Why do people break wishbones? The myth of the wishbone has its origins in ancient Etruscan society and its fascination with chickens. In ancient Etruria, chickens were used to divine omens, answer questions, and bring luck; these practices were picked up and adapted by the Romans then spread around the Empire. Europeans extended the wishbone tradition when they started using turkeys and, over time, the wishbone myth and superstition became part of modern holiday traditions. When breaking a wishbone, rules apply, of course, but if you've got the magic touch, you may end up catching a lucky break.
For The Etruscans, Chickens Were Basically Walking Ouija Boards
Etruscans populated central Italy from the 8th to the 3rd centuries BCE and were highly influential on later Italian civilization. Etruscans were polytheistic and believed in natural spirits and omens, often deciphering them from augury. Etruscan augury involved watching birds and the weather to look for signs and find answers to questions (they also practiced haruspicy, in which they assessed the entrails of animals for the same purposes).
One form of augury called alectromancy focused on chickens, which the Etruscans valued highly and considered divine. Etruscans asked questions then watched the feeding patterns of chickens to decipher answers in what they observed. After a chicken was killed, its bones were dried and preserved to maintain its divinity.
Diviners Literally Fed Chickens Their Questions
Etruscans used chickens to get guidance by letting them spell out names and words. They would draw a circle and divide it into sections with a letter of the alphabet in each section. They then placed food on each letter. When the chickens ate, the pieces of food they chose from the letters spelled out the answer to whatever question the diviner had asked.
How did the chicken know the question? The diviner conducting the ritual chopped off the chickens claws and fed them back to the animal along with a lambskin scroll on which the inquiry was written.
Romans Adopted Rooster Divination From The Etruscans
When the Romans interacted with the Etruscans during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, they picked up the practice of alectromancy. Etruria, north of Rome and the Tiber River, became part of the growing Roman world by the 2nd century BCE.
The Etruscan legacy of augury was expanded by the Romans who used chickens for alectromancy in different ways. Romans fed chickens before battle to assess their appetites. If the chickens ate well, it was a good omen, but if they weren't interested in food, luck was not on their side. The Romans could stack the deck in their favor, however, and "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."
Sometimes Romans Killed The Birds When They Didn't Get Their Desired Answer
Roman navy commander Publius Claudius Pulcher once used alectromancy before battle, but the chickens weren't hungry and therefore didn't give him the answer for which he was hoping. The Roman military carried chickens with them and during the First Punic War, Publius used them to determine whether or not he would win in an upcoming battle. The birds would not eat, which was a bad sign. He said, "Since they do not want to eat, let them drink!" and ordered them thrown into the sea.
The naval battle that ensued saw the near annihilation of the Roman fleet. A humiliated Pulcher returned to Rome in the aftermath of the disastrous engagement whereupon he was tried for impiety. The records are unclear, but Pulcher was either convicted and sentenced to exile, or acquitted when the proceedings were adjourned due to rain. Whatever the outcome, Pulcher died shortly afterwards.