The basilisk has garnered a place in the imagination with other monstrous beings like the dragon, unicorn, giants and other well-known fabulous beats. The basilisk is almost always included in encyclopedias or concordances of monsters and mythical beasts, even though there is very little in the way of art and literature throughout the ages that features the basilisk. The dragon, though, for example, features into so many stories, both ancient and modern, and has been depicted countless times, but the same cannot be said of the basilisk. Yet somehow the creature has prevailed and lived on in the collective imagination as an image of monstrosity.
There are two terms, both having their roots in Greek mythology, that apply to the basilisk. The evolution of the basilisk is protean, and the creature eventually becomes chimerical. It is fitting that these attributes of the basilisk come from the ancient Greek world as the etymology of the word basilisk, and the origins of the creature are rooted in ancient Greece.
The word basilisk is from the Greek basiliskos meaning "little king". The etymology seems to directly relate back to the original description of the basilisk. However, the knowledge of the basilisk is not based on literature from the classical period in ancient Greece. Instead, the main description we have for this beast is found in Plinys Natural History which was written in Rome in 77 AD. This piece is a compilation of ancient (and mostly Greek) sources. Pliny lists over 60 sources, most of which have been lost. Because the basilisk has a very limited number of appearances in classical literature, Plinys paragraph about the creature in book XIII is very important in the lore of the basilisk. After discussing another mythical creature the catoblepas, and its ability to kill people with its vision, Pliny describes the basilisk:It may seem pedantic to pick apart, piece by piece, the particulars of Plinys description, but these particulars are quite important in the history, meaning and evolution of the basilisk. The line, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem, for example, is the aspect of the basilisk is probably what gave the creature its name. It also is one of the factors that associate it with kings. The Egyptian Horapollo wrote of the basilisk in his Hieroglyphica (c. 450 CE)1. In it he says, " this the Egyptians call Ouraion, but the Greeks a Basilisk. They make this of gold and put it on the [heads of the] gods." (1.1) And therefore an association with royalty, even in Egypt, was apparent.
The basilisk serpent also has the same power. It is a native of the province of Cyrenaica, not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high. It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous: it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear rising not only the rider but also the horse. Yet to a creature so marvelous as this indeed kings have often wished to see a specimen when safely dead the venom of weasels is fatal: so fixed is the decree of nature that nothing shall be without its match. (8. xxxiii)
The concept of royalty being associated with the basilisk was already clear when Pliny was writing, hence the line indeed kings have often wished to see a specimen when safely dead. The association with kings is also reinforced by the line that the basilisk does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high.
These characteristics have also led many to believe that the basilisk, and the original legends of it, has arisen from nothing more than the tales of the Egyptian cobra, whose characteristics have, from oral transmission, been exaggerated. This cobra has a white marking on its head, powerful venom (which I believe it can spit, thus not having to bite a victim to harm him), and the ability to move with its head held upright.2
When Pliny writes It routs all snakes with its hiss, the concept of the basilisk as king of the serpents is conjured. It is this concept that Lucan in his Pharsalia (c. 65 AD) explores. In it, the basilisk drives off all other serpents and reigns supreme in the desert.
Releasing hisses dismaying to all these pests, its breath
lethal before its bite, the basilisk thrusts the entire
brood aside and lords it over empty sand (9.724-726)
Thomas Bulfinch also explores the concept of the basilisk as the king of the serpents. He says,
The basilisks were called kings of serpents because all other serpents and snakes, behaving like good subjects, and wisely not wishing to be burned up or struck dead, fled the moment they heard the distant hiss of their king, although they might be in full feed upon the most delicious prey, leaving the sole enjoyment of the banquet to the royal monster.3
This king-like characteristic could also be a partial explanation for the basilisks powers. The theme of the king appears throughout literature and he often symbolizes the land itself, for good or bad. This is the theme of the king, his actions and decisions, and how they affect the land he is ruling. In Shakespeares Macbeth, for example, Macbeth (as he is not the proper ruler) and the decisions he makes are reflected in the land itself. Scotland is horribly affected. The crops die and the days become routinely gloomy. This concept is also found in the Western worlds two longest epics: the Iliad and Odyssey. In the first book of the Iliad, for example, the decisions of king Agamemnon that the society deem to be wrong result in a plague coming down on the Greeks and their animals (cattle and sheep). It is this concept of the king inadvertently hurting the land that the basilisk embodies.
