Topsell on the Basilisk
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 7

From Edward Topsell (1608) The Historie of Serpents, pp. 119-125.


This Beast is called by the Græcians Baziliscos, and by the Latine Regulus, because he seemeth to be the King of serpents, not for his magnitude or greatnesse. For there are many Serpents bigger then he, as there bee many Foure-footed-beastes bigger then the Lyon, but because of his stately pace, and magnanimous mind: for hee creepeth not on the earth like other Serpents, but goeth halfe upright, for which occasion all other Serpentes avoyde his sight. And it seemeth nature hath ordained him for that purpose: for beside the strength of his poyson which is uncurable, he hath a certaine combe or Corronet uppon his head, as shall be shewed in due place. It is also cald Sibilus, as we read in Isidorus, Sibilus enim occidit antequam mordeat vel exurat: The Cockatrice killeth before it burneth. The Hebrewes call it Pethen, and Curman, also Zaphna, and Zaphnaini. The Chalde Armene, Harmene, and also Carmene: The Ægyptians Ureus, the Germans Ein Ertz Schlengle, the French Un Basilic: The Spaniards and Italians Basilisco.

There is some question amongest Writers, about the generation of this Serpent: for some, (and those very many and learned) affirme, him to be brought forth of a Cockes egge. For they say that when a Cock groweth old, he layeth a certaine egge without any shell, in stead whereof it is covered with a very thicke skinne, which is able to withstand the greatest force of an easie blow or fall. They say moreover, that this Egge is layd onely in the Summer-time, about the beginning of Dogge-dayes, being not long as a Hens Egge, but round and orbiculer: Sometimes of a dusty, sometimes of a Boxie, sometimes of a yellowish muddy colour, which Egge is generated of the putrified seed of the Cocke, and afterward set upon by a Snake or a Toad, bringeth forth the Cockatrice, being halfe a foot in length, the hinder part like a Snake, the former part like a Cocke, because of a treble combe on his forehead.

But the vulger opinion of Europe is, that the Egge is nourished by a Toad, and not by a Snake; howbeit in better experience it is found that the Cocke doth sit on that egge himselfe: whereof Leninus Lemnius in his twelth booke of the hidden miracles of nature hath this discourse, in the fourth chapter thereof. There happened (saith he) within our memory in the Citty Pirizæa, that there were two old Cockes which had layd Egges, & the common people (because of opinion that those Egges would engender Cockatrices) laboured by all meanes possible to keepe the said cockes from sitting on those egges, but they could not with clubs and staves drive them from the Egges, untill they were forced to breake the egges in sunder, and strangle the cockes. But this point is worth inquiry, whether a cocke can conceive an Egge, and after a certaine time lay the same without a shell. I for my part am perswaded, that when a cocke groweth old, and ceaseth to tread his female in the ordinary course of nature, which is in the seventh or ninth yeare of his age, or at the most in the foureteenth, there is a certaine concretion bred within him by the putrified heat of his body, through the staying of his seede generative, which hardeneth unto an egge, & is covered with such a shell, as is said already: the which egge being nourished by the cocke or some other beast, bringeth forth a venomous worme, such as are bred in the bodies of men, or as Waspes, Horse-flyes, and caterpillers enggendred of Horse-dung or other putryfied humours of the earth: and so out of this Egge may such a venomous Worme proceede, as in proportion of body, and pestiferous breath, may resemble the Affrican cockatrice or Basiliske, and yet it is not the same whereof wee purpose here to intreat, but will acknowledge that to be one kind of cockatrice, but this kind is generated like other Serpents of the earth, for as the auncient Hermes writeth, it is both false and impossible, that a cockatrice should be hatched of a cockes Egge. The same writer maketh mention of a Bazeliske ingendred in dung, whereby hee meaneth the Elixir of life, wherewithall the Alchimistes convert mettals.

The Ægyptians hold opinion, that these cockatrices are engendered of the Egges of the Bird called Ibis, and therefore they breake those Egges wheresoever they finde them: and for this cause in theyr Hieroglyphicks, when they will signifie a lawfull execution after an upright judgment, & sound institution of their forefathers, they are wont to make an Ibis, and a cockatrice.

