Thursday, February 2, 2012

Magic, Monsters and Mythical Creatures

The Basilisk and Leviathan

Sometimes magic, monsters and myth collide. The end result is something far more elusive and harrowing than we care to believe. Whether they are fiction or real, the Basilisk and Leviathan are creatures that will not be denied their rightful place in our worlds. Ever present not only in literature, but in film as well, they have woven themselves into the very fabric of some cultures and are truly the stuff that nightmares are made of. Though similar in some ways, their traits vary considerably and give each creature its own unique flair and its very own killing style.

In some European legends, a Basilisk is a legendary reptile reputed to be king of serpents due to the crown-shaped crest upon its head. Alleged to be hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad, the Basilisk is rumored to cause death to anyone who locks eyes with the beast. One of the earliest accounts of the Basilisk comes from Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written in 79 AD. In it, he describes a monstrous, cow-like creature of which "all who behold its eyes fall dead upon the spot”. It is also believed that the venom of the Basilisk is so destructive that the creature leaves behind a burnt and scorched earth as it slithers across the landscape.

Many writers have been seduced by this legendary monster and brought forth their own ideas and slight variations of the beast. Geoffrey Chaucer featured a ‘Basilicok’ in his famous Canterbury Tales. He made use of the legend which states that basilisks can be killed by hearing the crow of a rooster or gazing at itself through a mirror. Chaucer would incorporate one of these killing methods in the legend of the basilisk of Warsaw. This tale would see the Basilisk killed by a man carrying a set of mirrors.

More and more stories added to the enormity of the Basilisk’s reputation and gradually added to the Basilisk's killing powers as well. Some began to describe it as a large beast capable of breathing fire and killing with only the sound of its voice. Some writers would even claim that the Basilisk could kill by touch and could even kill by touching something that a poor soul was touching. So, a sword held in the hand of a great warrior would yield almost certain death the very moment the hero struck the killing blow into the creature. All of this death came from a beast that would become the guardian and traditional symbol of strength for the city of Basel in Switzerland.

Many other writers would toy with the idea of this mythical monster and introduce it to millions of readers in the process. William Shakespeare, Samuel Richardson, Alexander Pope, Voltaire and even Charles Dickens dipped their quills into the world of this mythical monster and referenced it and its killing power in their work. Of course, the most famous telling of a Basilisk tale today is most likely J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. In this novel, the Basilisk, an enormous, snake-like creature with monstrous fangs almost kills Harry with its deadly venom, but he is saved by the tears of a phoenix.

Artists would also put forth their renditions of the Basilisk. Leonardo da Vinci included a Basilisk in his Bestiary. He describes it as so utterly cruel that when it cannot kill animals or humans by its baleful gaze, it turns upon the earth and withers everything in its path.

Unlike the Basilisk, Leviathan is widely claimed as a sea creature. In demonology, Leviathan is hailed as one of the seven princes of Hell and known as its gatekeeper.

Mentioned several times throughout biblical text, Leviathan finds its history deeply rooted in the traditions of Near Eastern Mythology and dates back as far as the 3rd Century BC.

In the Canaanite myth, ‘Liviathan’ was considered an interpretation of the chaos that spilled forth at the beginning of the Universe’s creation. From this chaos, a seven headed, fire-breathing crocodile-like dragon was formed. He lurked in the depths of the sea and waited for an opportune moment so he could rise up and steal away unsuspecting victims. A great warrior named Anat fought Leviathan and bound him in chains, bringing order to the universe. Though the tale ended there, it is believed that Leviathan is not dead, but simply waiting for the day when he will again rise up from the depths and destroy us all.

Beliefs about Leviathan and its origins vary greatly from one culture and religious background to another. If you are a Christian, Leviathan is a bringer of death sent forth by Satin himself. On the other hand, according to Anton Szandor LaVey, the author of The Satanic Bible, Leviathan represents the element of Water. The element of Water in Satanism is associated with life and creation. In The Satanic Bible, Leviathan is known as one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell.

We see two different takes on a mythical monster that looks the same to both groups and yet, is so very different in its intentions.

Other variations of this monstrous creature would show up in great literary works and the name Leviathan would become synonymous with any large creature living in the ocean. One in particular would become an instant classic and introduce us to a new spin on the Leviathan tale.

In 1851 American author Herman Melville published his novel, Moby Dick. The story tells the adventures of a wandering sailor named Ishmael and his voyage with Captain Ahab. The captain has but one purpose, to seek out a specific whale: Moby Dick. The whale is described as a ferocious and elusive white sperm whale that, in a previous encounter, destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg. Ahab becomes consumed with bitter anger and longs to seek his revenge by killing the beast.

Leviathan would also gather some film credits when in 1989 a movie of the same name was released. Often compared to Alien and The Thing, Leviathan’s storyline focused on underwater deep-sea miners. After finding some Soviet wreckage, the crew brings back deadly cargo to their base on the ocean floor with horrifying results. The crew must then fight to survive against a genetic mutation as they are hunted down and killed one by one by LEVIATHAN!

Though their similarities are unmistakable, the tales behind the Basilisk and Leviathan could not be farther apart. Whether you are a fan of the classic tales or have only recently been introduce through Harry Potter, chances are you will not soon forget these monstrous and mythical creatures. Steeped in magical folklore and transported through time by literature, paintings and film, the Basilisk and Leviathan will surely be with us for hundreds maybe even thousands of years. I cannot tell you whether these creatures exist or if they are merely a figment of a most active imagination. The question still remains: Are they magic, monsters or mythical creatures… only you can decide.
CK Webb for Suspense Magazine


  1. In my novels I've used many mythical creatures, but neither the basilisk nor the Leviathan. Interesting write up on these two mythical beasts--gives me some ideas to possibly incorporate them in my next novel :)

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