Elements in the Voynich?

Of course very little of the content of the voynich can be identified with any certainty… outside of the human forms, some of the dress, a few buildings (not which they are… just that they are buildings), a crossbow… a scale… a ring, perhaps… and at this point we are pretty much lost on the rest. Which of course is why many have long stared at the various other enigmatic animals and objects, and tried to make connections to the real world. But one set of comparisons I see often overlooked… even, rejected… are what I think may be representations of the original elements. That is, Air, Water, Fire and Earth. This would not be so unusual to find in works covering a wide range of subjects, created over a vast possible time frame. I mean, it would or should not be surprising to anyone that they could be in the Voynich, whatever one’s theory about the work.

F77r Elements?

The first interesting grouping is on folio 77r. There is shown a series of pipes with several joints and openings. From four of these openings, there are seen to be several different emissions of some kind. From the first, the emission seems gasous. The substance is drawn as three vaporous trails, dispersing from the tube in various directions. From the second, the emission is possibly meant to be water, as it is blue. At any rate is seems to be more “solid” than the first, as it is dropping straight down, and not dispersing. The center tube shows no emission. The fourth tube has what can be construed as a fiery emission… it is colored red, and has a bit of a “puffiness” in it’s representation, with a (possibly) smokey ring. And then the fifth emission, from the last lower tube, does seem to flow, and it does have a touch of blue. But it then breaks down into particles, or chunks. It is not as obvious a comparison, but may be a representation of the element earth.

F77r Fire?

If this is correct, there are important clues here. There is very little in the Voynich to use in any attempt to compare labels to. The Zodiac is probably the best, but the words… months or zodiac names, are obscured and over-written. The T-O, or Medieval “world maps” which appear in two places in the Voynich, would be the other. As for plants, animals, cylinders, and so on… the identities are so obscure as to offer little help in determining a possible meaning of the accompanying labels. But here we have another case, as I said, often overlooked… in which labels are very close to imagery which can plausibly be identified as air, water, fire and earth. At the least it can serve as a check for decipherment attempts… for if one did think they had begun to translate the Voynich, and came back to these “words” and read the elements, I think it would be cause for celebration. If not, no worries… they may not be the elements at all.

Another good case for possible representations of the elements, in my personal opinion, is found on folio f86r. On this page are four “mounds” of some sort, all pointing to the center of the page. The two mounds on the right are most probably meant to be air and earth. The upper one shows a gaseous emission, with a bird flying in it. The lower shows plants growing, and a bird nesting. These are almost iconic representations of air and earth, in fact. Compare these two birds with the illustrations of two birds from Michaeal Maier’s Atalanta Fuegens, below.

Bird comparison: Maier/Voynich

The noted Alchemy scholar, Adam McLean posted Clay Holden’s  translation the Latin caption “Fit pullus à nido volans, qui iterùm cadit in nidum”, as “A young eaglet attempts to fly out of its own nest & falls into it again”. According to the Maier text, “For in things perfectly mixed are the light Elements, as Fire & Air, & likewise the Heavy, as Earth & Water, which are to be poised and tempered together, that one flies not from the other”, and, “But the neighboring Elements easily suffer themselves to be taken & detained by their Neighbors. Earth & Air are contrary one to the other, & so are Fire & Water, & Yet Fire maintains friendship with Air by heat common to both, & does so with Earth by reason of dryness, & so Air with Water & Water with the Earth”. You see the flying bird in Maier is fire and air, and the sitting bird, water and earth… and he is presupposing they have a tendency to stay together. Although quite a bit later than the carbon-14 dating of the Voynich, the illustrations in the Maier book are both strikingly similar to the Voynich birds. This is interesting, too, when we consider that the Maier birds are representing air (&fire) and earth (&water)… as in the two elements. We even find the mound under the birds:

On the left side of f86r, the upper illustration is reasonably water spewing downward, with a person gesturing near it. The bottom left is not so good at being fire… it does not have the coloring of fire, and can only be loosely interpreted as such. For one thing, why would the man have fire spewing from his hand? The only other interpretation I have seen of this is that the specks are bees, and he is a beekeeper. But given the more fitting interpretation of the two right portions, and the better one of the upper left as water, I think it could possibly be a representation of fire.

Voynich Manuscript f86r

So are these examples of the four Elements? Of course I don’t know. But I think the possibilities are good enough to keep them in mind, along with the zodiac labels, certain better plant identities, and the T/O maps, as a potential “toe in the door” for anyone working on decipherment. H.R. SantaColoma

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28 Responses to “Elements in the Voynich?”

  1. Elmar Says:

    Hi Rich,

    I had a look at f77r, and I think the second and the fifth funnel emit pretty much the same stuff — a more-or-less bluish stream which disintegrates into a spray. To me, both look like a fluid, so it’s probably not a good approximation of the four elements. (Besides, what would the fifth tap be good for?)

