Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”

The Aberdeen Bestiary, a twelfth-century book filled with descriptions and moral interpretations of animals, has this to say about the basilisk:

The basilisk’s name … means ‘little king’. It is so called because it is the king of crawling things, who flee when they see it, because it kills them with its scent. It will even kill a man just by looking at him. Indeed, no bird can fly past unharmed by its gaze but, however far away, will be burnt up and devoured in its mouth. The basilisk can be conquered by weasels. Men put them into the caves where the basilisks lie hidden. The basilisk, seeing the weasel, flees; the weasel pursues and kills it. For the Creator has made nothing without a remedy.

That’s right: J. K. Rowling had the audacity to give her basilisk all the traditional powers of spider-scaring and death-glaring while ignoring the simply dynamite fact that they can be conquered by weasels.

Imagine Harry looking down at the Sorting Hat and seeing not the Sword of Gryffindor but a battle-ready weasel (less than a foot tall, maybe with a cute little sword of its own). The weasel leaps up, the basilisk cowers, and a Gandalf-and-the-Balrog-style fight ensues in the depths of Hogwarts’ sewers. The weasel emerges, scarred but victorious, and Gryffindor sheds their lion imagery to become the House of the Weasel.

(Now, if Ron Weasley had killed the basilisk instead of Harry, I might give Rowling a passing allusion grade. But here we are.)

After the weasel bit, the Aberdeen Bestiary provides one of those charming medieval certainties: “Of course the weasel can take down a basilisk. God has made a remedy for everything!” Part of the weasel’s creation mandate—its vocation, if you will—is to take down basilisks when no one else can.

The Aberdeen Bestiary’s basilisk entry is borrowed almost word-for-word from the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville, who draws in turn from Pliny the Elder’s first-century Natural History. But Pliny has a different take on how exactly the weasel slays the basilisk: “The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.”

All right, so now we have Harry wrinkling his nose at the Sorting Hat in disgust, shocked not so much at the overpowering odor as at the fact that it hasn’t had one until now. The hat moves a bit, and—ah! It’s a weasel, deeply unimpressive but also deeply committed to its sacred olfactory duty. The basilisk, thinking it’s tricked its enemies into providing a snack, consumes the weasel but can’t get a swallow down before the smell knocks it out. Celebration ensues, and Hogwarts is renamed Weaselnose in honor of the martyred mustelid.

We’re unimpressed. Eager to read more about the swashbuckling weasels of the Aberdeen Bestiary, we turn to its “weasel” entry:

The weasel is called mustela, ‘a long mouse’, so to speak, for theon [telos] in Greek means ‘long’. 

Well, probably not, but get to the good stuff.

It hunts snakes and mice. Some say that weasels conceive through the ear and give birth through the mouth; others say, on the contrary, that they conceive through the mouth and give birth through the ear; it is said, also, that they are skilled in healing, so that if by chance their young are killed, and their parents succeed in finding them, they can bring their offspring back to life. Weasels signify the not inconsiderable number of people who listen willingly enough to the seed of the divine word but, caught up in their love of worldly things, ignore it and take no account of what they have heard.

Okay, weird, but also boring. Nothing about pursuing deadly monsters, just questionable reproductive choices and an out-of-nowhere moral that seems to ignore weasels’ literal powers of resurrection in the previous line. 

Thankfully, there is a medieval story in which weasels save the day with this very gift of healing: in Marie de France’s Eliduc, a toxically masculine dude kills a weasel after it runs over the apparently dead body of a grief-stricken girl. But when a woman sees another weasel using an herb to resurrect its friend, she brings the girl back to life with the same herb. Weasels, both self-sacrificial and swashbuckling in their own way, slaughter the reptilian beasts of unjust violence and human betrayal. For the Creator has made nothing without a remedy.

6 Comments

  1. Ansley

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post and laughed out loud at several turns. Thank you Josh!

    Reply
  2. Gwyneth Findlay

    I’ve had a tab about the Aberdeen Bestiary open for at least six months; this is a helpful reminder to, you know, read it.

    Reply
    • Josh Parks

      Too bad Aberdeen’s library is closed…otherwise I’d say you should go look at the real thing!

      Reply
  3. Cotter Koopman

    Hand-raising 100% would subscribe to your Medievalism substack

    Reply
    • Laura Sheppard Song

      Agreed. Thanks for this fun little exploration (with corresponding Harry Potter reimagining), Josh!

      Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    Weasels? As heroes? Redwall would like a word with you.

    Anyways, a lovely little examination of medieval concepts about lovely mythical (and not so much) creatures. Always a delight.

    Reply

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