From the beginning of history, animals have played an essential role in the lives of humans. Ancient legends from all over the world attest to our fascination with animals and beliefs that animals, as well as other aspects of nature, represent elements of the divine. Stories about animals, passed down from generation to generation, provided both entertainment and a means of unravelling the mysteries of the known universe.
One particular collection of animal stories–a predecessor of and inspiration for many subsequent medieval bestiaries–is the Physiologus. The Physiologus is believed to have been written in the 2nd century AD. Many authors have been attributed with its creation. Among them are: Peter of Alexandria, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome.
Within the text are colorful accounts of birds (like the crow, the ostrich, and the turtle dove), weasels, lions — and even the fabled unicorn. Each animal included in the Physiologus represents either good or bad qualities. For example, the turtledove is praised for the faithfulness she shows her mate. The fox, on the other hand, is chastened for his deceitfulness.
The Physiologus was one of the most popular and widely read books in the middle ages. Originally in Greek, it is believed to have been translated into Latin around 400 AD. It has since been translated into numerous languages, including Ethiopic, Armenian, Syriac, German, and English. The text also inspired the composition of other books about animals. These bestiaries contain new stories or elaborated versions of the Physiologus’s earlier descriptions.
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