July 23, 2012
Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk, a monster feared for centuries throughout Europe and North Africa. Like many ancient marvels, it was a bizarre hybrid: a crested snake that hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad.
The basilisk of legend was rare but decidedly deadly; it was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary dating to the medieval period, but the earliest description was given hundreds of years earlier by Pliny the Elder, who described the monster in his pioneering Natural History (79 A.D.). The 37 volumes of this masterpiece were completed shortly before their author was suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny added, “but advances loftily and upright.” It was a description that accorded with the then-popular notion of the basilisk as the king of serpents; according to the same mythology, it also “kills the shrubs, not only by contact but by breathing on them,” and splits rocks, “such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was thought to be native to Libya, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.