The basilisk (above left) and the
cockatrice (right), depictions from medieval bestiaries (public domain)
Two of classical mythology's most feared reptilian
monsters were the basilisk and the cockatrice. But were they really nothing
more than legends and fables – or could they have been inspired by various
Today, the only basilisks known to herpetologists
are those very eyecatching but totally harmless Latin American iguanid lizards
of the genus Basiliscus, famous for their remarkable ability to sprint
bipedally across the surface of ponds – hence their lesser-known alternative
name of Jesus Christ lizards. However, they derive their more familiar name
from a very different, allegedly lethal reptile from the Old World, and which
supposedly existed there during medieval times – the original basilisk.
harmless real-life basilisk lizard (© Markus Bühler)
One of the
earliest references to it appeared in Pliny the Elder's magnum opus Natural
History (c.77-79 AD). On first sight, this inconspicuous serpent dragon,
just 3 ft or so long, simply resembled a slender brown snake. On closer
inspection, however, it could be seen to bear a regal crown of gold upon its
head (hence 'basiliskos' - Greek for 'little king'). And when it moved, it
raised much of its body vertically upwards in a proud, fearless stance,
eschewing the lowly belly-crawling mode of locomotion typifying ordinary
The basilisk had
every reason to be fearless. According to popular lore, its merest glance was
enough to kill almost any living creature instantly – including another
basilisk (and even itself if it somehow caught sight of its own reflection).
The tiniest drop of venom dribbling from its jaws was ample to poison the earth
upon which it fell, or the water into which it dripped. And the faintest breath
that it exhaled was sufficient to transform the land for many miles in every
direction from fertile pastures into arid desert. Indeed, the very existence of
the deserts where the basilisk lived, in North Africa and Arabia, was said to
have been directly caused by its baleful presence.
In short, the
basilisk was virtually invulnerable. Thankfully, however, it was also very
uncommon, and could be warded off with a sprig of the rue plant. Moreover, it
could be killed outright by the rank odour of urine from a weasel – an aspect
of the basilisk legend that may have been inspired at least in part by tales
emanating from the Orient of cobras confronted and dispatched by mongooses.
in Conrad Gesner's Historiae Animalium, vol 5, 1587 (public domain)
origin was just as uncanny as its appearance and capabilities, and explained
why this diminutive but much-dreaded monster was so rare. A basilisk was only
created if the egg of a serpent were hatched by a rooster (cockerel) – a
bizarre event which (thankfully!) was hardly likely to happen very frequently.
formidable nature, medieval alchemists were very keen to possess the ashes of a
dead basilisk, because they believed that this scarce, precious matter could
transmute silver into gold. Some scholars, such as Theophilus Presbyter (fl.
c.1070-1125), even believed that a basilisk could be magically created via a
detailed recipe of ingredients and reactions, and that the resulting creature
would convert copper into Spanish gold.
traditionally said to inhabit the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East,
the basilisk could claim a number of counterparts elsewhere in the world too.
For example, in bygone ages the town of Baunei in the province of Ogliastra on
the Italian island of Sardinia was terrorised by a basilisk-like monster that
lived in the bushes there and was known as the scultone or ascultone. Just like
the basilisk, its gaze was sufficient to kill anyone or anything that looked
directly at it, but unlike the basilisk it was immortal. Nevertheless, Peter
the Apostle finally managed to rid Baunei of this menace using a mirror, though
the precise manner in which he accomplished the feat remains unclear.
Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, traditional lore tells of a
greatly-feared serpent dragon known as the ninki-nanka. Not only did it possess
supernatural powers, it also concealed a precious diamond inside its head, from
which it drew these powers. Moreover, echoing the odd manner in which a
basilisk was created, a ninki-nanka was only hatched from an egg that was
present in the very centre of a clutch of normal python eggs.
basilisk equivalent, the basilisco, was toad-like rather than serpentine, and could
only be hatched from a black egg. Accounts of this creature come from Santiago
del Estero, the Mapuche area, and the northwestern region of Argentina.
conceivable, however, that belief in such bizarre, fictitious monsters as the
basilisk and its cohorts elsewhere around the world was derived at least in
part from sightings of unusual but genuine creatures?
basilisk, supposedly inhabiting North Africa's deserts, and whose merest glance
could kill, may have been inspired by a very specific and unusual type of real-life
snake – the spitting cobra. Several species are recognised (some of which are
native to North Africa), and all of them incapacitate their prey or potential
aggressors by spitting accurately, and from some distance away, a stream of
corrosive venom into their eyes (click here to watch a short YouTube video of a spitting cobra doing precisely this to a snake handler - happily, the handler is wearing protective glasses!). Early travellers' tales of this remarkable ability could
have been elaborated over generations of retelling into the basilisk's fatal
In addition, the
deserts of North Africa and the Middle East are home to a small, harmless
species of colubrid snake known as the awl-headed sand snake Lytorhynchus
diadema. The diadem-like markings upon its head and its yellowish-brown
body colouration recall traditional descriptions of the basilisk's appearance
and may therefore have helped to inspire belief in the latter.
spitting cobra brought to England during the early 1600s as an exotic pet or
exhibit that later escaped into the countryside could provide a plausible
identity for a 10-ft-long serpent dragon reported from St Leonard's Forest,
near Horsham, West Sussex, in August 1614. According to a pamphlet circulated
at that time (which is the original source of this report and was subsequently
republished in the Harleian Miscellany, 1744-1753), it killed two
people, two dogs, and several cattle by spitting venom at them, but did not try
to devour them.
of the St Leonard's Forest dragon from the original pamphlet of 1614 (public
Nor are spitting
cobras the only potential link between the basilisk of folklore and certain
unexpected creatures of fact. Chickens are often infected with parasitic
gut-inhabiting worms, including the ascarid roundworm Ascaris lineata, a
nematode species that can grow to a few inches in length (a related giant
species in humans can grow to over 1 ft in length!). They are often passed out
of the bird's gut when it defaecates. Unlike in mammals, however, the bird's
gut and its reproductive system share a common external passageway and opening
– the cloaca. Sometimes, therefore, an ascarid worm ejected from the gut finds
its way into the bird's reproductive system rather than being excreted into the
outside world, and moves into the oviduct. Once here, however, it becomes
incorporated into the albumen of an egg, inside which it remains alive yet
trapped when the egg is laid. But as soon as the egg is broken open to eat by
some unsuspecting diner, the worm wriggles its way out of it to freedom,
scaring the diner and perpetuating the myth of the basilisk in the process!
On 3 March 2012,
Copenhagen University zoologist Lars Thomas left a message below a short basilisk
post of mine (click here) on my
Eclectarium of Doctor Shuker blog, informing me of his own direct experience
with this fascinating phenomenon:
I suppose you know, that some legends say young basilisk "worms"
could sometimes be found in chicken eggs. Indeed if you found a worm in an egg,
not so very long ago, old folks would tell you it was a basilisk, and tell you
how to get rid of it. When I was 8 years old, I was on holiday at my aunt who
had a small farm. One day I was helping her in the kitchen cracking eggs, and
in one of them was a worm. Auntie told me it was a young basilisk, and that I
should very carefully take it out in her garden and bury it, and then walk
three times around the filled up hole. So I did, but not before making a
drawing of the egg and the worm. I still got the drawing.
a parasitic nematode or roundworm (public domain)
this telling little vignette, burying traditional belief in basilisks is
clearly much harder to do than burying the supposed basilisk itself!
