Physiologus: Introduction
About this edition

The Physiologus is a popular theological work, one of the most widely read books in the medieval Christian world. Its oldest recension, containing ca. 50 chapters which describe beasts, plants and stones, appeared in Greek probably in the 2nd century AD1 in Alexandria2. All chapters have the same structure: they begin with a Bible citation followed by the formula "ὁ Φυσιολόγος ἔλεξεν περὶ..." (The Physiologus said about...), where the beast (or plant or stone) to which the chapter is dedicated is named. The main part of every chapter contains a description of the properties (φύσεις) of the beast and an interpretation (or explanation - ἑρμηνεία) of these properties from a Christian perspective. Chapters conclude with the sentence: "Καλῶς οὖν εἶπεν ὁ Φυσιολόγος περὶ..." (The Physiologus spoke well about so-and-so).

The characters of the Physiologus are mainly mythical beasts, whose fictional properties were selected so that they could serve as objects of symbolic interpretation. Some of the short narratives contain images borrowed from Eastern myths whereas others reflect fantastic beliefs about well-known animals.

The title "Physiologus" (ὁ Φυσιολόγος) is not the original title of the book but a metonymic name derived from the introductory phrase to each chapter: "The Physiologus said about...". This pseudonym apparently conceals the identity of the author on whose writing the Christian work known today was based. The Physiologus has often been ascribed to ancient writers or church fathers: Solomon, Aristotle, Epiphanius of Cyprus, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Jerome, John Chrysostom or Peter of Alexandria3. At certain points in the scholarly tradition of the Physiologus the authorship of each one of them was considered possible.

However, it should be noted that, in the oldest versions of texts, there is as a rule no mention of the author's name; it appears only in later copies, and there is no indication of a settled tradition. That is why the Physiologus is supposed to have come into being as an anonymous writing "whose content was seen as public property"4, as happens with any work of popular literature. Nevertheless, there are features of the text which point to the intervention of a particular person, of an editor5.

Different hypotheses have been advanced regarding the authorship of the works in natural history which served as a basis for the Physiologus. According to scholars, the earliest stage of natural science visible in the Physiologus is that represented in the writings of Bolos of Mendes. A follower of Democritus, Bolos created the books Φυσικά δυναμερά better known as Περὶ τὦν συμπατειὦν καὶ ἀντιπατειὦν and Χειρόκμητα which circulated under Democritus' name. In these works, ancient science was integrated with folk beliefs. The Physiologus was not the only work influenced by Bolos; other works about animals were also written at that time but they were not to have such a spectacular future.

1 According to some scholars, it is more likely that the Physiologus appeared around the middle of the 3rd or even the 4th century AD. See, for instance, Lauchert 1889. M. Curley (Curley 1979, 2009) and A. Scott (Scott 1998) are recent proponents of this view.
2 Sbordone 1936: ХVІ-ХVІІ.
3 Perry 1941: 1077.
4 Perry 1941: 1078.
5 Henkel 1976: 14.

The language of the Physiologus is relatively simple and close to the language of the New Testament. It seems to have been designed for a wide audience. The reason for that is that the Physiologus supposedly appeared in the framework of early christian preaching, when it was necessary to explain in a popular manner the main dogmas of Christianity. The Physiologus suited the homiletic tendencies of that period, when allegory starts being used in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

The extant Greek texts of the Physiologus were published in 1936 by Francesco Sbordone, who divided the texts into three main recensions in prose and one in verse.

Greek recensions of the Physiologus

І. Within the most archaic Alexandrian recension6, Sbordone identified four types of copies which, according to him, belonged to traditions independent of each other. Each type, regardless of any later modifications, goes back more or less independently to the archetype itself. This recension is known nowadays in ca. twenty-five copies. The last one came to light after Sbordone had published his work; it is the oldest copy currently known. It dates from the end of the 10th century and preserves the most ancient text. This is cod. 397 of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (former Cryptoferratensis A 33)7, which represents a separate, fifth, type in the textological classification. Sbordone's edition was expanded by Dieter Offermanns, who in 1966 published this copy in parallel with a representative manuscript of the second-oldest type of the First (Alexandrian) recension8. The remaining three of the five types of texts were published in the same way by Dimitris Kaimakis in 19749.


All the Latin translations, the Ethiopian, the Armenian, the Syrian and the Arabian versions of the Physiologus descend from the oldest Greek recension. Slavic texts belonging to the same recension are preserved in four complete Russian copies10, and in a partial Serbian copy from the library of the monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos11 and in a Fragment of the Physiologus circulating independently in the medieval Balkan literatures12.

ІІ. Sbordone dates the rise of the Byzantine recension of the Physiologus13 as early as the 5th or the 6th century, but this date was revised by B. Perry and other scholars,14 and at present the 11th century is accepted as a more plausible date. Sbordone published the texts assigned to this recension on the basis of thirty-two copies and divided them into three types. According to him, the original of the Second (Byzantine) recension, which is difficult to reconstruct, was composed of at least eighteen chapters, to which later editors and copyists added another nine.

6 Sbordone 1936.
7 Perry 1941: 1112.
8 Offermanns 1966.
9 Kaimakis 1974.
10 Карнеев 1890; The only copy to come to light later was discovered and published by G. Svane. See Сване 1985.
11 Александров 1893; Стойкова 1994: 91-97.
12 Стойкова 1989; Стойкова 1994: 45-51.
13 Sbordone 1936: 149-256.
14 Perry 1937: 494; Perry 1941: 1114; Beck 1971: 33-35.

