Hey, you know, it’s Friday night, I’m stuck in the middle of a storm way out in the boonies, the power keeps flicking on and off, lightning swift death is approaching, so why shouldn’t my possible last act on this earth be a summary of the cockatrice?
If I die, put an Allen and Greenough’s in my hand so hell knows a classicist is coming.
The short version is this: the cockatrice is a monster that is part chicken, part dragon, and that has the ability to turn anyone who looks at it into stone.
It looks like this, depicted fighting its natural enemy, the weasel:
The long version is I have to tell you about three different monsters.
The first is the ichneumon. Here is a picture of a similar creature called the hydrus (the pinkish one) in the act of killing what I think is actually supposed to be a crocodile:
The ichneumon was a creature like a mongoose or otter, which lived near water and which was the natural enemy of dragons, crocodiles, and asps. It had two different methods of killing such beasts:
1) it would cake itself with mud that it would let dry and harden in the sun, which would become like armor. It would then attack the dragon, going for its throat.
2) as depicted in the above illustration, it waits until the crocodile opens its mouth wide for the trochilus bird to clean out its death, then jumps down the crocodile’s throat and gnaws its way out from its belly (kind of like in the climactic scene of Sharknado).
What does this have to do with a chicken dragon? Well, not much, except that the name ichneumon comes from a Greek word meaning “tracker,” which was translated into the medieval Latin word calcatrix, which became Old French cocatris, which became English cockatrice.
Somewhere along the way, the cockatrice becomes conflated with our second creature, the basilisk.
The basilisk is depicted in a lot of different ways, but here’s a really goofy one from Wikipedia:
The name basilisk comes from the Greek word βασιλίσκος, meaning “little king,” which in Latin is regulus. It is so named because of the little crown on its head, like you can see above.
He was the King of All Snakes and could kill you with a glance or a whiff of his poisonous breath. You might remember the basilisk that lived under the bathroom in Harry Potter. It did not look like that picture.
Its natural enemy is the weasel, who can kill a basilisk with the smell of its urine. A weasel will pee down a basilisk’s den, and the odor will kill both the basilisk and the weasel. This was also not in the Harry Potter movie.
Anyway, thanks to someone translating basilisk as cockatrice in the 14th century, the two creatures are often conflated or confused, to the extent that basilisks are often drawn as chicken beasts rather than a snake with a little hat, like in this baller statue in Munich:
Basilisks and cockatrices can both be killed by the crowing of a rooster, and so people legit carried around roosters if they thought they might run into a basilisk or cockatrice.
They can also be killed by the reflection of their own death stare, as depicted in Dr McNinja, and in the story of Schönlaterngasse in Vienna:
The main difference between basilisks is in their birth: the cockatrice is born from a chicken egg hatched by a toad or snake, while the basilisk is born from a snake or toad egg hatched by a rooster.
The bit that seems to be unique to the cockatrice is that they can be born from cock eggs, which are yolkless eggs that were believed to have been laid by roosters. If a rooster laid an egg on your farm, to prevent a cockatrice from being born, you had to throw the egg all the way over the top of your house without hitting the roof.
And there we go. I wrote this whole thing and didn’t even die. Happy Friday.