1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Physiologus

PHYSIOLOGUS, the title usually given to collection of some fifty Christian allegories much read in the middle ages, and still existing in several forms and in about a dozen Eastern and Western languages. As nearly all its imagery is taken from the animal world, it is also known as the Bestiary. There can be hardly a doubt about the time and general circumstances of its origin. Christian teachers, especially those who had a leaning towards Gnostic speculations, took an interest in natural history, partly because of certain passages of Scripture that they wanted to explain, and partly on account of the divine revelation in the book of nature, of which also it was man’s sacred duty to take proper advantage. Both lines of study were readily combined by applying to the interpretation of descriptions of natural objects the allegorical method adopted for the interpretation of Biblical texts. Now the early Christian centuries were anything but a period of scientific research. Rhetorical accomplishments were considered to be the chief object of a liberal education, and to this end every kind of learning was made subservient. Instead of reading Aristotle and other naturalists, people went for information to commonplace books like those of Aelian, in which scraps of folk-lore, travellers’ tales and fragments of misapprehended science were set forth in an elegant style. Theological writers were not in the least prepared to question the worth of the marvellous descriptions of creatures that were current in the schools on the faith of authorities vaguely known as “the history of animals,” “the naturalists,” and “the naturalist” in the singular number (φυσιολόγος).[1] So they took their notions of strange beasts and other marvels of the visible world on trust and did their best to make them available for religious instruction. In some measure we find this practice adopted by more than one of the Fathers, but it was the Alexandrian school, with its pronounced taste for symbolism, that made the most of it. Clement himself had declared that natural lore, as taught in the course of higher Christian education according to the canon of truth, ought to proceed from “cosmogony” to “the theological idea,”[2] and even in the little that is left of the works of Origen we have two instances of the proceeding in question. And yet the fact that these reappear in the Physiologus would not suffice to stamp the work as a series of extracts from Alexandrian writings, as parallels of the same kind can be adduced from Epiphanius (loc. cit.) and Ephraem Syrus (Opp. Syr. ii. 17, 130). Father Cahier would even trace the book to Tatian, and it is true that that heresiarch mentions a writing of his own upon animals. Still, the context in which the quotation occurs makes it evident that the subject-matter was not the nature of particular species nor the spiritual lessons to be drawn therefrom, but rather the place occupied by animal beings in the system of creation. On the other hand, the opinion of Cardinal Pitra, who referred the Physiologus to the more orthodox though somewhat peculiar teaching of the Alexandrians, is fully borne out by a close examination of the irregularities of doctrine pointed out in the Physiologus by Cahier, all of which are to be met with in Origen. The technical words by which the process of allegorizing is designated in the Physiologus, like ἑρμηνία, θεωρία, ἀναγωγή, ἀλληγορία, are familiar to the students of Alexandrian exegesis. It has, moreover, been remarked that almost all the animals mentioned were at home in the Egypt of those days, or at least, like the elephant, were to be seen there occasionally, whereas the structure of the hedgehog, for instance, is explained by a reference to the sea-porcupine, better known to fish-buyers on the Mediterranean. The fables of the phoenix and of the conduct of the wild ass and the ape at the time of the equinox owe their origin to astronomical symbols belonging to the Nile country.[3] In both chapters an Egyptian month is named, and elsewhere the antelope bears its Coptic name of “antholops.”