The countries breeding or bringing forth these cockatrices, are sayde to be these: First Affricke, and therein the Ancient seat or land of the Turkes, Nubia, and all the wildernes of Affrica, & the countries Cyrenes. Gallen among the Physitions only, doubteth whether there be a cockatrice or no, whose authority in this case must not be followed, seeing it was never given to mortal man to see & know every thing, for besides the holy scriptures unavoidable authority, which both in the prophesie of Esay and Jeremy, maketh mention of the cockatrice and her Egges: there be many grave humaine Writers, whose authority is irrefragable, affirming not onely that there be cockatrices, but also that they infect the ayre, and kill with their sight. And Mercuriall affirmeth, that when he was with Maximilion the Emperour, hee saw the carkase of a cockatrice, reserved in his treasurey among his undoubted monuments. Of this Serpent the Poet Georgius Pictorius writeth on this manner;

Rex est serpentum basiliscus, quem modo vincunt
Mustelæ insultus, sænaque bella feræ.
Lernæum vermem basiliscum fœda Cirene
Producit cunctis maximè perniciem.
Et nasci ex ovo galli, si credere fas est,
Decrepiti, in simo, sole nitente, docent.
Sed quoniam olfactu lœdit, visusque ferarum
Omne genus credas, nulla tenere bona.

That is to say;

The Bazeliske the Serpents King I find,
Yet Weasels him do overcome in warre,
The Cyren land him breedes of Lernaes kind,
They to all other a destruction are:
And if we may beleeve, that through the heat of Sunne,
In old Cockes Egges this beast is raised first,
Or beastes by sight or smell thereof are all undone,
Then ist not good, but of his kind the worst.

We doe read that in Rome, in the dayes of Pope Leo the fourth, there was a Cockatrice found in a Vault of a Church or Chappell, dedicated to Saint Lucea, whose pestiferous breath hadde infected the Ayre round about, whereby great mortality followed in Rome: but how the said Cockatrice came thither it was never knowne. It is most probable that it was created and sent of GOD for the punishment of the Citty, which I do the more easily beleeve, because Segonius & Julius Scaliger do affirme, that the sayd pestiferous beast was killed by the prayres of the said Leo the fourth.

I thinke they meane that by the authoritie of the sayde Byshop, all the people were mooved to generall fasting and prayer, and so Almighty GOD who was mooved for theyr sinnes, to send such a plague amongest them, was likewise intreated by their prayers and sutes, not onely to reverse the plague, but with the same hand to kill the beast, wherewithall it was created: even as once in Ægypt by the hand of Moses, hee brought Grasse-hoppers and Lice, so by the same hand he drove them away againe.

There is some small difference amongest the Writers, about the quantity and parts of this Serpent: which I will breefely reconcile. First Aelianus saith, that a Cockatrice is not past a spanne in compasse, that is as much as a man can gripe in his hand. Pliny saith, that it is as bigge as twelve fingers. Solinus and Isidorus affirme, that it is but halfe a foot long.

Avicen saith, that the Arabian Harmena, that is, the Cockatrice, is two cubits and a halfe long. Nicander saith, Et tribus extenso porrectur corpore palmis, that is, it is in length but three palmes. Aetius saith, that it is as bigge as three handfuls: Now for the reconciliation of all these. It is to be understood, that Pliny and Aelianus speaketh of the Worme that commeth out of the Cockes Egge, in regard of the length, but not of the quantity, and so confound together that Worme and the Cockatrice. For it is very reasonable, that seeing the magnitude and greatnesse of the Serpent is concluded to bee at the least a span in compasse, that therefore the length of it must needs bee three or foure foote at the shortest; else how could it bee such a terrour to other Serpents, or how could the fore part of it arise so eminently above the earth, if the head were not lifted at the least a foote from the ground. So then we will take it for graunted, that this Serpent is as big as a mans wrist, and the length of it answerable to that proportion.

It is likewise questionable whether the Cockatrice have Winges or no: for by reason of his conceived generation from a Cocke, many have described him in the forepart to have Winges, and in the hinder part to have a tayle like a Serpent: And the conceit of winges seemeth to bee derived from Holy Scripture, because it is written Esay 14: verse twenty nine, De radice cobibij [sic: sc. colubri] egredietur reulus & semen eius absorbens volucrem: That is to say, Out of the Serpents rootes shall come a Cockatrice, and the fruite thereof shall be a fiery flying Serpent, as wee translate it in English: but Tremellius the best Interpreter, doth render the Hebrew in this maner: De radice Serpentis prodit hæmorrhus & fructus illius prester volans: That is to say, Word for word, Out of the roote of the Serpent shall come the Hæmorrhe, and the fruite thereof a flying Prester. Now we know, that the Hæmorrhe and the Prester are two other different kindes of Serpents from the Cockatrice, and therefore these Interpreters beeing the more faithfull and learned, wee will rather follow the Holy Scripture in theyr translation, then the vulgar Latine, which is corrupted in very many places, as it is also Esay. the 30. verse six. For Præster, there is againe in the vulgar translation the Cockatrice: and for this cause wee have not described the Cockatrice with winges, as not finding sufficient authority to warrant the same.

