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    Chapter 29

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    Chapter 29
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    Chapter XXIX
    Modern Monsters: The 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    belief after Paganism was superseded by Christianity.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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