The basilisk as an embodiment of this theme can be seen by combining its association with royalty and the powers of destruction ascribed to it. The basilisk is always found in a desert. This is not because that is where a basilisk lives, but because its breath and sight are so destructive (Pliny says It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks.) that it creates a desert! Thus this land is affected by the powers of this little king. This concept can be taken one step further: the word basileus in Greek was usually used to refer to a foreign king, whereas the term basiliskos often meant "petty tyrant." Both of these root words contain negative connotation s. Thus the theme is furthered by looking at the negative kingly qualities (tyrant or foreigner, the negative qualities, of course, hurting the land) and its dangerous powers.
However, the kingly attributes of the basilisk seem to have been overshadowed in classical literature by the power of its glance or venom. Although Lucans Pharsalia does explore the concept of the basilisk as the king of the serpents (see above) he spends more time exploring its virulence.
Poison plays no part: hes reaped his death from a wound.
Now the men see how lazily slingshot pattes fly,
How slow is the whistling air about a Scythian arrow.
What good is it that poor Murrus spited a basilisk
with his spear-tip? In a flash, its venom shoots up the shaft
and invades his handwhich he, drawing his sword,
strides clean off from the upper-arm at a single blow;
stands and stares at the pitiful paradigm of his own demise,
safe himself, while his hand is destroyed (9.824-833)
The mordancy of the basilisk is the focus of the other references to the basilisk in antiquity. In Greece, Heliodorus, in his Aethiopica, explores the concept of love at first sight and the evil eye. He alludes to the powers of the basilisk saying, "by its mere breath and glance will shrivel and cripple whatever comes its way." (3.8) Similarly, someone is mentioned as being "like the basilik, harmful from even a distance" in the Latin author Ammianus History. The basilisk is also mentioned in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. (Psalm 91:13 and Isaiah 59:5)
From classical times the notion has existed that basilisks skin would repel snakes and spiders. It is said that such a skin was hung in a temple to Apollo and in another to Diana to ward off swallows as well as snakes and spiders.4 It was also said in antiquity that silver rubbed with the ashes of a dead basilisk would make the silver take on the appearance of gold. These protoscientific uses of the basilisk persist in the medieval bestiaries and the latter attribute became quite popular in the alchemical tracts of the Renaissance. Also in Pliny we find another protoscientific use of the creature:
Its blood the magi praise to the skies, telling how it thickens as does pitch, and resembles pitch in color, but becomes brighter red than cinnabar when diluted. (29. xix)
Another tie to antiquity that the basilisk has can be seen in one of the ways to combat this beast. Lucan, (9.696 ff.) among others, has suggested that (although it may just be a poetic device) the basilisk sprang from the blood of Greek mythologys Medusa. This would explain the deadly gaze of the serpent, the serpentine qualities, and is probably the origin of the concept that the basilisk can be overcome using a mirror, because in the myths of Medusa, she was defeated using a mirror, by Perseus.
This is not the only way the basilisk can be overcome. An antagonism between the weasel and the basilisk is first found in a third century BCE work attributed to Democritus.5 This antagonism, although not of great importance in antiquity, comes to carry more weight as the legend of the basilisk travels through time and cultures. This rivalry between weasel and basilisk can also be found in the former quote from Pliny, yet to a creature so marvelous as this the venom of weasels is fatal and
They throw the basilisks into weasels holes, which are easily known by the foulness of the ground, and the weasels kill them by their stench and die themselves at the same time, and natures battle is accomplished. (8.xxxiii)
Using either of these methods to defeat the basilisk requires a preparedness by the attacker. In this light, the basilisk must symbolically be tied to death. " laying us low with a sudden sweep of his scythe, which flashes like the creatures glance, unless we weigh up our fate in advance and prepare ourselves clear-headedly for it "6 Death by basilisk can be avoided it the methods for defeating it are known, and foreknowledge is used to prepare for a chance encounter with the beast.
Another way that it was said that a basilisk could be defeated can be found in Claudius Aelians (c. 175-235 CE) On the Characteristics of Animals. In it he says that the crowing of a cock can kill a basilisk. (3.31) If this is the first mentioning of an association between the rooster and the basilisk (which it quite possible is) it becomes very important to the history and evolution of the beast (as will be seen later).
