“It is said that no demon can enter a house in which there is a cock;
and, above all, should this bird come to the residence of a demon,
and move his tongue to chaunt the praises of the glorious
and exalted Creator, that instant the evil spirit takes to flight.”
Quoted from The History of the Early Kings of Persia by Mirkhond (1433-98)
The Cock Fight – 1846
This year, 2017, the Chinese and Japanese are celebrating the year of the Rooster. However, I have chosen to refer to it as the year of the Cock because I hate, hate, hate political correctness. To me, words are just words. They only mean what significance or sense we give them. The word ‘cock’ is much older than its alternative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘cock’ first appears in ‘olde’ English in ca. 897 A.D. “Donne græt se lareow swa swa kok on niht.. Dæs cocces deaw is dæt he micle hludor singd on uhtan.” Don’t ask! I haven’t got the slightest what it says. I have enough trouble with ordinary modern English. That said, the alternative rooster first appeared in a proto-version in 1606: “Gallus, that greatest roost-cock in the rout.” ‘Gallus’ of course is Latin for cock or rooster. The first American use appeared in print in 1822, nearly a thousand years after the word ‘kok’ appeared: “Rooster or he-bird. – Cock, male of the hen.”
So why do we refer to it – we being the general online public – as the Year of the Rooster? Some linguistic sources say that it has it roots in the puritanical nature of American English. Why use the term ‘cock’, which can also euphemistically refer to the male member, when the word ‘rooster’ would be just as effective and, hence, less offensive? (Less offensive to whom?) That is why, for most of the world, when speaking or reading in English, the American way offers less distracting tittering and salacious innuendos.
Ganymede running from a pursuer – Zeus? – while rolling a hoop and holding a rooster
Attributed to the Berlin painter, ca. 500 B.C.
Musée du Louvre
Children are always taught that they should never run with scissors, but, I guess, it is okay to run with a living rooster in his right hand. In his left he is holding a lyre. Below is an impression made from a green jasper scarab from the early 5th century B.C. It may have been created by a Phoenician.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The “Persian Bird” (Περσικός όρνις) –
In The Birds by Aristophanes (Αριστοφάνης) we hear that birds were here before the beginning. They were even here before the gods and therefore ruled before their existence. The two main characters, other than the birds, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides.
It was not the gods, but the birds, who were formerly the masters and kings over men;
of this I have a thousand proofs. First of all, I will point you to the cock, who governed
the Persians before all other monarchs, before Darius and Megabazus. It’s in memory
of his reign that he is called the Persian bird.
For this reason also, even to-day, he alone of all the birds wears his tiara straight on his
head, like the Great King.
He was so strong, so great, so feared, that even now, on account of his ancient power,
everyone jumps out of bed as soon as ever he crows at daybreak. Blacksmiths, potters,
tanners, shoemakers, bathmen, corn-dealers, lyre-makers and armorers, all put on their
shoes and go to work before it is daylight.
According to Felix Cumont in his ‘Le coq blanc des Mazdeens et les Pythagoriciens’ (1842) and others the gallus gallinaceus originated in India, traveled to present day Iran, on to Greece and thus into Europe proper. By the end of the 6th century B.C. cocks were appearing in many guises in Greek art: in cock fights, as religious symbols, in funerary forms. There are accounts that the rooster was also, like Hermes/Mercury, a psychopomp that guided or escorted the souls of the dead. Some of the religious aspects may have been influenced by the Zoroastrianism belief in the sanctity of the rooster as the announcer of the dawn, i.e., the light, i.e., the good.
In modern Persia there is/was a folkloric saying:
Il ne faut pas tuer le coq blanc, car se un ange.
According to Cumont the Pythagoreans not only accepted and adopted, hook, line and sinker, the concepts surrounding the white cock from the Zoroastrians, but we even know approximately the time period when they did that.
