Cerastes

Variations: Kerastes (Greek); Ceristalis, Cristalis, Sirtalis, Tristalis (corrupted from original Latin Cerastes); Cerust (Arabian); Schephiphon (Hebrew); En Geburnte Schlang (German); Ceraste, Serpent Cornu (French), Horned Serpent (English)

cerastes

The Cerastes, “horned”, is one of the many snakes born from the blood of Medusa in the Libyan desert. It receives a passing mention in Lucan’s catalogue of snakes. Another cerastes mentioned by Theophrastus and Pliny, in the form of a two-horned herbivorous worm, is obviously a caterpillar.

No more than 2 cubits (about a meter) long, the cerastes is sandy-colored and white, with red streaks across its back. The skin is very soft and stretchable. On the head are two, four, or eight horns, described as worm-like or ram-like. The fangs are like those of a viper and are not crooked. Instead of a backbone, a cerastes has a cartilaginous spine, making it the most flexible of all snakes.

The horns of a cerastes have two documented functions. They are used as lures to attract birds, with the snake buried under the sand with only the horns protruding. Horned snakes can also be found guarding wild pepper plants in Arabia, and they use their horns to gore and kill people. To harvest the pepper, fire must be set to burn out the cerastes, blackening the pepper as a result.

It is said that Helen of Troy, while eloping with Paris, stepped on a cerastes’ back and broke it. This is why they move in such a sinuous, crooked fashion, causing their scales to rustle as they go.

No other snake can endure thirst as long as the cerastes. They seldom or never drink. As for reproduction, they bring forth live young. They are solitary and aggressive towards humans, but the Psilli of Libya live in harmony with them. If one of the Psilli is lightly bitten they spit on the bite to heal it. A stronger bite requires antivenin made by gargling water and spitting it into a pot for the victim to drink. The most severe cases are cured by lying naked upon the equally naked sufferer.

Cerastes bites cause necrosis, priapism, madness, dimness of sight, scabs, sharp pain like the pricking of needles, and inevitable death within nine days. Topsell recommends cutting off stricken flesh to the bone or outright amputation. The wound should then be dressed with goat dung and vinegar or garlic, or barley-meal, or cedar, rue, or nep juice, or otherwise salt, honey, or pitch. Daffodil, rue, radish-seed, cumin, wine, castoreum, calamint, and emetics should be imbibed.

The cerastes is the namesake of the Saharan horned viper Cerastes cerastes. The viper’s knack for sidewinding seems an obvious forerunner to the cerastes’ flexibility.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Lucan, trans. Riley, H. T. (1853) The Pharsalia of Lucan. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Tilbury, G.; Banks, S. E. and Binns, J. W. (eds.) (2002) Otia Imperialia. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Scytale

Variations: Scytalis (Latin), Scytall, Scicalis, Sciscetalis, Seyseculus, Picalis, Situla; Caecilia (erroneously)

scytale

The Scytale (Greek) or Scitalis (Latin), probably derived from scintilla (“spark” or “glimmer”), is one of the many venomous snakes born from the blood of Medusa in the Libyan desert. It was mentioned in the catalogue of snakes that plagued Lucan and his men, but does not get more than a cursory description.

A scytale shares a lot of characteristics with amphisbaenas: earth-colored, heavy-bodied, blunt-headed and blunt-tailed. But while the amphisbaena has two heads, the scytale only looks like it has two heads. Its tail is rounded, flatter, and thicker than the rest of its body, but the scytale only slithers in one direction. More notably, a scytale has scales, markings, or spots on its back that shimmer and gleam in the colors of the rainbow. Its body generates a lot of heat.

Slow and sluggish, the scytale has no means of running down prey. Instead, it uses the gleaming, iridescent markings on its back to mesmerize onlookers, causing them to draw near and within striking range.

The intense inner heat of the scytale allows it to emerge in the winter to shed its skin, even with frost still on the ground. It shares this cold tolerance with the amphisbaena.

Scytale venom is indistinguishable from amphisbaena and viper venom, and remedies for it are the same.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Amphisbaena

Variations: Amphisbaina, Alchismus, Amphisilene, Amphistere, Amphiptere, Ankesime, Auksimem, Double-head, Double-marcheur (French); Doble Andadora; Blind Snake

amphisbaena

The Amphisbaena, “goes both ways”, is one of the many snakes encountered by Lucan and his army in the deserts of Libya. It has also been reported from Lemnus, but it is unknown to the Germans. Unlike its biological namesake, the benign, legless burrowing lizards known as amphisbaenas, the Libyan amphisbaena is venomous and deadly, producing double the amount of venom a regular snake would. Sand boas are another candidate for the amphisbaena’s identity, but they too are harmless.

