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The Cock – Favourite of the Gods


The central role the cock plays in folklore and myths worldwide is because of its loud crowing, its proud strutting, its aggressiveness, and its sexual ardour. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, praises the virtues of this bird in the highest terms: ‘They have a knowledge of the stars and mark out each three-hour interval during the day with song, go to sleep at sunset, and in the fourth watch of the night, recall us to our duties and toil. They prevent the sunrise from creeping up on us unnoticed and announce the arrival of the day with song’.210 

In all cultures, malevolent forces and the appearance of spirits were considered particularly active at night, hence, they were known as the powers of darkness. Therefore, the cock’s crowing at dawn, heralding daybreak, was seen as a welcome indication that these forces had been dispelled. Eventually, the belief arose that the bird was effective in exorcising evil, frightening away devils, warding off ghosts, and scaring away dangerous animals. 

Early Christians divided the night into four watches called the evening, midnight, cock crowing, and morning watch. It was tradition among common people – when class distinction in society was unquestionably accepted – to believe that, at cockcrow, all demons, spirits, and witches, abounding during the darkness of night, disappeared. This is why in country villages, where the way of life required an early start to the day’s labours, inhabitants cheerfully went to work at cockcrow. Shakespeare reiterates this belief in Hamlet when the ghost of Hamlet’s father suddenly disappears at cockcrow: ‘It faded on the crowing of the cock. [...] And then they say no spirit can walk abroad, [...] no fairy takes, nor witch has power to charm’.211 

The proud fearless strutting of the cock made him the symbol of dauntless courage, the protector of the weak, especially women and children. Not only did the bird hail the rising sun, but he also possessed a crimson comb that symbolised the fiery-pointed beams of the sun. Therefore, the cock was regarded as doubly sacred to the sun. Linked with the rising sun, the cock’s image in ancient times assured protection from the sun-god, whereas the cock’s crowing was seen as a hymn of praise to this deity. This is why in mythologies around the world, the cock performed the function of trumpeter to sun deities of practically all nations. 

With the expansion of the Persian Empire, the sacred standing of the cock spread to Greece, where it was dedicated to the sun-god Apollo. In Scandinavian mythology, the function of the vigilant golden cock Vithafmir, also known as Gullinkambi or ‘goldcomb’, sitting on the ash tree Yggdrasil, was to guard against all evil. The Chinese believe that it is the cock’s function to awaken the golden sun, which dispels darkness and disperses the evil spirits of the night. According to Islamic legend, a giant cock occupies the first heaven. When it ceases to crow, the Day of Judgment will be at hand. 

To Christians, the cock’s crowing represented alertness to temptation and vigilance to the devil’s wiles. This is why cocks were placed on church towers – the vanes atop steeples made in the form of a cock reminding the faithful to be watchful. It was once firmly believed that on the Day of Judgment, all cockerels, even those made of wood and iron, would crow to wake the dead and the living. 

Throughout the ages, in most cultures, the cock has been a chief sacrificial creature, its blood also used in magical rites and for casting spells. The Romans believed the bird to be especially favoured by the gods, hence, not only suitable for sacrifice, but also for divination. Pliny the Elder tells us that ‘cocks hold very great power over the government of the world, being thanks to their entrails and innards, as acceptable to the gods as the most costly victims’.212 In ancient Mexico, these birds were sacrificed to the sun. Similarly, cocks were sacrificed by the Arabs and are still used in various magic rituals among African and Pacific Island tribes. As guardians against all evil entities, these birds were buried under the foundations of buildings, dykes, and bridges in Europe, replacing the original human sacrifices offered to the appropriate deities.

In European countries, the black cock was eyed with great superstition and fear. It was generally thought to be linked to evil forces, which is why its blood was extensively used for magical incantations and sacrifice to the devil. Demons and the souls of the damned were believed to inhabit black cocks, and most witches in England and on the Continent were believed to have such a bird besides the traditional black cat. It is interesting to note that the association of black with evil forces is specifically Christian, as the colour was regarded as sacred by many pagan peoples. In Africa for instance, black was a revered colour and sacrifices to the moon-goddess always constituted black animals. Similarly, in Greek lore, black was one of the three most sacred colours, dedicated to the moon-goddess. 

Curiously, the blood of cocks is not only linked to sacrifice and magic, but was also used in folk remedies to heal the sick. In Europe, a possible connection of the cock with the healing arts might be explained through its association with Apollo, who in Greek mythology was connected with the healing arts. However, this does not clarify why the bird was generally used in so many cultures, that is, Asian, African, and European countries, for the same purpose. In Ceylon, it was traditional for a cock to be dedicated to a sick person and to be sacrificed when that person recovered. In certain areas of Germany, it was customary to bury the head, heart, and right foot of a black cock under the threshold of dwellings, to keep illness and other evil influences at bay. A cure for epilepsy used in many European countries was to bury a cock under the house. To ensure a cure for other ailments and diseases, it was often thought sufficient, simply to rub a live cock over the affected body parts. Alternately, a black cock was buried alive with some hair or nail parings belonging to the patient needing a cure. At the heart of this universal superstition lies the belief that illness could be transferred to the earth or to another being.

In Europe, the various crowing habits of the cock led to many curious beliefs. For example, the cock’s crowing at an unusual hour, especially after dark, was seen as an omen of death; the crowing of a cock heard at the moment of someone’s departure or the birth of a child was also considered a bad omen; however, if a cock and a hen were seen sitting together on St. Valentine’s morning, this was regarded as a sure sign that someone in the household would be getting married soon. No doubt such superstitions in modern times are labelled as mere ‘cock and bull’ stories – from the English word concocted and the Danish word bullen, meaning ‘exaggerated’!

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