BMCR 2022.06.04

The multilingual Physiologus: studies in the oldest Greek recension and its translations

, , The multilingual Physiologus: studies in the oldest Greek recension and its translations. Instrumenta Patristica et Mediaevalia, 84. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. 661. ISBN 9782503589749 €140,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Any serious study of the manifold versions of the Physiologus requires either a polyglot or a joint enterprise of experts. The book under review opts for the latter. Focussing on the oldest Greek redaction, or recension as the editors prefer to call it, and its translation into oriental languages as well as Latin, this enormous book is divided into two major parts. The first half features a general introduction to the Physiologus and its transmissions followed by individual introductions to the Greek texts and its translations into Latin, Ethiopic, Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian as well as Old Church Slavonic (29-386), while the second half comprises an introduction, edition, and translation of the two chapters on the pelican and the panther in all of the above languages (387-569).

The book opens with an editorial preface, followed by an introduction to the Physiologus by Horst Schneider, which is basically identical with the author’s introductory chapter in German to his 2019 book on the Physiologus, Christus in natura[1], with the noteworthy addition that Schneider now similarly speaks of a recension, a term argued for by Caroline Macé in her lengthy study of the so-called Greek tradition (49-107). As the present book offers only the text of two chapters of the Physiologus, the most recent critical edition available remains that of Sbordone (1936)[2], to which should be added the synoptic editions of Offermanns and Kaimakis.[3] Sbordone divided his edition into mainly three different redactions, of which the first is the subject under study, and it is this redaction that Macé proposes to designate as the first recension (Phys. Gr. I). Additional confusion arises when Macé divides this first recension into two redactions (Gr. I α and Gr. I β), but such a division is warranted. Whoever has used Sbordone’s edition and consulted the synoptic edition of Kaimakis will have noticed the often-striking textual differences, in particular between the manuscripts Π and Σ. Based on a praiseworthy description (and in most cases inspection) of all important manuscripts Macé convincingly identifies the two redactions not just on the basis of the preserved manuscripts but also the translations. Thus, Gr. I α comprises the manuscripts ΠΑΕΙ, whereas Gr. I β consist, among others, of the manuscripts Σ a and s. In addition, the sole papyrus attesting to the Physiologus, containing parts of chapters 41 and 42 (Sbordone), is discussed but found not to belong to any of the families of the known Greek manuscripts. In sum, Macé concludes that a new edition of the first recension is needed taking into consideration the ancient translations.

The introductions and editions to the ancient translations that follow thus serve rather to clarify the oldest Greek text than contribute to the exploration of these versions. That said, each language receives a lengthy treatment including discussion of manuscripts, transmission, previous editions, as well as reception, and the English translations of these texts are highly useful for non-polyglots. In this review I limit myself to the languages of which I believe to have a sufficient knowledge (Greek, Latin, and Semitic languages).

The importance of the Latin tradition of the Physiologus is well-known, and in their joint study Caroline Macé and Shari Boodts (109-158) make an effort clearly and concisely to present the three Latin translations y, b and x (also known as c), tentatively concluding that y and b are derived from the same archetype, a translation of Gr. I α, whereas x goes back to Gr. I β.

Massimo Villa’s contribution on the Ethiopic tradition (159-196) is important as it introduces new manuscripts into the discussion, thereby opting for three different recensions, all of which serve to update Hommel’s edition[4] of what Villa terms Phys. Eth. α. Phys. Eth β and Phys. Eth γ. have been largely unavailable to scholars. These three recensions do, however, stem from a common archetype, which in turn reflects Gr. I β, apparently with no intermediate source, and may go back to the fifth or sixth centuries AD. More than just commenting on manuscripts, Villa adds notes on the influence of the Physiologus in Ethiopic language and literature. Furthermore, Villa remarks on the rendering of animal names and the explanatory glosses on these, the date of which is difficult to determine. Some are necessarily the work of the translator. Such glosses do, however, not merely serve to explain a difficult word, but occasionally add a new, independent interpretative level. We provide but one example: In the chapter on the peridexion tree (34 Sbordone), the Ethiopic translation (at least Phys. Eth. α) has the variant title epidexion, reflecting the manuscripts Σ and s (= Gr. I β) and explains the name as “to the right side” (yamanāwi). The translator surely has this interpretation in mind when paraphrasing Ps 35,8 (LXX), to which he adds “this is the aid of His right hand (yamanu)”.