Two heads are an amphisbaena’s distinguishing feature, with one head in the normal place and one at the end of the tail. How these heads affect locomotion is unclear. An amphisbaena may move like a regular snake, one head trailing behind, but changing directions instantly and going forward or backwards with equal ease. Alternatively, both heads could lead, leaving the body following behind in a loop. An amphisbaena’s sight is poor, but its eyes glow. Physically it resembles an earthworm, with an indistinguishable head and tail. It is blackish earth-colored, with a rough, spotted skin. It is very muscular and tough-scaled, and is an excellent digger.

In addition to the amphisbaena described above, Pammenes tells of two-headed snakes with two feet near the tail in Egypt. Borges reports a creature from the Antilles called the doble andadora (“goes both ways”), also known as the two-headed snake and the mother of ants. It feeds on ants and can reattach itself if chopped in half. The association with ants is the same as that of the legless lizards that share the amphisbaena’s name, and probably refers to the same animal. As with every other snake, the amphisbaena of medieval bestiaries was burdened with legs and wings, and the use of the term became even more confused. Any creature in medieval art with an extra head on the end of its tail can be safely labeled an amphisbaena, although at this point the Greek two-headed snake is long forgotten. The heraldic amphisbaena eventually was corrupted into amphistere, amphiptere, and amphisian basilisk, from where it was assumed to have a pair of wings as well as an extra head!

Amphisbaenas are very cold-resistant, and are the first snakes to come out after winter, ahead of the first cuckoo song. Their temperament is correspondingly hotter than that of other snakes. They feed on earthworms, beetles, and especially ants, digging into their nests, its tough skin protecting it from their bites and stings. Solinus believed amphisbaenas gave birth through the tail-end mouth. They take good care of their eggs, guarding them until they hatch and showing love to their offspring.

Amphisbaena venom is unremarkable and causes the same symptoms as viper bites – inflammation and slow, painful death. Besides drinking coriander, the antidotes for amphisbaena bite are the same as those used for vipers. Amphisbaenas themselves are hard to kill, except with a vine-branch. One amphisbaena woke Dionysus from his rest, and in retaliation he crushed it with a vine-branch.

Several remedies have been derived from amphisbaenas. A walking-stick covered with amphisbaena skin keeps away venomous animals, and an olive branch wrapped in amphisbaena skin cures cold shiverings. An amphisbaena attached to a tree will ensure that the logger will not get cold and the tree will fall easily. If a pregnant woman steps over a dead amphisbaena, she will abort instantly, as the vapor arising from the dead snake is so toxic as to suffocate the fetus. However, if a pregnant woman carries a live amphisbaena in a box with her, the effect is nullified.

The two heads of the amphisbaena understandably led to a healthy amount of criticism. Thomas Browne denied that amphisbaenas could exist, stating that an animal with two anteriors was impossible. Al-Jahiz recounts an interview with a man who swore that he saw an amphisbaena, and, unconvinced, chalked it up to fear-induced exaggeration. “From which end does it move?” he asked the man. “Where does it eat from, and where does it bite from?” The man replied “It doesn’t move forward, but it gets around by rolling, like boys roll on sand. As for eating, it eats lunch with one head and dinner with the other. And as for biting, it bites with both heads at the same time!”

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Druce, G. C. (1910) The Amphisbaena and its Connexions in Ecclesiastical Art and Architecture. Archaeological Journal, v. 67, pp. 285-317.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Al-Jahiz, A. (1966) Kitab al-Hayawan. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladihi, Egypt.

Kitchell, K. F. (2014) Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Macloc, J. (1820) A Natural History of all the Most Remarkable Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Serpents, Reptiles, and Insects in the Known World. Dean and Munday, London.

Palliot, P. (1660) La Vraye et Parfaite Science des Armoiries. Pierre Palliot, Dijon.

Parker, J. (1894) A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry. James Parker and Co., Oxford.