The eyes of the Cockatrice are redde, or somewhat inclyning to blackenesse, the skinne and carkase of this beast have been accounted precious, for wee doe read that the Pergameni did buy but certaine peeces of a Cockatrice, and ave for it two pound and a halfe of Sylver: and because there is an opinion that no Byrd, Spyder, or venomous Beast, will indure the sight of this Serpent, they did hang uppe the skinne thereof stuffed, in the Temples of Apollo and Diana, in a certaine thinne Net made of Gold: and therefore it is sayde, that never any Swallow, Spider, or other Serpent durst come within those Temples: And not onely the skinne or the sight of the Cockatrice worketh this effect, but also the flesh thereof, being rubbed upon the pavement postes or Walles of any House. And moreover, if Silver bee rubbed over with the powder of the Cockatrices flesh, it is likewise sayde, that it giveth a tincture like unto Golde: and besides these qualities, I remember not any other in the flesh or skinne of this serpent.

The hissing of the Cockatrice which is his naturall voyce, is terrible to other serpents, and therefore as soone as they heare the ame, they prepare themselves to fly away, according to these verses of Nicander;

Illius auditos expectant nulla susurros,
Quantumuis magnas sinuent animalia spiras
Quando vel in pastum, vel opacæ deviæ silvæ,
Irriguósue locos, mediæ sub lucre diei
Excandescenti succensa furore feruntur,
Sed turpi cõversa fugæ dant tergæ retrorsum.

Which may be englished thus;

When as the greatest winding Serpents heare,
(Feeding in woods or pasture all abroad,
Although inclos'd in many spiers, yet feare:
Or in mid-day the shaddowes neare brookes road,)
The fearefull hißing of this angry beast,
They runne away: as fast as feete can lead them,
Flying his rage unto some other rest,
Turning their backes whereby they do escape him.

We read also that many times in Affrica, the Mules fall downe dead for thirst, or else ly dead on the ground for some other causes, unto whose Carkase innumerable troupes of Serpentes gather themselves to feede thereuppon: but when the Bazeliske windeth the sayd dead body, he giveth forth his voyce: at the first hearing whereof, all the Serpents hide themselves in the neare adjoyning sandes, or else runne into their holes, not daring to come forth againe, untill the Cockatrice have well dyned and satisfied himselfe. At which time he giveth another signall by his voyce of his departure: then come they forth, but never dare meddle with the remnants of the dead beast, but go away to seek some other prey. And if it happen that any other pestiferous beast come unto the waters to drink neare the place wherein the Cockatrice is lodged, so soone as it perceieth the presence thereof, although it be not heard nor seene, yet it deaparteth back againe, without drinking, neglecting his owne nutriment, to save it selfe from further danger: whereupon Lucanus saith;

———— Latè sibi submovet omne
Vulgus, & in vacua regnat Basiliscus arena.

Which may be thus englished;

He makes the vulgar farre from him to stand,
While Cockatrice alone raignes on the sand.

So then it being evident that the hissing of the Cockatrice is terrible to all Serpentes, and his breath and poyson mortall to all manner of Beastes: yet hath GOD in nature not left this wilde Serpent without an enemie; for the Weasell and the Cocke are his tryumphant Victors; and therefore Pliny sayth well: Huic tali monstro quod sæpe enectum concupivere reges videre, mustelarum virus exitio est, adeò naturæ nihil esse sina pari: That is to say, This monster which even Kings have desired to see when it was dead, yet is destroyed by the poyson of Weasels, for so it hath pleased nature that no beast should be witthout his match.

The people therefore when they take Weasells, after they have found the Caves and lodging places of the Cockatrices, which are easily discerned by the upper face of the earth, which is burned with theyr hotte poyson, they put the Weasell in unto her: at the sight whereof the Cockatrice flyeth like a weakeling overmatched with too strong an adversary, but the Weasell followeth after and killeth her. Yet this is to bee noted, that the Weasell both before the fight and after the slaughter, armeth he selfe by eating of Rue, or else she would bee poysoned with the contagious ayre about the Cockatrice: and besides this Weasell, there is no other beast in the World, which is able to stand in contention against the Cockatrice, saith Lemnius.

