The seminal study and first observation was by RIch Santacoloma, whose blogpost of 2010 for the first time -ever- read the detail in such a way.
As it happened I came to the same folio a year later as I worked through the manuscript and for very different reasons also read it as representing a series of elements, but that independent observation, though made for different reasons and described in quite different terms still must be considered the second, after Rich’s.
Neither my analysis’ having been offered in ignorance of his, nor my being formally qualified alters Rich’s precedence and right to be quoted as the original source for that insight – a new and original contribution to the study.
The reason for my own ignorance of RIch’s work when I published my analytical treatment is, I expect, much the same reason that JKP now writes as if there were no specific person to whom it must be credited. A serious failure, now infecting the study, has seen it increasingly distorted by an abandonment of normal standards and ethics in crediting prior research, which habit denies newer readers any understanding of where and how particular ‘ideas’ entered. The result has been descent into a seemingly endless ‘groundhog day’ in which speculations made as much as a century ago are constantly rehashed and ‘re-discovered’, while a genuine advance is ‘blanked’ from the record or repeated without mention (or worse, with false ascription) of its origin, misinforming and misdirecting subsequent studies.
Rich’s discovery, and my own, had no precedent. They are the source for what is now imagined (not only by JKP) to be just another generally-held ‘idea’.
In 2010, Rich Santacoloma shared his insight on his website and then in a blogpost. Since you can link to both, I need not reprint his work in full here.
My own commentary was published in two parts, condensed first into a lengthy blogpost of 2011, shortened and republished in 2012, Additional and more detailed comment on a part of it was included in a post of 2016.
Voynichimagery was closed from public view in 2017 only five years after JKP began his blog. I did so after almost ten years, and as a final response to that pernicious and growing habit of ‘blanking plagiarism’. However, with regard to the detail on folio 77r, it only fair that researchers should be able to compare both of these first investigations with whatever was said later, so I reprint the analytical commentary later in this post.
With better knowledge of how the identification arose, with reasoning and evidence adduced, more recently-arrived researchers can ‘map’ interpretations of this detail from first identification of its subject, in the way that is – or is among scholars – a normal prelude to forming any balanced opinion of one’s own.
Even if the reader should prefer my analytical treatment over Rich’s, or even JKP’s ideas to either, still the credit for first identifying the drawing’s subject remains Rich’s, to be acknowledged as we acknowledge other views which have formed the landscape, such as Currier’s or Philip Neal’s (or even Hugh O’Neill’s).
I think I may fairly be credited with first explaining that it shows a 5-element system and that such systems are characteristic of non-Latin thought, recognising the non-European character of the drawing in its details, linking it to the Greek terms – by quoting Isidore – and description of the supporting ‘ascenders’ by parallel with Manichaeans’ anabibazontes. If the first of those posts seems tedious, I ask readers’ indulgence; my conclusions are a result of research and some information about the sources used must be honestly set before a reader. Admittedly I did not include details of all consulted, but enough to be useful for any who might then want to take it further.
Petersen’s recent post of July 27th 2019 begins:
The VMS image at the top of folio 77r is often interpreted as the four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). But there are five pipes, not four. I did find one medieval representation with a fifth component in the center called null, and some conceptions include a fifth “element” as spirit, aether, or void, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose the diagram might represent elements:
The seminal study:
R. Santacoloma, ‘Elements in the Voynich; proto57. wordpress.com, (10th. Feb. 2010).
Post written by the present author in 2012, summarising matter first published the previous year.
The short story:
In my opinion, this represents a 5-element system, but not one that counts ether.
Many systems describing the elements are five-fold, including the Chinese ‘5 agencies’, the Hindu-, the Turkish-, and others. These are equally deserving of consideration when investigating this detail, given the evidence offered by so much else in it about the context in which the pictorial matter, at least, been first enunciated and subsequently transmitted to late medieval Christian Europe.
Once more, there does appear to be influence from the Hellenistic period in this detail, but to explain it I have decided to use a western work, Isidore’s Etymologiae, chiefly for its parallel use of the Latin with the Greek terms, comparison of which sheds further light on the environment for first enunciation.
Isidore recognised ether as a rarefied form of fire, but is specific about its not contributing to the world below:
“The ether is the place where the stars are and signifies that fire which is separated high above from the entire world.”
‘The most potent elements’
Isidore then turns to the natural world and begins with the two ‘potent’ elements.
The most potent pair of elements for human life are fire and water, whence those to whom fire and water are forbidden are gravely punished.
