So the last post consisted of a rather strange train of thought in which I conjectured that Claudius Pulcher the Beautiful would never have experienced such serious consequences for sacrilege if his battle had been won. I've been thinking about him since then. I've also been thinking about how the ancient Romans were a bunch of putzes for letting his bad luck influence their judgment concerning whom the gods do and do not approve. I mean, they could dislike the job he's doing without going straight to "God doesn't like you."
Then I started thinking about our own more modern tendency to judge people based on their life circumstances, some of which are not the products of individual choice or merit, but simply the result of the the Fates randomly throwing monkey wrenches at us. I've even heard that crap about God liking or disliking people based on their circumstances.
In fact, someone just the other day shared a quote from somewhere ( I don't know where, but probably a motivational speaker that charges and arm and a leg...and your self-esteem and dignity.) The quote says, "Everything you do is based on the life choices you make. It's not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period."
Ummm...so if you choose to get treated or not to get treated for cancer? Totally on you? What if you're afraid of going out on your own because you were sexually assaulted? What if you have a hard time trusting yourself to find a mate because you were abused as a child and you can't quite trust yourself in a relationship? What about people who are refugees due to wars or famine? It seems to me that there are lots of circumstances that force us into unpleasant decisions all the time. During the Great Depression do you really think that everything a person did was down to the choices they'd previously made? The economy didn't affect even one of their choices going forward?
Just like those ancient roman putzes we blame people for their own circumstances...especially if those circumstances are unpleasant. Homelessness? Obviously drugs or extravagance. Rape? What did you wear? Poverty? Why didn't you study harder in school. But no more questioning how we got here....let's think about it.
Before we come round to figuring out what's wrong with us, let's think about what happened to Claudius in a bit more depth because I think it illustrate very well how superstitious people are about bad luck and poor circumstances. The Roman Senate punished Claudius for what I take to essentially be sacrilege...on the surface. He sinned against the gods.
However, let's ask ourselves again. What if Claudius had won that battle, if no one was trying to throw the blame for the failure onto anyone else? If Rome had defeated Carthage in battle that day would anyone even have noticed that some innocent chickens drowned? I don't know...and this is all speculation...but I don't think so. Cast yourself back to that time period. If Rome had defeated Carthage I can only imagine that the Romans would be filled with a great sense of joy and relief, a feeling that the gods were smiling upon them. In that atmosphere is is hard to imagine the priests bringing charges against Claudius or the Senate hearing them. To take the general who had defeated Rome's greatest enemy to task for losing some poultry would have been unthinkable (I think).
It was the outcome of the battle that doomed Claudius not the sacrilege. Interestingly, it does not appear that Claudius went to trial for using poor battle tactics, or for being a coward, or not following orders from the senate (except insofar as they might prefer he listen to the priests.) He barely escaped execution for ticking off the gods. How did the senate know he had ticked off the gods? Because he lost the battle. Had he won I have little doubt that this would have proved to the people of that the gods were not bothered about the chickens and that they weren't ticked off at all. Claudius' fate did not depend on following protocol...it did not depend on a list of rules that he break or keep. It did not depend at all on the fact that he broke the law...it depended on the outcome of breaking the law. Is that justice?
No. It's superstition. The Senate wasn't worried about what Claudius had done. They were worried about what the gods were going to do to them. They wanted to sacrifice his career (and nearly his life) to appease the gods. They didn't want to end up being losers. The fear was that they could be like him. Any one of them might have an unlucky day and get to walk a mile in his shoes...right into exile in the deep, dark forest. I would like to think that things are very different today. But are they?
I think that one of the reasons we are so unkind to those less fortunate in circumstances is that we also fear being like them...so we follow out the chain of reasoning. I will never be homeless because I work hard. I will never get raped because I dress modestly. I will never be in an accident because I drive carefully. It's not our sense of justice that drives these judgments. It's our fear. We don't want to be like those people and we can't acknowledge that any one of us is a financial or medical emergency away from disaster.
So, to everyone who thinks those old Romans were putzes, or that their vengeful gods went out of business, maybe think again.
