Monster Monday #34: Cockatrice
Updated: Mar 4
It is time to dive into another Monster Monday post, and this time I'm looking at a rather unusual creature that I can distinctly remember reading about during my childhood in a book, though I could not tell you which one. The Cockatrice, featured prominently in English myth, is an unusual one. It essentially comprises of a two-legged wyvern-like creature - mixing elements of a lizard or snake, and a rooster. Most accounts envisage the Cockatrice as the ugliest chicken you'll ever meet, but it most certainly would be the deadliest too and is not to be trifled with. It is famous for its ability to kill and association with death, though accounts vary on whether this happens when looked at, touched, or breathed upon by the Cockatrice. The word Cockatrice was first found in the bible, and is said to derive from the old French cocatris or the Medieval Latin calcatrix, which is associated with the Greek word ichneumon meaning 'tracker'. The ichneumon is also a creature that is commonly interpreted to be a mongoose, weasel, or otter, and is said to be the only creature immune to the effects of the Cockatrice and potentially able to kill it.
When a hen begins to lay, its reproductive system sometimes produces yolk-less eggs. This formed the idea that the eggs may have been laid by the rooster instead, and it is from these that the Cockatrice was said to hatch. In order to prevent this, the egg would have to be thrown over the family dwelling and land the other side without hitting the building itself. Other methods of destroying the Cockatrice itself included forcing it to look at its own reflection, or the cry of a rooster. The origin of the Cockatrice's legend is synonymous with that of the Basilisk, a terrifying serpent-like creature that also has the head of a chicken or rooster in some depictions. The two are virtually identical thematically, and the tale of the Basilisk is famous thanks to the famed Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Depending on the tale, its stare, breath, venom, and touch are also associated with instant death. Alongside this, there have been some variations in which victims are instead turned to stone, or the creature has the ability to breathe fire.
The legend of the Cockatrice is also associated with an Egyptian folk tale in which the venom of the snakes that the ibis eats would infect the eggs and cause a bird-snake hybrid to hatch. This fear caused many to destroy ibis eggs upon finding them. Various variations of both the Basilisk and the Cockatrice exist in other cultures. The Korean variant is known as the Kye-Ryong (meaning 'chicken dragon') and is said to pull the chariots of legendary figures, or their parents. In South America, Chilota myth speaks of the Basilica Chilote which also combines a chicken and serpent and is said to live under houses and eat the phlegm and saliva of its inhabitants which causes them to dehydrate and die, while Mapuche myth refers to the Colo Colo, a feathered rat-like creature that hatches from a snake egg incubated by a rooster. I also found many similarities in the Snallygaster, a bird-reptile-like chimera of American folklore, and the Basan or Basabasa of Japanese folklore that is said to breath ghost-fire and resemble a large chicken.
In modern media and focus, the Cockatrice and Basilisk are very present. The village of Wherwell in England still refers to a Cockatrice that terrorised the village and was driven off only by battling with its own reflection. The Basilisk features heavily in the Harry Potter universe, and the Cockatrice is also mentioned in passing as a separate entity. In fact many well-known works of literature cite them - including The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Witcher cycle, the A Song Of Ice and Fire series, and The Heroes Of Olympus books. Shakespeare also frequently referred to both creatures in his plays, and specifically cites the Cockatrice in Richard III and Romeo and Juliet. Additionally, Kokatorimon in the Digimon franchise was a minor antagonist with the ability to turn creatures to stone; the Cockatrice is a recurring enemy in the Final Fantasy video game series; SCP-1013 from the SCP Foundation entries is a Cockatrice; and Merlin also had an episode in which a Cockatrice attacks the characters.
So this terrifying chicken of death sounds GREAT for your game. In that case, we need some stat blocks!
Starting with Wizards Of The Coast, and you'll be pleased to know they have just the thing for such an occasion! The Cockatrice (Basic Rules, page 122) is an existing stat block!
First up, this Small CR 1/2 Monstrosity LOOKS HORRIFYING. Which is kind of the point, because aesthetically the Cockatrice is always supposed to stand out to farmers as 'not your average chicken' in the most terrifying way. There isn't a whole lot to them beyond Bite attack, which also comes with the added risk of becoming Petrified when hit. I actually quite like the simplicity of these creatures, and you could certainly run an encounter in which your PCs must take on a group of them. There is an Undead Cockatrice variant (Acquisitions Incorporated, page 114) that doesn't really add much beyond the Undead tag. I would urge you to take a look at the Basilisk stat block (Basic Rules, page 119) for a more challenging alternative. Aesthetically it does not fit the bill (many modern interpretations of the Basilisk depict is solely as a reptile or snake-like creature) but this Medium CR 3 Monstrosity, with some tweaking to size category and DEX scores, has a much more powerful Petrifying Gaze, as well as a venomous Bite that deals poison damage!
In the interest of looking at the Cockatrice's association with death as a whole, I wanted to move beyond the potential to be turned to stone and find some interesting variations, seeing as so much of the original folklore does not specify petrification. I found some great ideas from Kobold Press, the first being the Archaeopteryx (Creature Codex, page 108).
