Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Basilisks Of Copenhagen

A basilisk on the former Danish 100 kroner-bill.
In the autumn of 1674, a stuffed basilisk was put on display in Copenhagen. Or at least that is what people were meant to believe. In actuality, this curiosity was a predecessor of the type of "constructed" creatures that P.T. Barnum and others would later use in their notorious sideshows. And just like the infamous Feejee Mermaid of the mid-19th century, the 1674 basilisk attracted many people and created a lot of buzz in the Danish press, which back then was in its infancy.

The spectacle should not be taken out of context, however. There was something of a hype surrounding basilisks at the time, with many curious incidents taking place in Denmark during the previous years. Some of these are described at length in Jan Bondeson's The Feejee Mermaid, and in other books. The 1674 episode is largely unknown outside of Denmark, however, which is why i have chosen to focus on it here.

But just what is this legendary animal known as the basilisk? It has been written about by such luminaries as Chaucer, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare and Voltaire, and the church came to view it as the epitomy of evil during the middle ages. And yet, the descriptions of the creature vary wildly, depending on where you read about it. So before we look at the aforementioned case, let's spend some time unravelling the genealogy of the basilisk, and try to sort fact from fiction.

Basilisks and Cockatrices

The basilisk, "King of Serpents", has a really complex history of origin - perhaps more than most creatures of legend. Its story is similar to the way the modern chupacabra or goatsucker myth developed: On the surface of it, you might think you have a grasp of what the creature is supposed to look like. But if you dig a little deeper, you find out that over the years, depending on the geographical area, people have developed widely disparate ideas about it. 

In the case of the chupacabra, descriptions ranges from bipedal critters akin to "grey" aliens, to 4-legged canine beasts. In the case of the basilisk, which has quite a few more years behind it, it gets even more confusing.

The Basilisk depicted as a crested snake.
The word Basilisk derives from the Greek Basiliskos - the diminutive of Basileus, which means king. So the straightforward translation of basilisk would be "little king". Part of the reason for this name has to do with the crownlike features on the creatures head - something which has been present since the very first descriptions of it. The first recorded mention of the basilisk appears to be by Pliny The elder in his "Natural History", a series of books published in the period 77-79 AD, where it is described as:
"...not above twelve Fingers' Breadth long; with a white Spot on the Head, as if distinguished with a Diadem. With his Hiss he driveth away other Serpents; he moveth not his Body forward by multiplied Windings like other Serpents, but he goeth with Half his Body upright and aloft from the Ground; he killeth all Shrubs not only that he toucheth, but that he breatheth upon; he burns up Herbs, and breaketh the Stones; so great is his Power for Mischief!" 
The above description points towards some sort of snake, and while there is no clear consensus as to exactly which, there does seem to be an agreement among basilisk enthusiasts, that it refers to some form of spitting cobra. This is because a) cobras are the only snakes that can raise the upper part of their bodies, and b) the "diadem" matches a cobra's crest. Also, the basilisk's arch nemesis was said to be the weasel or mongoose - the natural enemies of all cobras (as we all know from the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi story).

Many cobra candidates have been put forward over the years, including the Egyptian Black-necked spitting cobra (Naja Nigricollis), an animal which according to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart fits Pliny's description the best, because of its small size (up to 7 feet long). But without being an expert, I think that even this doesn't quite match Pliny's "twelve fingers breadth" (approximately 20 centimeters). 

A closer fit would be the Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja Mossambica), which usually grows to about 3 - 3 1/2 feet. But these aren't found as far away as Cyreneica (today, eastern Libya), which is where Pliny places the basilisks' roaming grounds. In any case, one explanation could be that perhaps most of the lower part of the cobra was obscured by grass, in the encounters that were the basis for Pliny's entry. Following this logic, only the upper part of the snake's body and head would be visible, making it appear much smaller than it actually was. But we might just as well be dealing with an amalgamation of animals and stories.

Egyptian Black-necked spitting cobra (Naja Nigricollis). 
In retrospect, then, the mystery of the basilisk perhaps both started and ended with Pliny. But these facts did of course not prevent further legends from developing, in part because the stories about the basilisk spread to countries where cobra snakes didnt exist, or had ever been heard of. The attributes of the basilisk therefore morphed in different ways, depending on the geographical area.

The first mention of the basilisk in Denmark, is supposedly found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the year 1000. Then, during the first crusades of the late 11th century, the vikings returned with more detailed information about the creature. Since that time, it has been used regularly as a motif in many different connections. The Danish city of Roskilde in particular, has a lot of basilisk lore attached to it. It should also be mentioned that there is a clear connection, and sometimes overlap, between the basilisk and the Lindorm in Danish folklore and animal mythology.

Clay basilisk from the 12th century. Now a part of a private collection located in Roskilde, Denmark

During the late 12th century, the notion that a basilisk came from the egg of a rooster that had mated with a serpent, and had to be hatched by a snake or toad, was made popular by the English naturalist Alexander Neckham. In this connection Neckham came up with the term "basil-cock". There might be some connection here to a chicken embryo, which can sometimes look a like a snake (This could also explain the story about Ludwig Kepler, who - the story goes - found a serpent-like animal inside his Easter egg in 1649). 

But overall, what was happening around this time was that a new type of legendary creature, the cockatrice, was coming into shape and changing the image of the basilisk. The cockatrice is usually depicted as having the body and wings of a dragon, and the head (and sometimes feet) of a rooster. The amalgamation of these two legendary animals, resulted in the basilisk gaining more bird-like features from the middle ages forward. Also, eventually, the name cockatrice came to be used interchangeably with basilisk.

Two illustrations depicting cockatrice-basilisks or basil-cocks. 

