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Bestiaries: sources

For the complete lists of animals featured in the Physiologus, see Physiologus, Wikipedia.  For a shorter list of these animals as well as their attributes, go to Medieval Bestiary: http://bestiary.ca/manuscripts/manubeast1345.htm.

For pictures featured in the Physiologus, go to Medieval Bestiary, Gallery: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery218.htm

To access manuscripts other than the Physiologus, click on tab labelled Manuscripts: Medieval Bestiary, Gallery: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery218.htm


In a post dated 22 February, I indicated that writers and artists who produced the bestiaries of the Middle Ages used as their main source a book entitled The Physiologus (‘The Natural Scientist’).  “It consists of stories based on the ‘facts’ of natural science as accepted by someone called Physiologus (Latin: “Naturalist”), about whom nothing further is known, and from the compiler’s own religious ideas.”[i]

There is no doubt concerning the authenticity of our unknown “naturalist,” i.e. the person who compiled the texts contained in the Physiologus.  But there is some disagreement with respect to the authorship of the texts included in the PhysiologusThe Physiologus  “is ascribed to one or other of the 4th-century bishops Basil and Epiphanius.” Peter of Alexandria, Basil, John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Jerome; even pre-Christian authors like Solomon and Aristotle were said to have written parts of it (Curley, p. xvi).  (See Medieval Bestiary)

However, for our purposes, we need simply know that “medieval bestiaries ultimately are derived from the Greek Physiologus.”[ii] but that India “may also be a source:” 

Some Indian influence is clear—for example, in the introduction of the elephant and of the Peridexion tree, actually called Indian in the Physiologus. India may also be the source of the story of the unicorn, which became very popular in the West.[iii]


The Popularity & Dissemination of the Physiologus

The Physiologus may not have been as popular as the Bible, but nearly so.  “It was translated into Latin (first in the 4th or 5th century), Ethiopian, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, and Armenian. Early translations from the Greek also were made into Georgian and into Slavic languages.”[iv]  It was then translated into several other languages.  However, the symbolism  attached to these allegorical animals may have changed and new symbols may have been added as various manuscripts wound their way through translations and possible “editions” of some original Physiologus.  A thousand years elapsed between the publication of the Physiologus and that of the Aberdeen Bestiary

According to Britannica, The Physiologus would have “48 sections, each dealing with one creature, plant, or stone and each linked to a biblical text.”  As for animals featured in the Physiologus, they are listed in Wikipedia.  In its list, Wikipedia names the dragon and the unicorn, both of whom are “fantastic” animals, as are the griffin and the phœnix .  (See Physiologus, Wikipedia and Medieval Bestiary)


Griffin couchant facing throne at Knossos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Dragon, the Griffin, the Unicorn, and the Phoenix

In the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion, the Physiologus is described as “an exposition of the marvellous properties of some 50 animals, plants and stones, with a Christian interpretation of each.”[v]  In this statement, the key word is “marvellous.”  It matches the word used to describe the “fantastic” aspects of certain documents dating back to the French Middle Ages. Several mediavelists speak of the “merveilleux [marvellous] chrétien.

Truth be told, among animals described in the Physiologus, some do not exist.  The dragon and the unicorn, who are listed in Wikipedia’s entry on the Physiologus, are legendary animals that I call “mythical animals.”  There are other mythical animals, two of whom are the afore-mentioned dragon and unicorn, but the Physiologus does not feature the phœnix, a mythical creature who was adopted as a symbol in Early Christianity.  Nor does it mention the griffin.  However, somehow I discovered the above fresco of the griffin while reading about the Physiologus. It is so lovely that I could not resist inserting it in this post. Although there are several mythical animals, the dragon, the griffin, the phœnix, and the unicorn are the more familiar. They are the four animals I call “mythical animals.”

Mythical vs Mythological Animals

Mythical animals may inhabit mythologies, east and west, but unlike the Minotaur of Greek mythology, they are legendary beasts who do not have a lineage.  In this regard, they differ from Greek mythology’s Minotaur who is the son of a bull and Phasiphaë, the daughter of Helios and the wife of Theseus, the mythical and mythological — Greek mythology — founder-king of Athens.  As for Pegasus, the winged horse, he is the offspring of Poseidon and Medusa.  However, among the fifty or so beast Physiologus depicts, there is a Centaur, a zoomorphic — half human, half horse — mythological animal as well as the Siren of Greek mythology.

