Mythical Monday: The Bewildering Basilisk

The Basilisk and the Weasel, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. The cockatrice (pictured) became seen as synonymous with the basilisk when the “basiliscus” in Bartholomeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (c. 1260) was translated by John Trevisa as “cockatrice” (1397). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Pliny the Elder wrote about them. They were “little kings” to the Greeks and other reptiles avoided their fiery, deadly breath. The Roman poet Lucan described the particularly horrible venom of the creature, so fearsome it could travel like sound through the predatory weapon of a man and reverse the aim, killing not only the man, but also his horse. Seemingly straight from the pages of Sir John de Mandeville, the petrifying monster that could kill with a glance was said to be born of a rooster and incubated by a toad, and even today its terrifying, deadly gaze remains extant in our collective consciousness, in deeper layers though it may reside.

Despite its origins and early appearance, nowadays we perceive it most often as a snakelike beast that “does not impel his body, like other serpents, like a multiplied flexion, but advances loftily and upright,” just as the senior Roman naturalist wrote. From the illustration of a medieval bestiary, we are given a glimpse of what people in the past observed.

It looks almost ridiculous in its anger, especially with the tiny weasel chomping away at its breast. But our fear of snakes remains real, even if the basilisk confounds us with its reputation. Lacking the fantastic properties of dinosaurs, it also never became regarded, though, as a maladapted failure and, despite its fall into obscurity with the rise of science, the Harry Potter series’ resurrection of the beast hardly had to break a sweat to evoke familiarity. It is as if it lurked in the shadowy halls of our imaginations, our awareness both proving its mettle while also keeping it at bay. Pull the curtain aside and you wouldn’t see a tinkering imposter; it’s just that for centuries we preferred to treat our ancestors like children and dismiss their terrors. When the basilisk roared back into our world, we weren’t frightened yet we knew they were to be feared.

2014 cover image of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, courtesy Wikimedia.

Perhaps it is our historical and modern associations that keeps the loitering basilisk apparent to us despite its current relatively rare use in explicit form. From Christian tradition we see a basilisk being slain by a knight, or Michael, though more often demons are represented by snakes. Within medieval stories of alchemy links were to be found between wealth and basilisks, the ashes of which could transform silver into gold, emphasizing the connection between fiery evil and the sin of greed. Poets mention them, Dracula’s gaze engendered a similar fear, and a courageous mongoose in an Indian garden calls back the monster’s only natural predator, the weasel. But the mixture of their strange and unnatural appearance, symbolic of unholy alliance, remains in the shadows, perhaps more respectfully feared for what we do not see.


Sources
The Medieval Bestiary
Symbol Sage