Alright. There's my further thoughts about the sacred chickens. We'll see what happens next post.
Why Sacred Chickens?
by Julie Carpenter
Why Sacred Chickens?
First of all, chickens are lovely, yes, even sacred creatures. They gift us with eggs, insect control, and cheerful chatter. Chickens deserve more love than they receive. (Except as the tastiest link on the food chain, but that is not the kind of love we're talking about here.)
Of course, there is also the well known story of the Sacred Chickens of Rome. It is the story of a battle, a general, a priest and some chickens. Believe it or not, chickens play a leading role! It's a compelling narrative, one with all the classic elements: hubris; battle; tragedies (more than one); finicky chickens; offended priests. We even have a witty protagonist in the Admiral (I don't know if that was his official title, but it will work for our purposes). I will get to that shortly.
The Story of the Sacred Chickens of Rome in a Nutshell (or Eggshell if You Prefer)
During the first Punic War, when the Romans were battling for their lives against the Carthaginians, a naval officer in the Roman Army, Claudius Pulcher, was preparing to go into battle. (I've already given him the title Admiral above. Whether this is a promotion or demotion, I do not know.) On board his ship was a coop of chickens. Yes. There was. Because who would ever sail into battle without a chicken coop aboard. (I'm sure it provided food as well as guidance. I hope.) Anyhoo, these chickens, oddly, were to be consulted about many things, including when to start fighting. Their wisdom was interpreted by their caretaker, a priest. In this instance, the priest told the admiral the signs were not favorable when the chickens refused to eat. Claudius (strangely) felt that he knew better than the birds what might be a good time to begin combat. (The nerve of this battle-scarred sailor! Thinking he had better military insight that a flock of egg-laying, feathered oracles.) In short, he was offended by the chickens' advice. He therefore unceremoniously dumped them overboard, quipping, "If they will not eat, let them drink instead.”
Unfortunately for Claudius, the chickens were...right. He lost. Shortly afterwards, he was brought up on charges of impiety and, in all likelihood, exiled. If I'm not mistaken, he died in disgrace a short while afterwards. The chickens had taken revenge from their watery grave.
If pressed, I have to admit I'm on the side of the chickens. They're delightful creatures and I love eggs! Tossing them in the drink was definitely a step too far! All the knowledge I have of Claudius Pulcher suggest he was a bit cantankerous and overly confident. Who knows? Maybe a day when your hens are too seasick to eat really isn't the best day for a battle on the water?
But I do have a little sympathy for the man. I have hens and they are the last creatures I would ask such a question. (I would probably ask the cats. They might know. Although, I would be somewhat suspicious of their motives and consider their answer very, very carefully). Chickens are afraid of everything...as well they should be. They are, after all, at the bottom of the food chain. If I were a greater (or even lesser god) myself, I can’t imagine that I would be tremendously concerned about influencing the digestive tracts of chickens. (Although if there are such beings, I wish I could get them to influence my chickens to quit crapping on the back porch). Besides that, I feel like a lot of Claudius Pulcher's problem was simply bad luck. Would he have gone to trial for sacrilege if he had won the battle? Of course, I don’t know the answer, but I bet he wouldn’t have. At the very least, I think the consequences would have been a lot less onerous. The whole argument seems a little circular from my perspective. Claudius angered the gods by ignoring them and therefore he lost the battle, and we know we are right to say he angered the gods because he lost the battle. (I'm really more annoyed at him for drowning the chickens. For that, perhaps he did deserve exile. Or at least a lifetime without eggs!)
All in all, I don't feel too comfortable making judgments about any of the players in this narrative, since we are at such a temporal, philosophical and theological distance from the story. It's kind of opaque from here. I'm mostly relieved that I don’t live in a time and place where a religious observance involving chickens could come that close to getting me executed.
Anyhow, I've always kind of loved this story for being one of the few that allows chickens the opportunity to play a dramatic role in history. I'm sure they're tired of being comic relief. So Sacred Chickens it is! And if we've learned anything here...it's to always, always listen to the chickens. (I mean...you don't have to take their advice...but you can always listen. And don't drown them if you don't like it. It can go a lot worse than you might think.)