A Cockatrice by any Other Name
Cockatrice, Ulisse Aldrovandi, Serpentum et draconum historia, 1640. 15:21,
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson October 3-9: Isaiah 58–66
We read in Isaiah 59:5 “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.” What on earth is a cockatrice? It turns out that cockatrices are mentioned three other times in the Old Testament, twice more in Isaiah and once in Jeremiah:
Isaiah 11:8 “And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.”
Isaiah 14:29 “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.”
Jeremiah 8:17 “For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the Lord.”
It appears from these verses that a cockatrice is some sort of serpent, perhaps even a flying serpent. The verse in Jeremiah may give us the largest clue, “…which will not be charmed…” Snake charmers in places like India and North Africa tend to use cobras as their snake of choice.
William Shakespeare also wrote about a cockatrice as the type for the evil and deformed Richard III in his play Richard III, Act 4 Scene 1, lines 53-56:
DUCHESS (Duchess of York, Richard III's mother)
O ill-dispersing wind of misery!
O my accursd womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world,
Whose unavoided eye is murderous.
In 1987, I wrote a paper entitled, “A Basilisk by Any Other Name …(A Short History of the Cockatrice)…” (Teratology 35:277-278). I will quote some of that paper here. “My interest in cockatrices has stemmed from my interest in the medieval concept of monsters. What creatures haunted the primeval forests and the superstitious minds of the Middle Ages?...During the course of …[my and the late Dr. Waller Wigginton’s, professor of English and an expert in medieval history and medieval Latin at Idaho State University] investigations into medieval monster lore I became acquainted with the amazing cockatrice.”
“The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word cockatrice came from the Greek ichneumon, an Egyptian quadruped, said to devour crocodile eggs. Pliny (Natural History vol. I, book VIII, part xxxv) says that ichneumons are the mortal enemy of the crocodile. When the crocodile is asleep with its mouth open, the ichneumon darts down its throat and kills it by eating through its belly. This concept may have come from the observed habits of the trochilus bird, which feeds on food lodged between the crocodile’s teeth while the host is asleep. However, Pliny’s followers seem to have identified the ichneumon as having been an otter.”
“In later years, the term ichneumon was replaced in English usage by the term cockatrice and the animal was thought to be some aquatic reptile or fish of the Nile river. It appears that in some cases the cockatrice was confused with the crocodile itself and became another name for the crocodile.”
“In the same book where the ichneumon is described, Pliny (book VIII, part xxxiii) describes a basilisk:
“‘The basilisk serpent…is a native of the province of Cyrenaica, not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high. It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous: it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse. Yet to a creature so marvelous as this, indeed kings have often wished to see a specimen when safely dead, the venom of weasels is fatal, so fixed is the decree of nature that nothing shall be without its match. They throw the basilisks into weasel’s holes, which are easily known by the foulness of the ground, and the weasels kill them by their stench and die themselves at the same time, and nature’s battle is accomplished.’”
“At some time, and for a reason that is not very clear, except that there were two animals with similar venomous habits and perhaps with common enemies, the cockatrice and basilisk became equated. During the Middle Ages, the two names were used more or less interchangeably.”
Interestingly, according to biblehub.com, Isaiah 8:11, 14:29, 59:5, and Jeremiah 8:17 are all different Hebrew words. Isaiah 8:11 is פָּ֑תֶן (pā·ṯen), meaning a venomous serpent, perhaps a cobra; Isaiah 14:29 is נָחָשׁ֙ (nā·ḥāš), a serpent; Isaiah 59:5 is צִפְעוֹנִי֙ (ṣip̄·‘ō·w·nî), a poisonous viper or serpent; and Jeremiah 8:17 is צִפְעֹנִ֔ים (ṣip̄·‘ō·nîm) meaning poisonous vipers or serpents. For some reason, likely because of the extant philosophy in 1611, the first three words were all rendered cockatrice and the last was rendered cockatrices.
“The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term basilisk means kinglet and that the term comes from Pliny’s description of the diadem on the animal’s head. Medieval authors transformed the white marking on the beast’s head into an actual crest or crown. The animal is described in the dictionary as a fabulous reptile hatched by a serpent from a cock’s egg. It is black and yellow and has fiery red eyes. It is capable of killing a person with its very sight, and has given rise to the term, “the basilisk stare.’”
Cockatrice (labelled as a basilisk) and weasel, in Bestiary, Royal MS 12 C XIX, 1200-1210
“There is considerable evidence that Pliny’s basilisk was a cobra. It had a white [diamond-shaped; in some species] mark on the back of its head, it advanced with its middle raised high (perhaps he, or whoever gave him the original information, meant to say, ‘raised high from the middle forward’), and its natural enemy was the weasel (or the mongoose?). It is also interesting that Jeremiah (8:17) said, ‘…I will send…cockatrices…which will not be charmed…’ Was he referring to a cobra?”
“No matter how preposterous Pliny’s description of the basilisk may seem, scorching grass and bursting rocks, the medievals, with an eye for the fantastic, were able to improve upon Pliny’s description. In addition to the color, the crown, and the death-dealing eyes already mentioned, the medieval added wings as well. (Perhaps, once the basilisk was equated with the cockatrice, the “flying serpent” of Isaiah 14:29 was enough reason to add wings.) It is not clear where the medieval came up with the notion that the basilisk hatched from an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a snake (it could also be incubated by a toad).”
