If Looks Could Kill

cockatrice_jlweb

Monsters have been known to take many forms, from seductive succubi and skulking bogeymen to blood-slurping chupacabras and giant krakens. Among the most unusual and horrific of such creatures has to be the cockatrice. Associated with demonic forces and deadly powers, this small, peculiar beast stirred panic in the hearts of late-medieval Europeans.

Part-bird and part-snake, with bat-like wings, the cockatrice was believed to be the offspring of a farmyard oddity—an egg-laying cockerel.1 If anyone discovered such a rooster, prompt and severe actions were required. First, retrieving the egg before it was incubated by a toad2 or snake3 was necessary, so as to prevent the cockatrice from developing and ultimately hatching. If the rooster was really thought to have laid an egg, then the fowl had to be destroyed so that no other eggs were produced. Again, such matters were taken very seriously, as demonstrated in 1474 by the people of Basel, Switzerland, who put their alleged avian culprit on trial before burning it at the stake.4

A Scary Notion

The possible existence of creatures in conflict with the natural order of things was a terrifying prospect to people centuries ago. What the cockatrice and its supposed egg-laying cockerel parent represented were affronts to a fixed delineation between the sexes and between species. Aberrations could be seen as crimes against nature, involving witchcraft or the meddling of a sinister supernatural realm. Danger was apparent in the cockatrice’s form, of course, in other ways. The creature supposedly had scales and a snake-like tail, key physical characteristics shared with the devil. (Passages in the book of Revelation (12:9 and 20:2) describe Satan as a serpentine entity, an idea John Milton used with memorable effect in his Paradise Lost.)

Not surprisingly, the cockatrice became synonymous in medieval bestiaries with another ancient and menacing snake, the basilisk. Perhaps most familiar today from J. K.  Rowling’s 1998 novel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk has a long history. Belief in such a beast extends at least as far back as the first century, described in the writings of both Pliny (Natural History) and Lucan (Pharsalia)5 and later misattributed to venomous creatures of the Old Testament.6 Similarities were said to exist in the lethal prowess of both the basilisk and cockatrice, as they were reportedly capable of delivering venomous bites and emitting a poisonous odor.7 Their usual mode of killing, however, consisted of simply staring into a victim’s eyes, a notion popularized in Shakespeare’s plays.8

Science to the Rescue                                                                            

As serious inquiry replaced superstition, monsters from the Dark Ages came to slowly be dismissed. Scientists of the Renaissance and Enlightenment rejected the flimsy evidence—mostly hoaxes9—of a half-bird, half-snake cockatrice. Unraveling the mystery behind the egg-laying cockerels, however, took a bit more effort. The eighteenth-century French scientist François Gigot de Lapeyronie was the first to conduct rigorous investigations into the subject; his studies concluded that the roosters in question were actually hens.10 Subsequent research has since demonstrated that female fowl with certain ovarian diseases can develop some of the physical characteristics of their male counterparts.11

So unbeknownst to the residents of fifteenth-century Basel, Switzerland, the egg-laying rooster they prosecuted was probably a hen with some hormonal ailment. The cockatrice that haunted medieval Europe never materialized, for the beast with deadly eyes was only a freakish fiend hatched from unfounded fears, another testament to the irrationality of human nature.

Sources:

  1. Bondeson, J. The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. 167.
  2. Bondeson, J. p. 167.
  3. Stephens, TD. “A Basilisk by Any Other Name … (A Short History of the Cockatrice): A Commentary on Dr. Hook’s Article on Shakespeare, Genetic Malformations, and the Wars of the Roses.” Teratology 35: 2 (April 1987). AR Liss, Inc. p. 278.
  4. Stephens, TD. p. 277.
  5. Badke, D. The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages: Basilisk (1/15/2011): http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast265.htm.
  6. In several Old Testament texts (e.g., Isaiah 14:29, Jeremiah 8:17, Proverbs 23:32, Psalms 91:13), the terms for certain venomous animals were erroneously translated as “basilisks” and “cockatrices.” For more information, see J Bondeson (p. 167) and TD Stephens (p. 277).
  7. Hulme, FE. Natural History, Lore and Legend: Being Some Few Examples of Quaint and By-Gone Beliefs Gathered in from Divers Authorities, Ancient and Medieval, of Varying Degrees of Reliability. London, UK: Bernard Quaritch, Norman and Son, 1895. p. 237.
  8. Hulme (p. 237) notes three Shakespearean plays that refer to the cockatrice’s deadly glance: Romeo and Juliet (3.2.47), The Tragedy of King Richard III (4.1.54–55), and Twelfth Night (3.4.197–198). A greater number of the bard’s works cite the basilisk in this role, including Cymbeline (2.4.109–110), The Life of King Henry V (5.2.17–18), The Second Part of King Henry VI (3.2.52–53), The Tragedy of King Richard III (1.2.153), and The Winter’s Tale (1.2.386–389), among others.
  9. One of the most common hoaxes consisted of dried rays or skates, sometimes referred to as “Jenny Hanivers.” TD Stephens (p. 279) notes the use of these preserved remains centuries ago by conmen. Famed Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi supposedly possessed such a specimen but did not think it was a basilisk or cockatrice (J Bondeson, p. 178).
  10. Bondeson, J. p. 188.
  11. Birkhead, T. The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2008. p. 282.

