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Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th century

The Physiologus is a didactic Christian text written or compiled in Greek by an unknown author, in Alexandria; its composition has been traditionally dated to the 2nd century AD by readers who saw parallels with writings of Clement of Alexandria, who is asserted to have known the text, though Alan Scott[1] has made a case for a date at the end of the 3rd or in the 4th 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 Armenian in 5th century[2], Latin in about 700,[3] 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[edit]

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 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 conventional title Physiologus was 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 of Caesarea, 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[edit]

About the year 400 the Physiologus was translated into Latin; in the 5th 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)] (see also the recent edition: Gohar Muradyan, Physiologus. The Greek And Armenian Versions With a Study of Translation Technique, Leuven–Dudley MA: Peeters, 2005 [Hebrew University Armenian Studies 6]); 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 10th century [edited by Karneyev, Materialy i zametki po literaturnoj istorii Fiziologa, Sankt Peterburg, 1890].

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 Sayings of St. John Chrysostom on the natures of beasts,[4] A metrical Latin Physiologus was written in the 11th 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, often misattributed 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 13th century there appeared a Middle 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 13th century, edited by Dahlerup (Copenhagen, 1889).[5]

In the 12th and 13th 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 de Gervaise [fr], 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 Byzantine (translations of the so-called Byzantinian redaction were made in Middle Bulgarian in the 13th-14th century; they were edited in 2011 by Ana Stoykova in an electronic edition, see reference), 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[edit]

Modern study of Physiologus can be said to have begun with Francesco Sbordone's edition, 1936,[6] 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[7] that a manuscript Sbordone had missed, at the Morgan Library,[8] was the oldest extant Greek version, a late 10th-century manuscript from Grottaferrata.


I. We begin first of all by speaking of the Lion
II. On the Antelope
III. On Piroboli Rocks
IV. On the Swordfish
V. On the Charadrius
VI. On the Pelican
VII. On the Owl
VIII. On the Eagle
IX. On the Phoenix
X. On the Hoopoe
XI. On the Wild Ass
XII. On the Viper
XIII. On the Serpent
XIV. On the Ant
XV. On the Siren and Ass-Centaur
XVI. On the Hedgehog
XVII. On the Ibis
XVIII. On the Fox
XIX. On the Peridexion Tree and the Doves
XX. On the Elephant
XXI. On Amos the Prophet
XXII. On the Roe
XXIII. On the Agate-stone
XXIV. On the Oyster-stone and the Pearl
XXV. On the Adamant-stone
XXVI. On the Other Nature of the Wild Ass and the Monkey
XXVII. On the Indian-stone
XXVIII. On the Heron, that is, the Coot
XXIX. On the Fig Tree
XXX. On the Panther
XXXI. On the Whale, that is, the Aspidoceleon
XXXII. On the Partridge
XXXIII. On the Vulture
XXXIV. On the Ant-lion
XXXV. On the Weasel
XXXVI. On the Unicorn
XXXVII. On the Beaver
XXXVIII. On the Hyena or the Brute
XXXIX. On the Niluus
XL. On the Echinemon
XLI. On the Little Crow
XLII. On the Ostrich
XLIII. On the Turtle-dove
XLIV. On the Swallow
XLV. On the Stag
XLVI. On the Frog
XLVII. On the Lizard, that is, the Salamander
XLVIII. On the Magnet
XLIX. On the Adamant-stone
L. On the Doves
LI. On the Sun-lizard, that is, the Sun-eel

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alan Scott, "The Date of the Physiologus" Vigiliae Christianae 52.4 (November 1998:430-441).
  2. ^ Gohar Muradyan, Physiologus: The Greek and Armenian Versions with a Study of Translation Technique, Peeters Publishers, 2005
  3. ^ T. H. White: The Bestiary: The Book of Beasts (London and New York, 1954, 4/1960)
  4. ^ "Dicta Iohanni Crisostomi de natura bestiarum", edited by G. Heider in Archiv für Kunde österreichischer Geschichtsquellen (5, 552–82, 1850).
  5. ^ Verner Dahlerup: Physiologus i to islandske Bearbejdelser. In: Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie (ANOH) 1889, pp. 199-290.
  6. ^ Fr. Sbordone, ''Physiologus (Rome: Dante Albrighi) 1936.
  7. ^ Perry, "Physiologus" entry in Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Herausgegeben v. G. Wissowa, vol. 20, pp. 1074-1129. Stuttgart, 1941.
  8. ^ Morgan codex 397.


  • S. Lazaris, Le Physiologus grec, t. 1. La réécriture de l'histoire naturelle antique (Firenze, 2016, Micrologus Library 77) - pdf:[1]
  • 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)
  • Dahlerup, Verner: “Physiologus i to islandske Bearbejdelser”. In: Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie (ANOH) 1889, pp. 199–290.
  • 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" (5, 541–82, Vienna, 1850)
  • A. Karneyev, Materialy i zametki po literaturnoj istorii Fiziologa (Sankt Peterburg, 1890).
  • 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);
  • Friedrich Lauchert, Geschichten des Physiologus (Strassburg, 1889)
  • Stavros Lazaris: ″Quelques considérations sur l’illustration du Physiologus grec″, in: Bestiaires médiévaux : Nouvelles perspectives sur les manuscrits et les traditions textuelles. Actes du XVe colloque international de la Société Internationale Renardienne, Louvain-la-Neuve, 18-22 août 2003, B. Van den Abeele (ed.), Louvain-la-Neuve, 2005 (Textes, études, congrès 21), p. 141-167 |pdf :érations_sur_l_illustration_du_Physiologus_grec_
  • Maetzner, Altengl. Sprachproben (Berlin, 1867), vol. i. pt. i. p. 55 seq.
  • Guy R. Mermier, "The Romanian Bestiary: An English Translation and Commentary on the Ancient 'Physiologus' Tradition," Mediterranean Studies, Vol. 13 (Penn State University Press: 2004), pp. 17-55.
  • 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 (PDF)
  • Ana Stoykova, The Slavic Physiologus of the Byzantine Recension: Electronic Text Edition and Comparative Study, 2011
  • O. G. Tychsen Physiologus syrus, (Rostock, 1795)
  • Möbius and Hominel in the publications quoted above.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Physiologus". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Physiologus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 21 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.


  • Emil Peters: Der Physiologus (aus dem griech. Orig., mit einem Nachw. vers. von Friedrich Würzbach). München: Musarionverl., 1921
  • Christian Schröder: Der Millstätter Physiologus. Text, Übersetzung, Kommentar (Würzburger Beiträge zur deutschen Philologie ; 24; zugl.: Würzburg, Univ., Diss., 2004). Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005
  • French translation : Arnaud Zucker, Physiologos. Le bestiaire des bestiaires. Texte traduit du grec, introduit et commenté par Arnaud Zucker, Jérôme Millon, 2005 (Series Atopia). ISBN 9782841371716