    I wonder though if the imagery could be brought to match the theory of the four humours — that would also be more in line with the “anatomical” look and feel of the section.

    Whaddaya think?

  2. proto57 Says:

    Hi Elmar: The right-most emission is most similar to the first, as you say, and may not be earth (it is not brown, as we both note). Your idea of humours… I looked them up, and it is a good idea, but I don’t know how to match them up. We have: blood (red… does fit somewhat with four), yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm (green? yellow?). The colors are not a good match, nor their implied consistencies. I personally don’t sway towards most of the “anatomical” interpretations of the Voynich myself… but yes, I agree it is possible, and should be kept in mind.

    As for the fifth tap you mention… the middle one… it actually fits very well with the other four as elements, and I should have pointed it out in the post. The classic fifth element, aether, or quintessence, has been discussed and sought since the time of Aristotle, through the time of the alchemists and Fludd. Quoting Wikipedia is not always recommended, but their article on aether is well cited:

    “In Aristotle’s system aether had no qualities (was neither hot, cold, wet, or dry), was incapable of change (with the exception of change of place), and by its nature moved in circles. Medieval scholastic philosophers granted aether changes of density, in which the bodies of the planets were considered to be more dense than the medium which filled the rest of the universe. Robert Fludd stated that the aether was of the character that it was “subtler than light”. Fludd cites the 3rd century view of Plotinus, concerning the aether as penetrative and non-material”.

    Again, these could be anything… and I would add your suggestion that one look at the humours as possibles, as a second toe in the door, with a potential translation at hand. It is easy enough to have a list of suggestions for such labels… so why not?* If one had ten possibles for each label it would still not be onerous, even if kept in five languages each. Such a checklist for all the labels of the Voynich would be only a few hundred words… easy to scan when words start “popping out” of any new attempt. Perhaps I’ll compile one as a reference, and post it, including your humours.

    Thanks much for the points… Rich.

    *for the T/0 maps, for instance, we have not only Africa, Asia, and Europe, but Seth, Cham and Jafeth (Iafeth), and also east, west, and possibly, south. Then, of course, a few translations of these…

  3. Elmar Says:

    I tried the Stroke Theory last night with the all in all eight labels around the funnels, and didn’t arrive at anything useful trying Latin, Greek, English and German — for what it’s worth.

    Wikipedia mentions the Theory of Humours, where the four elements also were connected to the human humours. I like the idea that the human character is composed of the four different humours (“juices”), which would fit with the various taps in the VM “filling up” ones soul.

    Of course, your idea of the quintessential ether in the fifth funnel also has merits. Though, even with the less tangible qualities of the ether, I’d expect something to come out of the funnel.

    BTW, let’s not forget that it’s quite possible that the paints were added to the illustrations only as an afterthought, perhaps by someone unfamiliar with the true intent of the VM!

  4. proto57 Says:

    All good points as usual, Mr. Vogt. Thank you for your input. Rich.

  5. Rene Zandbergen Says:

    I must say that I very much like the identification of the top of f77r with the four elements. I see more blue in the second pipe than in the fifth one. I also can’t remember ever having seen this suggestion before.

    If one turns the page, one has f77v, which I still find in line with one of the baths of the ‘Balneis Puteolanis’, namely the Balneum Petrae. Pietro da Eboli stayed there between October and November 1227 and writes about these baths:

    “Si chiama così perchè frange i calcoli; cura il mal di capo, dà l’udito, deterge gli occhi annebbiati, giova al petto e al cuore, apre la vescica, libera i reni dalla renella, lava gli intestini. Vidi molti calcolosi che, bevutane l’acqua calda, ebbero l’urina pietrosa” which I tentatively translate as:

    “It is called like this because it breaks [kidney] stones; it cures headaches, improves hearing, clears up nebulous eyes, is useful to the chest and heart, opens the bladder, clears the kidneys of dust, washes the intestines. I have seen many cases of kidney stones where, after drinking the warm water, the urine had stones”.

    Now f77v has nothing about head, ears, eyes, chest or heart, but the rest seems all to be there:
    – Bladder and kidneys at the top
    – Intestines on the right
    – Peeing stones on the left (turn page 90 deg anti-clockwise)

  6. proto57 Says:

    Rene: Good points. Anatomical similarities to the tubes and so on, as you point out, would be in keeping with several different types of text, and match closely to the one you relate. Maybe I should rethink my general objection to the VMs as an anatomical, at least in part. Actually, I’ve wondered at f83v showing testes… in the larger illustration.

    Here is a link to illustrations of various baths, including the one you mention:

    I know that many have looked to these types of balneological mss., and I agree they must have at least been an influence to the Voynich artist, even if not having any one specific bath being represented. Thank you for the input.

