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The Basilisk Or Cockatrice And Centaur

( Originally Published 1913 )

THE mediaeval ideas about the basilisk or cockatrice are so curious and exaggerated, that we are constrained to place it in our list of fabulous and mythical animals ; though in reality it is only a harmless lizard, which can blow up its conical crest with wind.

The cockatrice is sometimes mentioned in our Authorised Version of the Bible, with an adder generally as the alternative translation (cp. Jer. viii. 17, Prov. xxiii_ 32 (margin), Is. xi. 8, lit. 5, xiv. 29). The Revised Version uses the word basilisk either in the text or margin of these passages. The chief characteristic of the basilisk or cockatrice in the Bible is its bite or sting, but there is not much in the Bible to give encouragement to the strong imagination of the Bestiaries. This little lizard is held to be the king of serpents, hence its name. The wart or hood on its head was thought to resemble a crown. In the thirteenth century Bestiary at the British Museum (Hari. 4751) the basilisk is depicted crowned, and serpents are coming to do homage, or else it may be starting up in fear.

The way the basilisk comes into the world is as follows. When a cock is seven years old it will find itself one day in the greatest agony, because it is about to lay an egg. The cock seeks some place to secrete the egg in, but a toad anxiously watches the proceedings. When the cock has laid the egg, the toad comes and sits upon it until it is hatched. The resulting creature has the head of a cock and the body of a reptile. It is a deadly animal. It will go and hide in a crevice or an old cistern, so that no one can see it. For it is of such a character that if it is seen by a man before it can see him itself, the cockatrice must die, and vice versa.

In the event of the cockatrice getting the all-important first look, it will dart venom from its eyes, deadly enough to kill any living creature. The touch of a cockatrice will deprive any tree of the power of bearing fruit way has been discovered in which its venom can be rendered powerless. Since the game of " I spy " would be one in which the advantage would be all on the side of the serpent, the hunter must equip himself with a crystal vase, and hold it in front of his face.

In this way the venom is thrown back upon the cockatrice, which succumbs to its own poison. This serpent has great beauty of form and colour, and his symbolism is bad, for as these sage old moralists affirmed, beauty is often associated with badness.

The symbolism is as follows. The cockatrice is the devil, who has been the enemy of man for thousands of years, and has constantly been poisoning him. The Son of the King was sorry that everybody was being killed, so he determined that the beast should be rendered harmless. The King, therefore, placed His Son in a vessel of the purest Crystal, i.e., in the body of the blessed Virgin Marv.

When the cockatrice looked on the vessel which contained the Son of God, it could do no more evil. When the Son was laid in the sepulchre, He took out of the pit all the victims of the cockatrice which had been thrown there, so despoiling hell of its tenants.

Mr. E. P. Evans gives two illustrations of a cockatrice from capitals in the Abbey of Vézelai. In one case it has a cock's head and wings, with the tail and forepart of a dragon. In the other case it. has a dragon's head instead of a cock's. In these cases either a man or a sphinx is holding the crystal vase as a form of self-protection.

It is also represented in a Flemish Bestiary of the thirteenth century in the British Museum.

In Greek classics the centaur is a creature compounded half of a man and half of a horse. It was descended from Ixion and Nephele, and symbolic of all forms of sensuality. Virgil in his AEneid writes of centaurs at the gates of hell. Dante places them in the Inferno. He describes them as armed with darts, with which they shoot at violent men who are condemned to be in a river of boiling blood.

When Isaiah in xiii. 21 says that satyrs or he-goats (Revised Version, margin) shall dance in the desolation of Babylon, he was interpreted by medieval zoologists as meaning the centaur. The sagittarius, or centaur, with bow and arrow, is one of the signs of the Zodiac.

One of the principal stories told about the centaur or sagittarius is that it makes war upon certain savage men in the deserts of India. These savages have a horn in the middle of their foreheads, and are naked, except when one of them has killed a lion, then he will wear the skin. They live in trees on account of their many enemies.

The war between the sag-Manus and the savage man is symbolic of the war between the spirit and the flesh. The savage who lives in the trees signifies the peaceable Christian who loves His Creator, and when he fights with the lion he signifies the man who battles with the flesh and overcomes.

In the Hereford mappa mundi we see a bearded centaur holding a snake in his arms, which presumably he has destroyed. The inscription is " Fauni semicaballi homines."

On the Norman tympanum at Kencott, Oxon, the centaur is shooting an arrow into the mouth of a huge dragon-like beast, of which only the head is seen. This example is inscribed " Sagittarius."

At Iffley a sagittarius tramples on a lion it has killed ; and another, a female, is shown suckling its young. Both these are on the late Norman south door. On the font at Hook Norton, Oxon, the sagittarius is depicted driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. This also is inscribed like the tympanum at Kencott.

At West Rounton, on the Norman font a sagittarius is shooting a man at short range, while on the Norman font at Luppitt, Devon, a centaur with spear and foliated tail can be made out. We illustrate two very interesting examples of the Centaur from Gloucestershire. On a jamb of the Norman chancel arch at Beckford he can be seen with a spear up-right in front of him. His hand is upraised, and he has a spotted body and curiously dressed hair. Under the eaves of Elkstone a Sagittarius has just discharged his arrow at, and missed, an eagle. These two corbels are obviously connected ; though any such connection is the exception rather than the rule.

Mr. Francis Bond mentions that the centaur's prey, the savage man or " Woodhouse," is represented together with lions round the pedestals of East Anglian fonts.

On the pedestal of the fine fifteenth century font of Saxmundham he is a hairy savage with a club, and he stands next to a lion. On the top of this font are angels bearing the symbols of the Passion, alternately with the evangelistic symbols, but no sign is to be seen of a centaur.

Symbolism of Animals & Birds In English Architecture:
Sources Of Animal Symbolism

The Ape, Ass, Beaver, Bear, Boar, Camel, Dog, Elephant

The Fox, The Goat, The Hart And Antelope, The Hyena

The Hedgehog, The Lamb, The Lion

The Ox, Pig, Panther, Salamander

The Sheep, Tiger, Whale And Fish, Wolf

The Charadrius, Cock And Hen, Dove

The Eagle, Goose, Peacock, Pelican, Raven

The Basilisk Or Cockatrice And Centaur

The Dragon Or Serpent

Read More Articles About: Symbolism of Animals & Birds In English Architecture

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