Seeing the Signs

Divining By Wish-Bone


In my kitchen, I have two baskets hanging over my stove with recipes jotted onto small pieces of paper & stuffed into them – Pâte Brisée and Pâte Sucré on one and Yummy Good Granola Bars on another – and on the smaller of the two baskets hang five wish-bones. Two from turkeys and three from chickens. The other day, my son was asking me about them. “Why don’t you break them and make a wish?” he inquired. “Isn’t it bad luck if you don’t use them?”
I had never considered that. For years, I had done one turkey a year – at Thanksgiving – and the wish-bone was saved to be wished upon and broken on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight – it was one of my first husband’s and my little traditions. But since we were no longer married, I no longer adhered to that. Was I supposed to break the wish-bone by myself? And none of my other partners seemed particularly keen to continue a tradition started with another man.
When I had a son, of course he wanted to make a wish with the wish-bone after the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner was over – all children do. But as he grew older, he naturally stopped being so into it – he usually left the house as soon as dinner was over to hang with his friends. Generally the wishbone went into the pot with the rest of the carcass when I made broth for soup. Once in a while I thought to save it and that’s how I now have a small collection of wish-bones in my kitchen.
To answer his question as to why I haven’t broken them, well, you can’t break a wish-bone by yourself. I just tried. You need another person to make the magic work. One person holds one end of the bone and the other person grasps the other end, and each person pulls while making a wish. The person who ends up with the larger piece of bone after the wish-bone breaks will have her wish fulfilled. According to the blog “Miracles N Magic”, the person with the shorter end of the bone will be the first to marry. I’m not sure how that works if the person is already married. “Miracles N Magic” also reports that if you don’t want to break the wish-bone, you can let them dry and simply touch them any time you want to make a wish. So evidently, it’s not bad luck if you don’t break them!

The use of using the bones of birds for divination goes back to the Etruscans. A bird’s wishbone is technically known as the forcula. Without this bone, birds would not be able to fly. Apparently, the Etruscans thought that birds, especially chickens, were oracles, and they had an elaborate system of divination using both roosters and hens. One part of this system was letting the forcula dry out in the sun after the chicken had been killed and then use it for making wishes and its other divinatory powers. According to mentalfloss.com, this Etruscan custom was adopted by the Romans and then spread throughout Europe as the Roman Empire expanded. Eventually, it came to the British Isles and became a part of British culture.

Of course, the forculae of other birds were used as well. In The Folklore of Birds, by Edward A. Armstrong, he associates the goose with Aphrodite and eroticism, noting that goose fat was used as an aphrodisiac. Other birds were associated with Aphrodite, including the swan, the sparrow, the dove, and the partridge. No doubt these birds were used in ritual in her honor and the forcula of each bird carefully examined for divinatory messages. As the pagan era was overtaken by Christianity, the original meaning of these oracles were lost. But other divinatory customs came to replace them.

Armstrong notes that geese were common eaten for the feast of St. Michael, known as Michaelmas, September 29, and also for the feast of St. Martin, known as Martinmas, November 11. These feast days were carried over to the New World, but since the Puritans had a horror of Catholic feast days, they were merged into a generic “Thanksgiving Day” at the end of the harvest season. Turkeys, a New World fowl, were roasted as well as geese.
Geese were roasted all over Europe at the harvest season, the Yule season, and the New Year. Armstrong writes, “Dr. Hartlieb, physician to Duke Albrecht of Bavaria, writing in 1455, gives what is apparently the first reference to divination by wish-bone.” He goes on to quote Dr. Hartlieb: “When the goose has been eaten on St. Martin’s Day or Night, the oldest and most sagacious keep the breast-bone and allowing it to dry until the morning and examines it all around … Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, wet or dry …”
Evidently wish-bones were not for making idle wishes, they were for divining the weather. Important stuff. Well into the nineteenth century, peasants all over Europe used the bones of birds to predict the severity of the coming winter and to plan accordingly.
Armstrong does not say how the wish-bone foretells the weather. Perhaps this is lost in time. For now, all we have are our wishes. So the next time you roast a chicken or a turkey, or maybe a duck or goose … remember to save that forcula! Let it dry out for a day or two and then make a wish with your child or someone you love. Enjoy the season!

Works Cited
Armstrong, Edward A. The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origins of some Magio-Religious Traditions. London: Collins, 1958