The Deadly Draconic Gaze: A closer look at Gorgons, Cockatrices & Basilisks
“Man is a mis-shapen monster with his feet set for-ward and his face set back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic so long as he is thinking about the past… to-morrow is the gorgon; a man must only see it mirrored in the shining shield of yesterday.
If he sees it directly he is turned to stone.” — Chesterton.
“ The basilisk has since the fourteenth century been confused with the Cockatrice, and the subject is now a complicated one.”
T.H. White, “The Bestiary. A Book of Beasts,” 1954
I’ve often thought Medusa deserved a closer look. Prudently, though; one doesn’t gaze at the Gorgons on a whim…
Gorgons to gaze on, though, were many in a recent tour of the museums in Rome, especially the National Etruscan Museum in the Villa Guilia. They brought back memories of dozens of others from trips in Italy and Greece, from Cellini’s famous statue in Florence to the most primitive leering faces on Archaic gorgoneions. Since no other visitors had turned to stone, I took a good close look.
In a way, Medusa symbolizes our troubled relationship with the other, with the very nature of the monstrous, our fascination and repulsion. After all, we are the ones who make monsters what they are. I often wonder if Medusa is not the true quicksilver reflection of ourselves, of what we’d prefer not to see. A vision that has the power to turn our souls to stone.
But first, let’s step back a bit. Medusa has two sisters: Stheno & Euryale. Stheno is the eldest and fiercest, Euryale, the second oldest; both are immortal, unlike their younger sister Medusa. Along with the Graeae, “from their birth-hour grey” who shared one eye and one tooth between them, they are triplet daughters of Phorkys and his sister-wife Keto. They were also popular amongst the artists of ancient Greece.
A GALLERY OF GRIMACES
Apotropaic uses of the grimacing Gorgon. From left to right:
Archaic (Etruscan) fanged goggle-eyed Gorgon flanked by standing winged lionesses or sphinxes on a hydria from Vulci, 540–530 BC.
Etruscan roof tile decoration, National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome.
Winged goddess with a Gorgon’s head, orientalizing plate from Kameiros, Rhodes, c. 600 BC.
Perseus averts his gaze as he kills Medusa, figured here as a female centaur. He is wearing his winged boots and the kibisis is slung over his shoulder. Detail from an orientalizing relief pithos, Thebes, circa 660 BC.
The earliest images are grimacing disembodied goggle-eyed masks with beards and bared fangs, hardly the snake-locked and sultry Medusa we have come to expect. These images were likely apotropaic, adorning shields, meant to distract or give pause, perhaps to petrify the opponent for a split-second’s fatal hesitation. They also adorned roof tiles, grimacing guardian spirits to protect against ill fortune and the evil eye. Gradually, though, Medusa began to appear in scenes with Perseus, as did her sisters, brazen taloned hands outstretched to grasp and rend the fleeing hero, who is tucking their cadet’s head into his kibisis as he speeds away. These archaic Gorgons are squat and ugly creatures still, with wings and grimacing faces. From the late fifth to the late second centuries B.C., the gorgon’s head shrinks to a more human size. Then the leering face disappears, the beard vanishes, and by the fourth century B.C. Medusa is a lovely-faced woman with writhing snakes for hair.
It’s by no means a simple progression of course – myth never is – and there are even gorgon-centaurs and gorgon-faced birds along the way. Also, there is a crucial stage when full-face apotropaic magic gives way to a face in profile that fulfills only a narrative function – I did say it was complicated. Full-face figures are as rare in Greek art as they are in Egyptian; the Gorgons share this trait with the Egyptian trickster and household god Bes, who also served to ward off evil, although dwarfish Bes was a far more playful and good-natured deity. Their wings and serpentine locks may indeed have been borrowed from emblems in the temples of Egypt. (Gorgon was a title of Minerva at Cyrene in Libya.) I like to imagine the gorgons boarding Phoenician vessels and eventually disembarking in Greece, adorning coins, houses, shields, until Medusa’s story slowly makes her human, seals her fate and takes her from the realm of symbol to that of story.
