Folklore of Cocks, Cockcrows, and Weathercocks

Why Are Cocks or Roosters on Weathervanes?

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Cock weathervanes hold a variety of meanings in folklore and especially stand as Christian symbols.

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The cock has stood as a symbol of folklore for centuries, is a main facet on weathervanes, and has inspired the cockcrow at early dawn.

Listen for the cockcrow, especially twice this month.

What Does the Cock or Rooster Symbolize?

Since ancient times, the cock has been the bird of light, a concept inherited by the ancient Christians from pagan ties. A complex symbol, the cock—ever since a 9th-century papal decree—has been placed atop church towers.

For many, the cock stands for the pastor who leads and watches the parish and for the position of the church in the community. As the bird of light, the cock is the symbol of Christ and of the Resurrection. Also in the symbolism of the cock vanes is the Christian belief in Peter’s denial that he knew Christ. Christ foretold his denial and said that Peter would deny him before cockcrow. The cock weathervane on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, for example, contains—as do many of the old cock weathervanes—sacred religious relics.

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock. The cock weathervane on Notre Dame Cathedral.

What Does the Cockcrow Symbolize?

Cockcrow is commonly thought of as early dawn. However, cocks have been known through the centuries to have had crowing watches all through the night. As these happen at or around dark, midnight, 3:00 a.m., and dawn, the night is thus divided into “night watches.” It is supposed that evil spirits walk in the night (night is linked to our ideas of apparitions), and it is the final cockcrow just before the dawn that disperses these evil spirits to their devilish habitats.

We have many proofs that the ancients paid attention to these cockcrow night watches. Shakespeare’s examples include, from King Lear, “He begins at curfew and walks till the first cock” and, from Romeo and Juliet, “… the second cock hath crow’d. The curfew bell hath rung, ’tis three o’clock.”

The unseasonable crowing of cocks has long been reckoned ominous, in particular as it relates to wars. The cock is sacred to Mars—it presaged the victory of Themistocles of Athens as well as that of the Boeotians over the Lacedaemonians.

In still, dark weather, which often happens at time of the autumn equinox (September 22), cocks will often crow all day and all night. In fact, many people claim that their cocks crow the entire night of September 8—the night that celebrates the birth of the Virgin Mary. Cocks will also crow in almost any crepuscular light, such as during an eclipse of the Sun or in the semidarkness of a thundercloud. Listen up!

The crow of a rooster is also involved in one of many weather proverbs.

Famous Weathercocks on Steeple Tops

An interesting one casts its shadow on the Old South Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which dates from 1756. The original, known as the Bird of Dawning, was made of pure copper, gilded, and weighed 53 pounds (it was hollow inside). It was mounted on the spire in 1759. There it remained, removed only for a regilding in 1848, until on April 8, 1987, when it was discovered to be missing, stolen from its lofty perch. A copy of the original now rests atop the spire.

Another excellent example belongs to the First Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Created in 1721 by coppersmith Deacon Shem Drowne, America’s first documented practitioner of the art, it weighs 172 pounds and measures 5 feet 5 inches tall. (Drowne also made the famous grasshopper vane on Boston’s Faneuil Hall and the banner-style vane on Boston’s Old North Church.)

In the 1870s, W. A. Snow & Company of Boston, manufacturer of copper weathervanes, furnished a 19x24-inch bird with spire, letters, and balls, all gilded with pure gold leaf, for only $20.

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