That pair, I think, could be why the diagram is flanked by a female and what appears to be a non-gendered male. (which latter would be our first indication of religious bent so far encountered in this manuscript, were it alluding Isaiah 53:8
Who shall declare his generation?” and see Naasseni, in Hippolytus Bk.V)
Forms given the figures’ containers agree with Isidore’s assignments, too: that on the left appears to be modelled on the wall-sconce – or glass-beakers filled with oil and used in that way.
On the right, the container is formed as a bucket or basket from which falls a mixture of water and potent earth (i.e. life-producing water, like the fertile soil brought by flood. The mechanism of reproduction through seed was not entirely understood in earlier times.).
Note added to the 2012 post in November 1st., 2016. I may have mis-read the first element motif of ‘wavy lines with scattered dots’ as it used in this particular detail. Here, it could be meant for Smoke ~ as rising air mixed with burned particles.. my reasons are explained in ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’ voynichimagery.wordpress.com (October 31st., 2016). (also reprinted below)
Text of the 2012 post continues..
While Isidore’s description of these older ideas is compatible with the diagram as analysed so far, overall the person who first enunciated this drawing does not appear to have had a conception of the matter identical with Isidore’s. I do not think the drawing any illustration of the Etymologies, but rather copied from an older illustration first enunciated within an environment where a ‘5-element’ system was the norm – local and generally accepted- but which was assumed within an education that had also been infused with respect for classical works. The east, and the late Hellenistic period and earlier centuries of Roman rule are thus most likely for first enunciation of this detail.
Isidore’s constantly referring to both the Greek and the Latin vocabulary, and explaining both, did mean that the medieval Latins maintained some little knowledge of Greek terms. The Etymologies was so widely used and copied that it is often compared to the later Encyclopaedia Britannica, in that it served as a standard reference in its time, used by scholars and whose information was by them disseminated, as standard opinion, through the lay population of Christian Europe.
Primary matter: ‘the wood’
The Greeks call a certain primary material of things ΰλη (‘matter’ also ‘wood’) which is not formed in any way.
and he goes on:
From this ΰλη the visible elements (Lat: elementum) are formed, whence they took their name, [Gk stoikeia: elements] for they agree with [Gk: stoikein] each other in a certain accord and communion of association.
Where we speak of the ‘basic fabric’ or the ‘building blocks’ of the material world, the Greek term for the raw material of all things was ΰλη, which – like this diagram – evokes the idea of a tree’s body, unshaped, but from which those elements [Lat. elementum] emerge. The Greek term was not elementum, but stoikeia.
(April 3rd – cf. architectural and philosophical associations for terms stoa; stoic)
In conception, then, this diagram does seem to reflect influence from the Greek philosophical terms, and not the Latin.
At the same time, it includes five elements, and shows fire second from highest which, to judge from al-Biruni’s comments (see below) agrees with understanding of the eastern system in tenth-century Baghdad.
I think that this diagram is not designed to illustrate Isidore’s text, nor the system characteristic of a Roman/Latin environment.
Some points which mark a distinction between the diagram on f.77 and Isidore’s account:
Where Isidore explains the Greek stoichaea with a sense of the four elements’ harmony and interaction, the diagram, by contrast, takes the term to mean that five elements have emerged from that formless ‘wood’ not as Isidore does, in the way living things might be in amity, but as non-living things, equal only in terms of time and distance: the diagram indicating their emerging at one time, I think, by the equal length given these short branchings.
Nor does the relationship of these five match Isidore’s understanding of that amity. Because Isidore’s understanding is that aether has no place in the world inhabited by mankind, it plays no part in his explanation of earthly substances, all of which are formed from the four.
“Indeed [they] are said to be connected thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire: since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth and [then], in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire”.
– Etymologiae XIII.iii.1-6
Now try as I might – and though I feel fairly certain that the second element from the right is fire (and more exactly a fire-box) and, further, that the elements in the centre of the ‘wood’ and that nearest the fiery principal (not principle) might be suggested as representing air and ether, yet no correspondence exists in this drawing to the way in which Isidore himself explains the four elements’ relationship.
Even if we do suppose, as Isidore and the western world normally did not, that ether and its radiance (aether) contributed to the composition of the natural world, the order and relationships here do not appear to me to coincide.
Some 5-elements systems in the east
(The 2011 post included information including native vocabulary for various ‘5-elements’ schemes, but that information had made the post over-long for most readers, and was omitted from the 2012 re-post, leaving only the headings e.g. ‘Chinese’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘Arabic’ ‘Turkish’ etc..)
