Book and film reviews

If the elephant falls over, it can't get up again

The most important natural history book of the Middle Ages.

You have probably never heard of a book that was the most widely read script after the Bible in the West for a millennium:
The Physiologus. But you know many descriptions of real or fabulous animals from it, which have become proverbial: the lion that animates its cubs by breathing on; the self-sacrificing pelican who nourishes its young with its own blood and serves as a symbol for Jesus Christ in churches; the proud peacock; the phoenix that burns itself and rises from the ashes; the salamander who endures the heat of an oven; Sirens, centaurs, the unicorn ...

You have probably also heard the following strange story about the elephant:
“The nature of the elephant is such: If he falls over, he can no longer get up; for it has no joints in its knees like the rest of the animals. But how does he fall? When he wants to sleep, he leans against a tree and falls asleep. Now the hunters, who know about this peculiarity of the elephant, sneak up and saw something on the tree. Now the elephant comes to lean against, falls with the tree ... " (1, p. 83).

These animal fables, often handed down from pre-Christian antiquity, were made by the Physiologus widely known and adopted, for example, in heroic stories or adventure novels.

The Physiologus

In the 2nd century a small book was written in Greek, originally with only 48, mostly short, sections. The Greek word physiologus does not actually designate a book, but an explorer and interpreter of nature who penetrates into the interior of things and grasps God's work. Perhaps Aristotle was already called a Physiologus (1, p. 142). Accordingly, the Physiologus symbolic interpretations of nature, flora and fauna in the Christian sense. Due to his Christian dogmatic tendency he gained a stronger influence in the Middle Ages than any other natural history writing. His area is the so-called Natural theology.

The Physiologus brings strange mixtures of (questionable) observations of nature and Christian theology. One can from one Interpretatio Christiana speak, an interpretation of Christianity from nature, where animals and plants are largely seen as symbols.

Following the example of the Physiologus In the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theologians wanted to derive proofs of God from the usefulness of nature (5). In the 20th and 21st centuries we encounter natural theology in a modern form as "Intelligent Design" (ID) theory (cf. "A Constructed Universe", under "Science") or even in cosmology (3).

For a millennium, between the 5th and 15th centuries, that was Physiologus widely available and probably the only book for many people they had ever read. Its triumphal march began in the 5th century with translations into Latin, as well as into Ethiopian, Arabic, German, English, Flemish, Georgian, Icelandic, Coptic, Russian, etc. He received attention in both the Eastern and Western churches.

Its widespread use can be explained by the fact that it was used for Christian teaching and preaching. Also, it was not large in size, so that a student could copy it off and own a book of his own. Accordingly, there are many versions, with or without additions and extensions; some even in rhyme form or illustrated.

The simple pictures of the Physiologus are understandable to everyone. They were often quoted or used in sermons until modern times and found their way into literature. In the Middle Ages, very few people were bothered by the often unbelievable stories. Those who are familiar with the subject can find representations in old churches that refer to the animal and plant symbolism of the Physiologus allude.

The natural history of the Physiologus, including its bizarre elements, mostly comes from older sources. Most of it originally belonged to entertainment literature and was only interpreted theologically in Christian times.

A few short, typical quotes from the Physiologus must not be missing here:

So spoke the Physiologus

• From the sun lizard
There is a lizard called the Sun Lizard, says the Physiologus. As she gets old, her eyes become weak and blind, and she can no longer see the light of the sun. What is she doing now by virtue of her beautiful peculiarity? She is looking for a wall that looks towards the sunrise, and she crawls into a crack in that wall and looks to the east; when the sun rises, their eyes are opened (Isa. 35: 5) and become well again.
In the same way you too, O man, when you wear the garb of the old man (Rom. 6: 6) and the eyes of your heart are dull, seek the rising sun of righteousness (Mal. 3.20), Christ our God, his The Prophet's name is called rising (Zech. 6:12), and he will open the eyes of your heart. (1, p. 7).

• From the pelican
David speaks beautifully (Ps. 101,7): “I am like a pelican in the desert”: The Physiologus said of the pelican that he loved his children beyond measure. If he hatched the young and they grew a little, they peck their parents in the face; but the parents hack back on the boys and kill them. Later, however, the children's parents are sorry and mourn the boys they killed for three days. On the third day, her mother tears her page open, and their blood, which drips on the boy's dead bodies, brings them back to life.
The Lord also said in Isaiah (Isa. 1: 2): "I begat sons and exalted them, but they fell away from me." The Creator of all things created us, and we struck him. So how did we beat him? We served creation instead of its creator. Now the Redeemer went up to the cross and opened his side; Blood and water dripped down for salvation and eternal life; the blood, because it is said (Mt. 26:27): “He took the cup and gave thanks,” but the water for baptism and repentance.
So the Physiologus spoke nicely about the pelican. (1, p. 11).

