Posted by: Catholic of Thule | April 24, 2010

On Bibles and basilisks.

It is my strongly, nay, passionately held opinion that, all other things being equal, the translation of a bible section which contains an appropriate and timely reference to basilisks, dragons, or unicorns is almost always superior to one that is so sadly remiss as to take no advantage at all of the opportunity to make mention of said creatures. Granted, of course, that we are talking about translations of the same and appropriate sections of the Bible. Very important point that. We would not want basilisks or dragons encroaching upon the goats of rather ill fortune in Matthew 25, even if it may be argued that they are all surely fated for the same, and considerably warmer, climes. There is a time and a place for everything.

However, though I am far from a biblical scholar and barely know any Latin and no Hebrew or Greek at all, and so should probably shut up about this topic, I will suggest that there is no need to go looking for translations of the original words that fulfill criteria of material realism where none are required. It is entirely possible that people in olden days thought basilisks, dragons, and unicorns to be creatures that actually existed somewhere on earth, be it far away beyond the hills and over the seas from whatever point one might set out. This does not mean that one should abandon a long established practice of availing of the fuller imaginative resources of mankind to raise up spectres of the dread we may face in our spiritual battle, or rejoice in the spectacular defeat of all and every possible evil by God. We do not, after all, wrestle ‘against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places’ (DR, Eph. 6.12).

Of course you may argue that no one has any concept of basilisks anymore, and dragons and unicorns are quite simply not what they used to be. Well, then, what is wrong with learning something new. Short lesson from a relative ignoramus on the subject, i.e. a certain Catholic of Thule, follows.

The word basilisk comes from the greek basilískos, meaning ‘little king’. Pliny the elder wrote in his Natural History around 79AD:

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse as well.

It is a tad difficult to know what a basilisk looks like because not only can it kill you simply by looking at you, it also appears who looks straight at the creature is instantly killed. Basilisk hunting is a rather hazardous business. Not impossible, mind you. A basilisk in Warsaw was reputedly killed by the use of mirrors, its human slayer donning a suit of leather covered with mirrors, thus causing the creature to gaze upon its own reflection. The bodies of those slain by this same basilisk ere it was thus thwarted on its path of destruction were swollen and their skin had turned yellow. One may imagine that death by basilisk is no comfortable experience. Unfortunately, nobody took the opportunity to paint a picture and so we are left wondering what this creature may have looked like. I have always imagined it as some kind of demented cockerel for some peculiar reason, possibly because I first encountered it in a novel set in medieval times, during which time it apparently took on more of the features of a cockerel. So, it’s kind of a cockerel-serpenty looking creature of some considerable dread. Do a quick google search and it will give you some options.

Dragons need little introduction, but they come with a warning: The Bible authors appear not to have subscribed to the recent positive depictions of dragons. Dragons in the Bible are huge and nasty serpents, up to absolutely no good. Like other biblical serpents, they may promise you the world, and even divinity, but they will lure you into eternal damnation instead. While devious, they are not  essentially misunderstood and complex creatures. Dragons in the bible are, to my knowledge, primarily as a symbol of evil.  Have you seen the picture of craters of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano? Well, then you know what you’re in for if you follow the dragon. They will eventually open their mouths and spew out fire and flame and ash for all eternity. Keep away from the dragon, and cease and desist from any ill-advised dragon befriending or dragon taming exercises! You may laugh, but such ventures are sadly not unheard of in the present spiritual climate!

Biblical unicorns are fabulous creatures representative of goodness, fierce strength, vigour and independence on man. In the following, I must caution against my extreme amateurishness and the employment of google search in conjunction with various editions of the bible as a major source! It appears that the hebrew word translated as unicorn/unicornis in some places by the Douay Rheims Challoner/Latin Vulgate, and in others places in these same editions as the much more prosaic rhinocerous/rhinocerotis, is reem. Unicorns as a Christian symbol appear to have become associated with the incarnation, which fits its biblical use as a description of God and God’s favour. The bible also contains mention of unicorns as an instrument of God’s fierce justice and correction, which indeed is another aspect of the same goodness and favour of God. The legendary unicorn was drawn to purity and could only be tamed by a virgin, while it would react with fierceness to a pretence of purity. One imagines some biblical influence in the medieval Catholic symbol of the unicorn, which may again serve to enrich our present day enjoyment of our relevant Bible verses. Popular belief also has it that powder made from the horn of the unicorn was an antidote to poison, and one may imagine it as an antidote to spiritual poison in the biblical setting.

I would very much like a reputable source for the biblical use of unicorns/rhinocerous from my many many many (well, perhaps 3 or so) readers. But my ignorance in these matters does not in any way dampen my enthusiasm, even if I am a little disappointed that it is the KJV that appears most consistently to take advantage of every opportunity for the employment of the reference to unicorns! Given the choice between ‘wild ox’ or ‘rhinocerous’ and ‘unicorn’…Come on!!!Thankfully, the DR/Vulgate are in harmony with my preference in the psalms and Isaiah.

Let me then compare a couple of passages from the Douay-Rheims Challoner and the Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition, the bibles I usually employ for my reading. From psalm 90 in the Douay-Rheims:

11 For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways. 12 In their hands they shall bear thee up: lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. 13 Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon. 14 Because he hoped in me I will deliver him: I will protect him because he hath known my name. 15 He shall cry to me, and I will hear him: I am with him in tribulation, I will deliver him, and I will glorify him.

Compare this with the corresponding Psalm 91 in the RSV-CE:

11 For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. 12 On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. 13 You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. 14 Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15 When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him.

One could hardly argue that understanding is impeded by the inclusion of basilisks and dragons in the DR even without any previous knowledge of the creatures. The RSV simply ends up repeating itself with no resulting increase in dramatic impact. With a bit of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, basilisks are useful even in bringing out the drama and very real dangers of good old-fashioned drunkenness, as in Proverbs 23. 31-32:

31 Look not upon the wine when it is yellow, when the colour thereof shineth in the glass: it goeth in pleasantly, 32 But in the end, it will bite like a snake, and will spread abroad poison like a basilisk.

Of course, I suggest that nobody waste their time with wine that is yellow at any rate, red being far superior, but that is rather besides the point at the moment.

And though this post is by now about three times the length I had originally envisioned for it, I feel compelled to recite just a portion of Psalm 91 of the Douay-Rheims:

9 But thou, O Lord, art most high for evermore. 10 For behold thy enemies, O Lord, for behold thy enemies shall perish: and all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered. 11 But my horn shall be exalted like that of the unicorn: and my old age in plentiful mercy.

Which begs the question: who would not rather be exalted like the horn of a unicorn than like that of any old ‘wild ox’ (Ps. 93.RSV-CE)?



  1. Indeed!

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