Pseudodoxia Epidemica Sir Thomas Browne Search

Sir Thomas Browne

1646; 6th ed., 1672

Pseudodoxia Epidemica III:vii


Of the Basilisk

MANY Opinions are passant concerning the Basilisk or little king1 of Serpents, commonly called the Cockatrice, some affirming, others denying, most doubting the relations made hereof. What therefore in these uncertainties we may more safely determine: that such an Animall there is, if we evade not the testimony of Scripture and humane Writers, we cannot safely deny. So is it said, Psalm 91, Super Aspidem & Basiliscum ambulabis, wherein the Vulgar Translation retaineth the Word of the Septuagint, using in other places the Latine expression Regulus, as Proverbs 23, Mordebit ut coluber, & sicut Regulus venena diffundet:2 and Jeremy 8, Ecce ego mittam vobis serpentes Regulos, &c. That is, as ours translate it, Behold I wil send Serpents, Cockatrices among you which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you. And as for humane Authors, or such as have discoursed of Animals, or Poisons, it is to be found almost in all: in Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Solinus, Aelian, Aetius, Avicen, Ardoynus, Grevinus, and many more. In Aristotle I confess we find no mention thereof, but Scaliger in his Comment and enumeration of Serpents, hath made supply; and in his Exercitations delivereth that a Basilisk was found in Rome, in the days of Leo the fourth. The like is reported by Sigonius; and some are so far from denying one, that they have made several kinds thereof: for such is the Catoblepas of Pliny conceived to be by some,3 and the Dryinus of Aetius by others.

But although we deny not the existence of the Basilisk, yet whether we do not commonly mistake in the conception hereof, and call that a Basilisk which is none at all, is surely to be questioned. For certainly that which from the conceit of its generation we vulgarly call a Cockatrice, and wherein (but under a different name) we intend a formal Identity and adequate conception with the Basilisk; is not the Basilisk of the Ancients, whereof such wonders are delivered. For this of ours is generally described with legs, wings, a Serpentine and wandering tail, and a crist or comb somewhat like a Cock. But the Basilisk of elder times was a proper kind of Serpent, not above three palms long, as some account; and differenced from other Serpents by advancing his head, and some white marks or coronary spots upon the crown, as all authentick Writers have delivered.4

Nor is this Cockatrice only unlike the Basilisk, but of no real shape in Nature; and rather an Hieroglyphickal phansie, to express different intentions, set forth in different fashions. Sometimes with the head of a Man, sometime with the head of an Hawk, as Pierius hath delivered; and as with addition of legs the Heralds and Painters still describe it. Nor was it only of old a symbolicall and allowable invention, but is now become a manual contrivance of Art, and artificiall imposture; whereof besides others, Scaliger hath taken notice: Basilisci formam mentiti sunt vulgo Gallinaceo similem, & pedibus binis; neque enim absimiles sunt caeteris serpentibus, nisi macula quasi in vertice candida, unde illi nomen Regium; that is, men commonly counterfeit the form of a Basilisk with another like a Cock, and with two feet;5 whereas they differ not from other Serpents, but in a white speck upon their Crown. Now although in some manner it might be counterfeited in Indian Cocks, and flying Serpents, yet is it commonly contrived out of the skins of Thornbacks, Scaits, or Maids, as Aldravand hath observed, and also graphically6 described in his Excellent Book of Fishes; and for satisfaction of my own curiosity I have caused some to be thus contrived out of the same Fishes.

Nor is onely the existency of this animall considerable, but many things delivered thereof, particularly its poison and its generation. Concerning the first, according to the doctrine of the Ancients, men still affirm, that it killeth at a distance, that it poisoneth by the eye, and by priority of vision. Now that deleterious7 it may be at some distance, and destructive without corporal contaction, what uncertainty soever there be in the effect, there is no high improbability in the relation. For if Plagues or pestilential Atoms have been conveyed in the Aire from distant Regions, if men at a distance have infected each other, if the shadows of some trees be noxious,8 if Torpedoes9 deliver their opium at a distance, and stupifie beyond themselves, we cannot reasonably deny, that (besides our gross and restrained poysons requiring contiguity unto their action) there may proceed from subtiller seeds, more agile emanations; which contemn those Laws, and invade at distance unexpected.

