This curious image (labeled BL Royal 12 C XIX, f. 63 in the British Library manuscript collection) is a medieval painting of a deadly mythological creature known as a basilisk. Like many ancient and medieval monsters, the basilisk was depicted as an unnatural hybrid of known animals—in this case, snakes and birds. The appearance of the basilisk could change dramatically depending on the author or artist describing the creature. Some made the basilisk very snake-like, whereas other illustrators gave the monster a more birdlike or dragonesque form. Despite differing interpretations on how the basilisk might look, commentators were usually unified on the basilisk’s most dangerous feature. According to the folklore and legends about the beast, basilisks had a deadly gaze that could potentially kill whatever came into their field of view. The famous witch-hunting text, The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), recorded the following theory about the basilisk’s fatal glare:
“Moreover if a basilisk sees a man first its look is fatal; but if he [the man] sees it first he may be able to kill it; and the reason why the basilisk is able to kill a man by its gaze is because when it sees him, owing to its anger a certain terrible poison is set in motion through its body, and this it can dart from its eyes, thus infecting the atmosphere with deadly venom. And thus the man breathes in the air which it has infected and is stupefied and dies” (The Malleus Maleficarum, part 1, question 2).
In the painting featured above, some unfortunate victims are shown experiencing the basilisk’s formidable abilities. On the right side of the image, a man is shown keeling over from the effects of the monster’s glare. At the other corner of the painting, however, a weasel, ermine or ferret fares better than the human. Fighting for its life, the animal jumps to take a bite out of the basilisk. The monster, unfortunately for the ermine or ferret, was able to quickly turn its head to face the brave challenger. That is the moment that the painter captured in the scene above—the eye-to-eye glare between the two creatures.
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).