Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore

Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore

by Michael J. Curley

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One of the most popular and widely read books of the Middle Ages, Physiologus contains allegories of beasts, stones, and trees both real and imaginary, infused by their anonymous author with the spirit of Christian moral and mystical teaching.  Accompanied by an introduction that explains the origins, history, and literary value of this curious text, this volume also reproduces twenty woodcuts from the 1587 version. Originally composed in the fourth century in Greek, and translated into dozens of versions through the centuries, Physiologus will delight readers with its ancient tales of ant-lions, centaurs, and hedgehogs—and their allegorical significance.

“An elegant little book . . . still diverting to look at today. . . . The woodcuts reproduced from the 1587 Rome edition are alone worth the price of the book.”—Raymond A. Sokolov, New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226128719
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael J. Curley is professor emeritus of English at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of many books, including Alessandro Manzoni: Two Plays.

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A Medieval Book of Nature Lore

By Michael J. Curley

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Curley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12871-9


We begin first of all by speaking of the Lion, the king of all the beasts

Jacob, blessing his son Judah, said, "Judah is a lion's whelp" [Gen. 49: 9]. Physiologus, who wrote about the nature of these words, said that the lion has three natures. His first nature is that when he walks following a scent in the mountains, and the odor of a hunter reaches him, he covers his tracks with his tail wherever he has walked so that the hunter may not follow them and find his den and capture him. Thus also, our Savior, the spiritual lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David [cf. Rev. 5: 5], having been sent down by his coeternal Father, hid his intelligible tracks (that is, his divine nature) from the unbelieving Jews: an angel with angels, an archangel with archangels, a throne with thrones, a power with powers, descending until he had descended into the womb of a virgin to save the human race which had perished. "And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us" [John 1:14]. And those who are on high not knowing him as he descended and ascended said this, "Who is this king of glory?" And the angels leading him down answered, "He is the lord of virtues, the king of glory" [cf. Ps. 24: 10].

The second nature of the lion is that, although he has fallen asleep, his eyes keep watch for him, for they remain open. In the Song of Songs the betrothed bears witness, saying, "I sleep, but my heart is awake" [S. of S. 5: 2]. And indeed, my Lord physically slept on the cross, but his divine nature always keeps watch in the right hand of the Father [cf. Matt. 26:64]. "He who guards Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" [Ps. 121:4].

The third nature of the lion is that, when the lioness has given birth to her whelp, she brings it forth dead. And she guards it for three days until its sire arrives on the third day and, breathing into its face on the third day, he awakens it. Thus did the almighty Father of all awaken from the dead on the third day the firstborn of every creature [cf. Col. 1:15]. Jacob, therefore, spoke well, "Judah is a lion's whelp; who has awakened him?" [Gen. 49:9].


On the Antelope

There is an animal called the antelope, so exceedingly alert that the hunter is unable to approach him. He has long horns in the shape of a saw so that he is able to cut through thick, high trees and fell them to the ground. If he is thirsty, however, he goes to the terrible Euphrates River and drinks. Near the river there are herecine (as they are called in Greek), that is, shrubs with thin branches; and he comes up to that herecine shrub frisking about and is ensnared in its branches. Then he cries out, wishing to escape, and is unable to do so for he has been ensnared. Hearing him, the hunter will come and slay him.

o citizen whose commonwealth is heavenly [Phil 3:20], confiding in the two horns of might abstain from acts of slander and pleasure, inimical desire and the pomp of the world; the powers of the angels will rejoice for you, for the two horns are the two Testaments. But watch that you are not held by this most delicate herecine, that is, by the little shrub which covers you at just the right moment. Watch that you are not held in its snare, for the wicked hunter (that is, the devil) will slay you. The wise man, however, flees wine and women [cf. Ecclesiasticus 19:2 and Hos. 4:11].


On Piroboli Rocks

Piroboli rocks exist only in the East; they are igneous rocks of masculine and feminine gender. As long as they are separate from one another, they do not burn, but, if the male approaches the female, fire breaks forth and consumes all.

O citizen moderate in all things, many are the men in Tartarus who fell into temptations on account of women [cf. Ecclesiasticus 9:8]. [Separate yourself far from women lest the double fire be ignited when you approach one another and consume the good things which Christ has bequeathed you. Satan's angels always battle the just, not only holy men but also chaste women. Samson and Joseph were both tempted by women; one conquered and the other was himself conquered. Eve and Susanna Were tempted: the former conquered and the latter was conquered.]


On the Swordfish

Physiologus spoke well of those who abstain from all things but who do not persevere to the end [cf. Matt. 24:13]. There is an animal in the sea, he said, called the swordfish, which has long wings; and, when he sees the ships sailing, he imitates them and raises his wings and strives with the ships as they sail. Growing tired after racing three or four miles or more, he folds up his wings and the waves carry him back to his former abode where he was at first.

The sea is the world, the ships are the prophets and apostles who cross through this world, [through the eye of the squall and storm of this world without any danger or shipwreck to their faith; they conquer the deadly waves, that is, the contrary] powers of the adversary.

