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The Basilisk and Cockatrice

In the early western world the basilisk was one of the most feared monsters. A small but horrific reptile, hailed as the ‘King of the Serpents’.

Basilisk is Greek for ‘little king’ which is the translation of its latin name, regulus. Despite its diminutive size, the basilisk was a near implacable for to all that it encountered. It could kill the largest animal and split the largest boulder with a single glance from its deadly eyes. Its noxious breath withered the strongest tree and permanently poisoned any stream or river from which it drank, even the foul odour of its sweat was toxic. It could cause birds flying overhead to drop lifeless to the ground, just by simply spitting its envenomed saliva up into the air.

Only three living things could counter the basilisks lethal powers; the weasel, which was somehow immune to its death-dealing gaze; the cockerel, whose raucous crowing would send the basilisk fleeing in fright; and rue, a plant that could withstand the basilisks poison breath, and it was used by weasels to heal themselves if they were injured during battles with this monster.

In medieval times the basilisk underwent a dramatic transformation. It acquired birdlike legs, a coiling tail, and a pair or wings, evolving into a beast not reminiscent of a wyvern but with certain differences. Although its body and tail retains their reptilian scales, its wings became feathered and its head became the head of a cockerel. Wattles hung down from either side of its face, jaws became a curved beak. Its name changed too, no longer the king of serpents, it became known as the cockatrice because of its fowl-impersonating features.

As far as its behaviour was concerned the cockatrice was just as gruesome as its serpentine ancestor. Fortunatly there was at least one successful method known for destroying this creature, a mirror. Seeing its reflection the cockatrice will attack believing it to be an intruder but at the sight of its own hideous image was so shocking that the monster promply perished.

The basilisk and cockatrice were largely confined to northern Africa and western Europe but similar creatures have been reported in many other parts of the world. Iceland’s equivalent was a basilisk-like creature called the Skoffin. It could only be killed by the gaze of another skoffin, or by shooting it with a silver button upon which the sign of the cross has been carved. In Jamaica around 1845 the English naturalist Philip Gosse collected many eyewitness accounts of a mysterous wattled snake that could allegedly crow like a rooster, a true basilisk exhibiting the first stages of metamorphosis into a cockatrice? A larger, very venomous counterpart called the inkhomi (killer), or crowing crested cobra, has been reported in central Africa for centuries. Partial remains have occasionally been obtained but never formally identified with any species known to date.

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