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The Serpent's gem— The Basilisk's eye-Basiliscus mitratus—House
snakes in Russia and Germany-King-snakes—Heraldic dragon-Henry III.-Melusina—The Laidley Worm-Victorious dragons – Pendragon-Merlin and Vortigern—Medicinal dragons.
A DRAGOON once presented himself before Frederick the Great and offered the king a small pebble, which, he said, had been cut from the head of a king-snake, and would no doubt preserve the throne. Frederick probably trusted more to dragoons than dragons, but he kept the little curiosity, little knowing, perhaps, that it would be as prolific of legends as the cock's egg, to which it is popularly traceable, in cockatrices (whose name may have given rise to the cock-fables) or basilisks. It has now taken its place in German folklore that Frederick owed his greatness to a familiar kept near him in the form of a basilisk. But there are few parts of the world where similar legends might not spring up and coil round any famous reputation. An Indian newspaper, the Lawrence Gazette, having mentioned that the ex-king of Oudh is a collector of snakes, adds— Perhaps he wishes to become possessed of the precious jewel which some serpents are said to contain, or of that species of snake by whose means, it is said, a person can fly in the air.' Dr. Dennys, in whose work on Chinese Folklore this is quoted, finds the same notion in
China. In one story a foreigner repeatedly tries to purchase a butcher's bench, but the butcher refuses to sell it, suspecting there must be some hidden value in the article; for this reason he puts the bench by, and when the foreigner returns a year afterwards, learns from him that lodged in the bench was a snake, kept alive by the blood soaking through it, which held a precious gem in its mouth -quite worthless after the snake was dead. Cursing his stupidity at having put the bench out of use, the butcher cut it open and found the serpent dead, holding in its mouth something like the eye of a dried fish.
Here we have two items which may only be accidental, and yet, on the other hand, possibly possess significance. The superior knowledge about the serpent attributed to a 'foreigner' may indicate that such stories in China are traditionally alien, imported with the Buddhists; and the comparison of the dead gem to an eye may add a little to the probabilities that this magical jewel, whether in head of toad or serpent, is the reptile's eye as seen by the glamour of human eyes. The eye of the basilisk is at once its wealth-producing, its fascinating, and its paralysing talisman, though all these beliefs have their various sources and their several representations in mythology. That it was seen as a gem was due, as I think, to the jewelled skin of most serpents, which gradually made them symbols of riches; that it was believed able to fascinate may be attributed to the general principles of illusion already considered; but its paralysing power, its evil eye, connects it with a notion, found alike in Egypt and India, that the serpent kills with its eye. Among Sanskrit words for serpent are 'drig-visha' and 'drishti-visha'— literally 'having poison in the eye.
While all serpents were lords and guardians of wealth, certain of them were crested, or had small horns, which
conveyed the idea of a crowned and imperial snake, the βασιλίσκος. Naturalists have recognised this origin of the name by giving the same (Basiliscus mitratus) to a genus of Inguanida, remarkable for a membranous crest not only on the occiput but also along the back, which this lizard can raise and depress at pleasure. But folklore, the science of the ignorant, had established the same connection by alleging that the basilisk is hatched from the egg of a black cock,—which was the peasant's explanation of the word cockatrice. De Plancy traces one part of the belief to a disease which causes the cock to produce a small egg-like substance; but the resemblance between its comb and the crests of serpent and frog? was the probable link between them; while the ancient eminence of the cock as the bird of dawn relegated the origin of the basilisk to a very exceptional member of the family-a black cock in its seventh year. The useful fowl would seem, however, to have suffered even so slightly mainly through a phonetic misconception. The word 'cockatrice' is 'crocodile' transformed. We have it in the Old French 'cocatrix,' which again is from the Spanish 'cocotriz,' meaning 'crocodile,'— Kpokodeiros ; which Herodotus, by the way, uses to denote a kind of lizard, and whose sanctity has extended from the Nile to the Danube, where folklore declares that the skeleton of the lizard presents an image of the passion of Christ, and it must never be harmed. Thus ‘cockatrice' has nothing to do with 'cock' or 'coq,' though possibly the coincidence of the sound has marred the ancient fame of the Bird of Dawn. Indeed black cocks have been so generally slain on this account that they were for a long time rare, and so the basilisks had a chance of
I have in my possession a specimen of the horned frog of America, and it is sufficiently curious.
becoming extinct. There were fabulous creatures enough, however, to perpetuate the basilisk's imaginary powers, some of which will be hereafter considered. We may devote the remainder of this chapter to the consideration of a variant of dragon-mythology, which must be cleared out of our way in apprehending the Dragon. This is the agathodemonic or heraldic Dragon, which has inherited the euphemistic characters of the treasure-guarding and crowned serpent.
In Slavonic legend the king-serpent plays a large part, and innumerable stories relate the glories of some peasant child that, managing to secure a tiny gem from his crown, while the reptilian monarch was bathing, found the jewel daily surrounded with new treasures. This is the same serpent which, gathering up the myths of lightning and of comets, flies through many German legends as the red Drake, Kolbuk, Alp, or Alberflecke, dropping gold when it is red, corn if blue, and yielding vast services and powers to those who can magically master it. The harmless serpents of Germany were universally invested with agathodemonic functions, though they still bear the name that relates them to Ahi, viz., unken. Of these householdsnakes Grimm and Simrock give much information. It is said that in fields and houses they approach solitary children and drink milk from the dish with them. On their heads they wear golden crowns, which they lay down before drinking, and sometimes forget when they retire. They watch over children in the cradle, and point out to their favourites where treasures are hidden. To kill them brings misfortune. If the parents surprise the snake with the child and kill it, the child wastes away. Once the snake crept into the mouth of a pregnant woman, and when the child was born the snake was found closely coiled around its neck, and could only be untwined by a
milk-bath; but it never left the child's side, ate and slept with it, and never did it harm. If such serpents left a house or farm, prosperity went with them. In some regions it is said a male and female snake appear whenever the master or mistress of the house is about to die, and the legends of the Unken sometimes relapse into the original fear out of which they grew. Indeed, their vengeance is everywhere much dreaded, while their gratitude, especially for milk, is as imperishable as might be expected from their ancestor's quarrel with Indra about the stolen cows. In the Gesta Romanorum it is related that a milkmaid was regularly approached at milking-time by a large snake to which she gave milk. The maid having left her place, her successor found on the milking-stool a golden crown, on which was inscribed 'In Gratitude.' The crown was sent to the milkmaid who had gone, but from that time the snake was never seen again."
In England serpents were mastered by the vows of a saintly Christian. The Knight Bran in the Isle of Wight is said to have picked up the cockatrice egg, to have been pursued by the serpents, which he escaped by vowing to build St. Lawrence Church in that island,—the egg having afterwards brought him endless wealth and uniform success in combat. With the manifold fables concerning the royal dragon would seem to blend traditions of the astrological, celestial, and lightning serpents. But these would coincide with a development arising from the terrestrial worms and their heroic slayers. The demonic dragon with his terrible eye might discern from afar the advent of his predestined destroyer. It might seek to devour him in infancy. As the comet might be deemed a portent or some powerful prince born on earth, so it might be a compliment to a royal family, on the birth of a prince, to report
Gesta Rom., cap. 68. Grimm's Myth., 650 ff. Simrock, p. 400.