However, it does appear that some white cocks were sacrificed to the celestial gods while black one were sacrificed to the chthonic ones. Strangely enough, while this broke one of the cardinal rules of the Zoroastrians it still stayed very much in line with their concept of universal dualism. Ahura Mazda represented by the whiteness of the cock meant good while Ahriman was all blackness and evil. Armenians came to believe that the soul of a good person was represented by a white bird. The Holy Spirit is represented by a white dove. On the other hand, the color of mourning in the West, even today, is the color black.
Below is a silver Sāssānian bottle from 226 to 651 A.D. It comes from the collection in Boston where the curatorial files say: “Cocks are here symbols alluding to monarchy and Zoroastrian notions of spiritual awakening. They are shown wearing the royal necklace and enveloped by the royal halo.”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Le chant du coq, héraut de l’aurore, annonce au monde
la fin de la malfaisance des puissances pernicieuses,
et met un terme aux terreurs nocturnes des hommes.”
Note that the Sāssānians lived in what is now modern-day Iran, but they weren’t the first to adopt/adapt the rooster as a religious symbol. Zarathustra, elsewhere known as Zoroaster, is said to have founded his religion in the 6th century B.C. and along with it the use of the rooster as a superior creature/symbol. This pre-dates the Sāssānians by about 700 years and seems to almost coincide – a short time late – with the flurry of rooster-related images in Greek art.
Being a cock in Greece was not always such a good thing –
Plato in the Phaedo (18) mentions that cocks were sacrificed to Aesculapius, the god who brought health back to the sick. However, in this case it was Socrates dying wish so Aesculpius could cure him of life.
Sanctuaries where these sacrifices took place may even have bred these birds just so they would have enough of them on hand when needed.
Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) came along around the same time the rooster was introduced into Greece –
As noted, the rooster was a Zoroastrian religious symbol. When it entered the Greek psyche through Anatolia so did all of its so-called religious significance. It meant that the Greeks would have to rethink their astrolatry. This is a new word for me which I just read in an article in French. The Collins English Dictionary online describes it as “a reverence for, devotion to, or deification of celestial objects”. According to Collins its use in English peaked sometime around 1860, but by now has almost disappeared from modern usage. Are we surprised? Not I. Anyway, in let’s say ca. 580 B.C., the rooster/cock would have been a new and exotic thing which had come into the Greek world along with all of its mystical/astrological elements. And Pythagoras (born in ca. 570 B.C. – died between 590 to 490 B.C.) was if nothing else a man who was always looking for new ideas.
Pythagoras and the transmigration of the soul –
In Lucian’s story, The Rooster (see below), the fellow Micyllus is awakened from a wonderful dream by the crowing of his rooster. In the dream he believed himself to be wealthy. He isn’t. As a result he curses the bird for dispelling such delightful thoughts. But the rooster will have none of it and responds to his master in his own language. Micyllus can’t believe his ears and thinks he must still be dreaming, but the rooster assures him that he isn’t and besides he, i.e., the rooster has just recently taken this earthly form. Before this he was the philosopher Pythagoras. And before that he was the warrior Euphorbus who was slain at Troy by Menelaus.
Micyllus was so intrigued he wanted to know if the rooster knew if he had lived former lives in another form. He did. Pythagoras the rooster tells him that he was once a lowly ant in India. Startled by this Micyllus wanted to know if the rooster could tell him if he knew what he would be in the future. The rooster says he does know, but can’t tell him. Some things must remain mysterious. Then Micyllus asked the rooster if Homer got the story of the Trojan War right.
Rooster: Homer! What should he know of the matter? He was a camel in Bactria all the time.
I may tell you that things were not on such a tremendous scale in those days as is commonly supposed: Ajax was not so very tall, nor Helen so very beautiful. I saw her: she had a fair
complexion, to be sure, and her neck was long enough to suggest her swan parentage: but then
she was such an age — as old as Hecuba, almost.
Then Micyllus asked him if Achilles was all he was said to be. The rooster told him that he never personally came across Achilles, because he, of course, was on the other side. However, “I made pretty short work of his friend Patroclus — ran him clean through with my spear.”
