Friday, 5 December 2008

Now, there's a Merry Thought.

When I was a child, way back in the 1960s, chicken was regarded (in ordinary families like mine, at any rate) as an expensive luxury. Chicken was something you ate on high days and holidays only. Easter, birthdays, a visit from nan and grandad; these were the kind of occasions where a visit to the butcher's shop was essential, and the purchase of a box of Paxo sage and onion stuffing mix an absolute must. Things have certainly changed over the years. Intensive farming and high density breeding of birds has resulted in ridiculously cheap chickens being available at most supermarkets. I can't vouch for their quality or flavour, however. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to go for a free range organic bird; one that, to the best of my knowledge, has been reared in more 'natural' surroundings, able to scratch around for worms and insects, wander in or out of doors to its heart's content, and lead an altogether better existence than its battery counterparts...right up to the moment when its little neck is wrung.

One thing that I'm fairly sure hasn't changed is the tradition concerning the chicken's wishbone. Quite simply, one individual takes hold of one side of the wishbone, and another person the other. Sometimes the thumb and forefinger are used; in our family it was the little finger curled around the bone. The two pull in opposite directions, and the wishbone snaps. The person with the larger portion of the bone is then permitted to make a wish, but must not reveal what is wished for.

Superstitions concerning the wishbone date back a very long way. The Etruscans, who inhabited Italy before the Romans, believed that chickens were able to divine the future, and 'sacred' birds were used in ceremonies where they were permitted to peck at little piles of grain representing different letters of the Etruscan alphabet. As they pecked, the appropriate letters were noted down, and used by priests to foretell the future. For some unaccountable reason, the furculae, or fused clavicles (aw, alright, wishbones!) of these sacred birds were thought capable of granting wishes. Once dried in the sun, an individual was allowed to hold the unbroken bone and make a wish.

The Romans also regarded chickens as sacred. Publius Claudius Pulcher, given command of the Roman fleet against Carthage at the Battle of Drepana, had a cage containing sacred chickens on his flagship. The behaviour of these birds would determine when battle should be joined. Apparently, the chickens appeared to be off their food; a very bad omen. Foolishly, Pulcher threw the birds, still in their cage, into the sea, saying, 'If they won't eat, let them drink'. Needless to say, the battle resulted in a spectacular defeat for Rome. On his return to Rome, Pulcher was tried for sacriledge, convicted, and exiled, dying soon afterwards, possibly at his own hand. So let that be a lesson to anyone who chooses to ignore their chickens.

I digress. The Romans continued the Etruscan tradition regarding the wishbone. One source claims that citizens of the Republic fought over possession of these bones because they were in short supply. During the course of these brawls, the wishbones were accidentally broken, thus kick-starting the trend for snapping them in two that continues to this day. But this seems a little fishy to me. Chickens were by no means a rare bird in Rome. The ancient author and cook Apicius had no less than seventeen recipes involving chicken; eggs, hard-boiled and otherwise, found their way into many dishes; and Columella, in his De Re Rustica, suggested that flocks of chickens should ideally consist of around two hundred birds. So the idea that our little feathered friends were hard to come by seems unlikely. The idea of Roman Citizens having a punch-up over a clavicle seems equally implausible. The preferred method of getting one's own way in Rome involved either (i) sticking a dagger between your opponent's ribs, taking whatever it was you wanted, and then dumping his body in the Cloaca Magna (Rome's main sewer), or (ii) paying a group of ruffians to do the job for you. If you had a wishbone, and someone bigger and tougher than you wanted it, the chances are they'd get it, and without a single bone (other than yours, of course) getting broken.

Empires rise and fall, but chickens go on for ever. So, it seems, do superstitions. In 15th century Germany, it was the (unbroken) wishbone of the goose that was used for divination. In 1455, a Bavarian physician named Hartlieb wrote: 'When the goose has been eaten on St. Martin's Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keeps the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.' The good doctor also remarked that the bone would be used to determine when battles should be fought; a link back to poor old Publius Claudius Pulcher. The tradition of pulling the wishbone flourished in England too. The Seventeenth century diarist and raconteur John Aubrey, in his work The Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, relates the correct method of dealing with the Merrythought. I make no apology for quoting him in full:

Tis common for two, to breake the Merry-thought of a Chick Hen, or wood-cock, &c and the Anatomists call it 'Furcula': 'tis called Merrythought, because when the fowle is dissected, or carved it resembles the Pudenda of a Woman.

The manner of breaking it, as I have it from the Woemen, is thus, viz: One puts the merrithought on his nose (slightly) like a paire of Spectacles, and shakes his head till he shakes it off his Nose thinking all the while his Thought: then he holds one of the legs of it betweene his forefinger and Thumbe, and another hold the other in like manner: and breake it: he that has the longer part, hath got the Thought: then he that hath got the Thought putts both parts into his hand and the other drawes (by way of Lott) and then they both Wish: and he that lost his Thought drawes: if he drawes the longest part, he getts his Wish: if the shorter, he looses his Wish.

