The Basilisk is a popular imaginary creature of mine and one that I vividly remember from my childhood. In one book of creatures that I had, the basilisk was portrayed as having the head of a chicken or cockerel and the body of a snake – though this is not always the case. Usually, it is simply depicted as a crested reptile like a snake or a lizard.
Originating from European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk is a legendary reptile reputed to be King of serpents and said to have the power to cause death with a single glance, or sometimes by looking into the creature’s eyes, similar to Medusa. The word Basilisk originates from the Greek βασιλίσκος basilískos, “little king;” Latin Regulus; Northeastern Portuguese meu rei.
Though sometimes referred to as a small creature “being not more than twelve fingers in length”, it is sometimes depicted as a giant serpent (think Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). The name itself meaning “Little King”, It is often depicted as a mighty serpent king, dropping the “little” entirely.
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 some of 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.
A few sources also said that is so dangerous that it can kill creatures just with its presence. Even its odour is said to kill snakes. The basilisk is also said to breathe fire coming from its mouth that kills birds, and its glance will kill a man. It can also kill by hissing, which is why it is also called the sibilus.
Apparently, its bite causes the victim to become hydrophobic – which isn’t that bad when you consider it can supposedly kill you by looking at you. A basilisk is said to be hatched from a cock’s egg, obviously a rare occurrence.
One of the only things that can naturally kill the basilisk is the weasel – probably based on the cobra and its main natural predator the mongoose.
The idea of a killing stare could well come from cobras, that were able to spit venom into the eyes of its prey to kill it. To bystanders, it could be seen as being done with a glance.
Basilisk Sources and Further Reading
Origin: European – Italian