Middle Ages, the small yet deadly basilisk underwent a very dramatic
transformation in mythology, metamorphosing into a much bigger, truly grotesque
type of two-legged, wyvern-like dragon known as a cockatrice, However, there is
much confusion and terminological interchange relating to this, with many
unequivocal cockatrices often being referred to incorrectly as basilisks.
statue at Trsat Castle in Rijeka, Croatia (© Georges Jansoone/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
mythological waters even further, moreover, an intriguing, seemingly
intermediate version with multiple limb pairs and a horizontal body but a wattled,
cockerel-like head (yet still bearing a regal crown) was also popularly
illustrated in bestiaries during that time, and was variously referred to as a
basilisk or as a cockatrice, depending upon the chronicler in question.
artist and film-maker Richard Svenson's vibrant, colourful representation of
the intermediate, multi-limbed stage in the basilisk-to-cockatrice
transformation (above), inspired by bestiary depictions of it (e.g. below, from
Serpentum et Draconum Historiae by Ulisse Aldrovandi, 1640) (© Richard
Svensson / public domain)
transformation from the basilisk, the cockatrice gained a pair of large
bat-like wings, a long coiled tail (still covered in scales but often terminating
in a sharp sagittal tip), and a single pair of sturdy rooster-like legs that
enabled it to walk upright. Furthering its cockerel parallels, however, it also
sported a coxcomb on its head, a pair of pendulous facial wattles, a pointed
horny beak, sometimes a covering of feathers upon its body, and even the
ability to crow like a farmyard rooster too.
fleeing from a weasel wrapped in rue, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1600s
Even so, this
weird avian reptile (or reptilian bird?) retained the basilisk's deadly gaze,
its dread of weasels and rue, and also, albeit in a reversed version, its
bizarre mode of creation. Now, one of these monstrous entities would only arise if a
round leathery shell-less egg laid by a seven-year-old cockerel when the dog
star Sirius was in the ascendant was hatched by a toad in a dung heap. Although
such an occurrence may seem highly unlikely, cockatrices were reported not just
in North Africa and Arabia like their basilisk antecedent but also widely through
Europe, including several examples from Britain.
in Raoul Lefèvre's tome Histoires de Troyes Belgique, 1400s (public
One of the most
recent of these was the Renwick cockatrice - or was it? Crowing loudly, this bat-winged
horror, black in colour but sporting facial wattles and a coxcomb, reputedly emerged
from the foundations of a church being demolished by workmen in the Cumbrian
village of Renwick in 1733. Happily, the monster was dispatched by local hero
John Tallantine (sometimes given as Tallantire) with a sturdy wooden lance hewn from a rowan tree - famed for
its magical, evil-repelling properties. This is the most commonly-recounted version of the alleged incident. However, it is well worth noting that in the earliest-known written record of it, appearing as a brief mention in his tome The History of the County of Cumberland, Vol 1 (1794), historian William Hutchinson stated that it had actually taken place "about 200 years ago", i.e. some time during the late 1500s. Regardless of its precise date, however, if such an event did truly occur,
might the offending creature have been merely a large bat, whose proportions
were duly exaggerated and elaborated in subsequent retellings of the incident?
this what the so-called Renwick cockatrice looked like? (public domain)
Iceland is not a
country well known for dragon legends, but its traditional lore does lay claim
to its own version of the cockatrice – a deadly creature called the skoffin. It
has a very curious origin – the highly unlikely outcome of a liaison between a
male fox and a female cat (the offspring of the reverse pairing – between a tom
cat and a vixen – is called a skuggabaldur, and is just as ferocious as a
skoffin). Similar in form to the cockatrice, albeit furry rather than feathery,
the skoffin also shared the latter's lethal gaze - and could even kill another
skoffin simply by looking it in the eye. Otherwise, it was virtually
invincible, unless shot with a silver button upon which the sign of the Cross
had been inscribed (click here to see a
depiction of a skoffin as featured on an Icelandic postage stamp).
in German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher's Mundus Subterraneus, 1665
intriguing link between cockatrices and Christianity, it may come as a surprise
to learn that the cockatrice was formerly mentioned no less than four times
within the Old Testament of the Bible, three of these mentions occurring in the
Book of Isaiah, and the fourth in the Book of Jeremiah. The Hebrew terms that
were once translated as 'cockatrice' were 'Tsepha' and 'Tsiphoni', but in
modern-day versions they are translated as 'viper' or 'adder' instead, thus
explaining the cockatrice's disappearance from this holy book.