That the substance of the Physiologus was borrowed from commentaries on Scripture[4] is confirmed by many of the sections opening with a text, followed up by some such formula as “but the Physiologus says.” When zoological records failed, Egypto-Hellenic ingenuity was never at a loss for a fanciful invention distilled from the text itself, but which to succeeding copyists appeared as part of the teaching of the original Physiologus. As a typical instance we may take the chapter on the ant-lion—not the insect, but an imaginary creature suggested by Job. iv. 11. The exceptional Hebrew for a lion (layish) appeared to the Septuagint translators to call for a special rendering, and as there was said to exist on the Arabian coast a lion-like animal called “myrmex” (see Strabo xvi. 774, Aelian, N.A., vii. 47) they ventured to give the compound noun “myrmekoleon.” After so many years the commentators had lost the key to this unusual term, and only knew that in common Greek “myrmex” meant an ant. So the text “the myrmekoleon hath perished for that he had no nourishment” set them pondering, and others reproduced their meditations, with the following result: “The Physiologus relates about the ant-lion: his father hath the shape of a lion, his mother that of an ant; the father liveth upon flesh, and the mother upon herbs. And these bring forth the ant-lion, a compound of both, and in part like to either, for his fore part is that of a lion, and his hind part like that of an ant. Being thus composed, he is neither able to eat flesh like his father, nor herbs like his mother; therefore he perisheth from inanition”; the moral follows.

At a later period, when the Church had learnt to look with suspicion upon devotional books likely to provoke the scoffing of some and lead others into heresy, a work of this kind could hardly meet with her approval. A synod of Pope Gelasius, held in 496, passed censure, among others, on the “Liber Physiologus, qui ab haereticis conscriptus est et B. Ambrosii nomine signatus, apocryphus,” and evidence has even been offered that a similar sentence was pronounced a century before. Still, in spite of such measures, the Physiologus, like the Church History of Eusebius or the Pastor of Hermas, continued to be read with general interest, and even Gregory the Great did not disdain to allude to it on occasion. Yet the Oriental versions, which had certainly nothing to do with the Church of Rome, show that there was no systematic revision made according to the catholic standard of doctrine. The book remained essentially the same, albeit great liberties were taken with its details and outward form. There must have been many imperfect copies in circulation, from which people transcribed such sections as they found or chose, and afterwards completed their MS as occasion served Some even rearranged the contents according to the alphabet or to zoological affinity. So little was the collection considered as a literary work with a definite text that every one assumed a right to abridge or enlarge, to insert ideas of his own, or fresh scriptural quotations; nor were the scribes and translators by any means scrupulous about the names of natural objects, and even the passages from Holy Writ. Physiologus had been abandoned by scholars, and left to take its chance among the tales and traditions of the uneducated mass. Nevertheless, or rather for this very reason, its symbols found their way into the rising literature of the vulgar tongues, and helped to quicken the fancy of the artists employed upon church buildings and furniture.

The history of the Physiologus has become entwined from the beginning with that of the commentaries on the account of creation in Genesis. The principal production of this kind in our possession is the Hexaemeron of Basil, which contains several passages very like those of the Physiologus. For instance, in the seventh homily the fable of the nuptials of the viper and the conger-eel, known already to Aelian and Oppian, and proceeding from a curious misreading of Aristotle (Hist. An. v. 4, 540 b, Bekk), serves to point more than one moral. Notwithstanding the difference in theology, passages of this kind could not but be welcome to the admirers of the Alexandrian allegories. In fact a medley from both Basil and the Physiologus exists under the title of the Hexaemeron of Eustathius; some copies of the first bear as a title Περί φυσιολογίας, and in a Milan MS. the “morals” of the Physiologus are ascribed to Basil. The Leyden Syriac is supplemented with literal extracts from the latter, and the whole is presented as his work. Other copies give the names of Gregory Theologus, Epiphanius, Chrysostom and Isidore.

