Cockatrice: Dragon-like Beast or King of the Serpents?

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By: Alex Postrado

Should We Fear the Bird Dragon?

Mythological and legendary creatures come in all shapes and sizes.

Sometimes they resemble us, humans, but oftentimes, they are hybrid beasts whose existence brings about both fascination and fear.

Just take a look at the Minotaur. Or griffins. Even unicorns!

But there’s a dragon-like — sometimes, serpent-like — creature that holds arguably two identities to its name.

It is the Cockatrice.

Also known as the Basilisk, by some.

A type of chimera that had people confused since its first mention around the late 14th century.

But what was the fuss all about?

What is the Cockatrice?

One of the earliest appearances of the word cockatrice can be traced to a passage in the Bible, under Isaiah chapter 11. However, that mention didn’t provide much detail as to what the Cockatrice really is.

In fact, our current knowledge of this mystical beast was only formed during the 14th century.

A small, two-legged dragon with a rooster’s head that has the power to easily destroy anyone that catches its gaze.

The name Cockatrice was from a late Middle English word, derived from Old French cocatris — a cognate of the Greek ichneumon and the medieval Latin calcatrix, meaning “tracker“.

According to the lore, the Cockatrice is a creature made of pure poison that even a single glance from it can immediately cause death.

That is because its eyes have the ability to turn its victim into stone — just like the Gorgon Medusa.

The death-darting eye of Cockatrice“, as they call it.

Another lethal thing about this creature is its saliva, which — accounts say — can take down animals regardless of the size.

Similarly, the breath and touch of the Cockatrice can end any life form that comes close to it.

Of course, except for weasels.

The legend has it that the weasel is the “mortal enemy” of the Cockatrice.

Weasels are said to secrete a venom, deadly to the monster. And so, for a very long time, people believed that carrying this small mammal would keep the Cockatrice away.

Over time, more elements had been added to the story. This explains why at the beginning of the 17th century, the cock was also considered to be a foe to the forbidding creature.

Accounts say that upon hearing a rooster crow, the Cockatrice would die straight away.

But if you aren’t lucky enough to spot a rooster or a weasel prior to your battle with the Cockatrice — if that ever weirdly happens to you — then know that a mirror would likely be enough to do the thing.

Just make the mythological beast look at its own reflection!

It’s believed to be one of the few sure-fire ways to defeat the ferocious Cockatrice.

These fatal weaknesses of the Cockatrice — the weasel, the cock, and the mirror — are all shared with the Basilisk.

And that is just scratching the tip of the Cockatrice-Basilisk iceberg.

Untangling the Confusion Between the Cockatrice and the Basilisk

If the Cockatrice is known for its dragon and birdlike features, the Basilisk bears more resemblance to serpents.

This is what generally differentiates the two. But when and how exactly did the lines between them begin to blur?

Try to read about the Basilisk online or in books and you’ll find out that the Cockatrice is known as either its cousin, a mythological being similar to it, or even just another one of its names.

How come? Well, let’s look at the recorded description of the serpentine monster.

For starters, the Basilisk dates back to a far earlier time than the Cockatrice’s emergence in stories and written accounts, alike.

First mentioned in the 1st century by the Roman poet, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus — better known as Lucan — the Basilisk is notorious for its death-causing glance and its highly poisonous body.

Sounds familiar? Well, try to remember its weaknesses which were mentioned earlier.

And there’s still more to it!

The Basilisk got its name from its Greek form basilískos — meaning “little king“.

Because of this, artists and scribes from ancient times often depicted the “king of the serpents” as a snake-lizard hybrid, occasionally with dragon wings, and is usually wearing a crown.

Sometimes, this crown is replaced with “a white spot on the head” which — frankly — still looks like a diadem.

But as time goes by, artists more frequently started to take the liberty in illustrating the Basilisk — ultimately repainting its crown as a part of its body in the form of a crown-shaped crest.

Much like that of a rooster.

And which mythical creature has something like that?

Right, the Cockatrice!

cockatrice drawing
Line art drawing of a heraldic cockatrice.

Some modern experts and researchers believe that this specific change in the depiction of the Basilisk paved the way for the eventual birth of the Cockatrice in the late 14th century.

A possible reason why the two have a lot of things in common.

Still, others prefer to hold on to the theory that the Cockatrice and the Basilisk are two separate types of monsters.

With one of their main arguments being, in the modern-day sense, a tigon and a liger remain distinct from each other — regardless of how similar they may seem to be.

Whether or not they actually are different, though, is something I’ll leave for you to decide.

Is the Cockatrice Real?

Until around the 1700s, people maintained the belief that the Cockatrice exists in — at least — some parts of the world.

In present times, however, a more favorable explanation for the accounts, revolving around the Cockatrice, is that while the sightings may have been true, what they saw probably was something else.

Something that can be explained by science.

Take, for example, cobras.

These venomous snakes can maintain an upright posture, standing as tall as a third of their body length whenever they feel threatened, when they’re searching for food, or when they’re preparing to attack.

This could explain why accounts often described the Cockatrice as a reptilian monster that stands on two legs.

If so, one of the plausible zoological origins of the Cockatrice would be the Egyptian cobra, which lives in the desert and was revered by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of royalty.

An allusion to the crown-shaped crest, perhaps?

The Cockatrice truly is a force to be reckoned with.

That even centuries after its dawn, it still is causing debates among people.

And while other species of snakes could also pass as the scientific culprit in the rise of this legendary beast, not everyone is convinced.

Therefore, leaving the centuries-old puzzle that is the Cockatrice unsolved even up to this modern day.

References:

Cockatrice (Monster)
Cockatrice (Myths and Folklore)
Cockatrice - mythological creature
What is a Cockatrice?
Basilisk - The Medieval Bestiary
Basilisk and Cockatrice
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