In my last post, I explored the possibility that the Voynich Manuscript was written by witches. There’s one part of the book I’ve been tiptoeing around, and that’s the so-called “Biological” section. It’s called that because some people have purported that it demonstrates biological processes using unclothed nymph females. Another name is the “Balneological” section, and I think it’s probably a better name. It’s a common misconception about medieval times that people didn’t bathe. Quite the opposite in fact. Medieval people loved bathing. By the 15th century, public bath houses were quite common. Bathing was more than something you did as part of a daily ritual. Bathing was an integral part of medieval life. There’s a good overview of bathing over here. Bathing became a social event during the Middle Ages. People would have dinner, sometimes wedding banquets with a bath. Public bathhouses were oftentimes mixed-sex, though the Catholic Church frowned on such activity as hedonistic. A church writer would once write:
Hast thou washed thyself in the bath with thy wife and other women and seen them nude, and they thee? If thou hast, thou shouldst fast for three days on bread and water.
But for the most part, nobody really listened to the church and public baths would eventually become havens for prostitution and other lascivious behaviors. The baths would become Syphilis-infested “stews”. That combined with the belief that bathing would increase your likelihood of getting the plague mostly killed public bathing in the 16th Century. So what does all this have to do with VMS? Well, I’ve already discussed the possibility of VMS being written by witches. The manuscript shows lots of female bathing scenes:
Drugs and witchcraft
But some of them get bizarre. You can’t escape the feeling that there’s something fantastic, even psychadelic going on in these pages. And that brings me to an area of witchcraft we don’t talk about much. Witches did a lot of drugs. Michael Harner writes about the subject in his book Hallucinogens and Shamanism, specifically the chapter “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft”. You ever wonder where the legend of witches riding brooms comes from? It turns out that psychoactive plants like Jimson Weed, Henbane, and Hemlock can be combined with a few other herbs and be made into a green ointment. The witch would use the broom to apply the salve to their… uh… nether regions. The salve would characteristically give the user the impression they were flying, hence reports of witches flying on broomsticks. Witches didn’t exclusively use broomsticks though. In some cases baskets or bowls were used. I’ll spare you the details on those.
What I am unable to find though is any example of is witches using hallucinogens via bathing. I don’t know why. Jimson weed, Belladonna, and other members of the Solanaceae family contain high amounts of Atropine, which can be absorbed through skin contact. Bathing is one method of delivering such a drug. Plus, mixing herbs in with bath water was very common at the time witches aside. You have to figure though, if a broom or a bowl or a basket can be a flying device, why can’t a bathtub? You see a lot of this in the Voynich Manuscript. It seems an awful lot like the pictures show the bathtub as a means of achieving another level of consciousness. Gustav Schenk reported trying Henbane seeds as a young man:
My teeth were clenched, and a dizzy rage took possession of me. I know that I trembled with horror; but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of wellbeing connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding and breaking loose from my body. (This sensation of gradual body dissolution is typical of henbane poisoning.) Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own. My head was growing independently larger, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying.
The frightening certainty that my end was near through the dissolution of my body was counterbalanced by an animal joy in flight. I soared where my hallucinations – the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves which were quite unlike any ordinary leaves, billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal – were swirling along.
Make no mistake about it: these were some pretty powerful drugs. Members of the Solanaceae family have been used as poisons. Belladonna in particular was used to make poisonous arrows. There is one famous cure for Atropine poisoning: Opium. Opium and Atropine have an antagonistic effect on each other. This combination of Opium and Atropine has been used in a number of medicines. At one point someone had the bright idea to use this combination as a painkiller to be used during childbirth. It was called “twilight sleep”, and as I’m sure you can imagine, that combination of medications turned out to do bad things to people. Do we see any evidence of this in Voynich? I believe so.
Out of all the sections in the Voynich Manuscript, the Balneological is the most bizarre. Given the imagery, (the flying tubs, the green-water baths, the death scene, and the opium scene) I think that hallucinogens are a very strong possibility to explain the Balneological section. But the real question is “Can we use this knowledge to help decode the manuscript?” And that is a question I have no answer to just yet.