This association also brings up another possible meaning of the creature. In the folktales of many cultures fantastical creatures are used to explain natural phenomenon. In the Celtic world, for example, fairies and similar figures are often used to explain why a farmers animals have died or become sick in the night, or why certain crops have failed etc. This was attributed to the nightly activities of fairies or spirits or ghosts. And because these creatures can only work at night, the sound of a cock crowing (thus signaling morning) is quite dangerous to their well-being. It is possible that the basilisk was nothing more than a folk legend like a fairy, and not a full-fledged mythical beast as it has been widely thought. It may have been invented to explain nightly natural phenomenon and thus the crowing of a cock would kill the beast.
The antipathy between cock and basilisk, being common to European folk traditions, both aided the transition of the beast from foreign serpent to domestic monster and had serious evolutionary implications on the creature.
With the end of the Roman Empire, the original Plinian concept of the basilisk starts its protean metamorphosis. The creature is no longer thought of as a deadly snake; instead it becomes regarded as a full-fledged monster. Laurence Breiner, in his essay about the creature, gives one theory explaining the monstrous mutations of the basilisk.
Europe lost regular contact with Africa: in succeeding centuries the continent and its contents became more and more fabulous. Medieval Europe came to imagine the basilisk not as a marvel but as a full-fledged monster.7
However, as it became more monstrous, the basilisk became somehow less exotic. It was no longer a creature over in Africa, but as something that could fatally be stumbled upon just outside your door. In fact, Edward Topsell, in his The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects tells a story that insists that England was once full of basilisks.8 That said, the Plinian version was still maintained faithfully through the Middle Ages by some, even into the seventeenth century. Its at this point though, that the creature begins to fade away, eventually to disappear "under the weight of its accumulated attributes."9
Although the transformation of the basilisk into a fabulous monster may be partly the result of the lack of contact with its supposed homeland of Africa, and partly due to its associations with the cock, it is the story of the birth of the creature that acts as the precursor for the creatures evolution.
The birth of the basilisk is anomalous. It is not part of a normal reproductive cycle, but is, rather, a genetic fluke, producing a monster. The seed of the story of the birth of the basilisk is found in the third century BCE, in the Septuagints translation of the Bible. Isaiah 59:5 reads, "They break the eggs of asps and weave the spiders web; he who would eat their eggs, having crushed the wind egg [ourion] finds in it a basilisk." This verse is, obviously, unclear and obscure. This obscurity is reflected in subsequent translations of the Bible. The Vulgate, for example, intensifies the verse thusly, "He who would eat of their eggs will die, and the one that is broken produces a basilisk [regulum]," while the King James version turns the verse inside out: "They hatch cockatrice eggs, and weave the spiders web; he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper." This passages context within the book of Isaiah encouraged an association with evil and the devil. Thus, in Christian commentary, the basilisk is occasionally treated as a type of devil, a "wickedly fascinating serpent that, like Miltons Satan before the fall still carries himself upright,"10 true to its Plinian origin. Not only did the mentioning of the basilisk in Holy Scripture anoint the creatures existence with the highest authority, the evil, devilish and diabolical view of the beast lent itself well to increasingly grotesque depictions. And, the lack of descriptive detail in the biblical passages lent creative license to radical transformations to its physiological make-up, as long as the name was preserved.
The basilisk is also referred to in Psalm 91, but interestingly, by the time of the King James translation, the reference has been watered down to reference to an "adder,"
Although this version of the birth of the basilisk may be odd, the story only gets stranger, and this is reflected in how much stranger the basilisk physically becomes. After these biblical passages, the earliest surviving account of the monstrous birth is found in Alexander Neckams De Naturis Rerum, written in 1180 CE. Interestingly, the story of its birth is not found in the entry on the basilisk where he simply recounts Plinys description, but rather in the chapter on the barnyard cock. (1.175) From there, the story of its extraordinary birth enters into a more mainstream tradition with its inclusion in Pierre de Beauvais enlarged bestiary of 1218 CE. In his version of the birth an egg forms in the body of an old cock, which lays it (secretly) in a dung heap. There, it is hatched by a toad and the animal produced has the upper body of a rooster and the lower body of a snake.11
The transmission of the story of its birth through time only allowed for more detailed and more peculiar accounts. For example, in a consolodation of basilisk lore, the summary of a medieval account reads:Thus, the medieval visualization of the basilisk as a chimerical monster, part serpent, part cock derives from the story of its birth. And as these medieval versions that had this tale were more mainstream works, they were readily available and this chimerical vision of the basilisk became the popular and accepted image of the beast. However, as early as the twelfth century the textual illustrations of the basilisk were still based on the Plinian, serpentine creature, while the chimerical monster was at the heart of most visual representations. An example of this incongruity can be found in a twelfth century bestiary translated by T. H. White; here the textual portrait is the Plinian model, and yet the text is illustrated with a rooster having a long serpentine tail.13
it had to be born of an egg laid during the days of the dog star Sirius by a seven-year-old cock. Such and egg was easy to recognize: it did not have the normal ovoid shape but was spherical. It had no shell, but was covered by a thick skin or membrane. The egg then had to be hatched by a toad, and the result was an unbelievably poisonous monster which was basically a serpent but with some characteristics of the toad and the cock as well.12
At about the same time (twelfth century) the word cockatrice started being interchanged for basilisk. The term was an all-purpose word for just about any chimerical monster. It eventually came to be used as the name of a basilisk born of a cocks egg or in some cases the peculiar egg itself. And eventually, although some tried to reserve the term cockatrice for the chimerical monster, as distinct from the Plinian snake, cockatrice and basilisk became interchangeable, as ordinary medieval practice rarely distinguished the two (as seen in the bestiaries).
