Last time we learnt how the chicken played what could quite well have been a pivotal role in the Roman Empire. If you think on it, how many times did the Pulliarus, the keeper of the sacred chickens cast down some food, open the cage of the sacred chickens and then take the auspices. Divining that the army of foot soldiers on the border of new lands should march forth and take the lands from the native people. This was all because the chicken consumed the food with such hunger it was deemed as a sign that war should be waged? Not to cast aspersions at the Roman beliefs but perhaps the chicken was simply hungry?
It’s not a question we can answer but it is not the only occasion in the history of the chicken that it has played an important role in the belief systems of different cultures and religions. In fact the humble chicken has played a role of great significance across a variety cultures.
Cultures across the world have long admired the qualities of chickens and have universally developed a vast array of beautiful breeds, many of which we will look at later in this series. Chickens have also played spiritual roles across a range of cultures and beliefs including Greek mythology, European folk tales, Chinese religions and their zodiac (a classification scheme that assigns an animal and its reputed attributes to each year in a repeating 12-year cycle), Hindu ceremonies, Jewish practice, Christianity and many more.
Frequently within religions their significance is down to the cockerels propensity to crow at first light and this is encapsulated perfectly in Islam when the messenger of Allah says:
“When you hear the crowing of the cockerels, ask for Allah’s blessing for they have seen an angel.”
In China the chicken (or rooster) is one of the signs the Chinese zodiac. It is the tenth of the 12-year cycle of animals and, perhaps unsurprisingly to those who know me, I was born in the year of the rooster. Interestingly in Chinese religion we encounter for the first time on this exploration of the history of the chicken, a case of one being cooked. This though was not for general consumption but as a religious offering to honour ancestors or worship deities that looked over small communities (unless of course if that deity was vegetarian where such an offering would cause offence.). The chicken also played the role of ‘substitute’ at Confucian Chinese weddings where upon a chicken was used in the place of the bride or groom who was unable to attend the ceremony through serious illness or even recent death. It is said that a red silk ribbon or scarf is placed on the chickens head as close relative of the absentee bride or groom holds the bird, enabling the ceremony to proceed.
Further afield in ancient Greece it was the valour and spirit of the cock birds that lead them to be considered in the likeness of Heracles the Greek divine hero and the god and goddess Ares and Athena. So brave and courageous were the cockerels that the Greeks believed that even lions would fear the birds on encountering them. Within the Greco-Roman belief system of Mithras, a mystery or secret religion, the rooster crops up, symbolising divine light, acting as a guardian against evil. In fact one the most characteristic features found in Mithraic temples is the lion-headed figure who stands entwined in a serpent with the cockerel of Mercury, the Roman god, standing by its feet.
Within the Hindu religion the chicken plays an important role during cremation ceremonies. In Indonesia a chicken is tethered by the leg and kept at the ceremony until it is complete as it is believed that the bird is a channel for evil spirits. Its role is to ensure any evil spirits that may be present at the gathering enter the chicken and not the family members who are there. Perhaps strangely the chicken is not then slaughtered, but returned home and allowed to live its normal life.
In a similar, but less fortunate conclusion for the chicken, the Jewish religion uses the chicken in the ritual known as kapparos, a ritual that is predominantly performed on the afternoon before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur as it is known. The fate of the bird is terminal however the ritual results in the sins of the ritual performer being taken on by the bird before its carcass is then donated to the poor for food.
Such is the power of the chicken in apparently battling evil that in some folk tales of Central Europe it is said that Satan himself flees at the crow of the cockerel. That said the Talmud, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and theology, speaks of learning “courtesy toward one’s mate” from the rooster. My observations would suggest this is down to the way that rooster or cockerel will call hens to any juicy morsels he comes across, standing back keeping guard as they feast on his findings.
Finally chickens also get a mention in Christian religion too though perhaps not so warmly. In the Bible it was prophesied by Jesus that he would be betrayed by Peter
“I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today you will deny three times that you know me”
As the Bible goes on to state, Peter did in fact betray Jesus and he cried bitterly. The cockerel was held then as a symbol of both betrayal and watchfulness. That said earlier in the Bible Jesus is said to have compared himself to a mother hen longing to gather together the children of Jerusalem just as “a hen gathers her chicks under her wings”.
It is interesting to see just how the chicken has worked its way in to so many belief systems and cultures though this should be of no surprise, as we have already said this flightless fancy from the East seems to have traveled far and wide, making allegiances along the way with whoever it met.