"On the Trail of the Warsaw Basilisk" is the sort of unexpected article that gives answer to the age old question, "Where do you get your ideas?" A Smithsonian article provides a fascinating history of Basilisk sightings -- from antiquity through the middle ages and Renaissance. The Basilisk is a peculiar hybrid, "a crested snake that hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad." Really, I can't resist being inspired by information from the Roman poet Lucan like this:
"...a characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster–the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to the monster’s venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair."
Rue! Who knew it could protect one from the Basilisk's venom? But the best -- and historically verifiable account comes from "The Basilisk of Warsaw, 1587"... a terrifying encounter and eventual capture of a Basilisk hiding in the cellar of a house who is suspected of bringing the plague:
"The 5-year-old daughter of a knifesmith named Machaeropaeus had disappeared in a mysterious way, together with another little girl. The wife of Machaeropaeus went looking for them, along with the nursemaid. When the nursemaid looked into the underground cellar of a house that had fallen into ruins 30 years earlier, she observed the children lying motionless down there, without responding to the shouting of the two women. When the maid was too hoarse to shout anymore, she courageously went down the stairs to find out what had happened to the children. Before the eyes of her mistress, she sank to the floor beside them, and did not move. The wife of Machaeropaeus wisely did not follow her into the cellar, but ran back to spread the word about this strange and mysterious business. The rumour spread like wildfire throughout Warsaw. Many people thought the air felt unusually thick to breathe and suspected that a basilisk was hiding in the cellar."
The rest of the history is about the complicated efforts to remove the creature -- and it reads like the best sort of scary--fairy tale--horror story. Great stuff -- and I hope to find a little corner of my wiritng life devoted to this creature.
Art: Basilisk: Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 51r...note the weasle attacking its breast.