AskDefine | Define basilisk

Dictionary Definition



1 (classical mythology) a serpent (or lizard or dragon) able to kill with its breath or glance
2 ancient brass cannon
3 small crested arboreal lizard able to run on its hind legs; of tropical America

User Contributed Dictionary



From Middle English, from Old French basilisc, from Latin basiliscus, from Greek basiliskos


  • /ˈbæz.ə.lɪsk/, /"b

Extensive Definition

In European bestiaries and legends, a basilisk ('bæzɪlɪsk, from the Greek βασιλίσκος basilískos, "little king"; Latin Regulus) is a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents and said to have the power of causing death by a single glance. According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the basilisk is a small snake that is so venomous that it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal.
Basilisk is also the name of a genus of small lizards, (family Corytophanidae). The Green Basilisk, also called plumed basilisk, is a lizard that can run across the surface of water.


There are three descriptions to the image of the basilisk: a huge multi-limbed lizard, a giant snake, or a three-foot high cockerel with a snake's tail and teeth, all of which are shared with the cockatrice. It is called "king" because it is reputed to have on its head a mitre- or crown-shaped crest. Stories of the basilisk place it in the same general family as the cockatrice. The basilisk is fabulously alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent (the reverse of the cockatrice, which was hatched from a cockerel's "egg" incubated by a serpent's nest). In Medieval Europe, the description of the creature began taking on features from cockerels.
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 to whom "there is not one that looketh upon his eyes, but hee dyeth presently.", and then goes on to say,
The like propertie hath the serpent called a Basiliske: bred it is in the province Cyrenaica, and is not above twelve fingers-breadth long: a white spot like a starre it carrieth on the head, and setteth it out like a coronet or diademe: if he but hisse once, no other serpents dare come neere: he creepeth not winding and crawling by as other serpents doe, with one part of the bodie driving the other forward, but goeth upright and aloft from the ground with the one halfe part of his bodie: he killeth all trees and shrubs not only that he toucheth, but that he doth breath upon also: as for grasse and hearbs, those hee sindgeth and burneth up, yea and breaketh stones in sunder: so venimous and deadly is he. It is received for a truth, that one of them upon a time was killed with a launce by an horseman from his horseback, but the poison was so strong that went from his bodie along the staffe, as it killed both horse and man: and yet a sillie weazle hath a deadly power to kill this monstrous serpent, as pernicious as it is [for may kings have been desirous to see the experience thereof, and the manner how he is killed.] See how Nature hath delighted to match everything in the world with a concurrent. The manner is, to cast these weazles into their holes and cranies where they lye, (and easie they be to knowe, by the stinking sent of the place all about them:) they are not so soone within, but they overcome them with their strong smell, but they die themselves withall; and so Nature for her pleasure hath the combat dispatched. The Venerable Bede was the first to attest to the legend of the birth of a basilisk from an egg by an old cockerel, then other authors added the condition of Sirius being ascendant. Isidore of Seville defined the basilisk as the king of snakes, due to its killing glare and its poisonous breath. Alexander Neckham was the first to say that not the glare but the "air corruption" was the killing tool of the basilisk, a theory developed one century later by Pietro d'Abano.
Theophilus Presbyter gives a long recipe in his book for creating a basilisk in order to convert copper into "Spanish gold" (De auro hyspanico).
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 XIII century.
Geoffrey Chaucer featured a basilicok (as he called it) in his Canterbury Tales. According to some legends, basilisks can be killed by hearing the crow of a rooster or gazing at itself through a mirror. The latter method of killing the beast is featured in the legend of the basilisk living in Warsaw, killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors (the most famous version of the legend was written by Artur Oppman).
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 that it could kill not only by touch, but also by touching something that is touching the victim, like a sword held in their hand. Also, some stories claim their breath is highly toxic and will cause death, usually immediately. The basilisk is also the guardian creature of the Swiss city Basel.
The basilisk was, however, believed to be vulnerable to roosters. Travellers in the Middle Ages sometimes carried roosters with them as protection.
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:
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.
Then Leonardo says the following on the weasel: "This beast finding the lair of the basilisk kills it with the smell of its urine, and this smell, indeed, often kills the weasel itself."

Euhemeristic accounts

Like the words "vampires" and "lemures", biological science reuses mythological concepts to name animal species. Basilisk in science refers to the genus Basiliscus of South American "lizard", containing four species.


  • Il sacro artefice, Paolo Galloni, Laterza, Bari 1998 (about the historical background of basiliscus during the Middle Ages).

See also

basilisk in Bosnian: Bazilisk (mitologija)
basilisk in Bulgarian: Василиск (митология)
basilisk in Catalan: Basilisc
basilisk in Czech: Bazilišek
basilisk in Danish: Basilisk (mytologi)
basilisk in German: Basilisk (Mythologie)
basilisk in Estonian: Basilisk
basilisk in Spanish: Basilisco (criatura mitológica)
basilisk in Esperanto: Bazilisko (mitologio)
basilisk in French: Basilic (mythologie)
basilisk in Korean: 바실리스크
basilisk in Croatian: Bazilisk (mitologija)
basilisk in Indonesian: Basilisk
basilisk in Italian: Basilisco (mitologia)
basilisk in Hebrew: בסיליסק
basilisk in Hungarian: Baziliszkusz
basilisk in Malay (macrolanguage): Basilisk
basilisk in Dutch: Basilisk (fabeldier)
basilisk in Japanese: バジリスク
basilisk in Norwegian: Basilisk
basilisk in Polish: Bazyliszek (stworzenie mityczne)
basilisk in Portuguese: Basilisco
basilisk in Romanian: Vasilisc
basilisk in Russian: Василиск
basilisk in Slovenian: Bazilisk
basilisk in Serbian: Базилиск
basilisk in Finnish: Basiliski
basilisk in Swedish: Basilisk
basilisk in Thai: บาซิลิสก์
basilisk in Turkish: Basilisk
basilisk in Chinese: 翼蜥
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