Basilisk, the chimera that has terrified Europe for twenty centuries

A specimen captured in the 16th century is in the Natural History Museum in Venice.

It has lasted in the collective imagination for nearly two thousand years. The basilisk is a demonic, fire-breathing creature with a killer look. Also the target of many scams throughout history and inspiring motto for the lyrics.

The scientific name of Squatina squatina called the cartilaginous fish, a predator that, commonly, is called angelfish. A specimen captured around the 16th century takes center stage at the Natural History Museum in Venice. Do an online search for the ride from the Google Arts & Culture virtual gallery, a partnership between the technological giant with museums from all over the world, to “collect” in that immense digital catalog, the unique image of Squatina squatina belonging to the collection of the Italian museum. It is necessary to submit the research to the term basilisk, in order to see the profile of the creature that has been shadowing the western imagination for nearly 20 centuries.

The chimera on display at the Venetian museum is attributed to Leone Tartaglini, a Tuscan taxidermist. Unique artifact, it combines a shapeless viper body and a rooster head, with a belliculous jaw and beak. Tartaglini spawned his nightmare creature from segments of one or more angelfish. The hoax gave form to the entity described in countless European bestiaries, explanatory compendiums of natural and fantastic creatures. Works that drank from previous sources, such as the Physiologist, a Greek manuscript resulting from the compilation of legends originating in the Indian, Egyptian and Jewish traditions, with the Greek contributions of classical texts by Aristotle and Herodotus, among others.

The basilisk embodied by Tartaglini has long traveled in European legends. Also known as “little king”, in an allusion to the crown-shaped crest that he would acquire later, the entity had become a symbol of the allegorical figure of death, fear, the devil. So feared by people who in the 15th century designated syphilis as basilisk venom.

You have to go back to the 1st century AD to find the ancestor of the medieval and Renaissance basilisk. Pliny the Elder, naturalist, writer, and Roman historian, included in his monumental work, in 37 volumes, Naturalis Historia, the description of a small fantastic snake, originally from Northern Africa, capable of breathing fire. At the same time, Pedânio Dioscórides, a Greco-Roman author, recognized for posterity as the founder of pharmacognosy (based on natural active principles, animals or plants), notes the existence of the basilisk, still as a fire-breathing snake.

The medieval imagination wanted to add the cockroach’s head, feathers, legs to the basilisk’s anatomy and extend its deadly range. The creature went on to kill with his gaze and featured in writings of the time, such as the one attributed to Theophilus Presbyter, an 11th-century compendium, originating in Vienna and which details medieval arts, such as illuminations, bell casting, frescoes, and organs. Schedula diversarum artium included the recipe for converting copper to gold. To do this, powdered basilisk blood should be considered among the ingredients.

In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci described the basilisk as a cruel creature. Renaissance that kept the chimera legend alive. Ulisse Aldrovandil, a Bolognese naturalist, founder of the botanical garden of that Italian city, presented the engraving of a dissected basilisk in the 15th century. Illustration based on the corpses of an angelfish and ray.

In the 18th century, Benito Jerónimo, a Galician philosopher, denied the existence of a creature capable of killing with his eyes. The entity that, however, had accommodated itself as an inspiring fable in the world of letters. In the seventeenth century, Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish writer who bequeathed us works like Gulliver’s Travels, brought the presence of the basilisk to his poetry. Also the English poet Percy Shelley, “captured” for his literary building the mixed creature of snake and cock. At the same time, what was to be Percy’s second wife, Mary Shelley, sought recognition from the world of letters with her inaugural work, Frankenstein.

Basilisk who visited the work of Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist, poet, and short-story writer, who gave letters, ran 1897, the Gothic novel Dracula. In chapter IV, protagonist Jonathan Harker visits the vampire’s crypt that awakens from his immortal sleep with a basilisk look.

The contemporary world keeps alive the references around the creature that is the heraldic animal of the city of Basel, in Switzerland. The American George R.R.Martin, the author of the saga Chronicles of Ice and Fire, which the small screen popularized as A Game Of Thrones, made the basilisk a poisonous creature found in the jungles of Yi Ti, in the Basilisk Islands.

The 1st century A.D. In the second volume of Harry Potter, the protagonist faces the fury of a basilisk.

Far from the big screens, in the shadows of the Cantabrian forests, in northern Spain, the legend of a creature of darkness, born from the egg laid by an old rooster, remains just before his death, at exactly 12 o’clock on a full moon. The basilisk is not an angelfish there.


Source: DN / Jorge Andrade

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