(please click on the image to enlarge it)
A phœnix depicted in a book of mythological creatures by F. J. Bertuch (1747-1822)
A phœnix depicted in a book of mythological creatures by F. J. Bertuch* (1747-1822)

*F. J. Bertuch

(please click on the image to enlarge it)
Theseus fighting the Minotaur by Jean-Etienne Ramey, marble, 1826, Tuileries Gardens, Paris
Theseus fighting the Minotaur by Jean-Étienne Ramey, marble, 1826, Tuileries Gardens,* Paris

*Jean-Étienne Ramey

A Poetical Reality

The reality of these “fantastic” animals is poetical.  It is the reality that J. K. Rowling used when she wrote the Harry Potter series.  For instance, she featured the mythical phœnix, who is described in the Physiologus as an animal that rises from its own ashes and therefore represents Christ rising from the dead three days after his crucifixion.  Similarly, the legendary pelican kills its off springs and, three days later, revives them by feeding them her blood.[viii]  The author of the Physiologus may have borrowed from “pagan” sources, but his interpretation of the 50 animals, plants and stones is a Christian interpretation, which would suit medieval and Christian authors of bestiaries and artists depicting the fanciful animals bestiaries featured.

The animals featured in the Physiologus are in fact all the more “marvellous” and poetical in that they are zoomorphic, i.e. combining human and animal features, which is the case with the Centaur.  But mythical and mythological animals may also combine the features of several animals, which is the case with Pegasus, the winged horse.  However, whatever their appearance, these animals all stand for human beings or all symbolize human attributes.  They are anthropomorphic and, during the Middle Ages in particular, allegorical.


I wanted to write on the Aberdeen Bestiary, but many of the animals featured in the Aberdeen Bestiary originate in the Physiologus, as does the symbolism attached to them.  It would appear that the “religious sections of the Physiologus (and of the bestiaries derived from the Physiologus) are concerned primarily with abstinence and chastity; they also warn against heresies.”[ix] 

However, what is most fascinating about these animals is that they are part of our world.  They are fanciful and the iconography attached to them, mostly delightful, but it could be that we actually need the phœnix.  If the phœnix rises from its ashes, we can also rise again, whatever ordeal has befallen us.  As for the pelicans who stretch maternal love to the point of reviving dead off springs by feeding them their blood, they are quintessential motherhood.  In other words, both the Physiologus and bestiaries it inspired tell our story, and that story is one we created.

The Physiologus is an “illuminated” manuscript.  Artists and scribes transformed it into a work of art.  Second-century artists may have used techniques that differ from the manner in which the Book of Kells and the Aberdeen Bestiary are illuminated, but the Lascaux Cave is a splendid testimonial to a motivation to “picture” our world and, in particular, the animals we require.  Several manuscripts of the Physiologus have survived.  The Bern Physiologus may well be the most notorious extant illuminated manuscript of the Physiologus.  For pictures, click on Bern Physiologus (Wikimedia commons) and Medieval Bestiary: http://bestiary.ca/manuscripts/manubeast1345.htm)

Angels have wings, yet we swear on the Bible.

Bellerophon riding Pegasus (1914)
Bellerophon riding Pegasus (1914)

‘Arrival to the Oxford market’: Anonymous (XIII century)

Main Source:  Medieval Bestiary: http://bestiary.ca/manuscripts/manubeast1345.htm
Photo credit: Wikipedia (all images)
[i] “bestiary”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2013
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Physiologus”, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion (Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 2003).
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Donald Ray Schwartz, Noah’s Ark, An Annotated Encyclopedia of every Animal Species in the Hebrew Bible (Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000).
[viii] Physiologus”, Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion (Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 2003)
[ix] Britannica, loc. cit.
The Unicorn in the Physiologus

The Unicorn in the Physiologus

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)

© Micheline Walker
24 February 2013