As the artists of the middle ages took more liberties in depicting the basilisk, wings eventually became a part of the creatures accepted make-up. This though, as well as the story of the birth from a cocks egg, was disputed by one of the most learned and comprehensive accounts of the basilisk: Albertus Magnus De Animalibus.14 This account also mentions the usage of the word basilisk in alchemical writings.
In alchemical writings the basilisk played many roles. Sometimes it would fall into the realm of the fabulous salamander where it would be used to symbolize the destructive fire that preceded the transmutation of metals. In other works, the elixer, or Philosophers Stone, a potent and mysterious catalyst that was said to turn whatever it touched to gold, cure all ills, and confer eternal life was called the basilisk or cockatrice.
With the Renaissances passion for scholarship and empirical research, much of the lore and belief in the basilisk was being discarded. Conrad Gesner, one of the most famous naturalists ever, had, in his Historia Animalium, an account of the basilisk, but was very skeptical of the creatures existence. Edward Topsell in his famous The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects, which relied heavily on Gesner allows, that there may be a cockatrice born from a cocks egg (denying this would be contradicting scriptural authority as there were biblical references to it), but that this was not the real basilisk, and that the idea of a composite (let alone winged) monster was impossible.15 Thomas Browne essentially agreed, "Nor is this Cockatrice only unlike the Basilisk, but of no real shape in nature; and rather an Hieroglyphical fansie."16
However, when the belief in the Plinian African basilisk wanes, the purely fantastical cockatrice (or chimerical basilisk) flourishes. One reason for this, as Laurence Breiner points out, is that "Renaissance technology made possible a tremendous proliferation of images of the creature at its most chimerical."17 Many of these images were based on contrivances of real basilisks. Small, dried, carved and varnished marine rays and other fish were concocted and sold as actual basilisks. Some of these so-called "Jenny-Hanivers," several of which can still be found in some museums, were also created in the names of baby dragons, devil fishes, or some other suitably monstrous name. In fact, Gesner and Browne warn their readers "against these impostures or at least spending too much for them."18 Ulisse Aldrovandi, in his Serpentum, et Draconum Historiae of 1640, also warns of these Jenny-Hanivers, even though some of his own illustrations are based on them.
The surge of interest in the fantastical chimerical beasts is also reflected in literature. As noted earlier, the basilisk does not appear much in classical literature. Christianity then rediscovered the creature in the context of the Old Testament and used it sparsely as an emblem of the devil and sin. This context is explored in the moralizing and allegorical bestiaries and biblical commentaries. Then, at the end of the Middle Ages, when the belief in the existence of a real basilisk fades, there was a emergence of secular literature that opened up new and inventive uses for the basilisk. This being said, though, the basilisk tends to adorn a tale, and it rarely ever plays a central role. Of the major authors of the times, the basilisk appears in Chaucers Parsons Tale under the name basilcoc and Herbert and Donne, both Renaissance poets, mention it. However, the words basilisk and cockatrice were heard most often from the stage. One possible explanation for its popular use in theatre was that "because cockatrice had become a slang term for prostitute."19 Almost every time the creature was mentioned on the stage, the dialogue was invoking the basilisks deadly glance. This is, for example, the sole content of seven of the twelve instances of the words in Shakespeares plays. The basilisk then appears among the Romantic poets. Coleridge uses basilisk twice, and Keats uses it only once. Shelly however uses it four times. Three of these are almost identical where he envisions a child sharing a meal with one. (Daemon of the World 2.91, Queen Mab 8.86, and Revolt of Islam 5.50.3) This image invokes the biblical Chapter 11 verse 8 of Isaiah where even in the King James version it reads "And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den." (The word cockatrice is footnoted, though, and reads "or, adders") The basilisk also appears in modern fantasy books, like Piers Anthonys Spell For Chameleon. However, in all of these instances, even the modern ones, the basilisk is found in the realm of imagery, not in narrative.
This idea that the function of the basilisk as a peripheral image in literature is important. In both visual arts and literature the basilisk, because it cannot offer much to a composition other than its monstrosity, is rarely found in any anecdotal form, be it writing, or the textual response that a painting may invoke. That is why its use has been mainly decorative. The sharpest definition of the physicality of the basilisk is found in the solely decorative field of heraldry where the basilisk had the head and legs of a cock, a snake-like tail, and a body like a birds, but was covered with scales like a serpent. It seems that the wings could be depicted as either being covered with feathers or scales. Its two legs set it apart from the griffin or the dragon, but the two-legged wyvern differed in having a serpents head and the legs of an eagle. Yet even in heraldry the basilisk only offered its form. This is why the basilisk was depicted in a few illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages but was depicted much more often as an ornamental detail in church architecture, adorning capitals and medallions. In the Renaissance the basilisk still did not feature significantly in anything other than the decorative arts. In a sense, the basilisk has form, but no content. It is successful as an element of grotesque decoration, because it has a striking appearance that artists can play very freely with. Because the basilisk has constantly been changing shape through its history, and because there is not a singular set definition for its chimerical physiology, an artist can make whatever distortion that might be necessary to fit it into the available space, while keeping its monstrosity intact. So there are few reasons that a basilisk would be included in a composition in a central way, as there is no textual content to it. The paintings of this time were anecdotally driven and thus would not lend themselves well to including a creature that is only suggestive of monstrosity and has no set symbolic meaning. This is true of many chimerical monsters of this sort, the chimera, wyvern, and the manticore for example. And unlike these creatures, many fabulous beasts are highly suggestive. Laurence Breiner explores this:
The unicorn, for example, presents a fine visual image, but it is also a regal ennobling of the domesticated horse, and an Apollonian version of the centaur, its phallic power absolutely patent in icon as in anecdote, but somehow purified. The mermaid offers a complex of fertile ideas by bringing together land and sea, the human and the far from human; by contrast the melding of a chicken and a snake does not invite much thought.20
So it seems that the basilisk has little resonance; it is merely monstrous and not in any way emblematical.
The basilisk, in a way, shoots itself in the foot. Its lack of a defined physical make-up and its deadly powers limit how it can be used. It would be very difficult to introduce a basilisk into a narrative (be it textual or visual) as its powers would inevitable cause the destruction of everything else, be it animate or inanimate. Where Medusa would only turn a person to stone, the basilisk would kill the person, the plants around the person, and all of the landscape within its site. Any narrative that conjured its image would have a very abrubpt and premature ending. This is why it was never a prominent image throughout the history or art and literature; it couldnt be used. However, this limitation in mind, the basilisk somehow managed to save itself from disappearing into obscurity, and has held a place in the collective imagination. It is still almost always featured in catalogues of fabulous beasts, and can even be found in modern fantasy novels and video games such as Squaresofts Final Fantasy series.
- Gardiner, A., Egyptian Grammar, (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1927) pp. 11
- South Malcom ed., Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: a Source Book and Research Guide, pp. 113
- Bulfinch, Thomas Bulfinchs Mythology. (New York: Gramercy Books, 1979) pp. 313
- Bulfinch pp. 314
- South, pp. 115
- Chevalier, Jean & Gheerbrant, Alain, Trans. by Buchanan-Brown, John. A Dictonary of Symbols. (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1996) pp. 70
- South, pp. 115
- Topsell, Edward, The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects. (London, 1658) pp. 681
- South, pp. 115
- South, pp. 115
- McCulloch, Florence, Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960) pp. 62-69, 199
- Cohen, Daniel. The Encyclopedia of Monsters. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1982) pp. 227
- White, T. H. ed. and trans., The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts, Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century. (New York: Putnam's, 1954) pp. 168
- Albertus Magnus, De Animalibus. In Opera Omnia. (Lyons: 1651) Vol. 6, lib. 25. pp. 666-667
- Topsell, pp. 678
- Browne, Thomas, The Works of Sir Thomas Browne. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964) Vol. 2, pp. 175
- South, pp. 118
- South, pp. 118
- South, pp. 119
- South, pp. 121
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