Basel Switzerland: Water Monsters and Cheeky Kings

basilisk fountain, basel switzerland

 We have recently been rambling around Basel Switzerland (among other places).  It’s a lovely city located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet.  It’s filled with interesting museums, but I went around looking for basilisk monsters and the “Lallekonig” (a king who sticks out his tongue).

basilisk on bridge, basel Switzerland
Basilisk holding the Basel coat of arms and guarding a bridge

It all Started With a Rooster

In Basel Switzerland, in 1474, a rooster (cockerel) was tried, convicted and condemned to a public execution.  What was his offence?  He laid an egg.  Not only was this a crime against nature and the laws of the day, but it was very dangerous.  Everyone knew that if a rooster egg would be found and hatched by a toad or a lizard, a basilisk would emerge.  And that was a terrifying thought.

The Horrible Basilisk

A basilisk was (because I am pretty sure they are now extinct) a monster with the head and claws of a rooster, the beak of an eagle, and the tail and wings of a dragon.  It was small, as monsters go, maybe one foot long, but it was deadly.  Any person or animal that looked into its eyes would die immediately.  Even the plants around it withered.

basilisk fountain w flowers
Basilisk water fountain

Monster in the Drinking Water

It’s no wonder then that the people of Basel were so keen to stop roosters from laying eggs.  But despite their best efforts, one of these rooster eggs must have escaped their attention and been found by a toad or lizard, because a basilisk wound up in Basel’s central fountain – its only source of drinking water.

Young Girl Saves the Day

The story is told, that a young girl named Magdalene was going to the fountain to fill her pail, when she saw people running and screaming in a panic. She met a friend who explained to her about the basilisk in the fountain.  Magdalene sat quietly listening to the description of the monster, all the while polishing her bucket with her apron. When her pail was shining like a mirror, she stood up, put it over her head and started to walk toward the monster.  The basilisk saw her coming and started to attack when he caught sight of his reflection in her pail.  He shrieked, shrivelled up and died.

No More Monsters

As far as I can tell, that must have been the last basilisk because there haven’t been any more sightings for years and no more egg-laying roosters either. The people of Basel no longer fear the Basilisk and often adorn their public fountains with his image.  Sometimes he even has the honour of holding the city’s coat of arms.

basilisk in museum
Basilisk that once stood atop a water fountain, now in the museum

Basel = King

The basilisk wasn’t named for Basel nor was Basel named for the monster.  The word “basel” is from a Greek word meaning king.  The basilisk was called the king of serpents because he was so deadly and because of the rooster “crown” on his head.

Another King

And speaking of kings, Basel has another very interesting one and there are three versions of him.  He is called the “Lallekonig” which roughly means “tongue king”.  It’s a mechanical head representing a king who rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue.  (Not very dignified behaviour for a king, if you ask me.)  The original was installed in the 17th century on a clock tower on the Greater Basel side of the river just at the end of the Mittlerebruke Bridge.  He was connected to the clock works and his facial expressions were synchronised with the ticking of the clock.

Why Does He Stick Out His Tongue?

The Rhine River runs through Basel, dividing it into two parts – the south is “Grossbasel” or Greater Basel and the north is “Kleinbasel” or Lesser Basel.  In the past there has been a bit of rivalry between the two sides, and the king on the Greater Basel side sticks out his tongue at those on the Lesser Basel side.

lallekoenig, basel switzerland
From left: The original 16th century mechanical king from photo in museum guide.
His mechanical successor which is still working.
The motionless version, installed in 1914.

The Tradition Continues

In the 1800s, after 200 years of making faces at those across the river, the original Lallekonig was removed and is now in the Basel History Museum (although not on display when I was there).  Since the gentle people of Greater Basel missed taunting those of Lesser Basel, a non-moving replacement was installed in 1914 to permanently stick out his tongue at the other side.  There is also a modern mechanical version of the Lallekonig adorning the same building who continues the kingly tradition of eye-rolling and tongue-wagging.

But don’t worry too much about those poor folks in Lesser Basel, they get their revenge every year during their carnival.  Three dancers, costumed as folkloric characters, perform in the middle of the bridge, always keeping their backs turned on the rude king and Greater Basel.  It seems that their dance moves include a fair bit of bottom wiggling in the king’s direction.

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Margo Lestz


    1. Hello, what an fascinating subject – cast iron drinking fountains! I really like the recent one on your blog in Cumbria, England, it’s very classy.
      Yes, you can use my photo, no problem. Glad you found it interesting.
      All the best ~Margo

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