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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Physiologus is a didactic text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, in Alexandria; its composition has been traditionally dated to the second century AD by readers who saw parallels with writings of Clement of Alexandria, who is asserted to have known the text, though Alan Scott has made a case for a date at the end of the third or in the fourth century. The Physiologus consists of descriptions of animals, birds, and fantastic creatures, sometimes stones and plants, provided with moral content. Each animal is described, and an anecdote follows, from which the moral and symbolic qualities of the animal are derived. Manuscripts are often, but not always, given illustrations, often lavish.

The book was translated into Latin in about 400, and into Ethiopic and Syriac, then into many European and Middle-Eastern languages, and many illuminated manuscript copies such as the Bern Physiologus survive. It retained its influence over ideas of the "meaning" of animals in Europe for over a thousand years. It was a predecessor of bestiaries (books of beasts). Medieval poetical literature is full of allusions that can be traced to the Physiologus tradition; the text also exerted great influence on the symbolism of medieval ecclesiastical art: symbols like those of the phoenix rising from its ashes and the pelican feeding her young with her own blood are still well-known.


Allegorical stories

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 phœnix 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 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.


Physiologus is not an 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.

In later centuries it was ascribed to various celebrated Fathers, especially Epiphanius, Basil, and St. Peter of Alexandria.

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.

Early history

About the year 400 the Physiologus was translated into Latin; in the fifth century into Ethiopic [edited by Fritz 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 Mélanges d'archéologie, d'histoire et de littérature (Paris, 1874)]; into Syriac [edited by Tychsen, Physiologus Syrus (Rostock, 1795), a later Syriac and an Arabic version edited by Land in Anecdota Syriaca, IV (Leyden, 1875)]. An Old Slavic (Old Bulgarian) translation was made in the tenth century [edited by Karnejev, Materialy i zametki po literaturnoj istorii Fiziologa, Sankt Peterburg, 1893].

Epiphanius used Physiologus in his Panarion and from his time numerous further quotations and references to the Physiologus in the Greek and the Latin Church fathers show that it was one of the most generally known works of Christian Late Antiquity. Various translations and revisions were current in the Middle Ages. The earliest translation into Latin was followed by various recensions, among them the Dicta Johannis Chrysostomi de naturis bestiarum, 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 Pat.Lat., CLXXI, 1217-24. To these should be added the literature of the bestiaries, in which the material of the 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 Old High German (Alemannic) translation was written in Hirsau in ca. 1070 (ed. Müllenhoff and Scherer in Denkmäler deutscher Poesie und Prosa No. LXXXI); a later translation (12th 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 9th-century metrical Anglo-Saxon Physiologus are extant (ed. Thorpe in Codex Exoniensis pp. 335-67, Grein in Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie I, 223-8).

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 Reliquiæ antiquæ (I, 208-27), also by Morris in An Old English Miscellany (1-25). Icelandic literature includes a Physiologus belonging to the early part of the thirteenth century, edited by Dahlerup (Copenhagen, 1889).

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries 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 Bestiare divin, and edited by Cahier in his Mélanges d'archéologie (II-IV), also edited by Hippeau (Caen, 1852), and by Reinsch (Leipzig, 1890); the Bestiare of Gervaise, edited by Paul Meyer in Romania (I, 420-42); the Bestiare in prose of Pierre le Picard, edited by Cahier in Mélanges (II-IV).

An 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 Tuscan-Venetian Bestiarius has been edited (Goldstaub and Wendriner, Ein tosco-venezianischer Bestiarius, Halle, 1892). Extracts from the Physiologus in Provençal 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 Slavs to whom it came from the Byzantines (translations of the so called Byzantinian redaction were made in Middle Bulgarian and in Serbian probably in the thirteenth century), and in a Romanian translation from a Slavic original (edited by Moses Gaster with an Italian translation in Archivio glottologico italiano, X, 273-304).

The manuscript tradition

Modern study of Physiologus can be said to have begun with Father Sbordone's edition, 1936, which established three traditions in the surviving manuscripts of the text, a primitive tradition, a Byzantine one and a pseudo-Basil tradition. Ben Perry showed that a manuscript Sbordone had missed, at the Morgan Library, was the oldest extant Greek version, a late tenth century manuscript from Grottaferrata.

See also



  • T. H. White: The Bestiary: The Book of Beasts (London and New York, 1954, 4/1960)
  • Cahier and Martin, Mélanges d'archaeologie, &c. ii. 85 seq (Paris, 1851), iii. 203 seq. (1853),iv. 55 seq. (r856);
  • Cahier, Nouveaux mélanges (1874), p. 106 seq.
  • J. Victor Carus, Gesch der Zoologie (Munich, 1872), p. 109 seq.
  • Classici auctores I ed. Mai, vii. 585596 (Rome, 1835)
  • S. Epiphanius ad physiologum, ed. Ponce de Leon (with woodcuts) (Rome, 1587) another edition, with copper-plates (Antwerp, 1588);
  • S. Eustathu ni hexahemeron commentarius, ed. Leo Allatius (Lyons, 1629; cf. I-F van Herwerden, Exerciti. Crstt., pp. 180182, Hague, 1862);
  • G. Heider, in Archiv für Kunde österreichischer Geschichtsquellen" (II, 550 sqq., Vienna, 1850)
  • J. P. N. Land, Anecdote syriaca (Leiden, 1874), iv. 31 seq., 115 seq., and in Verslager en Mededeelingen der kon. Akad. van Wetenschappen, 2nd series vol. iv. (Amsterdam, 1874);
  • Lauchert, Geschichten des Physiologus (Strassburg, 1889)
  • Maetzner, Altengl. Sprachproben (Berlin, 1867), vol. i. pt. i. p. 55 seq.
  • Emil Peters: Der griechische Physiologus und seine orientalischen Übersetzungen (Festschriften der Gesellschaft für deutsche Philologie ; 15). Berlin, 1898.
  • B. Pitra, Spicilegium solesmense Th xlvii. seq., 338 seq., 416, 535 (Paris, 1855)
  • Meinolf Schumacher: "Der Biber – ein Asket? Zu einem metaphorischen Motiv aus Fabel und 'Physiologus'": Euphorion 86 (1992) pp. 347-353.
  • O. G. Tychsen Physiologus syrus, (Rostock, 1795)
  • Möbius and Hominel in the publications quoted above.

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