  7. proto57 Says:

    P.Han concurs with my f77r guesses, and carries it much further:

  8. Melissa Says:

    Hey I know this post is old, but…

    The fact that the “earth” isn’t earth-colored is IMHO not a big deal, because the coloring is so sloppy throughout the book that I think it was done after-the-fact and therefore secondary evidence.

    • proto57 Says:

      No matter if the post is old, thank you for commenting. Besides, the book is so much older than anything we can write about it. I have heard various theories about the coloring being added later… I think Nick Pelling is a proponent of that for the most part. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other, but I agree with your reasoning… that it doesn’t really stay in the lines, and it is carelessly done, so maybe it was done by someone other than the original artist. Is that about right?

  9. Michelle Says:

    The following link shows a series of minitures from De Blaneis ( 1258 to 1266), one of which is Balneum Petrae ( Pozzuoli near Naples) hey look at all the nude women bathing together….seems familiar really. Pietro Da Eboli is credited with the authorship of the codex.


    By-the-way, Pozzuoli is near Salerno, -La critica è concorde da tempo ad attribuirlo a Pietro Anzolino da Eboli, un chierico della corte di re Manfredi, forse medico o, in ogni caso, personaggio vicino alla cultura della scuola medica salernitana che già da secoli godeva di fama internazionale.- famous international school of medicine – Trotula de Ruggero was there at that time too.

    • proto57 Says:

      Those are beautiful, thank you. I’ve no doubt, and agree with many, that the baths in the Voynich Manuscript are representing, or influenced, by such baths. And hey… which I could speak Italian. It is a beautiful language. I’m still a work’n on Amerikin. Rich.

  10. Michelle Says:

    Oops sorry ( old age memory going to pieces) Trotula was at Salerno in the XI century.

  11. James Pannozzi Says:

    Many thanks for what is the most rational and well informed speculations regarding the VM that I have yet seen. The bit about the tubes as microscopes I found quite convincing.

    I myself have done some looking at the Steganographia, hoping to find some connections but, alas, my Latin knowledge, what there was of it, died of old age decades ago.

    Having major interest in Oriental Medicine, I would be intrigued to learn more about those researching and speculating on a connection with Tibetan. I find the blog owners comment, however, more realistic – we are all enticed by similarities we see but the actual beast may very well be a very well constructed artificial linguistic construct. If this is the case, the selection of unknown characters would be appropriate. How unfortunate that no phonetic map to known characters was given, that would have made such a difference.

  12. konstatanty Says:

    quinta essentia?

  13. tim t Says:


    I also like the F77R observation, the pro vs con list is weighted heavily on the pro side. Well done.

    WRT f86r, I read Maiers entire section and he does make a strong link between the eagles and earth/air. One question I have is how you would resolve that Earth and Air, by Aristotle’s model, are opposites. Even Maier calls them contrary. Given the quadrant layout of the folio would you not expect them to be opposite each other? Same question for Fire, as it’s opposite should be water.


  14. proto57 Says:

    Hi Tim: Thank you for the comments.

    From what you say about the elements being deemed “contrary”, I suppose having them in opposite corners could be more expected. I couldn’t venture a guess as to how serious a problem it would be, that they are not.

    However, one could suggest that they are opposite now, being top and bottom… and that the Air is up, and the Earth is down, which makes sense, as they are in life. The same with the Water and Fire… The Fire would be down bottom, but rising as fire does, and the Water, opposite, above, would be falling like rain, as it does.

    But that is just musing… Of course I do not know.

  15. tim t Says:


    They are valid musings. I thought of these elements aligning vertically as well, and the female/male images would align (ie Fire/Air = Male, Water/Earth = Female). But it would cause us to dismiss the natural layout of the folio into quadrants, which is a typical layout of the classical elements. I tried to pull the center T/O map into the fray as well (Fire=south), but it does not align well with the other proposed elements.

    Either way, the Eagle link to Earth/Air is a great observation WRT this folio.


  16. Diane O'Donovan Says:

    Rich, I have just realised that you raised the possibility of this folio’s representing the elements last February.

    I apologise for not having known this sooner, and have now added a postscript to my latest two posts on the subject.

    • proto57 Says:

      No problem Diane… stuff gets buried easily on the web sometimes. I actually posted this on the VMs-net some time ago, but it was not too interesting at the time…. and then those posts need to be archived, so they are searchable… or all of us will keep repeating ourselves… but that is my fault right now! I’ll check out your posts… Rich.

  17. Tim T Says:


    After some further thought and pondering, I’m now thinking that your orientation of the elements on F86r may in fact be correct, and the TO map at the center of the page may provide historical support. If you look at your arrangement as fire (lower left), earth (lower right), air (upper right), and water (upper left)…which counters the standard Aristotle model of fire, earth, water, and air. Some of the best historical images that capture this model are “Christ in Majesty” with the four apostles surrounding Christ, in their zodiac form (ie Lion(Leo), Bull(Taurus), Eagle (Aquila/Scorpius) and Man (Aquarius). Now, what is interesting is that although the Aristotle model appears to be the most poplar form, the close second is in the configuration as you describe, and in fact there are depictions with Christ holding a TO globe in a unwavering orientation consistent with this folio (below are just two examples from the British Library, there are many more).



