Call of Cthulhu - Basilisk - 2008, Marissa Rivera, Fantasy Flight Games
The Basilisk - It had to be snakes
Since the second film from the Harry Potter saga, the general public has discovered the basilisk, a monster well known by fans of fantasy games who have given them a lot of cold sweat. Mythology, movies, video games or role-playing games, whatever the context, the reptile is one of the most feared monstrous creatures for its ability to give death with a simple glance.
Return to the nightmare of the adventurers.
Despite a great standardization of the fantastic bestiary since the 70s, the basilisk is one of the few creatures still having an appearance far from unanimous. Draconic serpent or rooster with eight legs, some middle ground is found in the bestiaries of role-playing games where it is often represented as a monstrous lizard with eight legs. Its only constant is its ability to cause death by petrification at a glance.
But what was it originally?
Present in Greek culture, it is then simply a small snake with a shiny body. This first description that has reached us comes from the Greek physician, grammarian and poet Nikandros de Colophon in the 2nd century BC in his collection Thèriaka dealing with wounds inflicted by poisonous animals. Pliny the Elder will go further by describing the basilisk in books 8 and 29 of his Natural History (Historia Naturalis) in -79.
"There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene (note: region of present-day Libya), being not more than twelve fingers in length (note: between 20 and 30 cm). 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 effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odor but dies itself in this struggle of nature against itself. "
It is only in book 29 that he specifies that some affirm that he can kill with a simple glance before stating the healing virtues of his blood diluted by the magi.
Upon reading this physical description, if we rule out the supernatural power of its venom, we can clearly see that we are dealing with a relatively classic snake, probably from the cobra family. However, as we have seen, Pliny's works come from a lot of older testimonies and writings and it seems that the basilisk is a result from a mixture of different snakes.
First of all, let's come back to the name of the creature: in Greek, it was called basilískon which was a diminutive of basileús generally translated as "king" but actually approaching more "sovereign" at the time of the discovery of the creature. And if the word basileús reminds you of something, it is because it is a title taken over by many leaders claiming to be the heirs of Alexander the Great (the only mega basileús) as the dynasty of the Ptolemy in Egypt and especially the Byzantine rulers (the term then taking the meaning of "emperor").
All this to say that the basilisk is, therefore, "the king of serpents", mainly because of the white spot in the shape of a diadem cited by Pliny.
-Other uses have since been created from with the creature this time. Besides borrowing the name for military material (the army regularly likes to use mythological names as we saw with the griffin), a whole genus of lizards endemic to Central and South America has been named basilisk. Strangely enough, because nothing really binds them together and the animal is mostly called "Jesus-Christ Lizard" because of its impressive ability to run on water by hitting it quickly and hard with its webbed hind legs.
To compare the different snakes that potentially inspired the basilisk, here is a quick table made by analyzing the publication Atlas of Reptiles of Libya by Bauer, DeBoer and Taylor for Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences in 2017. After a selection of the snakes present in Libya and having a coloration on the neck or the head, I, therefore, distinguished the various realistic characteristics of the basilisk of Pliny the Elder with the potential candidates. However, the country's wildlife has certainly changed in two thousand years and as a precaution, I have also included the red spitting cobra and the black-necked spitting cobra which are not normally found in Libya but are so important south of the Sahara. (culturally, in population and above all in danger) that they may have participated in the legend.
Stain on the upper body
Can stand up
|False smooth snake
|Neck with a collar that can be extended over the head like an inverted T.||No||Light and harmless to humans.||40 to 50 cm|
|Nubian spitting cobra
|White and black stripes on the neck.||Yes, like all cobras, it has a hood that it can deploy.||Deadly for humans, it can inject it through bite or spit it out.||140 cm|
|Very variable according to the subspecies. Some have lots of white spots.||Yes, it also has a hood.||Deadly for humans via a bite that paralyzes the heart and lungs in particular.||100 to 200 cm|
|Zebra spitting cobra
|Covered with white and black rings.||Yes, it also has a hood.||Causes hemorrhage, necrosis and paralysis. He spits it precisely in the eyes.||150 cm|
|Red spitting cobra
|Black ring on the hood.||Yes, it also has a hood.||Deadly for humans, it can inject it through bite or spit it out.||100 cm|
|Black-necked spitting cobra
|Depending on the individual, may have white or yellow spots or rings.||Yes, it also has a hood.||Not fatal but very painful, crippling and blinding. He spits it precisely in the eyes at the slightest provocation.||120 to 220 cm|
Naturally, this is just a glimpse of a few snakes with at least two characteristics of the basilisk and being limited to Libya, which may already have been a mistake. But as you can see, it is challenging to meet all the conditions to create a basilisk. A theory often taken up, would be that of testimonies of Asian snakes like the Indian cobra (Naja naja) whose emblematic task can recall a diadem, but also the royal cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) which feeds mainly on other snakes with its three to four meters long (which recalls the text of Pliny which specifies that the other snakes flee from him).
