“And in the livid night there creeps a basilisk, spawned by the moon after its strange fashion. The moon – eternally barren – is its father, but its mother is the sand, barren likewise: this is the mystery of the desert. Many say that it is an animal, but this is not so, it is a thought, growing there where there is no earth and no seed: a thought which sprang from that which is eternally barren, and now assumes strange forms which life does not know. This is the reason that no one can describe this being, because it is like nothingness, indescribable” ― Hanns Heinz Ewers
You try scrubbing. You try soaking. Still you’ve got basilisks, that tried and true medieval monstrosity which despite its diminutive stature, nonetheless offers a conundrum for even the hardiest of monster hunters. While extermination services were popular and well developed in the European Dark Ages, they were generally focused on religious minorities and heretics, thus had not perfected successful techniques for the eradication of unusual preternatural horrors. Rumors of basilisks were frequently afoot, but sadly it was hard to find a professional willing to root them out. Presumably, the strange reproductive strategy (hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad) of the basilisk had substantially thinned out the herd by the 16th Century, thus sightings were increasingly infrequent. Luckily, all those monkish scribes illuminating manuscripts to preserve at least a shred of the enormous body of classical knowledge that was fading into obscurity really dug them some monsters, churning out a parcel of best-selling bestiaries that often helpfully detailed the most effective means for ridding yourself of preternatural pests. Good news for those practical Poles who in 1587 engaged in the last basilisk hunt in Warsaw.
Now, first things first. How do you know when you’ve got a basilisk problem? The description of your garden variety basilisk was fleshed out by Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) in his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia and is reputed to be “the king of serpents”. Pliny equated the basilisk with a similar, but larger cousin called a Catoblepas, due to the fact that any sort of eye contact with either was said to be fatal.
Among the Hesperian Ethiopians there is a Fountain named Nigris, the Head (as many have thought) of the Nilus, and good Reasons there are for it, as we have alleged before. Near this Spring there is found a Wild Beast called Catoblepas, of small Size otherwise, and heavy in all his other Limbs; but his Head is so great that his Body is hardly able to bear it; it is always carried downwards toward the Earth, for otherwise he would destroy all Mankind: for every one that looketh upon his Eyes immediately dies. The like Property hath the Serpent called a Basilisk which is produced in the Province of Cyrenaica, and is not above twelve Fingers’ Breadth long; with a white spot on the head, as if distinguished with a Diadem: with his hiss he driveth away other Serpents; he moveth not his Body forward by multiplied Windings like other Serpents, but he goeth with half his body upright and aloft from the Ground; he killeth all shrubs not only that he toucheth, but that he breathes upon; he burns up herbs, and breaks the stones; so great is his Power for Mischief! It is received for a Truth, that one of them being killed with a Lance by a Man o Horseback, the Poison was so strong that it passed along the Staff, and destroyed both Horse and Man; and yet a Weasel hath a deadly Power to kill even such a Monster as this (for Kings have been desirous to see the Manner how he is killed). So Nature hath delighted to match every Thing in the World with its equal! They cast these Weasels into their holes, which it is easy to know by the poison alone. They destroy them at the same Time with their strong Smell, but they die themselves; and so the Combat of Nature is (Pliny, Naturalis Historia, Book 8, Chapter 21).
Seems like the weasels got the short end of the stick in the deal. No doubt the weasel union objected to the methodology. And while most of the popular medieval bestiaries were at least superficially based on Pliny the Elder’s works, over the centuries a combination of transcription errors, poor grades in Latin, and monkish flights of fancy muddied the waters when it came to practical advice on how to handle a basilisk. Thus, when one turned up in 16th Century Warsaw, it took them a while to get their act together. And apparently, there weren’t any weasels handy. Of course, at first they had trouble identifying the mysterious culprit to blame for the deaths of some local children.
In the year 1587, there lived at Warsaw, in Poland, a certain man named Machaeropaeus. To pass the time, a child of this man, together with the little girl of a neighbour, as is the way with children of the tender age of five years, thought of an amusing game. They determined to enter the underground cellar of a house which had fallen into ruins 30 years before. As soon as they entered it, however, they fell to the lowest steps, and expired. When the dinner-hour came round, their respective mothers asked if anyone knew where their children were. No information could be got. The wife of Machseropaeus sent her maid to call in the children. She went out, and spied the children lying on the lowest steps of the cellar. Thinking they were overcome with sleep, she called again and again, and shouted to waken them. Her shouts, which had almost made her hoarse, produced no effect. What could be the matter? The woman took courage, and went down the steps to waken the children who were sleeping too deeply for any shaking to wake them. And, lo! at once (as was noticed) she herself sank down beside the children, and breathed her last. The mistress, who had seen her servant enter, ran to the place in astonishment, and out of her senses, not knowing what she ought to do, stood stupefied (Goldsmid, 1886, p23-25).