Pliny; Bostock, J. and Riley, H. T. trans. (1857) The Natural History of Pliny, v. III. Henry G. Bohn, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

 

Odontotyrannus

Variations: Arine Hayant Le Tirant, Arine Qui Het Le Tirant, Armez Hayant Le Tirant, Dentem Tyrannum, Dentirant, Dentityrannus, Dent Tyrans, Odentetiranno,  Odontatyrannum,  Odontatyrannus, Odontetiranno

odontotyrannus

The Odontotyrannus is a massive beast found in the rivers of India, whose account has been told as one of Alexander the Great’s many exploits. Its name apparently means “tooth tyrant”, but medieval reading errors led to a variety of increasingly awkward alternate names and direct translations.

When Alexander and his men made camp by a river, they were found by an odontotyrannus coming to the water to drink. It was enormous, large enough to swallow an elephant whole, and black in color, or otherwise with a head black as pitch. It had three horns on its head. When it saw the Macedonians, it went on a rampage, killing 26 and injuring 52 of the soldiers before it was brought down by Emendus, Duke of Arcadia.

The rhinoceros is a certain candidate as the progenitor of the odontotyrannus, as is the crocodile. Confusion with Indus worms – Indian, armed with two terrible teeth, and capable of swallowing prey whole – may have led to the name, as nowhere in its description are teeth ever mentioned.

References

Wauquelin, J., Hériché, S. ed. (2000) Les Faicts et les Conquestes d’Alexandre le Grand. Librairie Droz, Geneva.

de Xivrey, J. B. (1836) Traditions Tératologiques. L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris.

Calopus

Variations: Aeternae, Analopos, Antalope, Antholops, Aptaleon, Aptolos, Pantolops; Jachamur, Jachmur, Jamur, Yamur (Bochart); Chatloup (erroneously)

Calopus

The antelope was known to the Greeks as Analopos (and variations thereof, derived from the Coptic Pantolops according to Bochart) and to the Romans as Calopus, “pretty foot” . These creatures were believed to inhabit India, Syria, and the Euphrates basin, and were fond of drinking the cool Euphrates water.

A calopus resembled a roe deer in appearance and size, with the exception of large saw-toothed horns growing out of their heads. These horns can be used to shred branches and human limbs alike, but are also easily entangled in thickets. A calopus trapped in this way will cry out, making it easily found and killed by hunters.

Alexander the Great encountered a number of these antelopes in India, where at least one obscure account refers to them as “aeternae”. The creatures pierced the Macedonian shields with their horns, but they were no match for Alexander’s soldiers, who slew anywhere from five thousand and four hundred to eight thousand five hundred and fifty of them. This, Topsell concludes, is the reason why we barely see any more of these animals.

Possible identities for the calopus include a number of antelopes, but also the moose, whose tree-shredding behavior may have inspired the calopus’ serrated weapons.

The “chatloup” (“catwolf”) name popularized by Barber and Rose appears to be a corruption of calopus.

References

Barber, R. and Riches, A. (1971) A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts. The Boydell Press, Ipswich.

Bochart, S. (1675) Hierozoicon. Johannis Davidis Zunneri, Frankfurt.

Cuba, J. (1539) Le iardin de santé. Philippe le Noir, Paris.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts. E. Cotes, London.

de Xivrey, J. B. (1836) Traditions Tératologiques. L’Imprimerie Royale, Paris.

Cenchris

Variations: Cenchros, Cenchrines, Cenchridion, Cenchrites, Cenchria; Millet; Milliaris (from millet); Punter-schlang, Berg-schlang (German); Lyon (due to its color and ferocity); Famusus, Aracis, Falivisus (Topsell gives those last three as barbarous versions)

Cenchris

The Cenchris or Millet is one of the many venomous snakes spawned from the blood of Medusa that live in the Sahara desert. It was listed in the catalog of serpents assailing Cato and his men, but did not receive a separate account describing the effects of its deadly venom. Situated in Libya according to Lucan, Topsell stated it to hail from Lemnus and Samothracia.

The most obvious characteristic of a cenchris is that it always move in a straight line, and does not coil or flex its body. For this reason it can travel fast in a straight line, but cannot make sharp turns. In color it is a dusky yellow, looking like the color of millet seed, but Aldrovandi suggests it to be at least partly green. Regardless of the color, the cenchris is attractively spotted and speckled, bringing to mind millet or marbled columns. The pointed tail is turned upwards, like a lion’s. A cenchris grows to two cubits (about one meter) long.