It is an odd evolution, clearly a fusing of archaic popular art and classical literature, the original leering visage slowly coloured by the pathos of the evolving tale, from good luck charm to mute tragedienne, the doleful lot of Medusa, her once-beautiful locks transformed by a jealous goddess into a tangle of writhing and wakeful serpents, her head severed in her sleep. Perhaps it is her mortality, as opposed to the different destiny of her sisters, which aided her transformation. Medusa is mortal; creatures too monstrous are beyond time, their hideousness solicits little pity. Medusa emerges as a tragic figure, no longer a disembodied gorgoneion, she is a double victim of fate: first cursed, then killed, although the circumstances of that fate secure her immortality of a sort, as the power of her deadly gaze is preserved.
By the time Roman authors re-told the tale, Medusa was sultry and snake-locked, her wings a thing of the past. Her face, though beautiful, retained its devastating power to petrify. (I confess that every time I come across a statue of Perseus, whether it be Greek or Symbolist, Roman or Victorian, I have little use for the falchion-toting hero, my gaze is always captivated by Medusa’s head.)
AN AGE OF AEGIDES
The origins and the exact nature of the aegis, commonly worn by Athena and Zeus, are obscured by time and contradiction. Euripides tells us that it is the skin of a Gorgon, or perhaps only a Gorgon’s face, bestowed on Athena by a grateful Perseus. Virgil tell us the aegis Athena wears in her angry moods (is) a fearsome thing with a surface of gold like scaly snake-skin, and the linked serpents and the Gorgon herself upon the goddess’s breast—a severed head rolling its eyes.” From left to right:
Attic black figure calyx krater, c. 520-515 B.C. featuring Athena wearing her aegis, with its snake-fringe and gorgon head, photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art; An early Athena Polias. (Athena retired from her warrior role to a more urban existence, transforming from Athena Promachos or Athena the fighter, as depicted in the Gigantomachy, to Athena Polias, protector of civilization, keeping her gorgon aegis as an apotropaic souvenir.)
Athena’s Aegis with gorgon head from the west pediment of the archaic temple of Apollo at Eretria. Parian marble, circa 520-500 BC.
Statue of Athena found in 1627 in fragments at the Campus Martius, which may have represented Hygieia but was restored as an Athena by Alessandro Algardi to oblige his patron, Cardinal Ludovisi.
Athena of the Parthenos Athena type. Pentelic marble, Greek copy from the 1st century BC after the original from the 5th century BC
First century BC mosaic of Alexander the Great bearing on his armor an image of the Gorgon as an aegis, Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Headless imperial statue, Hadrianic Age, 117-118 AD, featuring the distinctive features of “Aegis-bearing” Zeus. The figure is naked and carries a large shield with a gorgon and snakes bound in a knot below its chin. The statue probably formed a ritual composition together with the statue of the goddess Roma.
Striking representation of Athena by German Symbolist Franz Stassen for a portfolio entitled “Gods”, printed in 1901 by Verlag Fischer & Franz, Berlin.
There may be another side to it as well. Perseus is a solar figure, and must proceed to the realm of night – the Gorgons live west of the horizon, in a lifeless land of darkness – to seek them out. Hades’ helmet effectively masks his solar radiance. He steals the solar eye and the lunar tooth of the Graeae (they must pass eye and tooth among the three: day to night, night to day) effectively stopping time until they reveal the whereabouts of the Gorgons. The Gorgons represent the ambiguous and terrifying primeval night – with or without the moon – the devouring darkness with the lunar visage. The Gorgotomy accomplished (it is hardly a hero’s gesture; Medusa is asleep when he severs her head with his sickle-moon harpê – the same that Kronos used on Ouranos) he must nevertheless flee the two immortal sisters, because whatever punctual exploits the Sun may accomplish, he is nevertheless fated to race ahead of the Night. Possibly this archaic symbolism – the leering face of night – was slowly diluted and lost, the story told and retold under the softer light of Diana’s moon in a more familiar sky, and Medusa gained the traits of a beautiful woman, although she kept her serpent locks and baleful deadly stare.
In short, when Perseus dispatched Medusa, and fled with the remaining Gorgons at his wingèd heels; he had been given a sickle-shaped adamantine sword (the harpe, a gift from Zeus), a helm of invisibility (on loan from Hades), winged sandals (thanks to the Nymphs), a magical pouch (the kibisis) and, by many accounts, a mirror-bright shield to avoid Medusa’s deadly gaze. Rather than a list of equipment, it is a powerful symbolic chant; composed of symbols we no longer really know how to read. Even the dramatis personae of the tale contains only names of unknown or pre-Greek origin: Medusa, Perseus, gorgon…
A HEAD IN HAND
From the Renaissance to the Victorian Era, Medusa remained largely the unfortunate player in the drama of her death and above all of Perseus’ subsequent use of her petrifying gaze. From left to right:
Perseus holds aloft the severed head of Medusa, whose corpse lays at his feet. Bronze by Benvenuto Cellini, 1554, displayed in Florence, Piazza della Signoria.
