12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries

Tim Flight - June 11, 2018

Before the advent of science, those wishing to find out more about the natural world would consult a bestiary. A bestiary was a lavishly-decorated collection of descriptions of animals, real and imaginary, written with the intention of identifying God’s message in the creatures observed in the natural world. This technique of interpretation (not to be confused with pantheism) had a biblical basis: ‘but ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you… In His [God’s] hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.’ (Job 12:7-10).

The first text aiming to identify the Word of God through the natural world was the Physiologus, a 3rd-century Greek text which proved immensely popular. The Physiologus gave a brief description of each animal before delivering a lengthy didactic interpretation of it. The bestiary of the later medieval period, which we will be discussing here, was a combination of the Physiologus and Isidore of Seville’s more scientific, albeit still erooneous and unreliable, Etymologiae (‘Etymologies’), which drew on older natural history texts such as Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia, and was very much the Wikipedia of the Early Medieval Period.

Bestiaries thus contain information drawn from folklore, popular superstition, and accurate observation alike. Although the descriptions that follow are irrefutably humorous, we must nevertheless remember humanity’s continuing inclination to anthropomorphize nature in order to understand the world better. Birdsong, for example, is still referred to as the ‘dawn chorus’, even though it is a territorial behavior which is more akin to shouting ‘eff-off’ at one’s neighbors. As Disney films demonstrate, we still frequently use anthropomorphized creatures to tell stories and teach morals. As you read this article, therefore, ask yourself this: how different are we from our medieval ancestors?


12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
A stag drawing a snake out of its burrow with the breath from his nostrils, England, c. 1200-1210. British Library

The Stag

Deer, and stags in particular, have fascinated mankind for time immemorial. From the cave paintings of early man through the horned-helmets of the Bronze Age, it seems that the impressive antlers displayed by male deer have intrigued us most; indeed, the size of a stag’s antlers still determine its value as a trophy-animal, and antlers are a fairly common household decoration around the world. The elusiveness of cervids, too, has lent them an air of mystique, for the Irish referred to them as ‘fairy cattle’. In the medieval period, the stag proved a creature of both sport and Christian allegory.

In the bestiary, stags are natural enemy of snakes. Upon finding a snake’s lair, a stag will first spit into it, then use its breath to lure the creature out (a primitive form of snake-charming). Healthy stags will then trample the serpent to death, whilst elderly or sick stags will eat the snake for sustenance, then drink copious amounts of water to overcome the snake’s poison. They are also proverbially long-lived: Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great put collars around them to show their ownership, and these specimens were found with their collars intact in the late medieval period.

Like horses, you can also find out a stag’s age by their teeth. When crossing water to reach food, stags swim in a line, with each stag’s head resting on the rump of the one in front. When struck by an arrow, a stag can simply shake it out by eating dittany (a kind of herbaceous shrub). Additionally, they are hard to catch because their hearing is very good when their ears are erect, less so when they are prostrate. They can be caught, however, by a hunter playing a pipe, as they are uncommonly fond of music.

They are very wily beasts: upon hearing hunting dogs, stags will change their direction of flight in order to be upwind from the pack. Though stags are lascivious, female deer can only conceive when the star Arcturus has risen. Does give birth solely in thick forest, and teach their young to flee to high places. Venison has medicinal qualities, and protects those who eat it from fever, because stags never suffer from fever themselves. Their antlers can also be burned to ward off serpents, and a concoction made from their tears and heart-bones can cure troubles of the heart.

Allegorically, the stag represents Christ. Like him, they are the enemies of evil, personified by their persecution of, and immunity to, snakes. Their seasonal shedding and re-growing of their antlers also symbolised Christ’s death and Resurrection. Just as eating Christ’s flesh (in the form of the Eucharist) spiritually cleansed participants and protected them from evil, so too the flesh of the stag helped to ward off physical sickness. Their method of crossing a river in a line was also seen as an instruction for Christians passing from this life to eternity: Christians must help one another to reach heaven successfully.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
A bear licks its cub into shape, England, c. 1230. British Library


Like the stag, the bear in the medieval period was seen as both fun to hunt and a potent symbol of God’s message. Medieval man was fascinated by bears because of their bipedal nature, which made them almost like people, since a distinguishing feature of beasts was their habit of walking on four legs. Indeed, some writers saw them as malformed humans, and thus important in the hierarchy of the animal kingdom. There was also a respect, bordering on fear, of the bear’s natural strength and aggression, drawn from experience of living alongside the creatures and hunting them for sport.

