The basilisk—a cause of sudden death
Mythical creatures have been described and feared since ancient times. The group is large. It includes dragons, sirens, basilisks, centaurs, phoenixes, sea monsters, and several more. These mythical creatures may have been invented to provide explanations for events for which there were no natural explanations, such as when persons died without obvious cause.
In the Western world the basilisk (little king) has a prominent place in this menagerie. It is one of the earliest—and scariest. The usual description is that its head and feet are those of a rooster, and its eyes those of a frog. Its snakelike body, wings, and speckled pointed tail have strange colors. It kills with its gaze, scorches the earth with its breath, and yet fears roosters and phoenixes. Because it was described in the Bible, most people probably thought it actually existed until the end of the Middle Ages. Now we know better, but it is still with us.
The myth says that the basilisk came from an egg laid by a seven-year-old rooster (when Sirius was high in the sky). The egg was perfectly round and covered by a thick membrane. A toad sat on it for nine years to hatch it.
The basilisk is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. There is no uniform description. It is sometimes described as a snake, but some of its deadly characteristics are mentioned. Isaiah (740–700 BCE), describing how peaceful the Land of Peace will be, wrote that “a weaned child shall stretch out its hand after the eye of the basilisk.” (Isaiah 11:18)
When 1,000 soldiers in the army of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) all died mysteriously at the same time, it was thought that they had encountered a basilisk.
Pliny the Elder (23–79 BCE) wrote in his Natural History:
It is a snake with a light crown upon its head.
It suffocates bushes not only through its touch
But also by breathing on them
And it chrunches stones;
Such is the evil, spiteful power of the animal.
The basilisk is mentioned several times in Shakespeare’s works. He wrote:
Make me not sighted like the basilisk
I´ve look’d on thousands who have sped
The better by my regard,
But kill’d no one so far
The Winter’s Tale
It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on’t
The citation below was used by the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman as title of one his lesser known films The Serpents Egg (1977) about Munich in the twenties:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatch’d would, as his kid grow mischievous:
And kill him in his shell
Francis Bacon (1561–1620) mentions the basilisk in his writings:
The fable goeth of the basilisk that if he sees you first you die for it.
Eberhard Happel, a German writer, wrote about the basilisk in his Relationes Curiosae (1683–1692):
In Warsaw 1587 a mother was searching the streets for her children. A woman had seen them in a cellar apparently asleep. The mother went into the cellar and died instantly. Her neighbours suspected that they had all encountered a basilisk. A man sentenced to death was told that he would be pardoned if he could bring out the dead bodies within three days. He asked for a suit made of stiff cloth and covered with mirrors. He entered the cellar and found the dead bodies and a dead basilisk. It had died by the power of its own deadly reflected gaze.”
Now we would suspect that the woman and her children were killed by some deadly gas (methane?) in the cellar.
During the Middle Ages a “stuffed basilisk” from Dresden was shown all over Germany during a 10-year period. With time came more knowledge about the physical world, and the basilisk became just a mythical creature. It became almost extinct in Sweden. The word “basilisk” was not included in the Swedish National Encyclopedia (1990) or in the latest Bible translation (2000), “poisonous snake” was the usual substitute. People no longer understood what basilisk stood for and probably thought it was a spice, a clothing item, or something in church architecture.
Full credit for resurrecting the basilisk goes to the British authorJoanna Rowlings. Her first book made Harry Potter a household word. The basilisk makes a strong comeback in her second book, where it provides most of the suspense and action. There is a building with a horrible entity in a secret chamber. Some persons are attacked by it, one is killed. Harry Potter and his friends find a description of the basilisk (as a snake-like creature with a deadly gaze and other evil talents). It is huge, but they bravely confront it, and Harry Potter kills it with a silver sword after it has been blinded by Fawkes (a phoenix).
Rowling’s book series about Harry Potter has become the best-selling book series in history. The basilisk has been around for a long time, but is now in a new role. It can fill our eternal need to experience fear, suspense, and a horrible monster—at a safe distance.
- Eriksson, Bo. 2009. Bestiarium: En medeltida djurbok. Stockholm: Dialogos.
- Happel, Eberhard Werner. 1683–91. Grösste Denkwürdigkeiten der Welt oder so genannte Relationes Curiosae. Hamburg: Thomas von Wiering.
- Bellman, Carl Mikael. 1790. Fredmans epistlar no. 82. Stockholm: Anders Zetterberg.
- Rowling, J. K. 2002. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Tiden: Stockholm.
ANNA LANTZ, MA in art history, is Curator of Rare Books and Prints at the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.
EINAR PERMAN, MD, PhD is a retired physician living in Stockholm, Sweden. He is a member of our international editorial board.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Summer 2012 – Volume 4, Issue 3
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