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Basilisk facts for kids

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Basilisk aldrovandi.jpg
Woodblock print of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo, 1640
Sub grouping Mythological hybrids

In European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk is a legendary reptile reputed to be a serpent king, who causes death to those who look into its eyes. According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the basilisk of Cyrene is a small snake, "being not more than twelve inches in length", that is so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal.

According to Pliny, the basilisk's weakness is the odor of a weasel. The weasel was thrown into the basilisk's hole, recognizable because some of the surrounding shrubs and grass had been scorched by its presence. It is possible that the legend of the basilisk and its association with the weasel in Europe was inspired by accounts of certain species of Asiatic and African snakes (such as cobras) and their natural predator, the mongoose.


The word originates from the Greek form basilískos (Greek: βασιλίσκος; Latin: [basiliscus] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help)), which means "little king", "little prince", "chieftain", or "young ruler", from two components, βᾰσῐλεύς (basileús, “king”) and -ῐ́σκος (-ískos, diminutive). It was also considered to be synonymous with the cockatrice.


Sint Michael Zwolle Stadszegel 1295
City seal of Zwolle from 1295 with the Archangel Michael killing a basilisk

The basilisk is sometimes referred to as "king" because it has been reputed to have a mitre or crown-shaped crest on its head. Stories of the basilisk show that it is not completely distinguished from the cockatrice. The basilisk is alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad (the reverse of the cockatrice, which was hatched from a cockerel's "egg" incubated by a serpent or toad). In Medieval Europe, the description of the creature began taking on features from cockerels. It has a venomous strike, and in some versions of the myth, it has the ability to breathe fire.

One of the earliest accounts of the basilisk comes from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written in roughly 79 AD. He describes the catoblepas, a monstrous cow-like creature of which "all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot", and then goes on to say,

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.

Marcus Gheeraerts I - Fable of the basilisk and weasel
The basilisk and the weasel, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. The cockatrice (pictured) became seen as synonymous with the basilisk when the "basiliscus" in Bartholomeus Anglicus' De proprietatibus rerum (ca 1260) was translated by John Trevisa as "cockatrice" (1397).

Isidore of Seville defined the basilisk as the king of snakes because of its killing glare and poisonous breath. The Venerable Bede was the first to attest to the legend of the birth of a basilisk from an egg by an old cockerel; other authors added the condition of Sirius being ascendant. Alexander Neckam (died 1217) was the first to say that not the glare but the "air corruption" was the killing tool of the basilisk, a theory developed a century later by Pietro d'Abano.

Theophilus Presbyter gave a long recipe in his book, the Schedula diversarum artium, for creating a compound to convert copper into "Spanish gold" (De auro hyspanico). The compound was formed by combining powdered basilisk blood, powdered human blood, red copper, and a special kind of vinegar.

Albertus Magnus, in the De animalibus, wrote about the killing gaze of the basilisk, but he denied other legends, such as the rooster hatching the egg. He gave as source of those legends Hermes Trismegistus, who is credited also as the creator of the story about the basilisk's ashes being able to convert silver into gold. The attribution is absolutely incorrect, but it shows how the legends of the basilisk were already linked to alchemy in the 13th century.

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

Geoffrey Chaucer featured a so-called basilicok (likely a portmanteau of “basilisk” and “cock”) in his Canterbury Tales. According to some legends, basilisks can be killed by hearing the crow of a rooster or gazing at itself in a mirror. This method of killing the beast is featured in the legend of the basilisk of Warsaw, killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors. According to the popular urban legend, it was a terrifying creature, described as a rooster, snake or turkey, with a snake's tail and the eyes of a frog. It guarded hidden treasures in the Warsaw's Old Town underground and killed intruders with its eyes. It died outwitted by a young journeyman who went underground carrying a mirror in front of him. According to Artur Oppman, Bazyliszek lived in the basement of one of the tenement houses on Krzywe Koło street in Warsaw.

Stories gradually added to the basilisk's deadly capabilities, such as describing it as a larger beast, capable of breathing fire and killing with the sound of its voice. Some writers even claimed it could kill not only by touch, but also by touching something that is touching the victim, like a sword held in the hand. Also, some stories claim its breath is highly toxic and will cause death, usually immediately. The basilisk is also the guardian creature and traditional symbol of the Swiss city Basel (Latin: [Basilea] Error: {{Lang}}: text has italic markup (help)). Canting basilisks appear as supporters in the city's arms.

Leonardo da Vinci included a basilisk in his Bestiary, saying “it is so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill animals by its baleful gaze, it turns upon herbs and plants, and fixing its gaze on them, withers them up.” In his notebooks, he describes the basilisk in an account clearly dependent directly or indirectly on Pliny's:

This is found in the province of Cyrenaica and is not more than 12 fingers long. It has on its head a white spot after the fashion of a diadem. It scares all serpents with its whistling. It resembles a snake, but does not move by wriggling but from the centre forwards to the right. It is said that one of these, being killed with a spear by one who was on horse-back, and its venom flowing on the spear, not only the man but the horse also died. It spoils the wheat and not only that which it touches, but where it breathes the grass dries and the stones are split.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa wrote that “[the basilisk] is alwayes, and cannot but be a male, as the more proper receptacle of venome and destructive qualities."

According to the tradition of the Cantabrian mythology, the ancient Basiliscu has disappeared in most of the Earth but still lives in Cantabria, although it is rare to see it. This animal is born from an egg laid by an old cock just before his death exactly at midnight on a clear night with a full moon. Within a few days, the egg shell, which is not hard, but rather soft and leathery, is opened by the strange creature, which already has all the features of an adult: legs, beak, cockscomb, and reptilian body. Apparently, the creature has an intense and penetrating fire in its eyes such that any animal or person gazing directly upon it would die. The weasel is the only animal that can face and even attack it. It can only be killed with the crowing of a rooster, so, until very recent times, travelers carried a rooster when they ventured into areas where it was said that the basilisks lived.

A basilisk is said to have terrorised the inhabitants of Vilnius, Lithuania during the reign of King of Poland and Grand Duke Sigismund August. In his book Facies rerum Sarmaticarum, 17th century Vilnius University historian Professor Adam Ignacy Naramowski describes how boughs of rue, a plant believed to have the power to repel basilisks, were lowered into the creature's lair. The first two boughs lowered into the lair turned white, indicating that the creature remained alive, but the third bough retained its characteristic green colour, indicating the basilisk had been killed. Nineteenth-century historian Teodoras Narbutas (Teodor Narbutt) claimed the location of the creature's lair had been at the intersection of Bokšto, Subačiaus, and Bastėjos streets, near Subačius Gate. Legend has it the basilisk haunts the bastion of the city wall located there.


IMG 3734 - Milano - Stemma visconteo- sull'Arcivescovado - Foto di Giovanni Dall'Orto - 15-jan-2007
Coat of arms, the biscione of the House of Visconti, on the Archbishops' palace in Piazza Duomo, Milan. The arms bear the initials IO.[HANNES] of Archbishop Giovanni Visconti (1342–1354).

Some have speculated that accounts and descriptions of cobras may have given rise to the legend of the basilisk. Cobras can maintain an upright posture, and, as with many snakes in overlapping territories, are often killed by mongooses. The Indian cobra has a crown-like symbol on its head. Several species of spitting cobras can incapacitate from a distance by spitting venom, and may well have been confused with other cobra species by their similar appearance. The Egyptian cobra lives in the desert and was employed as a symbol of royalty.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Basilisco (criatura mitológica) para niños

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