Bears are born as amorphous lumps without eyes or fur, and are licked into the shape of a bear by their mother (this is the origin of an idiomatic expression still used today, ‘to lick into shape’). They are born only in winter, and for this reason they must also be kept warm by their mother, much like a bird incubating an egg. Male and female bears separate when the female is pregnant, and spend the winter in separate caves or separate themselves with a deep trench. The male bear will not even touch the female when she is pregnant.

Much of the bear’s alleged behaviour is anthropomorphic. They are said to mate by embracing one another, like people. They are also said to hunt bulls, and to kill them by grabbing their horns and attacking the snout. When they hibernate through the winter, bears are so soundly asleep that even deep wounds cannot rouse them from their slumber. They are born headfirst, meaning that their head is the weakest part and their strength is in their limbs, which accounts for their ability to stand upright like a person. Bears can survive poisoning by touching phloem or mullen (herbs).

Allegorically, bears are like the church. Often described in terms of a mother, the Catholic Church placed great emphasis on the instruction and chastisement of children and so, like mother bears, licked its young into shape. This was also a reminder to parents about the need for disciplining and instructing their offspring. The male bear’s refusal to touch a pregnant female also carried a didactic message, for sex with a pregnant woman was seen as a sinful taboo, and dangerous for the fetus. This message is reinforced by the description of bears having sex in the missionary position, like people.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
A cunning fox plays dead to capture birds, England, c. 1230. British Library


As today, the fox was seen in the medieval period as a cunning and wily beast. One of the most popular literary characters was Reynard the Fox, a trickster-archetype who used his intelligence and slyness to overcome larger adversaries. Though deer (and other big-game, depending on what was available in the country) were the preferred medieval quarry, foxes were occasionally hunted for sport, and details of their ingenious methods of escape are found throughout medieval literature. Chiefly, however, in everyday life the fox was seen as vermin, and a scavenging, livestock-plundering nuisance that had to be slain for its habits.

Foxes never run in a straight line, but only in circles, because their right legs are shorter than the left. They are fond of fruit, and a particular nuisance to vineyard owners, as the Bible states: ‘take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes’ (Song of Songs 2:15). They have a brush-like tail so that hounds cannot seize them by it. They can also climb trees, and will fool hounds pursuing them by climbing where they cannot be scented, waiting for them to pass, and running off in the opposite direction.

The most cunning ploy of the fox is pretending to be dead. A fox will roll in red mud to mimic blood, then hold its breath and lie belly-up as if deceased. Foolish birds will soon come to roost on the supposed corpse, and are instantly devoured. Though smaller than badgers, foxes compete with them for burrows, and usually come out on top because of their superior cunning. The Latin name for a fox, vulpis, translates to covetousness, evoking the creatures’ overwhelming desire for food. Its beautiful red fur also strongly suggests the fox’s sly and cunning nature.

The fox’s proverbial cunning made it a symbol of Satan in the Middle Ages. One 13th-century bestiary explains that ‘the fox is the symbol of the devil, who appears to be dead to all living things until he has them by the throat and punishes them’. The foolish birds represent the unwary Christians who fall for the devil’s snares and are punished by damnation. Its trickery of the birds was also adapted in other literature and art to represent false preachers who beguile their flock into sin whilst appearing to be pious. Running in circles also suggests Satan’s trickery.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Elephant with a ‘castle’ on its back, England, early 13th century. Pinterest


Elephants were known largely by reputation in the Middle Ages, and were seen as curious creatures of the East, like griffons and basilisks. However, there was a wealth of information about them gleaned from Latin literature and travel works such as The Travels of Marco Polo, which provided the source material for their inclusion in bestiaries. Some of the detail is surprisingly accurate, whereas other reported behavior is nothing short of fantasy. Medieval artists also had a fairly good idea of what they looked like, by strange contrast to confused renderings of more familiar creatures such as beavers.

Elephants are used by ‘Persians and Indians’ in war. Towers are built on their backs and javelins thrown from them as if from a castle. They use their proboscis (trunk) to carry food to their mouths, and defend themselves with ivory tusks. They are extremely intelligent, have long memories, and live for 300 years. They travel about in herds, like cattle, and are enormous, their name taken from the Greek word for mountain, eliphio. Their tusks have medicinal properties, and can be ground up and made into a drink for people who have haemorrhages, or burnt to ward off serpents.

