Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk, a monster feared for centuries throughout Europe and North Africa. Like many ancient marvels, it was a bizarre hybrid: a crested snake that hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad.
The basilisk of legend was rare but decidedly deadly; it was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary dating to the medieval period, but the earliest description was given hundreds of years earlier by Pliny the Elder, who described the monster in his pioneering Natural History (79 A.D.). The 37 volumes of this masterpiece were completed shortly before their author was suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny added, “but advances loftily and upright.” It was a description that accorded with the then-popular notion of the basilisk as the king of serpents; according to the same mythology, it also “kills the shrubs, not only by contact but by breathing on them,” and splits rocks, “such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was thought to be native to Libya, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.
Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster–the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to the monster’s venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.
The basilisk remained an object of terror long after the collapse of the Roman empire and was popular in medieval bestiaries. It was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. Jan Bondeson notes that the monster was “the subject of a lengthy discourse in the early-13th-century bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais. An aged cock, which had lost its virility, would sometimes lay a small, abnormal egg. If this egg is laid in a dunghill and hatched by a toad, a misshapen creature, with the upper body of a rooster, bat-like wings, and the tail of a snake will come forth. Once hatched, the young basilisk creeps down to a cellar or a deep well to wait for some unsuspecting man to come by, and be overcome by its noxious vapours.”
The king of snakes also crops up occasionally in the chronicles of the period, and it is in these accounts that we are mostly interested here, since they portray the basilisk not as an interesting ancient legend but as a living creature and a very real threat. Among the principal cases we might note the following:
- According to the Exercitations of Julius Scaliger (1484-1558), in the ninth century, during the pontificate of Leo IV (847-55), a basilisk concealed itself under an arch near the temple of Lucia in Rome. The creature’s odor caused a devastating plague, but the pope slew the creature with his prayers.
- Bondeson reports that in 1202, in Vienna, a mysterious outbreak of fainting fits was traced to a basilisk that had hidden in a well. The creature, which fortunately for the hunters was already dead when they found it, was recovered and a sandstone statue erected to commemorate the hunt.
- According to the Dutch scholar Levinus Lemnius (1505-68), “in the city of Zierikzee–on Schouwen Duiveland island in Zeeland–and in the territory of this island, two aged roosters… incubated their eggs… flogging them they were driven away with difficulty from that job, and so, since the citizens conceived the conviction that from an egg of this kind a basilisk would emerge, they crushed the eggs and strangled the roosters.”
- E.P. Evans, in his massive compilation The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, notes from contemporary legal records that in Basle, Switzerland, in 1474, another old cock was discovered apparently laying an egg. The bird was captured, tried, convicted of an unnatural act, and burned alive before a crowd of several thousand people. Just before its execution, the mob prevailed upon the executioner to cut the rooster open, and three more eggs, in various stages of development, were reportedly discovered in its abdomen.
- At the royal castle at Copenhagen, in 1651, Bondeson says, a servant sent to collect eggs from the hen coops observed an old cockerel in the act of laying. On the orders of the Danish king, Frederick III, its egg was retrieved and closely watched for several days, but no basilisk emerged; the egg eventually found its way into the royal Cabinet of Curiosities.
Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked, “If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?” Abba Poemen answered, “If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.” Then one old man spoke up, “And how do you explain yourself before God?” Abba Poemen replied, “I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’ “
BSI Archival History Blog by Jon Lellenberg (BSI, “Rodger Prescott of Evil Memory”) announced that he “shall endeavor to keep the website up to date from now on” which is excellent news for anyone interested in the history of the Baker Street Irregulars and related scion societies, as well as Mr Lellenberg’s erudite commentary on various aspects of Sherlockian culture and the like. For those unfamiliar with the BSI Archival History blog and/or Jon Lellenberg, I suggest first bookmarking or adding this site to your RSS reader. Next, absorb the notion that Mr Lellenberg is responsible for the multi-volume, definitive history of the Baker Street Irregulars as well as early Sherlockian culture in the U.S.A. starting with early letters of Vincent Starrett (c. between VS and St. Louis physician Gray Chandler Briggs 1930-1934 just prior to publishing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), through the founding of the BSI by Christopher Morley and the dramatic ‘rescue’ of the BSI by Edgar W. Smith up until the late-1940s when the fate of the Baker Street Journal was still a tenuous one. Tragically hard to find, the Archival History of the Baker Street Irregulars (History Series, Volume 1 - 5; + 3 supplemental volumes) have become my bible, my history and even to a certain extent my finishing school, and I suggest hunting all/any of the individual volumes down and buying them ASAP. (I purchased all five volumes as a set for the very reasonable price of $125.) Whether you own them or not, make Lellenberg’s bsihistoryblog.blogspot.com and his website bsiarchivalhistory.org essential stops in your online Sherlockian readings. UPDATE: I just noticed the following in the Books (‘To Come’) section: 1) Edgar W. Smith: Prolegomena to Any Future Biography and 2) The 1950s Volumes (picking up where Vol. 5 left off). As I count Edgar Smith among the giants who walked the earth during the ‘golden age’ of Holmesian Studies, there’s no question that I will be looking forward to both releases more than any other Sherlock Holmes-related material, period.
