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.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!