Elephants have no joints in their knees, and so (like woodlice) are unable to get up if they fall over. When one does fall over a dozen of its friends first try to heave it back up, and a 13th arrives, which despite being small in stature can pick the fallen behemoth up by the trunk. In order to sleep they must lean against a sturdy tree. This sleeping habit, however, makes them vulnerable to hunters who use saws to weaken trees in order to make the elephant fall over, and slay them when they lie helpless on the ground.

Most interestingly, the male elephant has no desire to mate. When the female wishes to have a baby, she walks towards Paradise and eats some mandrake, taking some back to her mate. This plant seduces the male, who is then willing to procreate. The female elephant gives birth only in water because on land their young are vulnerable to dragons, which drink elephant blood to cool down their burning stomachs. The male also stands guard to prevent any potential fire-breathing infanticides from helping themselves to a chilled drink. Though capable of killing dragons, elephants are scared of mice.

The elephant’s peculiar method of mating made it a symbol of Adam and Eve. Like the elephants, they had no desire to copulate until Eve ate the Forbidden Fruit and then gave some to Adam, after which they were displeasing to God and ejected from Paradise. The 12 big elephants failing to pick up the fallen one represent the Hebrew Prophets, who could not raise up fallen man. The one little elephant who can do so represents Jesus, who was a misleadingly-humble and inglorious man physically who had the power to save all of mankind through the Crucifixion.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Whale, from the Ashmole Bestiary, England, early 13th century. Bestiary.ca


The whale was seen as essentially demonic throughout the middle ages. The basis for this belief came from the Bible itself, where a Hebrew demon known as the Leviathan, a monstrous whale, is mentioned 6 times. Job 41 describes the Leviathan in great detail: ‘his body is like molten shields, shut close up with scales pressing upon one another… he shall esteem iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood… he shall make the deep sea to boil like a pot’ (41:7; 18; 22). We also have the story of Jonah, swallowed by a great whale (Book of Jonah).

The whale in the bestiaries is a vast, stone-like creature that is so large that it resembles an island. Some say that it is covered with sand because it spends so long floating at the surface. Unwitting sailors see the whale floating at the surface and, taking it for an island, thus cast anchor upon it. In the Old English version of the Physiologus, ‘the weary-hearted sailors mount the isle and, free from thought of peril, there abide, elated on the sands they build a fire’ (16-18). Their rest is not long-lived, however, for the whale awaits its chance.

‘Then when the crafty fiend perceives that men [are] encamped upon him, making their abode, enjoy the gentle weather, suddenly under the salty waves he plunges down, straight to the bottom of the deep he drags his prey’ (21-25). Appearing as an island was merely a ploy to kill the sailors. The whale exhibits similar trickery when it comes to eating fish, for its breath is sweet-smelling, and draws the fish towards its open, cavernous mouth, which clamps down upon whole shoals of the little creatures. Despite its phenomenal size, the whale’s main method of attack is cunning and deceit.

The allegorical interpretation of the whale is as Satan. Like the fox playing dead, the whale exploits the foolishness of people in order to slay them. The Old English Physiologus clarifies this point: ‘such is the way of demons, devils’ wiles: to hide their power, and stealthily inveigle heedless men, inciting them against all worthy deeds, and luring them to seek for help and comfort from unsuspected foes, until at last they choose a dwelling with the faithless one’. The whale’s sweet breath attracting the fish represents those obsessed with worldly pleasures who fall prey to Satan through them.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Hunting a unicorn, England, c. 1230. British Library


Common in heraldry and legend alike, the unicorn’s imaginary nature did not prevent it having a vivid life in art and literature in the Middle Ages. It was thought to be a real creature, and scientific evidence from time to time appeared in the form of narwhal’s tusks and the slender horns of the odd antelope or gazelle traded from North Africa. However, the unicorn was chiefly celebrated for its allegorical significance, and it mattered not that no one had ever seen one (though Marco Polo famously described a rhinoceros he saw in India as a real, ugly unicorn).

The unicorn is a bright white beast, resembling either a small horse or a goat, with a single, long horn emanating from its forehead. It is extraordinarily fast-moving and utterly deadly if provoked, and thus is more or less impossible for hunters to catch. The unicorn is also said to be one of the most intelligent animals. It is a natural enemy of the elephant, and kills them by running underneath and piercing the beast’s soft underbelly with its horn. The horn itself is highly prized, and can render poison useless if put in poisoned food or drink.

