In European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk (IPA|'bæzɪlɪsk [ [ AskOxford: 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 of causing death by 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", [Pliny, viii.33.] that is so venomous that it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal; its weakness is in the odour of the weasel, which according to Pliny, was thrown into the basilisk's hole, recognisable because all the surrounding shrubs and grass had been scorched by its presence.

Basilisk is also the name of a genus of small lizards, (family "Corytophanidae"). The Green Basilisk, also called plumed basilisk, is a lizard that can run across the surface of water.


There are three descriptions to the image of the basilisk: a huge multi-limbed lizard, a giant snake, or a three-foot high cockerel with a snake's tail and teeth, all of which are shared with the cockatrice. It is called "king" because it is reputed to have on its head a mitre- or crown-shaped crest. Stories of the basilisk place it in the same general family as the cockatrice. The basilisk is fabulously alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent (the reverse of the cockatrice, which was hatched from a cockerel's "egg" incubated by a serpent's nest). 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 to whom "there is not one that looketh upon his eyes, but hee dyeth presently" [cite web|title=The Historie of the World Booke VIII |author=Philomon Holland (translator)|year=1601|url= |accessdate=2007-06-25] , and then goes on to say,

The like propertie hath the serpent called a Basiliske: bred it is in the province Cyrenaica, and is not above twelve fingers-breadth long: a white spot like a starre it carrieth on the head, and setteth it out like a coronet or diademe: if he but hisse once, no other serpents dare come neere: he creepeth not winding and crawling by as other serpents doe, with one part of the bodie driving the other forward, but goeth upright and aloft from the ground with the one halfe part of his bodie: he killeth all trees and shrubs not only that he toucheth, but that he doth breath upon also: as for grasse and hearbs, those hee sindgeth and burneth up, yea and breaketh stones in sunder: so venimous and deadly is he. It is received for a truth, that one of them upon a time was killed with a launce by an horseman from his horseback, but the poison was so strong that went from his bodie along the staffe, as it killed both horse and man: and yet a sillie weazle hath a deadly power to kill this monstrous serpent, as pernicious as it is [for may kings have been desirous to see the experience thereof, and the manner how he is killed.] See how Nature hath delighted to match everything in the world with a concurrent. The manner is, to cast these weazles into their holes and cranies where they lye, (and easie they be to knowe, by the stinking sent of the place all about them:) they are not so soone within, but they overcome them with their strong smell, but they die themselves withall; and so Nature for her pleasure hath the combat dispatched.
The Venerable Bede was the first to attest to the legend of the birth of a basilisk from an egg by an old cockerel, then other authors added the condition of Sirius being ascendant. Isidore of Seville defined the basilisk as the king of snakes, due to its killing glare and its poisonous breath. Alexander Neckham 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 in order to convert copper into "Spanish gold" ("De auro hyspanico").

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 XIII 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 roosterWho|date=July 2007 or gazing at itself through a mirror. The latter method of killing the beast is featured in the legend of the basilisk living in Warsaw, killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors (the most famous version of the legend was written by Artur Oppman).

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 that it could kill not only by touch, but also by touching something that is touching the victim, like a sword held in their hand. Also, some stories claim their breath is highly toxic and will cause death, usually immediately. The basilisk is also the guardian creature of the Swiss city Basel.

The basilisk was, however, believed to be vulnerable to roosters; therefore travellers in the Middle Ages sometimes carried roosters with them as protection [David Colbert, "The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter", p 36, ISBN 0-9708442-0-4] .

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:

:This is found in the province of Cyrenaica and is not more than 12 fingers long. It has on its head a white spot after the fashion of a diadem. It scares all serpents with its whistling. It resembles a snake, but does not move by wriggling but from the centre forwards to the right. It is said that one of these, being killed with a spear by one who was on horse-back, and its venom flowing on the spear, not only the man but the horse also died. It spoils the wheat and not only that which it touches, but where it breathes the grass dries and the stones are split.

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".

Euhemeristic accounts

Some have speculated a euhemeristic (rationalized, in the manner of Euhemerus) explanation for the basilisk, in particular that reports of cobras may have given birth to the stories of the monster. 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 crownlike symbol on its head. Another familyVerify source|date=March 2008 of elevenVerify source|date=March 2008 species of cobras can incapacitate from a distance by spitting venom, 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. [cite book|title=The Magic Zoo: The Natural History of Fabulous Animals|author=Peter Costello|publisher=Sphere Ltd.|year=1979|pages=129]

Literary references

In J. K. Rowling's" Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets", a basilisk is set loose upon Hogwarts by Tom Riddle (a.k.a. Lord Voldemort), acting through a portion of his soul held within a diary (a horcrux, as revealed later in the series). As Riddle is a descendant of Salazar Slytherin, he alone is able to control the basilisk, and commands it to move about Hogwarts (via the school's plumbing system) and kill students who are not pure-blooded wizards (by sheer coincidence and luck, however, the intended victims avoid gazing directly into its eyes, and so were merely petrified). Harry Potter, the series protagonist, eventually confronts and destroys the basilisk, then takes one of its fangs and destroys Riddle's diary, and with it, the fragment of Voldemort's soul held within (it is explained later in the series that the venom of a basilisk is one of the few fool-proof methods of destroying horcruxes).

