Good luck from birds with bones
by Sofi Thanhauser
Even in these bloodless times, when the lucky rabbit’s foot has taken on a cast of unacceptable brutality, there is still one murderous pagan practice that we on the rational-scientific, secular-humanist East Coast can still comfortably incorporate into our daily lives. I am talking, of course, about the wishbone.
Breaking a bird’s clavicle in two to see who gets to make a wish is a tradition we inherited from the Romans, via the British, who found a new bird with which to play an old game when they encountered the North American wild turkey (before this, a chicken bone was used and often still is).
The whole, unbroken breastbone of a chicken was considered sacred by the Etruscans, who inhabited what is now Tuscany from prehistoric times up until their absorption into the Roman Empire. The Etruscans believed chickens to have divinatory powers. Like a feathered Ouija board, the ancient Etruscan hen was placed in the center of a circle divided into twenty sections, each containing one letter of the Etruscan alphabet and one piece of corn. As the hen innocently pecked up her food, a scribe recorded the order of the letters, which were then interpreted by a priest. When this portentous hen was subsequently sacrificed, its furcula (collarbone) was considered invested with some sacred power; it was left to dry in the sun, and anyone was allowed to touch it and make a wish.
The intact wishbone as a symbol of good luck remained popular well into the 20th century, though it seems to be waning in the 21st. Images of wishbones littered holiday cards in the 1920s and 1930s.
The wishbone lends its name to a popular brand of salad dressings and, strangely enough, a company called Wishbones Chicken Fingers, of Knoxville, Tennessee, which manufactures frozen, boneless chicken pieces. Not only can you now buy chicken without bones, you can also buy wishbones without the chicken, thanks to the Lucky Break Wishbone Corporation, which fabricates plastic wishbones. According to Ken Ahroni, the company’s founder, he got tired of being skipped over for the wish-bone contest just because he wasn’t a kid anymore. “And so,” he writes, “I invented Lucky Break® Wishbones for the masses so everybody, including vegetarians, have a chance to make a wish.”
Well-intentioned as it seems, to me Ahroni’s effort to democratize luck is counter-intuitive. The whole point of luck is that it makes you the outlier—luck is something that by definition affects only one among many. After all, you probably would’ve thought your parents were pretty thick if they had told you when you were a child that three-leaf clovers were lucky.
The other thing you miss when you buy a ten-pack of Lucky Break® Wishbones is the chance to participate in a ritual that is in some way a recognition of the life of the bird that you, or others, are eating. In a culture that consumes meat like none other in the history of civilization, yet abhors the idea of animal sacrifice, I think that this is a tasty good idea.