My first exposure to this particular beastie came, unsurprisingly enough, from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. After that, it was Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, which a friend of mine was reading. We were very excited to discover that the evil Wyrm in the book was in fact a cockatrice because were 11 years old and because it meant that our knowledge of one fantastical creature had links out into the world beyond the game we were playing. That was pretty cool.
Here’s what we knew then: cockatrices hatch out of an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad. They look like that picture up there and their gaze, like Medusa’s, causes death. (Super-Category: Composite Creatures.)
Here’s What We Know Now
Actually, D&D had this one pretty well down, so there’s not so much a need for correction as there is one for expansion.
In the first place, with all due respect to first Dungeons & Dragons and second to J.K.Rowling and hordes of Potter fans, there is some considerable debate as to whether basilisks and cockatrices are simply different names for the same thing. Most people seem to think they’re the same thing, although basilisks occasionally get lumped into a generally more serpent-like category.
As to their birth, here’s a bit more information, quoted from Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Serpents (1608).
For they say that when a Cock groweth old, he layeth a certaine egge without any shell, in stead whereof it is covered with a very thicke skinne, which is able to withstand the greatest force of an easie blow or fall. They say moreover, that this Egge is layd onely in the Summer-time, about the beginning of Dogge-dayes, being not long as a Hens Egge, but round and orbiculer: Sometimes of a dusty, sometimes of a Boxie, sometimes of a yellowish muddy colour, which Egge is generated of the putrified seed of the Cocke, and afterward set upon by a Snake or a Toad, bringeth forth the Cockatrice, being halfe a foot in length, the hinder part like a Snake, the former part like a Cocke, because of a treble combe on his forehead.
Topsell (clearly in the tank for the “these are the same” crowd) goes on to note that their breath is foul and putrid if not pestilential (prolonged exposure will cause death), and recounts how in the ninth century a city suffered from one or another cockatrice, so boom, history is like science, y’all, and that proves that cockatrices exist (note: Pope Leo IV’s prayers killed it, too). On the plus side, no bird, spider, or snake will enter into a house with a cockatrice, so if you can put up with being killed by one, they’re an effective means of pest control. Alternately, you can kill yourself one and have it stuffed. That works, too. However, these things are so toxic that if you were to kill one with a spear and touch the spear point, you would die. Maybe even just the spear itself, hard to say.
You can kill one with a mirror (same as Medusa, subjecting it to its own gaze). It will die upon hearing a rooster’s crow. Or you could throw a weasel at it. Seriously. A weasel is, apparently guaranteed to kill a cockatrice and the cockatrice will flee upon seeing one. You wonder why Pope Leo IV didn’t just throw a weasel in the hole…
Alright, everybody, don your biohazard suits, we’re going in.
The first mention of a cockatrice, properly speaking, is from Pliny the Elder, who calls it a basilisk anyway (I’ll get back to this discrepancy, gimme a minute). In his Natural History, published around 77-79 CE, Book 8 (zoology), section 33, he writes:
XXXIII. The basilisk serpent also has the same power. It 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 marvellous 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 weasels’ 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.
Interestingly, he notes that weasels are also venomous. Nor was he the only naturalist to make notes about the basilisk/cockatrice. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), reckoned to be the father of natural history by no less a figure than Carl Linneaus, had a number of nifty titles to which he attached his name. Relevant for us is his Monstrorum Historia (1642) (but I have to mention as well his Serpentum, et draconum (1640), because come on.) Where is Rick Yancey when you need him???
Cockatrice or Basilisk?
The problem of the cockatrice or the basilisk seems to originate with the Bible. For example, Isaiah 11:8 (King James Version): And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den. Further mentions of “cockatrice” appear at Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 59:5, and Jeremiah 8:17. However, by the 1885 revision, the King James changed this to “basilisk,” then later again changed it to “adder,” and finally to “viper” (reference here). Alright, fair enough – this is clearly a translation issue.
