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 basilisk:
"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 amphitheatre.
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.