From the hedgehog 
The hedgehogs have the shape of a ball, resemble pigs and are completely covered with spines. The Physiologus said of the hedgehog: He climbs on the vine, gets to the grape and throws its berries to the ground; then he rolls in it and throws himself on his back so that the berries cling to his thorns. He then brings it to his boy and leaves the vine without grapes.
You now, Christian, hold fast to the spiritual and true vine (John 15: 1) to be brought to the spiritual wine press and kept for the royal courts and to the holy throne of Christ (2 Cor. 5: 10) . How can you let the hedgehog, the evil spirit, rise to your heart, so that it leaves you empty of grapes and you don't have a good branch on you at all?
The Physiologus rightly referred the peculiarities of animals to us in his God-given scripture. (1, p. 30 f.).

• From the Ichneumon
There is an animal called the Ichneumon, similar to the pig, and a mortal enemy of the dragon. If it has now found a wild dragon, it goes there, as the Physiologus says, smeared itself with clay and protects its nostrils with its tail until it has killed the dragon.
So our Redeemer also assumed the nature of the earth race until he killed the dragon, Pharaoh, who sits by the river of Egypt (Ez. 29,3), that is to say, the devil. For if Christ had been disembodied, how could he have destroyed the dragon? Then the dragon would have replied to him like this (Matt. 8:29): “You are God and Redeemer, and I cannot take you on”. But he, who is greater than all, humbled himself in order to save all (Phil. 2,7). (1, p. 43 f.).

• From the flints
There are stones which, when they come close together, catch fire and set everything on fire that comes into contact with them; but they are male and female by nature and remain far apart.
So you too, true Christian, flee the feminine, so that when you come close to it you do not become aflame for lust and burn up all virtue in you. For Samson too, when he approached a woman, had the lock of his strength cut off (Jud. 16.4 ff.), And many, as it is written, got astray due to the beauty of women. (1, p. 73).

• From the magnetic stone
The physiologist said of the magnetic stone that he would pick up the iron. He lets the iron stick to the stone and thus lifts it up.
If now the created things lift each other up, how much more does the Creator of everything and divine builder of the world do, who hung heaven above the earth and stretched it out like a cloth? (Ps. 103,2).
So the Physiologus spoke nicely about magnetic rock. (1, p. 75).

• From the peacock
For the peacock is a very pretty bird above all birds of the sky. This peacock has beautiful colors and splendid wings, walks this way and that, takes pleasure in its appearance, shakes its plumage, makes a wheel and looks at itself pleasantly. But when he looks at his feet, he cries out wildly and plaintively, because his feet do not match his general shape.
So you too, Christian, when you look at your destiny and the good that God has given you, rejoice and be happy and proud in your soul. But if you look at your feet, these are your sins, cry out and complain to God and hate your injustice, just as the peacock hates his feet, so that you appear righteous before the bridegroom.
The Physiologus spoke nicely about the peacock. (1, p. 97).

• From the rabbit
The rabbit runs fast as if in flight. And if he escapes the hunter and runs up the high ridges, the dogs along with the hunter become tired and are unable to hunt him down; but if the hare runs downhill, it is quickly hunted down.
You too, Christian man, if you strive upwards - as David also said (Ps. 121.1): "I lift my eyes to the heights from where help will come", and this means: to the virtues and godly renunciation - , then the enemy forces will wear out, together with the hunter, that is to say, the devil, and you will not become their prey. But if you take your way downhill, namely to corruption and sin, you will be the prey of the hostile powers.
The Physiologus spoke nicely about the hare. (1, p. 101 f.).

The world view of the Physiologus

At first glance, one is struck by the childlike, naive simplicity with which im Physiologus the world is viewed; of the reluctance to question assertions or alleged observations of nature. Did the scientific knowledge of the Middle Ages actually persist for centuries at the level of the Physiologus?

From the point of view of the Physiologus the world and its appearances only make sense in relation to religious truth. In addition to the Holy Scriptures, there is therefore a second revelation: The book of nature, which God created symbolically with regard to the salvation event. Since, according to medieval theologians, both nature and Scripture were created directly by God, there can be no contradiction between the two. From this point of view, observations of the animal and plant world must be ideally suited to the interpretation of the salvation process. There was no doubt about that for the scholars of the Middle Ages, almost all priests or monks.

This purely theological understanding of nature lacked willingness to critically observe nature and lack of interest in practical applications. Theologians' focus was almost exclusively on the salvation of the soul.

The unlearned people got to know their religion from the interpretations that clerics put before them - for example during sermons. As a rule, these themselves were neither particularly well-read nor learned and therefore grateful for the vivid parables that the Physiologus delivered in an easily understandable form.

Medieval science, in its fixation on theology, hardly got above the level long reached in Roman times and made little progress. There was only rapid progress when the ancient writings were rediscovered in the West and knowledge from the Orient came to Europe. Now more and more scientists began to observe, to think for themselves, and the old traditions - whether Bible or Physiologus - questioning. With increasing knowledge and deeper knowledge of nature was then in the modern age with the Physiologus to make no more state. Since then it has been gathering dust in the libraries. It is only occasionally brought out as a curiosity or as a warning example: Traditions must not be adopted without being asked or misunderstood. Human progress requires independent thinking and feeling. Religious or other ideological prejudices must not block the discussion of facts and doctrinal opinions.

Physiologus translated and edited by Otto Schönberger, Reclam, Stuttgart, 2001:
www ...
The return of natural theology.  
The Physiologus.,gfa,005,2002,r,03.pdf