The cenchris is most active and aggressive when millet is at the peak of its growth, and head to the mountains in the summer. Unlike other venomous snakes, it will use its entire body when attacking, wrapping around its victim and beating it; meanwhile, it fastens its fangs in its prey and sucks its blood out.

Cenchris venom rots and putrefies flesh, causing lethargy, stomachache, and death within two days if left untreated. Lettuce, flax-seed, savory, rue, betony, and daffodil in three cups of wine, followed by two drams of centaury, gentian, hartwort, nosewort, or sesame, makes a good antidote.

While not easy to narrow to a single species, the rectilinear locomotion suggests the cenchris to be inspired by large, heavy-bodied vipers such as the puff adder.

References

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Jaculus

Variations: Iaculus, Jaculare; Sagitta (Latin); Acontia, Acontias, Saetta (Greek); Cafezati, Cafezasi, Altararat, Acoran, Altinanti (Arabic); Orchilanne (Turkish); Saettone (Calabria and Sicily); Ein Schosse Oder Angelsch Lang (German); Decurtati (Hungary)

Jaculus

The Jaculus, “javelin” or “dart”, is one of the many snakes that attacked Lucan’s forces during their march through the Libyan desert. While catalogued as a Libyan desert snake, Topsell expanded its range to include Rhodes, Lemnos, Calabria, Sicily, Germany

It can be considered a flying snake, although the “flight” is long-distance leaping over ten to thirty feet. They get into trees and bushes, bunch themselves up in bow and hoop shapes, and fling themselves at high speed onto their prey. Traveling as fast as a thrown javelin, they can puncture clothing and flesh alike. Jaculi are cunning and cruel, and will lie in ambush for human prey, but their presence is given away by the noise they make while coiling in dry plants.

The appearance of the jaculus varies, but it usually has small black ocelli, no bigger than lentils, on its body. The jaculi of Rhodes are ash-colored with a white belly and two black lines running from its head to the tip of its tail; the cafezati or “jumpers” of the Middle East are red, and have been posited as the Biblical fiery serpents. The Hungarian jaculi or decurtati are thick and short-tailed, only two hands long.

A jaculus killed Paulus, one of Lucan’s men, by darting from a distance before it could be seen. It was not venom that felled its victim, but rather the gaping hole left behind after it passed through Paulus’ head at the temples. Topsell believed it was a jaculus that attacked the apostle Paul and bit his hand. Another such snake coiled around the arm of a Zurich peasant; even though it didn’t bite, the arm ended up putrefying and requiring yearly bleeding to drain the black blood inside.

Topsell attests that the same antidotes used for viper venom can be used for jaculus bites. He adds that jaculus gall with Scythian stone yields eye-salve.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Pareas

Variations: Parea, Parias, Paruas, Pharias, Parous, Baron, Pagerina, Anguis Aesculapij, Aesculapian Snake

Pareas

The Pareas is briefly mentioned in the Pharsalia’s catalogue of Libyan serpents. It always travels on its tail, leaving a furrow behind it in the ground. Its bite is harmless and gentle, and so it was consecrated to Asclepius, god of healers. Topsell classifies it among the innocent serpents.

Aelian describes it as being red with sharp eyes and a wide mouth. Topsell, on the other hand, gave its length as four spans, and its color as yellow with two long streaks down its side. Aldrovandi describes the pareas as being yellowish below and black above, with possible variations of green and white along its length. He dismisses the claim that it has a crest.

The tendency of the pareas to travel while holding itself clear of the ground has led to its association with the Eden serpent, which did not creep along the ground prior to being cursed. This claim has been contested by Alexander Neckham and Petrus Comestor, as the pareas very clearly does not conform to that curse. Petrus concluded that the curse must only have affected the individual serpent of Eden, leaving other snakes – including the pareas – uncursed.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. II. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kelly, H. A. (1971) The Metamorphoses of the Eden Serpent during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Viator, 2, pp. 301-328.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Prester

Variations: Presteros, Torridus (Torrid), Dipsas (Thirsty)

Prester

The Prester, “bellows-swelling”, “swollen veins”, or “inflater”,  is a deadly species of asp found in the deserts of Libya. Its name is derived from the gruesome effects of its venom, which were experienced firsthand by Lucan’s men. Aldrovandi believed it to be the same as the Dipsas, while Topsell saw it as distinct, since the prester kills by heat while the dipsas uses thirst.

