Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The basilisk

Since I've always been unsure just what "the basilisk" is, when I saw it mentioned in chapter 9, I thought it would be a good time to look it up. What I found is that there are two basilisks--one is a real creature, the basilisk lizard, and the other is a mythological beast described in Pliny's Natural History written in 77 AD. In comparing the beast to another mythical creature called the catoblepas who had the power to kill people with its vision, Pliny writes that "The basilisk serpent also has the same power...not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of a diadem. . .It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous; it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear rising [killed?] not only the rider but also the horse." The site I visited mentions that it is not often used in myths and stories; it continues to comment that its no wonder since it kills in so many ways and creates such a destructive path that the story would be over before it began. Interestingly enough, according to Pliny, "the venom of weasels is fatal" to the basilisk, so that often "they throw the basilisks into weasels' holes, which are easily known by the foulness of the ground, and the weasels kill them by their stench and die themselves at the same time." This I found to be an ignominious death for such a mysterious creature, yet a humorous one as well. Imagine, a beast who can "by its mere breath and glance...shrivel and cripple whatever comes its way, brought down by the stink of a rodent!
Stories of the creature can be found in the bible, although sometimes it is referred to as a "cockatrice" because of the method of its birth from "an egg laid during the days of the dog star sirius by a seven-year-old cock." Its birth is, then, "not part of a normal reproductive cycle, but is rather, a genetic fluke." This reminds me of Stephen's thoughts on "misbirth" along with other unusual instances of births gone wrong in Ulysses, like the woman who still had not delivered after three days of labor, and of course, Rudy's death as an infant of eleven days. In addition, it references the evil serpent in the garden that seduced Eve, the first mother.
In mentioning the basilisk in his text, Joyce is in the company of other great authors; the creature is mentioned in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley.
It is a bit of a disappointment to find that the real basilisk lizard falls far short of its mythical counterpart: "When scared the little lizard runs away on its back legs. It can even run across water... [because] its feet have a very broad sole and fringe on its toes. However, it only works when the lizard runs fast, as it slows down it starts to go through the surface and then has to swim." No killingbreath here. So much for fantastic beings.
The sites I used are: and


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