THE FOUR ELEMENTS
Just a short way into this quire we come
across something that is almost recognisable. Many people have suggested the top
image may in some way represent the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. I
agree this is the most probable explanation and as such relevant to the
disciplines of alchemy, medicine and astronomy. But, I suggest it goes much
deeper than the four elements and specifically refers to astronomy and the
fabric of the universe. To understand how such an image may fit into the
manuscript one needs to understand this concept in relation to the various
disciplines that employed it.
In alchemy and philosophy the concept of four element was well known since ancient times and across many cultures.
In terms of medicine the elements embody the concept of Galenain philosophy. Galenic medicine referred to the traditional medicine as practiced in Europe based on Galen and others that had later expanded on his work, but had Aristolian origins from ancient Greece. The four elements are not unique to Greece or so young and are a common concept in many ancient cultures, Hippocrates suggested that the four elements corresponded to four humors and it was the balance of these humors was necessary for good health and when they were unbalanced the body showed signs of this imbalance as disease. Disease came from within, not from without and to regain balance the body needed to be treated with the opposite of the humor type that was unbalanced according to the symptoms the patient displayed which indicated to the doctor which humor needed restoring. Aristotle noted the four elements were corruptible and so could not be the quintessential unit of the universe, he further expanded the elements by adding aether, the incorruptible and unchangeable substance of the heavenly sphere.
Tycho was however a Paraclelsian and rejected Galanic medicine. Rather than the four elements and humors the teaching of Paracelsus proposed a new system based on three principles, the four elements of the ancients were not the ultimate and simplest forms in the universe but composites themselves of what he described as three principles: sulphur; salt; mercury. These three principles are not the simple elements we understand today but embodied the properties of the stuff of the universe, and each principle existed in many forms thus sulphur embodies inflammability, the salt solidity and inertness, mercury fluidity and the metallic. The concept of the world as a chemical system extended to all things and the body.
This chemical approach to the elements was not a new concept and was known to the ancient Arabic alchemists, ar-Razi was such an alchemist, born in the 9th century, he included arsenic as a fourth principle or “spirit” (which vaporises on heating), he also employed animals, plants and minerals in medicine. Ar- Razi contested Galen and the simpleness of Aristotles approach to the four classical elements finding many more properties associated with substances such as “oiliness”, and rejected the concept of the four humors by experimentation. Apart from “spirits” he categorised chemical substances as metals, stones, vitriols, borates and salts. Animals and plants were categorised separately.
Geber, an Arabic alchemist from the 8th century, also divided the world into “spirits”, metals, and substances like stone which can be converted into powders. He used his discoveries in a practical way to improve manufacturing process, and considered the possibility of the transmutation of metals. He was also a physician.
Paracelsus declared that Galanec medicine often did more harm than good and the remedies were often contaminated and little more than quakery, he suggested disease was not due to imbalance but existed as a separate it was “ontological”. He proposed specific diseases therefore required specific remedies, not the cure alls of Galenic medicine. Paracelsus saw the universe as a whole with the micro reflecting the macro, thus the body and the heavens interacted and one needed to understand one to understand the other. His medicine therefore said like was needed to cure like, and these cures could be found in nature, in the plants and metals and chemicals of the earth, often poisonous but in this respect nothing was forbidden, only the dose was important and a little of a poison could cure without harm. The human body was viewed as chemical and thus chemicals provided the cure. Alchemy was used to produce the purest of medicines from chemicals, metals and the distillation of plants, astrological talismans were also employed. Tycho was devoted to the pursuit of alchemy for medicine and rejected its usefulness as the means of producing gold and the lower half of the castle on Ven was given over to this pursuit (and may be indicated in the rosette folio). In terms of alchemy there is very little of the tools of the trade of alchemists such as flasks and furnaces that is obvious in this section (although I suggest there are references in other sections). The inclusion of so many plants make medicine a likely candidate at first sight but would not coincide with the Chinese or Tycho’s approach to medicine although may be unrelated to the other quires of the manuscript in this way. Another interpretation for the image which fits well is that it is in fact astronomical and although this interpretation would be based on ancient understanding.
Apollonius of Tyana (born 170 AD) was a Greek philosopher. The book “The Life of Apollonius of Tyana”, written by Philostratus (written 220 AD), describes his voyages to India in search of knowledge. When in India he asks the sages about the nature of the universe and whether there were indeed four elements, the sage explained there was a fifth, ether, the air of the gods. Apollonius names the four elements he knows of in this order; water and air and earth and fire. Apollonius is led to understand that all the elements are equal and that the universe is like a living creature, both male and female bringing forth creatures by its union and love. This is almost exactly what is seen in the image at the top of f77r and in this respect would describe “the universe”, its fabric and possibly explain some of the symbolism of the tubes and the substances flowing between them that are seen in this quire and confirm its subject as astronomy and not just specific as with the suggested supernovae - but the universe as a whole.
|f77r, cropped. Voynich Manuscript. Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Overlay by P. Han showing suggested realtionship between the image and the Elements.|
Does this image signify the universe? The middle tube which I have marked as ether is blue though no visible thing emanates from it, if representing ether, the incorruptible ultimate building block of the heavens then this blue ether mixed with varying proportions of the other elements is what flows through the pipes to form the universe. Traditionally air and fire are male elements and water and earth female, the principle of opposites and balance . In the above they would be shown in union, air and water, and fire and earth. The female is shown standing in a tube displaying air and the male is likewise standing in a tube displaying female earth, the union of sky and earth found in many cultures. The rivers and pools of the images in the quire are blue or green, the colours may reflect the various combinations of elements. The image of the nymph in the shroud on f82r suggests that death and so corruptibility is associated with the green colour in some way.
Copyright © 2010 P. Han