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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 Cyrenemarker is a small snake, "being not more than twelve fingers in length", 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.

Basiliscus 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 by rapid strides of its splayed rear feet.


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 effluvium of the weasel 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, 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 in order to convert copper into "Spanishmarker 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 rooster or gazing at itself through a mirror. The latter method of killing the beast is featured in the legend of the basilisk living in Warsawmarker, 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 Baselmarker.

The basilisk was, however, believed to be vulnerable to roosters; therefore travellers in the Middle Ages sometimes carried roosters 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 (an account clearly dependent directly or indirectly on Pliny's (above)):

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. 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.

Literary references

The basilisk appears in the Bible in Isaiah 14:29 in the prophet's exhortation to the Philistines reading, "Do not rejoice, whole country of Philistia, because the rod that beat you has broken, since the serpent's stock can still produce a basilisk, and the offspring of that will be a flying dragon."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 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.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):

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”.

Jonathan Swift alluded to the basilisk in a poem:
See how she rears her head,
And rolls about her dreadful eyes,
To drive all virtue out, or look it dead!

‘Twas sure this basilisk sent Temple thence …

Alexander Pope also wrote that “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:

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.”.

In popular culture the Kind Basilisk Smile – simply a right parentheses sign [)] – has turned up as an Internet meme in discussion boards. It signifies a person choosing not to use his power of logical argument on a troll (probably being kind).

J K Rowling in her book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets mentions the Basilisk as such:

Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk, known also as the King of Serpents. This snake, which may reach gigantic size and live many hundreds of years, is born from a chicken’s egg, hatched beneath a toad. Its methods of killing are most wondrous, for aside from its deadly and venomous fangs, the Basilisk has a murderous stare, and all who are fixed with the beam of its eye shall suffer instant death. Spiders flee before the Basilisk, for it is their mortal enemy, and the Basilisk flees only from the crowing of the rooster, which is fatal to it.

Modern reuse

Reuse in modern fantasy

Basilisks have been reimagined 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.

Reuse in science fiction and popular culture

For basilisks in the works of British author David Langford, see David Langford#Basilisks.
"Basilisk" and "Medusa weapons" are mythological terms used by various authors, notably David Langford, in Different Kinds of Darkness and related short stories to describe a (fictional) class of image or sensation which causes death or harm to anyone who views it.

Such images not being naturally found in the real world, in science fiction they are usually generated by a computer, such as Langford's fractals (purportedly including portions of the Mandelbrot set) or else hidden in a data-storage device; the concept is also employed by Neal Stephenson.

Langford's fictional basilisk images, or BLITs, are so deadly to the characters that all information about them, including the death toll when they first appear in the story, is classified; however, each of them is given a name or number, and a reasoning common to such stories is provided. From Langford's fictional "comp.basilisk" Newsgroup FAQ:

"...the human mind as a formal, deterministic computational system -- a system that, as predicted by a variant of Gödel's Theorem in mathematics, can be crashed by thoughts which the mind is physically or logically incapable of thinking.
The Logical Imaging Technique presents such a thought in purely visual form as a basilisk image which our optic nerves can't help but accept.
The result is disastrous, like a software stealth-virus smuggled into the brain."

A mock-up of the first Basilisk image to appear in Langford's stories, known as "The Parrot", was generated by an enterprising fan and posted on a popular image-hosting website as a prank in late September, 2007.

Reuse in science

Basiliscus lizard

As in the cases of words "vampire" 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 is also the only type of lizard that can run across water on its hind legs.

See also


  • Il sacro artefice, Paolo Galloni, Laterza, Barimarker 1998 (about the historical background of basiliscus during the Middle Ages).
  1. AskOxford: "basilisk"
  2. Pliny, viii.33.
  3. Basilisk: Myths and Legends of the World
  4. David Colbert, The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter, p 36, ISBN 0-9708442-0-4
  5. Samuel Richardson,The Novels of Samuel Richardson, Volume I, London, 1824, p 36
  6. John Gay, The Beggar's Opera ,
  7. Jonathan Swift, The Select Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. IV, London, 1823, p. 27.
  8. Voltaire, The Zadig,
  9. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to Naples, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley,
  10. "Atomic Rocket: Medusa Weapons in science fiction". Retrieved on 2009-03-03.
  11. David Langford, "BLIT". Interzone #25, September/October 1988. Published on the web.
  12. David Langford, comp.basilisk FAQ. First published in Nature "Futures", 2 December 1999.
  13. web archive: "The Parrot." 2007-10-7. Featuring comments by author David Langford.
  14. "The Parrot." "Basilisk image" based on David Langford's short stories, published as an internet prank.

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