When asked what form Pythagoras took in his next incarnation he tells Micyllus that he was Aspasia, the most famous courtesan of ancient Greece and the lover of Pericles. After his life as a whore, a very high-classed one to be sure, he came back as the cynic Crates who was a pupil of Diogenes. [See the plucked rooster somewhere down this page.] And then…
Rooster: Then it was a king; then a pauper, and presently a satrap, and after that came horse, jackdaw, frog, and I know not how many more; there is no reckoning them up in detail. Latterly, I have been a rooster several times. I liked the life; many is the king, many the pauper and millionaire, with whom I took service in that capacity before I came to you. In your lamentations about poverty, and your admiration of the rich, I find an unfailing source of entertainment; little do you know what those rich have to put up with! If you had any idea of their anxieties, you would laugh to think how you had been deceived as to the blessedness of wealth.
When Micyllus finally asks the bird what he should call him, he is told:
Rooster: Euphorbus or Pythagoras, Aspasia or Crates, it is all the same to me; one is as much my name as another. Or stay: not to be wanting in respect to a bird whose humble exterior contains so many souls, you had better use the evidence of your own eyes and call me Rooster.
Toward the end the rooster makes it clear that it is better to be an animal than a human: there are no litigious frogs, no bird philosophers, no gnats that make candy or try to sell it, no roosters that pander. They leave all of that to humans.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Why the cock crows at dawn – one version –
Lucian (120 to after 180 A.D.) tells us in The Rooster about a conversation a character named Micyllus has with a talking rooster.
Micyllus: Am I dreaming still, or is this bird really talking to me?— In Hermes’ name then, good
creature, out with your better reason; I will be mum, never fear; it shall go no further. Why, who
would believe the story, when I told him that I had it from a rooster?
Rooster: Listen. You will doubtless be surprised to learn that not so long ago the rooster who
stands before you was a man.
Micyllus: Why, to be sure, I have heard something like this before about a rooster. It was the story
of a young man called Alectryon; he was a friend of Ares,— used to join in his revels and junketings,
and give him a hand in his love affairs. Whenever Ares went to pay a sly visit to Aphrodite, he used
to take Alectryon with him, and as he was particularly afraid that the Sun would see him, and tell
Hephaestus, he would always leave Alectryon at the door, so that he might give him warning when
the Sun was up. But one day Alectryon fell asleep, and unwittingly betrayed his trust; the consequence
was that the Sun got a peep at the lovers, while Ares was having a comfortable nap, relying on Alectryon
to tell him if any one came. Hephaestus heard of it, and caught them in that cage of his, which he had
long had waiting for them. When Ares was released, he was so angry with Alectryon that he turned him
into a rooster, armour and all, as is shown by his crest; and that is what makes you roosters in such a
hurry to crow at dawn, to let us know that the Sun is coming up presently; it is your way of apologizing
to Ares, though crowing will not mend matters now.
This photo was posted at Wikimedia Commons by Philip Pikart.
Shakespeare’s cock: Hamlet Act I, Scene I
At the beginning of Hamlet it is night and Horatio, Bernardo and Marcellus are on the battlements of Elsinore Castle. A strange spectre has been sighted. It is thought to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the dead king. The cock crows and it disappears.
It was about to speak, when the cock crew.
And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
Hermes/Mercury and his roosters –
Below is a bronze statue of Mercury with a cock and a lamb. It is believed to have been made in Roman Gaul in the 3rd to 2nd century B.C.
In the Bibliothèque nationale de France there is a Gallo-Roman gilt silver charger, a magnificent work of art, that shows Mercury and his rooster, a goat, a turtle – the future musical instrument- and his Caduceus. He is naked except for his winged helmet, the petasus (πέτασος). It dates from the 2nd century A.D.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
…Hermes the light one,
Turneth his glances aside, roguish and tender at once.
from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Roman Elegies
A question for stickler: Didn’t a petasus have a broad brim?