illustrated in a German manuscript from 1507 (public domain)
Iceland is not
unique in boasting its own specific form of cockatrice. So too does Korea – the
gye-ryong ('chicken-dragon'). Just as Oriental dragons are generally more
benevolent than malevolent, however, so too is this Korean cockatrice, often
pulling the chariots of notable legendary heroes or those of their parents.
by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)
Thanks to its
rooster-like coxcomb, wattles, feathers, and crowing cry, the cockatrice was a
very unusual dragon. And as befitting this, it may well have had a comparably
odd origin in the real world.
very gallinaceous faux cockatrice participating as the Basilisk of Reus in the 2016
Cercavila de les festes del Barri Gòtic, in Barcelona, Spain (© Pere López
Brosa/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
otherwise normal hen develops an internal tumour that stimulates the
development of male hormones. These in turn induce the development of male
secondary sex characteristics – namely, the rooster's coxcomb, wattles, crowing
cry, and even on occasion its plumage. Yet it still lays eggs. In bygone,
superstition-laden times, the mere sight of such a bizarre curiosity as one of
these partial sex-change 'father hens' would have been enough to initiate
imaginative fear-laden tales of the dreaded cockatrice.
Post newspaper report concerning a sex-change chicken
- click it to read it (© Bristol Post, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial,
educational/review basis only; report's date of publication currently unknown
to me – any details would be very welcome, so that I can attribute it fully)
THE BASILISK AND COCKATRICE IN
Finally: In modern times, there have been several
eyewitness reports emanating from isolated regions of verdant vegetation amid
the otherwise arid desert zones of Morocco and Tunisia that tell of very large
snakes bearing a crest or long 'hair' on their head. Such reports readily
recall the legendary basilisk, in terms of both location and these snakes'
morphology, so could they explain this much-dreaded reptile? Assuming that
these snakes are themselves real, it has been suggested that they may
constitute relict populations of pythons, analogous to isolated populations of
desert-dwelling crocodiles, and that their supposed crests or hair are merely
segments of incompletely-shed skin.
snakes are even more commonly reported in tropical Africa, where they have a
wide variety of local names, of which the most familiar is the inkhomi
('killer'), but in English parlance they are generally referred to as crowing
crested cobras (see also a previous ShukerNature blog article of mine surveying
these ophidian enigmas – click here).
They are said to sport a bright-red rooster-like coxcomb (but pointing forwards
rather than back) and facial wattles too, and to crow just like a rooster as
well – all of which is very reminiscent of the basilisk's transformed
equivalent, the cockatrice. In 1944, Dr J. Shircore from Malawi published a
detailed description of what he believed to be the fleshy coxcomb and part of
the neck from one of these snakes, but the current whereabouts of this
potentially-valuable specimen is not known.
crested cobra representation, based upon eyewitness reports (© Dr Karl Shuker)
noteworthy is a published report by John Knott from September 1962 in which he
recalled how, driving home one evening in late May 1959 from Binga, in the
Kariba area of what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he inadvertently
ran over a large, jet-black snake roughly 6 ft long, mortally wounding it.
Knott cautiously stepped out of his vehicle to take a closer look at the snake,
and was amazed to see that it bore a distinct crest upon its head, perfectly
symmetrical in shape, and capable of being erected by way of five internal
prop-like structures. This certainly does not sound like a piece of unshed skin
but rather like a true crest, yet no known species of snake possesses one.
very similar but somewhat shorter mystery snake, complete with coxcomb,
wattles, and crowing ability, has been reported in modern times, and by native
and Western observers alike, on the West Indian islands of Jamaica and Hispaniola.
If such snakes as these on record from Africa and the Caribbean are genuine,
they may well have assisted in inspiring the cockatrice legend.
magnificent heraldic cockatrice (public domain)
They may no
longer possess the lethal talents originally ascribed to them, but judging from
reports such as those noted above, it may be somewhat premature to discount the
basilisk and the cockatrice as wholly imaginary after all.
(labelled as as basilisk) and weasel, in Bestiary, Royal MS 12 C XIX, 1200-1210