In William Shakespeare's" Richard III", a widow, on hearing compliments on her eyes from her husband's brother and murderer, retorts that she wishes they were those of a basilisk, that she might kill him. [David Colbert, "The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter", p 36, ISBN 0-9708442-0-4] Another famous reference to the basilisk is found in John Gay’s "The Beggar's Opera" ("Act II, Air XXV"):

:Man may escape from Rope and Gun;
Nay, some have out liv'd the Doctor's Pill;
Who takes a Woman must be undone,
That Basilisk is sure to kill”. [John Gay, "The Beggar's Opera ", ]

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”. [Voltaire, "The Zadig",] Percy Bysshe Shelley in his "Ode to Naples" alludes to the basilisk:

:Be thou like the imperial basilisk,
Killing thy foe with unapparent wounds!
Gaze on oppression, till at that dread risk,
Aghast she pass from the earth’s disk.
Fear not, but gaze,- for freemen mightier grow,
And slaves more feeble, gazing on their foe.”. [Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to Naples", The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley,]

Modern reuse

Reuse in modern fantasy

:"For basilisks in the "Dungeons & Dragons" fantasy role-playing game, see Basilisk (Dungeons & Dragons)."

Basilisks have been re-imagined and employed in modern fantasy fiction for books, movies, and role-playing games, with wide variations on the powers and weaknesses attributed to them. Most of these depictions describe a reptile of some sort, with the power to kill its victims with a direct stare and petrify through an indirect one, such as in J. K. Rowling's book "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets". A large, snake-like Basilisk was featured in the book, and was portrayed as a much larger, more serpentine creature than the true mythological character. It was described as coming from a chicken's egg hatched under a toad. According to an encyclopedia page found by Hermione Granger, "Spiders flee before it...the cry of a rooster is fatal to it". Fawkes the Phoenix saving Harry from being killed by the Basilisk is a variation on the original lore. [David Colbert, "The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter", p 35-6, ISBN 0-9708442-0-4] In the "Harry Potter" books, Phoenix tears are said to be the only cure for Basilisk poison. The book's Basilisk can also been seen in Chris Columbus's movie with the same title, but appears much more serpentine, resembling an enormous moray eel more than anything else.

In Walter Wangerin's "The Book of the Dun Cow", thousands of basilisks are produced by a rooster/serpent named 'Cockatrice' fertilizing the eggs of innocent hens. Cockatrice then commands his basilisk children to attack the animals of Lord Chauntecleer's coop. Chauntecleer, a rooster, is able to repell the basilisks with his crowing, and the faithful John Wesley Weasel is one of the few animals able to kill the basilisks without himself being killed.

A basilisk was recently featured as a boss in the PSP video game "" and have been featured in the MMORPG "World of Warcraft" since its launch in 2004 and as a miniboss in in the Well of the Souls.

The German novel "Dragon Rider" features a reworking of the basilisk which resembles an enormous bird but has spined wings, spikes on the head, red eyes, and a prehensile, pronged tail.

Reuse in science

As in the cases of words "vampires" and "lemures", biological science reuses mythological concepts to name animal species. "Basilisk" in science refers to the genus "Basiliscus" of South American "lizard", containing four species.


*It icon "Il sacro artefice", Paolo Galloni, Laterza, Bari 1998 (about the historical background of basiliscus during the Middle Ages).

ee also

*Basilisco chilote
* Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Movie/Book

External links

* [ Medieval Bestiary: Basilisk]
* [ Basilisk gallery]
* [ Captive care and breeding (of basalisk; scientific usage), Peter Paterno]

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Basilisk — Sm ein Fabelwesen mit tödlichem Blick per. Wortschatz exot. (14. Jh.), mhd. basiliske Entlehnung. Ist entlehnt aus l. basiliscus, dieses aus gr. basilískos (eigentlich kleiner König ), zu gr. basileús König . Im Altertum ein reines Fabelwesen… …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • Basilisk — Bas i*lisk, n. [L. basiliscus, Gr. basili skos little king, kind of serpent, dim. of basiley s king; so named from some prominences on the head resembling a crown.] 1. A fabulous serpent, or dragon. The ancients alleged that its hissing would… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • basilisk — c.1300, from L. basiliscus, from Gk. basiliskos little king, dim. of basileus king (see BASIL (Cf. Basil)); said by Pliny to have been so called because of a crest or spot on its head resembling a crown. The basilisk has since the fourteenth… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Basilisk [1] — Basilisk, 1) nach den Sagen bei den Alten eine furchtbare Schlange von entsetzlicher Stimme u. tödtlichem Blick (daher Basiliskenblick), u. im Mittelalter ein, aus einem Hahnei (Basiliskenei, eigentlich einem sehr kleinen Hühnerei, das diejenigen …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Basilisk [2] — Basilisk, ein altes Schlangengeschütz, s.u. Kanone …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Basilisk — (Basiliscus Laur., Kroneidechse), Gattung aus der Familie der Leguane (Iguanidae), Eidechsen mit hohem, dürrem Leib, kurzem Hals und Kopf, sehr langem, dünnem Schwanz, rautenförmigen Schuppen auf dem Körper und gekielten Schuppen auf dem Kopf.… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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