How Cassowaries Inspired the Medieval Legend of the Basilisk

Are legendary animals always based on some actual animals? For example, numerous hypotheses propose that the legend of the basilisk may have been inspired by the qualities of the specific living animal. Let's consider some potential options.

However, who exactly is the basilisk?

Have Cassowaries Inspired the Legend of the Basilisk?
Was the legend of the basilisk inspired by encounters with cassowaries?

Basilisk: Something Between Dinosaur and Bird

Basilisk is a unique type of legendary creature, distinct from the dragon.  Already mentioned in Ancient Greece, it is believed that the basilisk hatches from an egg laid by a seven-year-old rooster. The creature is said to have the power to kill with a single glance, making it one of the most feared monsters in mythology. Its venom is also said to be incredibly potent, capable of killing with just a single drop.

The battle with the basilisk is a common motif in many adventure tales
The battle with the basilisk is a common motif in many adventure tales

In his Natural History, Pliny describes the basilisk as a creature that can be found in Cyrene (now Libya) and grows up to twelve inches (25 cm) long with a white spot on its head resembling a diadem, which is the origin of its name. 

When it whistles, all the other snakes run away: it doesn't resemble a snake and doesn't coil his body like other reptiles, instead, it stands tall and walks straight with his body rising in the middle. Basilisk has spiky red eyes, his feathers are a mix of black and yellow, and finds pleasure in bathing.

Every plant he comes in contact with wilts and dies, his poison is potent enough that when a knight on horseback once pierced him with a lance, the poison traveled up the shaft and fatally affected both of them. Weasels are the only animal that poses a threat to the basilisk, so they are placed in the caves where the basilisk is believed to hide. The weasels use their cleverness and strong scent to kill the basilisk, which, according to legend, cannot withstand them.

Other ancient historians such as Gollinus, Nicander, Aelianus, Apulejus, and Lucan all agree with this description. Furthermore, Aelianus adds that the basilisk is also scared of cocks, trembles at the sight of them, and dies when they crow. Therefore, travelers in Libya used to bring these birds with them for protection.

Basilisk in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the natural history writers agreed with previous accounts, but over time, various new fables were introduced that enhanced the central legend. This means that when a rooster reaches the age of 7 or 9, it will lay an egg either in a dark cellar or on a dunghill. Toads will take care of this egg, and after it hatches, it transforms into a basilisk. 

Basilisk in Medieval Culture and Folklore: Exploring Its Significance
Basilisk is also a common artistic motif in Medieval Western art

Upon hatching, the basilisk quickly moves towards the water to clean itself; however, it must be cautious as it is vulnerable to its own reflection in clear water. According to another version, the basilisk is said to come from a toad egg that is incubated by a rooster.

Lastly, the basilisk's origin is said to come from the Ibis, the bird which preyed on snakes in Egypt. The Ibis lays only one egg during his lifetime, from which the basilisk is born. The basilisk acquired allegedly its father's dislike of snakes, along with the venomous traits from the snakes its father consumed.

Alleged Real-Life Basilisk Encounters

During the medieval period, alleged basilisks were showcased in cabinets of curiosities, such as one seen in Vienna in 1212 and another displayed in the Einsiedeln monastery in Switzerland, reportedly born from a rooster's egg there.

Komodo dragons are another possible source of the basilisk legend
Komodo dragons are another possible source of the basilisk legend

In fact, encounters with basilisk are not mentioned in any trustworthy historical documents, not even in ancient times. It is only found in legendary tales such as Eskandar-N├ómeh by Nizami Ganjavi or Alexander Romance. According to this story, this beast – which could supposedly kill with just a glance – once battled Alexander in India. To defeat it, Alexander had a shield made 7 cubits in size with a mirror attached, knowing that the basilisk would die upon seeing its own reflection. This plan succeeded.

Is the Legend of Basilisk based on a real animal? 

Is it possible for Basilisk to be based on a real-life model? Was the behavior of some animals misinterpreted so much that it acquired legendary qualities? 

Maybe the legend of the basilisk came from an extinct creature that terrified people and animals with its appearance and made them defenseless out of fear, similar to how stories are told about Komodo dragons or rattlesnakes today, or the fable arose from mistaken identity with the hard to spot living reptile Lacerta Basiliscus. Other candidate that came to mind is cassowaries.

What are cassowaries? 

Are Cassowaries the Inspiration Behind the Legend of the Basilisk?
Cassowaries have a casque on their head resembling a crown

Cassowaries are large, unable-to-fly birds that are native to the tropical forests of New Guinea and northern Australia. Cassowaries have a vibrant blue hue on their face and neck, as well as a casque on their head that looks like a crown, and shiny black feathers that envelop their body. Primarily feeding on fruits while also hunting small animals and fungi, Cassowaries role in dispersing seeds is important for the environment. 

Fully grown specimens of these birds can achieve heights of 6.6 feet (2 meters) and a weight of up to 160 pounds (72 kg), which places them as the second tallest and third heaviest bird in the world. 

Cassowaries like to be solitary and protect their territory, they are unafraid to stand up to humans if needed. It is one of the rare animals resembling birds that can attack humans.

Even though cassowaries are typically shy, they can become very aggressive, particularly in situations where they perceive a threat or feel restricted. Their strong legs have sharp claws and their kicks can be deadly to humans.

Cassowaries: Unique Birds Featured in Papua New Guinea Folklore
Cassowary is one of the rare bird-like creatures that can attack humans

Cassowaries, due to their scaly legs and primitive appearance, may seem more similar to large reptiles than birds. This creature's appearance may evoke similarities to the basilisk, often depicted with a combination of bird and reptile features. However, the similarity ends at this point.

Cassowaries do not like water and typically do not bathe in water when it comes to personal grooming. Instead of using that method, they rely on natural rain and dew to keep their feathers clean. They may also participate in dust baths, which help get rid of parasites and maintain the health of their feathers.

Cassowaries: The Emblematic Birds of Papua New Guinea and Australia

Cassowaries are significant in the cultural practices of the indigenous populations of New Guinea. The cassowary is considered a totem animal in many indigenous cultures of New Guinea. Totem animals are highly revered and connected with the spiritual identity of clans or tribes.

Despite being occasionally hunted for their meat and feathers, cassowaries are typically subject to strict regulations and taboos. In some regions, the hunting of cassowaries is restricted to specific times or circumstances and is often associated with ceremonial rituals.

Cassowaries are very important animals in the native culture of Papua New Guinea and Australia
Cassowaries are very important animals in the native culture of Papua New Guinea

Cassowary feathers are highly valued and commonly used in ceremonial attire, such as headpieces and arm accessories. At the Mount Hagen Festival in Papua New Guinea, people don elaborate costumes adorned with cassowary feathers. Wearing these feathers is believed to bestow upon the wearer the bird's strength and vitality, as well as represent the warrior's status.

Every now and then, cassowary bones are used to make items such as daggers. These items hold both practical and religious significance. The Sepik River communities of Papue Guinea place a high value on cassowary bone daggers.

Based on all of this information, it can be inferred that the cassowary is an ideal contender as the inspiration for the basilisk legend. The only issue is that there was no historical link between Europe/Africa and Australia/Papua in ancient times, so the cassowary could not serve as a blueprint for the basilisk.

Despite this, cassowaries are just as unique and fascinating as the mythical basilisk and require our protection,


Popular Posts