Cockatrice (English) would seem to come from Old French circa the late 14th century, cocatriz (note that coq in French is rooster and that perhaps some of the visual imagery arrived at this point?). Cocatriz in turn is from the Latin calcatrix, a derived noun from the ver calcare, which is itself a translation of the Greek ichneumon, meaning tracer or tracker.
The thing is, the ichneumon is an actual creature. Ironically enough, it’s the mongoose, the killer of snakes (hello, Riki Tiki Tavi!), and something that looks a great deal like a weasel. Hold on, let’s not get sidetracked, there’s more translation issues going on here.
So some Bibles may have used the word “ichneumon” in Greek but apparently the Hebrew word tsepha’ (or tsiphoni’ – not sure if one is a plural of the other or if they’re not actually related?) also plays into this, and this word means “serpent.”
Now, getting back to Pliny the Elder, while he never mentions cockatrices, he does mention both basilisks and ichneumons. These latter animals to which the Bible refers are most likely Egyptian mongooses.
Not only were these animals noted for killing snakes, in ancient times they were believed to take on crocodiles, diving into their mouths and going to town from the inside out. At the very least, they predate on serpent and crocodile eggs.
What we have, then, is the historical fact that basilisks predate cockatrices by at least 1000 years, given that Pliny was writing at the turn of the common era and that the latter beasts don’t show up until the medieval era. Translation errors would seem to have made the mongoose, a snake-killer, slowly metamorphose in our understanding, probably with an overlapping understanding of basilisk, to become the perceived cockatrice, itself only vulnerable to the very thing that gave birth to it in the first place: a weasel or mongoose.
I don’t know much about alchemy, but closing the circle that way really floats my boat and I’d like to think that somebody out there could do something with this. Come to think of it, its entire history is rather reminiscent of a snake eating its tail. Which brings us back to the basilisk, it being more serpent-like. Are these, in fact, two separate creatures, examples of convergent evolution by which they both end up with nearly the exact same fatal qualities and only distinct appearances? Could one be a sub-species of the other? The cockatrice, perhaps, as a late-breaking cousin or step-child of the venerable basilisk?
At the very least, we have to grant that there is a great deal of overlap between basilisks and cockatrices. And we’re still not done, because while poor translations of “mongoose” may have given us “cockatrice,” once we had this monster, we weren’t about to let go of it.
Heraldric uses of the cockatrice are found in England, France, and Switzerland, where it is the mascot of the city of Basel and has been for about 500 years.
“Hi! No, don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. Ha ha. Get it? He doesn’t bite because he stares and… Oh, you’re dead already.” Oh, those Swiss.
Heraldry being all about both lineage, pride, and history, I guess it’s not very surprising that people start getting specific. On the one hand, there’s this guy, who figures that anyone using a cockatrice/basilisk would be positioning themselves as a stern and deadly warrior. This other guy has to point out the difference between cockatrices and wyverns, though, which sort of drags cockatrices (and basilisks) toward the dragon camp, where they have never really been before now (and this third person does the same thing). Now, I don’t know anything about heraldry, but I have to wonder exactly how well its visual vocabulary was laid out in an era long before Shakespeare came around, and even by his day there was no one way to spell his name right. I have to wonder about consistency, that’s all I’m saying.
I have to say, I did not expect to be doing a bunch of poking into Bible and translation-related sites, but for now I’ll return to the beginning, ouroboros-like. I feel like the folks who put that first edition Monster Manual together had the right idea.
They both kill in the same ways. They’re equally deadly, differently armored, and one has wings. It’s a big world. There’s room for all kinds of alchemical, chimerical monsters out there.
Sources, Cited or No:
Amphisien cockatrice at Heraldry on the History Road (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Ashton, John. 1890. Curious Creatures in Zoology.
Bible History (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Bible Study Tools (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Bulfinch, Thomas. 1913. Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes.
Cockatrice at Probet Encyclopedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Cockatrice at Wikipedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
“Ichneumon (medieval zoology)” at Wikipedia (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Online Etymological Dictionary (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Sacred Texts (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
“The Saga of Ichneumon” at Linear Thoughts (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Unknown Explorers (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).