As far as can be judged, the emblems of the original Physiologus were the following: (1) the lion (footprints rubbed out with tail, sleeps with eyes open; cubs receive life only three days after birth by their father's breath); (2) the sun-lizard (restores its sight by looking at the sun), (3) the charadrius (Deut. xiv. 16, presages recovery or death of patients); (4) the pelican (recalls its young to life by its own blood), (5) the owl (or nyktikorax, loves darkness and solitude); (6) the eagle (renews its youth by sunlight and bathing in a fountain); (7) the phoenix (revives from fire), (8) the hoopoe (redeems its parents from the ills of old age), (9) the wild ass (suffers no male besides itself), (10) the viper (born at the cost of both its parents' death); (11) the serpent (sheds its skin, puts aside its venom before drinking, is afraid of man in a state of nudity; hides its head and abandons the rest of its body), (12) the ant (orderly and laborious; prevents stored grain from germinating; distinguishes wheat from barley on the stalk); (13) the sirens and onocentaurs (Isa. xiii. 21, 22; compound creatures), (14) the hedgehog (pricks grapes upon its quills), (1;) the fox (catches birds by simulating death); (16) the panther (spotted skin; enmity to the dragon; sleeps for three days after meals, allures its prey by sweet odour); (17) the sea-tortoise (or aspidochelone, mistaken by sailors for an island); (18) the partridge (hatches eggs of other birds); (19) the vulture (assisted in birth by a stone with loose kernel); (20) the ant-lion (able neither to take the one food nor to digest the other); (21) the weasel (conceives by the mouth and brings forth by the ear), (22) the unicorn (caught only by a virgin); (23) the beaver (gives up its testes when pursued), (24) the hyaena (a hermaphrodite), (25) the otter (enhydris, enters the crocodile's mouth to kill it), (26) the ichneumon (covers itself with mud to kill the dragon, another version of No 25), (27) the crow (takes but one consort in its life), (28) the turtle-dove (same nature as No. 27), (29) the frog (either living on land and killed by rain, or in the water without ever seeing the sun); (30) the stag (destroys its enemy the serpent); (31) the salamander (quenches fire); (32) the diamond (powerful against all danger); (33) the swallow (brings forth but once; misreading of Aristotle, Hist. An. v. 13); (34) the tree called peridexion (protects pigeons from the serpent by its shadow); (35) the pigeons (of several colours led by one of them, which is of a purple or golden colour); (36) the antelope (or hydrippus; caught by its horns in the thicket): (37) the fire flints (of two sexes, combine to produce fire); (38) the magnet (adheres to iron); (39) the saw-fish (sails in company with ships); (40) the ibis (fishes only along the shore); (41) the ibex (descries a hunter from afar); (42) the diamond again (read “carbuncle”; found only by night); (43) the elephant (conceives after partaking of mandrake; brings forth in the water; the young protected from the serpent by the father; when fallen is lifted up only by a certain small individual of its own kind); (44) the agate (employed in pearl-fishing); (45) the wild ass and ape (mark the equinox); (46) the Indian stone (relieves patients of the dropsy); (47) the heron (touches no dead body, and keeps to one dwelling place); (48) the sycamore (or wild fig; grubs living inside the fruit and coming out); (49) the ostrich (devours all sorts of things; forgetful of its own eggs). Besides these, or part of them, certain copies contain sections of unknown origin about the bee, the stork, the tiger. the woodpecker, the spider and the wild boar.

The Greek text of the Physiologus exists only in late MSS., and has to be corrected from the translations. In Syriac we have a full copy in a 12th-century Leyden MS.. published in J. P. N. Land’s Anecdota Syriaca; thirty-two chapters with the “morals” left out in a very late Vatican copy, published by Tychsen; and about the same number in a late MS. of the British Museum (Add. 25878). In Armenian Pitra gave some thirty-two chapters from a Paris MS. (13th century) The Aethiopic exists both in London and Paris, and was printed at Leipzig by Dr Hommel in 1877. In Arabic we have fragments at Paris, of which Renan translated a specimen for the Spicilegium solesmense, and another version of thirty-seven chapters at Leiden, probably the work of a monk at Jerusalem, which Land translated and printed with the Syriac. The Latin MSS of Bern are, after the Vatican glossary of Ansileubus, the oldest of which we know; there are others in several libraries, and printed editions by Mai, Heider and Cahier. Besides these, a few fragments of an old abridgment occur in Vallarsi's edition of Jerome's works (vol xi. col 218). A metrical Physiologus of but twelve chapters is the work of Theobaldus, probably abbot of Monte Cassino (A.D. 1022–1035). From this was imitated the Old-English fragment printed by Th. Wright, and afterwards by Maetzner; also the Old-French Sensuyl le bestiaire d’amours. The prose Physiologus was done into Old High German before 1000, and afterwards into rhyme in the same idiom; since Von der Hagen (1824) its various forms have found careful editors among the leading Germanists The Icelandic, in a Copenhagen MS of the 13th century, was printed by Professor Th. Mobius in his Analecta norroena (2nd ed., 1877); at the same time he gave it in German in Dr Hommel’s Aethiopic publication Some Anglo-Saxon metrical fragments are to be found in Grein’s Bibliothek, vol. i. The Provençal (c. 1250), published in Bartsch's Chrestomathie provençale, omits the “morals,” but is remarkable for its peculiarities of form. Before this there had been translations into French dialects, as by Philippe de Thaun (1121), by Guillaume, “clerc de Normandie,” also, about the same period, by Pierre, a clergyman of Picardy. All the Old-French materials have not yet been thoroughly examined, and it is far from improbable that some versions of the book either remain to be detected or are now lost past recovery. A full account of the history of the Physiologus should also embrace the subjects taken from it in the productions of Christian art, the parodies suggested by the original work, e.g. the Bestiaire d’amour by Richard de Fournival, and finally the traces left by it upon the encyclopaedical and literary work of the later middle ages.

