The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome

I stumbled on an odd historical anecdote last week: the use, by the ancient Romans, of sacred chickens as a form of divination. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert:

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens. The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them.

I had hoped to be the first blogger to break the sacred chicken story, but a blogger named Elektra Tig beat me to it, telling the tale of a naval battle involving some sea-bound sacred chickens who delivered an unwanted prophesy. The naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, refused to take no for an answer and had the sacred chickens tossed overboard saying, “Let them drink, since they won’t eat.”

Elektra Tig also found a drawing of a sacred chicken coop just in case some of you are looking for coopatecture inspiration:

Maybe some of us urban homesteader types can put together a flock of sacred chickens for the US senate. By Jove, it would probably work better than whatever means of projection they are currently using.

Update: Michael Pigneguy left a link on Facebook to a Smithsonian article with the following chicken divination anecdote:

A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.

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  1. Once the US Senate figured out how to throw the verdict, we would be right back to where we are. Plus, I would hate to see chickens forced to drink. See, even the Roman Senate knew how to rig decisions in their favor with the help of the divines. Nothing changes.

    In my world you did break the news, so your reputation for being a forerunner in the chicken blogging world still stands.

  2. I learned about the divining chickens from one of Lindsey Davis’s Roman detective stories. Who says historical fiction isn’t educational?! Those books are also the first place I was exposed to a few Roman cleaning methods that might be making a comeback any day now: olive oil and strigils, and urine for laundry.

    • I don’t know about the urine for laundry, but can vouch for the strigil with olive oil. Cleansing with oils help preserve the pH balance and acid mantel of the skin without disrupting the beneficial bacteria that are the first line of defense for the body. It also works with the body’s own mechanism of producing oils, dissolves dirt and impurities, moisturizes/conditions and helps deliver those fabulous polyphenols transdermally.

      As for those sacred chickens, what chicken owner/keeper doesn’t think his or her flock is sacred, even if they’re somewhat scruffy? I love the sacred coop!

  3. OMG. You are hilarious Natalie! yes, at least using Sacred chickens to make decisions for the senate would employ the element of chance, instead of just lobbying for certain interests. We might get fairer results! You are a genius! Would Lady Betty volunteer her talents you think?

  4. Pingback: Alektyomancy: Divination by Rooster | Root Simple

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