Hunting the Basilisk: The Historical Record of a Mythical Beast

There’s an interesting story at The Smithsonian’s Past Imperfect blog regarding the peculiar history of the mythological basilisk. Those of you who spent your teenage years playing Dungeons & Dragons in your basement might already know what a basilisk is. However, for the rest of you, here’s a description:

The basilisk remained an object of terror long after the collapse of the Roman empire and was popular in medieval bestiaries. It was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. Jan Bondeson notes that the monster was “the subject of a lengthy discourse in the early-13th-century bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais. An aged cock, which had lost its virility, would sometimes lay a small, abnormal egg. If this egg is laid in a dunghill and hatched by a toad, a misshapen creature, with the upper body of a rooster, bat-like wings, and the tail of a snake will come forth. Once hatched, the young basilisk creeps down to a cellar or a deep well to wait for some unsuspecting man to come by, and be overcome by its noxious vapours.”

The basilisk, like many mythic creatures, has a storied historical record. In all likelihood, though, this was based on second-hand accounts of misidentified animals. Many people believe the cobra to be a likely candidate.

Search your nearest dunghill for rooster eggs and keep reading at Future Imperfect.

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  • Golchab
    • http://twitter.com/mattstaggs Matt Staggs

      Thanks – Fixed. 

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    to me it looks like a Garuda
    a mythical bird being that has been in Asia for a long time

    if you’re a Jungian
    it came from the collective unconscious
    and entered Europe that way
    but more likely
    the ancient image entered Europe through trade with Asia