Everything I read about a petasus described it as a head covering that had a broad brim used for traveling or for sitting outdoors on a sunny day somewhere along the Mediterranean. Then I found the answer about why the petasus worn by Hermes/Mercury is different and looks more like a metal beanie often adorned with wings. Chicken wings? I don’t think so, but I don’t have an answer to that one yet. Anyway, the answer is in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities from 1890.
From the earliest time the πέτασος was the constant attribute of Hermes in art, though
frequently its brim is so narrow that it scarcely deserves its name. In Greek art of the later
part of the fifth century Hermes’ hat is occasionally winged, in later times more frequently
and in Roman art invariably so. In early art it is only the κυνέη αἵδου worn by Perseus that
is winged. From a passage in the Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles, where Ismene wears a
θετταλὶςκυνῆ, which can only mean a πέτασος, it would seem as if women occasionally
wore it when travelling.
The πέτασος, as worn by travellers and hunters, had not only a band which fastened it tightly
round the head, but a strap which passed under the chin, and enabled the wearer, who, not
being accustomed to it, naturally felt its weight, to let it hang down his back. This is very
frequent in works of art, often doubtless because it enables the artist to show the outline of
the head more sharply. The Hermes on the celebrated drum of a column from the temple of
Artemis at Ephesus is a familiar instance of the fashion.
The brim of the πέτασος was usually not even all round, but cut into various convenient or
fantastical shapes, of which examples from ancient vase-paintings are here given, after
Blümner, the most common being one of quatrefoil shape, in which the two side leaves, if one
may use the term, could be used as lappets tied over the ears by a chin strap. The brim could
also be turned up behind, at one or both sides, giving it quite as many picturesque forms as a
sombrero or other modern felt hat.
In Hellenistic times a Macedonian variety of the πέτασος, called καυσία, was worn, but chiefly
as an emblem of power…
Both of the images shown above represent Mercury wearing his petasus.
The one on the left is a Roman denarius from 82 B.C.
The Mercury dime on the right was designed in 1915.
Both are from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
I have added this next piece by Nicolò Cerbara because it is so painfully beautiful, even if it is from the early 19th century. It is by an Italian gem and mint engraver in Rome from ca. 1828-58. These dates are not set in stone – get it?! – because they appear in a catalogue produced by Spink and Son in 1908, but that same publication also gives the dates of ca. 1829-49. See what I am (we are) up against.
Cameo by Nicolò Cerbara (1796-1869)
A side note in a post littered with side notes: Nicolò Cerbara’s name is peripherally linked to one of the great art scandals of the 19th century. After the Polish prince, Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833) died he left a collection or more than 2,500 gems – many of them ancient. He had started his collection with the pieces left to him by his uncle King Stanislas Augustus (1732-98). Shortly, the Berlin curator Ernst Heinrich Tölken (1785-1869) began to have his doubts about the authenticity of some of these items. The bulk, 1,140 gems, of the prince’s collection sold at Christie’s in London on April 29, 1839 for £12,000 to Col. John Tyrrell. He hired the antiquarian Nathaniel Ogle to write an introduction to a catalogue of his latest purchase. Ogle exposed the fact that many of these gems had been carved in the late 18th and early 19th century. A battle royal then started in the press between Tyrrell and Ogle. “…it emerged that Prince Poniatowski had ordered his gems from Italian engravers… [including] Nicolo Cerbara.”
I am not implying that the gorgeous cameo seen above is one of those fakes, but, whether it is or it isn’t, it shows a level of skill worthy of the ages.
Diogenes (Διογένης) and the plucked chicken
Ugo da Carpi
Musée de Beaux Arts
As I understand it, one day Diogenes of Sinope (died ca. 320 B.C.) overheard a discussion at the School of Plato as to how to define a human being. Supposedly, what they came up with was a bi-ped creature that had no feathers. So Diogenese got a chicken, plucked it and presented the school with this naked bird. The stories vary on whether the bird was dead or alive, held up by Diogenes or thrown over the school wall. The effect was said to be immediate. The Platonists were going to have to refine/redefine their definition. Some accounts say that at that point they added that a human had broad nails. No matter what the truth of the story is or how seriously it must/might be taken, it is amusing all the same.
