Pelican
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Source: Museum Meermanno - MMW, 10 B 25 facsimile Copyright 2004 Museum Meermanno Manuscript description Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r


 

Pelican

Latin name: Pelicanus

Other names: Honocrotalus

A bird that revives its dead young with its own blood

 

 
General Attributes

As young pelicans grow, they begin to strike their parents in the face with their beaks. Though the pelican has great love for its young, it strikes back and kills them. After three days, the mother pierces her side or her breast and lets her blood fall on the dead birds, and thus revives them. Some say it is the male pelican that kills the young and revives them with his blood.

Pelicans live in Egypt. There are two kinds: one kind lives on water and eats poisonous animals like crocodiles and lizards; the other kind, with a long neck and beak, makes a sound like an ass when it drinks (this kind is called the onocrotalus). Some say that the two kinds are distinguished by other attributes: the kind that live in water eat fish, while the kind that live on islands eat dirty animals. The pelican has an insatiable hunger, and because its stomach cannot hold food for long, everything it eats is immediately digested.


Allegory/Moral

The pelican is Christ, who humanity struck by committing sin; the pelican cutting open its own breast represents Christ's death on the cross, and the shedding of his blood to revive us. The Aberdeen Bestiary adds that the hunger of the pelican signifies that "...the life of a hermit is modelled on the pelican, in that he lives on bread but does not seek to fill his stomach; he does not live to eat but eats to live."


Sources (chronological order)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 66): Pelicans have a second stomach in their throats, in which the insatiable creatures place food, increasing their capacity; later they take the food from that stomach and pass it to the true stomach.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:26): The pelican is an Egyption bird that lives in the solitude of the river Nile. Its is said [Isidore expresses some doubt here] that she kills her offspring and grieves for them for three days, then wounds herself and sheds her blood to revive her sons. (Book 12, 7:32): It has a Greek name (onocrotalos) from its long beak; there are two kinds, aquatic and solitary.

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): The pelican is a wonderful bird which dwells in the region about the river Nile. The written history tells us that there are two kinds, those which dwell in the river and eat nothing but fish, and those which dwell in the desert and eat only insects and worms. There is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their fathers face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): A pelican is a bird of Egypt, and dwelleth in deserts beside the river Nile. All that the pelican eateth, he plungeth in water with his foot, and when he hath so plunged it in water, he putteth it into his mouth with his own foot, as it were with an hand. Only the pelican and the popinjay [parrot] among fowls use the foot instead of an hand. The pelican loveth too much her children. For when the children be haught, and begin to wax hoar, they smite the father and the mother in the face, wherefore the mother smiteth them again and slayeth them. And the third day, the mother smiteth herself in her side, that the blood runneth out, and sheddeth that hot blood on the bodies of her children. And by virtue of that blood, the birds that were before dead quicken again. Master Jacobus de Vitriaco in his book of the wonders of the Eastern parts telleth another cause of the death of pelicans' birds. He saith that the serpent hateth kindly this bird. Wherefore when the mother passeth out of the nest to get meat, the serpent climbeth on the tree, and stingeth and infecteth the birds. And when the mother cometh again, she maketh sorrow three days for her birds, as it is said. Then (he saith) she smiteth herself in the breast and springeth blood upon them, and reareth them from death to life, and then for great bleeding the mother waxeth feeble, and the birds are compelled to pass out of the nest to get themselves meat. And some of them for kind love feed the mother that is feeble, and some are unkind and care not for the mother, and the mother taketh good heed thereto, and when she cometh to her strength, she nourisheth and loveth those birds that fed her in her need, and putteth away her other birds, as unworthy and unkind, and suffereth them not to dwell nor live with her. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)


Illustration

The illustration of the pelican is highly standardized, and is found in a large variety of settings, including many kinds of manuscripts, sculptures, and church carvings such as misericords. The arrangement of the mother pelican and her young has come to be called "the pelican in her piety"; it consists of the mother standing over her dead (or reviving) chicks, her head bent down in a graceful curve to cut open her breast and drip blood on her young. In some illustrations the mother feeds her blood to the chicks, or the chicks reach up to catch the falling drops of blood. A few manuscripts (such as British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 46r) show the entire story of the mother killing the chicks and then reviving them.


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