When I first read about a cross between a reptile and a bird, my mind immediately jumped to the word 'dinosaur', especially as the description of the Cockatrice has drawn comparisons with dinosaurs such as the Yi or Anzu Wyliei. This Tiny CR 1/4 Beast fits the bill quite nicely! Okay, yes, the stat block itself is a little...uninspiring. Flyby is a nice addition, and Multiattack will certainly be a nuisance, especially if the party are up against a large number of them, but there's nothing mythical about them. So I started looking at what I could borrow from if we were looking at a death chicken as something that MIGHT mean death to the average, non-combative farmer. I found some great abilities from the Terror Bird (Creature Codex, page 352) a Large CR 2 Beast which not only has Pack Tactics, but also a Serrated Beak, and a CR 4 Red Queen variant that has a limited form of levitation. Definitely one to look at if you're after a death-by-a-thousand-cuts vibe.
Next I turned to more Kobold Press content, and the Orniraptor (Tome Of Beasts II, page 285) caught my eye.
Yep. This Small CR 1/4 Monstrosity is horrifying. But it has some really unique abilities, and would certainly stand out to anyone as a chicken that didn't look quite right. First up - their Poor vision relies on movement, upping the stakes considerably for anyone that decides to use their turn to move at all. Not only that, but they have a Collective Perception - if one notices you, they all do. Their Blood Spurt ability notes their caustic blood, which fits with some of the lore around being unsure what exactly about the Cockatrice is deadly. There's a really unique encounter idea here, as well as a strange look. I did also briefly look at the August Rooster (Tome Of Beasts II, page 33) from an aesthetic standpoint as it has a lot of rooster to its look. Its abilities are more about mind control and forced subservience, and don't really hold up, but the lore around the rarity of it hatching could lead you down a totally different path with a Cockatrice plot-line. What if, instead of fearing the strange creature that just hatched, people began to worship it?
Lastly, I was immediately taken by the Scarlet Ibis (Tome Of Beasts II, page 318) for a number of reasons.
Firstly, that old Egyptian folk tale about ibis eggs potentially hatching into snake-bird hybrids? This Medium CR 5 Monstrosity could definitely play into that twist on the tale of the Cockatrice. What's more, what if this particular bird did not CAUSE death, but merely portended it? There's a lot of lore around this creature being a sign of an ill omen and its abilities include a magical Beak attack that allows the Scarlet Ibis to give disadvantage on ability checks, saving throws, or attack rolls, and a Death Curse that means that those effects become permanent when the Scarlet Ibis dies. This could make for a really interesting encounter, especially as this particular stat block is relatively intelligent and has the ability to speak Common. If you wanted to go for some form of 'death breath' which is a little more in keeping with the original lore, I would also recommend having a look at the Death Vulture (Tome Of Beasts, page 81) for its Decaying Breath.
So what about beyond Kobold Press? Well first up, Dragonix's Monster Manual Expanded has an amazing stat block for a higher tier of play - the Greater Cockatrice (page 49). This Large CR 8 Monstrosity has a Petrifying Gaze, as well as its special Beak attack effects, and a Stinger. Dragonix's Monster Manual Expanded III also contains a Thessaltrice stat block (page 239) which is a CR 4 Hydra-like variant (I wrote an article on the Hydra here). It has Multiple Heads, a Flurry Of Cockatrice Bites, and a Tail Pincer for your party to contend with! Metal Weave Games have come up with some amazing variants on the Cockatrice in their Atlas Animalia and accompanying stat-book - the CR 1/2 Coiffed Cockatrice (page 48 & page 22) has a Translucent ability and a chameleons tail; the CR 2 Shoebill Cockatrice (page 49 & page 23) has a stork's head, a crocodile's tail, ignores difficult terrain, and has a CR 4 Deathroll stat block which mimic the famous crocodilian technique; the CR 1 Peacockatrice (page 50 & page 24) are most terrifying in their CR 2 Peacockatrice Swarm variant; and the CR 1 Aquatic Cockatrice (page 51 & page 25) resemble penguins and freeze their prey solid.
So now it's time for some plot hooks to get these interesting creatures in your games! Hopefully you'll find some interesting inspiration here:
A collector hires the party to seek out some rare Cockatrice eggs, for which he will pay handsomely.
The party stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned farm on their journeys. Further investigation leads them to uncover that all of its residents and animals have been turned to stone.
The party come across a strange bird-like creature that speaks Common. It claims that it has visions of the future and is able to see when bad fortune is about to hit the nearby town, but whenever it tries to warn them they blame it for their bad luck.
The party find a village in complete chaos and panic as rumours spiral around one of the nearby resident's chicken eggs that have hatched into some kind of monstrous creatures. They attack anyone that comes close.
A perceptive party member spot an unusual looking egg within a serpents nest, much larger than the others. If they pick it up, it hatches mere days later into a baby cockatrice. This creature is extremely intelligent and dangerous, and will be hard to control.
And that's it for the Cockatrice! I hope you enjoyed this article on this rather unusual killer snake-chicken! Have you ever heard of it before? Let me know!