Sami Aydin’s chapter on the Syriac tradition (197-236) is no less ground-breaking. The Physiologus appears to have been translated twice into Syriac without intermediaries (Phys. Syr. α; Phys. Syr. β), and a Syriac text representing Phys. Syr. β was published as early as 1795, making it the first edition of the Physiologus (i.e., the first recension) to be printed.[5] Not many Syriac manuscripts transmit the Physiologus, and none includes all of the 48 chapters identified for the first recension. In addition, the Syriac manuscripts omit the interpretations so characteristic of the Physiologus (which is also the case for the Greek manuscript (o)). This led to the now abandoned hypothesis that the interpretations were but a Christian add-on. For the Syriac tradition Aydin has even managed to identify a new manuscript B (= Phys. Syr. β) containing 19 chapters of the Physiologus and, importantly, including the interpretations and the original order of the chapters. On the basis of this manuscript, Aydin is able to confirm an older theory according to which one of the Arabic translations (Phys. Arab. β) is based on a Syriac Vorlage. Finally, Aydin convincingly concludes that Phys. Syr. β is based on the archetype reflected in the Greek manuscripts Σas (= Gr. I β), whereas Phys. Syr. α does not appear to reflect any known Greek text (232).

The Arabic tradition comprises two chapters reflecting two translations, both belonging to Gr. I β. Sibylle Wentker’s chapter on Phys. Arab. β is based on her 2002 dissertation (237-261), but adds additional manuscripts (11 in total). In his study (263-280), Adrian Pirtea presents a new Arabic tradition different from Wentker’s, thus representing an independent translation (Phys. Arab. α), perhaps directly from a Greek Vorlage. In comparison, Phys. Arab. β is a freer, more periphrastic rendering and, as already mentioned, appears to have been translated from a Syriac Vorlage (250; 270-271).

Missing from this volume, however, is a study of the Coptic tradition. Less than two pages has been dedicated to the quotations of the Physiologus in various Coptic dialects by Alin Suciu (26-27). Naturally, Suciu cannot be held accountable for the fact that no fragments of the pelican or panther are preserved in Coptic, but the numerous quotations allow for (and deserve) more observations than are made here. It would be possible to compare the Coptic fragments to the Greek recensions and redactions in order to assess the degree to which these are reflected. One example: In the fragment on the deer[6] it is said that this animal eats snakes and extinguishes the venom with water. In most versions of the Physiologus’ account of the deer (c. 30 Sbordone), water does not serve as an antidote to the venom but is used to force a snake out of hiding. The Greek manuscript W (belonging to Gr. I β) does, however, add that the deer is very thirsty on account of eating snakes. It is thus to be hoped that Suciu will in the future return to the Coptic fragments of the Physiologus.

The second half of the book comprises, as mentioned, an introduction, edition, and translation of the chapters on the pelican and panther. This part is beautifully structured commencing with a reconstructed Greek text of Gr. I α and Gr. I β in the apparatus, of which variants are found in the oriental translations (in Greek translation). These two chapters, no doubt chosen for their brevity, illustrate what an ideal multilingual text edition of the Physiologus might look like. Taking into consideration that this edition with introduction comprises nearly two hundred pages it seems almost impossible to imagine a multilingual edition of the entire first recension, at least in printed form. Editing all 48 chapters requires the leisure afforded by a PhD scholarship and the expertise and experience of a senior scholar, a rare combination. Several of the contributors do, however, plan to publish individual text-critical editions of single traditions, and the publication of manuscript B of the Syriac tradition as well as Phys. Eth β and Phys. Eth γ will no doubt be of great use. Before concluding this review, I would like to add one example where new editions may bring clarity.

