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Saturday, 3 March 2012


Back in medieval times, the basilisk was one of the most feared beasts that never existed. This fictitious creature was widely if erroneously believed to be real - a greatly-dreaded monster originally likened to a modest-sized snake or short-limbed lizard, but bearing a regal crown upon its head, and able to move forward with much of its body held erect, yet so toxic that the merest glance from its radiant eyes brought instant death to those who beheld it, the merest waft of its noxious breath shrivelled every living thing for miles around, and the merest dribble of venom from its fanged jaws poisoned for untold ages to come the very dust of the earth upon which it fell.

During the course of countless retellings of legends and lore concerning this reptilian horror down through the generations, its appearance became conflated with that of another imaginary creature, the cockatrice, sequestering from this latter monstrosity its rooster-like coxcomb, wattles and beak, a pair of sturdy spurred legs, and an ear-splitting crowing cry. Only a weasel or the rue plant (see image below) could combat the basilisk's lethal powers, and it left terror and destruction in its virulent wake.

All in all, therefore, this was hardly a creature that readily elicited sympathy, and yet...

The January 1997 issue of a wonderful magazine called The Dragon Chronicle contained an outstanding short story entitled 'The Caprice', written by my old friend and cryptozoology colleague Richard Freeman, which revealed a very different, surprising side to the feared and hated basilisk, and which so captivated me when I read it that I've remembered it vividly ever since.

So now, with Richard's kind permission, I have pleasure in reprinting 'The Caprice', which I hope that you will enjoy as much as I did when I first read it, and still do today.

THE CAPRICE - by Richard Freeman

What would one call a creature that devoured colour? A chromatavore perhaps? It seemed to Edgar that his quarry had the ability to drain away more than just life. For six miles now all he had seen was varying shades of grey. The dead grass, the withered husks of trees and the twisted rocks. His mount had screamed and foamed at the edge of the desolation. Rearing up in wild eyed panic. So he left it and continued on foot.

He soon cast off the heavy armour, it would afford him little protection against his foe. He carried no sword or spear, the necromancer had warned him of that folly, "so bloated with venom is this serpent that, should a mounted man strike it down with a lance, the poison would travel up the weapon killing both man and horse."

Edgar shuddered, but from the memory of he who had sent him on this errand, rather than from the monster's power. He feared Silas Rasp more than the thing at the heart of the desolation. Barely five feet tall his bald head was unnaturally round and chubby. His oily skin was porcelain smooth and taken with his pot belly and pudgy fingers gave him the appearance of an outsized baby.

"One glance is death," he had hissed, fat tongue protruding toad-like through rubbery lips. "Yet it is such a rare and magical beast that its body parts have, shall we say, certain properties."

His eyes like pips of jet with a hunger it was disquieting to see, "About its wattled neck sprout green feathers. Spells committed to parchment with a quill made from these feathers increase ten fold in potency. Slay the serpent and pluck it like a goose."

So it was not to save the beleaguered land he had sallied forth. Rather in answer to the pull of the gold that glittered in Rasp's sweaty palms.

The cadavers of a man and a mule lay at the road side. They shared the same rigid horror on their glazed eyes. Ugly swarms of blow flies were contesting ownership of the corpses. Edgar found the insects oddly reassuring, they were the only living things he had seen in the desolation. As he travelled further, the bodies grew more in number - a band of gypsies, a travelling merchant, a wandering monk and a hedgerow apothecary. Warriors too, all fiercely armed, all dead. He was nearing the lair.

He found himself at a ruined chapel, stained glass broken, doors long rotted and gaping into darkness. He slipped the cloth cover from his shield and crept closer. Something moved; from the chapel came a rustle like dead leaves.

"Stay as you are, come no closer and down your blade," the voice sounded neither reptilian nor evil; merely old.

"The scourge speaks," breathed Edgar.

"The scourge is fluent in fifteen languages," came the reply. "I have lived longer than you can imagine."

