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.

The Medieval Bestiary
Symbol Sage


Mythical Monday: Searching for Selkies

Good morning and welcome to Second Sleep’s new series, Mythical Monday. Within this series we will explore, as our title implies, the world of myth. Particularly because learning is our objective, we will most often seek topics unfamiliar, and welcome suggestions at any time. On occasion we might dive a bit deeper into myths that seem common, yet harbor a history we aren’t necessarily aware of or perhaps link to new or recent discoveries. Apart from the topic being mythology related, there isn’t a specific formula that governs the series, with the exception perhaps of enjoying ourselves as we explore the world that seeks to explain ours.

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In the world of sea creatures, mermaids and sirens seem to get all the attention, and many recall the great lengths Odysseus goes to be able to hear the plaintive song of the sirens. Passing by their island as he attempts to sail home from the Trojan War, the would-be king of Ithaca has himself tied to his ship’s mast and extracts a vow from his men, who all must wear ear plugs, that no matter how he tries to persuade or trick them, they must not let him down until they are well past. In this manner Odysseus is able to hear the sirens’ seductive tune without falling victim to the lure of its enchantment, which would mean destruction amongst the rocky coast of their island.

However, there exists a counterpart to these dangerous beauties. It might be said that selkies get little spotlight, though it could be they prefer it this way. Inhabiting Norse and Celtic mythology, selkies are shape-shifting seal creatures who can, when shedding their skins, walk upon land as humans. Most tales center around female selkies, typically when they are lured away from their skins, leaving them trapped on land. On other occasions, human men happen upon a selkie sans sealskin, perhaps bathing in the sun, and he compels her to wed him. The selkie, though, misses her sea home and after a time simply leaves, sometimes taking her half-human children with her, other times not.

Scottish folklorist Walter Traill Dennison differentiated selkie from the merfolk, though in northern Scotland they are referred to as maighdeann-mhara, or “maiden of the sea” (selkie being the diminutive form of the Orcadian word for “gray seal”). In the traditions of other lands also including such mythical creatures, such as Iceland (marmennlar) and Ireland (murdúch), they also are conflated with the merpeople so common to a collective awareness. Still, going back, it would not be out of line to wonder if at some previous point a similar pathway separated, sending merfolk and sirens into one direction, selkies into another.

Relief map of the Orkney Islands (excluding Sule Stack and Sule Skerry), UK. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Orkneyjar speaks of another legend that adds to this cast of characters, with a history not quite as benign as we may have believed. While the selkie “have come to be regarded as gentle creatures,” their Fin brethren (?) were “dark” and “malevolent.” Orkneyjar credits the split as related to the distinct cultural differences between the Norwegian and Saami cultures, particularly following the Norwegians’ adaptation of Christianity. Though the two influenced each other’s culture and religion, there remained an “otherworldliness” about the Saami, for their neighbors, a perspective that can be traced to Old Norse literature.

Perhaps what we are seeing here also connects to human recognition of their own behavior and attribution of a dual nature. People can be amazingly, beautifully kind and go to great lengths to aid those in distress; sometimes they simply perform small acts of generosity that benefits them not at all. It remains a reality, however, that at other times humans are responsible for unspeakable acts of horror that go far past any sort of defensive explanation, or even retaliatory. The “uncannily human eyes,” not to mention the facial expressions that seem recognizable to us, goes a long way in explaining why seals in particular may have bonded in our ancestors’ minds as a creature who carries a nature much like our own.

Faroese stamp – The Seal Woman, issued February 12, 2007 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

It also is not difficult to understand why selkies, then, might prefer to be left alone, despite their apparent inquisitive nature regarding humans. We too, experience moments of preferred solitude, especially when the company of other humans plays out against our best interests, as it so often does with selkie females of the tales referenced above. These and many other legends contain a range of variability we couldn’t begin to cover here, so we encourage you to look into these fascinating folk beyond this blog.


Here are a few  great links to intriguing and informative selkie talk:

Orkneyjar – The Folklore of the Orkney Islands
(continuing series)

Mythology Wiki – Selkie

Wilderness Ireland – Irish Myths & Legends Part 4: The Selkie

Icy Sedgwick – Are Selkies as Dangerous as Mermaids and Sirens?

Happy Mythical Monday, everyone, and welcome to your week!

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