The Cockatrice Conundrum

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the COCKATRICE‘ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Isiah:11:8-9

I doubt my school chaplain will ever read this, so I think I’ll be free from dispute when I say that we agree on most things. No doubt if he did read this he would be quick to list all the things that I have voiced concerns about in the almost 2 years that he has been here. So admittedly, we don’t agree on everything, and our main disagreements centre around tradition and theological inaccuracies. An example of an issue that aroused last year which I, inevitably, lost, was about the service that he has concocted from thin air. A service labelled simply as ‘school evensong.’ And the word ‘school’ is very important. Because having the word ‘school’ means that the service can include whatever he so desires. If he wants a Nunc Dimittis but not a Magnificat, then so be it. If he wants one half sung responses, and one half said, then so be it. If he wants to rap the responses, then so be it. [Well, we’ve managed to put him off this one so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised…] If he wants to chop and change the order, then so be it. You get the picture. ‘What is wrong with a normal evensong?’ I hear you ask. Nothing, except apparently it is too long, boring and stuck in tradition. I beg to differ. But that’s a different story. Not, admittedly, that my disagreement will ever prevent him from doing anything he so desires. However, as much as there are things about the new(-ish) Chapel regime that bug me, on the whole, I would continue say we agree on most things. I choose my battles. I expect he chooses his too. I know I won’t win on everything. So, what’s the issue that’s been plaguing us recently? Well, it’s that of the cockatrice. An issue that I am determined to win.

It’s Advent (if you’re reading this after last week’s post, you will be glad to see that I am still not deluded in thinking it’s summer). And whilst that means that most of us are only just thinking about Christmas, schools are preparing to finish up for the term, teachers are desperately trying to fit in end of term tests and cram your brain with knowledge of Borough Representation under Henry VII in the hope that their teaching will not all be lost over 3 weeks of partying and regretting partying, when revision becomes a distant thought. And it’s the time of the school Carol Service.

Primary schools are all gearing up to do their nativities, with little Ethel in tears because she wasn’t picked to play Mary, and George down the road in the all boys’ private school who is so angry that he has to play Mary, and wear an open backed blue hospital gown in the process, that he is plotting to throw the gifts he receives from the dodgily-wooly-bearded wise men into the crib, decapitate the baby Jesus (who never looked like he was incredibly life-like in the first place), wave to his Mum and then proceed to directly invert the teacher’s instructions and sing ‘Away in a manger’ several tones flat and incredibly loud. As for the twins Octavia and Henrietta in the girls’ private school, well they’re not too happy either in their roles as a blade of grass and alien respectively.

Secondary schools are rehearsing their monotone renditions of the Nine Lessons and Carols and the girls are practising their dance with their fathers’ handkerchiefs, dressed in old potato sacks. A trail suspiciously dark-tinged hay trickles through the school to the main hall where some is haphazardly strewn under a table covered in a gold cloth. It’s meant to be the stable. And Anthony is in detention because he decided to place Mary and Joseph in a sacrilegious compromising position bedded down in the hay, in a way that only 14-year-old boys seem to think is funny. Anthony got caught because Mr Hurrant, the headmaster, installed CCTV last year when he got wind of the sixth form’s ‘muck up day’ idea of bringing two sheep labelled ‘1’ and ‘3’ into the school overnight. They were put in detention too. Anthony realises Christmas isn’t so fun when you’re in detention. And therefore, somewhere in a school just outside London a pupil argues with her Chaplain about the cockatrice for the second year in a row.

It’s Advent.

So, what’s a little girl, caught up in her own world doing arguing about something as little as a cockatrice? Well, I don’t know about you, but there are certain things that signal to me that it’s Christmas. Perhaps it’s the baubles strung up around every department store, the trees above shop fronts, the village tree adorned with twinkling lights, the scent of roasting chestnuts floating in the air, the faint sound of carollers, the taste of mulled wine, or the sound of bells jingling in the skies above. But for me, it’s none of those things. It’s about hot chocolate with marshmallows bobbing on the top like clouds, it’s about cuddling up in a blanket with my family and reading ‘The Night before Christmas’ on Christmas Eve, laying out a carrot, mince pie and glass of Ribena (Oh no, no wine here, Santa can’t drink and drive, something we were insistent on as children, much to my parents’ disgust) for a Santa who’ll never come. But mostly, it’s about the services we attend. There’s something intrinsically special about Christmas services. About Advent Carol Services, Nine Lessons and Carols, the Children’s Crib service (though each time that I have to hear ‘Like a [flipping] candle flame’ or 150+ children all making the sounds of a stable, I do reconsider my rational thought process) and Christmas Day. The warmth of people’s hearts, the unity of carols joyfully sung, a community that celebrates together, music that paws softly at the heart. A sparkle in each and every eye. And the cockatrice is part of that. The only time of year that I will ever hear the word ‘cockatrice’ is at Christmas (save for the month beforehand that I spend arguing about it). Cockatrice is Christmas. It’s one of those things.

