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The legend of the cockatrice or Basilisk

Posted in Animals, Biology, Legend, Superstition on Tuesday, 7 May 2013

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This edited article about the basilisk originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 245 published on 24 September 1966.

basilisk, picture, image, illustration

Helmeted basilisk

It sometimes happens, although very rarely, that an elderly domestic hen may begin to grow wattles and to crow while still laying eggs. It may also happen that an elderly barnyard cockerel may lay a kind of egg. These things merely indicate that the birds are undergoing a change of sex in later life.

These things were noted by people living many centuries ago. They did not understand what was happening, so to them such events seemed miraculous, and they invented a legend to explain them. The legend was that the egg laid by an elderly cockerel would hatch and from it would come a rather terrifying creature which was half cockerel, half serpent. This cockerel with a serpent’s tail they called a cockatrice or basilisk.

The basilisk was the epitome of everything evil and was said to be so deadly that, if it looked at a man, he would drop dead. It was generally believed that there were basilisks all over the country, in hiding.

There was, however, an ingenious knight who had the idea that, if he made a suit of armour composed of mirrors, he could rid the country of basilisks because, whenever he confronted one of them, the basilisk would see its own image in his armour and would itself drop dead!

Today, we look upon this as a lot of nonsense, but centuries ago it was all solemnly believed, and in the sixteenth century, in Basle, in Switzerland, a cockerel that laid an egg was publicly tried and burnt at the stake. There is a special reason why the people of Basle should have done this because, we are told, the town itself was founded in A.D. 382 by a knight who had killed basilisks by wearing a suit of crystal mirrors.

When the Spaniards conquered South America in the fifteenth century and settled there, it was not long before they noticed a curious lizard. They named it the basilisk because, with a crest on its head, rather like the comb of a cockerel, it looked so like the description they had been given of the fictitious basilisk said to inhabit Europe.

The story of the real basilisk is if anything more remarkable than that of the legendary one. And the most remarkable thing about it is that it can run across water.

A number of animals are able to run across water with their webbed feet, rather as a stone will bounce along the surface when one plays ‘ducks and drakes’. A few frogs in South America can do it. A duck does something like it with its feet when it takes off, but the weight of the body is then borne by the wings, and the feet are merely striking the water.

The usual explanation is that this lizard is able to do this because it runs so fast, but this is not a good explanation, otherwise we could expect other creatures to be able to do something similar. Also, an American scientist, who has been studying the basilisk, has found that they live in the bushes overhanging water, and that, when alarmed, they drop on to it and scutter across. Even when they drop from a height of several feet, they still do not sink into the water.

Human beings, in walking upright, exert an anti-gravity pull that helps to keep them erect, and in recent years it had been found that this pull starts in the muscles of the neck between the base of the skull and the shoulders. It is possible to train oneself to use this anti-gravity pull, and a person who does so becomes very light on his feet and appears to float rather than walk. It is too early to say whether something of this sort is the secret of the basilisk, but it could well be that the lizard is able to run across water by a combination of its webbed feet and a more effective anti-gravity pull than any human being can exert.

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