Did everyone get that? I hope so, as I'll be asking questions later.

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that the traditions surrounding the wishbone were carried to America by the Pilgrim Fathers. An excellent account of the fortunes of the furcula on the other side of the Atlantic can be found in Willow's blog here. American tradition pays homage to the turkey rather than the chicken, the latter beast being plentiful there.

It is worth noting that the first settlers in North America enjoyed (if that is the right word) a precarious living for the first few years; so it is likely that many of them were vegetarians by dint of necessity rather than by choice. However, in these latter days, many people are vegetarian by choice, and this creates a problem. How do vegetarians keep alive the old custom of breaking the turkey wishbone? The enterprising Lucky Break Wishbone Corporation has produced a fully synthetic turkey wishbone that looks and breaks just like the real thing!

There now. I bet you wish I'd found this before Thanksgiving, don't you? Never mind. You've still got time to make that last minute order for Christmas.

Image © 2004, The Lucky Break Wishbone Corporation.








22 comments:

Comedy Goddess said...

How do you do it? Amaze me with details, make me hunger for a Sunday dinner (roasted organic of course) and appeal to my consumerism?? All in one post?

Glad you like the award!

BTW, need you ask if I am a real Goddess?

chris hale said...

It's because (according to my old mate Stevyn Colgan) I have too much time on my hands!

Sorry, wrong question re your status - but are you Greek, Roman, Old Norse or Indo-European?

DrRoy said...

Well played sir! Shall I run the 'merrythought' through the big Early English Books Online database for you? 'Dr Roy'

chris hale said...

DrRoy - Yes please! And welcome to my humble blog.

Madame DeFarge said...

I'm impressed by such erudition. Now, if you can tell me why I always get the losing side of the wishbone, when the scientific application of chance should dictate that I should win sometimes, then I'd be really impressed.

And in relation to a previous question, I see myself as more of a Trollope girl than a what the Dickens. I think I've just come up with a new blog title! Love the posts.

DrRoy said...

Hello again, I have some tasty wishbones, but mainly from Victorian Literature. Too much for a comment, mail me, r*y.b**th@btinternet.c*m. The stars are O's, which I have swapped out for reasons doubtless superstitious.

chris hale said...

MDF - Sorry, can't tell you how to get the winning bit of furcula, but you could improve your chances by vastly increasing your chicken consumption.

Trollope? What, he of the Chronicles of Barsetshire and inventor of the pillar box? I'll have to bone up on his novels. This could be the start of a whole new set of puns.

chris hale said...

DrR*y - Why, thank y*u. I shall indeed dr*p you a line.

Seems these stars are c*ntagi*us!

Comedy Goddess said...

A Goddess by any other name...

And you seemed so well educated too. My!

chris hale said...

Well...once I couldn't spell University Graduate. Now I are one!

willow said...

Synthetic wishbones...what next?! Great post. Where on earth did you find all those fascinating little details?

chris hale said...

Willow - Ah, where indeed? I have a rather quirky collection of books and an insatiable thirst for the oddities of this world!

LittleJ said...

Yumm... We always seem to misplace the wishbone, so, after reading, synthetic ones have been put on the shopping list.

:) Thanks for the welcome, it's been a struggle to get here.

Comedy Goddess said...

Pop over for a holiday party at my place. The drink (recipes) are on me!

Why exactly aren't you signed in to my followers? I'm just sayin...

chris hale said...

LittleJ - Hi! Yes, it is a bit of a trek to get here, isn't it? Glad to make your acquaintance.

CG - An unfortunate oversight on my part, and one that has now been rectified. All your followers seem to be 'beautiful people' - even the moustachioed woman and the penguin - and I thought I might look a bit out of place. Still, every goddess needs a temple, and every temple needs a gargoyle!

Comedy Goddess said...

I welcome all. I shun none.

I am glad to have you around. Saves me for shameless solicitations. Been there. Done that. Perfected it even.

Comedy Goddess said...

From I meant. The other way is too horrid

chris hale said...

Oooh er missus!

Douglas said...

It would seem, like the paw of the rabbit, the wishbone is not so lucky for the bird.

chris hale said...

Douglas - how true. Perhaps we should stick to four-leaved clover. At least, until they prove that plants say ouch when we pick them!

Thank you for dropping by.

Stevyn Colgan said...

We are oddly synchronous young Christopher, as I wrote on this very subject two years ago, here.

Extraordinarily, I have 100 plastic wishbones here in my study! I was researching a book on luck and when I got to the furcula stage, as you do, I contacted Ken Ahroni of the Lucky Wishbone company and he kindly sent me a tub. If I ever get the book sold, I plan to hold a mass snapping.

Don't get me started on how I got my four-leafed clover and my ghastly rabbit's foor. Yerk.

chris hale said...

We're either synchronous, or I'm a filthy plagiarist! I'd prefer to think that the former is true.

What a curious coincidence re. the synthetic furculae...