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A Short History Of The Basilisk

April 4, 2019

 

When I mention the word Basilisk, images of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets probably come to mind, but while He-who-shall-not-be-named's horcrux is definitely the most famous of Basilisk's in the world, it certainly wasn't the first.

 

The Basilisk is a legendary European beast that is reputed as a serpent king that is a hybrid of a rooster and a serpent. It can cause death with a single glance in a way that is very similar to the viper-headed Goddess Medusa, who can turn those that look into her eyes into stone. The creature of the Basilisk was first written about in 79 AD by a Roman author and philosopher named Pliny the Elder, who chronicled the Basilisk in his tome Naturalis Historia. In Naturalis Historia, Pliny describes the Basilisk as "a monstrous cow-like creature of which "all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot". He does also describe a similar Basilisk from Cyrene (an ancient Roman city) that is "so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal."

 

Many philosophers continued to  speak of the legend of the Basilisk in various forms, but a majority proclaimed it to be a large serpent kind with the power to kill on sight, and was born from a rooster's egg. Even the famous inventor Leonardo da Vinci included the Basilisk in his compendium of beasts, saying that it is "so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill animals by its baleful gaze, it turns upon herbs and plants, and fixing its gaze on them withers them up." In his notebooks he describes the basilisk in a similar vein that Pliny described it, bu saying "This is found in the province of Cyrenaica and is not more than 12 fingers long. It has on its head a white spot after the fashion of a diadem. It scares all serpents with its whistling. It resembles a snake, but does not move by wriggling but from the centre forwards to the right. It is said that one of these, being killed with a spear by one who was on horse-back, and its venom flowing on the spear, not only the man but the horse also died. It spoils the wheat and not only that which it touches, but where it breathes the grass dries and the stones are split."

 

While you cannot look at the Basilisk without resulting in death it is well-documented from philosophers that it's weakness is actually the odor of the weasel, which - according to Pliny - is thrown into the Basilisk's hole though it is possible that the legend of the basilisk and its association with the weasel in Europe was inspired by accounts of certain species of Asiatic snakes (such as the king cobra) and their natural predator, the mongoose.

 

The Basilisk, while legendary from Greek mythology, has been highly mentioned in literary history, not just in the aforementioned second Harry Potter novel, but it has also been mentioned in Bram Stoker's Dracula, William Shakespeare's Richard III, and even in Psalms in the Bible. It is used in many fantasy stories and games as well, including the famous Dungeons and Dragons landscapes.

 

Photo used by permission from Todd Lockwood

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