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.)