If you're hunting vampires, you'll want to carry crosses, garlic, stakes, and holy water. For werewolves, a gun loaded with silver bullets is your best protection. But what if you're off to hunt the deadly basilisk, that mythological creature that could kill with a single glance? An account of the hunt of the Warsaw Basilisk offers some insight into how to kill this strange folkloric beast.
Myths of the basilisk date back to the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elser in his Natural History describes the basilisk, as does the Roman poet Lucan. The monster was said to be so venomous that it could kill shrubs by simply breathing on them and that birds flying overhead would drop dead, poisoned. Pliny claimed that the crow of a rooster could kill a basilisk, as could odor of a weasel, though the weasel would die in the process. One of the key legends of the basilisk was its killing stare, so that any who gazed upon it would be put at risk. Later writers would become fascinated with this earth-ruining creature, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who included the basilisk in his Beastiary.
Mike Dash at the Smithsonian's Future Imperfect blog uncovered an especially complete tale of a basilisk hunt (repeated in Jan Bondeson's book The Fejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History), one in which the monster was said not to be killed by a rooster crow or a weasel, but captured alive. In 1587, rumors spread of a basilisk attacking people in Warsaw. A former royal surgeon was called in on the case, and, using a convict (who was offered a pardon for a capital offense) as his basilisk hunter, suggested a means for safely capturing the monster:
[The man] was dressed in creaking black leather covered with a mass of tinkling mirrors, and his eyes were protected with large eyeglasses. Armed with a sturdy rake in his right hand and a blazing torch in his left, he must have presented a singular aspect when venturing forth into the cellar. He was cheered on by at least two thousand people who had gathered to see the basilisk being beaten to death. After searching the cellar for more than an hour, the brave Johann Faurer finally saw the basilisk, lurking in a niche of the wall. Old Dr. Benedictus shouted instructions to him: he was to seize it with his rake and carry it out into the broad daylight. Faurer accomplished this, and the populace ran away like rabbits when he appeared in his strange outfit, gripping the neck of the writhing basilisk with the rake.
According to the tale, the physician deemed this creature a basilisk and presumably killed it. So is this story just an interesting piece of folklore, or an account of a monster of mistaken identity? Dash attempts to trace the origin of this story, and the journey is an interesting look at how stories travel into our modern mythology. Dash also includes a great deal more about the Warsaw basilisk and other basilisk tales in his piece, with plenty of useful information for any aspiring basilisk hunters.
Top image by Wenceslas Hollar, via Fantasy Art Workshop.