Story Prompt Sunday #2: B is for Basilisk

I wanted to draw a Basilisk, the fearsome creature of myth that can kill with a look, but I realized I didn’t know what it looked like.

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, written around 79 A.D, offers one of the earliest descriptions of the Basilisk.

It is… not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance it’s body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. … It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the spear and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal…

Natural History by Pliny the Elder

This description sounds like a misinterpretation of a King Cobra, or perhaps a second or third hand account of a King Cobra from someone who never met one.

  1. It is 12 fingers in length. The King Cobra is the world’s longest venomous snake. Average length is 10-12ft long, so many Pliny meant feet instead of fingers?
  2. It has a white spot on its head. I’m not sure about this, but the King Cobra has 12 large, distinctive scales on its head.
  3. All the other serpents fly from it. For good reason, as it eats snakes, even other King Cobras. Their hiss is lower in register than most snakes and sounds almost like a growl.
  4. It moves along upright upon the middle. The King Cobra is famous for rising up perpendicular to the ground and unfurling its hood. It can move forward in this position and strike with great speed.
  5. It’s poison could travel up a spear to kill both horse and rider. Pliny doesn’t mention the killing stare of the Basilisk, but he does say the point about the spear was a former belief. I’m not sure if people realized that it could bite and kill both horse and rider before it was speared, or whether they thought it could kill with its gaze. As the King Cobra likes to maintain eye contact when in its aggressive display, and it’s strike is incredibly quick, combined with its lethal venom that can kill a human in 30 minutes and an elephant in 3 hours, I can see how the myth of killing with a look might have come about.
  6. The effluvium of the weasel is fatal. Weasels are stinky animals, but it’s a stretch to say their smell is lethal. However, the mongoose looks quite similar to the weasel and is famous for killing snakes. Even though they aren’t related – the mongoose belongs to the family Herpestidae, while the weasel is part of the family Mustelidae – I could imagine someone describing a mongoose likening it to a weasel. The mongoose has immunity to snake venom, which could have turned into the weasels killer stench.

This long introduction is to explain why I decided to draw a Basilisk looking like a King Cobra.

By the Middle Ages the Basilisk had become almost indistinguishable from the Cockatrice, and lost its lethal oozing venom. It had, however, gained its killer look, but was still vulnerable to stinky Weasels.

This poor Basilisk has caught scent of a friendly weasel, which means it isn’t long for this world. What a shame, I think they’d have gone on fun adventures.

I used coloured pencils for this picture.

Let me know if this drawing inspires any creative endeavors.

20 thoughts on “Story Prompt Sunday #2: B is for Basilisk”

  1. Isn’t that interesting how that description ended up in a book of Natural History? It goes to show how incorrect human assumptions can be. I think you’re right that it was probably a King Cobra. And excellent drawing, Iseult!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Diana 😊. I’m love trying to figure out if mythological animals were once real creatures. It’s easy to imagine how it could happen when people are trying to describe something with limited frame of reference. It’s so easy for one aspect to become focused on and embellished as the story spreads.

      Liked by 1 person

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