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Physiologus, 'the Natural Scientist'

Physiologus (‘the Natural Scientist’), an exposition of the marvellous properties of some 50 animals, plants, and stones, with a Christian interpretation of each (e.g. the pelican, which kills its offspring then revives them after three days with its own blood, figures the salvation of mankind through the Crucifixion). Both place and date of composition are disputed: perhaps Syria, perhaps Egypt; perhaps as late as the 4th cent. ce, perhaps (more likely?) as early as the 2nd. In any event, the work draws heavily on earlier traditions of Greek natural historical writing, particularly that of the paradoxographers, with their concentration on the marvellous in nature and on occult natural sympathies and antipathies. The physiologus of the title is not the (entirely anonymous) author, but the (equally anonymous) authority from whom he claims to derive his information; it is however unclear whether he drew on a single proximate source or on several. No neat separation of the entries into borrowed (pagan) ‘information’ and superimposed Christian interpretation is possible, as in many cases the ‘information’ has already been reshaped to fit its new context (e.g. in the highlighting of the number three, to allow reference to the Trinity and the three days of the Passion).

The work enjoyed extraordinary popularity in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. After the first version there were two subsequent (shorter) re-editions in Greek, between the 5th and the 11th cents. At least two, possibly three separate Latin translations were made, beginning perhaps as early as the 8th cent., and there were translations into Armenian, Georgian, Slavic, Syriac, Coptic, and Ethiopic. Illustrated versions were also produced. Via the Latin translation, it had a profound influence on medieval Bestiaries.

Bibliography

Text

F. Sbordone (1936).Find this resource:

    D. Offermanns (1966).Find this resource:

      D. Kaimakis (1974).Find this resource:

        Eng. trans. M. Curley (1979).Find this resource:

          Studies

          B. Perry, Real-Encyclopädie d. klassischen Altertumswissenschaft 20 (1941), 1074.Find this resource:

            M. Wellmann, Philologus, Suppl. 22. 1 (1930).Find this resource:

              O. Seel, Der Physiologus (1960).Find this resource:

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