Dunmow Broadcast 24 in ‘Sherlock Holmes Sale Makes Online Record’ reported on a recent auction of ACD material which had previously been in the family of Mary Jakeman, a maid who had a position in the home of ACD from 1909 to 1932. An early edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles, signed by ACD, was part of a “collection [that] also included letters, articles and photographs connected to the Conan Doyle family. They were sold as 11 lots totalling more than £8,600.” Sworders released a catalog description back in June and held the auction on July 10, 2012. Based on the catalog, HOUN appeared to be the only Sherlock Holmes item available. Selling for nearly 10 times the list price, “Sworders’ managing director Guy Schooling, said: “The sale price of [HOUN] was a genuine surprise. It’s early, but not a first edition, and it’s not in perfect condition.”” Click on their Facebook page for images of the items that were for sale.
[An early edition of HOUN - signed by ACD.]
Examiner announced that “Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat’s Sherlock (BBC) amazes with 13 Emmy nominations.” Included are: “A Scandal in Belgravia” (PBS) for Best Miniseries or TV Movie; Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia” for Best Lead Actor; Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in “Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia” for Best Supporting Actor; Steven Moffat, “Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia” for Best Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special; click here for all thirteen of the Sherlock nominations. To see what sort of competition Sherlock is facing, the LA Times has a complete list of nominees in all categories - I would assume judging from the list that Sherlock has a pretty good chance in almost every category. Go Team!
SherlockNYC is hosting a Sherlock-themed scavenger hunt on August 4, 2012 at 10:30am at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC in order to celebrate Sherlock Holmes Week (30th July - 5th August 2012). It has come to the attention of the staff of SherlockNYC that “Jim Moriarty has been a busy boy. He has swapped a priceless artifact in the Museum of Natural History for a forgery. While Sherlock and John are hot on his trail it is up to you to play Moriarty’s game and solve the problem, our problem, in under two hours…or else.” It costs $5 per person to participate in the hunt and does not include price of museum admission (cost of admission = your susceptibility to guilt-drenched stares delivered by docents at the door). According to the invite, the great hunt will consist of “a series of question and riddles that will take you through the museum. You must answer all questions in order to solve the final problem. There will be prizes for the first place scavenger hunters. It will be necessary that at least one person on the team have a camera phone or camera.” SherlockNYC asks that you RSVP using their online form - I just submitted mine along with a proposed team name: “The 1895ers”. Get up-to-date info about the scavenger hunt, Sherlock Holmes Week and more from @SherlockNYC on Twitter.
[What are you doing for Sherlock Holmes Week? A worthy option is the Sherlock Holmes scavenger hunt taking place on August 4, 2012 (10:30am) at the American Natural History Museum of NYC.]
[What I wouldn’t give to jump in a time machine and spend an evening (or ten!) seeing a live performance featuring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, both at the height of their theatrical powers.]
221 Baking Geeks, a new blog that is a - you guessed it - Sherlock Holmes-centric blog with recipes for cakes and cookies and other sweets.; or in their own words “a geek-inspired baking blog”. It’s a fun blog to add to your Sherlock Holmes RSS reader and, after assuring myself by reading through their content, it still leaves the way open to create The Vegetarian Restaurateurs scion/cookbook with fellow vegetarian/vegan Sherlockians. Anyway, keep up the baking Amy and Rachel!
SoCal Sherlockians, a group of LA Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, are planning Murder at the Natural History Museum Scavenger Hunt on Saturday August 4, 2012 - another interesting sounding Sherlock Holmes Week event. If you live in or near Los Angeles, check out their Facebook or follow them on Twitter for more information and updates.
Dan Andriacco’s blog featured a piece by guest blogger Amy Thomas (Girl Meets Sherlock) of the Baker Street Babes and author of The Detective and the Woman on “The Importance of John Watson”: “Watson admires his friend, but he’s not in awe of him, and he isn’t afraid to make light of Holmes at times. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of sorts, but John Watson is everyone.”
Tea at 221B published images of the famous Turf Cigarettes Sherlock Holmes character cards (by Alexander Boguslavsky, Ltd. 1923), both front and back. New fact: I always assumed they were included as ‘prizes’ (like Cracker Jacks, but for carcinogens) or advertisements, but “from the late 19th century to early 20th, cards were included in cigarette packs as a way to ‘stiffen’ the packaging.”
Markings’ Ray Wilcockson announced that he will be guest blogging on The World of Joe Riggs (subtitled: Mentalist & Consultant) during Sherlock Holmes Week 2012 with a piece entitled ‘“Some deep organizing power” – Professor Moriarty and Conan Doyle’s Imagination’. Both Mr Wilcockson (@RayWilcockson) and Mr Riggs (@JoeRiggs) can be found posting with regularity on Twitter and are worth following.
Sherlock Peoria posted a thoughtful piece which begins by considering the recent Colorado movie theater Dark Knight Rising shooting spree which left 12 dead (as of writing this) and a considerably more seriously injured. Moving on from tragedy, Mr Keefauver asks: “when you think of Sherlock Holmes, do you think of him as an avenger or a defender?” I’ll let you read the rest of the article in order to properly give a context both to Mr Keefauver’s question as well as any eventual answer he, you or I might give regarding Holmes’ defender/avenger status.
Karli Meaghan created this elegant and catastic Cat-Sherlock (Catlock) design - I came across it while perrrrrrusing the hashtag #cat!sherlock on Tumblr.
[Holmes & Watson vs. Cat and Hedgehog, just one of many images tagged #cat!sherlock on Tumblr.]
Geek Art published this fine piece of fan art featuring a face-off between Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man done in a clean, subtle, ‘steampunk’ style. Hopefully someone will create a Sherlock Holmes vs Julian from Less than Zero or Terry Crabtree from Wonder Boys or any number of interesting characters from the oeuvre of Robert Downey Jr.