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.

Fowled Up: Funny and Offbeat Names for Birds

catbird

Many of our chosen monikers for birds are nothing short of odd. At times, they’re outright humorous. Even several scientific terms are not immune to chuckles, especially for folks with a limited acquaintance of Latin. Then there are those familiar bird nicknames that have evolved into coarse slang. Indeed, at times our winged neighbors and human language have tangoed to form quite an intriguing pair.

Rolling off the Tongue

Although many of the names we have for birds make sense, the words themselves often seem strange at first to the ear, names such as bobwhites, chickadees, killdeers, kittawakes, rufous-sided towhees, whippoorwills, and willets, among a plethora of others. However, the source for these monikers could not be any more natural. All of these birds are identified by the calls that they produce, as if they were simply introducing themselves by saying, “My name is . . . so-and-so.”

This my-name-is-approach holds true as well for the coot and cuckoo. Both of these birds are dubbed for their peculiar cries. However, in their cases, their distinctive call-based names interestingly hold other connotations. Due to the offbeat sounds they generate, these birds have been associated respectively with idiocy and madness (1, 2). A “mad old coot” remains a common pejorative for describing a silly or stupid elderly man (3). And advertising, of course, has taken up the crazy cuckoo idea. Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, the cartoon personality on the Cocoa Puffs cereal box, famously goes loco in commercials, dramatically giving in at last to his wild cravings for the cereal. Oh, Sonny!

More Etymological Oddities

As discussed in last week’s post, several birds were named for the way they look rather than how they sound. Relying on this strategy, European explorers and naturalists often adopted Old World bird names for those they encountered in the Americas. A few birds, though, were named for affinities they share with other things. For instance, the high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church provided inspiration for the northern cardinal’s moniker, as the bird’s color and crest were evocative of the cloaks and galeri already worn by those clerics (4, 5).

In several circumstances, other animals played roles in the labels bestowed upon our feathered friends. The catbird, for example, is named for the manner in which its call is thought to resemble that of a small, young feline (6, 7); the cowbird for frequently feeding off the insects near grazing cattle (8); and the anhinga or “snakebird” for the way its long S-like neck, when swimming for food, extends out of a lake or marsh, bobbing forward (9).

Mousebirds also exist, but strangely enough they are not named after the rodent—nor are they pursued as prey by catbirds! Diana Wells, the author of 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names, explains that “mouse” in this case comes from mase, the old Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word for “small bird” (10, 11). As for dogbirds or “dirds,” they only exist online such as on websites like sadanduseless.com!

Bird Names Gone Wild

Not only are some common names unusual, quite a few of the scientific ones are seemingly peculiar as well, at least initially to someone like myself who doesn’t know Latin well. For example, Circus cyaneus is not related at all to traveling, big-top, blue-tent amusement; this is the name for the marsh hawk. Sturnus vulgaris has nothing to do with stern warnings about crude, profane language; it’s the formal term for a starling. And while Turdus maximus sounds bad, like some archaic form of schoolboy bathroom humor, that term, too, is rather innocent—just the scientific name for the Tibetan blackbird.

But now that we’re on the subject of monikers-that-appear-to-be-offensive-but-aren’t, let’s not overlook several bird names that lend themselves erroneously to sexual innuendo. A couple obvious ones are well-known for their share of adolescent chortles: tits and boobies. As William Young notes in his The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat, neither of these terms has anything whatsoever to do with the female human anatomy. Titr, from which the former bird’s name derives, is simply Icelandic for “small” (12). Meanwhile, the other birds are known as “boobies” due to how explorers deemed the creatures’ appearance and behavior as comical (13). Incidentally, the celebrated ornithologist and artist John James Audubon thought the name more fitting for folks who belittled these or any other birds as stupid (14).

Nowhere to Go but up?               

Before ending this post, I’d be remiss to at least not touch upon a couple bird nicknames that actually have evolved (or perhaps, more aptly, digressed) into sexualized expressions. For example, here in the United States, the nickname for owls has become slang for the female breasts. This appropriation is probably due to the prominence of the creatures’ eyes; however, the age-old connection between these birds and witchcraft, as a mysterious feminine power, may play an important secondary role.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the owl euphemism is relatively recent—late twentieth century—as opposed to another common one, the name for a rooster that’s synonymous with a part of the male human reproductive system. The website notes the latter word’s contextualized usage as far back as the early seventeenth century (15), as does another source, tracing it to a pun used in Shakespeare’s play The Life of King Henry the Fifth (2.1.53) (16).

The strange ways in which we identify with birds, right? At this point, what more’s to be said? With these last few looks into the offbeat connections between linguistics and our winged neighbors, this post may have delved as low as decency permits. Next week, let’s take flight from the gutter!

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 33, 48.
  2. Young, W. The Fascination of Birds: From the Albatross to the Yellowthroat. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2014. pp. 54, 68–71.
  3. Farmer, J.S. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present: C to Fizzle. Volume 2. London: Harrison and Sons, 1891. p. 178.
  4. Wells, D. pp. 25–26.
  5. Young, W. p. 34.
  6. Wells, D. p. 148.
  7. Young, W. pp. 39–40.
  8. Wells, D. pp. 37–38.
  9. Wells, D. pp. 229–230.
  10. Wells, D. p. 253.
  11. Young, W. p. 44.
  12. Young, W. p. 42.
  13. Young, W. p. 42.
  14. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. pp. 367–368.
  15. Harper, D. Online Etymology Dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com.
  16. Farmer, J.S. p. 135.