Saddle up Sonny Jim, this is a long one.
When I was a child I watched a lot of PBS. This was before they had as much original content as they did. Barney hadn’t even come along yet, it was just Sesame Street, Mr Rogers and reruns of Nature. This meant they had a LOT of programming blocks to fill with whatever they could get their hands on. Fortunately for me, this meant that I got to be exposed to a huge number of obscure animated fairy tales from various parts of the world. Animated movies that couldn’t make it to theaters in the US because they were from Soviet countries or were just too cheap and bizarre. PBS got them cheap, and toddlers without cable in the 80s reaped the benefits.
One cartoon in particular remained ingrained in my memory for a long time. It was a British adaption of The Talking Parcel, a children’s book by the famed naturalist Gerald Durrell. I never read the book or knew of Durrell’s work until decades later, but the visuals and story stayed with me through childhood. The story revolves around a fairy land invaded by terrifying, dinosaurian cockatrices, and the only creatures capable of defeating them, the weasels, are crippled by their cowardice and pacifism. The only solution was to find the magic herb rue, which when consumed by the weasels gives them the courage to fight the cockatrices and also protects them from the wicked birds’ poison.
As part of my graduate research, I had the opportunity to take a class in ethnobotany. One of the first examples of ethnobotany we learned was an Indian and Sri Lankan folktale of the mongoose and the herb snakeroot. The tale went that the mongoose would dig up and devour the roots of this plant to protect and heal it from the venom of a cobra. Supposedly, ancient Indian doctors learned to use this plant by observing the mongoose. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a link between the story of a mongoose eating a “magic” plant to fight cobras and the half-remembered cartoon of a weasel eating a “magic” plant to fight cockatrices.
Indian snakeroot (Rauvolfia serpentina) is an important part of both Indian and Chinese medicine1. It contains over 500 alkaloids, only one of which (resperine) has been isolated and studied in Western medicine. While there is no proof that mongooses actually seek it out, it is used by humans as a cure for cobra venom. Likely, the story of the mongoose was created because of its importance to Indian and Sri Lankan society and its famed antagonistic relationship with the cobra. The mongoose story became a tool for teaching people which plants could be useful to them.
The people of India had very good reason for wanting to teach each generation about this plant, as the Indian subcontinent is home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world. While these snakes don’t actively hunt humans, they are drawn to where humans live. Farms and fields attract cobras who like to eat the rodents and birds drawn to the crops. Houses provide warmth and shelter for the cold-blooded creatures. Without meaning to, people often bump into or step on these cobras, who in turn instinctively react by biting. Many people die from cobra bites, and in the days before anti-venom or thick boots it happened even more often.
Mongooses may not seek out this plant, but they do fight extremely poisonous cobras and survive. Mongooses have a high tolerance to cobra venom, but exactly how tolerant they are and how their bodies deal with venom is hard to pin down in scientific literature. While they are not entirely immune they also have incredibly tough skin and fur around their vital points, making it difficult for cobras to puncture the skin. They are also incredibly fast and intelligent animals and, in one of the few non-human examples of culture, are known to teach each other new, effective methods for hunting. The fact that they are so social and clever is one of the reasons they were easy to train and domesticate.
We know the mongoose was domesticated and well-regarded in India partially because of its continued appearance as a domestic animal in early Indian fairy tales. The most famous example is the story “The Bhramin and the Mongoose” found in the Pancatantra2. The Pancatantra is a collection of animal fables and tales composed sometime around the 3rd century BCE by Vishnu Sharma. The Pancatantra traveled throughout the ancient world. Monks took it to Tibet and then from there into China, Mongolia and Southeast Asia.3 The Persian epic Shah Nama4 mentions the book’s journey from India to the Middle East, where it is described as a metaphor for a herb that grants eternal life to a corpse (the book is the herb, life is knowledge and wisdom, and the corpse is an ignorant man).
