Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Basel, Basil, Basel-Stadt, Basilisk

So enough of the pretty. As I've said before I followed along on this trip with no plans or agenda, almost sleep-walking at first. However, I woke up after a few days. It wasn't the food - we never ate out, but cooked in the flat - it wasn't the spectacular landscape either. It was something between history and architecture that shook me out of my submissive haze. There were things to figure out and I love nothing more than researching puzzles. So here are some of the answers I found.

Is it just a coincidence, the similarity between basil, the herb, and Basel, the city?

No coincidence at all: think 'royal'. 

The city name was originally founded by the Romans in the year 44 as Robur (from Latin roburetum which means 'oak grove'. It was renamed Basilia (from the Greek word basilea, meaning 'royal' in 374 when it became the 'royal' fortress of Valentinian I, often considered the last great western emporer.

So that makes sense.

According to etymologyonline, the herb comes from late Middle English, from Old French basile, by way of medieval Latin, from Greek basilikon, the neuter form of basilikos 'royal' or (from Wikipedia) 'king'. 

It's less clear why basil is considered 'royal'. One theory is that it came to be associated with the Feast of the Cross celebrating when St Helena, mother of Constantine I, found the True Cross. Another is more general, that it may have been used in some royal medicine or beauty treatment.

Whatever the reason, I definitely like the name basil a lot better than its other moniker: St Joseph's Wort.

What is this funny symbol we keep seeing everywhere?

Turns out this is the symbol, the "Basel-stadt", is the blazon (a heraldic symbol), for the city (stadt in German) of Basel. It depicts the top of a staff originally carried by the Bishops of Basel and dates back to the 9th century. I learned a new term, 'crosier' but apparently this staff is not a proper crosier, I just thought the photo on the link looked cool.

Why are there so many dragons on street lights, water fountains, etc.?

Actually, they are (as you may have guessed from the title) basilisks, not dragons. A basilisk has many of the same features of a dragon but its head is more like that of a rooster, with a beak and a comb on its head. That comb, being compared to a crown, causes it to be called a 'little king', hence the name (basilisks apparently aren't that large). They are sometimes referred to as a 'worm' somehow hatched by a rooster from the egg of a serpent...doesn't really bear thinking about.

Of course many of us hear about basilisks and dragons and think of the genius of J. K. Rowling. Turns out there are other Harry Potter-isms associated with Switzerland, but I will leave that for another post.

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