The horn is also an aphrodisiac and, when powdered, a teeth-whitener. Though intelligent, fierce, and swift, there is one sure-fire way of catching a unicorn. A virgin must be led to the forest where unicorn is known to live. When the unicorn sees the virgin, it becomes docile, and will lay its head in her lap before falling fast asleep. It can then either be captured or killed on the spot with great ease by hunters who have concealed themselves near their virginal bait. The famous Unicorn Tapestries, now on display at The Cloisters, New York, depict this process.

The unicorn was unequivocally celebrated as a symbol of Christ. Psalm 92:10 reads ‘my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of a unicorn’, and ‘my horn’ was interpreted as meaning Christ. In being small and inglorious (horn aside), the unicorn symbolised Christ’s humility. The method of catching the unicorn was a further allegorical celebration of Christ. The tragic capture or slaying of the unicorn was a symbol of Christ’s Crucifixion, and the moment of death was often depicted as a spear thrust through the unicorn’s flank, like Christ pierced by the spear of Longinus (John 19:31-37).

The unicorn laying its head on the lap – ie., the womb – of a virgin was seen as a symbol of the Immaculate Conception, in which Mary conceived Jesus whilst remaining a virgin. Its white colour, like today, was a symbol of chastity and purity, qualities strongly associated with Jesus. Even the creature’s fierceness allegorised the life of Christ, for the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, immensely popular in medieval times, describes Jesus heading to hell after being crucified and defeating Satan and his minions, an event known as The Harrowing of Hell. The unicorn’s hunters represent those who persecuted Christ.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
A beaver castrates himself, from the Harley Bestiary, England, c.1230-40. British Library


It may seem peculiar to be discussing such a potent symbol of North America in an article about medieval bestiaries, but we must remember that in the Middle Ages beavers were common across Britain and Europe. By the time of Gerald of Wales (12th century), beavers were scarce in Britain, and he tells us that beavers were found only in a single river in Scotland and another in Wales. However, beavers had been discussed for one remarkable piece of behavior since Aesop’s Fables, and so lore about these seldom-seen creatures formed an important part of medieval knowledge about the world.

Beavers construct castles in the middle of rivers with sheer ingenuity, from which they observe the rising water. Unlike people, who transport lumber with carts and ships, beavers simply use other beavers as vessels to transport wood across the water. Some will carry logs on their bellies, and are dragged through the water by other beavers, who clamp onto the wood with their teeth. They use willow branches to tie the wood together. They can stay under water or above land as long as they please. They also use their tails like a boat’s rudder to swim across the water.

Beaver-testicles contain castor, which is highly-valued as a medicine, and thus they are hunted for the glands. Beavers, however, are clever creatures, and know why they are being hunted. Thus, in order to save their lives, they will bite off their own testicles, and leave them for the hunter. When already-castrated beavers are pursued by dogs, they will run to an elevated place and cock their legs in order to show the hunter that they have no testicles, and thus the hunt is pointless. This peculiar trait is mentioned by Aesop, Pliny the Elder, and Isidore of Seville, amongst others.

The beaver’s habit of castrating itself made it a potent symbol. ‘Hence every man who inclines toward the commandment of God and who wants to live chastely, must cut off from himself all vices, all motions of lewdness, and must cast them from him in the Devil’s face. Thereupon the Devil, seeing him to have nothing of his own about him, goes away from him confused’. As an aside, beavers were defined as fish because they spent so much time in water, meaning that they could be eaten on a Friday by medieval Catholics, which possibly accounts for their scarcity.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
A wolf approaches a sheepfold, England, c. 1200-1210. British Library


Despite the efforts of conservationists and a fortune spent on multifarious scientific studies, the wolf today is still seen as the enemy of man. This beautiful and once-widespread carnivore has been persecuted so thoroughly across the world that it survives only where it is offered some degree of legal protection. Hatred of wolves stems from the pastoral cultures of the ancient world, whose intrusion on, and destruction of, the wolf’s preferred isolated habitat led to the beast predating on flocks of sheep. The wolf was reviled for the same reason throughout the Middle Ages, with the added reputation for diabolism.

Wolves live off prey. They are the natural enemy of sheep, and approach flocks in the manner of a tame dog, carefully upwind from sheepdogs, and if they break a twig on their approach they bite the offending paw as punishment. They circle flocks, awaiting their chance to strike. Wolves are known for their rapacity, and so prostitutes are nicknamed ‘wolves’ because they desecrate the possessions of those who love them. Though their bite is powerful, the wolf’s strength is in its paws. They are unable to turn their heads backwards, but can live off prey, earth, and even air.

