues, from their own Coasts, as they reckon Finland to be from Orkney.
And their owners tend to flee upon being spotted.

In the Statistical Account of Scotland of 1795 we read of

"[a] man, sitting in what was called a Currach, made of hide, in the shape, and about the size of a small brewing-kettle, broader above than below, with ribs or hoops of wood in the inside, and a cross-stick for the man to sit on. . . . These currachs were so light, that the men carried them on their backs home from Speymouth."

Such light-framed personal skin boats were highly portable.

The boat in question may well have turned out to be an Inuit or Aleut kayak and some of these elusive "Finns" could have been in fact either Sami or Kven or some other tribe. "Finn" itself is a very slippery term, as there are so many tribes that have made up part of Finland's history. That said, the above passage still suggests that Finno-Ugric peoples:
  • ranged far and wide in Europe, 
  • especially in waterways, 
  • were not well understood at all because they could be elusive, 
  • appeared to have a command over nature that impressed, and even creeped out, observers.
This work also sheds light onto what sort of craft these women would have built and used--something akin to a coracle/kayak/curach--just a little personal skin boat--a thing that begs a re-interpretation of the myth of the selkie and her skin.


As you might know by now, I like to feature graphics with women in this blog since that's what the Voynich manuscript features, but this was so short and sweet, it proved the ideal way to introduce a certain type of watercraft that would be good to mention first: the coracle, which is generally accepted to have originated in Wales, along with the crwth, a musical instrument that spread north and east...OR WAS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
The jouhikko is a traditional, two- or three-stringed bowed lyre,
from Finland and Karelia.

Baba Yaga's Ride

Replicas of medieval spice mills

Obviously, the thing above has a tail, what looks to be a cow's tail, in fact. It's divided into sections with definite rings.

Finally, it's not just filled with water but appears to take a flow of water through it. In many cases, the woman has her hand on a smaller vesicle as if controlling this flow of water.

I don't know what this is supposed to represent. I don't know what they're doing to the water or why. If they are supposed to have magical powers like the Komi/Chud sorceresses in the tales of St. Stepan, then perhaps they are boiling or fermenting the water in order to propel themselves through it using some sort of spell. Or perhaps they are drumming the water in it to make a magic sound. Or perhaps they are using a sort of bellows for propulsion, somewhat like a squid or anemone.
Whale intestine drying 
And then there are these strange end tips like cow's tails. Could it be that the whole of these contraptions are made of a pliable, sewable skin?

 On the left is a selkie with her seal skin and on the right a huldra with what's said to be a hole in her back.
Why DOES Baba ride a mortar whipped by a pestle? Why are the huldra said to have a hole in their backs? Why is the selkie able to take to the water only when she has her skin?

One thing know is that at one point in Norse history, the Norse settled in Greenland and became friends and then eventual enemies of the native people there, and then the Norse disappeared from Greenland.

Could the Norse women have taken the technology of sewing skins with them? Could it be these "vehicles" were made not to float atop the water like a boat but rather to coast fast with the current BENEATH the water? After all, if you were a true pagan sorcerer, such a feat was a piece of cake.

When Christianity was taking hold in the outer reaches of northern Europe, it was not unusual for folk tales of local sorcerers to mingle with legends of saints, as per Limerov's work on St. Stepan.

A modern survival bag like the one shown above gives its inhabitant little way of steering, stabilizing, propelling, or even catching a current. Nevertheless, it keeps its inhabitant dry and relatively warm.
Drawing based on an Inuit mask depicting the sea goddess Sedna.
All that is certain about what is depicted in the Voynich manuscript is that water and women are two very prominent factors.

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