A cockatrice is a mythical beast, essentially a two-legged dragon with a rooster's head. Described by Laurence Breiner as "an ornament in the drama and poetry of the Elizabethans", it featured prominently in English thought and myth for centuries.
The cockatrice was first described in its current form in the late fourteenth century.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives a derivation from Old French cocatris, from medieval Latin calcatrix, a translation of the Greek ichneumon, meaning tracker. The twelfth century legend was based on a reference in Pliny's Natural History that the ichneumon lay in wait for the crocodile to open its jaws for the trochilus bird to enter and pick its teeth clean. An extended description of the cockatriz by the 15th-century Spanish traveler in Egypt, Pedro Tafur, makes it clear that the Nile crocodile is intended.
According to Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum (ca 1180), the cockatrice was the product of an egg laid by a cock (a male chicken) and incubated by a toad; a snake might be substituted in re-tellings. Cockatrice became seen as synonymous with basilisk when the basiliscus in Bartholomeus Anglicus' De proprietatibus rerum (ca 1260) was translated by John Trevisa as cockatrice (1397). A basilisk, however, is usually depicted without wings.
It is thought that a cock egg would birth a cockatrice, and could be prevented by tossing the yolkless egg over the family house, landing on the other side of the house, without allowing the egg to hit the house.
It has the reputed ability of killing people by either looking at them—"the death-darting eye of Cockatrice"—touching them, or sometimes breathing on them.
It was repeated in the late-medieval bestiaries that the weasel is the only animal that is immune to the glance of a cockatrice. It was also thought that a cockatrice would die instantly upon hearing a rooster crow, and according to legend, having a cockatrice look itself in a mirror is one of the few sure-fire ways to kill it.
The cockatrice was also said to fly using the set of wings affixed to its back.
The cockatrice is mentioned in Brunetto Latini's Li livres dou tresor (ca 1260).
The first use of the word in English was in John Wyclif's 1382 translation of the Bible. This usage was followed by the King James Version, the word being used several times, to translate Hebrew tziph'oni:
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.
Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.
They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.
For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the lord.
In all these instances, the Revised Version—following the tradition established by Jerome's Vulgate basiliscus—renders the word "basilisk", and the New International Version translates it as "viper". In Proverbs 23:32 the similar Hebrew tzeph'a is rendered "adder", both in the Authorized Version and the Revised Version.
In England the town most associated with the cockatrice is the village of Wherwell, near Andover in Hampshire. The story is that the cockatrice terrorised the village until it was imprisoned in the dungeons below Wherwell Priory. A prize of land was offered to anyone who could kill the creature. None was successful, until a man named Green lowered a mirror into the dungeon. The cockatrice battled against its own reflection until exhausted, at which point Green was able to kill it. Today there is an area of land near Wherwell called Green's Acres. For many years a weather vane in the shape of a cockatrice adorned the church of St. Peter and Holy Cross in Wherwell until it was removed to Andover Museum.
Laurence Breiner also identified the uses of the cockatrice in alchemy (Breiner 1979).
Arthur Fox-Davies describes the cockatrice as "comparatively rare" in heraldry.
- Historia Naturalis viii.37.90.
- Breiner 1979.
- Pedro Tafur, Andanças e viajes.
- Breiner 1979:35.
- Romeo and Juliet, iii.ii.47. The idea of vision in an "eye-beam", a stream emanating from the eye was inherited by the Renaissance from Antiquity; it forms an elaborately-worked-out simile in John Donne's "The Exstacie": "Our eye-beames twisted and did thred/ Our eyes, upon one double string."
- Heller, Louis G.; Humez, Alexander; Dror, Malcah (May 1984). The private lives of English words. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-7102-0006-8. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
- Knight, Charles (1854). The English cyclopaedia: a new dictionary of Universal Knowledge. Bradbury and Evans. p. 5152. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
- Arthur Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Bonanza Books, New York, 1978, p 227.
- Jefferson Collins – "Secrets from the Curator's Closet" – Agecroft Hall Museum http://www.curatorscloset.blogspot.com/
- Laurence A. Breiner, "The Career of the Cockatrice", Isis 70:1 (March 1979), pp. 30–47
- P. Ansell Robin, "The Cockatrice and the 'New English Dictionary'", in Animal Lore in English Literature (London 1932).