Againe, even as a Lyon is afrayd of a cock, so is the Bazeliske, for he is not onely afrayd at his sight, but almost dead when hee heareth him crow, which thing is notoriously knowne throughout all Affrica. And therefore all Travellers which goe through the Desertes, take with them a Cocke for theyr safe conduct against the poyson of the Bazeliske: and thus the crowing of the Cocke is a terrour to Lyons, & a death to the Cockatrices, yet he himselfe is afraid of a Kite.

There are certaine learned Writers in Saxonie, which affirme, that there aremany kindes of Serpentes in theyr Woods; whereof one is not unlike to a Cockatrice: for they say it hath a very sharpe head, a yellow colour, in length not exceeding three Palmes, of a greate thickenesse, his belly spotted and adorned with many white prickes: the backe blew, and the tayle crooked and turned uppe, but the opening of his mouth is farre wyder then the proportion of his body may seeme to beare. These Serpentes may well bee referred to Cockatrices: for howsoever theyr poyson is not so great as the Bazeliskes of Affrica, (even as all other Serpentes of the hotte Countryes, are farre more pestiferious then those which are bred in the cold Countries:) the very same reason perswadeth mee, that there is a difference among the Cockatrices, and that those of Saxonia may differ in poyson from those in Affrica, and yet bee true Cockatrices: Besides this, there is another reason in Lemnius, which perswadeth the Reader they are no Cockatrices; because when the Country-men set uppon them to kill them, with Clubs, Billes, or Forkes, they receive no hurt at all by them, neither is there any apparent contagion of the Ayre: but this is aunswered already, that the Poyson in the colde Countrey is nothing so great as in the hot, and therefore in Saxony they neede feare the byting, and not the ayres infection.

Cardan relateth another story of a certaine Serpent, which was found in the walles of an olde decayed House in Millan, the head of it (sayth he) was as bigge as an Egge, too bigge for the body, which in quantity and shape resembled a Stellion. There were teeth on eyther chappe, such as are in Vipers. It hadde two Legges, and those very short, but great, and their feet had claws like a Cats: so that when it stood, it was like a Cocke, for it hadde a bunch on the toppe of the head, and yet it wanted both Fethers and Winges: The tayle was as long as the body, in the top whereof there was a round bunch as big as the head of an Italian Stellion. It is very likely that this beast is of the kind of Cockatrices.

Now we are to intreate of the poyson of this serpent, for it is a hot and venomous poison infecting the Ayre round about, so as no other Creature can live neare him, for it killeth, not onely by his hissing and by his sight, (as is sayd of the Gorgons,) but also by his touching, both immediately and mediately, that is to say; not onely when a man toucheth the body it selfe, but also by touching a Weapon wherewith the body was slayne, or any other dead beast slaine by it, and there is a common fame, that a Horse-man taking a Speare in his hand, which had been thrust through a Cockatrice, did not onely draw the poyson of it into his owne body and so dyed, but also killed his Horse thereby. Lucan writeth;

Quid prodest miseri Basiliscus cuspide Mauri
Transactus? velox currit per tela venenum,
Invadit manumque equumque.

In English thus;

What had the Moore to kill
The Cockatrice with speare,
Sith the swift poyson him did spill,
And horse that did him beare.

The question is in what part of this Serpent the poyson doth lye; Some say in the head alone, and that therefore the Bazeliske is deafe, by cause the Ayre which serveth the Organe of hearing, is resolved by the intensive calidity: but this seemeth not to bee true, that the poyson should bee in the head onely, because it killeth by the fume of the whole body, and besides when it is dead it killeth by onely touching it, and the Man or Beast so slayne, doth also by touching kill another: Some agayne say, that the poyson is in the breast, and that therefore it breatheth at the sides, and at many other places of the body, through and betwixt the scals; which is also true, that it doth so breath: for otherwise the burning fume that proceedeth from this poysonfull beast, would burne uppe the Intrals thereof, if it came out of the ordinary place; and therefore Almighty GOD hath so ordained, that it should have spiraments and breathing places in every part of the body, to vent away the heate, least that in very short time, by the inclusion thereof, the whole compage and juncture of the body should be utterly dissolved, and separated one part from another.

But to omit inquiry in what part of his body the poyson lyeth, seeing it is most manifest that it is universall, we will leave the seate thereof, and dispute of the instruments and effects.

