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Basel and Basilisks – a quite particular relationship

Basel’s residents are proud of their heraldic animal, the basilisk. Wherever you are, wherever you look, you are bound to meet this creature. Residing on fountains or bridge piers, it keeps watch over the city.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

At Totentanz you find Basel’s oldest basilisk fountain

According to legend, the basilisk once lived in a cave where today the Gerberbrunnen (the tanner’s fountain) is situated at Gerberberglein. An inscription tells about this legend. By the way, a basilisk is not to be mistaken with a dragon or a lindworm, the latter of which are almost harmless compared to it. Although a little fellow – it had about the size of today’s fountain sculpture – it was a fearsome creature. It could kill people with only its breath, by looking at stones it could turn them to dust – but only as long as the sun was shining. Unlike dragons, it did not crawl, but proudly walked upright on its stubby legs. However, wherever it walked the grass dried out. Its body was soaked with venom and whatever it touched was doomed to die. And, just like Medusa, it could only die by looking at itself.

The first fountain to receive a basilisk (1530) can be found in Augustinergasse

From a cockerel’s egg
The myth of the basilisk is as old as the hills. Around 50 AD the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder gave the first extensive description. According to popular belief then, a basilisk was hatched from an egg which had been laid by an old cockerel. However, watching and keeping the egg warm was the job of a snake or a toad.

A basilisk at the Gallus Gate of the Basel Minster (Left picture Wikipedia)

How frightened people were by a basilisk can be best seen in an entry in one of Basel’s chronicles (1624). There it is said that in August 1474 an 11-year-old cockerel had laid an elongated egg. This was regarded as a bad omen. Immediately, the call for the executioner went out. He personally beheaded the feathered bird and gutted its body whereby he allegedly discovered an additional three eggs. He even took it upon himself to burn the carcass and the eggs – under normal circumstances he would give the job of disposing of animal bodies to the knackers as this, for religious reasons, had been regarded as a particularly unclean activity.

A basilisk also graces the front of the Basel Minster

Fountain decoration
Today the city’s landscape is dominated by basilisk fountains. They have their origin in a competition going back to 1884; it was won by Wilhelm Bubeck, principal of the “Gewerbeschule” (trade school) at the time. Thanks to him, Basel received 19 fountains decorated with the basilisk, and by the 1920s this figure had grown to almost 50. Today, just 28 of them are still around. The oldest fountain is situated at Totentanz (1896). However, the first ever fountain that was graced by a basilisk was the one at Augustinergasse in 1530 – this one can be clearly seen holding Basel’s coat of arms with its claws.

The Basel Journal once picked a basilisk, in a photomontage, for the front page of its paper edition (picture © Copyright Kathi Horn)

How the mythical creature came to be the official heraldic animal is equally shrouded in legend. The oldest depictions of Basilisks can be found on the walls of the Basel Minster, for example on the “Galluspforte” (left of main entrance). These were created between 1160 and 1195. Another relief can be seen in Basel’s town hall. According to a legend the basilisk had its lair beneath today’s Gerberbrunnen. Another story goes like this: during the Council of Basel (1431-1449) a merchant had displayed a stuffed specimen of a basilisk. The local councillors liked it so much that they decided to have the basilisk as the city’s heraldic animal. The writer Beatus Rhenus (1485-1547), on the other hand, claims that a play on words was responsible for the basilisk to become the city’s distinctive creature. The first written confirmation of a basilisk as Basel’s heraldic animal can be found in a manuscript dating back to 1448.

The Gerber Fountain (tanner’s fountain) where allegedly a basilisk once lived

Eye balm
The most popular explanation is the similarity of the words “Basel” and “Basilisk.” The term “Basilea” which was derived from Greek “Basilus” (sovereign, king) has often been used for comparisons. However, the Romans – who were the first to mention our city in their written records – used to call it “Basilia”. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, in his “res gestae”, first wrote about the construction of a fortification, instigated by emperor Valentinian I (364-375), near “Basilia”. It is even specifically emphasised that this name came into use only after the visit by the emperor. Before the construction of the fortification the hamlet there was known as “Robur”. The term “Basilia” means either “eye balm” or “princely jewelry.” Very loosely translated, you could say “eye candy”. And that is certainly what Basel’s basilisks are.

The last guardian of the Wettsteinbridge (picture: Wikipedia)

One Response to “Basel and Basilisks – a quite particular relationship”

  1. Mary says:

    Loved this story. As long as I lived in Switzerland, I was never quite clear on all the history. Thanks and well done!

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