The basilisks of Basel


The basilisk is a legendary reptile said to be “king of the serpents or snakes”. Allegedly it was hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad (making it kind of the opposite of a cockatrice, which is hatched from a cockerel’s egg that was incubated by a serpent or toad). Part reptile and part bird, the basilisk is usually described as a crested snake, or as a cockerel with a snake’s tail. A basilisk can kill you with a look or a breath, while it in turn can only be killed by a weasel,  a cockerel’s crow or by being made to look at its own reflection.

The basilisk is also the heraldic animal of Basel. Various legends connect the city with the mythical beast – probably thanks to the similarity of the names (Basilea is another name for Basel, which makes the connection even more obvious). One legend has it that a basilisk once lived in a cave below the site of what is now the Gerberbrunnen (tanner’s fountain) another that a merchant once brought a basilisk to Basel. In 1474 a cockerel was sentenced to death in Basel. His crime? He was accused of having laid an egg, which of course went against nature, and the citizens of Basel were afraid that said egg would hatch into a basilisk. The cockerel was beheaded following a proper trial and the offending egg cast into the fire.

Below, you see the Gerber fountain. The writing tells the story of the basilisk that lived below it, but more poetically than I did.


Given the above, you can naturally find many basilisks in Basel. You can hardly walk down a street without seeing one! Today I want to share some of those basilisks with you.

The most obvious basilisks come in the form of a fountain. If you spend any time in Basel, you will come across a basilisk fountain sooner or later. These fountains go all the way back to 1884, when they were the winner of a competition. Originally there were 50 of them. Now there are apparently 28, although I haven’t seen them all. The water in the basilisk fountains can be drunk, and my favourite feature (other than the obvious fact of the basilisk) is that each one has a little bowl at the bottom so dogs can have a drink too!

All the basilisks along the Rhine face towards the water… apart from one. You can see it in a couple of the photos above. This is the basilisk that stands across the river from the cathedral. The idea is that this one faces away from the Rhine to allow people to take a photo with both the basilisk and the cathedral. Ironically, you can’t actually see the cathedral in either of my photos above!

Next up, the giant basilisk from the Wettstein bridge… another one that’s hard to miss if you find yourself in the right place!

As you can probably tell by the sky, those photos were taken at different times. I have a thing for taking the same photos over and over 😉

Originally this big basilisk was one of four, two of which stood at each end of the bridge. All four basilisks still exist, but only  this one still stands at the original location. One has been exiled and now stands somewhere by Lake Lucerne, another stands in the courtyard of a building called “Zum Basilisk” and I have no idea how to get in to see him. But the fourth and final one stands at the entrance to the “Lange Erlen” animal park… and I took a trip there just so I could get photos of him for you:

Many companies in Basel have appropriated the Basel for their name (well, wouldn’t you?). There’s a Basilisk hotel – with its own basilisk standing outside – a local radio station called Basilisk and a Basilisk electronics company. One of the local breweries even named a beer Basilisk (and a very nice beer it is too – can recommend!).

There are various basilisks (or creatures that I assume are basilisks!) at the town hall, including a golden one sitting a Roman soldier’s helmet, and several on top of the SBB train station.

Various other basilisks are dotted around the place… rendered in metal, carved into walls, sitting on buildings… You’ll find that a lot of them are holding shields with the “Baselstab” or Basel staff, a stylised version of a bishop’s staff that is emblem of Basel, going back to the days when it was Catholic (it isn’t any more). After all, as the heraldic animal it’s the basilisk’s duty to hold the coat of arms!

I haven’t said where most of the basilisks featured here are, partly because I don’t remember where every single photo was taken, but also because I want to encourage people to spot the basilisks themselves as they walk around (hint: look up a lot!). You may have been overwhelmed by the photos in this post, but trust me there are many, many more to be found if you keep your eyes open!

So, what do you think? Fancy coming to Basel for a basilisk hunt?


24 thoughts on “The basilisks of Basel

  1. When I saw ‘basiliks’ in the title of your post I immediately thought of Harry Potter, and snakes! I really enjoyed this post – I had no idea about the story of basiliks. If I am ever in Basel I will be able to look for them and be smug that I actually know a bit about them!

    1. I mostly knew about them from Harry Potter first, although I was vaguely aware that J.K. Rowling got them from an older legend (like most of her mythical creatures! I’m not sure she actually fully made up any of them?), but I only found out the full story when I read something in a book about Basel. They are very cool… more fun than the usual lion sculptures (although I like lions too, and there definitely are a few of them around in Basel as well!).

  2. Hiya Bev, my my you have been busy, I haven’t ever looked at the Gerber Brunner, also cannot recall seeing the Basilisk on the golden helmet, shame on me. Well done on your research, interesting post. The basilisk cannot be killed by a phoenix then, at least you don’t mention that anywhere 🙂 – enjoy your sunday Poli

    1. I had to track down the Gerberbrunnen. It’s not that impressive and kind of tucked in a corner. I only found it because I looked up where it was supposed to be then heard running water when I was close to there.

      There is no mention of phoenixes in any of the legends I read! Harry Potter is the only place I’ve seen basilisks and phoenixes mentioned together.

  3. It’s just impressive how many there are of them! I like a nice theme, although I think it’s a little ruined when people use it in everything though. It’s makes the sculptures seem less special.

    1. There are other sculptures and things as well – it’s not all basilisks. Apart from the fountains and the giant basilisk on the bridge you kind of have to be looking to notice most of the basilisks.

  4. Oh how lovely! I didn’t really have the time to explore Basel at all when I was there for an interview in 2012. I didn’t like the job and didn’t accept it afterwards, so I never got to see more. But how very interesting to learn about the basilisks. Reminds me of Harry Potter haha

  5. Hey! I am new here! Love your blog, I discovered you searching for myths and legends on basilisks, is there some folk tales from Swiss tradition about them? Thank you ❤

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