The Head of Medusa, by Caravaggio. He painted two versions of Medusa, the first in 1596 and the other a year later. Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 60 c 55 cm, Uffizi, Florence.
Medusa’s head, a macabre still life by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1617-1618. The snakes in the painting have been attributed to collaborator and animal painter Frans Snyders, who may also have included the amphisbeana in the middle foreground.
Prudently regarding over his shoulder, Perseus beheads Medusa, Francesco Maffei, 1650, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice, Italy.
Perseus flies down to rescue Andromeda, painting by academic painter Henri-Pierre Picou, dated 1874.
Perseus the Conqueror, by French painter Eugène Thirion, 1867, Senlis, au musée de l’hôtel de Vermandois.
Medusa, by Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck, 1892.
Perseus and the Gorgons, illustration by Walter Crane, from the Wonder Book For Girls & Boys by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1892.
Perseus rescues Andromeda, illustration by Henry Justice Ford, from Tales of Troy and Greece, by Andrew Lang, 1907
Or perhaps the origin is deeper still, when the Sun and Moon were yet to be born. The Gorgons are the children of Earth; when the proto-Hellenic religion (or Pelasgic, though we know little about it) was matriarchal, the mother-goddess supreme and the serpent emblem of life. Medusa embodied this vital and productive force, with strong ties to water, the moisture of the life-giving earth. Then along came a newcomer, a male deity was substituted for the female as leader of the ever more populous Pantheon, bringing the duality of the masculine sun into a position of power over the passive female earth. Medusa’s two children, born of the blood from her severed neck, are the children of this “union”: Chrysaor is Apollo in his role as sun god; Pegasus is sacred to Neptune the god of waters. So, by her seemingly senseless death, Medusa presides over the creative evolution of the re-ordering of the world.
That’s why I so adore myth: it’s always complicated. We tell and re-tell stories until we lose ourselves in the succession of events, and ignore the meaning. Even our understanding of the characters is shallow; we know the names, but we no longer know what they mean.
Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist and Decadent painters paid particular attention to Medusa, to the ambiguity of her persona, to her tragic destiny and finally to the sensuous beauty of her serpentine locks. For the first time, artists took Medusa’s side. From left to right:
The Blood of Medusa, by Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnopff, 1898,
Medusa, by Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878
The Head of Medusa, by English Pre-Raphaelite Simeon Solomon, 1884
Medusa or The Wild Waves, by French Symbolist Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer. Pastel, 1897
Study for a Gorgon, by Italian Symbolist Giulio Aristide Sartorio, 1895
Finis (The End of All Things) by Czech Symbolist Maximilian Pirner, 1887
Aspecta Medusa, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, circa 1878. A portrait of Medusa before the envious Athena transformed her hair into snakes. Rossetti wrote a poem to accompany the drawing:
Andromeda, by Perseus sav’d and wed,
Hanker’d each day to see the Gorgon’s head:
Till o’er a fount he held it, bade her lean,
And mirror’d in the wave was safely seen
That death she liv’d by.
Let not thine eyes know
Any forbidden thing itself, although
It once should save as well as kill: but be
Its shadow upon life enough for thee.
Head of Medusa, late 19th Century Czechoslovakian brooch, gold, jasper, and crystal
Medusa by Edoardo Rubino, from the monument dedicated to Umberto I in Villa Borghese, Rome, 1914.
There existed an earlier version of the Gorgon: a monster birthed by Gaia to assist the Gigantes in their ill-fates struggle against the Olympian gods. That Gorgon was slain by Athene, who buried the decapitated head under the agora. They myth was later absorbed into the classical tale of Perseus.
Whatever the origins, Medusa’s head remained the most powerful of Athene’s weapons: on her aegis, “a breastplate armed with the wreathings of a viper”, the Gorgonian power of petrifying with a glance. Pausanias mentions a priestess named lodamia, who, coming into the temple of Athene near Coronea at night was confronted by the goddess herself armed with Medusa’s head, and was turned into stone.
