image of vultures (Aberdeen Bestiary)

Week 8: Physiologus.

Background | Background Quiz | Starting Assumptions | Resources | Extras
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| Reading Quiz: Latin
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Aberdeen Bestiary

Dragon - Perindens - Ydrus - Phoenix - Vulture - Firestones - Partridge - Ibis - Hoopoe - Pelican

The pelican was one of the most popular animal allegories in the Christian tradition: in the Aberdeen Bestiary text, the allegory presents the pelican both as a symbol of Christ but also of any good Christian. Note also the negative interpretation given to Egypt here, which is quite ironic given that it is highly likely that the Physiologus text itself originated in Alexandria or perhaps elsewhere in North Africa...

Of the pelican

'I am like pelican of the wilderness' (Psalms, 102:6). The pelican is a bird of Egypt, living in the wilderness of the River Nile, from which it gets its name. For Egypt is known as Canopos. It is devoted to its young. When it gives birth and the young begin to grow, they strike their parents in the face. But their parents, striking back, kill them. On the third day, however, the mother-bird, with a blow to her flank, opens up her side and lies on her young and lets her blood pour over the bodies of the dead, and so raises them from the dead. In a mystic sense, the pelican signifies Christ; Egypt, the world. The pelican lives in solitude, as Christ alone condescended to be born of a virgin without intercourse with a man. It is solitary, because it is free from sin, as also is the life of Christ. It kills its young with its beak as preaching the word of God converts the unbelievers. It weeps ceaselessly for its young, as Christ wept with pity when he raised Lazarus. Thus after three days, it revives its young with its blood, as Christ saves us, whom he has redeemed with his own blood. In a moral sense, we can understand by the pelican not the righteous man, but anyone who distances himself far from carnal desire. By Egypt is meant our life, shrouded in the darkness of ignorance. For Egiptus can be translated as 'darkness'. In Egypt, therefore, we make a wilderness (see Joel, 3:19), when we are far from the preoccupations and desires of this world. Thus the righteous man creates solitude for himself in the city, when he keeps himself free from sin, as far as human frailty allows. The pelican kills its young with its beak because the righteous man considers and rejects his sinful thoughts and deeds out of his own mouth, saying: 'I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin' (Psalms, 32:5). It weeps for its young for three days: this teaches us that whatever we have done wrong by thought, word or deed, is expunged by tears. It revives its young by sprinkling them with its blood, as when we concern ourselves less with matters of flesh and blood and concentrate on spiritual acts, by conducting ourselves virtuously.

image of pelicans (Aberdeen bestiary)



Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM