The first time it appears to have been written down was in 1699. A pamphlet called ‘A True Relation of a Monsterous Serpent seen at Henham on the Mount in Saffron Walden,’ was written by a man called William Winstantley of Saffron Walden. This was about a winged serpent that appeared in May of that year.
In the same pamphlet he also tells the story of a basilisk that had terrorized Saffron Walden some centuries before. It was described as:
“…not about a foot in length, of colour between black and yellow, having very red eyes, a sharp head and a white spot hereon like a crown. It goeth not winding like other serpents but upright on its breast. If a man touch it though with a long pole it kills him: and if it sees a man far off it destroys him with its looks. Furthermore it breaketh stones, blasteth all plants with his breath, it burneth everything it goeth over; no herb can grow near the place of his abode.”
The story continues to say that the basilisk killed so many people and so many fled that the little market town had hardly anyone left in it. Then a wandering knight covers his armour in crystal glass. When the basilisk sees its reflection it dies instantly.
Are there other stories with dragons and reflections?
The Wherwell Cockatrice logo
There are quite a lot of stories in which dragons of all kinds are outwitted by the use of something which reflects their image back to them. Here are a couple. Can you find more?
A cockatrice (born from a duck’s egg, similar to a basilisk) caused havoc to people and land at Wherwell Priory. It was eventually defeated, after killing many knights, by a lowly servant, called Green, who lowered a polished steel mirror down into the cellar where the creature lived. The cockatrice thought it was a rival and attacked it fiercely and for a long time. When it was exhausted, Green jumped into the cellar and killed it with a spear. Many residents of Wherwell would not eat ducks’ eggs right up to the 1930’s!
There was another dragon in Essex, which had been brought into Horndon by sailors in the middle ages. It escaped into forests nearby and grew enormous. It was eventually killed by a knight wearing highly polished armour which dazzled it.
What is a basilisk?
Basilisk and weasel (University of Toronto)
The word basilisk comes from the Greek word basileus, meaning king. So they thought of it as the king of snakes and the most poisonous creature on the earth.
The Roman scholar Pliny, says " (it)is so venomous that it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal".
Since anyone who looks at a basilisk dies immediately, there is no-one who really knows what it looks like! However, it is widely thought to be a small dragon, with the head and legs of a cockerel and tale of a snake with a white patch on the head that looks like a crown.
Its only enemy in nature is the weasel - whose odour kills the basilisk. But, by the middle ages, it was thought that carrying a cockerel could keep it at bay.
It is born (hatched) when a cockerel's egg (or duck's egg) is incubated by a toad (or snake). Such a creature is also sometimes called a 'cockatrice'.
Many people think that stories of the Basilisk arose from tales of the Egyptian cobra, which has a white mark on its head and can spit out very powerful venom (poison) and does not need to bite its prey. Its natural enemy is the mongoose which can kill cobras, and may be where the stories of the weasel came from.
In literature and the real world
Statue of a basilisk in Basel
The basilisk appears in the Bible ".. since the serpent's stock can still produce a basilisk, and the offspring of that will be a flying dragon."
The King James Bible says "out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent."
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about a basilicok (as he called it) in The Canterbury Tales - in which he imagines the stories some pilgrims might tell each other on their way to Canterbury.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote about the basilisk in his Bestiary, (a collection of notes about animals) saying it is so cruel that if it cannot kill animals by its "baleful gaze, it turns upon herbs and plants, and fixing its gaze on them withers them up." He also included the Phoenix in his list!
In Shakespeare's Richard III, Lady Anne says to Richard who compliments her eyes "Would they were basilisks to strike thee dead!"
The basilisk is an important and deadly creature in in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'.
Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift and many other writers use it to describe particularly nasty characters in their novels.
The basilisk has been an important symbol of the city of Basel (Basle) in Switzerland for 500 years and a visitor can find many statues and buildings with its image.
Finally, there is a real South American lizard, Basiliscus (Basilisk), which is the only kind of lizard which can run across water on its back legs.