Thursday, November 5, 2009
Harry Potter; Why the Basilisk is not a snake.
In “Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets”, the second book of the Harry Potter saga, Voldemort tries to kill Harry Potter by setting his basilisk snake on him. In the entire movie, Ron and Harry talk about the basilisk as if it is a huge snake. Harry Potter is able to speak snake language, and can therefore understand what the serpent says. The entrance of the chamber of secret and the chamber itself have sculptures resembling snakes everywhere and Harry and Ron find a shed skin that they point out to be of a 20 meters long snake. When the basilisk actually appears almost at the end of the movie, it looks like an enormous legless lizard. For the purpose of the movie, it is obvious the reference to the legendary basilisk, the giant snake that could kill just looking into your eyes, but also possess a deadly venom (even if according to Pliny the Elder, the basilisk is small sized). Other accounts refer to the basilisk as a gigantic lizard or a similar cockatrice with a snake's tail and teeth and typical crown-like structure on the head.
The basilisk that Harry meets in the chamber of secrets has probably been created from a mixture of creatures. The animators have clearly drawn on living lizards and crocodiles to make the head of the basilisk. Although it is supposed to be a snake, the jaw seems to have a clearly defined, high jawbone. The bone of the lower jaw of most animals is higher than it is thick. Just feel your own jawbone under your chin- from the bottom to where the teeth are placed is a much longer distance than from the outside of your jaw to the tongue side. This shape makes the jawbone very strong in the direction in which it usually gets pushed by chewing; up and down. Like a t-beam used in building, this shape allows large forces to be resisted in one direction by the jawbone, while using the minimum of material, so you can chew hard food. The same general principle applies to most animals that chew such as lizards and crocodiles, but not snakes. Snakes have very mobile, slender jawbones that are only connected in front by a ligament. This allows them to swallow large prey without crushing or chewing them with their teeth. The jaws of most snakes are actually so thin, that they could not crush or chew at all! Potter’s basilisk however, has high jawbones that seem to be connected in the front. The jaws of the basilisk seem to be taken from a crocodilian or a lizard, but definitely not from a snake! Crocodiles have some clever adaptations to living in the water. They can breathe through their nostrils with their mouth open under water, because they have a palate that separates the mouth from the nostrils. The palate has a flap near the throat that the crocs can use to close their throat off from their mouth, creating a waterproof passage from the nostrils to the windpipe. The basilisk seems to have the same kind of palate as a crocodile. But different groups of animals sometimes evolve similar methods to deal with similar problems. So maybe the basilisk is actually lives in the water like a crocodile? Another character that tells us that the basilisk is not a snake, are its eyelids. Snakes don’t have movable eyelids, but have a hard transparent spectacle that protects their eyes from dirt and dehydration. Potters basilisk has movable eyelids like a lizard, and therefore certainly is not a snake!
But basilisks do exist. And the real thing is certainly as impressive as its computer-generated counterpart in the movie. Real basilisks belong to one of the three species of long-legged South-American lizards of the genus Basiliscus. They are sometimes called the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because of their famous ability to run quite long distances across open water on their hind legs. And like the basilisks of the ancient stories, they wear a “crown” on their head.