This story of “The Bhramin and the Mongoose” tells of a man who owned a pet mongoose. This mongoose was fiercely protective of its family, but the Bhramin’s wife was worried about keeping such a wild animal near their baby. One day, the husband and wife went for a walk, leaving the baby at home. A sinister cobra entered the baby’s room, and crawled towards the child, preparing to strike. Like lightning, the brave mongoose lept on the cobra, valiantly fighting it to protect its master’s child. The mongoose was victorious, and went outside to lick its wounds. At this moment, the Bhramin and his wife returned from their walk to see the mongoose leaving the baby’s room with blood on its fangs. Enraged, the Bhramin slew the mongoose, assuming it had attacked their child. Upon entering the room and seeing the remains of the cobra, he realized the truth, and wept for the death of his loyal friend. The moral of the story is to not leap to conclusions and to honor loyalty. This story would later inspire Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale Rikki Tikki Tavi.
The Arab translations of the book spread to Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries. As it passed through countries were deadly cobras and well-regarded mongooses were common, such as Egypt, the story was unchanged. However, once it reached central Europe, “mongoose” was usually localized as “dog.” This was likely done because the idea of a domesticated mongoose or weasel that showed unwavering loyalty would be completely alien to European audiences. The role of a protector pet in European culture was almost exclusively the domain of the canine. The now mongoose-free version of the tale became the basis for the legend of “Llewellyn and Gelert” in Wales5 and “St Guinefort” in France. In fact, St Guinefort became so popular that the church declared the idea of a dog being sainted as heresy in the 13th century and banned the story.6 From this sequence of translations, we can see which animals were important domestically to different cultures. What was a mongoose in India and a hound in Wales may become a cat or ferret in Persia.
It is important to note that snakeroot has another name in parts of India. It is called “pagal-ka-dawa” or “insanity cure.” It gets this name from its use as a traditional cure for insanity, anxiety and insomnia.7 However, the plant has a dark side. At high doses snakeroot can cause depression as well as suicidal thoughts. It is a plant that must be taken in moderation and respected. While snakeroot only grows in India and China, it became known to the Greeks after the invasion of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s general Ptolmy I Soter had been struck by a poisoned arrow. Alexander himself saved Ptomy’s life by applying the snakeroot herb8 (which we can presume he had learned about during his campaign).
Egypt often served as the entry point to Greece and Rome for the rest of the ancient world. Weilue9, a 3rd century account of Chinese traders visiting Rome recently translated into English by the University of Washington, describes the journey from China to Egypt taking at least 2 months in favorable conditions and the journey from Egypt to Rome taking a mere six days. It also describes the sea route, leaving from Vietnam or India and sailing up to Egypt. Either way, anyone heading to Rome from Asia had to stop in Egypt first. People brought stories and descriptions of their part of the world with them, and these stories mixed. When the Greek naturalist Pliny the Elder set about writing his Natural History in the 1st century CE, he collected stories of various animals from travelers visiting Egypt and North Africa. From these stories of mongooses and cobras, two specific entries in Natural History arose that would separate and come back together centuries later.
In his entry of the catoblepas, a monstrous animal that kills whatever it sees but with a head too heavy to lift and see much, Pliny describes the basilisk or “little king”:“There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of diadem. When it hisses, all the other serpents fly from it: and it does not advance its body, like the others, by a succession of folds, but moves along upright and erect upon the middle. It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well. … so true is it that it has pleased Nature that there should be nothing without its antidote. The animal is thrown into the hole of the basilisk, which easily known from the soil around it being infected. The weasel destroys the basilisk by its odour, but dies itself in this struggle of nature against its own self.”10
How can we know that this basilisk is a reference to the cobra and not a complete invention of Pliny? There are a few clues. The most venomous snake in Egypt are the Egyptian Cobra (Naja haje) and the Spitting Cobra (Naja nigricollis). Cobras were a important part of Egyptian iconography, appearing on the crowns of Pharaohs as the uraenus and representing royalty.11 In addition, the spitting cobra is famous for its being able to kill at a great range. Spitting cobras are capable of launching their venom by contracting the muscles near their venom glands. These contractions squeeze the venom out through holes at the tips of their fangs at great speed, allowing them to strike a target up to 2 meters away. They primarily feed on small rodents, so this spitting is mostly a defense against larger predators, who usually get a blast directly into the eyes. If the venom successfully gets into its targets eyes, it is easily absorbed into the bloodstream. While not always deadly, it is always painful. Spitting cobra venom is both neurotic and cytotoxic, meaning that it attacks both the nervous system as well as the body’s cells. A victim can look forward to paralysis as well as the body falling apart. In other words, meeting the gaze of this snake could end in petrification or death via the victim’s own eyes.