"And now it is your day to die, abomination."

"Mayhap, but I would talk with you first," it said. "It has been many moons since I spoke with a sentient being."

"No, I will have none of your tricks, basilisk. "

"So you know my name."

"And your deeds."

"And you are not curious about the nature of these deeds, and why I must kill wantonly."

"You sound as if you have no choice, demon. "

"I have none, and don't confound me with your Christian bugbears. I am a caprice, a whim of a nature that is mad, blind, cruel, or all three."

"Riddles too, you wag your forked tongue well, serpent." But by now Edgar was fascinated. A loquacious cockatrice, no one had heard of such a thing in all of Christendom. "Riddle on, gorgon-seed."

"When a hen grows old, she sometimes apes her opposite gender, growing spurs and crowing. Should one of these 'cock-hens' lay an egg at the time of the dog-star, and should said egg be hatched by a toad or snake, one of my kind is born. The doubly cursed. Be glad these events conspire only rarely and we number so few."

"You said doubly cursed?"

"Aye, we are twice damned. The curse of immortality and the curse of our glance."

"Immortality is a curse?"

"Callow youth, what know you of immortality, of the grinding tedium, the blandness and the pain?"


"Pain, agony, torment beyond your feeble mayfly imagining." The basilisk's voice dropped now, almost to a whisper. "The pain is we cannot look upon another living creature without killing it. Imagine eternity of solitude and death, we cannot even look upon one of our own kind. Nothing but greyness forever and ever, even grass withers and flowers die beneath our gaze. I am a living prison to myself, hated, feared and bored by all creation. That is what it is to be a caprice."

The basilisk slipped slowly from the shadows. It seemed that all the stolen colours from the desolation resided within its scaled body. It was cobalt blue save for the metallic green feathers about its neck, the yellow beak, and its comb and wattle the colour of arterial blood. The eyes swivelled independently like those of a chameleon, their lids were slowly opening.

Edgar swung his shield of highly polished bronze and turned his head away. It was a full twenty minutes before he dared lower it again. Rasp had been correct, the basilisk's gaze was as lethal to itself as it was to any other creature. He walked over to the prone reptile. It was not the vast serpent of his imagining, but a lizard barely three feet in length. As he bent to pluck its ruff with the tongs Rasp had given him, he noticed something. Upon the basilisk's hooked beak, there was a hint of a relieved smile.

This short story first appeared in The Dragon Chronicle, no. 9 (January 1997): 29-30.

A new fiction anthology by Richard has just been published – Green, Unpleasant Land: Eighteen Tales of British Horror (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012), available from (click here) and all good bookstores. So be sure to check it out!


  1. Hi Karl,

    Just saw this - I suppose you know, that some legends say young basilisks "worms" could sometimes be found in chicken eggs. Indeed if you found a worm in an egg, not so very long ago, old folks would tell you it was a basilisk, and telle you how to get rid of it. When I was 8 years old, I was on holiday at my aunt who had a small farm. One day I was helping her in the kitchen cracking eggs, and in one of them was a worm. Auntie told me it was a young basilisk, and that I should very carefully take it out in her garden and bury it, and then walk three times around the filled up hole. So I did, but not before making a drawing of the egg and the worm. I still got the drawing.

    Lars Thomas

  2. Hi Lars, Yes, I've written about the 'parasitic worm inside chicken eggs' connection re basilisks in one of my earlier books - it's a fascinating and eminently plausible explanation. Great personal anecdote too - thanks for sharing it here! Good to hear from you. All the best, Karl

  3. "Basilisk" was originally something quite distinct from the "Cockatrice" and it was a Folkloric figure, the "King of Serpents." At one point the religions of Europe were actually Shamanistic and one thing Shamans do is they take astral journeys to chat up the "Controllers" of variorus creatures. The controllers are ranked and there are different levels of their power, the highest being the "Lord of all Beasts" or "King of Beasts"-that we continue to use the Lion as the King of Beasts is no accident: it seems the oldest modern human colonists in Europe brought the concept with them from Africa, and the 30000 year old Lionman figurine from Germany is an early example, but also Hercules is a later survivor in more familiar mythology.

