Sunday, November 03, 2013

Physiologus's Salamander

THIS time the literary text discussed on this 'Alexandrian' site does, in fact, come from Alexandria. Last year in university, the teacher of a Byzantinian folk literature course started his semester by presenting three tales from Physiologus.

One fable reminded me particularly of end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the healing sun berries that are carried to the old star by the firebird) and C.S. Lewis's other Narnia books, and in retrospect the Wikipedia article clarifies that Physiologus, written apparently before the final downfall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., is in fact the origin of Christian beast myths which are present throughout Europe even in these centuries.

In turn it has pulled its tales from ancient sources — "itself summarized ancient knowledge and wisdom about animals in the writings of classical authors such as Aristotle's Historia Animalium and various works by Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, Solinus, Aelian and other naturalists."

MY FAVOURITE TALE was the following, which I give here in the German translation — we were handed the Greek text, too, if I remember correctly, but my medieval Greek is still hopeless —:
Von der Sonnen-Echse

Ist ein Tier, das heißt Sonnenechse. Der Physiologus hat von ihr gesagt, daß sie, wenn sie alt werde, an beiden Augen Schaden nehme und blind werde, so daß sie der Sonne Licht nicht mehr schauen mag. Was nun tut sie, und zwar allein aus ihrer schönen Art? Sie sucht sich eine Mauer, die gen Sonnenaufgang blickt, und sie schlüpt in eine Ritze dieser Mauer. Wenn dann die Sonne aufgeht, werden die ihr zugekehrten Augen aufgetan, und die Echse gesundet. Gleichermaßen mach's auch du, Mensch: Wenn du des alten Menschen Kleid trägst, und die Augen deiner Einsicht sind stumpf und blöde, dann suche die aufgehende Sonne der Gerechtigkeit, das ist Christus, unseren Gott, des Name wird Aufgang geheißen im Buche des Propheten; und er selbst wird auftun die Augen deines Herzens und vertreiben jegliche Finsternis von dir.
Translated: There is a creature that is called the sun salamander. Physiologus said of her, that when she grew old, she would suffer harm to both eyes and turn blind, so that she might no longer see the sun's light. What does she do then, and in sooth only out of her own pretty ways? She seeks out a stone wall that turns to the sunrise, and she slips into a crack in this wall. When the Sun rises, then, her shuttered eyes are put open again, and the sun salamander heals. In this wise act too, Human: When you carry the garment of the old human, and the eyes of your understanding are blunted and dumb, then seek out the rising sun of righteousness, which is Christ our God, whose name is termed Rising in the book of the prophets; and he himself will open up the eyes of your heart and banish all darkness from you.

Surprisingly I wasn't the only one in the class who had a strong reaction to the tales of Physiologus, because they were impossibilities as far as the sceptical mind that has seen a nature documentary or two is concerned; and I thought it was strange — apart from the barbarity of some tales — to lie about nature in order to establish the Christian religion in the minds of people. On the other hand, my mother was familiar with the tale of the pelican and seems to find nothing strange about it, because it was quite familiar to her through church; so I thought that perhaps being unmoored from tradition made me the strange person in terms of ignorance.

ANYWAY, on the day of the solar eclipse, when even here the sun emerged from a blanket of grey cloud that was whisking droplets of rain onto the grass, the tale seemed particularly a propos.

"Physiologus" [Wikipedia] (Retrieved November 3, 2013)
"Category:Bern Physiologus" [Wikimedia Commons]
  Pictures from a Latin manuscript (?825-850, in ?Reims) of Physiologus.
"Bestiary" [Wikipedia]

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