Chickens may be unlikely oracles – they aren’t especially majestic – but they have played an outsized role in the divination rituals of many cultures. The Azande people of Sudan would pose a question to a chicken, then feed it a small amount of poison – the answer was determined based on whether the chicken survived. The Dogon people of Mali sought answers from chickens by cutting their throats. The answer depended on which direction the chicken fell.
The Ancient Romans initially observed wild birds for omens, but ultimately they too, came to favor chickens for divination. A priest would scatter grain before several chickens. If they stood around vacantly, it signaled doom. Publius Claudius Pulcher, a Roman general, once threw his sacred chickens into the ocean because they refused to eat – a bad omen. He went on to lose spectacularly against the Carthaginians in the Battle of Drepana, so let that be a lesson to you.
Chicken – delicious and ubiquitous
Why chickens? We asked several poultry culture (poulture?) experts to speculate on why chickens are so popular in divination.
The use of chickens in rituals brought divination within the reach of the masses.
Andrew Lawler, author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, said the Romans initially observed wild birds because they fly so high, closer to the gods. Later, however, the Romans came to value the portability of chickens. “They are easy to keep around, which makes them much handier for a quick divination ceremony than a difficult-to-catch raven or hawk,” Lawler says. Chickens mature very quickly, they’re low-maintenance, and in the case of the Romans, they could come along on ships during military expeditions.
Anthropologist Stephen Dueppen also points to availability as one cause for the chicken’s popularity. Dueppen studied the use of chickens in Kirikongo, an Iron Age settlement in Burkina Faso. Dueppen believes that the use of chickens in rituals brought divination within the reach of the masses. Why pay to consult the sacred peacock when you could chase down a chicken in your backyard?
Size does matter
Dueppen does note that even though chickens may be freely available, factors like the size, color and age of the chicken are very important. Western aid workers almost ruined the Dogon throat-cutting ritual by introducing robust Rhode Island Red chickens to the region (the breast-heavy chickens always fell forward.) In the case of the Romans, the chickens used in augury had to be collected from the island of Negroponte. “You can’t just trap a random animal and sacrifice it,” Dueppen says – which you hopefully already knew.
To further discourage any DIY diviners among our readers, it is important to note that often only specific members of the community can participate in chicken rituals. According to accounts by anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, in the case of the Azande chicken oracle only an appointed officiator could perform the ritual. The officiator, called the puta benge, had to abstain from vices like strong-smelling meat and “vegetables that cause wind.” The puta benge also had to remain celibate, and were encouraged to crush their testicles to ensure abstinence. The cost of knowledge, amirite?
The real spirit animal
Chickens have traditionally lived very close to home. Dueppen says this proximity created a domestic bond between humans and chickens. “They become close [cultural] partners,” Dueppen says. “Thus, when they are offered for sacrifice, it is something from the house that is being offered.”
Susan Squier, author of Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet, also points to a sacred bond between humans and chickens. “If you want to find out the future of human beings, it made sense to study chickens,” Squier says. “The chicken has always been a stand-in for the human being.” She also notes that in Aristotle’s time, philosophers studied hen eggs to understand human embryos. Plato even called humans “featherless bipeds.”
Lawler explains that chickens also share many behavioral characteristics with humans. Chickens like to sleep in the same place every night, for instance, and they are very social. Hens are intensely maternal and roosters are very territorial. Studies have even suggested that chickens worry. “So the chicken mirrors us in a way that many other birds do not,” Lawler says.
Humans have raised chickens to be our de facto spirit animals. Lawler believes that humans have domesticated chickens according to our needs since the days of the red jungle fowl, a scrappy jungle ancestor of the common chicken. “As the ancients designed the bird primarily to answer our spiritual questions,” Lawler says, “we moderns designed it to provide cheap meat and eggs.”
Because divination rituals differ so greatly, it’s difficult to make generalizations about the ritual use of chickens across cultures. Some communities used chickens’ organs to predict the future, some used their behavior.
In any case, behind those beady, saggy eyes lie the secrets of the universe.