    At any rate, a shaman would do his OOBE thing and locate the King of Serpents, most usually probably to flatter, threaten or cajole the King to remove the poison fropm one of the Shaman's patients. If the King of Serpents showed favour upon the Shaman (roll d20), the King might let him to know where there was any treasure to be had, because the common belief was that Snakes Just Knew About These Things And if the King of Serpents was in a bad mood, the Shaman had the option of going over his head to one of the other Kings that had authority above the King of Serpents and including the King of serpents. But that was a harder task with a higher difficulty level (minuses to your d20 roll, old boy!)

    A Cockatrice on the other hand was a different thing and I think probably a large type of pheasant. All sorts of superstitions grew up about it, largely because its range was shrinking throughout historical times partially because of the introduction of other types of fowl, which it viewed as rivals and probably they were ecological competetors with it.

    The mythical motif of "If it sees you first, you die" is well-known otherwise and in Cryptozoology most famously attached to the "Congo Dragon"-the stories told of the Basilisk and/or Cockatrice are merely an elaboration of the same idea.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.

  4. It is interesting to note, that in the german speaking countries, mostly in the alp regions, there is a legendary being called the "Krönlein-/Kranzl-/Kranlnatter" which translates roughly like "crowned colubrid" (cant recall the colloquial name for colubrids atm). It is usually described as being a long white snake with a crown or crown like growth on its head.It is very poisonous but not aggressive if not threatened, harmed,etc. Usually it features as the Queen of Snakes(rarely as King)in stories, legends, fairytales,etc. and nearly always has a positive connotation (being generous, helpful,etc. but very vengeful if angered).
    Sometimes it gets confused with the "Tatzelwurm" but it has no legs and is thinner and generally more snake-like and ALOT less aggressive.
    The first picture from the medieval document seems to depict it, even though referred to as basilisk.
    This snake is different in local legends from the basilisk (at least in the named regions)where the basilisk usually is described more like a cockatrice or like a lizard/toad-cross and never has positive connotations.
    Quiet possibly that this snake is a cryptid in the alpine regions.

  5. Thanks for the fascinating information, Typhon, re the "Krönlein-/Kranzl-/Kranlnatter" - this is new to me, and is very interesting. If you have any additional details or references to published articles or books concerning this mystery snake, I'd greatly welcome them, either posted here or directly to me at - thanks again. All the best, Karl

  6. Still working on the stuff from the Krönleinnatter. Pretty much all sources are in German. Will send you an email.
    Anyhow, I stumbled upon the description of dragons by Isidore of Seville and found this part very interesting: "It has a crest, a small mouth, and a narrow throat". Yet another crested serpent. The Drakones of Medea do also have a crest and beard like growth in most ancient depictions:
    Seems like there are more crowned snakes around than I had expected..

  7. Recently, while skimming through antique texts I found out that the normal Drakones from greek mythology (i.e. no prefix,suffix,additional names etc. So no ketoi,etc.) are always described as combed and bearded. Here an example from Aelian while he is describing cynocephali: "Beneath their chin hangs down a beard; we may compare it with the beards of Drakones, and strong and very sharp nails cover their hands."(Aelian, On Animals 10. 25, translation from There are many images on vases,murals,etc. showing those drakones. Now considering that a combed cobra is also mentioned in the Chinese mythological text mentioned in of your many blogs which I cant find atm, I guess the riddle of the cockatrice becomes less of a riddle. And yes, I am fully aware that you might know this all already given that you have written books mentioning this cobra :-)
    Interestingly, the crowned colubried entirely lacks the beard like growth in every description.