Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Click to enlarge

Physiologus, an early Christian work of a popular theological type, describing animals real or fabulous and giving each an allegorical interpretation. Thus the story is told of the lion whose cubs are born dead and receive life when the old lion breathes upon them, and of the phoenix which burns itself to death and rises on the third day from the ashes; both are taken as types of Christ. The unicorn also which only permits itself to be captured in the lap of a pure virgin is a type of the Incarnation; the pelican that sheds its own blood in order to sprinkle therewith its dead young, so that they may live again, is a type of the salvation of mankind by the death of Christ on the Cross. Some allegories set forth the deceptive enticements of the Devil and his defeat by Christ; others present qualities as examples to be imitated or avoided. The book, originally written in Greek at Alexandria, perhaps for purposes of instruction, appeared probably in the second century, though some place its date at the end of the third or in the fourth century. In later centuries it was ascribed to various celebrated Fathers, especially St. Epiphanius, St. Basil, and St. Peter of Alexandria. Origen, however, had cited it under the title “Physiologus”, while Clement of Alexandria and perhaps even Justin Martyr seem to have known it. The assertion that the method of the “Physiologus” presupposes the allegorical exegesis developed by Origen is not correct; the so-called “Letter of Barnabas” offers, before Origen, a sufficient model, not only for the general character of the “Physiologus” but also for many of its details. It can hardly be asserted that the later recensions, in which the Greek text has been preserved, present even in the best and oldest manuscripts a perfectly reliable transcription of the original, especially as this was an anonymous and popular treatise. “Physiologus” is not the original title; it was given to the book because the author introduces his stories from natural history with the phrase: “the physiologus says”, that is, the naturalist says, the natural philosophers, the authorities for natural history say. About 400 the “Physiologus” was translated into Latin; in the fifth century into ‘Ethiopic [edited by Hommel with a German translation (Leipzig, 1877), revised German translation in “Romanische Forschungen”, V, 13-36]; into Armenian [edited by Pitra in “Spicilegium Solesmense”, III, 374-90; French translation by Cahier in “Nouveaux Melanges d’archeologie, d’histoire et de litterature” (Paris, 1874)]; into Syrian [edited by Tychsen, “Physiologus Syrus” (Rostock, 1795), a later Syrian and an Arabic version edited by Land in “Anecdota Syriaca”, IV (Leyden, 1875)]. Numerous quotations and references to the “Physiologus” in the Greek and the Latin Fathers show that it was one of the most generally known works of Christian antiquity. Various translations and revisions were cur-rent in the Middle Ages. The earliest translation into Latin was followed by various recensions, among them the “Dicta Johannis Chrysostomi de naturis bestiarum”, edited by Heider in “Archiv fur Kunde osterreichischer Geschichtsquellen” (II, 550 sqq., 1850). A metrical Latin “Physiologus” was written in the eleventh century by a certain Theobaldus, and printed by Morris in “An Old English Miscellany” (1872), 201 sqq.; it also appears among the works of Hildebertus Cenomanensis in P.L., CLXXI, 1217-24. To these should be added the literature of the “Bestiaries” (q.v.), in which the material of “Physiologus” was used; the “Tractatus de bestiis et alius rebus”, attributed to Hugo of St. Victor; and the “Speculum naturale” of Vincent of Beauvais.

Translations and adaptations from the Latin introduced the “Physiologus” into almost all the languages of Western Europe. An eleventh-century German translation was printed by Miillenhoff and Scherer in “Denkmaler deutscher Poesie and Prosa” (No. LXXXI); a later translation (twelfth century) has been edited by Lauchert in “Geschichte des Physiologus” (pp. 280-99); and a rhymed version appears in Karajan, “Deutsche Sprachdenkmale des XII. Jahrhunderts” (pp. 73-106), both based on the Latin text known as “Dicta Chrysostomi”. Fragments of a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon “Physiologus”, metrical in form, still exist; they are printed by Thorpe in “Codex Exoniensis” (pp. 355-67), and by Grein in “Bibliothek der angelsachischen Poesie” (I, 233-8). About the middle of the thirteenth century there appeared an English metrical “Bestiary”, an adaptation of the Latin “Physiologus Theobaldi”; this has been edited by Wright and Halliwell in “Reliquiae antiquae” (I, 208-27), also by Morris in “An Old English Miscellany” (I-25). Icelandic literature includes a “Physiologus” belonging to the early part of the thirteenth century, edited by Dahlerup (Copenhagen, 1889). In the twelfth and thirteenth century there appeared the “Bestiaires” of Philippe de Thaun, a metrical Old-French version, edited by Thomas Wright in “Popular Treatises on Science Written during the Middle Ages” (74-131), and by Walberg (Lund and Paris, 1900); that by Guillaume, clerk of Normandy, called “Bestiaire divin”, and edited by Cahier in his “Melanges d’archeologie” (II-IV), also edited by Hippeau (Caen, 1852), and by Reinsch (Leipzig, 1890); the “Bestiaire” of Gervaise, edited by Paul Meyer in “Romania” (I, 420-42); the “Bestiaire” in prose of Pierre le Picard, edited by Cahier in “Melanges” (II-IV). A singular adaptation is found in the old Waldensian literature, and has been edited by Alfons Mayer in “Romanische Forschungen” (V, 392 sqq.). As to the Italian bestiaries, a Toscoenetian “Bestiarius” has been edited (Goldstaub and Wendriner, “Ein tosco-venezianischer Bestiarius”, Halle, 1892). Extracts from the “Physiologus” in Provencal have been edited by Bartsch, “Provenzalisches Lesebuch” (162-66). The “Physiologus” survived in the literatures of Eastern Europe in books on animals written in Middle Greek, among the Slays to whom it came from the Byzantines, and in a Roumanian translation from a Slavic original (edited by Gaster with an Italian translation in “Archivio glottologico italiano”, X, 273-304). Medieval poetical literature is full of allusions to the “Physiologus”, and it also exerted great influence on the symbolism of medieval ecclesiastical art; symbols like those of the phoenix and the pelican are still well-known and popular.


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!