As the luckless Titan Atlas himself discovered, the victim’s size was not an issue either. Irked by a prophecy that a son of Zeus would one day steal the golden Apples of the Hesperides, Atlas refused to offer Perseus hospitality when the latter passed by. It was a most unfortunate fit of pique, as Perseus promptly pulled out Medusa’s head and turned him to stone. (Of course, it’s a legend, because Perseus’ grandson, Herakles, found Atlas very much alive when he passed by on his way to steal those same apples.)
The other serpent-locked trio of Greek myth is the coal-black, bat-winged and swiftly stalking Erinyes, or Furiae. Born of Gaia when the blood of Ouranos, emasculated by Kronos, flowed into the Earth, they have venomous snakes rearing up from their hair, and entwined about their arms and waists. With their flaming eyes and fiery breath, torches and whips of vipers, they embodied the thunderclouds and lightning, their home is Erebus, “”place of darkness between earth and Hades”. The Night-Born Sisters constitute, along with the Graeae and the Gorgô, a triple triumvirate of death, fate and retribution. (The Furies oversee the tormenting of the souls of the damned in the dungeons of Tartaros. Like the other two trios, they are not to be lightly meddled with.)
“The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
Who had the limbs of women and their mein;,
And with the greenest Hydras were begirt;
Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
Wherewith their horrid temples were entwined.”
Nevertheless, like the Gorgons, the Furies retain, despite their leering effigies and the lurid tales, an eerie beauty exemplified by their true role: daughters of the Night, whose gaze can arrest Time itself.
” What time the Daughters of Tartarean Night
Rose sable-stoled, their eyes with Gorgon glare.”
That potent blood of Ouranos was passed on to the Titans as well. Like Medusa, whose blood fell in drops on the desert and spawned vipers, Nicander of Colophon reminds us that “reptiles and other plagues sprung from the blood of the Titans.” Further on, he adds: “Now I would have you know, men say that noxious spiders, together with the grievous reptiles and vipers of the earth’s countless burdens, are of the Titans’ blood….”
Naturally, the deadliest poison is also the finest antidote. According to Euripides, Pallas gave Erichthonius two drops of the Gorgon’s blood, one of them a deadly poison, the other a powerful medicine for the healing of diseases. Aesculapius received from Athena blood that flowed from Medusa’s veins, using that which flowed from the left side “for the bane of mankind” and that from the veins on the right for healing.
Other legends, other lands: A deathly stare has also been ascribed by Classical authors to the women of a certain Scythian tribe. Iroquois legend tells of a certain Tododaho, an Onondaga chief, whose head was covered in tangled snakes, and whose angry look could strike unfortunate offenders dead. He eventually agreed to see his powers subdued, and the serpents were combed out of his locks.
A Japanese tale tells of a young maiden who married the son of a daimyo of high rank. Their happiness was spoilt by malicious rumours; the husband grew suspicious of her honour, and she conceived a terrible hatred for him. Unfortunately for the man, she was a child of dragon ancestry, and one night her hair transformed into a writhing nest of poisonous serpents which stung the man to death. Neighbours witnessed a sound of wings, and saw – or imagined they saw – a dragon fly from the house. It is also believed that the the jealousy of legitimate wives and concubines would transform their hair: at night it would writhe and reach out, seeking to strangle a rival. One story tells of a man who witnessed the hair of his wife and one of his concubines engaged in a deadly struggle. He was so struck by the vision that he became a monk. (A decision he might have made much earlier, and saved everyone a good deal of grief.)
Nevertheless, gorgons were also considered to be real creatures. Alexander of Myndus, writing around the 1st century AD, believes it to be a four-legged creature found in Libya, with a downcast stare covered by a mane. Should it raise its eyes, whoever it looks upon is killed instantaneously. Pliny echoes this description, but calls the creature a Catoblepas, or “downward-looker”, but held that it killed with its breath, acquired by eating poisonous roots.
The snakelike Basilisk and the chimerical Cockatrice also share that deadly stare.
Keep mead sealed in a barrel for twenty years, and you risk getting a surprise when you open it: a basilisk. A Danish story tells of a barrel forgotten in a cellar in Randers, which produced a basilisk. The creature had drunken all the mead, and began to growl when it ran out, alerting the household. A wise man counseled them to quickly bury the cask deep in the ground, which they did. The basilisk was heard no more.
