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A Fiction of Nature and the Nature of Fiction: Animal Allegory in the Greek Physiologos

Alvaro O Pires

Brown University

            This paper examines the interpretative methods of the Greek Physiologos (ca. 2nd-4th c. CE), arguing that the text’s allegoresis of creatures generates a conception of nature as fantastical. The Physiologos, an anonymous early Christian Greek compendium of animal lore, has traditionally been viewed in the scholarship as marking an abrupt break from the Aristotelian tradition of zoological inquiry, with disdain directed at its “credulity” towards the marvellous content in its pages (e.g., Wellmann 1930, Perry 1941, Festugière 1944). More recent scholarly developments have shifted this attitude, drawing attention to the text’s role in transmitting and transforming zoological knowledge in the milieu of the early Church, with a focus especially on the text’s hermeneutics (Cox 1983, Scott 2002, Zucker 2004, Lazaris 2016, Kindschi-Garský & Hirsch-Luipold 2019). This paper follows these currents in addressing how the allegorical methods of the Physiologos give rise to fantastical elements in the text, with an eye towards reading the text through the lens of fictionality.

            Despite the increased focus on the literary strategies of the Physiologos, the question of fictionality in the text’s presentation of zoological material has not been satisfactorily addressed. Recent work has shifted the discussion of fictionality in post-classical Greek literature onto texts not traditionally considered “fictional” (Roilos 2014, Cupane & Krönung 2016), but the Physiologos and zoological material more broadly has yet to fall within the purview of such studies. A chief concern of the current paper focuses on whether the Physiologos accepts the existence of the animals it describes as creatures inhabiting the material world of the senses. A variant version of the chapter on the siren and the centaur from the text’s first redaction (13b) exemplifies this ontological ambivalence, asserting the unreality of the two creatures and labelling them “a figment of a wicked imagination” (διανοίας εἰσὶν ἀνάπλασμα κακοδαίμονος), while still deriving a spiritual truth and an edifying lesson from them. This bears implications for how the remaining entries in the text ought to be understood and for the role of allegory in permitting the coexistence of fiction and spiritual edification, especially given the decidedly mixed attitude among late ancient and medieval Christian intellectuals towards fiction in its relation to truth and moral instruction (Roilos 2014).

            Late ancient Christian and Neoplatonist exegetes attest to the tempestuous associations between fiction and allegoresis/relation between fiction and allegoresis. Basil of Caesarea takes a hostile view towards allegory and fiction in his Hexaemeron, linking the two with one another. He dismissively characterizes the interpretations of allegorists as fabrications, labelling their insights as harmful φαντασία (Hexaemeron 9.1) and old wives’ tales (Hexaemeron 3.9). In contrast, Origen employs allegory extensively in his exegesis of scripture, characterizing the text as an enigma to be unraveled in the act of interpretation (Comm. in Cant. prol. 3.11) and drawing a parallel between the text and the material world of phenomena (Comm. in Cant.III. 27-8). This approach contains strong resonances of Neoplatonic interpretation, as attested by Porphyry’s characterization of the Homeric text in On the Cave of the Nymphs (Antr. 1). For Origen (Comm. in Cant. prol. 2.14) as for Porphyry (Antr. 4), allegory is a tool by which to “redeem” a text from the interpretative closure arising from its being read as merely an entertaining πλάσμα.

            Through comparison with the works of these exegetes, this paper contextualizes the interpretative strategies of the Physiologos, arguing that the text problematizes the reality of the material world it aims to illuminate. By presenting its zoological material through the medium of allegoresis, the Physiologos characterizes nature as a πλάσμα or αἴνιγμα.

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Late Antiquity

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