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History of Science Roman - Pantheon

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 6: Roman Science

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies (6th century A.D.)

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Ernest Brehaut, An Encyclopedist Of The Dark Ages: Isidore Of Seville (New York: Columbia University, 1913).
Web Source
English translation at the Medieval Bestiary. Latin edition at The Latin Library.
Word count


Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, borrowing heavily from encyclopedists such as Pliny the Elder and Hyginus, as the Roman empire was crumbling around 600 AD. In Spain the Goths had been in political control for two centuries already, and educational institutions were languishing in the remnants of the old empire. Isidore founded a cathedral school in Seville to halt this decline, and thereafter the Etymologies served many medieval students as an encyclopedia of basic knowledge. In the famous section of the Etymologies excerpted below, Isidore listed monstrous forms of humans, including birth defects (portents) and deformed races reported to Isidore in travelers' tales. For more on Isidore, see Laura Gibbs' Bestiaria blog for April 4, 2006.

Study Questions

Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.

  1. Did Isidore teach that birth defects arise from natural causes or from supernatural intervention?
  2. Many of the "monstrous" races described by Isidore seem to be aptly named. Which of them might have arisen as stories made up to account for the name? (For example, Cynocephali: cyno = dog; cephali = head.)
  3. How did Isidore explain the origin of reports of imaginary monsters?

Book XI. Chapter 3. On Human Monstrosities.

1. Portents, Varro says, are those births which seem to have taken place contrary to nature. But they are not contrary to nature, because they come by the divine will, since the will of the creator is the nature of each thing that is created. Whence, too, the heathen themselves call God now nature, now God. 2. A portent, therefore, happens not contrary to nature, but contrary to known nature... 4. Certain creations of portents seem to have been made with future meanings. For God sometimes wishes to indicate what is to come by disgusting features at birth, as also by dreams and oracles, that he may give forewarning by these, and indicate to certain nations or certain men coming destruction. This has been proved by many trials. 5... But these portents which are sent in warning, do not live long, but die as soon as they are born.

12. And just as there are monstrous individuals in separate races of men, so in the whole human kind there are certain monstrous races, as the Gigantes, Cynocephali, Cyclopes, and the rest. 15. The Cynocephali are so called because they have dogs’ heads and their very barking betrays them as beasts rather than men. These are born in India. 16. The Cyclopes, too, the same India gives birth to, and they are named Cyclopes because they are said to have a single eye in the midst of the forehead. These have the additional name agriophagitai because they eat nothing but the flesh of wild beasts. 17. The Blemmyes, born in Libya, are believed to be headless trunks, having mouth and eyes in the breast; others are born without necks, with eyes in their shoulders. 18. In the remote east, races with faces of a monstrous sort are described. Some without noses, with formless countenances; others with lower lip so protruding that by it they shelter the whole face from the heat of the sun while they sleep; others have small mouths, and take sustenance through a narrow opening by means of oat-straws; a good many are said to be tongueless, using nod or gesture in place of words. 19. They say the Panotii in Scythia have ears of so large a size that they cover the whole body with them. For pan in Greek means all, and ota, ears. 21. The Satyrs are manikins with upturned noses; they have horns on their foreheads, and are goat-footed, such as the one St. Anthony saw in the desert. And he, being questioned, is said to have answered the servant of God, saying, “I am mortal, one of the inhabitants of the waste, whom the heathen, misled by error, worship as the Fauns and Satyrs.” 23. The race of the Sciopodes is said to live in Ethiopia. They have one leg apiece, and are of a marvelous swiftness, and the Greeks call them Sciopodes from this, that in summertime they lie on the ground on their backs and are shaded by the greatness of their feet. 24. The Antipodes in Libya have feet turned backward and eight toes on each foot. 28. Other fabulous monstrosities of the human race are said to exist, but they do not; they are imaginary. And their meaning is found in the causes of things, as Geryon, King of Spain, who is said to have had a triple form. For there were three brothers of such harmonious spirit that it was, as it were, one soul in three bodies.


"The saint who wrote the well-known 'Etymologies' (a type of dictionary), gave his work a structure akin to that of the database." The Observation Service for the Internet; a Catholic commission that designated Isidore as the patron saint of the Internet and personal computer.

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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