The swordfish who does not keep pace with the crossing ships represents those who are abstinent for a time but who do not persevere with good pace. These begin with good works but do not persevere to the end because of greed, pride, and love of wicked gain [cf. Tit.1:11] or acts of fornication or adultery or hatred; within these waves of the sea (that is, the contrary powers) are the powers which carry them down into hell.


On the Charadrius

There is another kind of flying animal called the charadrius mentioned in Deuteronomy [Deut. 14:18] which is entirely white with no black part at all. His excrement is a cure for those whose eyes are growing dim and he is found in the halls of kings. If someone is ill, whether he will live or die can be known from the charadrius. The bird turns his face away from the man whose illness will bring death and thus everyone knows that he is going to die. On the other hand, if the disease is not fatal, the charadrius stares the sick man in the face and the sick man stares back at the charadrius, who releases him from his illness. Then, flying up to the atmosphere of the sun, the charadrius burns away the sick man's illness and scatters it abroad.

The charadrius is our Savior and the one who is ill receives the good person of our Savior who is entirely white without spot or wrinkle [cf. Eph. 5:27]. The Lord himself said in the Gospel, "The ruler of this world is coming, and he will find nothing against me" [John 14:30]. For "He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips" [I Peter 2:22]. And coming down from heaven to the Jewish people, he turned his divine nature from them, saying, "Behold, your abandoned house is forsaken" [Lk. 13:35]. Yet he came down to us, the Gentiles, taking away our infirmities [Matt. 8:17] and carrying off our sins [cf. Is. 53:4]; and he was lifted up to the wood of the cross: "Ascending on high, he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men" [Ps. 68:18 and Eph. 4:8]. ["Indeed, those who believed not, received not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" [John 1:12].]

But you say that the charadrius is unclean according to the law, therefore how can he represent the person of the Savior? The serpent is unclean, yet the Lord himself bore witness concerning him in the Gospel, saying, "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" [John 3:14]. The serpent was called a rather wise beast, as were the lion and many others. The creatures are twofold: the praiseworthy and the blameworthy. [Similarly, both the lion and the eagle are unclean even though the one is the king of the beasts and the other of the birds. Because of their kingdoms they are likened to Christ, yet because of their greediness they are likened to the devil. And there are many others among the creatures who have double significances; certain are praiseworthy while others are blameworthy, according to their different habits and nature.]


On the Pelican

David says in Psalm 101, "I am like the pelican in loneliness" [Ps. 102:7]. Physiologus says of the pelican that it is an exceeding lover of its young. If the pelican brings forth young and the little ones grow, they take to striking their parents in the face. The parents, however, hitting back kill their young ones and then, moved by compassion, they weep over them for three days, lamenting over those whom they killed. On the third day, their mother strikes her side and spills her own blood over their dead bodies (that is, of the chicks) and the blood itself awakens them from death.

Thus did our Lord speaking through Isaiah say, "I have brought forth sons and have lifted them up, but they have scorned me" [Is. 1:2]. The Maker of every creature brought us forth and we struck him. How did we strike him? Because we served the creature rather than the creator [cf. Rom. 1:25]. The Lord ascended the height of the cross and the impious ones struck his side and opened it and blood and water came forth for eternal life [cf. John 19:34 and 6:55], blood because it is said, "Taking the chalice he gave thanks" [Matt. 26:27 and Lk. 22:17], and water because of the baptism of repentance [Mk. 1:4 and Lk. 3:3]. The Lord said, "They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water," and so on [Jer. 2:13]. Physiologus, therefore, spoke well of the pelican.


On the Owl

David says of the owl in the same Psalm 101, "I have become like an owl in the house" [Ps. 102:6]. The owl is this kind of bird: he loves the darkness more than the light.

Our Lord Jesus Christ loved those who were in the darkness and the shadow of death [cf. Is. 9:2], the Gentiles and the Jews who then received adoption as sons [cf. Gal. 4:5] and the promise of the patriarchs [cf. Rom. 15:8]. Concerning this the Savior said, "Fear not little flock for it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom" [Lk. 12:32]. And the Prophet says, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'my beloved'" [Rom. 9:25 and Hos. 2:23]. Yet, following Deuteronomy, you say that the owl is an unclean bird. But the Apostle said, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin" [II Cor. 5:21] and "He became all things to all men, that he might provide all profit" [cf. I Cor. 9:22].

[This beast is the figure of the Jewish people who, when our Lord and Savior came to save them, rejected him, saying, "We have no king but Caesar, we know not who this man is" [John 19:15]. Thus, they loved the darkness more than the light. Then the Lord turned to us Gentiles and illuminated us while we were sitting in the darkness and in the region of the shadow of death, and in the region of the shadow of death light rose up for us [cf. Is. 9:2]. The Savior spoke through the Prophet about this people, saying, "People whom I knew not served me" [Ps. 18:43]. And, elsewhere, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'my beloved'" [Rom. 9:25 and Hos. 2:23]. Concerning the Jewish people who preferred the darkness to the light [cf. John 3:19], the Lord says in the psalm, "Alien sons have lied to me, and they have grown old, and stumbled from their paths" [Ps. 18:44–45].]