The other argument in favor of the followers of this theory is that there is some evidence that Alexander the Great's troops encountered it during his eastward campaigns and we know what word of mouth can give about an impressive animal.
However, under these conditions, it would be strange to reduce it from four meters to only thirty centimeters.
Even if the basilisk remains the product of various snakes, it may be worth comparing its abilities to these.
First of all, its ability to stand up is not surprising, all cobras straighten up to deploy the hood of their neck when they feel threatened in order to appear more imposing. The Egyptian cobra is so present in northern Africa that it was represented everywhere in ancient Egypt, including in the form of the Uraeus (Greek name, its Egyptian name being Iaret "the trained cobra"), the female serpent responsible for protecting the pharaoh and present on all her headdresses.
This ability to stand up can also partly explain the main power of the basilisk, namely to paralyze its prey. But, as a reminder, this ability was not originally present, it "only" kills with a glance, it is just interesting to observe the intersections between reality and mythology.
Snakes have always been serious threats to humans, whether as predators (like the python) or much more often, as a simple defensive reflex. Without a weapon or specific training, a human is generally unlikely to emerge unscathed from a confrontation with a snake and this instinctive fear is ingrained in us. This, added to the fast and ultra fluid way they move, generally exerts a paralyzing fascination for an ordinary observer who finds himself faced with this natural threat by surprise.
Surprise is also predominantly the key element of our fears because an unprepared human will (normally) not go to a sleeping cobra and if the snake spots a human, it swiftly flees if it can. Therefore, if we are surprised, the fear reaction (and subsequently its recollection) is greatly amplified compared to a conflict sought or happening gradually.
-Hence the point of walking by stamping the feet hard on the ground because the snakes are practically deaf but they feel the vibrations and will then avoid the confrontation as much as possible.
Finding yourself suddenly in front of a straightened cobra can be both a traumatic and paralyzing experience. Especially in front of this animal that we instinctively recognize as dangerous from an early age. The advantage for our legend is that, the attitude of the cobra being made to impress, if the human ends up turning around, he has every chance of escaping and reporting his experience.
But not always. And this is our following point for explaining paralysis or death from a distance: the ability of many snakes to spit venom, all the more easily if they are upright.
Snake's venom varies widely among species but is secreted by the parotid glands which produce saliva in other animals. And it is indeed saliva but mixed with an enormous rate of proteins and enzymes which will disrupt the functioning of the body of the prey according to the "needs" of the snake (more precisely, according to the composition which was the most effective to promote survival of the species in its environment).
While some venom "simply" thickens the blood so that the prey suffocates and/or the heart stops due to lack of irrigation, others combine several toxins to inflict various effects in one bite. Among these cocktails we can find neurotoxins (which attack the nervous system), cytotoxins (which attack cells by inflicting necrosis), hemotoxins (which act on the blood), and myotoxins (which act on the contraction of muscles, including the heart of course). The treatments are therefore all different depending on the snake (not counting the risk of anaphylactic shock) and it is extremely important to remember its appearance in the event of a bite so that you are given the appropriate treatment.
Currently, the snakes that interest us here spit their venom in the eyes at a distance ranging from one meter fifty to two meters depending on the species but always with a very high rate of accuracy. The reason for this accuracy is simple: their reaction time is infinitely faster than humans.
In a 2010 study conducted by Bruce Young for the University of Massachusetts, researchers observed that there was only a 200 millisecond delay between the researcher's movement causing the cobra to spit and the spitting itself. 200 milliseconds is a fifth of a second or a third of the time it takes us to blink. And during this (very) brief period of time, the snake therefore decided to attack, tilted its head to aim precisely the course of the eyes of its target (the study is actually about this movement) then spat with a precision that researchers have estimated 90%.