That this venenation shooteth from the eye, and that this way a Basilisk may empoison, although thus much be not agreed upon by Authors, some imputing it unto the breath, others unto the bite, it is not a thing impossible;10 for eyes receive offensive impressions, from their objects, and may have influences destructive to each other; for the visible species of things strike not our senses immaterially, but streaming in corporall raies, do carry with them the qualities of the object from whence they flow, and the medium through which they pass. Thus through a green or red Glass all things we behold appear of the same colours; thus sore eyes affect those which are sound, and themselves also by reflection, as will happen to an inflamed eye that beholds it self long in a Glass; thus is fascination made out, and thus also it is not impossible, what is affirmed of this animal, the visible rayes of their eyes carrying forth the subtilest portion of their poyson, which received by the eye of man, or beast, infecteth first the braine, and is from thence communicated unto the heart.11

But lastly, That this destruction should be the effect of the first beholder, or depend upon priority of aspection, is a point not easily to be granted, and very hardly to be made out upon the principles of Aristotle, Alhazen, Vitello, and others, who hold that sight is made by Reception, and not by extramission; by receiving the raies of the object into the eye, and not by sending any out. For hereby although he behold a man first, the Basilisk, should rather be destroyed, in regard he first receiveth the rayes of his Antipathy, and venomous emissions which objectively move his sense; but how powerful soever his own poison be, it invadeth not the sense of man, in regard he beholdeth him not. And therefore this conceit was probably begot by such as held the opinion of sight by extramission; as did Pythagoras, Plato, Empedocles, Hipparchus, Galen, Macrobius, Proclus, Simplicius, with most of the Ancients, and is the postulate of Euclide in his Opticks, but now sufficiently convicted from observations of the Dark Chamber.12

As for the generation of the Basilisk, that it proceedeth from a Cock's egg hatched under a Toad or Serpent, it is a conceit as monstrous as the brood it self.13 For if we should grant that Cocks growing old, and unable for emission, amass within themselves some seminal matter, which may after conglobate into the form of an egg, yet will this substance be unfruitful. As wanting one principle of generation, and a commixture of both sexes, which is required unto production, as may be observed in the eggs of Hens not trodden; and as we have made trial in some which are termed Cocks' eggs.14 It is not indeed impossible that from the sperm of a Cock, Hen, or other Animal, being once in putrescence, either from Incubation or otherwise, some generation may ensue; not univocal and of the same species, but some imperfect or monstrous production, even as in the body of man from putrid humours, and peculiar ways of corruption; there have succeeded strange and unseconded shapes of worms; whereof we have beheld some our selves, and read of others in medical observations. And so may strange and venemous Serpents be several ways engendered; but that this generation should be regular, and alway produce a Basilisk, is beyond our affirmation, and we have good reason to doubt.

Again, It is unreasonable to ascribe the equivocacy of this form unto the hatching of a Toad, or imagine that diversifies the production; for Incubation alters not the species, nor if we observe it, so much as concurs either to the sex or colour: as appears in the eggs of Ducks or Partridges hatched under a Hen, there being required unto their exclusion only a gentle and continued heat: and that not particular or confined unto the species or parent. So have I known the seed of Silk-worms hatched on the bodies of women: and Pliny reports that Livia the wife of Augustus hatched an egg in her bosome.15 Nor is only an animal heat required hereto, but an elemental and artificiall warmth will suffice: For as Diodorus delivereth, the Aegyptians were wont to hatch their eggs in Ovens, and many eye-witnesses confirm that practice unto this day; and therefore this generation of the Basilisk, seemes like that of Castor and Helena; he that can credit the one, may easily beleeve the other; that is, that these two were hatched out of the egge, which Jupiter in the forme of a Swan, begat on his Mistris Leda.

