A Medieval Pilgrim May Have Carried This Basilisk Pendant to Guard Against Evil

Found in Poland, the “pilgrim’s badge” was likely worn by a Christian traveler hundreds of years ago

Discovered by a metal detectorist in the village of Wólka Nieliska, the badge is about an inch wide. Lublin Provincial Conservator of Monuments

During pilgrimages across Europe hundreds of years ago, medieval Christians were known to carry decorative pendants, or pilgrim’s badges, to signify their progress and protect them from danger. One of these badges has now been discovered in southeastern Poland, and it depicts one of Europe’s most enduring monsters.

A metal detectorist found the badge in the village of Wólka Nieliska in January. He gave it to independent archaeologist Tomasz Murzyński, who surrendered the find to the provincial conservator of historical monuments in nearby Lublin. “Now it is state property,” Murzyński tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

As the conservator announced in a Facebook post, the artifact is about an inch (2.8 centimeters) wide, 0.04 inches (about a millimeter) thick and made of lead and tin alloy. Its circular outline encloses the shape of a mythical creature: the basilisk.

Front close-up
The badge is made of lead and tin alloy. Lublin Provincial Conservator of Monuments

Found over 100 miles from Warsaw, the newly discovered pilgrim’s badge probably “served as a kind of talisman,” writes the conservator in the translated Facebook post. For medieval Christians making their way across Europe on spiritual quests, badges were “intended to ensure the wearer’s success in travel and to protect such a person against all kinds of ‘evil,’ [such as] assault, theft, disease and other random accidents.”

The badge’s well-decorated symbol looks like a cross between a bird and a snake, with two wings, a long neck, clawed feet and a tail. As Smithsonian magazine’s Mike Dash wrote in 2012, the basilisk “was a bizarre hybrid” that was “feared for centuries throughout Europe and North Africa.” People were even known to “hunt” the fantastical creatures: In 1587, some believers in Warsaw actually mobilized to find and kill a cellar-dwelling basilisk they thought had killed two little girls and their maid.

Basilisk and Weasel
The basilisk is a fabled monster long feared by Europeans. Wenceslaus Hollar / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As the conservator writes, pilgrim’s badges typically depicted human or animal figures, including saints, knights, birds and dragons. The oldest known badges date back to the 11th century and “were associated with travelers making their way along the Way of St. James—also known as the Camino de Santiago—a network of routes that pilgrims could follow to a shrine of the apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain,” writes All That’s Interesting’s Kaleena Fraga.

Pilgrim’s badges are rare finds in Poland, according to the conservator. Most of Europe's examples have been discovered in the continent’s western region; English, French and German museums have built extensive collections of such objects.

During the badges’ centuries of popularity, pilgrims came to use them as more than protective amulets. “The badges were also a way for pilgrims to distinguish themselves,” writes Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe. Some travelers even wore several at once.

Researchers don’t have any information about this particular artifact’s owner. As All That’s Interesting writes, “One can only imagine the pilgrim who pinned the basilisk badge to their chest, hoping that the ferocious mythical creature would keep them safe.”

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