Of many things questionable as they are commonly described in Pictures.

On Images of Pelicans


Of the Picture of the Pelecan.

AND first in every place we meet with the picture of the Pelecan,[1] opening her breast with her bill, and feeding her young ones with the blood distilling from her. Thus is it set forth not onely in common Signs, but in the Crest and Scutcheon of many Noble families; hath been asserted by many holy Writers, and was an Hieroglyphick of piety and pitty among the Ægyptians; on which consideration, they spared them at their tables.

Notwithstanding upon enquiry we find no mention hereof in Ancient Zodiographers, and such as have particularly discoursed upon Animals, as Aristotle, Elian, Pliny, Solinus and many more; who seldom forget proprieties of such a nature, and have been very punctual in less considerable Records. Some ground hereof I confess we may allow, nor need we deny a remarkable affection in Pelecans toward their young; for Elian discoursing of Storks, and their affection toward their brood, whom they instruct to fly, and unto whom they re-deliver up the provision of their Bellies, concludeth at last, that Herons and Pelecans do the like.

As for the testimonies of Ancient Fathers, and Ecclesiasticall Writers, we may more safely conceive therein some Emblematical than any reall Story: so doth Eucherius confess it to bee the Emblem of Christ. And we are unwilling literally to receive that account of Jerome,[2] that perceiving her young ones destroyed by Serpents, she openeth her side with her bill, by the blood whereof they revive and return unto life again. By which relation they might indeed illustrate the destruction of man by the old Serpent, and his restorement by the blood of Christ: and in this sense we shall not dispute the like relations of Austine, Isidore,[3] Albertus, and many more, and under an Emblematical intention, we accept it in coat-armour.

As for the Hieroglyphick of the Egyptians, they erected the same upon other consideration, which was parentall affection; manifested in the protection of her young ones, when her nest was set on fire.[4] For as for letting out her blood, it was not the assertion of the Egyptians, but seems translated unto the Pelecan from the Vulture, as Pierius hath plainly delivered. Sed quod Pelicanum (ut etiam aliis plerisque persuasum est) rostro pectus dissecantem pingunt, ita ut suo sanguine filios alat, ab Ægyptiorum historia valde alienum est, illi enim vulturem tantum id facere tradiderunt.

And lastly, as concerning the picture, if naturally examined, and not Hieroglyphically conceived, it containeth many improprieties, disagreeing almost in all things from the true and proper description. For whereas it is commonly set forth green or yellow, in its proper colour, it is inclining to white; excepting the extremities or tops of the wing feathers, which are brown. It is described in the bigness of a Hen, whereas it approacheth and sometimes exceedeth the magnitude of a Swan. It is commonly painted with a short bill; whereas that of the Pelecan attaineth sometimes the length of two spans.[5] The bill is made acute or pointed at the end; whereas it is flat and broad, though somewhat inverted at the extream.[6] It is described like fissipedes, or birds which have their feet or claws divided; whereas it is palmipedous, or fin-footed like Swans and Geese; according to the method of nature, in latirostrous or flat-bild birds; which being generally swimmers, the organ is wisely contrived unto the action, and they are framed with fins or oars upon their feet; and therefore they neither light, nor build on trees, if we except Cormorants, who make their nests like Herons. Lastly, there is one part omitted more remarkable then any other, that is, the chowle or crop adhering unto the lower side of the bill, and so descending by the throat; a bag or sachel very observable, and of a capacity almost beyond credit; which notwithstanding, this animal could not want; for therein it receiveth Oysters, Cochels, Scollops, and other testaceous animals; which being not able to break, it retains them until they open, and vomitting them up, takes out the meat contained. This is that part preserved for a rarity, and wherein (as Sanctius delivers) in one dissected, a Negro child was found.

A possibility there may be of opening and bleeding their breast; for this may be done by the uncous and pointed extremity of their bill; and some probability also that they sometimes do it, for their own relief, though not for their young ones; that is by nibbling and biting themselves on the itching part of their breast, upon fullness or acrimony of blood. And the same may be better made out; if (as some relate) their feathers on that part are sometimes observed to be red and tincted with blood.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}. Ross dismisses this chapter in Arcana Microcosmi II.11.i.

1 [See the brief and unfinished note on images of the pelican.]

2 [Pseudo-Jerome, Epistola ad Præsidium de cereo Paschali]

3 [Augustine: "Habet ergo haec avis, si vere ita est, magnam similitudinem carnis Christi, cuius sanguine vivificati sumus", Enarratio in Psalmum CI; Isidore, Etym. VII.26]

4 [And therefore, says Horapollo, it was used among the Egyptians as the emblem, not of piety, but of folly; for, burying its eggs in a hole, it is an easy matter to capture it by setting dung atop the hole and lighting the dung; whereupon the pelican attempts to extinguish the fire with its wings. When the wings are burnt, the bird is easily caught. Thus Horapollo. But why, we might ask, would one wish to catch a pelican? They are not particularly edible, nor is there any evidence that the Egyptians did eat them; Browne in fact says earlier that Egyptians refrained from eating pelicans.]

5 [Wren: This description of the authors agrees (per omnia) with that live pellican, which was to bee seen in King Street, Westminster, 1647, from whence (doubtles) the author maketh this relation εξ αυτοψια.]

6 [Wren: From hence itt is that many ancients call this bird the shoveller: and the Greeks derive πελεκὰν from πελεκᾷν , to wound as with an axe, which suites with the shape of his beake in length and breadthe like a rooting axe, per omnia.]

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