Basilisk of Warsaw

The Basilisk of Warsaw

‘To deny the existence of the basilisk is to carp at the evidence of men’s eyes and their experiences in many different places. Accordingly, we allow the basilisk a place in nature, as the most deadly and venomous creature and plague in the animal creation’.

Georg Caspar Kirchmaier, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669), p. 7.[1]

The position of basilisks in the mythical menagerie is not always clear. This online exhibition has chosen to follow the example of Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), by including the basilisk in his discussion of dragons but a case may also be made for treating basilisks as a subset of serpents.

Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 363.

This image of a basilisk, from Worth’s copy of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum, et draconum libri duo (Bologna, 1640), presents the creature wearing his iconic crown from which it derived its name (‘basiliskos’ meaning little king). Worth clearly had an interest in mythical creatures as he collected a number of tracts specifically about them and one of the most important was Georg Caspar Kirchmaier’s De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669). This short treatise not only informed Worth about the chief characteristics of a basilisk – it also recounted the famous story of the Basilisk of Warsaw.

Kirchmaier gives us the following account of the Basilisk of Warsaw:

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 Machaeropaeus 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. 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 an 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 descent 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 trace of the serpent being found, he asked for a fresh torch to be thrown down to him. On being asked his reason for his 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 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.[2]

There are a number of points about this story that are worth noting:

  1. It demonstrates the power of learned knowledge for it is the King’s chief physician who officially identifies the creature as a basilisk and, because of his knowledge of basilisk lore, devises a plan to deal with it. Since one of the known characteristics of a basilisk was that sight of it could kill their victim or itself, Benedictus advocated that John Faurer wear mirrors and close his eyes to the danger.
  2. However, another learned supposition on Benedictus’ part was proven to be incorrect: dealing with three deaths in an enclosed space, he had concluded that the air of the cellar was poisonous. This was in line with basilisk lore but, as the survival of John Faurer demonstrates, in this Benedictus was mistaken.
  3. The account gives us a description of the serpent which is at odds with both the illustration from Aldrovandi and one previously provided by Kirchmaier of a ‘basilisk’ found in ruins in Milan. The Milanese version, with its head ‘the size of an egg, and very large in proportion to its body’ had a body the size of a lizard and, like Aldrovandi’s illustration, had two feet which were too small for its body.[3] The Warsaw version was quite different and resembled more a cockatrice than the basilisk. This was an easy mistake to make since in the early modern period ‘basilisk’ and ‘cockatrice’ were terms which were often used interchangeably. For example, a short tract, published by James Salgado c. 1680 was entitled A brief Description of the Nature of the Basilisk, or Cockatrice (London, c. 1680).[4] However, a basilisk and a cockatrice were two separate mythical creatures whose mythical trajectories had merged over time.

Another image of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 366.

Despite vociferously challenging the theory that a basilisk was born from a cock’s egg, Kirchmaier’s text reflects this confusion between a ‘basilisk’ and a ‘cockatrice’. It arose from his sources, for as a professor of rhetoric, he characteristically started his short treatise with a discussion of etymology. These naturally discussed the Greek origin of the term ‘basiliskos’, and its attribution to the basilisk which appeared to have a crown on its head. However, the biblical references to basilisks were more problematic because there three terms were used interchangeably, depending on the translation being used. For example, Psalm 90 verse 13 in the Vulgate read as follows ‘super aspidem et basiliscum calcabis conculcabis leonem et draconem’. In the King James Version this was translated as ‘Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet’ and elsewhere in the Old Testament, where other versions used ‘basilisk’ as a translation, King James Authorized Version used the term ‘cockatrice’ throughout.

Despite his etymological confusion as regards the terms used for the basilisk, it seems likely that Kirchmaier was aware of some of the internal inconsistencies of his reports. He certainly challenged the belief that basilisks might kill with a glance and he also attacked the idea that a basilisk was born in a cock’s egg.[5] Equally, he was keen to identify what the basilisk might be. Quoting his former teacher, John Sperling’s Zoologia physica (Leipzig and Wittenberg, 1661), he noted that it was likely that the creature in question was a ‘crested asp’.[6] The crest was important for it was here that the asp got its name since the crest was considered to resemble a crown. Comparisons have also been drawn between a ‘basilisk’ and a cobra.[7] Nowadays the best known basilisk features in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets!

Image of a basilisk, based on that of Aldrovandi, from Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis: De piscibus et cetis (Amsterdam, 1657), Tab. XI.

Sources

Aldrovandi, Ulisse, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640).

Breiner, Laurence A. ‘The Basilisk’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures. A Source Book and Research Guide (New York and London, 1987), pp 113-122.

Jonstonus, Joannes, Historiae naturalis: De piscibus et cetis (Amsterdam, 1657).

Kirchmaier, Georg Caspar, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669). English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886).

McN. Alexander, R, ‘The Evolution of the Basilisk’, Greece and Rome, 10: 2 (1963), 170-181.

Salgado, James A brief Description of the Nature of the Basilisk, or Cockatrice (London, c. 1680).

Text: Dr. Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

[1] English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886), p. 18.

[2] Georg Caspar Kirchmaier, De basilisco, unicornu, phœnice, behemoth, leviathan, dracone, araneo, tarantula et ave paradisi, dissertationes aliquot (Wittenberg, 1669), pp 10-13. English translation from Edmund Goldsmid, Un-Natural History or Myths of Ancient Science (Edinburgh, 1886), pp 23-27.

[3] Ibid., p. 8 and p. 21 respectively.

[4] This text is not in the Worth Library.

[5] Kirchmaier, ibid., pp 17-23; Goldsmid, ibid., pp 32-39.

[6] Ibid., pp 16 and 30 respectively.

[7] Laurence A. Breiner, ‘The Basilisk’, in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures. A Source Book and Research Guide (New York and London, 1987), p. 113.

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