Ugo da Carpi (born in 1480 in Modena died sometime between 1520 and 1532) is credited with the invention of the chiaroscuro woodcut, like the one seen above. He may or may not have been the first to come up with this technique, but a Metropolitan Museum bulletin from 1964 states: “In 1516 Ugo da Carpi took out a patent for “a new way of printing in light and shade” by cutting a separate wood block for each tone.” I didn’t even know that a patent could be filed at that time, but that is a research project for a future date. I have enough to deal with right now just sorting out cocks, roosters and chickens in all of its/their permutations.
An Etruscan example just because it is so astoundingly beautiful –
The curatorial files at the Met tell us that “The Etruscans produced numerous askoi in the shape of ducks, but askoi in the shape of other birds are quite rare. Only one other rooster-shaped example is known, almost identical to this one.” Wow! [I say that a lot, don’t I?! I guess I am just easily wooed, or maybe just a bit more aesthetically sensitive. Yeah right!]
A 4th century B.C. askos (ἀσκός – in Greek, of course)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Roosters and women in childbirth –
According to Claudius Aelianus (ca. 170-235), a Roman who wrote fluently in Greek, Leto gave birth to twins, Apollo and Artemis, on the floating island of Delos. It quit floating when Apollo was born. These were the children of another one of Zeus’s amorous adventures. The cock was Leto’s favorite bird because it was by her side when she gave birth to her children. For that reason, women in labor should keep a cock nearby to insure their safety at such a dangerous time.
Aelian also tells us that if a hen dies before her eggs have hatched her mate will sit on them. However, it won’t crow because “…he is then conscious that he is doing the work of a female and not of a male.” So there! [Don’t blame me for this passage. I am just quoting it here.]
Elsewhere Aelian says that lions and basilisks are scared to death of cocks. That is why, if you are traveling to Libya, you should take a cock with you because if you encounter a basilisk and it sees your cock it will shudder. If, on the other hand, it hears your cock crow, the basilisk will go into convulsions and fall down stone dead. Yeah!
Young Greek boys and their pet roosters –
Hellenic terracotta from Asia Minor – 2nd century B.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
At the Louvre is another similar terracotta, but in this one a young boy is trying to keep his grapes from a cock, Could this be a youthful Hermes? Just guessing.
Musée du Louvre
The Hippalektryon (ἱππαλεκτρυών) – Half chicken, half horse –
In modern Greek ίππος (ίππος) means ‘horse or steed’ and αλέκτωρ (aléktor) means cock.
Terracotta kylix from ca. 530-520 B.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
If the hippalektryon looks a bit funny, i.e., strange, to you you are in pretty good company. It seems it looked a bit strange to the ancient Greeks too. A bit of a joke. In fact, Dietrich von Bothmer started an article on this fantastic creature with this opening:
In the battle of dramatic criticism with which. Aristophanes regaled his audience in
the Frogs, Euripides attacks Aeschylus for using big words the spectator could not
understand, and Dionysos himself admits that he spent long, sleepless nights trying
to find out what manner of bird the “tawny cock-horse,” the ξουθος ἱππαλεκτρυών, was.
Though Aeschylus supplies the answer, that it was a device painted on ships, Euripides
continues in his criticism, declaring that there was no need to have a cock brought into
tragedies, and asserts that in his plays, at least, there is neither cock-horse nor goat-stag
such as are depicted in Persian tapestries. It thus appears that the cock-horse was was no
longer known in the days of Aristophanes; in fact, the expression. “tawny cock-horse” had
become the image of something at once inflated and ridiculous, to judge by other passages
in the comedies. Nor indeed could the ancient commentators and lexicographers make
much of the word: their explanations are farfetched and ill-founded, though we owe to to
them a quotation from a lost play by Aeschylus, the Myrmidons, in which the poet describes
how the tawny cock-horse, the great labor of outpoured paint, was dripping-presumably
when the Trojans set fire to the ship on which it was painted.”