To end this trail of obscurity (and bear in mind that this was the condensed version), there is one more loose end that needs to be tied: The general physical attributes of the basilisk/cockatrice, was used as inspiration for the naming of a real genus of crested lizards, discovered in South America in the 18th century: The Common Basilisk. So don't ever let anyone tell you that basilisks don't exist.

A "Modern" basilisk, also known as a "Jesus Lizard".

The Copenhagen Basilisks

In the mid to late 1600's, there was a large and sudden influx of basilisk stories coming in from all over Europe, and it is within this climate that we should view the many Danish basilisk stories and incidents.

in 1651, the famous Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin (who was also a recognized expert on basilisks), was called upon by King Frederick III (1609-1670) to examine a curious case: A court servant claimed to have seen, with his own eyes, a rooster laying an egg. When Bartholin dissected the rooster, he found that it was male through and through, and thus had no means of physically laying an egg. But the servant stuck to his story, and it was believed to be true by the king and most of the royal family.

Bartholin himself eventually became much more sceptical about basilisks. He even had to disappoint Frederick III at a later point, when the king showed him (what he thought was) a dried basilisk, that he had purchased for his Royal Museum ("Det Kongelige Kunstkammer" - a somewhat bizarre precursor of todays museums, which operated from 1650 to 1825). This "creature" was a fake, carved from the bodies of two rayfish, something which is mentioned specifically in the catalogue of exhibition pieces that featured in the Royal Museum. But, nevertheless, the "basilisk" was a part of the museum collection for many years, alongside the remains of the egg and rooster from the 1651 incident. With all these elements, Frederick III attempted to show the natural cycle of basilisks. 

Recently, I mobilized an extensive search into the whereabouts of the above mentioned items, but they seem to have disappeared almost two centuries ago, and not even the most knowledgable curators and conservationists of the Danish Museums could give me any answers as to why. The last existing record of the "basilisk" is from the Zoological Museum, who received and subsequently lost it (or disposed of it) during the 1800's. Other surviving items from the Royal Museum can be seen today at the Geological Museum in Copenhagen, via the exhibition "De Særeste Ting" (The Strangest Things").

From the exhibition "De Særeste Ting": A reconstruction of items from Ole Worm's Museum Wormianum, which later became a substantial part of The Royal Museum.
Four years after King Frederick III's death, basilisk fever struck Copenhagen again. In the September 1674 issue of Denmarks first real newspaper, Extraordinaires Maanedlige Relationer ("Extraordinary Monthly Happenings"), the front page was dedicated to the arrival of a man, who claimed to have in his possession a stuffed basilisk he had purchased in Africa. For some amount of money, it read, it was possible to see this creature while the man was in Copenhagen. The episode is also mentioned in Holbek & Piø's Fabeldyr og Sagnfolk, but the article gives some more details.

Apparently the owner had visited Germany shortly before, to have the creature checked by "some very knowledgable people", and had eventually accepted - or admitted - that it was a fake. But obviously this did not prevent him from touring around with it. In the article, the basilisk is described as "very nicely constructed", and hard to tell apart as a fake. But that it "nevertheless was clear that it had been carved from some kind of skate or rayfish". Whether or not this was a conclusion made by the newspaper - based on an informed opinion or otherwise - it demonstrates that this was already a well-known (and often convincing) method of creating basilisks at the time.

Faked basilisk from the collection of the Brothers Besler of Nuremberg. This is probably also what King Frederick III's basilisk, as well as the one displayed in Copenhagen in 1674, looked like.

Perhaps the biggest prize that came with discovering the 1674 article, was this very nice chalcography print that appeared alongside it:

At first glance, I thought the image to be the famous basilisk illustration by Georg Wedel, originally published in Ephemerides in 1672. But Jan Bondeson pointed out to me that even if they both are meant to depict the same type of basilisk, the images are very different indeed. This can be seen by comparing the above illustration with Wedel's below:

The Extraordinaires article does not state, however, whether the drawing was made in connection with the displayed basilisk, or even if it was meant to depict it at all. But whatever the case may be, it seems to be virtually unknown among cryptozoologists and anomaly researchers, making it a nice addition to the existing public images of basilisks.  

What happened to the traveling man and his African basilisk, I do not know. Quite possibly he continued his travels around Europe, further fueling the basilisk myth in the countries he visited. As for the Basilisk hype in Denmark specifially, it appears to have reached its apex with the 1674 episode. But stories about basilisks continued to be told, and was a part of Danish folklore for many years to come. And if you look a little bit closer the next time you are visiting Copenhagen, you might see one too, as they exist as ornaments in various places throughout the city. 

  • Bondeson, Jan - The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History, Cornell University Press (1999)
  • Bruun, Carl - Kjøbenhavn: en illustreret skildring af dets historie, mindesmærker og institutioner (vol. II) (1890)
  • Eberhardt, George M. - Mysterious Creatures: A Guide To Cryptozoology. ABC-CLIO (2002)
  • Extraordinaires Maanedlige Relationer, September (1674)
  • Gundestrup, Bente - Det kongelige danske Kunstkammer 1737 / The Royal Danish Kunstkammer 1737, Vol. I-II (1995) 
  • Holbek, Bengt & Piø, Iørn - Fabeldyr og Sagnfolk. Politikens Forlag, 2. Ed. (1979)
  • Kristensen, Evald Tang - Danske Sagn som de har lydt i Folkemunde (vol. 2)
  • Radford, Benjamin - Stalking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. University of New Mexico Press (2011)
  • Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon - A Wizard's Bestiary: A Menagerie of Myth, Magic, and Mystery, New Page Books (2007)
  • Zorica, Zeljko - De Fantastiske Fabeldyr fra Roskilde, Kolorit (1999)

....alongside various internet resources.