Basilisk, the terror of the old Warsaw

Basilisk, the terror of the old Warsaw

Danger lurks at every corner. People trembled at the thought of war or a silently creeping deadly plague, and each natural disaster meant uncertainty and a struggle to survive. Apart from those threats, our ancestors feared the very tangible Evil lurking in the shadows on the verge of reality. The dead returning from the afterlife and the monsters hiding in the vast forests were as real as a flood or drought. It was not only a fairy tale of peasants, as the inhabitants of Warsaw, who had to deal with the basilisk, found out in the 16th century.

As priest Antoni Chryzanty Łapczyński tells us in his book published in 1739, the Basilisk case happened in Warsaw, at the very beginning of the reign of King Sigismund III Vasa.

In the second half of the 16th century, Warsaw, once an important center of the Duchy of Mazovia, became a dynamically developing city of the Kingdom of Poland. King Sigismund August eagerly stayed here, because the central location of the city was of great importance, especially after the transformation of the two states into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From then on, Warsaw became a meeting place for general assemblies (sejm) of the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The further effective development of the city was connected with the person of King Sigismund III Vasa. The ruler often visited the capital of Mazovia, and the fire of Wawel Castle in Cracow in 1595 became an excuse to move the royal court to Warsaw. The Royal Castle was considerably expanded in a baroque style. Thanks to its residential status, Warsaw flourished.

Basilisk – woodcut from the book Firmamentum Symbolicum by Stanisław Szulc, Lublin  1654. Image source: Elbląska Biblioteka Cyfrowa

The legend about basilisk of Warsaw

According to the story, at some point one of the houses situated in the Old Town burned down and was not rebuilt. Several years later, the children playing in the area of ​​the rubble – the son of a local sword-bearer (which was a court title) and the daughter of his neighbor – found an entrance to the old cellar. Driven by curiosity, they descended into the dark underground. The damp pit was not deserted, however, for a hideous monster had made its lair there.

When the children did not return for the night, the desperate mother sent her maid out to search them. Eventually, she too descended the moisty steps down the forgotten basement, where she found two small, cold bodies. The woman, under the influence of this macabre discovery, let out a terrible scream. It alerted the inhabitants of Warsaw, although it was too late – a woman too fell victim to the evil creature.

The first thing that the city authorities decided to do was to get the corpses out of the abyss. The corpse was pulled to the surface with the use of long poles ended with iron hooks. The bodies were bloated and the victims’ eyes were unnaturally swollen. Their condition allowed one of the scholars to make a terrible diagnosis: the city was plagued by a basilisk. Surely many burghers have looked into the Bible that day; with fear in their hearts they opened the book of Isaiah:

Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent. And the firstborn of the poor shall feed, and the needy shall lie down in safety: and I will kill thy root with famine, and he shall slay thy remnant.

As the basilisk’s gaze caused instant death, the most certain way to fight the beast was to use mirrors. The magistrate, not wanting to send innocent townspeople on such a dangerous mission, gave a choice to two criminals kept in a prison: death for their sins, or fighting the basilisk and redemption. One of the prisoners, Jan Taurer from Silesia, immediately reported his readiness. A garment was specially prepared for him, to which mirrors were attached; the adventurer was even equipped with a special headgear. This ancient method proved effective in this case: the basilisk fell victim to its gaze. His carcass was brought outside so that everyone could witness this snake-rooster-toad hybrid.

Fragment of the city view of old Warsaw from Civitates Orbis Terraraum, Cologne 1617 r. Image source: www.historic-cities.huji.ac.il/

“For the basilisk kills with its serene eyes …”

Basilisk was already known to ancient naturalists. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History describes the mythical catoblepas, an animal living in Ethiopia, whose sight could kill. Immediately after that, he goes on to describe the basilisk:

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk.1 It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem.2 When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse as well. To this dreadful monster the effluvium of the weasel is fatal, a thing that has been tried with success, for kings have often desired to see its body when killed; so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which is easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.

In the centuries that followed, the basilisk’s image changed. In addition to a deadly gaze, the monster also could kill with poisonous gas and, in some legends, could breathe fire. The beast was born from a snake’s egg hatched by a rooster, or a chicken egg cared for by a snake. The vision of the basilisk has been preserved in human consciousness as a strange hybrid of a reptile and a bird whose head of a cockerel was crowned with a crest resembling a crown.

Melchior Lorck (1527-1626), Basilisk, 1548. Image source:: www.collection.smk.dk

The monster was also known in medieval Poland. We can find out about it by looking at the chronicle of master Wincenty Kadłubek – one of the most important primary sources for researching that period of history. The chronicle was written at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries by order of Casimir II the Righteous, who was the supreme prince in Poland, divided into several feudal states. Kadłubek described the history of Poland from the earliest times, where legend and fiction mixed with reality.

