The Origins of the Basilisk From Harry Potter

Updated: Aug 30

By: Shaina Grover

Image Credit: Flickr @ Henry Burrows

Any fan of Harry Potter is bound to be familiar with the second-floor girls’ bathroom, home to the legendary Moaning Myrtle, and, of course, the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. Another thing that any fan of Harry Potter would know is that, during Harry Potter’s second year at Hogwarts, the Chamber of Secrets was reopened, releasing the bloodthirsty basilisk. However, while you may be familiar with this frightening beast because of Harry Potter, you most likely aren’t familiar with its origins in ancient Greek myths.

Now, before we get into how and why this myth began, let’s first take a look at some of the basilisk’s most notable characteristics. Most sources agree that the basilisk was a type of reptile, though anything more specific about its appearance is a topic of contention; some sources portray it as a huge snake, whereas others describe it as a cross between a rooster and a lizard. In regards to its abilities, the general consensus is that a basilisk can kill its prey with a mere glance; however, there isn’t much common ground aside from this. This is due to the fact that there are several different versions of the myth where the basilisk is seen, each assigning the basilisk different traits. Some versions of the story say that the basilisk can breathe fire, while others dispute this detail, instead stating that it kills its prey with a venomous bite. In regards to its weaknesses, depending on which version of the myth you are reading, the basilisk is weak to weasels, roosters, and/or mirrors.

Now that we’ve covered that, let’s begin looking at the real-world source for the creation of this myth. Often referred to as the king of serpents, many historians believe that the basilisk originated from the real-life king of the serpents: the cobra. A fully-grown cobra can be yellow, green, brown, or black. They can also grow up to 18 feet long. Additionally, just like humans, cobras are diurnal, meaning that they are asleep at night and awake during the day. In terms of habitats, king cobras can be found throughout the forests of Asia. Interestingly, while many believe that cobras are aggressive, they actually tend to avoid conflict, only attacking when provoked.

Let’s now talk about how cobras hunt their prey. Cobras have short fangs (0.5 inches long) located at the front of their mouths, which they use to deliver venom. Cobras transfer this venom to their targets in one of two ways, the first one being, as you may have guessed, through bites. The second, and less common way, however, involves the cobra spitting the venom directly into the eyes of their prey, which can result in blindness. Cobra venom can be especially dangerous, as it contains neurotoxins that directly attack the nervous system of the victim, which can impact the target’s breathing. Because of this, bites from larger species of cobras can be fatal to humans if the appropriate antivenin is not delivered quickly. Other side effects of a cobra bite include difficulty swallowing and speaking, skeletal muscle weakness, vomiting, abdominal pain, and/or necrosis. Many of these effects are similar to those of the basilisk's poison, which further supports the idea that the king cobra served as inspiration for the basilisk myth.

Now, as mentioned previously, another part of the ancient myth is that one of the basilisk’s predators is the weasel. It is very likely that this originated from the fact that one of the cobra’s predators is the mongoose, a species of animal that is very similar to weasels. Due to their speed and agility, mongooses are not only able to steal the eggs of cobras, but can also even prey on them. Furthermore, the acetylcholine receptors of mongooses are mutated in a way that results in the cobra’s venom being totally ineffective against them.

Even though not every part of the basilisk can be traced back to the cobra, there is still a large amount of evidence that indicates that the cobra was its biggest source of inspiration. Their poisonous venom, reptilian nature, and common natural predator all support the idea that there is some relation between the two. It’s quite interesting to consider how certain animals, plants, and even scientific phenomena have contributed to the creation of the myths we hold so fond nowadays.


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What Did You Learn?


1. What about Parseltongue? Can humans communicate to cobras and snakes?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Even though Harry Potter and Voldemort could talk to snakes, in the real world, humans cannot communicate with snakes. In fact, snakes don’t even have external ears, so they can barely hear anything! For those who are thinking about snake charmers, it has been proven several times that snake charmer acts are actually cons; rather than “speaking” with their snakes, the charmers have trained them to go into a defensive position when confronted.

2. What are neurotoxins?

Neurotoxins are substances that change the structure and/or function of the nervous system. We know of more than 1,000 chemical compounds/substances that are neurotoxins, both natural and man-made. There are two types of neurotoxins: those that enter your body from an external source and endogenous neurotoxins, the most common type being the former. In addition to cobra venom, another neurotoxin that you may have heard of is BPA (Bisphenol A) which is found on almost all food and drink labels. Overexposure to BPA can lead to heart disease, breast cancer, and obesity.

#historyofbasilisk #harrypotter #chamberofsecrets #myths

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