The unavoidable Pliny describes the basilisk in these terms: “…It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. To this dreadful monster the crow of a rooster is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success…”
The diadem gives the name to the basilisk. The Greek word “basilikos” may be translated as “little king”, designating the basilisk as the king of reptiles, despite its diminutive size. It was deadly in all respects, able to kill flying birds by spitting at them. Its gaze was equally fatal and its mere presence so destructive, it was said to have created the deserts of Libya and the Levant.
The basilisk grew in the telling, and by the Middle Ages, it could breathe fire and upon occasion, bellow loudly enough to kill. There were three ways to dispatch a basilisk: to kill the creature with its own stare by presenting it with a crystal globe or a mirror (death by reflected stare) or with a weasel or a cockerel, the first reputed to have an equally venomous bite, and the latter’s cry said to drive the creature into a fit that resulted in its demise. According to Isidore of Seville: “The basilisk is also called sibilus, the hissing snake, because it kills with a hiss.”
But, the basilisk was not without its uses. Assuming one survived obtaining it, the skin could be used to ward off snakes and spiders. It was also said that silver rubbed with the ashes of a dead basilisk would make the silver take on the appearance of gold. According again to Pliny: “Its blood the magi praise to the skies, telling how it thickens as does pitch, and resembles pitch in color, but becomes brighter red than cinnabar when diluted.” For Bartholomaeus Anglicus “His ashes be accounted good and profitable in working of Alchemy, and namely in turning and changing of metals.”
As for the hybrid and chimerical Cockatrice, it was equally deadly. With the head, chest and legs of a rooster, the tail of a serpent complete with poisoned barb and wings of a dragon. Covered in feathers or scales, it was the product of a seven-year-old rooster’s egg (recognizable by its spherical shape and membrane in place of the normal shell) hatched by a toad.
By the twelfth century, medieval imagination had largely transformed the basilisk into a cockatrice, keeping the deadly stare and venomous presence, and enhancing its hybrid allure, making it a favourite in medieval bestiaries. No longer an inhabitant of faraway deserts, the cockatrice was potentially in any nearby farmyard.
A BALEFULNESS OF BASILISKS
Dame Juliana Barnes would certainly have coined a distinctive collective noun for basilisks and cockatrices, but in absence of that, from left to right:
Cockatrice, crocodile, dragon with human head in mouth and a crayfish from The Tudor Pattern Book, circa 1520. Bodleian, MS. Ashmole 1504 f.038v.
Sun, Moon, and a Basilisk, by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1512, pen and ink on paper. British Museum, London.
The basilisk, from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium. (The “Historiae animalium (“Histories of the Animals”) published in Zurich between 1551 and 1587, is a late Renaissance encyclopedia of zoology by Conrad Gesner, a doctor and professor at the Carolinum, which would become the University of Zurich. Gesner prudently included a large number of mythical creatures.
Basilisk, according to Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi. (Università di Bologna. Ulisse Aldrovandi [1522-1605], Tavole vol. 001-2 Animali.)
Basilisk from the Recueil de Noël (1644) Laval, Bibliothèque municipale, detail of folio 0031.
A weasel frightening off a basilisk, by Bohemian engraver Wenceslas Hollar, 17th century
Basilisk supporting the arms of Basel, by Monogrammist DS, 1511
Basilisks and cockatrices were witnessed throughout Europe. In the fifteenth century, an aged rooster was condemned for laying an egg in Basel. (Luckily, no toad managed to incubate the egg, or it might have been a very different story.) In one story, a man walked the whole length and breadth of England, clad in a suit covered in mirrors, until not a single cockatrice or basilisk remained in the land. (For his sake, I hope he received plenty of tips, as he clearly did a thorough job.) Another was killed in Rome during the reign of Pope Leo X, but not before his flaming and venomous breath had devastated the countryside for miles around.