The occasion of this conceit might be an Aegyptian tradition concerning the Bird Ibis, which after became transferred unto Cocks. For an opinion it was of that Nation, that the Ibis feeding upon Serpents, that venomous food so inquinated their ovall conceptions, or eggs within their bodies, that they sometimes came forth in Serpentine Shapes, and therefore they always brake their egges, nor would they endure the bird to sit upon them; but how causelesse their fear was herein, the daily Incubation of Ducks, Peahens, and many other testifie, and the Storke might have informed them, which bird they honoured and cherished, to destroy their Serpents.16

That which much promoteth it, was a misapprehension in holy Scripture upon the Latine translation in Esa. 59, Ova aspidum ruperunt, & telas Aranearum texuerunt, quit comedent de ovis eorum morietus, & quod confotum est, erupet in Regulum.17 From whence notwithstanding, beside the generation of Serpents from egges, there can be nothing concluded; and what kind of Serpents are meant, not easie to be determined, for Translations are very different: Tremellius rendering the Asp Haemorrhous, and the Regulus or Basilisk a Viper, and our translation for the Asp sets down a Cockatrice in the Text, and an Adder in the margin.

Another place of Esay doth also seem to countenance it, Chap. 14. Ne Laeteris Phillistaea quoniam diminuta est virga percussoris tui, de radice enim colubri egredietur Regulus, & semen ejus absorbens volucrem;18 which ours somewhat favorably rendereth: Out of the Serpent's Root shall come forth a Cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fierie flying Serpent: But Tremellius, radice Serpentis prodit Haemorrhous, & fructus illius praester volans; wherein the words are different, but the sense is still the same; for therein are figuratively intended Uzziah and Ezechias; for though the Philistines had escaped the minor Serpent Uzziah, yet from his stock a fiercer Snake should arise, that would more terribly sting them, and that was Ezechias.

But the greatest promotion it hath received from a misunderstanding of the Hieroglyphickal intention. For being conceived to be the Lord and King of Serpents, to awe all others, nor to be destroyed by any; the Aegyptians hereby implied Eternity, and the awful power of the supreme Deitie; and therefore described a crowned Aspe or Basilisk upon the heads of their Gods. As may be observed in the Bembine table,19 and other Aegyptian monuments.



1 BasiliskoV

2 [Wren: Note the worde diffundent, which intimates a strange kinde of poysoning (undequque,) must probably infecting the heart of him that approaches, by the breath drawne into the very heart immediately, then by the eye, which requires a longer way then the maner of infection is wont to take, killing in an instant, irrecoverablye, and diverse have perished by his spreading poyson in the dark holes, where they could never see the serpent. To which the story in Sennertus seems to add strong proofe.]

3 [NH viii(77). The Latin catoblepas was some sort of African animal, possibly an antelope, a buffalo. The name is now the genus name of the gnu (or "gnoo", as Wilkin has it). The word means "looking downward".]

4 [See also Cuvier on the Basilisk.]

5 [Wren on the feet of basilisks: As was that kept in the physick schooles of Oxon, of a most elegant forme, and as it seemes of a dusky, but transparent, substance, like glew, and as if shaped in a molde.]

6 By way of figure. [Browne's usage of this word was (and is) unusual; thus his note. On the false basilisks of the previous sentence, see the note Counterfeit Basilisks.]

7 Destructive. [The word was new in Browne's time; hence, once again, his note.]

8 [Wilkin: Later investigation has proved that the awful stories put forth in the latter end of the eighteenth century, of the poisonous character of the upas-tree, were impudent forgeries. {One might point out here that, although this is true, the forgery significantly postdated Browne and could not have been in his mind. But onwards....} For the assertion to which this passage alludes, viz. that its shadow is poisonous, there is certainly no foundation. In the island of Java, there are two trees which produce a very deadly poison; but the birds nevertheless perch on their branches in safety and the natives collect their poisonous juices with impunity, and even wear a coarse stuff prepared from their bark.]

9 [The fish, not the missile. Wilkin adds, for what it's worth: "The electrical shock of the torpedo, although it may be received without actual contact, cannot be communicated from a distance but by means of some conducting medium. Indeed, it is found that both the gymnote and torpedo are limited to precisely the same conducting and non-conducting mediums as are met with in common electricity."]

