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 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 has made a case for a date at the end of the third 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 Latin in about 700, 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.
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.
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