Cuvier on the Basilisk

A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book III, Chapter VII: Of the Basilisk

A distinction must be taken between the basilisk (or cockatrice) of Scripture, and that which is so called by modern naturalists; it seems most probable that the former was intended to denote the naja or cobra capello of the Portuguese.

Under the name of basilisk is at present designated a genus of reptiles, of the saurian order, which exhibit many affinities with the iguanas and monitors. No animal, perhaps, has been the subject of so great a number of prejudices as the one now under consideration. The most ancient authors have spoken of the basilisk as of a serpent which had the power of striking its victim dead by a single glance. Others have pretended that it could not exercise this faculty, unless it first perceived the object of its vengeance before it was itself perceived by it. It was also most absurdly imagined to proceed from the eggs of old cocks. Aldrovandus, and several other writers, have given figures of it. They have represented it with eight feet, a crown on the head, and a hooked and recurved beak. Pliny assures us that the serpent named basilisk has a voice so terrible that it strikes terror into all other species — that it thus chases them from the spot which it inhabits, and of which it retains the sole and undisputed dominion. The name indeed, basilisk, in Greek, signifies royal. The fantastic forms and fabulous properties thus attributed to an animal which, most probably, never had an existence, rendered this name too celebrated for naturalists not to endeavour to apply it to another species, which accordingly they did. Seba figured a species of lizard, whose head is surmounted with projected lines, and the back furnished with a broad vertical crest, which extends as far as over the tail, and which that author believed to be intended for the purposes of flight. He has designated it under the name of basilisk, or dragon of America, a flying amphibious animal. This is the animal which has subsequently been described in all works of natural history, under the name of basilisk. — Cuvier's Animal Kingdom apud Wilkin.

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