Ch. 29: Modern Monsters: Phoenix, Basilisk, Unicorn, Salamander

There is a set of imaginary beings which seem to have been the
successors of the "Gorgons, Hydras, and Chimeras dire" of the old
superstitions, and, having no connection with the false gods of
Paganism, to have continued to enjoy an existence in the popular
belief after Paganism was superseded by Christianity. They are
mentioned perhaps by the classical writers, but their chief
popularity and currency seem to have been in more modern times.
We seek our accounts of them not so much in the poetry of the
ancients, as in the old natural history books and narrations of
travellers. The accounts which we are about to give are taken
chiefly from the Penny Cyclopedia.


Ovid tells the story of the Phoenix as follows: "Most beings
spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which
reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does
not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous
gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a
nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm-tree. In
this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these
materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying,
breathes out its last breath amidst odors. From the body of the
parent bird a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as
long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and
gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its
own cradle and its parent's sepulchre) and carries it to the city
of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the

Such is the account given by a poet. Now let us see that of a
philosophic historian. Tacitus says, "In the consulship of
Paulus Fabius (A.D. 34), the miraculous bird known to the world
by the name of Phoenix, after disappearing for a series of ages,
revisited Egypt. It was attended in its flight by a group of
various birds, all attracted by the novelty, and gazing with
wonder at so beautiful an appearance." He then gives an account
of the bird, not varying materially from the preceding, but
adding some details. "The first care of the young bird as soon
as fledged and able to trust to his wings is to perform the
obsequies of his father. But this duty is not undertaken rashly.
He collects a quantity of myrrh, and to try his strength makes
frequent excursions with a load on his back. When he has gained
sufficient confidence in his own vigor, he takes up the body of
his father and flies with it to the altar of the Sun, where he
leaves it to be consumed in flames of fragrance." Other writers
add a few particulars. The myrrh is compacted in the form of an
egg, in which the dead Phoenix is enclosed. From the mouldering
flesh of the dead bird a worm springs, and this worm, when grown
large, is transformed into a bird. Herodotus DESCRIBES the bird,
though he says, "I have not seen it myself, except in a picture.
Part of his plumage is gold-colored, and part crimson; and he is
for the most part very much like an eagle in outline and bulk."

The first writer who disclaimed a belief in the existence of the
Phoenix was Sir Thomas Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, published in
1646. He was replied to a few years later by Alexander Ross, who
says, in answer to the objection of the Phoenix so seldom making
his appearance, "His instinct teaches him to keep out of the way
of the tyrant of the creation, MAN, for if he were to be got at
some wealthy glutton would surely devour him, though there were
no more in the world."

Dryden, in one of his early poems, has this allusion to the

"So when the new-born Phoenix first is seen,
Her feathered subjects all adore their queen,
And while she makes her progress through the East,
>From every grove her numerous train's increased;
Each poet of the air her glory sings,
And round him the pleased audience clap their wings."

Milton, in Paradise lost, Book V, compares the angel Raphael
descending to earth to a Phoenix:

"Down thither, prone in flight
He speeds, and through the vast ethereal sky
Sails between worlds and worlds, with steady wing,
Now on the polar winds, then with quick fan
Winnows the buxom air; till within soar
Of towering eagles, to all the fowls he seems
A Phoenix, gazed by all; as that sole bird
When, to enshrine his relics in the Sun's
Bright temple, to Egyptian Thebes he flies."


This animal was called the king of the serpents. In confirmation
of his royalty, he was said to be endowed with a crest or comb
upon the head, constituting a crown. He was supposed to be
produced from the egg of a cock hatched under toads or serpents.
There were several species of this animal. One species burned up
whatever they approached; a second were a kind of wandering
Medusa's heads, and their look caused an instant horror, which
was immediately followed by death. In Shakespeare's play of
Richard the Third, Lady Anne, in answer to Richard's compliment
on her eyes, says, "Would they were basilisk's, to strike thee

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.