Presters are so torrid that they keep their steaming mouth open to cool off, and foam constantly bubbles out from inside them. Topsell identifies presters with the fiery snakes that plagued the Israelites in the wilderness, but does not describe them beyond their extreme internal heat. They are fast-moving snakes, hurrying from place to place with their panting mouths wide open.

Aelian described the prester’s venom as causing profound lethargy, progressive weakness, loss of memory, inability to urinate, hair loss, choking, and eventually convulsions that lead to death. Flaubert specifies that mere contact with it causes debilitation.

Lucan describes more grotesque symptoms. The unfortunate Nasidius, upon suffering a scorching prester’s bite, feels the flames of the venom coursing through his veins. His entire body starts to swell, inflating and bloating and cutting through his armor, engulfing his limbs. The tumorous swelling ends only once Nasidius is a formless, headless heap. The remains are so disgusting that even the scavengers shun them.

Topsell recommends wild purslane, castoreum or beaver-stones, opoponax and rue in wine, and sprats as a remedy for prester bite.

References

Aelian, trans. Scholfield, A. F. (1959) On the Characteristics of Animals, vol. III. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Aldrovandi, U. (1640) Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae. Antonij Bernie, Bologna.

Batinski, E. (1992) Cato and the Battle with the Serpents. Syllecta Classica, Vol. 3, pp. 71-80.

Eldred, K. O. (2000) Poetry in Motion: the Snakes of Lucan. Helios 27.1, p. 63.

Flaubert, G. (1885) La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Quantin, Paris.

Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Serpents. E. Cotes, London.

Basilisk

Variations: Cockatrice, Basilisco, Basiliscos, Basiliscus, Basili-coc, Basilicok, Regulus (Small Prince), Codrille, Cocodrille, Cocadrille, Coquatrix, Harmena, Sibilus (Hisser), King of Serpents, Crested Crowing Cobra (potentially)

Basilisk

The Basilisk, the “little king” or “king of snakes”, is best known as a creature whose looks kill. Its primary claim to fame is a gaze that instantly kills anyone who sees it, or even anyone it looks at. The basilisk has appeared under a number of guises throughout the centuries, but there are at least a few constants. It is always deceptively small. It is a snake, or at least part snake, with or without rooster characteristics. It always has a crown – whether a white mark, a ring of hornlets, a rooster’s comb, or even a literal crown on its head. And finally, it is always extraordinarily virulent.

bas 1The basilisk is first and foremost a snake, born from the blood of Medusa as were all venomous snakes. It is found in the North African deserts – its very presence causes the desert, and it becomes frantic in the presence of water. At half a foot long, it is far from the biggest snake, but it is the king of snakes, traveling proudly with its head off the ground. It has a white spot or a crown on its head, and white markings down its back.

The exact nature of the basilisk’s deadliness is uncertain, as it is known to kill via venom, odor, and gaze. Murrus, one of Lucan’s soldiers, transfixed a basilisk with his spear, only to see the venom travel up his weapon and start corroding his hand. He survived by amputating his arm before the venom could reach his body. A basilisk can spit its venom skyward, frizzling up birds in flight. Its very gaze is deadly, as it can kill a man merely by looking at him with its gleaming red eyes. The regal nature of the basilisk and its propensity for projecting its venom suggest that cobras or spitting cobras were the origin of the legend.

Basilisks feared only three things: weasels, the crowing of roosters, and their own lethal gaze. The weasel was the only animal immune to the basilisk’s gaze and venom, making it the only natural predator of the king of snakes. Weasels were often sent into caves believed to harbor basilisks. This interaction also recalls that of the cobra and the mongoose. Basilisks also convulsed and died instantly upon hearing the crowing of a rooster. Travelers in the Libyan desert would be well advised to bring a rooster along with them. Topsell denied the possibility of basilisks perishing upon seeing each other, as “it is unpossible that any thing should hurt itself”; nonetheless, a basilisk in Vienna was killed by showing it a mirror.

