Animal roots – folio 34v

The Voynich illustrations contain a number of plants with roots that are drawn in animal form. This is very interesting, since it might yield a clue to the identity of the plant that’s being depicted and it’s possible that the name of the animal will show in the plant’s name. What would be more natural than to call a plant ‘Snakeroot’ if it’s root happens to look like a snake?

Folio 34v looks like this (click image for full size):

Folio 34vIt shows a plant that has single flowers or flower heads at the tops of the stems. The leaves are simple, alternate, petiolate and smooth-edged, possibly with hairs on the margins. The shape of the leaves is round and possibly spoon-like. The roots are extensive and tuberous. The most distinctive trait is the mass of hairy or fleecy scales at the top of the root. The plant is a herb or small shrub.

Identification of this plant was hard, since I wasn’t able to find a plant that exactly matched the shape of the leaves. However, I think a good candidate is Nardostachys jatamansi (Spikenard). The identification is mostly based on the root and especially the fibrous mass at the top of the root. The position and overall appearance of the flowers matches the image. Sir William Jones, who named the plant originally, had this picture made:

Sir William Jones

It shows the plant having heart-shaped leaves. It doesn’t shed a light on the shape of the leaves in the Voynich image. However, Sir William’s description of the roots is very striking: “resembling the tail of an ermine ; … has precisely that form, consisting of withered stalks and ribs of leaves, cohering in a bundle of yellowish brown capillary fibres..”.

The animal connection is there too: ‘jatamansi’ is reported to be sanskrit for ermine’s tail, although Sir William Jones mentions that ‘jatamansi’ translates as ‘lock of hair’ in sanskrit. He however also gives ‘ermine’s tail’ as the description that a persian writer gave of the plant. The root of the plant in the Voynich illustration looks somewhat like a pair of ermines: elongated bodies, a long tail, and relatively short legs. The heads then should be in the center, at the tops of the root. This is somewhat odd, because that part of the root is being referred to as ‘ermine’s tail’.

When trying to compare the Voynich image with images from medieval herbals, things get a bit complicated because a number of plants were being referred to as ‘nard’, ‘spica nardi’ or   ‘spikenard’ . ‘Spica celtica’ refers to a different plant (Valeriana celtica), so does ‘Nardus montana’ (Valeriana montana), and ‘Nardus’ is a genus of grasses, but ‘Spica indica’ and ‘Nardus indica’ probably refer to Spikenard.

Here are some images of ‘Spikenard’ from old herbals:

The British Library Egerton 747University of Vermont Library MS2

Of course there is no way to be sure that these have any relation with the Voynich image!

Next some thoughts on the ermine-theme. In a sanskrit-english dictionary, I found the word ‘nakuli’ which is both used for the Jatamansi and for a female mongoose or ichneumon (Egyptian moongoose). This isn’t a strong connection, because both might be described as ‘the one with the musky smell’. It will have to do for now, though I will keep looking for other clues.

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