Their eyes shine like lanterns in the night, and they notoriously prey on humans. If a wolf sees a human before he or she sees it, the person is struck dumb, and must strip naked and bang rocks together to avoid being attacked. However, if the person sees the wolf first, the wolf is struck motionless, loses its natural ferocity, and cannot run. Female wolves give birth only during thundery weather in the month of May. Cunningly, she-wolves catch prey far away from their cubs and bring it back to them, so as not to draw attention to their brood.

At the tip of a wolf’s tail is a tuft of hair that can be used as an aphrodisiac in love potions. This only works, however, if plucked from the wolf whilst it is still alive, and so the wily creatures will shed it when caught in order to render it useless. When a wolf is caught in a snare or trap, it will mutilate the limb that is caught in order to escape from its captors. In Ethiopia, there are wolves which have a mane of hair which jump so high that it seems as if they are flying.

The wolf was interpreted as the supreme creature of the devil. Just as the wolf circles the sheep in the fold, so too the devil prowls around the metaphorical sheepfold of the church (as Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep’, John 10:11), hoping to afflict its members. A wolf’s glowing eyes seem beautiful to fools, just as the devil’s temptations do to the weak. The wolf cannot turn its neck, just like Satan who cannot turn his head towards penitence, because his greatest sin and flaw is pride.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Basilisk attacked by a weasel, England, c. 1200-1210. British Library


The medieval basilisk was vastly different from its descendent in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rather than a monstrous serpent (which was called a wyrm in the Middle Ages), the basilisk was a ludicrous cross between a serpent and a chicken. Closely resembling, and often confused with, a cockatrice, the basilisk had the head of an angry cockerel, the body of a snake, and the feet and wings of a chicken. Despite its poultry nature (sorry, couldn’t resist), the basilisk was seen as the king of serpents, for its name derived from the Greek basiliscus meaning ‘little king’.

The basilisk is born when a serpent’s egg is incubated and hatched by a cockerel. It does not even need to touch someone to kill them: its look, hiss, and scent are sufficient, and as a result people flee upon encountering one. It lurks in the desert, and when it spots a thirsty man heading for a river will give him hydrophobia and send him mad. Despite being so deadly to men, the basilisk has one fatal flaw: weasels. The smell of the small mustelid is lethal to the basilisk, and men hunt them by dropping weasels into their lairs.

There is little allegorical interpretation of the basilisk, and most bestiaries simply use the creature as evidence for God’s benevolence. Though He has (for reasons best-known to Himself) created a repulsive and evil creature, He has also supplied the remedy, in the form of the weasel. There is a hint, too, of the battle between Christ and Satan in the Gospel of Nicodemus, for the devil is overcome by the meek and humble Son of God, just as the mighty basilisk is defeated by the tiny weasel. Snakes, of course, have been beasts of Satan since the book of Genesis.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Herons, England, c.1225-50. Bestiary.ca


Herons were the envy of medieval man. Fish made up a large part of the medieval diet, and the Catholic Church forbidding the consumption of meat on a Friday in penitential memory of Christ being crucified on that day of the week made fishing a big business. Indeed, many coastal towns were entirely deserted in countries that abandoned Catholicism in the Early Modern Period as the fishing industry crashed. Thus the heron, with its great success in catching fish, was widely-admired. Nevertheless, they were still hunted for sport with peregrine falcons, which involved a spectacular high-altitude spiral chase.

Herons (ardea in Latin) are called thus because they fly to great altitudes (ardua). This is because they hate rain, and fly above the clouds to avoid storms. Though they feed off fish and catch their prey in rivers, they make their nest in trees, and protect their young with their long, sword-like beaks. The heron is a very intelligent bird, and a superb fisherman. To catch fish, it casts a spell upon them, and thus the fat of herons can be boiled and applied as a salve to fishing rods to improve their success. They are grey and white.

