Basel’s Basilisks

When you walk through the streets of Basel or along the Rhein, you are sure to come across depictions of basilisks in various shapes and sizes. But what does the basilisk have to do with Basel? And why are there so many basilisk fountains?

What Is a Basilisk?

© canton basel-stadt / juri weiss

The basilisk is a mythological figure first mentioned by Greek philosopher Demokrit and pictured as a hybrid with the head of a rooster carrying a crown on its head and the body of a serpent. It is sometimes also referred to as the king of serpents, and its name is actually derived from the Greek word for “little king.” During the Middle Ages, it was also pictured with legs, feathers, and wings (a form sometimes referred to as cockatrice) and considered highly dangerous, with toxic breath and the ability to petrify and kill its victims by simply looking at them. According to medieval legends, basilisks hatched from eggs laid by a cock that was at least 7 years old and then brooded by a toad or serpent in a dung heap. In fact, in Basel in 1474, an old cock was tried in a court of law for laying an egg from which a basilisk might hatch—the cock was sentenced to death and beheaded, and the egg destroyed.

Basel and the Basilisks

Despite the similarity in pronunciation, it is unlikely that the name of the city has anything to do with the mythological animal. The first mention of the city’s name dates back to 237 or 238 A.D., when Roman documents mentioned a settlement called Basilea–a military fortification to prevent an invasion of Germanic tribes from the north and located on the hill where the Münster stands today. Nevertheless, legend has it that a basilisk once lived in a cave underneath the Gerberberglein in the center of Basel. (This legend is commemorated in an inscription by the Gerberbrunnen [fountain] on that site.) The first known illustration of a basilisk in Basel dates from 1448, when it was shown holding the city’s coat of arms. Since then, basilisks have spread throughout Basel.

The most prominent ones of these were four large sculptures placed atop pillars on both ends of the newly constructed Wettsteinbrücke in 1880. Each of these figures was more than 3 meters high and weighed more than 5 tons. When the bridge had to be widened to accommodate the increasing traffic, the statues were removed from their pedestals and sold to the highest bidders. However, when the bridge again had to be renovated in 1992–1995, one of the original statues that had been relocated to Lange Erlen Park was placed on a new pedestal on the Grossbasel side of the bridge and now acts again as its guardian. The other three original statues also still exist. One was brought back to Lange Erlen after an odyssey through Switzerland and Germany, one is located in the back yard of the “Haus zum Basilisk” at Schützenmattstrasse, and one found a new home in Rippertschwand near the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne).

The Basilisk Fountains

The most common way to encounter a basilisk in Basel today is on one of the numerous “Basiliskenbrunnen” that can be found throughout the city. These fountains were first designed in 1884. In contrast to earlier fountains that had valves, these fountains have a constant water flow—quite a novelty at the time, when running water was still scarce and people had to get their household water from public fountains. Initially, the city had ordered a simpler version of these fountains that featured the same type of water bowl and pedestal as the basilisk fountains but had a simple round column from which the water spouted. (You can still find some of these older models in the city as well—for example, in the zoo and at Lange Erlen.) However, the citizens of Basel found the design too plain. Therefore, the city announced a competition for a new model, which was won by Wilhelm Bubeck with his basilisk design.

Bubeck’s design featured the decorated, cast-iron bowl on top of an urn-shaped pedestal that you can still see today—including the small bowl at the bottom from which animals can drink. The basilisk sits on the bowl’s rim, holding the city’s coat of arms and spouting water from its beak. Over time, about 50 of these fountains were placed throughout the city (the first two on Marktplatz in 1892), of which 28 are still working today. The oldest one, put into service in 1896, is located at Totentanz in Grossbasel. Additional basilisk fountains have been given as presents by the city of Basel to other cities, including Zürich, Neuenburg (D), Huningue (F), Vienna, and Shanghai.

By the way, most of the fountains are placed so that the basilisk is facing towards the Rhein (except when this would mean that the basilisk also faces a church). The most notable exception is the fountain on the Kleinbasel side of the Rhein, directly opposite the Münster. This deviation is quite intentional, according to the IWB (Industrielle Werke Basel), which maintains all the public fountains in Basel. Not only does this placement avoid the basilisk facing the church—it also makes for a much more picturesque photo opportunity for tourists!

In addition to the fountains, basilisks are found in many contexts in Basel—in the name of a hotel, a radio station, a travel agency, a hairdresser, a key service, and a car dealership, just to name a few. And you can even see a real, live basilisk (a type of lizard) in the tropical greenhouse at the Botanical Garden of the Basel University! (And no, it’s not dangerous, and its look cannot petrify you.)