Killer Eyes : the legend of the cockatrice

Once upon a time, a duck laid an egg.

While most ducks choose a nice pile of straw in some homely duck pen, this one chose the damp and draughty cellars of Wherwell Abbey, a monastery of some substance in the wilds of Hampshire.

Those wandering newsmen may have embroidered the tale a little. For duck, someone at some point substituted a cock’s egg. It added a suitably unnatural backdrop for what was to follow.

Anyhow, the egg was not incubated by anything with feathers. No: it was reputedly a toad which took on this duty of care, incubating it for the 28 necessary days, down there in the damp green-and-grey subterranean gloom.

No one relates what happened to the toad when the egg hatched. I don’t hold out much hope for it, myself.

Because what came out was a cockatrice.

The description of a cockatrice sounds like a joke. Two legs, a serpent’s body and a rooster’s head. But peasants in the village of Wherwell laughed like drains, right up to the moment it stared them to death,ย sco0ped them up and took them back to its lair for supper.

The ability to kill with a look: it’s there in our proverbs and our folklore. “Oooh, ” we chorused when someone crossed Margaret Thatcher on camera, “if looks could kill!”

Only a few decades after this incident, John Donne was weaving his arduous pentameter round the eye-beam:

“Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread /Our eyes upon one double string.”

Shakespeare has similar allusions. They refer to a stream of energy emitted from the eye which held the power to change. “So sweet a kiss,” runs a set of lyrics he wrote in The Lover’s Tears, “the golden sun gives not to those fresh morning drops upon the rose/ As thy eye-beams, when their fresh rays have smote the night of dew that on my cheeks down flows…”

The eye-beam was a powerful instrument, and the cockatrice had one which could prove fatal.

So: the cockatrice emerged from the cellar on a regular basis to select dinner. Lives were lost, and the villagers would not stand for it. In traditional fairy tale style, they got together and stumped up a bounty to slap on the cockatrice’s beaked head.

Cash was in short supply, but land was a possibility. The terrified villagers offered four acres of land to whoever could rid them of this nightmarish duck-spawn.

At which point a Mr Green came forward.

He was a servant with an ingenious idea. He got a piece of metal and polished it, burnished it, so highly that it offered a serviceable reflection.

And gingerly, in fear and trembling, he lowered it into the cellar which was the cockatrice’s lair.

Whereupon the cockatrice behaved much like the caged budgerigars of today: he began to head butt his reflection, attacking the other cockatrice which had come through the looking glass to invade his territory.

For what seemed like endless days, the people-slaying stopped; but great howls could be heard from the cellar as the cockatrice attacked again and again. Mothers clung to their children, and mens’ hands were constantly on the rude weaponry which would prove paltry if ever the beast came their way.

But eventually, exhausted, it fell to the ground, And Mr Green nipped in with a spear and finished him off. His four acres are called Green’s Acres to this day: and for many years the local church had a weather vane in the shape of a cockatrice.

It is said as late as the 1930s, villagers in Wherwell were not overly fond of duck’s eggs.

I’m not really surprised.


57 thoughts on “Killer Eyes : the legend of the cockatrice

  1. Wives learn “the look” too. Luckily there can be no cockatrices in Hawaii because there are no snakes here. But I will look askance at any duck eggs I see in the future ๐Ÿ™‚ Great story.

      1. We do have toads here. Big ones. So I will keep a watchful eye on them ๐Ÿ™‚
        I can say for sure it IS a long way away. This past June we flew to London, and the flight time alone is about 18 hours in the air, not including stopovers and changing planes. But you would love it. It’s even bright and cheerful in the rain. And to the surprise of many, visitors can take advantage of some very reasonable flight/hotel packages that the Hawaii Visitors Bureau offers. Sometimes I think it’s cheaper to visit than to live here ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I have been told, although I don’t readily claim it, that I have the power of that look! And I had no idea where the “special talent” came from! What a very interesting tale. You have an amazing ability to ferret out these gems and they are just the best, Kate!

  3. Speccy and I were talking about you on Saturday night, both saying how much we love coming her and admiring and enjoying the tales you come up with.
    Hope you’ve gone all red.

    1. Hi Tinman ๐Ÿ˜€ I might be a bit crimson-ish round the edges…we all collect something. This stuff is just what I collect. And it wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t friends to share it with.

  4. I had a pocket monster toy of the cockatrice when I grew up – should be here somewhere in a box. Kept us busy for hours ๐Ÿ™‚ My vampire is better than your behemoth – but the harpy will eat your frankenstein – oh no I have the manticore who”l eat your ghoul- and so it went. If looks could really kill…

      1. Yes! It was a collection, called pocket monsters. They hit the shops where I grew up in the early 90s. You got a monster and a trading card in each packet – you never knew what you got until you opened it and then traded with your friends. My brother and I were at it until we collected all 48, was it? Then they started series 2 and 3 and my mom said NO! Fair enough – and so I started on the smurfs, he he.

      1. A lot of mythical creatures have had their “lifespans” expanded by fantasy games and the like. They make great adversaries for player characters.

  5. I’ve never heard of a cockatrice until now, Kate, so I Googled it to see what it looks like. Quite a nasty one, but you’d have to be insane to taunt that. The villagers that did were definitely suffering dimbulb-itis.

  6. Love it – with extra reason! There seem to be a number of versions of this little beastie. One of them I can’t help quoting is repeated in a book by … me! From ‘Forest Circle Quest’:

    โ€˜All I remember was that the Basilisk is the King of Serpents.โ€™
    Trisha nodded. โ€˜Thatโ€™s one version. A very large crowned snake.โ€™ Pent nodded. โ€˜Another is that he is a sort of wyvern, with two legs and a cockโ€™s head.โ€™ Pent shook his head vehemently. โ€˜The headline, though, is that he kills by simply looking at you.โ€™ Pent nodded again, very definitely.
    From what she went on to relate, it appeared that a basilisk, or cockatrice as it also seemed to be known, was inclined to have a difficult time coming into the world. Not only did it have to be born from the egg of a cock, but there also needed to be toads or snakes kind enough to hatch it.
    โ€˜That cock would have to have had an โ€œIโ€™d-hen-tityโ€ crisis,โ€™ Val giggled. โ€˜Canโ€™t you imagine it going cockeyed, and then saying, โ€œCock-a-doodle-cluck!โ€ and laying it?โ€™

    By the way, Sir Pent is a Knight Adder who has addered himself to the protagonists, Sir Val and Sir Trisha (she is also a ‘Sir’ and most insistent about it!).

  7. Some strange beasts indeed populate the legends of your small island nation.

    Perhaps they arrive from elsewhere and are stranded, adapting to the English sense of history and irony?

  8. My experience of Budgies is that they very quickly realize that the mirror is but a piece of plastic and glass (if they’re lucky) and return to harrassing their human friends for something more stimulating ๐Ÿ™‚

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