Its characteristic features are that new chapters about animals, structured according to the same principle, are introduces, while the chapters about plants and stones are omitted; some animals are given new properties (φύσεις); and the religious and dogmatic explanations are transformed into moralizing instructions mostly concerning the realm of human relations.

The language of the texts of the Second recension belongs to a later stage than the language of the Alexandrian recension. One can even identify there elements of (spoken) Demotic Greek15.

Different versions of the Physiologus of the Byzantine recension were translated into Middle Bulgarian at least three times; the extant copies are of Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian origin and are included in manuscripts dating from the 14th to the early 19th century16. The Romanian Physiologus is derived from the Slavic translations17 and possibly goes back to both Serbian and Bulgarian sources18. Texts of the Byzantine recension were not translated in Western Europe.

ІІІ. The Pseudo-Basilian recension is the third recension identified and published by F. Sbordone on the basis of eleven copies from the 13th to the 17th century. This recension was so named because the explanatory parts of chapters were attributed to Basil the Great. Sbordone dated it to the 10th or the 11th century, later scholars to the 12th century19. The language of the Third recension appears more normalized than that of the Second recension, whose features associate it with less educated circles.


H.-G. Beck presumed that the Third recension came into being on Mount Athos20; the only extant Slavic (Serbian) copy of the Physiologus in this recension is also preserved on Mount Athos - in the Library of the Monastery of St. Panteleimon (referred to here as copy A). The Pseudo-Basilian recension is not known in West European literatures.

ІV. The Fourth recension of the Greek Physiologus is, according to Sbordone, a folk reworking in verse which must have appeared in the 13th century. It is preserved in two manuscripts, the earlier of them from the 15th century. This reworking is based on materials from the First and the Second recensions.

The Slavic translations

The three main recensions of the Physiologus, each with its own circulation, existed in Byzantine literature in numerous copies and versions throughout the Middle Ages. Many translations into other languages were made from the texts of the Alexandrian recension. All three main recensions of the Physiologus are known in Slavic translations. They appeared among the Balkan Orthodox Slavs, in

15 Beck 1971: 33.
16 Стойкова 1994.
17 Published by M. Gaster. See Gaster 1886-1888: 273-304 (with an Italian translation).
18 Mociorniţa 1934; Олтяну 1984; Олтяну 1984а.
19 Sbordone 1936: CVI-CXV; Perry 1937: 495; Perry 1941: 1114.
20 Beck 1971: 34.

Bulgarian and Serbian, and later were adopted in the medieval literatures of Romania and Russia.

Perceived as a work of popular homiletic literature, the Physiologus in its oldest recension was translated in Bulgaria probably as early as the 10th century 21. The end of the 9th and the 10th century were the so-called "classic" period in the history of Old Bulgarian literature. The basic inventory of literary works was completed then through numerous translations from the Greek: instructive and homiletic literature, philosophical and theological works, and entire collections of such writings. These works were first and foremost those necessary for the establishment of Christianity in a newly converted society where the new religion was under threat not only from the inherited pagan traditions but also from constantly emerging heresies. Since it was part of the mainstream Byzantine literary influence at that time and was designed for the purposes of preaching to wide audiences, the Physiologus was translated into Old Bulgarian. Unfortunately, this first translation was preserved only in four Russian copies dating from the 15th to the 17th century22.

The later recensions of the Physiologus represent a more recent stage in social thinking and literary tastes. As far as one can judge from the preserved copies, the text of the Alexandrian recension underwent a long process of development from the time of its creation. This process of development is seen in the progressive layering of the text, which scholars have associated with stages in the introduction and acceptance of church dogma. The emergence of the later recensions, however, is the result of editorial revisions which affected the nature of the work in its entirety. In the Byzantine recension, written in the Late Middle Ages, one can observe a departure from the symbolic-allegorical interpretation of characters in the Physiologus which was rooted in early Byzantine aesthetics and poetics, and the introduction in its place of moralizing about everyday, earthly life.


Another important innovation introduced into the Byzantine recension of the text and, of course, reflected in its South Slavic translations, is the removal of certain old characters and the appearance of new characters familiar from the real world. Thus, traditional, mostly exotic and fabulous animals such as the mirmicioleon, the aspedocalane, the ichneumon, the salamander, the sawfish, the onager, and the bird ardea were removed, together with plants and stones, and the wolf, the stork, and the peacock appeared, along with the phoenix and the viper. In fact, more characters were eliminated from the Byzantine recension than were introduced into it. One more thing should be noted: Slavic versions contain some chapters which are missing from the preserved Greek copies (e.g. the chapters about the wolf, the crane, the sea urchin, the unicorn, the ox, the nightingale, the struthiocamelon), whereas other chapters have different content. It can be surmised that the South Slavic versions descended from Greek texts which were written in small literary centres in the Balkans and which had only a limited circulation.

The Third, Pseudo-Basilian, recension is known in a single Slavic (Serbian) copy from the 15th century originating from Mount Athos. Just like the Greek texts containing this recension, it is a compilation, but has its own specific composition. •

21 On the Bulgarian character of the translation see Карнеев 1890: ХХХІV-LV; he established that the translation was made "prior to the 13th century" (p. 159). According to Gechev, the translation is from the 10th to the 12th century (Гечев 1938: 123-127).
22 See Стойкова 1994: 108-109.

© Ana Stoykova 1994, 2009-2012
Introduction to Physiologus. Emerging and development of the medieval book for animals: Alexandrian recension, Byzantine recension, Pseudo-Basilian recension. Medieval Literature
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