Encyclopedia

Texts : Isidore of Seville

All Etymologies quotes are from the Barney, Lewis, et. al. translation. Many of the Beast pages also have quotes from Isidore under the Sources tab.


Book 12, 1:1-5, 7 - Livestock and beasts of burden (De pecoribus et iumentis)

1. Adam was the first to confer names on all the animals, assigning a name to each one at the moment of its creation, according to the position in nature that it holds.

2. The different nations have also given names to each of the animals in their own languages – for Adam did not assign these names in the Latin or Greek language, or in any of the languages of foreign nations, but in that language which, before the Flood, was the language of all peoples, which is called Hebrew.

3. In Latin they are called animals (animal) or animate beings (animans), because they are animated (animare) by life and moved by spirit.

4. Quadrupeds (quadrupes) are so called because they walk on four feet (quattuor pedes); while these may be similar to livestock, they are nevertheless not under human control – such as deer, antelopes, onagers, et cetera. But they are not beasts, such as lions, nor are they beasts of burden, which could assist the useful activities of humans.

5. We call any animal that lacks human language and form livestock (pecus). However, strictly speaking, the term livestock is usually applied to those animals that are either suitable for food, such as sheep and pigs, or are suitable for use by humans, such as horses and oxen.

7. Beasts of burden (iumenta) derive their name from the fact that they assist (iuvare) our labor and burdens by their help in carrying or plowing, for the ox pulls the carriage and turns the hardest clods of earth with the plowshare; the horse and ass carry burdens, and ease people’s labor when they travel. Whence they are called beasts of burden because they assist humans, for these are animals of great strength.

Book 12, 2:1-2 - Beasts (De bestiis)

1. The term beast, properly speaking, includes lions, panthers, tigers, wolves, foxes, dogs, apes, and other animals that attack either with their mouth or their claws, excepting serpents. They are called beasts (bestia) from the force (vis) with which they attack.

2. They are termed wild (ferus) because they enjoy a natural freedom and are driven (ferre) by their own desires – for their wills are free and they wander here and there, and wherever their spirit leads, there they go.

Book 12, 3:1, 40-41, 44 - Serpents (De serpentibus)

1. Serpent (anguis) is the term for the family of all snakes, because they can bend and twist; and thus it is anguis because it is turned at angles (angulosus) and never straight. Snakes were always considered among the pagans as the spirits of places.

40. When they are cold they injure no one; hence their venom is more noxious during the day than at night, for they are sluggish in the chill of the night, and understandably so, since they are cold in the evening dew. Thus their venom, which is cold by nature, draws to itself the warmth of their chilled bodies.Hence during the winter they lie motionless in coils, but in the summer they are uncoiled.

41. Hence it is that whenever someone is injected with snake venom, he is stupefied at first and then, when the poison is heated up in him and becomes fiery, it kills him forthwith.

44. Vision in snakes generally is feeble – they rarely look directly forward, with good reason, since they have eyes not in the front of their face but in their temples, so that they hear more quickly than they see. No other animal darts its tongue as quickly as the snake, so that it appears to have three tongues when in fact it has one.

Book 12, 5:1 - Worms/Vermin (De verminibus)

Vermin (vermis) are animals that are generated for the most part from flesh or wood or some earthy substance, without any sexual congress – but sometimes they are brought forth from eggs, like the scorpion. There are vermin of the earth, the water, the air, flesh, leaves, wood, and clothing.

Book 12, 6:1-6 - Fish (De piscibus)

1. Fish (piscis) are named from the same source as livestock (pecus), that is, from grazing (pascere).

2. Animals that swim are called reptiles (reptile), because they possess the look and natural habit of creeping (reptare); even though they submerge themselves in the deep, still they creep in their swimming.

3. Amphibians (amphibia) are a certain type of fish, so called because they possess the habit of walking on the land and the action of swimming in the water – that is, because they live both in water and on land – such as seals, crocodiles, and hippopotami, that is, river horses.

4. People gave names to livestock and beasts and flying animals before naming fish, because the former were seen and recognized before. Later, as the types of fish gradually came to be known, names were established based either on a similarity to land animals or on their particular appearance or behavior [or color or shape or sex].

5. Based on a similarity to land animals, such as frogs and so for the rest) and ‘calves’ and lions and blackbirds and peacocks, colored with various hues on the neck and back, and thrushes, mottled with white, and other fish that took for themselves the names of land animals according to their appearance. Based on land behavior, such as dogs in the sea, so called from land dogs because they bite, and sea-wolves because they pursue other fish with cruel voracity.

6. Based on color, as the maigre (umbra, “shadow”), which are the color of shadows, and ‘giltheads’ (aureta), because they have the color of gold (aurum) on their heads, and varii from variegation; these are commonly called ‘trout’ (tructa). Based on shape, like the orbis (“circle”), because it is round and consists entirely of its head, and like the sole (solea) because it looks like the sole (solea) of a shoe. Based on sex, like the musculus, because it functions as the male (masculus) for whales; for it is said that female sea-monsters (bellua) conceive through intercourse with these animals. Hence also the mussel (musculus cochlearum), by whose milt oysters conceive.

Book 12, 7:1-2 - Birds (De avibus)

1. There is a single word for birds, but various kinds, for just as they differ among themselves in appearance, so do they differ also in the diversity of their natures. Some are simple, like the dove, and others clever, like the partridge; some allow themselves to be handled, like the falcon, while others are fearful, like the garamas; some enjoy the company of humans, like the swallow, while others prefer a secluded life in deserted places, like the turtledove; some feed only on the seeds they find, like the goose, while others eat meat and are eager for prey, like the kite; some are indigenous and always stay in the same location, like [the sparrow], while others are migratory and return at certain seasons, like the stork and the swallow; some are gregarious, that is, they fly in a flock, like the starling and the quaill, while others are loners, that is, they are solitary, on account of the strategies of hunting, like the eagle, the hawk, and others of this type. Some make a racket with their calls, like the swallow. Some produce the sweetest songs, like the swan and the blackbird, while others imitate the speech and voices of humans, like the parrot and the magpie.

2. But there are innumerable others differing in kind and behavior, for no one can discover how many kinds of birds there are. Indeed, no one could penetrate all the wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia, so as to know the kinds of birds and their differentiating characteristics.