A youth riding a hippalektryon
Harvard cup decoration – ca. 560-550 B.C.
Von Bothmer goes on to note that Aeschylus should not be blamed for the invention of this term for this bizarre creature. Not only that, but… “among the many fantastic hybrids which Greek legend and art have made famous , the cock-horse has remained relatively obscure. It has no prototype in Egypt or the Near East, and Aristophanes, speaking in the character of Euripides, is wrong in connecting it with oriental tapestries. But then it must be remembered that the domestic fowl proper was a relative newcomer to the barnyards of Greece, and the cock, to the Greeks of Aristophanes’s time, was still the “Persian Bird,”…”
A cross-breeding nightmare –
Why stop with the hippalektryon? Von Bothmer notes that there are other chiken related creatures for which there are no known ancient Greek names. For example, there is the “…boar-cock, the panther-cock, and the even stranger girl-cock, in which the head and neck of a girl are joined to a cock’s body.” But why stop there? There were also goat-cocks and bull-cocks. All of these had a fairly short shelf life, so to speak. Only the horse-cock lingered a bit longer than the rest. Even the Acropolis had a carving of this amazing creature.
Faience perfume vessel in the shape of a hippalektryon – early 6th century B.C.
Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco
Riding the cock –
Painted by Epiktetos – ca. 520-510 B.C.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mercury rode in a chariot pulled by roosters –
The Renaissance ink drawing below is after Perino del Vaga (1500-47), a talented artist who studied with the great Raphael, a “…master who loved him almost as a son.”
Drawing after Perino del Vaga
In another anonymous Flemish painting from ca. 1625-49 Mercury rides above a contemporary scene of the arts, science and commerce. Like Santa Claus, Mercury’s bag of goodies at the back of his chariot is spilling the riches of musical instruments earthward.
At the palace of Versailles there is a room devoted to Mercury. In the center of the ceiling is a painting from ca. 1672 painted by J.B. de Champaigne. Fortunately it has been restored recently. We get to see it before it was set back in place. Above the figure of Mercury and his glowing aura is an arced design which probably represents figures from he Zodiac. Notice the roosters.
Versailles – Salon de Mercure
The tradition of Hermes/Mercury being pulled along through the sky by a pair of harnessed roosters is an ancient one. It was so common in ancient times that clever artisans sometimes substituted other creatures in place of this important son of Zeus (Ζεύς). Below it is a mouse being pulled along by these birds. The significance? Got me! Maybe it was just a joke. Or maybe it has some other deeper significance that eludes me. An awful lot of things elude me – as you know.
Mercury and his children
Harmen Jansz. Muller after Maarten van Heemskerck – 1566 to 1570
Rijksprentenkabinet – Rijksmuseum
A loose translation of the curatorial files say of the print shown above: “Mercury drives his car [in] the sky, drawn by two cocks. The Virgo and Gemini signs show which people belong to the sphere of Mercury. People who are born under this zodiac, [were] learned and artistic. Around a table sit scientists, astrologers, a trader and a doctor. [On the left] people make music [on] an organ. The right [are] a sculptor and painter at work. [At the bottom is a] text in Latin about the children of Mercury.”
This gold and jasper ring dates from the 2nd to 3rd century A.D.
It is from the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden.
There is a similar intaglio of the same age in the collection of the Met, but in that case it is only a one-rooster chariot instead of two. Maybe the one-rooster chariot was more affordable, the two-rooster one a bit more flashy, eh? Just kidding. Don’t have the slightest. On another point: I bet there is a story line which goes with this mouse/rooster motif. Betcha.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fierceness – a painting by Skythes from the late 6th century –
Musée du Louvre
The herm/terminus –
A herm of Hermès (Ἑρμῆς)
Greek – 3rd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.
