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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 real-life creatures?
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.
The 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 serpents.
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.
Basilisk, in Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium, vol 5, 1587 (public domain)
The basilisk’s 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.
Despite its 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.
Although 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.
In Gambia, 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.
South America’s 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.
Is it 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?
The original 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 glance.
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.
Incidentally, a 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.
Illustration of the St Leonard’s Forest dragon from the original pamphlet of 1614 (public domain)
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.
Ascaris, a parasitic nematode or roundworm (public domain)
Judging from this telling little vignette, burying traditional belief in basilisks is clearly much harder to do than burying the supposed basilisk itself!
During the 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.
Cockatrice statue at Trsat Castle in Rijeka, Croatia (© Georges Jansoone/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
Muddying the 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.
Swedish 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)
During its 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.
Cockatrice fleeing from a weasel wrapped in rue, illustrated by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1600s (public domain)
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.
Cockatrice in Raoul Lefèvre’s tome Histoires de Troyes Belgique, 1400s (public domain)
One of the most recent of these was the Renwick cockatrice. 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 with a sturdy wooden lance hewn from a rowan tree – famed for its magical, evil-repelling properties. If such an event truly took place, might the offending creature have been merely a large bat, whose proportions were duly exaggerated and elaborated in subsequent retellings of the incident?
Is 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).
Cockatrice in German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus, 1665 (public domain)
Continuing this 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.
Cockatrice 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.
Cockatrice, 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.
A 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)
Sometimes, an 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.
Bristol 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 CRYPTOZOOLOGY?
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.
Crested mystery 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.
Crowing crested cobra representation, based upon eyewitness reports (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Equally 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.
Remarkably, a 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.
A 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.
Cockatrice (labelled as as basilisk) and weasel, in Bestiary, Royal MS 12 C XIX, 1200-1210 (public domain)