There is also evidence that the basilisk is based on a combination of Egyptian and Indian cobras. The white “diadem” markings described on the basilisk in Pliny’s writings and contemporary drawings are not found on any African cobras. It may be a reference to the aforementioned Egyptian crowns, but those specific markings are also found on the Indian Spectacled Cobra (Naja tripudions). In addition, there are several other attributes of the basilisk that are shared by the world’s most venomous snake, the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah). The venom of the king cobra is strong enough to kill an elephant with a single bite. The king cobra’s latin name means “snake eater” and the basilisk is described as eating all other serpents or driving them away by roaring. When provoked or confronted, the cobra will try to escape, but if it can’t it will hiss loudly and adopts its iconic, upright defensive posture.12 This defensive posture allows the cobra to raise about a third of itself into the air and is unique to the cobra and the basilisk. No other snake is able to raise itself up that high. The hiss of the king cobra is also unique, for it has a much lower pitch than other snakes, closer in frequency to a human voice, and is often described as a growl.13 It appears that the Greek basilisk is an exaggerated amalgamation of many different snakes from India to Egypt.
The basilisk retains its furry enemy, but unlike the cobra’s mongoose, the Greek basilisk’s enemy is the common weasel. The mongoose was just as important in Egypt as India, as both cultures respected anything that could protect it from vermin and venomous serpents at the same time. Just as in India, the mongoose appears as a valiant figure in Egyptian storytelling. In mythology, Ra would turn into a great mongoose while it battled the evil serpent Apep. While mongooses were domesticated in Egypt, they were not found anywhere in Greece and Rome. Romans eventually domesticated polecats and created the modern ferret, but the basilisk’s ancient enemy is specifically named as a wild weasel rather than a domesticated ferret. While superficially similar to the mongoose, the weasel is closer related to bears and dogs than it is to mongooses (which in turn are closer related to cats and hyenas).
In regards to small burrowing mammals, cultures tend to have many words and descriptions only of the ones that are important economically or culturally, and all others get lumped together. This can be seen even in the evolution of the Sanskrit language, where the Sanskrit word for “mole” would become the basis for either “mole,” “badger,” “weasel,” “mongoose” or other burrowing mammals in other languages depending on the culture.14 Languages in India have multiple words for mongoose because they are culturally important, but don’t often distinguish between the different species of badgers and ratels found in India because they are not considered important. This is true for how most cultures talk about the natural world around them, but it can change over time. For example, the legends and stories of the medieval Wales, England and Scotland used to differentiate between multiple kinds of weasel, stoat, ermine, ferret and polecat depending on the species use economically or its role as a perceived pest or vermin. However, a modern survey conducted in the UK showed that only 3.8% of rural schoolchildren could differentiate a polecat from a weasel.15
With no mongooses to be seen, it makes sense that the Greeks would simply substitute in a better known small, burrowing mammal. But while the mongoose was honored in Egypt and India, the weasel enjoyed no such reputation in Greece. In the earliest Greek tales, the first weasel was a scorned bride transformed into a bitter little creature that brings bad luck. In his Metamorphosis, the poet Ovid gave the weasel a more noble origin. In his story, the first weasel was actually Galanthis, the women who helped with the birth of Herakles (later Hercules)16. She overheard and deduced Hera’s plans to prevent Herakles’ birth and kill the future hero. Hera was jealous that Zeus had cheated on her again (Zeus, king of the gods, was not a very good husband) and used her position as goddess of family, marriage and the home to stop Herakles’ mother Alcyme from giving birth. Galanthis lied to Hera, saying that the birth had gone perfectly, so that in confusion Hera let go of her control over Alcyme’s body to investigate. This allowed Herakles time to be born. Furious at her deception, Hera cursed her lying mouth and her clever ears, and Galanthis became a weasel, a creature the Greeks believed gave birth through its mouth and ears.