Musée du Louvre
In the British Museum there is a Roman herm or Mercury dating from 150-170 A.D. Carved on one side is the Caduceus and on the other is a rooster.
Below is a chalk drawing from 1761 by Jean-Hugues Taraval of the drunken maenad Erigone lying near the ever ubiquitous herm. No rooster to be seen, but we have already made that connection, I hope.
The British Museum
In Duffield Osborne’s book from 1912, Engraved Gems, Signets, Talismans and Ornamental Intaglios: Ancient and Modern it says:
The first distinctive figures of Hermēs , derived from the column that personified all the
gods in barbaric times, was what we know as the Herm, a square pillar surmounted by a
bearded head and equipped with a phallus, and this representation pertains through all
art along with the most artistic later conceptions. Herms were set up by the roadways,
especially at cross-roads, and came to symbolize the God’s care over these means of
As the protector of flocks and herds, his early province extends down into the latest times.
He is pictured with a sheep or a ram, often riding on one.
His Chthonian character, too, maintained itself, perhaps fostered by the cult brotherhoods
of Italy, and the Hermes Psychopompos (conductor of souls) is shown on a long line of
gems where he appears with the half figure of a man issuing out of the ground or from a jar
symbolic of the Under-world. Sometimes the soul is typified as a human-headed swan, a
butterfly or a girl with butterfly wings, whence the Psyche myth. As such he was later
identified with the Egyptian Anubis. As a god of sleep and dreams he is closely related to
Hypnos. His control over buried treasure was a natural resultant of wealth-giving and
Under-world power. His mythological character showed him as the master of all manner of
cleverness, craft, lying, chicanery, even to the point of theft.
This is why Hermes was the patron of thieves. But he was also the inventor of the lyre, and some say the pan pipe. He was the patron on the gymnastic arena and the gymnasts themselves. One of his attributes was the palm tree, which provided the oil for all of those competing, straining, glistening young men. He invented fire, but it was Prometheus who gave it to mankind and was punished for that. To top all of this off Hermes was the patron of commerce and trade. He had a lot on his plate and he could often be found with a rooster by his side.
Many great European artists included herms in their artworks –
Below is only one such example, a red chalk drawing from ca. 1530 by Michelangelo (1475-1564), showing naked archers, both male and female, shooting arrows at a shield hanging from a herm. You will notice that those pesky bows don’t show up cluttering this brilliant work of art. Cupid sleeps peacefully in the lower right-hand corner.
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
A contemporary print after this drawing from 1544-77 will give a little clearer image of this scene, but nothing anywhere near as its exquisite model.
Cocks on coins in the ancient world –
Below is a drachm from Himera (Ιμέρα) on the island of Sicily. It dates from ca. 530-515 B.C.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Another silver coin struck at Himera a few decades later, 483 to 472 B.C., has a rooster on one side and a crab on the other. I don’t know about you, but these images strike me as totally astral references. More astrology. ‘Cancer’ is Latin for ‘crab’.
Harvard Art Museums
The rooster was still appearing on coins produced 150 to 200 years later – 313 – 265 B.C. These coins from Karystos, a seaport on an island east of Athens, also show a cow suckling one of its young.
Harvard Art Museums
Not everything ancient was Roman, Greek or Etruscan – some of it was from Pazyryk
It is known that there was trade between the Scythians and the Greeks. And where there is trade there is also cultural exchange. That is what makes two leather cut outs of roosters in the Hermitage so amazing – that and their age. They were discovered at Pazyryk in present day Kazakhstan. They were designed as appliqué, but to what?
3rd to 4th century B.C.
Medieval Medicine and Mercury –
“Evrart de Conty [the physician to Charles V] provides us with an interesting example of a medieval French doctor who translated from classical scientific treatises, and who even used some of the older Greek methods in his practice of medicine. His ideas and procedures are illustrative of fourteenth-century France. Many physicians in the royal service were writing on such topics as bloodletting, gout, and benefits to be derived from mineral waters. Some of them were beginning to forget their Latin; they therefore felt the need for French versions of the earlier classical treatises on medicine. From such lengthy adaptations, with their commentaries, the reader can acquire a wealth of information about medical manners and concepts of the medieval period.” This quote comes from a work by Patricia M. Gathercole.