In the famous chapter on the unicorn (22 Sbordone), the manuscripts of Gr. I β (Σs and G) state that the animal is mild (πραότατον πάνυ/ πρᾶον πάνυ)[7], whereas Gr. I α (ΑΙΕΠ) claims that it is very fierce (δριμύτατον δὲ σφόδρα), a significant difference. Manuscripts WO, which Macé also assigns to Gr. I β do, however, read δριμύτατον δέ ἐστιν πάνυ.[8] The Latin tradition is divided between mansuetum valde (x) and acerrimum nimis (yb), thus representing the two translations. Phys. Eth. α concurs with the mildness (yäwāh) as does Phys. Arab. β (mutawāḍi‘atun ğiddan). As expected, the Armenian and Georgian traditions appear to reflect δριμύτατον of Gr. I α[9], but the only published Syriac manuscript (Leiden Or. 66 = Phys. Syr. α) including the unicorn says merely that the animal is “small” (z‘wr’). Further work on the new manuscripts will no doubt help settle this matter as well as similar issues.

In conclusion, Caroline Macé and Jost Gippert have carried out an impressive job editing this book, which brings together experts from very different disciplines. All chapters represent the current state of research and add novel information. The sheer amount of knowledge comprised within this book is overwhelming, and the contributors have set the standard for future studies on the Physiologus.

Authors and titles

Preface (Caroline Macé & Jost Gippert)
Appendix: the Coptic tradition (Alin Suciu)

Part I: The transmission of the Greek Physiologus and its translations
1. Introduction to the Physiologus: Horst Schneider (Fontes Christiani, München),
2. The Greek tradition of the first recension (Phys. Gr. I): Caroline Macé (Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen)
3. The Latin tradition: Shari Boodts (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen) & Caroline Macé
4. The Ethiopic tradition: Massimo Villa (Università degli Studi di Napoli ‘L’Orientale’)
5. The Syriac tradition: Sami Aydin (Uppsala University)
6. The Arabic tradition – first part: Phys. Arab. β: Sibylle Wentker (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien)

7. The Arabic tradition – second part: Phys. Arab. α: Adrian Pirtea (Freie Universität Berlin)8. The Armenian tradition: Gohar Muradyan & Aram Topchyan (Matenadaran, Erevan)
9. The Georgian tradition: Jost Gippert (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)
10. The Old Church Slavonic tradition: Ana Stoykova (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia)

Part II: Multilingual edition of the chapters on the pelican and on the panther
1. Introduction to the editions (ratio edendi)
2. The pelican
3. The panther



[1] Horst Schneider, Einführung in den Physiologus, in Z. Kindschi Garský & Rainer Hirsch-Luipold (eds.), Christus in natura. Quellen, Hermeneutik und Rezeption des Physiologus, Berlin 2019, 5-13.

[2] Francesco Sbordone, Physiologus, Roma 1936.

[3] D. Offermanns, Der Physiologus nach den Handschriften G und M, Meisenheim am Glan 1966; D. Kaimakis, Der Physiologus nach der ersten Redaktion, Meisenheim am Glan 1974.

[4] F. Hommel, Die aethiopische Übersetzung des Physiologus, Leipzig 1877.

[5] O. Tychsen, Physiologus syrvs, Rostoch 1795

[6] A. van Lantschoot, “A propos de Physiologus“, in Studies Walter Ewing Crum, Boston, Mass. 1950, 347.

[7] This reading is also found in an excerpt of this chapter, albeit without interpretation, in Vat. gr. 96, a manuscript dating to the 13th-14th cent. including excerpts of Aelian and paradoxographical reports. See De Martini (2020): A. De Martini, “Appunti propedeutici a un’edizione del cosidetto Paradoxographus Palatinus”, RFIC 148, 2020, 450-151; S.L. Sørensen, “A new date for Paradoxographus Palatinus?”, AncSoc 51, 2021, 268.

[8] As does [Eustathios], 744,45.

[9] G. Muraydyan, Physiologus. The Greek and Armenian versions with a study of translation technique, Leuven 2005, 157; T. Kluge, “Die georgische Übersetzung des Physiologos” in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 28, 1914, 142.