In a dank and dreary prison in Poland, two men are waiting. They have nothing to do but wait. In three days they will be executed. The time for hope is long past; no riders will come from the king with a sudden reprieve; no appeal will reverse their sentences.

Then a key turns in the lock. Slowly the massive door creaks open, and in the blinding light is the silhouette of the consul of the city.

“All right, men,” he says. “There’s a basilisk in an old cellar, and it needs to come out. In exchange for a full pardon, who wants to put on the mirror suit and go down after it?”

One of the men volunteers.

The basilisk or cockatrice (the two terms had become synonymous by the 1600s) was a known fact of natural history, and now you can be well informed on all matters to do with basilisks, because Dr. Boli has taken the trouble to transcribe a learned treatise on the subject by George Caspard Kirchmayer, one of those wonderful old naturalists who studied all of nature without setting foot in the grubby outdoors. “To deny the existence of the basilisk is to carp at the evidence of men’s eyes and their experiences in many different places,” says Kirchmayer. However, he is not such a fool as to believe in those old wives’ tales about its killing men with a glance. No silly mirror suits for him. They wouldn’t do him a bit of good: the basilisk could kill him with its breath.

This translation of Kirchmeyer’s learned treatise is by Edmund Goldsmid, a Scottish bibliophile who published a number of translations of old Latin treatises in very limited editions. Unfortunately he died young; otherwise he might have left us English versions of much more of that “lost continent of literature,” as James Hankins called the neo-Latin world. Mr. Goldsmid’s notes are worth reading in themselves: they introduce us to many of the other characters in the scholarship of the 1500s and 1600s. It is remarkable how many of them died of stubbornness. “Having convinced himself that one could not catch the plague at 60 years of age, he took no precautions, and died of that disease in 1596.” “Cardanus…starved himself to death in 1576, to accomplish his own prophecy that he would not live beyond the age of seventy-five.”

You can read Kirchmayer on Basilisks at the Argosy of Pure Delight, where we present it in mobile-friendly and Web-friendly form. You can also see the original page images of Edmund Gosmid’s translation in the Internet Archive; you may notice that, in his transcription, Dr. Boli has silently corrected a number of printing errors in Goldsmid’s edition—and doubtless introduced some new ones, because that always happens.


  1. DmL says:

    Granted I did not read closely. But it seems a lesson in credulity and scepticism.
    Goldsmid grants the miasmic breath of the basilisk as possible while throwing out the lifespan of the adult mayfly with the bathwater!

    • Dr. Boli says:

      It’s hard to sort out the cast of characters, but Goldsmid is the translator, and he did provide a helpful note about the mayfly: “In spite of Kirchmayer, we know that the Ephemeridae, of which our English genus is the may-fly, only exist a few hours when they have reached this final stage of life.”

      Kirchmayer has laudably skeptical instincts. It seems to Dr. Boli that his failing, which is the general failing of most scholars up to about 1800, is that, when he runs across something in a book that seems implausible to him, the only way he can think of to refute it is with a better book.

      Dr. Boli himself has never seen a basilisk. However, he knows that there are basilisks: that is, there are creatures of the genus Basiliscus, which are lizards with crests, but without deadly eyeball rays. How does he know that? He has it on the authority of books. The difference between us and Kirchmayer is that we have several generations of scientific method behind us. When a species like Basiliscus basiliscus is described in scientific literature, the description rests on specimens and on known techniques of distinguishing one species from another. The world of Kirchmayer still exists, however: there is a vast universe of Renaissance scholarship still being carried on among the believers in Bigfoot and little grey men. There the standards of evidence are exactly the same as in Kirchmayer’s day, and Kirchmayer (who also wrote treatises on unicorns and flying dragons) would find himself welcomed with open arms.

      An addendum: It would have been interesting to see how Kirchmayer would have reacted to the assertion that a basilisk can walk on water. That would probably have triggered his skeptical instincts, and he would have put it with the cocks’ eggs and deadly glances among the absurd myths. But it is quite true that the American species of Basiliscus can run across the water for a considerable distance. Nature is not always bound by our standards of plausibility.

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