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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

Origins

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 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

It 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

The first use of the word in English was in John Wyclif's 1382 translation of the BibleOxford 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 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.

It 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

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]

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 "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:

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