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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.

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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?

….and more!

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 He does research on historical references for nature restoration.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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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image taken by Rob Lenders’ co-author, I.A.W. Janssen, and used in Rob’s article on The Grass Snake and the Basilisk 
  • 16th century illustration depicting the Fable of The Basilisk and the Weasel
  • 17th century Illustration of the Cockatrice, known as “the King of the Snakes”
  •  Image of a basilisk from Ulisse Aldrovandi, “Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo,” 1640
  • Merian’s depiction of a Cockatrice
  • Merian’s depiction of a Basilisk
  • 17th century, Depiction of the Philosopher’s Stone
  • 17th century engraving, showing a dragon eating it’s tale, demonstrating a symbol of Alchemy
  • 16th century Woodcut showing people praying to a grass snake
  • Photo of the Distinctive yellow “crown” of the Grass Snake
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Resources Rob Lenders Recommends:

Do you like to learn history with crafts and activities? We do, too.

Learn More

SOURCES and LEARN MORE: 

Rob Lender’s Paper on the Grass Snake and the Basilisk:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/43298555

Images and Articles Used for this Episode:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gong_farmer#:~:text=Gong%20farmer%20

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JohnHuntNightman.jpg

http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastbiblio265.htm

The entirety of Edward Topsell’s Beastiary from 1658:

https://digitalcollections.lib.uh.edu/concern/images/cn69m4951?locale=en#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&xywh=-1121%2C-316%2C6373%2C6305

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilisk#:~:text=Stories%20gradually%20added%20to%20the,the%20sound%20of%20its%20voice.&text=The%20basilisk%20is%20also%20the,Basel%20(Latin%3A%20Basilea).

Mathaus Merian The Younger’s Beastiary Animals

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olaus_Magnus_-_On_the_Service_of_Ghosts.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Olaus_Magnus#/media/File:Walrus_1551.png

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Death_of_Starkater_-_Olaus_Magnus_1555.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Musaeum_Hermeticum_1678_p_353_Dragon_0049.JPG

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alchemical_scene_showing_two_putti_holding_philosopher%27s_stone_containing_image_of_Hermes,_below_which_are_a_man_and_a_woman_kneeling_before_furnace_where_transmutation_is_to_take_place_LCCN96504158.jpg

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_Maier_Atalanta_Fugiens_Emblem_21.jpeg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Elder 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Basilisk_aldrovandi.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marcus_Gheeraerts_I_-_Fable_of_the_basilisk_and_weasel.jpeg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Como_-_Dome_-_Facade_-_Plinius_the_Elder.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_snake#/media/File:Natrix_natrix.png

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:M%C5%82ody_zaskroniec_-_panoramio.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Olaus_Magnus_-_On_the_Heathen_Lithuanians_Idolatrous.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olaus_Magnus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carta_Marina.jpeg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_snake

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Natrix_natrix_distribution_updated_(with_borders,_cropped).png

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