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In Elizabethan England, the basilisk was a feared and hateful creature, capable of killing someone with just a glance. Of the 8 references to basilisks in Shakespeare’s plays, half of these invoke the reputation of being able to kill with a look. European bestiaries record the basilisk as a legendary serpent ruling as King of the reptiles and while the folklore far outpaces the science, recent historical studies of animals from Elizabethan England reveal that the basilisk may have been a term applied to a real snake that made its home across Northern Europe when Shakespeare was writing about basilisks in his plays. Our guest this week is author of The Grass Snake and the Basilisk, a research project that takes a historical perspective on how the specific attributes of human life in Elizabethan England created an ideal home for the grass snake, an animal who defends itself by creating a death like gaze. We are pleased to welcome Rob Lenders to the show this week to explain the history of the real animal Shakespeare calls a basilisk.
In this episode, I'll be asking Rob Lenders about:
- Rob, how did your research use references like that from Pliny the Elder, to determine the basilisk was a grass snake and not some other creepy creature?
Would be reasonable to think Shakespeare was familiar with the actual creature of the grass snake as he was writing about basilisks in his plays as opposed to only basing his references on myth or legend?
- By as late as 1520, Rob writes that the basilisk was specifically identified by its horrible breath, considered to be poisonous. Rob, was the real grass snake known for smelly breath?
Dr. Rob Lenders Photographer: Marjolein van Diejen
Rob Lenders works at the Department of Environmental Science of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He does research on historical references for nature restoration. Being trained in animal ecology, he has a special interest in vertebrates, especially fish, amphibians and reptiles. Although he is primarily looking for quantitative data on the occurrence and abundance of these species, during his research he regularly comes across very interesting qualitative information about these animal groups that invite him to reconstruct the role that animals played in people's lives. He believes that these narratives are perhaps even more powerful than the scientific reconstructions of physical reality. They offer us a fantastic insight into the relationship that our ancestors had with the natural world.
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It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on't.
The Grass Snake Killing With a Look
One of the defining features of the mythical basilisk is the ability to kill with a look. Shakespeare invokes this specific reputation of the basilisk at least three times in his works. Scientific study of the grass snake shows us that this serpent has a defense mechanism that can very readily be described as “killing with a glance.” In the figure shown above, the basilisk is playing dead, with it's mouth agape, and the snake's “dead eyes” the presentation certainly looks like a creature trying to kill you with its' stare.
Yet do not go away: come, basilisk,
And kill the innocent gazer with thy sight;
The Grass Snake and the Basilisk: Smelly Breath
Another attribute of the grass snake that overlaps with the myth of the basilisk for the 16th century is the reputation of having horrible, smelly, breath. The breath of a basilisk was considered so awful as to actually be poisonous to humans. Interestingly, the grass snake, too has a smelly defense mechanism that may give the basilisk this particularly ordorous reptuation. Rob explains,
Grass snakes can be very smelly. Its not its’ breath, but as soon as you succeed in catching a grass snake, its' defense mechanism is to pour its' intestines over you and it lasts for days, no matter how often you wash. [The grass snake is one of the] few reptiles identified by smell.
This will so fright them both that they will kill
one another by the look, like cockatrices.
1658 Illustration of the Cockatrice by Edward Topsell. The Cockatrice here is drawn as a snake with a crown. The Grass Snake is known colloquially as “the King of the Snakes” because its' defining yellow collar is known as its' crown. Public Domain. University of Houston Digital Libraries Collection. Source
The Grass Snake the King of Snakes
One of the defining attributes of the real grass snake is a prominent yellow collar that is often referred to as its' “crown.” For this reason, many scholars conclude that when illustrators liked Edward Topsell drew snakes featuring a crown on their head, one animal they could have been describing is the grass snake. Since Edward Topsell (and Matthaus Merian, 17th century illustrator whose work is listed in the “learn more articles” at the bottom of this page), both described the cockatrice as a snake with a crown, it is possible that both the basilisk and the cockatrice were based on the grass snake.
Rob’s work identifies engravers like Matthaus Merian in the 17th century who depict the basilisk as a grass snake with exaggerated features, suggesting again that the basilisk, and cockatrice, were the cultural definition for a real creature and while they may have had fantastic attributes given to them by superstition or religion, it was ultimately, just a snake.
Images in Gallery, in order of appearance:
1. Image of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo (Bologna, 1640), p. 366.Public Domain. Source
2. Merian’s depiction of a Cockatrice, Public Domain, Source
3. Merian’s depiction of a Basilisk, Public Domain, Source
4. 1617 Depiction of the Philosopher’s Stone by Michael Maier, Public Domain, Source
5. “Sexta Figura” (Figure Six), engraved by Matthaeus Merian (1593–1650), showing a dragon eating it’s tale demonstrating a long used symbol of Alchemy | Public Domain | Source
6. 1555 Woodcut by Olaus Magnus (1490–1557) showing people praying to a grass snake. Public Domain. Source
7. Distinctive yellow “crown” of the Grass Snake | photo by Adam “Dziadek59” Maś… | CCASA3.0 | Source
Resources Rob Lenders Recommends:
SOURCES and LEARN MORE:
Rob Lender’s Paper on the Grass Snake and the Basilisk:
Images and Articles Used for this Episode:
The entirety of Edward Topsell’s Beastiary from 1658:
Mathaus Merian The Younger’s Beastiary Animals
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