2. Indian (Hindu)
Al Biruni brought knowledge of India’s Hindu elements to Baghdad, and lists them in this order:
Heaven; Wind; Fire; Water; Earth,
and he says specifically that none of the Hindu elements equates to the Greeks’ “aether”. This is a relevant point, since in more recent years there has been a tendency to equate the term Akasha with the Latins’ aether.
Writing in the tenth century, al-Biruni explains the system in his India:
“Heaven, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth are the Hindu’s five elements. They are called the mahabuta i.e. having great natures. The Hindus do not think, as other people do, that the fire is a hot, dry body near the bottom of the ether. They understand by fire the common fire on earth which comes from an inflammation of smoke.
The Vayu Purana says, ‘In the beginning were earth, water, wind and heaven. Brahman, on seeing sparks under the earth, brought them forward, and divided them into three parts: the first, Parthiva, [N.B.] is the common fire, which requires wood and is extinguished by water; the second is divya i.e. the sun; the third vidyut i.e. the lightning. The sun attracts the water..”
Sachau, Al Biruni’s ‘India’, Chapter III (v-ix).
Five is a number of fundamental importance to Manichaean systems, including cosmology. A great deal of information about Manichaean thought is available online, (e.g.this site) but for its style of script, I add links to the very important Cologne Mani Codex, found at Lycopolis in Egypt and a comparative example of cursive script in an early Christian codex from Oxyrhinchus.
.. and others.
In the course of discussing other evidence of eastern- and possibly older and Manichaean influence in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery, I added the following expansion to my comments in a post of 2016:
from post, D.N. O’Donovan, ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’, voynichimagery, (Monday, October 31st, 2016)
An influence from Manichaean practice is also among the possible explanations for that deliberate and consistent distortion of the figures which Voynich writers commonly describe as “nymphs” but which the present writer sees as consistently standing for abstractions of the astronomical/meteorological sort, as ‘guiding lights’.
Manichaean beliefs about the stars were compatible with older Mesopotamia, despite being a ‘religion of light’. That is, they did not regard the stars as natural phenomena in the Greek way, nor as benevolent overseers as they were seen by the Egyptians, but instead regarded them as evil: as ‘demons’ rather than daimons.
(δαίμων: “god”, “godlike” etc.), which originally referred to a lesser deity or guiding spirit).
Mani’s teachings on this point are preserved and quoted in a Coptic summary of Manichaean doctrine, the Kephalaia. Mani assigns each of the zodiac ’12’ – whether as constellations or the more abstract ‘signs’ of astrology is not clear – to five ‘worlds’: of ~Smoke, ~Fire, ~Wind, ~Water, and ~Darkness and rather interestingly, given that Mani lived in the 3rdC AD, he also accepts the Roman constellation of the ‘Scales’..
Fire and Lust: the two Ascenders (anabibazontes)
The two Ascendants [anabibazontes] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. ..
The diagram on f.77r instead has fire the ‘female’ and moisture the ‘male’ which may be a linguistic cue, but now compare the order of Mani’s 5 with that in the diagram, reading right to left:
This.. is how it should be understood. They [the twelve zodiacal figures and five planets]are drawn from the Five Worlds of Darkness, are bound in the Sphere, and are taken for each world. The Twins and the Archer belong to the world of Smoke, which is the Mind; Also, the Ram and the Lion belong to the World of Fire. The Bull, the Water-bearer, and the Scales belong to the World of Wind, The Crab and the Virgin and the Fish belong to the world of Water; the Goat-horn and the Scorpion belong to the World of Darkness. These are the twelve archons of wickedness, for it is they who commit every evil in the world, either in the tree [hyle?] or in the flesh. Hermes belongs to the world of Water, while Kronos belongs to the World of Darkness.
The two Ascendants [anabibazontes] belong to fire and lust, which are dryness and moisture, they are the father and mother of all these things. ..
from footnotes to the second post, ‘Manichaeans on the doorstep…’
 “The anabibazontes are actually quite sober astronomical constructs which have become demonized. Anabibazon is the technical term for the ascending
node of the moon’s orbit. Its complementary twin, as it were, is the descending node,katabibazon. In fashioning their additional celestial evil-doers, the Manichees took the first of the pair and duplicated it. Thus we find two “uppers” and no “downer”. Roger Beck, ‘The Anabibazontes in the Manichaean Kephalaia’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 69 (1987), pp. 193-196.