Herons were seen as symbols of good Christian living. Its colours were taken to represent the virtues of innocence and chastity (white) and penitence (grey). Their habit of flying above the clouds symbolised the saints who avoided the devil’s temptations on earth by directing their minds towards heaven. Living high in the trees, yet taking food from rivers, instructed Christians to take only nourishment from transitory things and yet place their hope in higher matters. The heron’s ferocious guarding of its young allegorised the leaders of the Church, who fought against those that tried to mislead its members.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Hedgehogs collect fruit, England, c.1200-1210. British Library


Hedgehogs were deemed as cute in the medieval period as they are today. People saw them snuffling around hedgerows and orchards and admired their industry, and wondered at their marvelous ability to curl up into a protective ball of spikes. Some folk beliefs about them, however, were less positive, such as the incorrect belief that they would suckle milk from the udders of cows. Such beliefs sadly led to persecution of the species in later periods, from which hedgehog populations in many countries have yet to recover. Its historical popularity, nevertheless, is indicated by the numerous soubriquets for the creature.

The name ‘hedgehog’ refers to its porcine snout and preferred habitat. They can curl up into a ball to protect themselves from predators coming from all sides. Hedgehogs are intelligent creatures, as evidenced in their method of foraging fruit. At the time of the fruit harvest, hedgehogs enter orchards and roll on fallen fruit, thus impaling them on their spines. They carry these to a stash in a hollow tree, ready for the winter months. They do the same in vineyards, but climb up the vines to shake the choicest grapes to the floor before skewering them with their quills.

The hedgehog’s spines inspired a variety of interpretations. Some bestiaries link the hedgehog’s wonderful defensive system to a monk who dedicates himself to prayer, and is thus protected from worldly temptations. Others see the hedgehog as the image of an obstinate sinner, whose spines represent unforgiven sins which surround him. Though he hides from his sins when upbraided for them, still he is enclosed by them sticking into his body. Illustrators of bestiaries however usually focus upon the hedgehog’s fruit-gathering technique and, allegory for the obstinate sinner or not, seem to take great delight in illustrating the act.

12 Crazy Descriptions from Medieval Bestiaries
Pelicans and their young, England, c. 1200-1210. British Library


We finish with the remarkable pelican of the medieval bestiaries. The illustration above is typical of the depiction of pelicans in bestiaries: the birds look nothing like the clumsy yet remarkable bird we know today, but more akin to a streamlined bird of prey. One suspects that, if real pelicans were observed and described, the bird’s disproportionately large beak would suggest it to be a greedy-guts, and thus an allegory for the spiritually-harmful nature of worldly pleasures. Pelicans are depicted in the same manner above across ecclesiastical architecture and art alike, however, and were celebrated for their extraordinary behaviorr.

Pelicans live only on the River Nile in Egypt. There are two kinds of pelican: one lives on water and eats poisonous creatures like crocodiles and lizards, and the other lives on islands, eats fish, and makes a sound like a donkey when it drinks. Both kinds are insatiably hungry, but their small stomachs mean that what they eat has to be immediately digested. Both kinds also use their feet to eat, dipping whatever they eat into water (if it was not sourced from there) and then moving it up to their beaks, which is very unusual for a bird.

Pelicans are extremely devoted to their chicks, as one remarkable act demonstrates. They carefully nurture them in their nests, thinking of nothing else, but when the young grow up they become unruly and aggressive. The chicks then strike their parents in the face, and the parents fight back and kill them. After three days, the mother pelican uses her sharp beak to pierce her chest, and drips her own blood over the dead offspring. This act miraculously brings the dead chicks back to life, who fly away to prosper elsewhere, but costs the poor mother pelican her life.

Pelicans unequivocally represent Christ. As the Son of God, Christ is part of the Holy Trinity, but having created man his children became ungrateful and injured him by committing sin. To save them, and thus give them eternal life, Christ allowed himself to be crucified, giving his own life for his beloved children. The crocodile-eating pelican also represents Christ, who was victorious over evil. The self-sacrificing pelican proved the most compelling image, however, and can be seen across the medieval churches and cathedrals of Europe. Just remember not to look for an oversized beak when you search for them.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Alexander, R. McN. “The Evolution of the Basilisk.” Greece & Rome 10, no.2 (1963): 170-181.

Barber, Richard, trans. Bestiary. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1992.

Baxter, Ron. Bestiaries and their Users in the Middle Ages. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1998.

Benton, Janetta Rebold. Medieval Menagerie: Animals in the Art of the Middle Ages. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.

Cook, Albert S., trans. Old English Elene, Phoenix and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Gotfredsen, Lise. The Unicorn. New York: Abbeville Press, 1999.

McCulloch, Florence. Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.

The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages.

Varty, Kenneth. Reynard the Fox: A Study of the Fox in Medieval English Art. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1967.

White, T.H., trans. The Book of Beasts. New York: Putnam, 1960.