The basilisk is even discussed in the pages of the notorious Malleus Maleficarum, or “Witches’ Hammer”, a book regarded for centuries as the ultimate authority on witch-hunting, penned in 1486 by to Dominican monks Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Kramer and Sprenger explain that it is a question of who sees who first. If the basilisk espies the man before he sees it, “owing to its anger a certain terrible poison is set in motion throughout its body, and this it can dart from its eyes, thus infecting the atmosphere with deadly venom. And thus the man breathes the air which it has infected and is stupefied and dies.” Should the man be fortunate enough to see the creature first, he can use a mirror to send the poisonous glare back at the basilisk, which it kills with equal efficacy.
The last recorded killing of a basilisk was in Warsaw in 1587, where a condemned criminal agreed to descend into an abandoned cellar garbed in mirrors and armed with an iron rake and a torch, to confront the creature. He eventually emerged, the basilisk, struck dead by its own mirrored stare, on his rake. “It was the size of an ordinary fowl. In its head it had somewhat the appearance of an Indian cock. Its crest was like a crown, partly covered with a bluish colour. Its back was covered with several excrescent spots, and its eyes were those of the toad. It was covered all over with the hues of venomous animals, which gave it a general tawny tinge. Its tail was curved back, and bent over its body, of a yellowish hue beneath, and of the same colour as the toad at its extremity.”
By the early 17th century, Edward Topsell sums up the “gorgon”, a hybrid creature taken from many sources, as follows:
“Among the manifold and divers sorts of Beasts which are bred in Affricke, it is thought that the Gorgon is brought foorth in that countrey. It is a feareful and terrible beast to beholdd, it hath high and thicke eie lids, eies not very great, but much like an Oxe or Bulls, but all fiery-bloudy, which neyther looke directly forwarde, nor yet upwards, but continuallye downe to the earth, and therefore are called in Greeke Catobleponta. From the crowne of their head downe to their nose they have a long hanging mane, which maketh them to looke fearefully. It eateth deadly and poysonfull hearbs, and if at any time he see a Bull or other creature whereof he is afraid, he presently causeth his mane to stand upright, and being so lifted up, opening his lips, and gaping wide, sendeth forth of his throat a certaine sharpe and horrible breath, which infecteth and poysoneth the air above his head, so that all living creatures which draw in the breath of that aire are greevously afflicted thereby, loosing both voyce and sight, they fall into leathall and deadly convulsions. It is bred in Hesperia and Lybia.”
“…It is a beast all set over with scales like a Dragon, having no haire except on his head, great teeth like Swine, having wings to flie, and hands to handle, in stature betwixt and Bull and a Calfe.” 
Topsell dismisses the legendary Medusa and her fell sisters as a “Poet’s fiction” and goes on the speculate whether it is the gorgon’s gaze or exceptionally bad breath that kill. (For him, Medusa was an Amazon captain that Perseus slew on a particularly bad hair day – hence the snaky locks.) He decides that, like the Cockatrice, it is probably the eyes. God in his wisdom has made the creature’s head so heavy, and its shaggy mane so thick, that the creature is loathe to raise them, thereby “burying his poison from the hurt of men.” He concludes:” And thus much may serve for a discription of this beast, untill by gods providence, more can be knowne thereof.”
Sir Thomas Browne, in his voluminous “Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths”, first published in 1648, scoffs at many of the supposed traits of the basilisk, but holds that “…eyes receive offensive impressions from their objects, and may have influences destructive to each other. For the visible species of things strike not our senses immaterially, but streaming in corporal rays, do carry with them the qualities of the object from whence they flow, and the medium through which they pass.
…and thus also it is not impossible, what is affirmed of this animal, the visible rays of their eyes carrying forth the subtilest portion of their poison, which received by the eye of man or beast, infecteth first the brain, and is from thence communicated unto the heart.” More soberly, Browne goes on to say “As for the generation of the basilisk, that it proceedeth from a cock’s egg, hatched under a toad or serpent, it is a conceit as monstrous – as the brood itself.”
Charles Owen, author of “On Serpents”, published in London in 1742, says this of the Basilisk: “But ’tis most probable, that the royal Stile is given to this Serpent, because of its Majestic Pace, which seems to be attended with an Air of Grandeur and Authority. It does not, like other Serpents, creep on the Earth; which if it did, the sight of it would not be frightful, but moving about, in a sort of an erect posture, it looks like a Creature of another Species, therefore they conclude ’tis an Enemy. Serpents are for Uniformity, therfore can’t endure those that differ from them in the Mode of Motion. ‘Tis said of this Creature, that its Poison infects the Air to that Degree, that no other Animal can live near it, according to the Tradition of the Elders famous for magnificent Tales. These little Furioso’s are bred in the Solitudes of Africa, and are also found in some other Places, and every where are terrible neighbours.” (The text accompanies an engraving of a beaked, lumpen eight-legged creature with a crest resembling a crown, clearly a vision to put off any self-respecting serpent!)