Perhaps I would not be so fundamentally against the Chaplain’s non-cockatrice stance had he decided to modernise all of the Nine Lessons. His argument is based on the fact that the concept of a ‘cockatrice’ is outdated, and people won’t understand what it means. I can get this. I have suggested that if he felt this would be a problem he could use one of his weekly 10 minutes Chapel talks on the lesson. Seeing as his current theme is ‘prophets,’ (trust me it’s better than whatever he did last year trying to link the Arctic Monkeys to the Bible) and this lesson is taken from Isiah, a prophet, I really don’t think this would be so hard. Yet keeping the traditional wording, as seen above, and just replacing ‘cockatrice’ with ‘cobra’ or ‘adder,’ as the Chaplain did last year, is not ok. It just sounds wrong, out of place, a non-sequitur. The New International Standard Version of the Bible uses the words ‘The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.’ But it’s just not the same.

Secondly, I am ashamed to ask the question, but, is anyone actually going to come up to him and have a specific issue on that word? I doubt it. Unfortunately, most people don’t listen in Chapel. This was only proven this week when one of the boys in my year, with the Chaplain having spent the whole of last half term condemning Richard Dawkins, asked whether the he saw theological value in the beliefs of Richard Dawkins. At this point I feel the Chaplain did give up rather, and has shown this through not bringing cookies to the class in question. And trust me, a class of 17 year olds will do most things if cookies are involved. And taking away the promise of cookies from a class of 17 year olds, well then you are risking your life. I doubt that the word ‘cockatrice’ is really going to cause controversy, or at least much less so than the controversy caused this morning when people believed the Chaplain was blaming the fault of an insurance company on the government.

The Chaplain argues that the word is such a small thing. Why do I get caught up over it? I could turn this back on him, and ask him why he is so incensed by it. But I will grace him with a considered answer. It is, Sir, a matter of principle. I believe in tradition, archaic words that connect us to generations upon generations of believers like ourselves. I don’t believe changing tradition is always bad, but eradicating tradition just for the sake of it seems pretty pointless to me. Our vocabulary may now have changed, and we don’t use the word ‘cockatrice’ anymore. But why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we use this language which is the very Word which forms the heart of what we believe? Why don’t we start a petition to bring back the word ‘cockatrice’ into regular vocabulary? Ok, maybe that’s too far, but we don’t need to change the Bible. The words mean just the same; our religion has not changed. We don’t need to chop and change just because it suits us. The beauty is in the repetition of words and seeing a meaning afresh each time. The beauty is in knowing these words inside out, such as that the beginning of ‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse’ triggers a whole lesson, each word exploding without thought in our minds.

Furthermore, my Chaplain argues that ‘cockatrice,’ especially in the possessive, is a tongue twister. You came upon the solution yourself, Chaplain. There is a faction of us who argue for the rights of the cockatrice. The lesson is given each year to a member of the Lower Sixth. Of which at least 4 of the 110 possible candidates form part of the cockatrice-supporting faction. There are only 2 services of Nine Lessons and Carols. We would be humbly happy to do you a service, provided we pass the Headmaster’s scrutiny over the list of readers, should you still find yourself concerned about the mispronunciation of such a word.

Finally, our Director of Music, and our Master of Choirs (both of whom, I believe, are members of the Association for the Protection of the Cockatrice at Christmas – the APCC) stumbled upon a potentially hazardous obstacle in the path of prosperity for the cockatrice, a bandwagon on which the Chaplain jumped right away. According to the Director of Music, and rightly so, this is the only time that one would hear the word c**k, forgive my rude language (why is it always the music department who find the euphemistic humour in all things?! – just an observation, of course), in Church. The Chaplain argues that in a Chapel filled with teenagers, this might not go down well. But the Music department say ‘Why not?’ for once a year. And I say that if the boys (it’s going to be the boys, let’s be honest) have a problem with it, then they need to grow up. As my brother told me tonight, “Act your age, and not your shoe size.” And is a ‘cockatrice’ really worse than ‘a rod’ coming out of the ‘stem of Jesse’ in a boy’s Freudian mind…? I’ll leave you to answer that one.

That’s my case, and there it lies. Take it or leave it. It’s Advent, and as schools across the country are preparing for carol services I am arguing with my school Chaplain about a cockatrice. I very much hope that the cockatrice will slither back from the brink of extinction this Christmas. And not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. Because a cockatrice is for life, not just for Christmas.

Today is the Chaplain’s birthday, so I publish this in dedication to him for all he does for our school community, and for all he has done for me personally this year. Thank you, Sir, and happy 35th birthday! The APCC is always open to new members, yourself most graciously included.

NB: If you have read to the end, and still don’t know what a cockatrice is, then I applaud you for getting this far. And I recommend you to Google it.


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