No one is quite sure where the copulation thing came from. It may be that ancient Greeks were describing a weasel mother carrying kits in her mouth as she moved them to a new burrow. Maybe it was just an inventive curse from the goddess of the womb. But it does show that while the mongoose was never part of the Greek storytelling tradition, the weasel was known to them both as figure of misfortune as well as sympathy.17
However, it wasn’t known to be a great fighter of serpents like the mongoose. So the noble, familiar mongoose of the Indian legend becomes the scrawny, meek and odious weasel known to the Greeks. Pliny also notes that the weasel cures itself from mousebite18 with the medical herb “rue.” That’s right, Pliny’s weasel is so pathetic a fighter it needs a magic plant to save it from mice. Rue (Ruta graveolens) was used in European medicine for centuries, but not as a snakebite remedy. It was a powerful, toxic herb that in small doses could be used for treating a variety of conditions such as headaches, cramps and insomnia.19 It could also induce abortions or commit murder. In a culture without snakeroot, common rue may have been the closest “magic herb” that fit the description of a double-edged medical treatment.
But if the weasel needed such powerful magic to defeat mere mice, how could it stand against the basilisk, the king of all snakes itself? Pliny gave it a secret weapon, its foul odor. Weasels are mustelids, a family that includes badgers, wolverines and skunks. All mustelids have scent glands that they use to mark territory and defend against predators. While not as powerful as their skunk cousins, weasels can still release a pungent musk that most people find unpleasant. In Pliny’s tale, the basilisk’s breath and the weasel’s odor cancel each other out and both animals die in an example of a natural antidote to a natural problem. Pliny’s specific phrasing of this as “nature against its own self” would end up becoming very important later on.
That explains the creation of the basilisk, but that is only half of what Pliny set in motion. The second story Pliny recorded was that of the “Ichneumon”20 which Aristotle later called “Pharoah’s rat.” This fantastical mongoose is described as protecting nobility (another reference to the Egyptians domesticating mongooses) and, in one of Pliny’s most interesting inventions, hunting crocodiles. The crocodile opens its mouth so that the symbiotic trochilus bird can remove bits of food and parasites from its teeth. Pliny posits that when the ichneumon sees this, it takes the opportunity to dive into the crocodile’s mouth and devour it from the inside out. Ichneumon became notoriously difficult for later Greek, Roman and Medieval writers to translate. Solinus translated it as “enhydrus” or “otter” which makes sense as it is a mongoose-esque animal found by the water. However, “enhydrus” can also mean “water snake” which significantly complicated the issue. In later bestiaries, the ichneumon or hydrus could be anything from a mongoose/weasel to a snake, dragon or even fish. Sometimes it was the trochilus bird, pretending to be the crocodile’s ally only to dash in and devour it from the inside. On at least one occasion, it even became the crocodile itself, through a combination of confusing translations of reptile names and misunderstanding Pliny’s description of “nature against it ownself.”
When bestiaries exploded in popularity in the 13th century, artists and writers began transcribing the earlier work of Greek naturalists and adding in their own fables, parables and tales to go along with each entry. The poor Greek weasel with its cursed ears and mouth now became a metaphor for those who hear and speak the word of God without actually understanding or believing it.21 The basilisk went from a snake with a crown-like marking and a reputation as “king of snakes” to a bizarre reptile wearing a literal crown that could be anything from a serpent to a lizard to a dragon.
