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In European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk (//, from the Greek βασιλίσκος basilískos, "little king;" Latin regulus) is a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance. According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the basilisk of Cyrene is a small snake, "being not more than twelve fingers in length," that is so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal; its weakness is in the odor of the weasel, which, according to Pliny, was thrown into the basilisk's hole, recognizable because all the surrounding shrubs and grass had been scorched by its presence. It is possible that the legend of the basilisk and its association with the weasel in Europe was inspired by accounts of certain species of Asiatic snakes (such as the king cobra) and their natural predator, the mongoose.
The basilisk is called "king" because it is reputed to have on its head a mitre- or crown-shaped crest. Stories of the basilisk show that it is not completely distinguished from the cockatrice. The basilisk is alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad (the reverse of the cockatrice, which was hatched from a cockerel's "egg" incubated by a serpent or toad). In Medieval Europe, the description of the creature began taking on features from cockerels.
One of the earliest accounts of the basilisk comes from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written in roughly 79 AD. He describes the catoblepas, a monstrous cow-like creature of which "all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot," and then goes on to say,
"There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. To this dreadful monster the crow of a rooster is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self."
Isidore of Seville defined the basilisk as the king of snakes, due to its killing glare and its poisonous breath. The Venerable Bede was the first to attest to the legend of the birth of a basilisk from an egg by an old cockerel, and then other authors added the condition of Sirius being ascendant. Alexander Neckam (died 1217) was the first to say that not the glare but the "air corruption" was the killing tool of the basilisk, a theory developed one century later by Pietro d'Abano.
Theophilus Presbyter gives a long recipe in his book for creating a basilisk to convert copper into "Spanish gold" (De auro hyspanico). The compound was formed by combining powdered basilisk blood, powdered human blood, red copper, and a special kind of vinegar.
Albertus Magnus in the De animalibus wrote about the killing gaze of the basilisk, but he denied other legends, such as the rooster hatching the egg. He gave as source of those legends Hermes Trismegistus, who is credited also as the creator of the story about the basilisk's ashes being able to convert silver into gold: the attribution is absolutely incorrect, but it shows how the legends of the basilisk were already linked to alchemy in the 13th century.
Geoffrey Chaucer featured a basilicok (as he called it) in his Canterbury Tales. According to some legends, basilisks can be killed by hearing the crow of a rooster or gazing at itself through a mirror. The latter method of killing the beast is featured in the legend of the basilisk of Warsaw, killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors.
Stories gradually added to the basilisk's deadly capabilities, such as describing it as a larger beast, capable of breathing fire and killing with the sound of its voice. Some writers even claimed it could kill not only by touch, but also by touching something that is touching the victim, like a sword held in the hand. Also, some stories claim its breath is highly toxic and will cause death, usually immediately. The basilisk is also the guardian creature and traditional symbol of the Swiss city Basel.
The basilisk was, however, believed to be vulnerable to cockerels; therefore travelers in the Middle Ages allegedly sometimes carried cockerels with them as protection.
Leonardo da Vinci included a basilisk in his Bestiary, saying it is so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill animals by its baleful gaze, it turns upon herbs and plants, and fixing its gaze on them withers them up. In his notebooks, he describes the basilisk, in an account clearly dependent directly or indirectly on Pliny's:
Then Leonardo says the following on the weasel: "This beast finding the lair of the basilisk kills it with the smell of its urine, and this smell, indeed, often kills the weasel itself."
According to the tradition of the Cantabrian mythology, the ancient Basiliscu (as they called it) has disappeared in most of the Earth but still lives in Cantabria, although it is rare to see it. This animal is born from an egg laid by an old cock just before his death a clear night and full moon exactly at midnight. Within a few days, the egg shell, which is not hard, but rather soft and leathery, is opened by the strange creature that already has all the features of an adult: legs, beak, cockscomb, and reptilian body. Apparently, this strange creature has an intense and penetrating fire in its eyes that at the animal that or person who gazes directly upon it would die. The weasel is the only animal that can face and even attack it. It can only be killed with the crowing of a rooster, so, until very recent times, travelers were carrying a rooster when they ventured into areas where it was said that the basilisks lived.
Some have speculated that reports of cobras may have given birth to the stories of the basilisk. Cobras can maintain an upright posture, and, as with many snakes in overlapping territories, are often killed by mongooses. The king cobra or hamadryad has a crown-like symbol on its head. Several species of spitting cobras can incapacitate from a distance by spitting venom, most often into the prey's eyes, and may well have been confused by similar appearance with the hamadryad. The Egyptian cobra lives in the desert and was used as a symbol of royalty.
The basilisk appears in the English Revised Version of the Bible in Isaiah 14:29 in the prophet's exhortation to the Philistines reading, "Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of thee, because the rod that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent's root shall come forth a basilisk, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent." The King James version of the Bible states, "out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent."
In Psalm 91:13: "super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem" in the Latin Vulgate, literally "You will tread on the lion and the dragon,/the asp and the basilisk you will trample under foot," translated in the King James Version as: Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet," the basilisk appears in the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, though not most English translations, which gave rise to its inclusion in the subject in Early Medieval art of Christ treading on the beasts.
In William Shakespeare's Richard III, the recently widowed Anne Neville, on hearing seductive compliments on her eyes from her husband's murderer (Richard, Duke of Gloucester), retorts that she wishes they were those of a basilisk, that she might kill him. In Act II, Scene 4 of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, a character says about a ring, "It is a basilisk unto mine eye, Kills me to look on't."
Similarly, Samuel Richardson wrote in his famous novel Clarissa; or the history of a young lady: “If my eyes would carry with them the execution which the eyes of the basilisk are said to do, I would make it my first business to see this creature.” Another famous reference to the basilisk is found in John Gay’s "The Beggar's Opera" (Act II, Air XXV):
Jonathan Swift alluded to the basilisk in a poem:
Alexander Pope also wrote, “The smiling infant in his hand shall take/ The crested basilisk and speckled snake” (Messiah, lines 81–82). In the chapter XVI of The Zadig, Voltaire mentions a basilisk, “an Animal, that will not suffer itself to be touch'd by a Man”. Percy Bysshe Shelley in his "Ode to Naples" alludes to the basilisk:
Shelley also refers to the basilisk in his poem "Queen Mab:"
Charles Dickens uses the basilisk to describe Mrs. Varden's eternally angry and hideous housemaid, Miggs, in Barnaby Rudge: "But to be quiet with such a basilisk before him was impossible. If he looked another way, it was worse to feel that she was rubbing her cheek, or twitching her ear, or winking her eye, or making all kinds of extraordinary shapes with her nose, than to see her do it."
The basilisk appears in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as the monster inside the Chamber of Secrets.
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