 

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Symbolism behind Coats of Arms

heraldry_bestiary

Ostriches are fond of eating shiny metal objects. Or so the thinking used to go. Insignias on coats of arms reinforced this difficult-to-digest idea, as did medieval bestiaries. Even William Shakespeare refers to the notion in a dramatic duel scene:

 … I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and
swallow my sword like a great pin…

This curious threat comes from one of the bard’s staged histories, The Second Part of King Henry VI (Act 4, Scene 10, Lines 28-29).

Though not native to England, these big birds were brought there long before Shakespeare’s time. In fact, several royal precursors to Henry VI owned ostriches, including Normandy’s William the Conqueror and King John. The latter kept them among his stable of exotic creatures. Interestingly, archaeological digs of London’s old Lion Tower have uncovered nails near the neck bones of these birds’ remains, suggesting that people once fed ostriches sharp metal pieces (1). Wow, talk about heartburn!

Notions of iron-eating ostriches captivated the European imagination, as evident from iconography depicting ostriches with nails, keys, and horseshoes in their beaks. Typically representing an individual of great authority or religious zeal (2), the images made up part of a vast collection of symbols used in heraldry.

Emblems for Nations, Statesmen, and Rock Stars

Heraldry is an elaborate system of symbols used to represent the identities of individuals, families, cities, and nations. Though primarily associated today with European nobility, the practice spans the world and goes back thousands of years. Several ancient nations of the Middle East adopted representational images of the eagle (3), a bird that has remained popular as a heraldic symbol. Similar displays of national coats of arms are designed in the spirit of this tradition. Many feature feathered animals: Chile’s includes the condor; Uganda’s, the crested crane; and Nauru’s, the frigatebird (4)

Individuals have frequently relied on avian symbols for expressing personal characteristics, such as rank, origin, and occupation. Adorning Sir Paul McCartney’s coat of arms are a guitar and a “liver bird,” the latter a heraldic emblem of the former Beatle’s hometown, Liverpool (5). By the way, the “liver bird” is based on the cormorant, just as the mythical martlet, a small bird depicted without feet, is modeled on the swallow or house martin (6). Commonly used by the younger sons of a large family, the martlet appears in several places on Ben Franklin’s arms (7). Franklin, after all, was one of seventeen children!

The Fun Side of Heraldry

Sometimes considered esoteric and stale, heraldry I’ve discovered can be rather fascinating—even amusing. For example, take the coat of arms of Benjamin Franklin’s contemporary, American statesman John Hancock. This man obviously had a sense of humor. Making light of his name, he chose an open hand and three roosters or cocks as his symbols (8).

William Shakespeare’s coat of arms suggests that he, too, had fun using images to play on his surname. The “spear” element is obvious: prominently displayed are a couple of large, pen-like items of the weapon (9). The “shake” part of the design, however, relies on an unfamiliar reference. Gripping one of the spears is a falcon readying for flight. This action didn’t initially mean anything to me, but I soon learned that the motion is referred to in falconry as “the shaking” (10). As a result, I came away once again impressed with the wit of England’s greatest punster and wordsmith.

Though not as popular as during Shakespeare’s time, the ancient art form of heraldry is still alive and well today. Aficionados are continuing to find creative ways to enjoy their pastime. A few websites devote space to looking at the heraldry employed in Game of Thrones, studying Disney’s fictional McDuck family’s coat of arms, and generating heraldic representations of National Football League team logos. What I enjoy most, of course, is that birds can be seen on all of them!

Sources:

  1. Heck, C, Cordonnier, R. The Grand Medieval Bestiary: Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2012. pp. 550–552.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 56.
  3. Ingersoll, E. p. 28.
  4. J. The Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. pp. 120, 229, 928.
  5. Wilson, AN. “As the Bercows unveil their boastful coat of arms, the vulgar truth about family crests”, 11/30/2011. Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2068401/Speaker-John-Bercow-coat-arms-The-vulgar-truth-family-crests.html.
  6. Vinycomb, J. Fictitious & Symbolic Creatures in Art with Special Reference to their Use in British Heraldry. London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1906. pp. 186, 187, 189.
  7. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry: http://www.internationalheraldry.com/famous.htm.
  8. “Famous Coats of Arms”. International Heraldry.
  9. Dingfelder, S. “A draft of Shakespeare’s coat of arms is on display for Folger Shakespeare Library’s ‘Symbols of Honor’”, 7/10/2014. The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2014/07/10/a-draft-of-shakespeares-coat-of-arms-is-on-display-at-folger-shakespeare-librarys-symbols-of-honor/.
  10. Duncan-Jones, K. Shakespeare: Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan: 1592-1623. London: A & C Black, 2011. p. 107.