Basilisks and cockatrices

A basilisk in a 13th-century manuscript, with one of its human victims, while being confronted by a weasel: Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 63r

It’s the beginning of December and I’m starting the annual advent count down to Christmas with a fabled creature from medieval bestiaries that gained more recent recognition thanks to a certain boy wizard. These creatures were allegedly hatched from the egg of a toad which had been incubated by a cockerel. As with most things scientific the medieval world took their cue from the Greeks. Pliny the Elder described basilisks killing with a single stare, being venomous and breathing fire. The Venerable Bede attested to the basilisk and Geoffrey Chaucer made mention of them.

In the event of coming across a basilisk the advice is to throw a weasel down its hole or burrow. Apparently, according to Pliny, who described the basilisk has having a deadly effect on everything in its vicinity including the vegetation, the weasel would become a fatality but the basilisk would succumb to the weasel’s smell. The weasel in this particular image from The British Library seems to be having a staring competition with the basilisk which has a resplendently serpentine tail attached to the body of a cockerel. An image of a basilisk held by the Bodleian Library shows the weasel being decidedly more aggressive and considerably larger that your average weasel. If you do encounter a basilisk but don’t have a handy weasel to lob at it, medieval writers professed the power of prayer. After all, the basilisk was an embodiment of evil. By the Renaissance, writers urged people to defend themselves with axes – presumably whilst avoiding the creature’s gaze.

A Weasel Combating a Basilisk, Folio 79, Bestiary of the Second Family, also known as The Ashmole Beastiary, Peterborough Abbey or Canterbury Abbey, c. 1200–10. BODLEIAN LIBRARY, OXFORD, MS ASHMOLE 1511

It has been suggested that Pliny was actually writing about a cobra – which hisses, spits and is deadly. Greek descriptions were used widely in bestiaries from the ninth century onwards. By 1100 they were becoming incorporated in alchemy. By the Renaissance writers were tripping over basilisks on a regular basis and inevitably charlatans were faking taxidermic examples. Francesco I de Medici had a particularly fine example on display in Florence.

I found this little chap on Pinterest. He originates in the bestiary of Anne Walshe dating from the early fifteenth century. Anne was a child and annotated several of the drawings. It can be found in the Royal Library of Copenhagen and can be viewed digitally online by following the link at the end of the post before the references.

R. McN. Alexander. “The Evolution of the Basilisk.” Greece & Rome, vol. 10, no. 2, [Classical Association, Cambridge University Press], 1963, pp. 170–81,