Illuminated manuscript – ca. 1496
Illustrating a medical compendium by Evrart de Conty.
It shows a medieval representation of Mercury and his cock
near an ailing man.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
So who was Aesop and what does it matter?
Aesop may never have been a real person, but he was mentioned by Herodotus who lived in the 5th century B.C. as having lived a century earlier. Over the years loads of myths grew up about his origins. The Britannica says: “The first-known collection of the fables ascribed to Aesop was produced by Demetrius Phalareus in the 4th century BC, but it did not survive beyond the 9th century AD.” That’s okay, because versions or new fables kept appearing and some of them dealt with roosters. One such is “The Cock and the Precious Stone” in which a rooster standing atop a dung heap mistakes a piece jewelry for grain, but once he realizes it is inedible he abandons it. The moral: even a valuable stone by human standards would mean nothing to a hungry bird (or beast).
I mention this because in the 16th century that story started showing up in graphic forms and has, off and on, ever since.
Print after Barlow after Aesop – ca. 1760
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Then there was Jacob Jordaens versions of Aesop’s The Satyr and the Peasants – wink, wink. I only mention this because of the prominence of the rooster in them. Not as prominently displayed as the satyr, but prominent all the same. Also, it is said that Jordaens used his own family members to pose as the peasants. I don’t know yet who he got to play the satyr.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Note: In the subject line of this post we used the modern Greek wood κόκορας for rooster. However, the ancient Greek word may have been κοκκυβόας. In time I will try to clear this up, or… that might just never happen. Sorry.
You heard it here first: another quote from Mirkhond, a man who claimed direct descent from the Prophet –
“…au ciel un coq siège sous la trone d’Allah.”
It is also believed that that celestial cock’s wings were adorned with emeralds and pearls. Its call at dawn is a call to prayer.
In the 1890 Encyclopedia Britannica it says: “Mohammed bin Khwándsháh bin Mahmúd, commonly called Mírkhwánd or Mírkháwand, more familiar to Europeans under the name Mirkhhond.” Now the 1998 Encyclopedia Britannica it is Mīrkhwānd. I guess that is definitive – at least so far. So… Mīrkhwānd it is! That is, until we are told differently.
This is the point at which I could tell you that I wish I could show you this in color, but…
There is a black and white photo in the Pharos archives at the Frick Museum of Art. It shows a fresco from the Casa dei Vetti in Pompeii. You may know that house because of all of its lewd and lecherous imagery. There is a time, I have been told that when tour guides, males only, were showing people around that wonderful archaeological site they would only show this house or parts of it to adult male visitors. Sexism at it most protective, I suppose. Anyway, there is one mural in that house that shows a herm of Mercury near a cock fight that is anything but XXX rated. Maybe it should have a single X for violence and the dead bird below the table, but certainly no more than that. Besides, it was was a product of its own age. See!
Aelian, mentioned further up the page in a reference to childbirth, also says of the cock that “…if it has been defeated in battle and in a struggle with another [he] will not crow, for his spirit is depressed and he hides himself in shame.”
PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT I HAVE JUST BEGUN.
THERE SHOULD BE AT LEAST FOUR OR FIVE POSTS
DEALING MAINLY WITH THE COCK. I HAVE ASSEMBLED
HUNDREDS OF IMAGES, BUT WILL ONLY USE A SMALL
FRACTION OF THAT NUMBER. LET’S HOPE I DO RIGHT BY YOU,
AND MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICES. THAT SAID, PLEASE COME
BACK OFTEN BECAUSE ONCE STARTED I HOPE TO CONTINUE –
AT LEAST FOR A WHILE, i.e., COME BACK OFTEN TO SEE IF I HAVE
KEPT MY WORD. THANKS!