The Roman naturalist Pliny thus describes him: "He does not impel
his body like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion, but
advances lofty and upright. He kills the shrubs, not only by
contact but by breathing on them, and splits the rocks, such
power of evil is there in him. It was formally believed that if
killed by a spear from on horseback the power of the poison
conducted through the weapon killed not only the rider but the
horse also. To this Lucan alludes in these lines:

"What though the Moor the basilisk hath slain,
And pinned him lifeless to the sandy plain,
Up through the spear the subtle venom flies,
The hand imbibes it, and the victor dies."

Such a prodigy was not likely to be passed over in the legends of
the saints. Accordingly we find it recorded that a certain holy
man going to a fountain in the desert suddenly beheld a basilisk.
He immediately raised his eyes to heaven, and with a pious appeal
to the Deity, laid the monster dead at his feet.

These wonderful powers of the basilisk are attested by a host of
learned persons, such as Galen, Avicenna, Scaliger, and others.
Occasionally one would demur to some part of the tale while he
admitted the rest. Jonston, a learned physician, sagely remarks,
"I would scarcely believe that it kills with its look, for who
could have seen it and lived to tell the story?" The worthy sage
was not aware that those who went to hunt the basilisk of this
sort, took with them a mirror, which reflected back the deadly
glare upon its author, and by a kind of poetical justice slew the
basilisk with his own weapon.

But what was to attack this terrible and unapproachable monster?
There is an old saying that "everything has its enemy," and the
cockatrice quailed before the weasel. The basilisk might look
daggers, the weasel cared not, but advanced boldly to the
conflict. When bitten, the weasel retired for a moment to eat
some rue, which was the only plant the basilisks could not
wither, returned with renewed strength and soundness to the
charge, and never left the enemy till he was stretched dead on
the plain. The monster, too, as if conscious of the irregular
way in which he came into the world, was supposed to have a great
antipathy to a cock; and well he might, for as soon as he heard
the cock crow he expired.

The basilisk was of some use after death. Thus we read that its
carcass was suspended in the temple of Apollo, and in private
houses, as a sovereign remedy against spiders, and that it was
also hung up in the temple of Diana, for which reason no swallow
ever dared enter the sacred place.

The reader will, we apprehend, by this time have had enough of
absurdities, but still he may be interested to know that these
details come from the work of one who was considered in his time
an able and valuable writer on Natural History. Ulysses
Aldrovandus was a celebrated naturalist of the sixteenth century,
and his work on natural history, in thirteen folio volumes,
contains with much that is valuable a large proportion of fables
and inutilities. In particular he is so ample on the subject of
the cock and the bull, that from his practice all rambling,
gossiping tales of doubtful credibility are called COCK AND BULL
STORIES. Still he is to be remembered with respect as the
founder of a botanic garden, and one of the leaders in the modern
habit of making scientific collections for research and inquiry.

Shelley, in his Ode to Naples, full of the enthusiasm excited by
the intelligence of the proclamation of a Constitutional
Government at Naples, in 1820, thus uses an allusion to the

"What though Cimmerian anarchs dare blaspheme
Freedom and thee? A new Actaeon's error
Shall theirs have been, devoured by their own bounds!
Be thou like the imperial basilisk,
Killing thy foe with unapparent wounds!
Gaze on oppression, till at that dread risk,
Aghast she pass from the earth's disk.
Fear not, but gaze, for freemen mightier grow,
And slaves more feeble, gazing on their foe."


Pliny, the Roman naturalist, out of whose account of the unicorn
most of the modern unicorns have been described and figured,
records it as "a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its
body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an
elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep bellowing voice, and a
single black horn, two cubits in length, standing out in the
middle of its forehead." He adds that "it cannot be taken
alive;" and some such excuse may have been necessary in those
days for not producing the living animal upon the arena of the

The unicorn seems to have been a sad puzzle to the hunters, who
hardly knew how to come at so valuable a piece of game. Some
described the horn as moveable at the will of the animal, a kind
of small sword in short, with which ho hunter who was not
exceedingly cunning in fence could have a chance. Others
maintained that all the animal's strength lay in its horn, and
that when hard pressed in pursuit, it would throw itself from the
pinnacle of the highest rocks horn foremost, so as to pitch upon
it, and then quietly march off not a whit the worse for its fall.

