Basilisk

Birdlike lizard or venomous snake of Europe and North Africa; see SEMIMYTHICAL Beasts.

Etymology: From the Greek basiliskos ("little king").

Variant names: Cockatrice, from the Middle French cocatris and the Latin calcatrix ("tracker"); Regulus (Latin, "prince").

Physical description: Length, 12 inches. Ancient writers described a snakelike animal, with a bright white spot on the head. By the late Middle Ages, the animal had come to be called a Cockatrice and was described as a bird with a spotted rooster's comb and a snake's tail.

Behavior: Moves with its middle portion sticking up. Hisses. Said to be born from a cock's egg hatched by a toad or snake. Its stare can paralyze, and its breath (or odor) is fatal to snakes and humans. Its skin was used to deter spiders, snakes, and birds in Roman temples. It can be frightened by a crowing rooster and

The BASILISK, a semimythical bird-like lizard. (© 2002 ArtToday.com, Inc., an IMSI Company)

killed by a weasel. Seeing its own reflected image can also prove fatal.

Distribution: Cyrenaica Province, Libya; Europe.

Significant sightings: A Basilisk killed many people in Rome, Italy, in the mid-ninth century until Pope Leo IV destroyed it with prayer.

Another Basilisk was discovered in a well in Vienna, Austria, in June 1212.

In 1587, two children were killed by a Basilisk in Warsaw, Poland, while they were playing in an abandoned cellar. A servant who found them was also struck dead. Authorities finally sent in a condemned prisoner, outfitted with a leather suit and mirrors. The man emerged with a snake that officials judged to be a genuine Basilisk.

When the parish church of Renwick, Cumbria, England, was torn down in 1733, a huge, bat-winged creature angrily flapped at the workmen. One of them, John Tallantire, killed it with a tree branch, earning him and his descendants an exemption from fees to the manor. Possible explanations:

(1) The Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) is yellowish-brown and becomes blue-black with age. Found in North Africa and Arabia, it can grow to 8 feet, though its more typical length is 5—6 feet. It is not a spitting cobra, but its venom can be deadly. This species was probably the famous asp that bit Cleopatra, and it is depicted on the crowns of the Egyptian pharaohs. The cobra's hood might conceivably be compared to a rooster's crest when erect. African cobras do not have hood markings.

(2) The King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the largest of the venomous snakes. It is not a spitting snake, and its venom is less toxic than other cobras, but it injects much more venom per bite—6—7 milliliters, enough to kill an elephant or twenty people. The king cobra also has an unnerving ability to move forward while in a threatening, strike posture. It has a black head with four white crossbars. Body color varies from olive-green to black. Though it can attain a length of 19 feet, it is not aggressive and is often adopted as a village pet. It hunts other snakes in the daytime and is the only snake known to construct a nest. Its range is from India to the Philippines. The use of Mongooses (Family Herpestidae) in catching snakes in India may explain the reference to weasels as enemies of Basilisks.

(3) The Indian cobra (Naja naja) is a spitting cobra. The venom is spit out in a shower and directed toward the eyes of the victim, which can cause blindness or death. This trait may have given rise to the legend of the Basilisk's paralyzing stare. It can accurately hit a target as much as 10 feet away in a lunging spit. On its hood, it has two black-and-white spots connected by a curved line.

(4) The Horned viper (Cerastes cerastes) of North Africa and Arabia has a pair of horns over its eyes. The eleventh-century Arab physician Avicenna was one of the first to suggest this snake as a Basilisk candidate.

(5) David Heppell has suggested that beached Giant squids (Architeuthis sp.) may have contributed to Basilisk lore.

(6) The TatZELWURM probably accounts for some Basilisk characteristics.

(7) The crest is similar to the Crowing Crested Cobra of East and Central Africa.

(8) The roosterlike Cockatrice might be de-

BATHYSPHAERA INTACTA, a deep-sea fish seen only once off Bermuda in 1932 by William Beebe in his bathysphere. (William M. Rebsamen)

rived from the lizardlike appearance of certain stages of a chicken embryo. Sources: Bible, Old Testament (Pss. 91:13, Isa. 59:5); Pliny the Elder, Natural History: A Selection, trans. John F. Healy (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 117-118 (viii. 78); ^lian, De natura animalium (ii. 5-7, iii. 31, v 50, viii. 28, xVI. 19); Alexander Neckam, De naturis rerum libro duo [ca. 1200] (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1863); Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica [1672] (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 181-186, 808-814; Henry Phillips, Basilisks and Cockatrices (Philadelphia: E. Stern, 1882); Will-Erich Peuckert, Schlesische Sagen (Jena, Germany: E. Diederichs, 1924), pp. 242, 318; E. W. Gudger, "Jenny Hanivers, Dragons and Basilisks in the Old Natural History Books and in Modern Times," Scientific Monthly 38 (1934): 511-523; T. H. White, The Bestiary: A Book ofBeasts (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1960), pp. 168-169; Gerald Findler, Ghosts of the Lake Counties (Clapham, England: Dalesman, 1972); Marc

Alexander, Enchanted Britain (London: Arthur Barker, 1981); Joe Nigg, A Guide to the Imaginary Birds of the World (Cambridge, Mass.: Apple-Wood, 1984), pp. 29-31; Karl Shuker, "From Flying Toads to Snakes with Wings," Fate 47 (September 1994): 31-36.

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