Cockatrice

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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 rooster'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 mentioned in the Bible in Isaiah chapters 11, 14 and 59. It is 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 cocatriz 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 basilisk (basiliscus) was the product of an egg laid by a rooster 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] This legend has a possible Egyptian folk root; the eggs of the ibis were regularly destroyed for fear that the venom of the snakes they consumed would cause a hybrid snake-bird to hatch.[5]

It is thought that a cock egg would hatch out as 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]

The cockatrice has the reputed ability to kill people by either looking at them—"the death-darting eye of Cockatrice"[6]—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.[7] It was also thought that a cockatrice would die instantly upon hearing a rooster crow,[8] and according to legend, having a cockatrice look at itself in a mirror is one of the few sure-fire ways to kill it.[9]

Cultural references[edit]

The first use of the word in English was in John Wyclif's 1382 translation of the Bible[10] to translate different Hebrew words.[11] This usage was followed by the King James Version, the word being used several times.[12] The Revised Version—following the tradition established by Jerome's Vulgate basiliscus—renders the word as "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.[13]

A cockatrice is also mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, in Act 3, scene 2 line 47, by Juliet.

Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but 'Ay,'
And that bare vowel 'I' shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockatrice.[14]

In The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter 4, King Gorice shows a cockatrice to Gro:

"Behold and see, that which sprung from the egg of a cock, hatched by the deaf adder. The glance of its eye sufficeth to turn to stone any living thing that standeth before it. Were I but for one instant to loose my spells whereby I hold it in subjection, in that moment would end my life days and thine..."
Therewith came forth that offspring of perdition from its hole, strutting erect on its two legs that were the legs of a cock; and a cock's head it had, with rosy comb and wattles, but the face of it like no fowl's face of middle-earth but rather a gorgon's out of Hell. Black shining feathers grew on its neck, but the body of it was the body of a dragon with scales that glittered in the rays of the candles, and a scaly crest stood on its back; and its wings were like bats' wings, and its tail the tail of an aspick with a sting in the end thereof, and from its beak its forked tongue flickered venomously. And the stature of the thing was a little above a cubit.

Nathan Field, in the first scene of The Honest Man's Fortune, also uses the idea that a cockatrice could kill with its eyes:

... never threaten with your eyes they are no cockatrice's...[15]

A cockatrice is mentioned in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by Hermione Granger in chapter fifteen.

In the video game Boktai: The Sun Is In Your Hand, cockatrice are among the enemies the player face in Sol City.

A Cockatrice is shown as the main antagonist in Netflix's Little Witch Academia 1st episode. The Cockatrice is also a dungeon boss in the underground labyrinth gameplay section of Little Witch Academia: Chamber of Time video game for PC and PS4.

In heraldry[edit]

Heraldic cockatrice

Arthur Fox-Davies describes the cockatrice as "comparatively rare" in heraldry, and as closely resembling a wyvern outside of possessing a rooster's head rather than a dragon's. The cockatrice, like the rooster, is often depicted with its comb, wattles and beak being of a different color from the rest of its body. The cockatrice is sometimes referred to as a basilisk, but Fox-Davies distinguishes the two on the basis of the heraldic basilisk possessing a tail ending in a dragon's head, although he does not know of any arms depicting such a creature.[16]

In continental European heraldic systems, cockatrices may be simply referred to as dragons instead.[17]

The cockatrice was the heraldic beast of the Langleys of Agecroft Hall in Lancashire, England as far back as the 14th century.[18]

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

See also[edit]

  1. ^ Historia Naturalis viii.37.90.
  2. ^ Breiner 1979.
  3. ^ Pedro Tafur, Andanças e viajes.
  4. ^ Breiner 1979:35.
  5. ^ Browne, T. (1658). Pseudodoxia Epidemica: Or, Enquiries Into Very Many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths. United Kingdom: E. Dod.
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ Bane, Theresa (2016). Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore. McFarland. p. 89. ISBN 978-0-7864-9505-4.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Knight, Charles (1854). The English cyclopaedia: a new dictionary of Universal Knowledge. Bradbury and Evans. p. 5152. Retrieved 8 October 2010.
  10. ^ "BibleGateway".
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "BibleGateway".
  13. ^ "Richard III, Act IV, Scene 1 :-: Open Source Shakespeare".
  14. ^ https://myshakespeare.com/romeo-and-juliet/act-3-scene-2
  15. ^ Ioppolo, Grace ed. (2012). The Honest Man's Fortune. Manchester: The Malone Society. pp. 13–14. ISBN 9780719086113.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Arthur Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, T.C. and E.C. Jack, London, 1909, p 227, https://archive.org/details/completeguidetoh00foxduoft.
  17. ^ Arthur Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry, T.C. and E.C. Jack, London, 1909, p 225, https://archive.org/details/completeguidetoh00foxduoft.
  18. ^ Jefferson Collins – "Secrets from the Curator's Closet" – Agecroft Hall Museum "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-08. Retrieved 2010-07-15.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)

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]