Saturday, September 17, 2011

Make a Wish

There is an old superstitious custom once familiar around dinner tables, or at least it was in the American south where I grew up. Now that cell phones, Facebook and Twitter have become as common as silverware at dinner tables, the sight of two people making secret wishes and tugging on opposite ends of a chicken’s breastbone hoping to break off the larger half is a vanishing tradition. Gone with the wind, as they might say, but thinking about that I wondered if it was a localized custom unfamiliar to people outside of the south. That turns out to be not the case at all.

Most of us have heard of the northern region of Italy known as Tuscany, so famous for its cuisine, beautiful old farmhouses and exquisite landscape. Roughly 2,400 years ago this area was home to the Etruscans and a civilization flourishing 500 years before the founding of the Roman Republic. The Etruscans believed that the hen and the cock were soothsayers of a kind. It sounds foolish to us, but this belief was based in part on the fact that a hen squawks to foretell the laying of an egg and a cock crows to herald the dawn. They used a process called the “hen oracle” to divine answers to their most pressing problems. A circle was drawn in the dirt and divided into twenty parts, each representing a letter of their alphabet. Grains of corn were placed in each section and a sacred hen was placed in the center. The hen’s order of pecking at the corn generated a sequence of letters which were then interpreted by a high priest as answers to difficult problems.

When a sacred hen was killed, the collarbone was laid out to dry. Those wishing to benefit from the oracle’s powers would pick up the bone and stroke it gently while making a wish. From this practice we got the term “wishbone.” When the custom made its way to Rome a few centuries later it changed somewhat and two people began breaking the bone, with the secret wish going to the one with the larger broken half. It was the Romans who took the superstition to England, and it had become an established English tradition by the time the Pilgrims reached the New World. Early American folklore suggests it was a part of the first Thanksgiving celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621.

The next time you hear or use the expression ‘a lucky break’ remember that it all started with ancient people in Italy wishing on chicken bones.


  1. oh the wonderful memories of breaking the "pulley" bone every Sunday when the family got together every Sunday for lunch after church. Good post today.

  2. Maybe we should use the hen oracle to choose board members. It would certainly save a lot of trees and staples and ink not to mention postage! Good post. I love the photos. We're having roast chicken tonight with the girls - I'll make sure the wishbone is a topic of conversation. Thank you!

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America