The baleful Basilisk is a kind of dragon with a complicated history. Originally said to have sprung from Medusa’s eyes after Perseus beheaded her, the Basilisk is described as a monstrous serpent crowned with a dramatic frill, crest or crown, for which reason it is called the “King of Serpents.” Its name derives from the Greek basileus, meaning “little king.” It is so poisonous that it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal. Indeed, it is said that—like Medusa—the gaze of the Basilisk can turn a victim to stone! It poisons streams, withers forests, and drops birds out of the sky. Its only natural enemy is the weasel, which is immune to its deadly arsenal. But Aelian (17-235 ce) says that the Basilisk also fears roosters: “at the sight of one it shudders, and at the sound of its crowing it is seized with convulsions and dies.” During the first century ce, travelers crossing the North African deserts would take along cockerels as protection against Basilisks.
Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), in his De Animalibus, says that the Basilisk does not actually emit lethal rays from its eyes, but “rather, the cause of the corrupting influence is the visual energy which is diffused over very long distances because of the subtlety of its substantial nature; herein lies its ability to destroy and kill everything.” Albertus also says that the ancients strewed Basilisk ashes in their temples to keep out spiders and other venomous creatures, and that “silver melted in the ashes of a Basilisk takes on the splendor, weight and density of gold.” Bulfinch says that in classical times a Basilisk skin was hung in a temple to Apollo and in another to Diana to ward off swallows as well as snakes and spiders.
In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23-79 ce) says the Basilisk is “not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem. It routs all snakes with a hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advances with its middle raised high.” In this statement by history’s first real naturalist lie several important clues to the true identity of the Basilisk.
For one thing, it is a small creature—according to Pliny, only a foot long. No doubt this is why its Greek name is a diminutive: “little king.” The distinctive feature of raising its body high, unlike other snakes, is most significant, as this behavior is uniquely characteristic of only one family of snakes—the cobras, all of which raise the full front thirds of their bodies vertically. Moreover, most cobras have species-specific markings on their heads—often in the form of a diadem.
The Basilisk’s natural habitat is
North Africa, which is home to several species of cobras. The King
Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) has been advanced as the original Basilisk,
but at over 18 feet long this is the largest of the world’s venomous serpents,
and can hardly be described as “little”! A full-grown King Cobra can rear up to
look a tall man directly in the eye—a most unnerving experience, I’m sure! In , it is widely worshiped as Nagaraja (“King of
In actuality, the Basilisk derives from the Egyptian Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricollis), which grows to seven feet long, and sprays lethal poison from its fangs with uncanny accuracy into the eyes of its victims, blinding them instantly and rendering them helpless against its fangs. This is the basis of the poisonous breath of the monster, which, it turns out, is not mythical at all!
From its serpentine origins in a real snake with deadly “breath,” the legend of the Basilisk was carried through the centuries to lands where the actual animal was unknown. One of
earliest printed books was the Dialogus
Creaturarum (“dialogues of creatures”), printed in the in 1480 by Pieter van Leu. This anonymous work was
the first to identify the Basilisk as “a kind of lizard.” When a colorful
little lizard with elaborate crests on its head and back was discovered in Netherlands South America, it was given the name of Basilisk (Basiliscus).
It is also popularly called the “Jesus Christ lizard” for its ability to run
across the surface of water, but it has none of the deadly attributes of its
About 1180, English naturalist Alexander Neckham stated that the Basilisk hatched from an egg laid by an aged rooster. He called it a “Basil-Cock.” But soon the term Cockatrice or Cockatrix—originally meaning any hybrid creature—became used interchangeably for Basilisk. Thus was created a parallel evolution of a new monster called the Cockatrice, which was said to be born from an egg laid in a dunghill by a seven-year-old cock which had mated with a serpent, during the “dog days” when the star
Sirius was in the sky. The egg was spherical rather than ovoid, and had no
shell but only a tough membrane. It was then incubated and hatched by a toad.
Thus the hatchling combined the features and habits of its parents and
A denizen of
North Africa, the
Cockatrice came to be depicted as a rooster with a dragon’s tail and bat-like
wings, so poisonous that its very glance or breath kills. It can rot the fruit
on a tree from a distance, and any water from which it drinks will be polluted
for centuries. To medieval Christians it represented sin and sudden death. As
with the Basilisk, its only foe is the weasel.
Interestingly, it is a fact of biology that old roosters do indeed often develop egg-like masses in their bodies. As Aristotle (384–322
bce) observed: “substances
resembling an egg…have been found in the cock when cut open, underneath the
midriff where the hen has her eggs, and these are entirely yellow in appearance
and of the same size as ordinary eggs.”
For more on creatures check out Oberon's A Wizard's Bestiary