Nearly all the information now obtainable is to be found in the following works and such as are there quoted S Epiphanius ad physiologum, ed. Ponce de Leon (with woodcuts) (Rome, 1587); another edition, with copper-plates (Antwerp, 1588); S. Eustathii in hexahemeron commentarius, ed Leo Allatius (Lyons, 1629; cf. H. van Herwerden, Exercitt Critt, pp. 180–182, Hague, 1862); Physiologus syrus, ed. O. G. Tychsen (Rostock, 1795), Classici auctores, ed Mai, vii. 585–596 (Rome, 1835); G. Heider, in Archiv für Kunde österreich. Geschichtsquellen ii. 545 seq. (Vienna, 1850); Cahier and Martin, Mélanges d’archéologie, &c. ii. 85 seq. (Paris, 1851), iii. 203 seq (1853), iv. 55 seq. (1856), Cahier, Nouveaux mélanges (1874), p. 106 seq; J. B. Pitra, Spicilegium solesmense iii. xlvii seq, 338 seq, 416, 535 (Paris, 1855); Maetzner, Altengl Sprachproben (Berlin, 1867), Vol 1 pt. i. p. 55 seq; J Victor Carus, Gesch. der Zoologie (Munich, 1872), p. 109 seq; J. P. N. Land, Anecdota syriaca (Leiden, 1874), iv. 31 seq., 115 seq., and in Verslagen en Mededeelingen der kon. Akad. van Wetenschappen, 2nd series, vol. iv. (Amsterdam, 1874); Möbius and Hommel in their publications quoted above. See also Lauchert, Geschichte des Physiologus (Strassburg, 1889) and E. Peters, Der griechische Physiologus und seine orientalischen Übersetzungen (Berlin, 1898).

  1. Origen, Sel. in Jerem. xvii. 11, ἐν τῆ περὶ ζῴων ὶστορίᾳ; Epiphan. Adv haer. i. 3, p. 274 (ed. D. Petav.), ὤς φασιν οἱ φυσιολόγοι; Origen, Hom. xvii., in Gen. xliv. 9, “nam physiologus de catulo leonis scribit.”
  2. Strom., iv. p 564 (ed. Potter), ἡ γοῦν κατά τὸν τῆς ἀγηθείας κανόνα γνωστικῆς παραδόσεως φυσιολογία, μᾶλλον δέ ἐποπτεία, ἐκ τοῦ περί κοσμογονίας ἤρτηται λόγου, ἐνθένδε ἀναβαίνουσα ἐπί τὸ θεολογικόν εἶδος.
  3. Cp. Leemans on Horapollo i. 16, 34.
  4. Including the Apocrypha. See the Icelandic account of the elephant, also a decidedly Alexandrian fragment upon the μάργος, founded upon 4 Macc. i. 3, which has got into the scholia upon the Odyssey xviii. 2 (ii. 533, ed. Dindorf, Oxford, 1855).