Quote. Robert M. Grant. ‘Early Christians and Animals’, Ch. 4, “Alexandrians and the Phisiologus”, 3: Clement. 1999.

By | July 2, 2014

The primary work of Clement of Alexandria, in eight books, was his Stromateis or Miscellanies. Like Aelian, he used a good source (an epitome of Aristotle’s History of Animals by Aristophanes of Byzantium), but added a good deal of erudite nonsense. As an Alexandrian, Clement is naturally concerned with Egyptian matters. He refers to “the gods of Egypt such as cats and weasels,” as well as “cat or crocodile or native snake.” On a literary level he analyzes Egyptian writing as epistolographic (= demotic) or hieratic or hieroglyphic. There are two kinds of hieroglyphs, literal and symbolical, while the symbolical in turn is divided into three: (1) literal by imitation (the sun is a circle, the moon looks like a moon), (2) figurative, and (3) allegorical using enigmas. He illustrates the third type by stars depicted as snakes because of their oblique orbits, the sun as a beetle because it fashions a ball of ox-dung and rolls it before its face. Later he discusses the symbolical meanings of animals in the hieroglyphs. Some Egyptians show the sun on a ship, others on a crocodile; they mean that the sun generates time, or else that the crocodile symbolizes time. On the sacred Pylon at Diospolis there was a boy, the symbol of generation, and an old man, decay. A hawk was the symbol of God, a fish of hatred, while the crocodile can mean shamelessness. Taken together, the symbols mean this: “You who are born and die, God hates shamelessness.” (This last account is close to Plutarch, except that he locates the carving in the temple of Athena at Sais and identifies the shameless animal as the hippopotamus.) In addition, the lion symbolizes strength and vigor; the ox, agriculture and nourishment; the horse, courage and boldness; the sphinx, strength with understanding, for it has the body of a lion, the face of a man. A man symbolizes intelligence, memory, power, and art. In the processions of the gods they carry gold images: two dogs, one hawk, and one ibis. The dogs symbolize two hemispheres; the hawk the sun, the ibis the moon; or else the dogs are the tropics, the hawk the equinoctial line, and the ibis the ecliptic. The errors in this exegesis are comparable only to those in the Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, who wrote several centuries after Clement, but relied on similar sources. Both authors took the symbols seriously but did not know what they meant.

When Clement attacked anthropomorphists who held that God literally enjoys smelling the smoke of sacrifices (Gen. 8:21), he turned to natural history for analogies. Do insects breathe or not? Clement marshalled a scientific account of breathing, to combat the idea that God breathes. Aristotle (On Respiration) had argued that insects do not breathe because when centipedes are cut up the parts stay alive, and flies and bees can swim in liquid for a long time. On the other hand, in his History of Animals he noted that all insects die if covered with oil, a point suggesting that they do breathe. Clement deals with the question by defining terms. Plants are nourished from the density of the air, while hibernating bears are nourished from the exhalation arising from their own bodies. Demons ventilate internally (diapneitai). Fish inhale (empneitai) through the dilation of their gills. Insects circumspire (peripneitai) through pressure of membranes on the waist. Finally, there are creatures that inhale (anapnei) by rhythmic beats corresponding to the counter-dilation (anti-diastole) of the lungs against the chest. A little later, Clement notes that land animals and birds inhale as human beings do, though fish breathe the air infused into the water at the creation. Theophilus too had remarked on this infusion.

Clement dealt with diet from points of view both moral and philosophical. He quoted Paul as saying, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine” (shortened from Romans 14:21), in agreement with the Pythagoreans – for whose opinions he quotes the Stoic Musonius Rufus: “meat, though appropriate for wild animals, darkens the soul.” He adds, however, that he who eats meat sparingly does not sin. In his view the best diet consists of bulbs, olives, herbs, milk, cheese, fruits, and “all kinds of cooked food without sauces.” (The list comes from Plato through Plutarch.) But Clement is willing to include meat, preferably roasted, not boiled. He cites the frugal disciples, who offered the risen Lord “a piece of broiled fish, which he ate before them” (Luke 24:42–43).

In a later work Clement reflects deeper concerns. Christians can abstain from meat on reasonable grounds, not the Pythagorean dream about the transmigration of souls. One might abstain because animal meat has “already been assimilated to the souls of irrational creatures.” In addition, wine and meat harm the mind, as (the Pythagorean) Androcydes said. Similarly one of the late second-century Sayings of Sextus, authoritative for both Clement and Origen, claims that though abstinence is more rational, eating animate beings is really a matter of indifference.

Egyptian priests in their purifications abstain from meat and fish, for “such food makes the flesh flabby.” Elsewhere Clement lists a few fishes “venerated” at various places: one kind at Syene, another at Elephantine, yet another at Oxyrhynchus. This kind of information reflects the interests of the age, not those of Christians generally save for the literary-minded author himself.

He also tells how some Phoenician Syrians “venerate” fishes, while Porphyry mentions Syrians in general, as well as initiates into the mysteries at Eleusis. The Christian apologist Athenagoras says Syrians “venerate” fish because of the mythical Derceto (who had a fish’s tail). “Venerate” again means “not eat.”

Clement identifies the serpent with the devil but usually, after Philo, relates his work to pleasure. He adds that the serpent is now the cause of idol-worship, and acts like barbarians who bind their captives to corpses. The simile comes from the Exhortation of Aristotle, but Clement obviously makes it his own.

Since Clement knew something of zoology he could question animal lore, either tacitly or explicitly. In his Miscellanies he paraphrases much of the letter of “the apostle Clement,” but not the section about the phoenix, a bird he mentions elsewhere only as an Egyptian astrological symbol. Presumably he did not accept the story. When he commented on Barnabas, whom he regarded as an apostle, he relied on Aristotle for questioning the story about the hyena, though without naming either the apostle or the philosopher. He agreed with Barnabas that Moses spoke allegorically but rejected his ideas about what he meant. “I do not agree with this exegesis of what was said symbolically.” Closer to Aristotle than to Barnabas, Clement says the hare really has a bifurcated uterus. And as for the weasel, the Hellenistic Jewish Epistle of Aristeas said that the weasel conceives through the ear and gives birth through the mouth; Plutarch states that “many suppose and say that the weasel conceives through the ear and gives birth through the mouth.” Harnack and others thought Zeno of Verona was expressing a like thought when he said that “Christ enters Mary through the ear.” They did not notice that Zeno was simply giving allegorical exegesis of the angel’s speaking a word to her, just as when he said that the devil crept into Eve through her ear. This was not Barnabas’ notion. The author of the Clementine Recognitions rather sensibly supposed that these unusual habits prove that the Creator specifically chose the usual modes of conception and birth as norms. The Physiologus, as usual, went back to gossip, claiming that the hyena is androgynous, alternating sexes, while the weasel conceives through the mouth and gives birth through the ears. The latter statement simply reverses Aristeas’ notion.

Robert M. Grant. ‘Early Christians and Animals’, Ch. 4, “Alexandrians and the Phisiologus”, 3: Clement, pp. 46.48. Routledge, 1999.

Share and Enjoy:

Leave a Reply