This ability to hit its target is still aided by the fact that, while it spits, it moves its head to produce a slightly tapered spray to expand the area of effect. It suffices then that a simple droplet reaches the cornea for the venom to blind its victim and it must be understood that at this level of reaction, a human is almost frozen in time for the snake. It is therefore easy for him to calculate where the eyes of the opponent will be by following the trajectory of these movements much slower than its own, hence the remarkable precision. To offer an equivalent, if a kid tries punching you, chances are that your speed of reaction, your experience in calculating the point of impact and the control of your movements allow you to intercept the weak attempt without much effort, even if the child was at the peak of his abilities and he thought he was unbeatable.
For the record, the average reaction time of a human (the delay between a stimulus and its response, like a driver having to brake suddenly upon seeing a danger) is a full second for a person in good physical condition or five times that of a snake (actually more since during its 200 milliseconds, the snake has already started its reaction, the timer only stopping when the venom comes out of its mouth).
Incidentally, you should know that this speed is not specific to the most dangerous cobras or snakes. Numerous laboratory observations have shown that even harmless snakes can "bite" as fast as a viper. The head arrives at its target in a time between 44 and 70 milliseconds while undergoing a pressure of 30G due to its own speed and attack power (the body of a snake contains between 10,000 and 15,000 muscles against 800 for a human). 30G is thirty times the Earth's gravity and you should know that a trained combat pilot (and equipped specifically to better conserve blood in the upper body) loses control of his limbs at 8G and faints at 10G (the record for a roller coaster is 6.3G but this pressure is only bearable because it lasts only a brief moment).
By bringing together all this data, we understand that this ability to attack and blind its victim as quickly with an often paralyzing effect could have inspired the legend of a snake killing at a distance "by its breath". And if later, Pliny will tell us that it can also kill with a simple glance, we have the possibility that it is a spit so fast that we did not see it leave, but especially that it is an exaggerated testimony. If this idea seems obvious, it is however important to clarify because a similar case is present in the book of Pliny the Elder. In his description of the catoblépas ("who looks down"), he specifies that it is an Ethiopian beast small and weak but who can kill with a simple glance. Only this beast, we now know, is the wildebeest. And if other authors advance that it can also petrify through its eyes or spit out a poisonous breath, the bovid does not have, a priori, these capacities. On the other hand, it is another very protective beast, often aggressive, knowing perfectly how to defend itself and especially physically impressive for an observer who is not used to it.
To these various reasons explaining the gaze attack, we can add the influence of the very popular legend of the gorgon Medusa. It will also influence the myth of the basilisk more directly over time because the latter's ability to kill from a distance will gradually become petrified by a simple glance, like the woman with the hair of snakes.
To complete the comparison between the original basilisk and the snakes, if we look at the ability of the monster to slaughter the horse and the owner of the lance that kills it, there is a decent chance that it is simply a biting or spitting too quick to see (which is easy on horseback since our attention is necessarily divided between the snake and the horse to be maneuvered). Another possibility is that we thought we were helped by thick protections and that a simple scratch was of no consequence when it only takes a few milliliters of certain venoms to take effect. There is also another theory coming from the extraordinary nervous system of snakes which allows them to remain dangerous even when dead and beheaded.
Indeed, the functioning of the brain of snakes facilitates certain reflexes (mainly the bite) which are particularly easy to trigger because their survival depends on this speed in responding to danger. In fact, even twelve hours after its death, a snake's head can still respond to a stimulus by biting reflexively. News around the world are filled with stories of people having suffered a bite, sometimes fatal, after touching a body, thinking the danger was over.
In summary, apart from a few species of constricting snakes, most snakes flee from humans as soon as they detect the vibrations of their footsteps. But once cornered, they're as dangerous alive as they are dead, so stay at a distance and call an expert when needed. Since the vast majority of bites come from people who have come too close on purpose, if you leave them alone you normally have nothing to worry about.
We meet very quickly for the rest and end with significantly fewer snakes, we promise. But sometimes it's better to condense everything in one place.
Part 2 - Mongooses and Cockatrices