Monday, 25 February 2013

The Perfidious Perils of the Baleful Basilisk

                   The Unicorn may have been fierce and untameable, according to the old bestiaries, but it was generally seen as a benign beast, whereas there was another creature that was born bad, spent its life doing dirty deeds and about which no one had a good word to say– the basilisk. Its birth was curiously fanciful in the extreme. 


Sometimes, particularly when they are young and just beginning to lay, chickens will lay ‘wind’ eggs, which are immature attempts that occur before they begin to lay properly. These are sometimes very small or misshapen, often without a yolk, sometimes without a shell, and are also known as ‘cock’s eggs’. In folklore, it is said that if a toad or a serpent incubates a cock’s egg, the resultant hatchling will be either a cockatrice or a basilisk. 


In heraldry, a wyvern was a two-legged dragon, often but not always with wings; a cockatrice was identical to the wyvern except that it had the head of a dung-hill cockerel, and the basilisk had a crest on its head, similar to a crown, and had an extra dragon’s or serpent’s head at the end of its tail, rather than a barb or a sting. 


In his A New, Accurate System of Natural History Vol 2 (Birds) of 1763, Richard Brookes describes the cock’s egg and his final clause is particularly telling, as he feels it necessary to mention it, 
There is a little egg fometimes found in Hens nefts, no bigger than that of a pigeons, which is commonly called a Cock's egg, and is pretended by fome, that a Crocodile has been generated from it; but this is a fable.” 

Richard Brookes - Birds - 1763

By crocodile, it is certain that Brookes meant a cockatrice (he is consistently inconsistent throughout his works). The basilisk takes its name from the Greek βασιλισκος - basilikos, a diminutive form of the word for King, as the King is the basis of the nation, as it was thought to be the King of all the reptiles and the comb on its head was its crown (sometimes it wore an actual crown), in Latin it was known as the Regulus. 


Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Book VIII Chapter 33) describes the basilisk as a small serpent with a white crest, resembling a crown, that scares away all other serpents when it hisses, moves along erect rather than by a succession of folds, like other snakes, and is so poisonous that it kills plants as it passes by them, and if a mounted horseman attempted to spear one the poison would spread up the spear and kill not only the rider but the horse too. 


The only creature that could kill a basilisk was the weasel, the smell of which was fatal to it, and weasels were put into the burrows of basilisks to rid the country of them. It seems from this explanation that someone, somewhere, had seen a king cobra, which looks (with a little imagination) like it is wearing a crown of sorts, and had seen a mongoose (very like a weasel) killing the cobra. Some cobras are able to spit their venom, which may account for the belief that the basilisk is able to kill from a distance, with its baleful glare. 

Aldrovandus - Basilisk

Early illustrations of the basilisk show it as a crowned serpent or, in the case of Aldrovandus, as an eight-legged creature, and it is not until later that the cockatrice and the basilisk become virtual synonyms. The ever-sensible Sir Thomas Browne, in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Vulgar Errors), distinguishes between the cockatrice and the basilisk, writing  
“…this of ours is generally described with legs, wings, a serpentine and winding tail, and a crest or comb somewhat like a cock. But the basilisk of elder times was a proper kind of serpent.” 

Sir Thomas Browne - Of the Basilisk - 1686

He examines the evidence with his usual diligence and concludes that the so-called basilisks displayed in cabinets of curiosities have been man-made from the skins of birds, snakes and fishes; he also had some of his own made to confirm his argument. He dismisses the notion of generation from cock’s eggs as 
a conceit as monstrous as the brood itself,” 
although he does allow that another myth about the birth of the basilisk, that they were brought about by Egyptian Ibises eating venomous snakes, the properties of which were passed on into their own eggs, is a possibility. 

Charles Owen - The Natural History of Reptiles - 1742

Browne also turns his mind to the Biblical basilisk, as it is mentioned depending on how the word Hebrew word zephoni is translated – take Isaiah 11:8, 
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.” 
[King James Version] 
In some versions (Lowth, Douay-Rheims etc) the word ‘basilisk’ is used instead of ‘cockatrice’, which is more fitting in the context, particularly if the sense of a dangerous venomous reptile is intended. As you may imagine, mentions of the basilisk abound in English literature, where it features in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Pope and Shelley amongst many others. 


The cock’s egg also lies behind a common English word, if we look at the Middle English words coken (pertaining to cocks) and ey (egg), we arrive at the word cockney. It appears first in the Vision of Piers Plowman (1362), (A-text, Passus VII) 
Ich haue no salt bacon; 
Nouht a cokeney, by Cryst, colhoppes to make.” 
In this sense, it means the meanest, poorest sort of an egg but when the word appears next in English literature, in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale (c.1386), 
And when this jape is tald another day, 
I sal be held a daf, a cokenay.” 
it has another meaning, that of a simpleton or spoiled townie, soft in both the body and the head. By the sixteenth century, country dwellers were using ‘cockney’ to mean any effeminate, pampered city dweller, most especially those from the east end of London, those born within the sound of Bow bells (the bells of the church of St Mary-le-Bow), which just goes to confirm what every northerner already knows about cockneys anyway.

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