Maybe you have a special technique that ensures you get the lion’s share and I wonder if you make the wish before you pull or after when the pressure to think of something worthwhile may result in a wasted wish; and just how long should you leave it to dry.
There’s a whole lot of science when it comes to pulling the wishbone but where did this age old custom originate and why?
Wars were fought, cities built and leaders appointed all on the say-so of the ancient Etruscan priests whose words and prophecies commanded unquestioned respect and honour. Even the Romans paid homage to their religion and superstitions that Man’s destiny was decided upon by the behaviour of their deities including lightning, the flight patterns of birds and the internal organs of sacrifices.
And there was one particular bird that this highly regarded civilisation venerated above all others; the humble chicken.
They would throw food out before the feathered oracle and if the hen refused to leave its perch to peck, that was a bad omen. Or where a more complicated resolution was sought, they would set up a Ouija board and put grain on each letter and record the order in which the hen ate, thus spelling out a name or other message. This alectryomancy or chicken divination was carried out by only a select few and could alter a battle strategy or even the construction of an entire city.
Sadly for the bird it was most likely his last meal as it would then be sacrificed and its innards laid out in search of further mysterious messages, with the bones being left to dry. And with the priests’ propensity for seeing yet more missives in a bird’s flight-plan, they were especially eager to preserve the furcula (Latin for ‘little fork’) or as we know it, the wishbone.
For it is the wishbone that is formed by the fusion of the two clavicles and it helps strengthen the thoracic skeleton giving the bird essential flying power; so it makes sense that they deemed the little fork to be of great importance.
WHEN IN ROME … BRITAIN OR AMERICA
The Etruscans were paid such respect and their superstitions so highly thought of that the Romans adopted many of their beliefs and practices, including honouring the wishbone; although not just in chickens but other birds such as the goose. They would leave the bone in the sun to dry and whatever colour it turned would be an indicator of what the winter was going to be like; dark for severe and a lighter colour for a mild winter.
People passing by the bone would brush it for luck and good fortune but it seems someone decided there wasn’t enough luck to share in a single bone and they stopped leaving it out.
This in turn led to a more defined distribution of good luck as the recipient of the bone would gamble his fortune with a pal; each holding an end of the fork, each having a wish, each pulling to see who ended up with the big bit at the top; the winner getting his wish. If the bone split precisely in half with each getting an equal portion, then both were granted their wish.
Sadly for the Etruscan people, very little evidence of their existence was preserved as Christianity swept away all pagan gods along with any recordings of their practices, but the tradition of pulling the furcula continued to be observed by the Romans and they duly passed the tradition onto us Brits and we in turn took it across the pond to America.
However, the term ‘wishbone’ was only established in the mid-1800s in America up to which time it had been called a ‘merrythought’ and we liked it so much we adopted the expression over here.
So whether it’s a merrythought or a wishbone, I’m all for supporting our ancient civilisations, I just need to improve my pulling technique and besides, I have a long wish-list!