Mythical Monday: Defining the Basilisk by Mae Clair

Anyone who’s read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets or seen the movie is a familiar with a basilisk. But the creature depicted in J.K. Rowling’s universe is different than many of the original legends. In some early retellings the basilisk is a small snake that oozes a noxious trail of venom in its wake. In others it resembles a cockerel, and others still, a fire breathing serpent.

So which is it?

Although legends differ in the appearance of the basilisk, all agree the creature is deadly. It kills with a stare, and its breath is lethal. Plants wither, birds fall from the air, and trees shrivel and die when the eye of the basilisk is turned upon them. Can you imagine a beast so heinous it only has to look at something to usher in death? Creepy, yes. Terrifying, ditto.

This is a monster which according to myth is born from a cock’s egg when stolen and hatched by a serpent or toad. (Some accounts state the reverse, saying the basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad or serpent. Either way, it’s ugly. And toxic.).

The basilisk is so vile even the bravest of knights were unable to kill the beast. Many died trying, unwittingly sentencing their steeds to the same gruesome death awaiting them. If a rider on horseback attempted to kill the creature by stabbing it with a spear, its poisonous blood travelled through the weapon, killing the rider and his horse.

Fortunately for knights and humankind, these odious monsters were not invincible. The basilisk had two mortal foes – the common weasel and the cockerel.

671px-Wenceslas_Hollar_-_The_basilisk_and_the_weasel

The Basilisk and the Weasel
Drawing courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Wenceslaus Hollar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Weasels are immune to the basilisk’s lethal stare and will viciously attack the creature with their razor-sharp teeth. If wounded during the contest, the weasel is smart enough to roll in the leaves of a rue plant. Rue, also known as the “herb of grace,” contains healing properties and is the only plant able to withstand the basilisk’s destructive stare. In a contest between a basilisk and a weasel, the ferocious and cunning weasel will always win.

The second mortal foe of the basilisk is the cockerel. The sound of a cock’s crow will instantly kill the beast. One tale references the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who was blind from birth. It’s believed he befriended a basilisk when he came across the creature in the Nubian Desert. Aware that its stare was fatal, Plotinus covered its eyes in order to tame it. All was well until he led his new companion to the city. There, the moment the basilisk heard a cock crow it surrendered its life and died.

Perhaps the tale of the basilisk is a reminder that all beings, no matter how formidable, are imbued with weaknesses. Think of Achilles or Goliath, even the mighty elephant, which in an African fable dies when a tiny mouse lodges in its trunk.

Can you think of any other legends or myths where a powerful being or creature was destroyed through a trivial weakness? I’d love to hear about them!

21 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Defining the Basilisk by Mae Clair

    • I wondered that too. The only thing I can come up with is since the Basilisk’s stare was capable of killing everything around it with the exception of the rue plant, weasel and cockerel, he did it to protect to any animal, bird, or plant life in the vicinity. At least that’s my educated guess, LOL.

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  1. I might be wrong but didn’t love kill the Minotaur? I wonder too if a moment of weakness when the monster viewed the beautiful Ariadne chained to her rock allowed Perseus the chance to kill it.
    I enjoyed this Mae Clair. I love ancient legends.

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    • Thanks, Daisy! I haven’t done the Minotaur yet *adds to list* but all I remember is him being in the labyrinth created by Daedalus for King Minos. I think he had a habit of snacking on sacrifices. I’ll have to examine that legend in more detail!

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    • Thanks for dropping by, Debbie. It’s so weird to think a weasel could bring down something as dreadful as a Basilisk. It’s thought the legend might be spun from the tale of the mongoose and the cobra.

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  2. The Basilisk Stare ! I must leartn that one. There are a few people at work that I’d like to try it out on lol Great post Mae. Love Mythical Mondays 🙂

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  3. I loved Rowling’s interpretation of the basilisk. I do remember the myth about the weasel and thought…isn’t it funny that something so lethal can be taken down by something so small. But then, you mentioned David and Goliath. You don’t always have to be the biggest or the strongest to win. Samson lost all his strength when he let Delilah shave his head. What a combo. Women and a haircut = slavery.

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  4. A look that could kill, huh? I swear, Mae- some of these basilisk things commute on the train with me. 🙂
    The one in the picture here, doesn’t look so terrifying, but, nope– don’t wanna run into one either. It is very curious that a weasel has the power to bring one down though. But like folks are saying here, there’s always been in these tales that message that the power of the small, or little can bring down the big and terrifying. Seems like this dynamic plays out so much these days in real life in the news we hear from all of the world. Thank God for that!

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    • I love the way that works…the power of the small over the mighty. It makes me think of King Arthur and his belief that “might does not equal right.” And it makes me think of Frodo from The Lord Of The Rings.

      There are plenty of Basilisks in the word. Good thing there are plenty of weasels too 🙂

      Glad to see you here, Venice!

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  5. What an interesting post. I do believe that might doesn’t always mean right and that little packages tend to kill the larger ones. I wondered if the Basilisk would have died if he looked at his own face, sort of like Medusa.

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    • Hi, Melissa. So great to see you here! I’m all about little packages taking down the larger ones. It’s true of so many myths and legends.

      Good point about the Basilisk. Although I haven’t found anything to indicate it would have killed itself by seeing its own reflection, it’s definitely something to ponder.

      I thought of Medusa too as I was writing the post. It would be interesting to see her up against the Basilisk in a contest. Makes you wonder which of them would win!

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