The weasel’s newfound popularity in the bestiaries actually worked in its favor, it was no longer simply killing though its noxious odor, but through its valiant biting.22 Rue was no longer just to cure it from tiny mouse bites, but from wounds suffered in battles with dragons. In Ireland, weasels and stoats were intelligent animals with their own societies, families and cultures often described in satirical tales and drawings.
In Wales the weasel’s noxious odor, capable of killing a basilisk, merged with the story of the basilisk itself. Gerald of Wales’ 12th century book Travels Through Wales collected several traditional Welsh folk and fairy tales including one about the weasel that takes on basilisk traits such as raising itself up and spitting poison:“In our time, a person residing at the castle of Penbroch, found a brood of young weasels concealed with a fleece in his dwelling house, which he carefully removed and hid. The mother, irritated at the loss of her young, which she had searched for in vain, went to a vessel of milk that had been set aside for the use of the master’s son, and raising herself up, polluted it with her deadly poison; thus revenging as it were, the loss of her young, by the destruction of the child. The man, observing what passed, carried the fleece back to its former place; when the weasel, agitated by the maternal solicitude, between hope and fear, on finding her young, began to testify her joy by her cries and actions, and returning quickly to the vessel, overthrew it; thus, in gratitude for the recovery of her own offspring, saving that of her host from danger. In another place, an animal of the same species had brought out her young into a plain for the enjoyment of the sun and air; when an insidious kite carried off one of them. Concealing herself with the remainder behind some shrubs, grief suggested to her a stratagem of exquisite revenge; she extended herself on a heap of earth, as if dead, within sight of the plunderer, and (as success always increases avidity) the bird immediately seized her and flew away, but soon fell down dead by the bite of the poisonous animal.”23
Around the same time, we see the emergence of a new monster, the cockatrice. This creature first appeared as we know it in Brunetto Latini’s Li libres do tresor in 1262. It is essentially the same story as Pliny’s ichneumon legend, only the role of the crocodile is now a chicken-headed serpent or dragon. How did this happen? In 1869 etymologist Thor Sundby proposed a theory that the name “cockatrice” came from translating the Greek “ichneumon” or “to track” first into Latin (qualquetrix) and then into old French (cocatris).24 This would make sense, as the ichneumon/crocodile had occasionally merged into the same creature as an example of a creature “against its ownself.” However, later etymologists showed that even if correct, it is far from the only origin. “Crocodile” or the Latin “cocodrilus” had appeared in earlier bestiaries and even in the earlier work of Latini written as “cocadrille,” “coquatrilles” and others. In this theory, cockatrice was simply a corruption of crocodile. But in any case, how did it end up with a chicken head?
One possible theory is that Pliny’s description of the crocodile and the trochilus bird became merged into one creature that was both a reptile and a bird. It may also have resulted from the similarity of the word “cockatrice” to “cock.” French artists who had never seen a crocodile might just embellish the creature with rooster characteristics as a kind of visual pun. It may also be that the basilisk and ichneumon legends were already slowly beginning to converge. Just as the crown-like markings were redrawn as a literal crown, later artists may have then drawn that crown as a crest or rooster’s comb, and then added more and more chicken-like details. Due to how suddenly and quickly the iconic cockatrice image spread throughout Europe, all these theories may be true. Artists and writers repeated and built on the “mistakes” of their contemporaries until a single, culturally agreed upon model emerged.
Neckham’s De naturis rerum (1180) added in a tale of another chicken-like monster from Eastern Europe, the Aitvaras.25 Aitvaras are demonic chickens that appear in fairy tales as ironic wish-granters. If you ask for money, you will get it, but it might be your neighbors’ or stolen from someone with an army or it might be the inheritance left to you by someone you love who the monster kills. The aspect of the aitvaras that was incorporated into the new cockatrice legend was its birth. It required a rooster to lay an egg or for a hen’s egg to be hatched by a toad over several decades.