Obviously, nobody volunteered to descend into the basement and investigate, so they appealed to the Polish authorities for a little assistance. The King’s physician was dispatched, and he came up with a plan to retrieve and examine the bodies, determining from his inspection of the corpses that they were clearly dealing with a basilisk who had taken up residence in the cellar. Since you can’t even look at a basilisk without dropping dead, the locals were understandably reticent to charge down the stairs wielding torches and pitchforks. Weasels having made themselves conspicuously absent, they came up with an alternative plan.
A rumour at once got abroad, the citizens ran together, they were in a state of doubt, and deliberated what was to be done. The affair, meanwhile, was brought before the Consul and Senate. They gave orders to have the bodies drawn out with fire-hooks. When this had been done they were found to be swollen like drums, their tongues had swelled, and the colour of their skins was dark, while their eyes protruded from their sockets, as large as half a hen’s egg. At the request of the Consul, the Chamberlain and an old man, physician to the King, called Benedictus, came to see the tragic spectacle. The latter’s conjecture was, that a serpent of most deadly kind was living in the deserted cellar, and that the air in it was poisoned by its deadly breath, which was prevented from escaping. Seeing, moreover, that the weak nature of man could not stand against it, he concluded that it was a basilisk which had its den in the cellar. On being asked by what means the truth of the affair could be found out, he replied that someone should be sent into the cellar, furnished with a covering of mirrors, facing in all directions. For, said he, the basilisk will at once die if it sees its own image. There were there, at that time, two men lying under sentence of death, which were to be executed within three days, one a Pole, the other a Silesian. The name of the Silesian was John Faurer. An offer was made to these men, to see if one would descend into the cellar, and hunt for the serpent, on condition of obtaining a pardon. The Silesian at once embraced the offer. Accordingly, his whole body was covered with leather, his eyelids fastened down on the pupils, one hand was armed with an iron rake, and the other with a blazing torch. In the presence of more than two thousand persons, who looked on in the highest excitement, the man descended into the cellar, a mass of mirrors from head to foot. After an hour’s examination of every chink and corner of the cellar, without any trace of the serpent being found, he asked for a fresh torch to be thrown down to him. On being asked his reason for this request, he said that there was another cellar next to the one he was in, but approach to it was barred by rubbish. Whilst endeavouring to penetrate this, he happened to move his eyes to the left, and suddenly spied the long looked for serpent, lying in a niche of the wall. On signifying the fact by shouting to those who were crowded round the entrance, the chief physician bade him take the brute up with the iron rake, and carry it out of the darkness of the cellar into the broad daylight. This was done and seen by all. The Chief Physician, as soon as he saw the creature, pronounced it a basilisk. It was the size of an ordinary fowl. In its head it had somewhat the appearance of an Indian cock. Its crest was like a crown, partly covered with a bluish colour. Its back was covered with several excrescent spots, and its eyes were those of the toad. It was covered all over with the hues of venomous animals, which gave it a general tawny tinge. Its tail was curved back, and bent over its body, of a yellowish hue beneath, and of the same colour as the toad at its extremity (Goldsmid, 1886, p25-27).
Maybe you don’t believe in monsters. While I find that an inadvisable perspective, it is understandable in so far as most people rarely find themselves face to face with supernatural horrors. Thankfully, over the centuries a few alert naturalists decided it was prudent to take notes, just in case. It really does suck to try to deal with a basilisk by trial and error. Nice to have some expert advice available, as sadly one can never rely on a weasel when you need one.
Dash, Mike. “On the Trail of the Warsaw Basilisk”. Smithsonian . July 23, 2012.
Goldsmid, Edmund. …Un-natural History: Or Myths of Ancient Science; Being a Collection of Curious Tracts On the Basilisk, Unicorn, Phoenix, Behemoth Or Leviathan, Dragon, Giant Spider, Tarantula, Chameleons, Satyrs, Homines Caudati, &e.. Edinburgh: Priv. print., 1886.
Pliny, the Elder. Pliny’s Natural History. In Thirty-seven Books. [London]: Printed for the Club by G. Barclay, 1847.