First of all therefore it killeth his owne kinde, by sight, hearing, and touching. By his owne kinde, I meane other Serpents, and not other Cockatrices, for they can live one beside another, for if it were true (which I doe not beleeve) that the Arabian Harmene were any other Serpent then a Cockatrice, the very sam reason that Ardoynus giveth of the fellowshippe of these two Serpents together, (because of the similitudes of their natures) may very well proove that no divers kindes can live so well together, in safety without harming one or other, as doe one and the same kind together. And therefore there is more agreement in nature betwixt a Cockatrice and a Cockatrice, then a Cockatrice and Harmene, and it is more likely that a Cockatrice dooth not kill a Cockatrice, then that a Cockatrice doth not kill an Harmene: And againe, Cockatrices are ingendered by Egges, according to the Holy Scripture ;1 and therefore one of them killeth not another by touching, hissing, or seeing, beause one of them hatcheth another. But it is a question whether the Cockatrice dye by the sight of himselfe: some have affirmed so much, but I dare not subscribe thereunto, because in reason it is unpossible, that any thing should hurt it selfe, that hurteth not another of his owne kinde, yet if in the secret of nature GOD hath ordayned such a thing, I will not strive against them that can shew it.

And therefore I cannot without laughing remember the olde Wives tales of the Vulgar Cockatrices that have bin in England; for I have oftentimes heard it related confidently, that once our Nation was full of Cockatrices, and that a certaine man did destroy them by going uppe and downe in Glasse, whereby their owne shapes were reflected upon their owne faces, and so they dyed. But this fable is not worth refuting, for it is more likely that the man should first have dyed by the corruption of the ayre from the Cockatrice,, then the Cockatrice to die by the reflection of his owne similitude from the glasse, except it can be shewed that the poysonous ayre could not enter the glasse wherein the man did breathe.

Among all living creatures, there is none that perisheth sooner then dooth a man by the poyson of a Cockatrice, for with his sight he killeth him, because the beames of the Cockatrices eyes, doe corrupt the visible spirit of a man, which visible spirit corrupted, all the other spirits comming from the braine and life of the hart, are thereby corrupted, & so the man dyeth: even as women in their monthly courses doe vitiate their looking-glasses, or as a Wolfe suddainly meeting a man, taketh from him his voyce, or at the leastwise, maketh him hoarse.2

To conclude, this poyson infecteth the ayre, and the ayre so infected killeth all living things, and likewis all greene things, fruites, and plants of the earth: it burneth up the grasse where-uppon it goeth or creepeth, & the fowles of the ayre fall downe dead when they come neere his denne or lodging. Some-times hee byteth a man or a beast, and by that wound the blood turneth into choller, and so the whole body becommeth yellow as gold, presently killing all that touch it, or come neere it. The symptomes are thus described by Nicander, with whose words I will conclude this Historie of the Cockatrice, writing as followeth:3

Quod ferit hic, multos corpus succenditur igne,
A membris resoluta suis caro defluit, & sit
Lurida & obscuro nigre scit opaca colore.
Nullæ etiam volucres quæ fæda cadavera pascunt,
Sic occisum hominem tangunt, ut vultur, & omnes:
Huic similes alia, pluviæ quoque nuncius aura
Corvus, nec quæcunque, fera per devia lustra
Degunt e tali capiunt sibi tabula carne.
Tum teter vacuas odor hinc exhalat in auras,
Atque propinquantes penetrant non segniter artus:
Sin cogente fame ventens approximet ales
Tristia fata refert, certamque ex aëre mortem.

Which may be englished thus;

When he doth strike, the body hurt is set on fire,
And from the members falleth off the flesh, withall,
It rotten is, and in the colour blacke as any myre.
Refus'd of carrion-feeding-birds both great and small
Are all men so destroyed. No Vulture or bitter fierce,
Or weather-telling-Crow,or deserts wildest beast,
Which live in dennes sustaining greatest famines force,
But at their tables doe this flesh detest.
Then is the ayre repleate with's lothsome smell,
Piercing vitall parts of them approaching neere,
And if a bird it tast to fill his hunger fell,
It dyes assured death, none neede it feare.


1. At least cockatrices lay or otherwise produce eggs, whether other cockatrices hatch from those eggs or not; Isa 59:5 "they hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper", and consider the variant legend that connects the Ibis and the Cockatrice: if so, then, presumably, the eggs that the Cockatrice lays do not hatch into Cockatrices. Or, alternatively, "cockatrice's eggs" may be those eggs that hatch into cockatrices, rather than those laid by a cockatrice. The remainder of Topsell's sentence is non sequitur; nothing says that the Cockatrice hatches its own eggs, and Topsell has himself indicated otherwise.

2. Granting the premise, it is difficult to see why a man should die sooner than any other beast (except perhaps the mole), whose "visible spirits" must be equally corrupted.

3. Nicander, Theriaca 396-411 (translated, of course).