On the Eagle

David says in Psalm 102, "Your youth will be renewed like the eagle's" [Ps. 103:5]. Physiologus says of the eagle that, when he grows old, his wings grow heavy and his eyes grow dim. What does he do then? He seeks out a fountain and then flies up into the atmosphere of the sun, and he burns away his wings and the dimness of his eyes, and descends into the fountain and bathes himself three times and is restored and made new again.

Therefore, you also, if you have the old clothing and the eyes of your heart have grown dim, seek out the spiritual fountain who is the Lord. "They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water" [Jer. 2:13]. As you fly into the height of the sun of justice [Mal. 4:2], who is Christ as the Apostle says, he himself will burn off your old clothing which is the devil's. Therefore, those two elders in Daniel heard, "You have grown old in wicked days" [Dan. 13:52]. Be baptized in the everlasting fountain, putting off the old man and his actions and putting on the new, you who have been created after the likeness of God [cf. Eph. 4:24] as the Apostle said. Therefore, David said, "Your youth will be renewed like the eagle's" [Ps. 103:5].


On the Phoenix

The Savior said in the Gospel, "I have the power to lay down my life, and I have the power to take it again" [John 10:18]. And the Jews were angered by his words. There is a species of bird in the land of India which is called the phoenix, which enters the wood of Lebanon after five hundred years and bathes his two wings in the fragrance. He then signals to the priest of Heliopolis (that is, the city named Heliopolis) during the new month, that is, Adar, which in Greek is called Farmuti or Phamenoth. When the priest has been signaled, he goes in to the altar and heaps it with brushwood. Then the bird enters Heliopolis laden with fragrance and mounts the altar, where he ignites the fire and burns himself up. The next day then the priest examines the altar and finds a worm in the ashes. On the second day, however, he finds a tiny birdling. On the third day he finds a huge eagle which taking flight greets the priest and goes off to his former abode.

If this species of bird has the power to kill himself in such a manner as to raise himself up, how foolish are those men who grow angry at the words of the Savior, "I have the power to lay down my life, and I have the power to take it again" [John 10:18]. The phoenix represents the person of the Savior since, descending from the heavens, he left his two wings full of good odors (that is, his best words) so that we, holding forth the labors of our hand, might return the pleasant spiritual odor to him in good works. Physiologus, therefore, speaks well of the phoenix.


On the Hoopoe

The law says, "Whoever curses his father or mother will die the death" [Ex. 21:17]. What then of the patricide and the matricide? There is a bird called the hoopoe; if the young see their parents grow old and their eyes dim, they preen the parents' feathers and lick their eyes and warm their parents beneath their wings and nourish them as a reciprocation just as they nourished their chicks, and they become new parents of their own parents. [Their feathers are renewed and their eyes re-illuminated so that they are able to be utterly renewed and to see and fly as before. Afterward, they thank their young who piously rendered them service.] And after a fashion they say to their parents, "Just as you labored to nourish us, so we also do likewise for you."

How unreasonable are these men who do not love their parents! Physiologus, therefore, spoke well of the hoopoe.


On the Wild Ass

It is said in Job, "Who has let the wild ass go free?" [Job 39:5]. Physiologus says of the wild ass that being first among those of the herd, if he begets colts, the father will break their necessaries so that they produce no seed.

The patriarchs tried to create carnal seed, but the apostles spiritually obtained carnal sons so that they might possess heavenly seed, just as it is said, "Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear," and so on [Is. 54:1]. The Old Testament announces the seed, but the New proclaims abstinence.


On the Viper

John said to the Pharisees, "You brood of vipers" [Matt. 3:7 and Lk. 3:7]. Physiologus says of the viper that the male has the face of a man, while the female has the form of a woman down to her navel, but from her navel down to her tail she has the form of a crocodile. Indeed, the woman has no secret place, that is, genitals for giving birth, but has only a pinhole. If the male lies with the female and spills his seed into her mouth, and if she drinks his seed, she will cut off the male's necessaries (that is, his male organs) and he will die. When, however, the young have grown within the womb of their mother who has no genitals for giving birth, they pierce through her side, killing her in their escape.

Our Savior, therefore, likened the Pharisees to the viper; just as the viper's brood kills its father and mother, so this people which is without God kills its father, Jesus Christ, and its earthly mother, Jerusalem. "Yet how will they flee from the wrath to come?" [Lk. 3:7]. Our father Jesus Christ and mother church live in eternity while those living in sin are dead.


On the Serpent

The Savior says, "Be wise like the serpents and mild like the doves" [Matt. 10:16]. The serpent has three natures. The first nature is this: when he grows old, his eyes become dim and, if he wants to become new again, he abstains and fasts for forty days until his skin becomes loosened from his flesh. And if it does become loosened with fasting, he goes and finds a narrow crack in the rock, and entering it he bruises himself and contracts and throws off his old skin and becomes new again. We, too, throw off for Christ the old man and his clothing through much abstinence and tribulation. And you, seek out Christ the spiritual rock and the narrow crack. "The gate is narrow and there is tribulation on the way which leads toward life, and few are those who enter through it" [Matt. 7:14].


Excerpted from Physiologus by Michael J. Curley. Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Curley. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


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


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