    This configuration is in fact a closer match to the zodiac cycle which is indeed 1) Fire, Leo, Male, South : 2) Earth, Taurus, Female, East :3) Air, Aquarius, Male, North and : 4) Water,(Aquila/Scorpius),Female, West.
    I feel now that the TO map at the center of the folio F86r has historical support for the configuration of the elements you have outlined, and the figures of the folio align perfectly with the female, and male characters of the elements of the F86r (water and fire respectively), and the descriptions of the nesting and flying eagles as earth and air. The folio now, IMO, has a very clean symbolism of the elements, linked to the cardinal directions, which are identified by the central TO map of F86r.

    Interestingly, Maier’s work does not support the above layout (outside of the obvious eagle associations as nesting eagle is earth, and flying eagle is air) but my question now is whether there is a pedigree to Maier’s work out there?

    • proto57 Says:

      Wow Tim, thank you for the interesting observations you have made, and the illustrations you linked to. May I quote you on the vms-list?

      As to a “pedigree” to Maier’s work, do you mean the source? It is from Atalanta Fugiens, page 37, emblem 7. The translated copy at http://www.levity.com/alchemy/atl6-10.html , although the illustrations are down there at the moment. You can find a complete free PDF copy at Google books. I can’t find it there for you at the moment, I hope it is still available. I do have the copy, saved, if you are interested… write me. Thanks much, again, for the interest and comments. Rich.

    • Diane O'Donovan Says:

      I’m not sure if it will help with your discussion of the elements,but I’ve published an analysis of the map on fol.86v (Beinecke numbering).

      It continues for a number of posts but begins here:

      Your remarks on these other maps are fascinating. I’ve been concentrating more on Fra Mauro’s map – at least so far, but you’ve certainly provided food for thought

  18. Tim T Says:


    My question on Maier related to the eagle reference.
    Maier states “Concerning this or one like it, Hermes (as the Author of Aurora, ch. 5th affirms) writes thus: ‘I have considered a Bird Venerable to the Wise, which flies when it is in Aries, Cancer, Libra or Capricorn,’ & ‘You will acquire it Perpetually to yourself out of mere minerals & Rocks of Mountainous places.’ Senior in Tabula relates to the same thing, where two birds are seen, one flying, the other without wings….”

    The pedigree I was curious about is WRT to the above mentioned Hermes, as the Author of Aurora, and “Senior in Tabula”…

    Note that the second reference I gave to the British Library has the bull and lion reversed (oversight on my part). The first link has the zodiac configuration that I discuss in my post. Note as well that the Leardo Map is another reference with the same layout, and is relevant for those who believe that the VM Rosettes page is a Mappa Mundi and wish to align it with the TO map found in the upper right.

  19. Diane O'Donovan Says:

    Apologies if this is duplicated; the line cut out as I posted.

    I’ve published an analysis of the map on fol.86v (Beinecke numbering). The first post in the series starts here:

    So far I’ve only been looking at Fra Mauro’s map, but this is fascinating stuff.

  20. tim t Says:

    Diane, had a look at your notes. Here’s my perspective. I feel that the TO maps in the VM are indeed markers of orientation. When looking at directions, the first default assumption is that the top of the “T” is east, and the left of the “T” is north. I feel now that there is a historical configuration of some TO maps where the cardinal directions are rotated 45 deg counter clockwise (ie east is tilted 45deg to the left, and north is 45 deg down, passing through the center of the Europa section). A good example of this (outside of the ones you’ll find with the four evangelists mentioned in the above post) is in the British library as a Catalan depiction of the world (TO), with angels turning the poles.
    Note the north/south poles are tilted as I describe above. There are many other examples of TO maps that suggest a similar “tilted” alignment. All this to say, if we use the “tilted model” TO map, then we have alignment of the figures/elements in F86r as Rich identified, and the Rosette suns (east/west) are aligned as well, as you describe. It does, however, put the upper right rosette as south, contrary to your description as being north in the link you provided.

    If I were now to speculate, I would propose that the upper right (south) rosette is Egypt (nile, pyramids (three yellow cones in the correct proportions), Pharos lighthouse (the volcano structure) and the small circle in the lower left (north) of the folio have the labels for Hibernia (Ireland), Scotia, and Anglia…but of course, this is all speculation.

    Note that Egypt was located in Asia…not Africa in the old TO maps.

    Note as well that the Ebstorf map is interesting in that it has a TO map in the upper corner, with the same orientation as the VM.

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