Pliny the Elder's Natural History
Born of a serpent's egg incubated by a rooster or toad
In European mythology, the basilisk (pronounced BAS-uh-lisk) was a small serpent that could kill any living thing with its glance or its breath. It was usually represented as a creature with a dragon's body and wings, and a serpent's head. Early myths related that weasels and roosters were enemies of the basilisk. It was believed that a basilisk would die if it heard a rooster crowing. Another way to destroy a basilisk was to hold a mirror up to its face. The creature would die immediately after seeing its reflection. Travelers often carried roosters, weasels, or mirrors for protection when they traveled to regions where basilisks were thought to live.
The Basilisk in Context
The basilisk first appeared in legends from ancient Greece and Rome. Its name is derived from the Greek bctsileus, or “little king.” The basilisk was described in detail by the author, naturalist, and philosopher Pliny the Elder in the first century ce. In the 1100s ce, St. Hildegard wrote of a serpent coming out of an egg sat upon by a toad. Early descriptions of the basilisk indicate that it was simply a small but very lethal serpent. Some historians believe that the legend may have been based on the deadly family of snakes known as cobras.
Key Themes and Symbols
Called the king of serpents, the basilisk was often associated with the devil and symbolized the deadly sin of lust. The fact that it was a serpent born from an egg incubated by a toad was an indication of its unnatural and unholy nature.
The Basilisk in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The basilisk appears in many European cultures across different religions and mythologies. Jesus is even depicted fighting one in medieval art. The basilisk is mentioned in literature by the English writers Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, and is referred to in William Shakespeare's plays Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. More recendy, the basilisk has appeared in several role-playing games and the 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling. The basilisk has also lent its name to a variety of tropical lizards known for their ability to run quickly across the surface of water using only their hind legs.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The basilisk is a creature that is often described as having parts similar to a mixture of other creatures. Create your own mythical creature using parts of existing animals and write a description of it. Describe any special powers you think it should have, and be sure to name it.
Basilisk (or Cockatrice)
Basilisk (or Cockatrice)
A fabulous reptilian monster of ancient and medieval legend believed to be generated from a cock's egg hatched by a serpent or a toad in a dunghill. Accounts of this monster vary, but it was generally said to have either the face of a cock or a distorted human face, with the wings and feet of a fowl and the tail of a serpent. It was represented this way in heraldry.
It was reputed to be a deadly creature with a destructive power similar to that of the fabulous Gorgons of Greek legend. A human being could survive its deadly glare only by viewing it in a mirror; however, if anyone saw the basilisk before it saw that person, the creature would die. It was even believed to kill itself if it saw its own image in a mirror. Even its breath was poisonous to plants and animals, as well as to humans, and was believed to have the power to split rocks. It is possible that this fearsome creature really evolved from exaggerated travelers' tales of the horned adder or the hooded cobra, confused with such awesome reptiles as the Gila monster.
Basilisk has also been applied to a group of iguanalike lizards (Basiliscus ), found on the banks of rivers and streams in Central America and Mexico.
Borges, Jorge Luis, with Margarita Guerrero. The Book of Imaginary Beings. Translated by Norman Thomas de Giovanni. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970.
bas·i·lisk / ˈbasəˌlisk; ˈbaz-/ • n. 1. a mythical reptile with a lethal gaze or breath, hatched by a serpent from a cock's egg. 2. a long, slender, and mainly bright green lizard (Basiliscus plumifrons, family Iguanidae) found in Central America, the male of which has a crest running from the head to the tail. It can swim well and is able to run on its hind legs across the surface of water.
The name comes ultimately from Greek basiliskos ‘little king, serpent’, from basileus ‘king’, and Pliny suggests that it is so called from a spot, resembling a crown, on its head; medieval writers gave it ‘a certain comb or coronet’.