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Illustration of a basilisk from Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551 Illustration of a basilisk
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551
“Of the many fearsome beasts and monsters that roam our land, there is none more curious or more deadly than the Basilisk, known also as the King of Serpents.” Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry library book,
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter’s World

At Hogwarts, Harry not only learns magic spells, charms, and potions, he is also taught about the natural world and its uses. This knowledge helps Harry and his friends survive innumerable adventures and ultimately defeat the villainous Lord Voldemort. For example, armed with information about the basilisk, Harry knows to avoid its fatal stare and to use its highly venomous fangs to destroy fragments of Voldemort’s soul. And when Harry encounters a dragon in the Triwizard Tournament, he knows from his studies to have a healthy respect for the creature, guaranteeing the young wizard’s survival. Although they consider dragons highly dangerous creatures, wizards have created nature reserves with specialized caregivers to ensure the creatures can thrive without harming people. Dragons also have valuable magical traits—various parts are commonly used in potions and their heartstrings often compose the magical core of wands.

Illustration of a dragon from Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551 Illustration of a basilisk
Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551
“I heard that on the edge of Germany near Styria, many flying four-legged serpents resembling lizards appeared, winged, with an incurable bite…” Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551
 

The History of Science

Gesner: 1516-1565
“I have noticed a relationship between science and natural philosophy…those writings interest me the most which deal with minerals, plants, and animals.” Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551

Like Harry’s professors, 16th-century Swiss naturalist and physician Konrad Gesner appreciated the knowledge gained by studying nature. His most famous work, Historiae Animalium, is considered one of the first examples of modern zoology. Unique to its time, the book included not only Greek and Biblical descriptions of animals, but also information Gesner had gained from dissection. Like many of his contemporaries, the naturalist believed that basilisks and dragons existed and he catalogued their medicinal uses alongside those of their reptile cousin, the snake. For example, Gesner wrote about dragon fat’s success against creeping ulcers and viper flesh’s effectiveness in theriac, a poison antidote and cure-all commonly used until the late 19th century.

“Theriac even promises to make old age more peaceful, life longer, and one’s health more stable …” Konrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, 1551
Illustration of an apothecary mixing theriac from Hortus Sanitatis, 1491 Illustration of an apothecary mixing theriac
Hortus Sanitatis, 1491