The basilisk and ichneumon legends finally reconnected fully in 1382 when “cockatrice” was used as a translation for “basiliscus” in the series of Wyclif Bibles.26 It also appeared as a “basilicock” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.27 This would lead to the hight of the cockatrice’s popularity, especially in the UK. Cockatrices were found in heraldry as well as used as metaphors for chemical reactions in alchemy texts. The Ouroboros, a dragon eating its own tail that would become famous for helping give August Kekule the idea for benzene’s atomic structure, became almost exclusively a cockatrice for a time. As the cockatrice grew in power, the weasel’s waned. Weasels and rue were no longer the ultimate method of killing a cockatrice, and eventually disappeared all together, only remembered by folklorists and naturalists who knew the original Greek books.
In one fairy tale from Hampshire, the town of Wherwell was terrorized by a cockatrice until it was imprisoned in a dungeon below Wherwell Priory. A prize of land was offered to anyone who could kill the creature, but non were successful until a man named Green lowered a mirror into the dungeon. The monster battled its own reflection until it exhausted itself. Green’s Acres is an area of land in Wherwell today,28 and the church of St Peter and Holy Cross in Wherwell had a weather vane shaped as a cockatrice. This is similar to a slightly earlier fairy tale of a man killing a basilisk in Warsaw with mirrors. The addition of the mirror may be based on the repeated mistranslations of Pliny’s “nature defeats itself” line or it may just be the logical weapon against a creature that poisons with its gaze. In any event, the appearance of reflections as a method of killing the monster may have linked the cockatrice to another monster who killed with her gaze, Medusa. As this link developed, the poisonous gaze of the basilisk/cockatrice transformed into the petrifying gaze found in the Gorgon. This use of transmutation made it even more popular with early chemists as a scientific metaphor or unofficial mascot of early chemistry itself.29
However, this popularity would be short-lived, as the European imagination moved on to new dragons and the cockatrice would be demoted from inspiring dragon to obscure chicken-thing.30 It was unceremoniously stripped from the bible and replaced with “asp” or “serpent.” Its role in fairy tales was replaced by new monsters. Elsewhere in Europe its appearance remained in mild circulation, becoming the symbol for the Swiss city Basel or cast in German statues being slain by heroes, where it represents Swedish Occupation and Protestant heresy, but it would never again reach the heights of its fame. Occasionally it would appear in literature such as Shakespeare or Dickens as metaphors for evil gazes or, more commonly, as an obscure word for serpent. For the next few centuries it only appears in English scholarly literature when someone set about trying to figure out just what the deal was with Shakespeare bringing it up in Richard III or where its name came from.
The 20th century saw the return of the cockatrice to fantasy and fairy story canon due to its appearance in children’s literature such as the aforementioned novel of Durrell. Perhaps just as vitally, it was drafted along with a number of mythological and fairy tale monsters as the common enemies in various tabletop and eventually video role-playing games. Audiences and players became familiar with them because their name or appearance would mean that they were facing an enemy that could kill or petrify their player character easily, but could be easily defeated otherwise. An ignoble end for the creature, stripped of its context and stories and reduced to a simple, binary puzzle to be solved and forgotten by players, but at the very least it kept the character in the public imagination.
From a fable designed to teach botanical medicine to a sinister but disposable chicken-monster, we can follow the trail of this story and see just how hard it is to get rid of an idea. A shared and unexpected link between a French sainted dog, an Egyptian sun god, a magic plant, a German war, a scientific discovery, an Indian fairy tale, a pixelated Final Fantasy monster, and a British cartoon aired on PBS in the late 80s. While almost nothing remains of the original story in its modern construction, the cockatrice perhaps still has value as a symbol for how cultures translate and mutate ideas. Just as people transformed in the cockatrice’s gaze, stories change under our own gaze.
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