The Legend Of The Basilisk Explained

As happens altogether too frequently, fans of Harry Potter are about to be disappointed.

If you're aware of a mythical snake king creature called the basilisk, it's probably thanks to J.K. Rowling's descriptions of a fifty-foot serpent with fangs as long as your arm and a taste for tender young Radcliffe flesh, creeping through the halls of a private school and generally making life miserable for accessibly-written young people. Like many of the monsters in the series, its roots can be traced back to ancient legends which, as a general rule, are sort of a let down.

Take Pliny the Elder's depiction of the basilisk in his first century book Naturalis Historia. He stated that the basilisk, far from being a junior-sized kaiju monster, was "not more than twelve fingers in length," which, right off the bat, makes it ill-suited for third act boss battles. Its likes included smashing rocks, killing the grass in its immediate vicinity with its foul vapors, and murdering any living thing with its death glare. Dislikes: weasels. Throwing a weasel into a basilisk's den was the tried and true method of killing the beast. As Achilles' heels go, it's not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff.

The basilisk: a Myth-communication?

Still, somehow, the legend of the basilisk persisted throughout the centuries. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about it in his bestiary, more or less lifting his description from Naturalis Historia. Years went by, and the basilisk went through some funky phases. The word became interchangeable with "cockatrice" for a little while and, along with dragons and unicorns, eventually made it into the King James translation of the Bible.

Like with many fantastic beasts, the basilisk's legend is thought to have come to us via a game of cultural telephone. One theory published by the Cambridge University Press theorizes that the myth started out as a story about a cobra that snowballed out of control: a small, crowned reptile capable of spitting poison, an ability which would look to the casual observer like killing with a glance. See also: vulnerability to weasels.

And that's the disappointing truth. There's nothing to worry about. There are no magical monsters lurking in the shadows. Just very real legless murder lizards that can spit poison and climb into your house through your toilet. You probably feel better already.