The cockatrice and basilisk lived on, if only on coats of arms. One odd creature, the amphysian cockatrice, has a serpent’s head on its tail. (This one, though, while fearsome enough, does not appear to have been the death of anyone.)
The stare of the Icelandic Skoffin was also deadly. In appearance, it resembled the cockatrice. (When two skoffins met, they both killed each other instantly; one wonders how on earth they reproduced – perhaps with eyelids prudently and tightly shut.) Iceland was rid of the creatures by shooting them with silver musketballs engraved with a cross.
A legend from Brazil tells of an indigenous bird whose looks could kill. A hunter, having succeeded in slaying one, cut off its head, and used it to kill game. Unfortunately, his curious and imprudent wife discovered the head and turned it towards her husband and killed him, and died when she gazed on it herself.
The legend I prefer, though, is told by the Ts’ets’aut, an Athabascan people of central British Columbia. It tells of a man who acquired the power of killing with his glance by donning the skin of a mountain-goat and assuming its shape. First dispatching his tribe, who had decided to kill him, he then wandered all over the world, his path marked by remarkable rocks, each one a creature or a human turned to stone.
 The Remains of Hesiod the Ascræan, including the Shield of Hercules. Translated by Sir Charles Abraham Elton (1778-1853). Published in London, 1815.
 Medusa’s gaze could also turn plants to stone, as Ovid explains in his Metamorphoses. We owe the beauty of coral to Medusa. After Perseus kills the ketos, “The hero washes his victorious hands in water newly taken from the sea: but lest the sand upon the shore might harm the viper-covered head, he first prepared a bed of springy leaves, on which he threw weeds of the sea, produced beneath the waves. On them he laid Medusa’s awful face, daughter of Phorcys;—and the living weeds, fresh taken from the boundless deep, imbibed the monster’s poison in their spongy pith: they hardened at the touch, and felt in branch and leaf unwonted stiffness. Sea-Nymphs, too, attempted to perform that prodigy on numerous other weeds, with like result: so pleased at their success, they raised new seeds, from plants wide-scattered on the salt expanse. Even from that day the coral has retained such wondrous nature, that exposed to air it hardens.—Thus, a plant beneath the waves becomes a stone when taken from the sea.”
 “The Gorgons, dwelling on the brink of night
Beyond the sounding main…”
From The Remains of Hesiod the Ascræan, including the Shield of Hercules. Translated by Sir Charles Abraham Elton (1778-1853). Published in London, 1815.
 Another explanation may be the dimly remembered violation of pagan temples by the Archaic Greeks, where the invaders stripped the priestesses therein of their apotropaic masks.
 Taken from “Ion”, one of the tragedies of Euripides (Volume 2), translated by Gilbert Murray (1866-1957). Published by George Allen, London 1904.
 Dante, The Divine Comedy. Inferno, Book IX.
 from Lycophron’s Cassandra, lines 511-12, The Remains of the late Lord Viscount Royston: with a memoir of his life by the Rev. Henry Pepys. Published in London by Murray. 1838.
 The Theriaca, Nicander of Colophon, (active c. 130 B. C.)
 Pliny the Elder, The Natural History. (8. xxxiii) Translated by John Bostock, H.T. Riley, 1855.
 The full etymology is as follows: from Latin basiliscus, from Greek basiliskos “little king,” diminutive of basileus “king”, c. 1300.
 Isidore of Seville (7th century) Etymologies, Book 12, 4:6-9
 Bartholomaeus Anglicus (13th century) De proprietatibus rerum, book 18)
 From Un-natural history, or Myths of ancient science; being a collection of curious tracts on the basilisk, unicorn, phoenix, behemoth or leviathan, dragon, giant spider, tarantula, chameleons, satyrs, homines caudati, &c., now first tr. from the Latin, and ed., with notes and illustrations by Edmund Goldsmid, Edinburgh, 1886
 From Edward Topsell (1607) The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes, pp. 262-263: Of the Gorgon, or strange Lybian Beast.