“The most complete description of a cockatrice can be found in The History of the Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects by Edward Topsell (1658…), but a very interesting modern account of the animal can be found in Ley’s Exotic Zoology (1959). Ley says that the basilisk was not just king of the serpents but king of all creation except man. As to its origin, he says that it was not only hatched from a cock’s egg, but that the egg had to be laid by a 7-year-old rooster during the days of the dog star Sirius. The egg was easy to recognize because it was round and had no shell but had only a tough skin or membrane. Anyone who has grown up on a farm where chickens are kept has seen an egg laid with no shell, and one can only imagine the terror that such an egg could strike in the heart of the medieval housewife. However, this rare event (the laying of an egg by a rooster; it would be interesting to run a survey in rural America [or any other country] and determine if anyone still believes that a shell-less egg is laid by a rooster) must be combined with a given date, a given age of the rooster, and a very unusual incubator before the egg can give rise to a basilisk. You obviously didn’t see one every day and this typical medieval twist of logic, i.e., requiring a series of very unlikely conditions to come together in producing something rare or fanciful (this suggests that the medieval had a fair knowledge of statistical probability), gave a handy explanation.”
One way to break this chain of highly unlikely, unfortunate events, is to intervene where possible. One way to intervene would be to not allow any rooster to become seven years old. Therefore any six-year-old rooster should end up in a pot of chicken and dumplings. A second way to break this chain would be to quickly destroy any egg laid without an outer shell. After all, we are told in Isaiah 59:5 “…he that eateth of their [cockatrice] eggs dieth…” I can testify that I have eaten more than one egg laid with only the shell membrane and no shell – even in the dog-days of summer – and I did not die. However, this latter approach, of destroying shell-less eggs, may not always be possible. Anyone who has raised chickens probably knows that they don’t always lay their eggs in designated nests – some like to hide their eggs in nests they have contrived in nooks and corners. Furthermore, it is not always possible to keep track of how old a given rooster is, and a wily, seven-year-old rooster may lay its shell-less egg in secret – where it may be accessible to a snake or toad to incubate. Therefore, the ultimate way to avoid a basilisk is to open the door to your chicken coop very carefully during the dog-days of summer.
“Ley…also gives an account of a basilisk that was killed in Vienna. A newly dug well was giving out a very foul odor and the citizens were wondering what had caused it and what to do. A scholar that happened to be in the crowd gathered by the well, explained that the problem was obvious. There must be a basilisk in the well. The scholar also told the townspeople that the basilisk could be killed with a mirror since its look was so deadly as to kill the animal itself. One brave soul was lowered into the well, armed with a mirror. He apparently killed the monster and brought its dead, petrified remains up out of the well. The well was filled in and the dead basilisk, a rock roughly shaped like a rooster, was exhibited many years in the town.”
“A chimera, consisting of a rooster combined with some other animal, was often used to represent a basilisk during the Middle Ages. Baked cockatrice, contrived by attaching the front half of a rooster to the back half of a suckling pig (the feathers and skin were saved and then placed back over the animal after it had been baked), was sometimes served as a dish at very fancy medieval feasts.”
“Since basilisks were so deadly, precautions were taken by medieval travelers to ward off attacks. Someone had determined that the crowing of a rooster could keep basilisks at bay. It became very common for medieval travelers to carry a caged rooster for that carrying a caged rooster during the Middle Ages ever reported a basilisk attack.”
“However, a caged rooster could not protect a medieval traveler from the wiles of his peers. Apothecaries and other peddlers supplied dead basilisks for purchase by their gullible neighbors. Pliny said that even kings were anxious to see a basilisk when it was safely dead and peddlers were willing and able to relieve people of this anxiety. The only problem was that dead basilisks were rather hard to come by. The basilisk sales-men solved the supply problem by producing the corpses of the fantastic creatures after cutting, twisting, and pulling the bodies of dead rays to produce the shape the buying public wanted to see in the basilisk…Apparently no good collection of monsters in the Middle Ages was complete unless it had one of these dead basilisks.”
I was delighted recently to visit the Strahov Library in Prague with my wife, Kathleen, and my oldest daughter, Summer. There, to my utter thrill, in one of the display cabinets, was a basilisk – actually two! I shouted for joy and snapped a photo or two. As described in the previous paragraph, they were remodeled rays.
Cockatrice/basilisk on display at the Strahov Library in Prague
“During the Renaissance, as people became more practical-minded, and a new basilisk came on the scene. This was a real-as-life fore-belching monster. It was a medium-sized cannon weighing about 4,000 lb and shooting 15-lb shot. It was cast of brass, was decorated with serpents, and called a basilisk.”
A large English basilisk known as Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol
“Today there is a real basilisk. It is a small lizard of the iguana family that lives in Central America. It was named the basilisk because the male has a crest on the back of its head like a little crown. It is rather benign but does have its own claim to fame. The local natives of Central America call it the Jesus Christ lizard because of its ability to run across the surface of water.”
The green basilisk, (Basiliscus plumifrons). Alajuela Province, Costa Rica.
Basilisk lizard from reptile101.tumblr.com
“Perhaps no other animal has undergone such a remarkable metamorphosis through history as has the amazing cockatrice. The name has been applied to a fish, snakes, birds, otters, crocodiles, misshapen rays, the front halves of roosters, the back halves of pigs, [cannons], and to lizards that can run on the surface of water. A basilisk [cockatrice] by any other name…?”
I am grateful to the late Dr. Waller B. Wigginton, Idaho State University Department of English, for the many hours we spent discussing medieval bestiaries and monster lore. I am grateful to my daughter Summer for scheduling a special tour of the Strahov Library in Prague, and to Ivana Dadova who led that tour of the library.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
Where science meets religion and the scriptures.
If you have read this blog and are not on my weekly notification list, and would like to be, please send your email address to email@example.com.