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Basilisk – What Was This Mythical Monster?

Among the many mythological creatures that influenced our world, the Basilisk was a central part of European mythology. This horrible monster was a lethal creature in every one of its depictions over the centuries and was among the most feared mythical beings. Here’s a closer look at its myth. 

Who Was the Basilisk?

The basilisk and the weasel, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder.
The basilisk and the weasel, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder.

The Basilisk was a terrifying and deadly reptile monster who could cause death with a glance. According to some sources, it was the king of snakes. This monster represented the evils of the world, and many cultures took it as a creature associated with death.

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Killing the Basilisk was not an easy task, but it could be done depending on the tool used. Some sources state that due to its fatal glance, the Basilisk shared similarities with the Greek Gorgons. In most accounts, its natural enemy was the weasel.

Origins of the Basilisk

Some sources believe that the myth of the Basilisk derived from cobras, especially the King Cobra which grows up to 12 feet and is highly venomous. Apart from this species, the Egyptian cobra can paralyze its prey by spitting venom from long distances.

All these deadly characteristics might have given birth to the stories of the Basilisk. Just as the Basilisk’s natural enemy is the weasel, the natural enemy of the cobra is the mongoose, a small carnivorous mammal somewhat similar to the weasel. 

One of the earliest mentions of the Basilisk appeared in Natural History, a book by Pliny the Elder around AD 79. According to this author, the Basilisk was a small serpent, not longer than twelve fingers in length. Yet, it was so venemous that it was capable of killing any creature.

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Furthermore, the Basilisk left a trail of venom everywhere it passed and had a murderous stare. In this way, the Basilisk was portrayed as being among the deadliest mythological beings of ancient times. 

According to other myths, the first Basilisk was born from the egg of a toad. This origin caused the creature to have its unnatural build and terrifying powers. 

Appearance and Powers of the Basilisk

There are several descriptions of the creature in its different myths. Some depictions refer to the Basilisk as a giant lizard, while others refer to it as a giant snake. The less known description of the creature was a composite of a reptile and a rooster, with scaly wings and plumage.

The abilities and powers of the Basilisk also vary greatly. The ever-present feature was its deadly glance, but the monster had different abilities in other myths.

Depending on the story, the Basilisk could fly, breathe fire, and kill with one bite. So deadly was the poison of the Basilisk that it could kill even the birds that flew above it. In other myths, the venom could spread to the weapons that touched its skin, thus ending the life of the attacker.

When the monster drank from a pond, the water became poisonous for at least a 100 years. The Basilisk remained a deadly and evil creature throughout its history.

Defeating the Basilisk

A putto kills a basilisk, symbolic of Swedish occupiers and Protestant heresy, on the Mariensäule, Munich, erected in 1638.
putto kills a basilisk, symbolic of Swedish occupiers and Protestant heresy, on the Mariensäule, Munich, erected in 1638. Source.

People of ancient times carried different items to protect themselves from the Basilisk. Some myths propose that the creature would die if it heard the crow of a rooster. In other stories, the best way to kill the Basilisk was to use a mirror. The serpent would look at its reflection in the mirror and die from its own deadly glance. The travelers had roosters or weasels with them to repel Basilisks and held mirrors to kill them if they appeared. 

Symbolism of the Basilisk

The Basilisk was a symbol of death and evil. In general terms, serpents have associations with sins and evil, as portrayed, for example, in the Bible. Since the Basilisk was the king of snakes, its image and symbolism came to represent the forces of evil and demons.

In many church murals and sculptures, a Christian knight is portrayed slaying a Basilisk. These artworks were a representation of good overcoming evil. From the very beginning of its myth, the Basilisk was an unholy and unnatural creature. It was associated with the devil and the sin of lust in Catholicism. 

The Basilisk is also a symbol of the Swiss city of Basel. During the Protestant reformation, the people of Basel cast out the bishop. In this event, the images of the bishop became mixed with depictions of the Basilisk. In addition to this, a strong earthquake devastated the city, and the Basilisk took the blame for it. These two unfortunate events made the Basilisk a part of the history of Basel. 

The Basilisk has also been present in alchemy. Some alchemists believed that this creature represented the destructive forces of fire, which could break down different materials. Through this process, the transmutation of metals and the combination of other materials was possible. Others defended that the Basilisk was associated with the mystical substances that the philosopher’s stone produced. 

Other Accounts of the Basilisk

Apart from Pliny the Elder, several other authors also wrote about the myth of the Basilisk. This monster appears in the writings of Isidore of Seville as the king of snakes, for its dangerous poison and killing glance. Albertus Magnus also wrote about the mortal powers of the Basilisk and referred to its connections with alchemy. Leonardo Da Vinci also gave details about the appearance and characteristics of the creature.

Throughout Europe, there are different tales of the Basilisk ravaging the land. Some myths propose that a Basilisk terrorized the people of Vilnius, Lithuania, in ancient times. There are also stories of Alexander the Great killing a Basilisk using a mirror. In this way, the mythology of the Basilisk spread through the whole continent, causing terror to people and villages.

The Basilisk in Literature and Arts

The Basilisk appears in several famous literary works throughout history.

  • William Shakespeare mentions the Basilisk in Richard III, where one of the characters refers to the deadly eyes of the creature.
  • The Basilisk also appears in the Bible in several places. In Psalms 91:13, it’s mentioned: Thou shalt tread on the asp and basilisk: and thou shalt trample on the lion and dragon.
  • The Basilisk is also mentioned in various poems by authors such as Jonathan Swift, Robert Browning, and Alexander Pope. 
  • The most famous appearance of the Basilisk in literature is perhaps in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In this book, the Basilisk plays a central role as one of the antagonists of the story. In later years, the book was adapted and taken to the big screen, where the Basilisk is portrayed as a giant serpent with gigantic fangs and a deadly glance. 

The Basilisk Lizard

The Basilisk of mythology shouldn’t be confused with the Basilisk lizard, also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to run across water when fleeing from predators.

These lizards are quite harmless, unlike their mythological namesake, and are neither poisonous nor aggressive. They come in a range of colors from red, yellow, brown, blue and black. The  male Basilisk lizard has a distinct crest.

In Brief

The Basilisk is among the most terrifying of all monsters and influenced the writings of famous authors from ancient and modern times. Due to all its characteristics and myths surrounding it, the Basilisk became a symbol of darkness and evil in ancient times.

Affiliate Disclosures

Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.