But it seems they found out how to circumvent the poor unicorn at
last. They discovered that it was a great lover of purity and
innocence, so they took the field with a young VIRGIN, who was
placed in the unsuspecting admirer's way. When the unicorn spied
her, he approached with all reverence, couched beside her, and
laying his head in her lap, fell asleep. The treacherous virgin
then gave a signal, and the hunters made in and captured the
simple beast.

Modern zoologists, disgusted as they well may be with such fables
as these, disbelieve generally the existence of the unicorn. Yet
there are animals bearing on their heads a bony protuberance more
or less like a horn, which may have given rise to the story. The
rhinoceros horn, as it is called, is such a protuberance, though
it does not exceed a few inches in height, and is far from
agreeing with the descriptions of the horn of the unicorn. The
nearest approach to a horn in the middle of the forehead is
exhibited in the bony protuberance on the forehead of the
giraffe; but this also is short and blunt, and is not the only
horn of the animal, but a third horn standing in front of the two
others. In fine, though it would be presumptuous to deny the
existence of a one-horned quadruped other than the rhinoceros, it
may be safely stated that the insertion of a long and solid horn
in the living forehead of a horse-like or deer-like animal, is as
near an impossibility as any thing can be.


The following is from the Life of Benvenuto Cellini, an Italian
artist of the sixteenth century, written by himself, "When I was
about five years of age, my father happening to be in a little
room in which they had been washing, and where there was a good
fire of oak burning, looked into the flames and saw a little
animal resembling a lizard, which could live in the hottest part
of that element. Instantly perceiving what it was he called for
my sister and me, and after he had shown us the creature, he gave
me a box on the ear. I fell a crying, while he, soothing me with
caresses, spoke these words: 'My dear child, I do not give you
that blow for any fault you have committed, but that you may
recollect that the little creature you see in the fire is a
salamander; such a one as never was beheld before to my
knowledge.' So saying he embraced me, and gave me some money."

It seems unreasonable to doubt a story of which signor Cellini
was both an eye and ear witness. Add to which the authority of
numerous sage philosophers, at the head of whom are Aristotle and
Pliny, affirms this power of the salamander. According to them,
the animal not only resists fire, but extinguishes it, and when
he sees the flame, charges it as an enemy which he well knows how
to vanquish.

That the skin of an animal which could resist the action of fire
should be considered proof against that element, is not to be
wondered at. We accordingly find that a cloth made of the skins
of salamanders (for there really is such an animal, a kind of
lizard) was incombustible, and very valuable for wrapping up such
articles as were too precious to be intrusted to any other
envelopes. These fire-proof cloths were actually produced, said
to be made of salamander's wool, though the knowing ones detected
that the substance of which they were composed was Asbestos, a
mineral, which is in fine filaments capable of being woven into a
flexible cloth.

The foundation of the above fables is supposed to be the fact
that the salamander really does secrete from the pores of his
body a milky juice, which, when he is irritated, is produced in
considerable quantity, and would doubtless, for a few moments,
defend the body from fire. Then it is a hibernating animal, and
in winter retires to some hollow tree or other cavity, where it
coils itself up and remains in a torpid state till the spring
again calls it forth. It may therefore sometimes be carried with
the fuel to the fire, and wake up only time enough to put forth
all its faculties for its defence. Its viscous juice would do
good service, and all who profess to have seen it acknowledge
that it got out of the fire as fast as its legs could carry it;
indeed too fast for them ever to make prize of one, except in one
instance, and in that one, the animal's feet and some parts of
its body were badly burned.

Dr. Young, in the Night Thoughts, with more quaintness than good
taste, compares the sceptic who can remain unmoved in the
contemplation of the starry heavens, to a salamander unwarmed in
the fire:

"An undevout astronomer is mad!
Oh, what a genius must inform the skies!
And is Lorenzo's salamander-heart
Cold and untouched amid these sacred fires?"

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