In the second book, Kadłubek described the conflict between prince Bolesław III Wrymouth and his brother Zbigniew. They were both sons of Prince Władysław I Herman. Although Zbigniew was older, he was born out of a marriage that was questioned by the Church. Therefore, after the birth of Bolesław, Zbigniew was removed from the primogeniture and almost forced into the clergy. Meanwhile, opposition to the rule of Herman and the all-powerful palatine Sieciech, who was a gray eminence, was growing in Poland. In the hands of Sieciech’s opponents, Zbigniew became a useful political tool – the Silesian magnates brought him from a Saxon monastery to Poland and, thanks to the victory in the battle, forced the recognition of the primogeniture of Władysław Herman’s firstborn son.

It started many years of struggle inside feudally divided Poland. Initially, Bolesław and Zbigniew acted together, splitting the sovereignty left to them by their father into two parts. The confrontation was inevitable, however. Bolesław came out victorious in this clash, and to the outrage of the society, he blinded Zbigniew.

In his chronicle, Wincenty Kadłubek takes the side of Bolesław. The portrait of Zbigniew that he painted with his work is a portrait of a bad and envious man. Describing the character of the exiled prince, he does not shy away from picturesque comparisons:

And it will be so clearly shown that his nature has nothing to do with virtue if we look closely at his origin. It is not easy for a plant to grow if worms are eating its roots. (…) Such is his nature like a basilisk, like hemlock, like a dragon and a horned serpent. For even the basilisk kills with its serene eyes [Latin: Nam et basiliscus serenitate uisus enecat et extinguit – ed. aut.].

There is no doubt that the chronicler wants to refer to the mythical creature. He used the Latin name – basiliscus – which was a direct loan word of the Greek word basilískos (βασιλίσκος), meaning a prince, a young king or leader, etc. For the people of the Middle Ages, the basilisk became a symbol of evil as opposed to the kindness of Christ. At the same time, basilisks were considered a real threat that could harm people. Basilisks were to prowl in many cities of medieval Europe: for example in Vienna, Memmingen, or Munich.

The artificial specimen

But let’s go back to the streets of early-modern Warsaw. In the middle of the 17th century, an English traveler, Peter Mundy, came to the city and left a written account. Mundy was a globetrotter who explored a great part of the known world. He visited Japan, China, India, and Constantinople. However, he abandoned the lands of the Orient in favor of not less exotic cities and countries of Eastern Europe. In the first half of the 17th century, he settled in Gdańsk for several years. In 1643, he traveled to Warsaw:

Hier over the Castle gate of Warsaw is a Monster Fastned, of which the poeple report Fearfull things, as thatt itt would in the nightt com forth of som secret hole in the Castle and murder people in a strange Manner by laying himself over their Faces, stopping their breathes, and was att length soe Found on a prisoner whome was heard to cry, butt erre they came to his reskew hee was dead. They ten slew the said Monster and fastned him over the Castle gate. This is beeleived by the Commonalty: I thinck nott by the wiser sort. But as Near as I could perceive and Judge, beeing Near enoug to discerne, itt is nothing butt a broad Fish called with us a Ray, disguised, disffigured, the Mouth Made open, etts, as I have seene in Amsterdam and Hambro to bee sould, soe cutt uppe thatt they perffittly resemble dragons or other Monsters, though nott soe bigge as this. Every Country, etts., can relate of some perticuler wonder, viz., Mountaine, River, well, tree, stone, house: in England, many.

Royal Castle in Warsaw. Fragment of the woodcut by Elias Baeck, first half of the 18th century. Image Source: Polona.pl

We are dealing here with an extremely interesting version of the legend of the monster of Warsaw. However, the most interesting aspect of Mundy’s account is the carcass of a monster, allegedly displayed on the castle gate. Although so far I have not been able to find other primary sources confirming the truthfulness of this passage, I think it can be considered quite credible, taking into account the entire diary of Mundy, who was an excellent observer of the surrounding reality.

If we accept the probability of the Englishman’s report, the prepared basilisk has become something of a mascot, a tourist attraction, or perhaps a product for sale for Varsovians. Mundy mentions similar exhibits made of dead stingrays in the Netherlands and Northern Germany that were sold to anyone willing. Inside the alchemy workshop, the basilisk was an extremely valued ingredient of various recipes and rituals.

In a way, Mundy’s relation was made credible by Polish author Julian Tuwim. The poet wrote in his short 1952 text devoted to the basilisk and other mythical monsters:

For its rarity, the Basilisk was highly sought after by contemporary nature researchers, so some scammers fabricated artificial specimens. They made them from a species of fish called Raja; this fish was flat and thin, so after drying it could be shaped into any form. Such a specimen could be seen in the science office of the University of Warsaw back in 1819.

Raja is a species of rays. Perhaps the exhibit at the University of Warsaw was the same one that Peter Mundy saw with his own eyes in the 18th century?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *