The Basilisk and Rattlesnake, or a European Monster Comes to America

The Basilisk and Rattlesnake, or a European Monster Comes to America

By Boria Sax

Society and Animals, Volume 2, Number 1 (1994)

Abstract: This article looks at legends of the basilisk, a fabulous creature of ancient and medieval lore that was believed to kill with a glance, and shows how many characteristics of the basilisk were transferred to the rattlesnake in the New World. The deadly power of “fascination, ” also known as “the evil eye, ” which legend attributes to both basilisk and rattlesnake, was understood as an expression of resentment over the perceived lack of status of reptiles in the natural world and directed at so-called “higher” animals. The persistence of such legends suggests some of the limitations of capitalistic American society in dealing with inequalities.

Introduction: Some fabulous animals such as the centaur and the chimera are clearly identifiable composites of actually existing creatures. Others do not follow any one universal formula. The dragon, for example, can have many possible combinations of anatomical features taken from lizards, snakes, birds, bats, human beings and other creatures. In some cases, the indefinite character of such a being may reflect a lack of belief in it or a less corporal identity assumed by the creature in the human imagination. In such a case, the lack of fixed features is almost part of its nature. The taxonomist of the human imagination need not follow the model of his biologist counterpart.

Ancient and medieval classifications lacked the exactness of modem biology since they were not made systematically. The anatomy of most creatures was, in fact, somewhat indeterminate. The bestiaries were full of arcane lore, but they matched names with physical traits and stories without much consistency. Often, distinct creatures became equated through etymological tangles. The attributes of an animal, in other words, were less fixed points of reference than motifs, constantly altered and recombined in novel ways.

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