Cockatrice

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For other uses, see Cockatrice (disambiguation).
A cockatrice overdoor at Belvedere Castle (1869) in New York's Central Park.

A cockatrice is a mythical beast, essentially a two-legged dragon or serpent-like creature with a cock's head. Described by Laurence Breiner as "an ornament in the drama and poetry of the Elizabethans", it was featured prominently in English thought and myth for centuries.

Legend[edit]

Origins[edit]

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[1] that the ichneumon lay in wait for the crocodile to open its jaws for the trochilus bird to enter and pick its teeth clean.[2] An extended description of the cockatriz by the 15th-century Spanish traveller in Egypt, Pedro Tafur, makes it clear that this refers to the Nile crocodile.[3]

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).[4] A basilisk, however, is usually depicted without wings.

It is thought that a cock egg would birth a cockatrice, and this could be prevented by tossing the egg over the family house, landing on the other side of the house, without allowing the egg to hit the house.

Abilities[edit]

It has the reputed ability to kill people by either looking at them—"the death-darting eye of Cockatrice"[5]—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.[citation needed] It was also thought that a cockatrice would die instantly upon hearing a rooster crow,[6] and according to legend, having a cockatrice look at itself in a mirror is one of the few sure-fire ways to kill it.[7]

The cockatrice was also said to fly using the set of wings affixed to its back.[citation needed]

Cultural references[edit]

The first use of the word in English was in John Wyclif's 1382 translation of the Bible[8] to translate different Hebrew words.[9] This usage was followed by the King James Version, the word being used several times.[10] 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 Shakespeare's play "Richard III", the Duchess of York compares her son Richard to a cockatrice:

O ill-dispersing wind of misery!
O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatch'd to the world,
Whose unavoided eye is murderous.[11]

Laurence Breiner also identified the uses of the cockatrice in alchemy (Breiner 1979).

In heraldry[edit]

Arthur Fox-Davies describes the cockatrice as "comparatively rare" in heraldry.[12]

It was the heraldic beast of the Langleys of Agecroft Hall in Lancashire, England as far back as the 14th century.[13]

It is also the symbol of 3 (Fighter) Squadron, a fighter squadron of the Royal Air Force.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Historia Naturalis viii.37.90.
  2. ^ Breiner 1979.
  3. ^ Pedro Tafur, Andanças e viajes.
  4. ^ Breiner 1979:35.
  5. ^ 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."
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Knight, Charles (1854). The English cyclopaedia: a new dictionary of Universal Knowledge. Bradbury and Evans. p. 5152. Retrieved 8 October 2010. 
  8. ^ "BibleGateway". 
  9. ^ Hebrew word #8577 in Strong's Concordance; Hebrew word #6848 in Strong's Concordance; Hebrew word #660 in Strong's Concordance; Hebrew word #8314 in Strong's Concordance.
  10. ^ "BibleGateway". 
  11. ^ "Richard III, Act IV, Scene 1 :-: Open Source Shakespeare". 
  12. ^ Arthur Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Bonanza Books, New York, 1978, p 227.
  13. ^ Jefferson Collins – "Secrets from the Curator's Closet" – Agecroft Hall Museum http://www.curatorscloset.blogspot.com/

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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).

External links[edit]