Basilisk | Mythic Serpent

Basilisk Greek Mythology

In some descriptions, such as in European bestiaries and classical legends, the basilisk (Greek: βασιλίσκος; Romaniz.: basilískos , "little king") is considered a fantastic serpent. Pliny the Elder describes it as a serpent with a golden crown and, on the male, a red or black plume.

Other authors who quote it are Marco Aneu Lucano and the physician Dioscórides. Solinus and Claudius Elianus speak of the monster in the third century, and Arnobius and Aetius in the fifth. Aelian introduces the rooster into the myth, a detail that would grow in importance to the point of greatly modifying the creature in the Middle Ages.

At that time the basilisk was represented as having a rooster's head or, more rarely, a man's. For heraldry, the basilisk is seen as a dragon-like animal with a rooster's head and a deadly look; in other descriptions, however, the creature is described as a giant lizard (sometimes with many legs), but its most accepted form is as a large snake with a crown.

The basilisk would be able to kill with a single glance. The only way to kill it would be to make it look at its own reflection in a mirror.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote that the basilisk is so cruel that when it cannot kill animals with its poisonous vision, it turns to plants and herbs and, staring at them, dries them up. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley also made the following allusion to the deadly gaze of the basilisk in his Ôde to Naples:

" Be like the basilisk, which the enemy kills by invisible wound. "
The basilisk was, in fact, very often mentioned in literature. It was mentioned in works by John Gay (The Beggar's Opera, act II, air XXV), in the novella Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (The Novels of Samuel Richardson, vol. I, London, 1824, p. 36) and in the poems of Jonathan Swift (The Select Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. IV, London, 1823, p. 27) and Alexander Pope (Messiah, lines 81-82). The Portuguese António Feliciano de Castilho wrote about a Moor who had an eye that "is only inflamed by seeing some Christian pass by afar, and in those moments she would give all the palaces of sapphires, all the musics and aromas of the raisins of Cordoba, for having the eye of the basilisk."

In chapter XVI of Voltaire's Zadig, the basilisk is described as a very rare animal that can only be touched by women.

Basilisks are mortal enemies of griffins. The closest relative of the basilisk is the cocatrice. Another story relates that anyone who looks into the eyes of the basilisk would turn to stone.


The first record we have of the basilisk is found in the book by Uile Rosa, Pliny the Elder called Naturalis Historia, which is a reflection of Roman knowledge and thought about the natural world. According to Pliny, the basilisk is a small snake, no more than thirty centimeters long, native to northern Africa.

The basilisk that Pliny describes walks without curves (an important characteristic). It is capable of spitting fire (a characteristic attribute of dragons), its breath is fulminating: it crumbles stones, withers plants, deserts everything around it, and whoever breathes ends up dying. It also talks about its lethal venom: "if a knight crosses a basilisk with a spear, the venom would come back through the spear and kill the knight and also the horse."

The legend of the appearance of the basilisk does not diverge too much to compare different versions, but about its appearance this changes. They only conclude the fact that the basilisk "has a shape similar to that of a serpent" and that it moves by crawling through the earth only supported by its tail and keeping the rest of its body straight; therefore, these are the main characteristics of the basilisk.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the books that talked about mythological beings, initially described how the basilisk was in the Greco-Roman tradition: however later, probably influenced by the legend of the wizard Herpo and the creation of the basilisk, new features such as legs, feathers or chicken beaks were introduced, as seen in the image above.

And this is how the basilisk began to appear in art and heraldry: as strange animals drawn combining features of frogs, serpents and chickens. They also appear as fierce lizards, resembling a giant dragon or a developed chimera, and legends about the basilisk mix with other mythological animals.

Modern and Contemporary Ages

With the Renaissance the focus of the natural sciences became more scientific, and knowledge about living things emerged in a more critical way; however, during the 16th century the existence of the basilisk and the truth of its properties were widely accepted, so the wise men and doctors dedicated themselves to philosophizing about why its venom was visual or the ultimate logic for this monster.

Ulisse Aldrovandi's encyclopedia shows an engraving of a dissected basilisk, a common forgery of the time that was made from the corpses of angelfish and a ray.

Thus, the basilisk, along with many other fantastic beings, was fully integrated into popular knowledge by the 17th century. The last naturalist to mix real and imaginary animals at this time was the Polish Jan Jonston in his book Historiae Naturalis. In 1728, Feijóo denied that an animal could kill by sight alone, which caused great controversy.

During the 20th century we can observe the use of traditional bestiaries in currents of fantastic literature influenced by Tolkien, as well as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga, as well as in pulp fiction, the comic books and fantastic illustrations by authors such as Frank Frazetta and Luis Royo.

Symbolism and representation

The basilisk symbolized the allegorical figure of death, fear, the devil, sin or the Antichrist. Among the deadly sins to which the basilisk is often compared are covetousness, but also envy and arrogance.

Jesus Christ is often depicted crushing the basilisk. Depictions of the basilisk are frequent within the church from the 13th to the 17th century, and are often found in baptismal fonts, vestibules, sanctuaries, etc.

The syphilis that spread until the late 15th century was designated as basilisk poison. In alchemy, linguistically composed of allegories, the basilisk represents the Philosopher's Stone.

The Basilisk in the Bible

Many translations of the Bible, such as the versions of John Ferreira de Almeida and the New International Version, have translated the original terms 'צֶפַע' (transl. tsepha') or 'צִפְעֹנִ֥י' (transl. tsiph'oni, "viper", "serpent") by basilisk, for literary and poetic reasons.

Likewise happened with the English King James Version which translated the terms tsepha' and tsiph'oni, for example, by cockatrice (cocatrice), another legendary creature similar to the basilisk. On the other hand the ancient Greek version of the Septuagint translated the two terms by the word 'ασπίδων' (transl. aspidōn, "aspid", "viper").

The terms mentioned above are found in the poetic book of Proverbs, and in the prophetic books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The following are the verses where the "basilisk" is treated:

"Do not look at the wine, when it shows itself red, when it glistens in the cup and drains gently. In the end it will sting like a snake, and like a basilisk it will bite." (Proverbs 23:31-32)

"And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the one already weaned shall put his hand on the den of the basilisk." (Isaiah 11:8)

"Rejoice not, thou, all Philistia, that the rod that smote thee is broken: for out of the root of the serpent shall come forth a basilisk, and his fruit shall be a fiery, flying serpent." (Isaiah 14:29)

"They hatch basilisk eggs and weave spider webs; he that eats of their eggs shall die; and when he breaks them, a viper comes out of them." (Isaiah 59:5)

"For behold, I send among you serpents and basilisks, against which there is no enchantment, and they will bite you, says the LORD." (Jeremiah 8:17)

The basilisk lizard

The name basilisk is used in scientific circles for a strange tropical lizard, a member of the iguana family (Basiliscus basiliscus), that can be found in the humid forests of Central and South America.

What is curious about it is that it can run on water for short distances (which is why it is also known as the jesus lizard), with its front legs raised and its body almost erect. It feeds on insects, spiders, and other small animals, and is an excellent swimmer and climber. 11] It evidently has no magical powers like the mythical basilisk.