With the passing of time the nature of the basilisk grew more and more confused. Various Biblical serpents were translated as basilisks. The basilisk gained more avian characteristics, including an origin in rooster eggs, and was confused with Cocodrillus (the crocodile); both of them were dangerous reptiles with small adversaries (the weasel for the basilisk, the hydrus for the crocodile). Further garbling of “cocodrillus” resulted in “cockatrice”. Wycliffe’s Bible had “cockatrice” as a translation of “basilisk”. Chaucer referred to the “basilicok”. With the accumulation of translation, grammar, and etymological errors, the basilisk (or cockatrice) became a hybrid of snake and rooster, with clawed wings, a rooster’s head, and a long serpentine tail (sometimes with an additional head at the end). This is the familiar cockatrice (or basilisk) of bestiaries, and an incarnation of the Devil himself. It further evolved into the alchemical cockatrice, holding its tail in its mouth, symbolizing the alchemical cycle and its mixed nature. The same nomenclatural confusion also gave rise to the Codrille, a basilisk from central France.

Despite efforts to separate the basilisk and the cockatrice – for example, making the basilisk a snake or lizard and the cockatrice a snake-rooster hybrid, or making them both snake-rooster hybrids, one with a snake head and the other with a rooster head – the fact remains that the names basilisk and cockatrice are interchangeable, and refer to the same animal. It is best to accept T. H. White’s statement that the cockatrice is “a medieval muddle” and leave it at that.

bas 2Cardano reported a basilisk found in the ruins of a demolished building in Milan. This particular specimen was wingless and featherless, with an egg-sized head that looked too large for its body. It had viper fangs, a bulky lizard-like body similar to that of the stellion, and only two stubby legs with catlike claws. The tail was as long as the body, with a swelling at its tip the size of the head. When standing up, it looked like a leathery, naked rooster.

Aldrovandi was apparently inspired by this animal for one of his images of the basilisk, helpfully giving it six more legs. Based on the description and appearance, it appears to have been inspired somewhat by scorpions. Ironically, while this eight-legged depiction has proven particularly enduring, Aldrovandi himself was apparently doubtful of its authenticity, placing this presumed African creature just before a couple rays preserved in the shape of basilisks. The true, snake-like basilisk is given a full-page spread. Aldrovandi also produces a couple of purported basilisk eggs.

Flaubert, taking considerable creative liberties, describes the basilisk as a huge violet snake with a three-lobed crest and two teeth, one on each jaw. It speaks to Saint Anthony, warning him that “I drink fire. I am fire – and I breathe it in from mists, pebbles, dead trees, animal fur, the surface of swamps. My temperature sustains volcanos; I bring out the gleam of gems and the color of metals.”

Finally, Hichens’ “crowing crested cobra” of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be some kind of basilisk. It resembles a cobra, but with a crest on its head and the call of a rooster.

bas 3The life cycle of the basilisk is involved and complicated. The Egyptians believed it to be born from the egg of the ibis, while Neckham blames chickens. Basilisks are born from round shell-less eggs laid by old roosters in the summer (on a dungheap, in some accounts). Those eggs have to be incubated by a snake, a toad, or the rooster itself, eventually producing little terrors ready to kill at birth. As roosters may develop concretions that resemble eggs, and hens may look like roosters, any such fowl that seemed to be a male chicken laying an egg was immediately put to death. In 1474, one such heretical chicken was burned at the stake in Basle, in front of a large crowd.

The only plant immune to the withering gaze of the basilisk is rue, which is consumed by weasels to protect themselves from their enemies. Remedies for basilisk envenomation will always contain rue. A dead basilisk will ward away spiders, and one such basilisk carcass in Diana’s temple kept swallows at bay.

Borges quotes Quevedo as giving the paradox of the basilisk: its existence cannot be proven, as anyone who sees it and survives is a liar, and anyone who sees it and dies will not tell the tale.

The basilisk of biology, or Jesus Christ Lizard (Basiliscus) is a completely harmless South American lizard, known for walking on water. The lethal powers of the basilisk were also transposed by European settlers onto rattlesnakes, and the Mexican West Coast rattlesnake still bears the name of Crotalus basiliscus.

References

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Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, S. A.; Lewis, W. J.; Beach, J. A.; and Berghof, O. (2006) The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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Lucan, trans. Rowe, N. (1720) Pharsalia. T. Johnson, London.

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de la Salle, L. (1875) Croyances et légendes du centre de la France, Tome Premier. Chaix et Cie., Paris.

Sax, B. (1994) The Basilisk and Rattlesnake, or a European Monster Comes to America. Society and Animals, vol. 2, no. 1.

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White, T. H. (1984) The Book of Beasts. Dover Publications, New York.