Battling the Basilisk

May 12 2019 | by

  A VARIETY of small, harmless, colorful lizards called basilisks are a far cry from the horrible basilisk of legend. In the popular book Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk slithers through school pipes and turns to stone anyone who looks into its eyes. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed in the death-by-glance basilisk. Pliny the Elder, Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens wrote about it.

  Basilisks, whose venom blighted the earth, were supposedly born from an egg laid by a rooster (a biological impossibility) and incubated by a serpent. Thus, they had two rooster legs affixed to a serpent’s body. This mythical creature possibly originated when, encountering desert cobras, travelers concluded the serpents’ venom had destroyed the vegetation in their habitat.

  As an Augustinian monk, prior to being a Franciscan, Saint Anthony apparently studied a medieval bestiary which described basilisks. He thoroughly described this horror: “The basilisk is a snake with one pair of legs along its length, particularly deadly on earth, which destroys the grass with its breath, kills trees, slays and burns animals and everything else. It even pollutes the atmosphere, so that no bird can fly through the air infected by its poisonous breath. Even snakes are terrified by its hissing, and when they take to flight, they go as fast as they can. No beast will eat anything killed by its bite, nor will birds touch it. Yet it can be killed by weasels, and so men put them into the holes it hides in” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals II, p. 149; edited and translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova).


Sin of wrath


  Anthony was writing sermon notes for his fellow friars, not a biology textbook. Anthony likened this horrible creature to an angry, powerful person, “…any powerful person of this world, who was infected by the poison of wrath, destroys the grass (the poor) with the breath of his malice, kills trees (the rich of this world, merchants and usurers), slays and burns the animals (those of his own household). He even pollutes the air of religious life… Even the snakes (his friends and accomplices who know his malice) are terrified by his hissing. When his wrath is kindled, everyone takes flight, in all directions, running to hide themselves even in pigsties! This savage lord, beside himself and inflamed by a devilish spirit, can be overcome only by weasels – the poor in spirit – who are not afraid of him because they have nothing to lose. People who are burdened with the dirt of money, who are afraid to approach him, take them to the holes he hides in. ‘Speak to him,’ they say. ‘We don’t dare to’” (Sermons II, pp 149-50).

  We all tend to get angry, but often we notice anger more in others than in ourselves. An anonymous quipster noted that righteous indignation is “Your own wrath, as opposed to the shocking bad temper of others.”


Link to violence


  Precisely because we don’t often recognize our anger, we can overlook its bad fruits. Short story writer, Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) noted, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” American cowboy humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935) observed that “People who fly into a rage always make a bad landing.”

  In some people, anger leads to violence. Psychologist Scott Bohn concludes, “The human emotion most likely to lead to violence is anger. Anger or rage is associated with a wide variety of violent acts… There are many more killings committed spontaneously and in anger (known as voluntary manslaughter) than those committed with premeditation and after careful deliberation.”

  We mistakenly equate violence with mental illness. However, author Laura L. Hayes notes in a 2014 article in the Medical Examiner, “Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are.” Hayes gives an illustration of an elderly woman with schizophrenia who stabbed a man in a supermarket because he had more than ten items in the express checkout lane. She admitted ignoring the inner voices telling her not to harm the man because he “made her so mad that she couldn’t stop herself.” The author noted that “Violence is not a product of mental illness; violence is a product of anger. When we cannot modulate anger, it will control our behavior.”


Broader law


  Saint Anthony’s faith and human insight yielded the same conclusion. “You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. And whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the Council. And whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of hell fire. [Mt 5,21-22]” (Sermons II, p. 147).

  Anthony continues, “The commandment of Christ is not contrary to the Law, but it contains a broader law. He who is not angry will not kill, but the contrary is not true. The freedom to be angry leads to murder: take away anger, and there will be no murder. ‘Anger’ includes every evil movement towards harm. A spontaneous movement, which is not consented to, is only the beginning of passion; but when consent is given, there is full passion, and death in the household” (Sermons II, p. 147-48).

  Our Saint then specifies, “There are degrees in these sins. The first is to be angry, but to hold it in the mind. It is worse, if this or that emotion leads to utterance, hurtful to the one with whom we are angry. It is worse still if one cries out with real cursing. There is a similar gradation in the punishment. ‘Judgment’ is a lesser thing, because even though it deals with the guilty person, there is room for defense. ‘The Council’ is a more serious matter: the judges confer together about the penalty to be inflicted, having agreed that sentence must be passed. ‘Hell’ is worse still, because there is no remission of sentence” (Sermons II, p. 148).


Anger vs irascibility


  Anthony makes the following distinction: “Note that there is this difference between anger and irascibility: anger is an occurrence, arising from some cause; irascibility is a vice of nature, that persists. The irascible man is one who, by his hot blood, is roused to fury: ‘fury’ and ‘fiery’ are similar sounding words. The Hebrew word ‘Raca’ simply means ‘empty’ or ‘inane’, and we use it just as a vulgar abuse, without thinking. Nevertheless, if you say this of your brother, who is full of the Holy Spirit, you become liable to punishment in the judgment of the holy judges. A ‘fool’ as one who does not understand what either he himself or others say: he is dull of heart.” (Sermons II, p. 148)

  Anthony likens reason to the weasel which kills the basilisk. “The body of sin, the whole mass of sinful acts, such as wrath and envy, are destroyed when reason takes control. If our old man, the spontaneous movement of the mind, is crucified by the nails of divine fear: when it is crucified, we serve the sin of anger no more. We will not be angry with our brother, but will honor the crucified Christ in him” (Sermons II, p. 150).

Updated on May 12 2019