10 [A long note in Wilkin, taken largely from Griffith's Cuvier, discusses the possibilities of poisoning by breath, atmosphere, or "fascination", ending with the conclusion that the question is still "involved in a considerable degree of obscurity".]

11 [Wren, in a moment of considerable clear-mindedness: But yf by the serpent's priority of vision, how comes itt to effect the eye first, but that coming unawares within the contagion of his deadly breath, a man is infected before he sees his mischeef. And which is most likely? by the poyson some smel immediately drawne to the harte with the pestilent air in those burning countryes; or by the eye into the braine, and thence to the harte, whereof noe man can justify the trueth, and may more justly bee denyed then granted, being farther fetcht, only infered by way of consequence to make good their assertion. Yf, then, the infection bee not receaved by the eye, as heere the learned Dr. [seems] to opine, by what other way can it bee possibly received, but by the infected ayre immediately drawne into the heart? which I suppose the following discourse will cleere.]

12 [2nd edition onward; 1646 has, instead of the final clause, "; and of this opinion might they be who from this antipathy of the basilisk and man, expressed first the enmity of Christ and Satan, and their mutual destruction thereby; when Satan, being elder than his humanity, beheld Christ first in the flesh; and so he was destroyed by the serpent; but elder than Satan in his divinity, and so beholding him first, he destroyed the old basilisk, and overcame the effect of his poison; sin, death, and hell." To which Wren remarks "This argument is but symbolical, and concludes nothing."]

13 [Wilkin: At the end of the volume for 1710 of the History of the French Royal Academy is a curious account transmitted by M. Lapeyronie of Montpellier, of some "cock's eggs" which a farmer had brought to him, with the assurance that had been laid by a cock and would be found to contain, instead of yolk, the embryo of a serpent. One of these eggs, opened in the presence of several scavans, was found devoid of yolk, but exhibiting a coloured particle in the centre, which was considered as the young serpent. The cock having been given up to M. Lapeyronie for dissection, the farmer very soon brought some more of these little eggs having discovered that they were laid by a hen! Anatomical figures accompany the paper.

The conceit, however, is not too monstrous for the belief of Alexander Ross, who asks, "Why may not this serpent be ingendred of a cock's putrified animal materials, being animated by his heat and incubation as well as other kinds of serpents are bred of putrified matter?" (Arcana, p. 146)]

14 Ovum Centennium, or the last egge, which is a very little one.

15 [Pliny N.H. xv(136). On silkworms, Wren assures us "Betweene the breasts of a woman, rolled in fine lawne, and they are stronger then those hatcht in the cases, how warme soever kept. But itt must bee by election in virgin's breasts, antequam sororiant, aut menstrua patiantur, ne prorsus intereant, alioqui proditurae feliciter."]

16 [Wren: Here the learned author mistakes the story: for Tully, in the 2nd De Natura Deorum {I.101} says, the Aegyptians justly honored the ibis: quia pestem ab Aegypto avertunt quum serpentes volucros, Africo Liby advertos, interficiant. Soe farr were they from breaking their eggs, which had been to detroy the breed of those whom they honored. and what madnes had it been to honor the stork that destroyed the serpents and to destroy the ibides' eggs, by which creature (and not the storke) those fiery flying serpents were destroyed. but mistake grew for want of right advertisement herein. For St. Hierom, that well knew Egypt, tels us there were 2 kinds of the ibides: one coale black, (and itt seemes pernicious in some waye, and therefore hated by them) the other not much unlike the storke, though not the same. Soe that in honoring the second kinde, they might seem to honor the stork, which was (indeed) the right ibis, their preserver.]

17 [Isaiah 59:5, KJV: They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.]

18 [Isaiah 14:29, Vulgate: ne laeteris Philisthea omnis tu quoniam comminuta est virga percussoris tui de radice enim colubri egredietur regulus et semen eius absorbens volucrem; KJV: Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.]

19 [The "brazen table" of Pietro Bembo, brought from Egypt. Mentioned also in The Garden of Cyrus.]