Re: [tied] Cockatrice

From: Piotr Gasiorowski
Message: 17597
Date: 2003-01-14

Looks like some kind of curse. I'll try again cutting it up into shorter paragraphs. Sorry for these repetitions.


The sense-history of this word is exceedingly curious. The Ichneumon, an Egyptian quadruped, said to devour reptiles and crocodiles' eggs (which it searches for in the sand), is called by Pliny viii. 24 (35) par.88 sq., the mortal enemy of the aspis and the crocodile.

As to the latter, he tells that when the crocodile is asleep or dozing with its jaws open, the ichneumon darts down its throat, and destroys it by gnawing through its belly; a tale originating, partly at least, in the habits of the bird trochilus, as mentioned by Herodotus and subsequent Greek writers, and repeated in many forms by later compilers.

From an early period, Western writers entertained the notion that this ichneumon was amphibious or aquatic; the immediate followers of Pliny appear to have identified it with the Otter (in Gr. enudris). Pliny's tale is repeated by Solinus (flor. c 260) Collectanea xxxii. 25 (ed. Mommsen 160), and Isidore (a 640) Orig. xii. ii. 36: in the text of Solinus known to Ammianus Marcellinus (c 400), the animal is called 'enhydros, the second kind of the ichneumons (enhydros alterum ichneumonum genus)'; while Isidore appears to make two distinct animals, the Ichneumon which 'serpentes insequitur adversus aspidem pugnat', and the Enhydros 'a little beast so called because it lives in the water, and mostly in the Nile (Enydros bestiola, ex eo vocata, quod in aquis versetur, et maxime in Nilo)'.

But the Gr. enudris was not only the otter, but also a water-snake = hydrus; and the latter was the only sense in which enhydris had been used by Pliny. Later compilers took this to be the sense of enhydrus, -os, in Solinus and Isidore, and the crocodile's enemy was now described as a 'water-snake' or 'fish'. Thus it appears in Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) De Animalibus xxv. (VII. 669) as 'hidra vel hydrus serpens omnium serpentum pulcherrimus. Apparet autem in Nilo flumine, et quum crocodilus dormit', etc., as in Pliny.

Meanwhile also the latinized name calcatrix comes into view. It is found, along with the transformed description, in the version of the story given (c 1263) by Brunetto Latini in Li Livre dou Tresor 185 (ed. Chabaille), where it is said 'then comes another fish, which is named hydrus, that is cocatris, and enters within his body (lors vient un autres poissons, qui a nom ydre, ce est cocatris [v.r. qualquetrix] et li entre dedans le cors)'; further 'and you must know that cokatrix, albeit he is born in the water, and within the Nile, he is not at all a fish, but is a water-serpent (Et sachiez que cokatrix ja soit ce qu'il naist en l'aigue, et dedans le Nile, il n'est mie peisson, ainz est serpens d'aigue)'.

It has been suggested that, in this, the ichneumon was confounded with another reputed enemy of the crocodile, the varanus, or Monitor of the Nile, which is really a reptile. The cocatris = ichneumon = enhydris = hydrus, having thus been transformed into an aquatic reptile, living in the Nile, other writers proceeded to identify it with the crocodile itself. The Bestiaire divin of Guillaume le Normand (c 1210) makes coquatrix the crocodile, and ydrus his enemy: and in the Bestiaire of Richard de Fournival (c 1250) we have 'Vous m'avez fait mention en votre requeste d'un chocatrix, qui est apelez par son droit non cocodrilles'---'you have mentioned a chocatrix, but he is called by his right name crocodile'. And in later French, as well as in other Romanic langs., 'crocodile' became, at least, one of the recognized meanings of cocatrix.

This confusion may have been helped in some instances by the fact that cocodrille, one of the commonest of the early forms of crocodile (see that word), had an initial similarity to cocatrix, and may have been taken by the ignorant as only another form of the name. In English the confusion with crocodile hardly appears, except once or twice as a literalism of translation. Here, cocatrice appears from the first as the equivalent of L. basiliscus, or regulus = basilisk. It was thus used by Trevisa in his translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum to render basiliscus, and, what was more important, by Wyclif and his followers to translate regulus (Isa. xi. 8, xiv. 29, lix. 5), and basiliscus (Ps. xc[i]. 13) of the Vulgate. In the former of these (also in Jer. viii. 17) it was retained in the 16-17th c. versions; but in the revised text of 1885, has been changed to basilisk.

The history of this further transition of sense is still obscure; but it is to be noticed that cocatrice translates F. basilicoc, and that coc is app. a connecting link. But some traditional notions of the ichneumon as the enemy of the aspis (which appeared later in the well-known statement that the only animal which could kill the basilisk was the mustela or weasel) were probably contributory, as well as the mediaeval confusion, under the name regulus, of the basilisk (rex serpentium) with the trochilus (rex avium, OF. roytelet, in mod.F. roitelet 'wren'): cf. Aldrovandi Opera (Bologna) X. 361.

Further etymological speculation, in France or England, working upon the syllable coc, coq, in basili-coc, coc-atris, probably also associating the crested basilisk with the crested bird, and mingling with it vague notions of the crocodile's eggs, buried in the sand, and producing a tiny reptile, originated the well-known notion of 'a serpent hatched by a venemous reptile from a cock's (i.e. basili-cock's or cok-adrill's) egg', embodied in the heraldic monster, half cock, half serpent. As told of the basilisk, this appears already in Albertus Magnus (who however disbelieves it), in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, etc.