Good luck, bad luck and omens: Birds and folklore part two

Let’s start with something positive… The wish granting ability of the wishbone!  A common luck related tradition is that of breaking the wishbone of a bird although apparently this is a lot less widespread these days as people don’t eat as much poultry on the bone apparently (I don’t eat meat so I have no idea about these things).

It wasn’t until Roman times that the bone was broken to grant wishes, before this it was dried and stroked…  Birds were scarce in Rome and there weren’t enough wishbones to go around so the snapping of them came into practice.

On a side note, did you know t-rex’s had wishbones!

Whilst we’ve got our hands covered in bird bones… In Bavaria on St Martin’s Day, once the goose had been eaten and the breastbone was left to dry overnight, the bone would be closely examined and from it predictions would be made about the weather of the coming winter.  This was taken so seriously that the information would be used to make decisions about war.

Cockerels are associated with divination but this time they got to live to carry out their practice.  Greeks used to mark grains of corn with letters of the alphabet and the order in which the cockerel pecked at them would be used to make predictions.  Romans used a similar approach, feeding unmarked grain to a special group of sacred chickens and how they ate it (fast, slow etc) would provide them with omens.

Other ways of using birds feeding in divination included sprinkling the grain on top of what was essentially an alphabet board.  This is sort of a cross between the greek and roman methods and you’d see which letters the birds pecked first and interpret the results.

Using bird behaviour to make predictions went beyond what they were eating and often relates to when particular species arrive or leave.  Cuckoos arrival heralded spring and so the bird was seen to foretell the coming weather.  In agricultural societies this was critical information and there was a belief that the cuckoo was sent by the gods.  In other parts of the world similar beliefs were held but for local birds instead of the cuckoo.  The predictive talents of the cuckoo were utilised by children in Yorkshire who called out:

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cherry-tree
Good bird, prithee, tell to me
How many years I am to see

They would then shake the cherry tree and the number of cherries which fell out would correspond to the number of years they would live.  This is just one of a number of beliefs which use the cuckoo to tell the future.  Rooks were another bird believed to be able to forecast the weather.  A Yorkshire saying went that if they perched on dead branches of trees that rain would come that day but if they were on live branches the weather would be fine and dry.

Oomancy, or egg divination, was another practice used to predict the future.  There were a number of methods but one included separating the whites from the yolks and dropping the whites into hot water.  The shapes formed would then be read and interpreted to provide predictions.

From what I can tell, a popular use of oomancy was to tell a mother to be how her pregnancy was progressing.  An egg would be rubbed on her stomach and then cracked open.  One yolk meant one child, two meant twins and so on but blood in the egg meant a miscarriage or complications.  There were also ways of using eggs to predict the sex of the child.

Other egg related beliefs include double yolked eggs as a sign of good luck and/or a sign someone in your family is pregnant, possibly with twins.

The flight of birds, known as augury, was also used in divination.  The augur, the person reading the bird flight, would be able to interpret the movements as omens and hence determine whether things were looking good or bad, or auspicious or inauspicious.  This practice goes back a long way in time although it is commonly associated with the Romans as they formalised methods.

In Ancient Greece, augury was considered to be messages from gods but in Rome it was taken as the will of gods.  This meant that the readings told the Romans what they could or could not do.  This was taken so seriously that the creation of laws, elections, even wars weren’t allowed to go ahead unless the gods agreed.

Apparently even the location of Rome came down to augury.  Romulus and Remus debated where to build the city, each had chosen a spot and from there they watched for vultures.  Remus saw 6 but Romulus saw 12 and so, through him, the gods decreed they agreed with Romulus and thus Rome is where Rome is.  No wonder Rome wasn’t built in a day…

Further reading

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