Chickens are among the oldest domesticated animals and the first domesticated animal whose genome we mapped (in 2004). They are believed to have first been domesticated in Southeast Asia from wild red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, though there are some indications that they were domesticated in more than one event and DNA from other, closely related species have been blended in along the way, including the grey junglefowl from India. Archaeological evidence suggests that chickens had reached China by 5400 BCE and the Indus Valley region by 2000 BCE. Egypt and Greece knew them soon after and the Egyptians began developing methods of artificial incubation, the secrets of which were tightly guarded. The rest of the Mediterranean region had chickens by 800 BCE but they didn’t complete their spread through Africa, until the first millennium CE ((https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10437-013-9128-1). Rome spread chickens everywhere they went, bringing them along on campaigns to help them make important decisions via divination. Early chicken-keepers didn’t eat chickens much but kept them primarily for spiritual and entertainment purposes. The earliest archaeological evidence of chickens being kept for food dates to 400 BCE in Isreal. The Romans certainly enjoyed eating chickens and were caponizing roosters by the 2nd century BCE and the first century AD book Apicius features several recipes for chicken.
During the Medieval Period, chickens were still kept for eggs and probably cockfighting, but geese and partridge were preferred for the table. Chicken meat was allowed during fasting days, and wasn’t really considered “meat”. The average person would be eating primarily old hens and problem birds- resulting in the development of more docile breeds. Polynesians may have brought chickens to the Americas about 200 years before the Europeans found them, but the colonists, though they brought their own chickens, were far more excited about the turkeys. White folks didn’t think chickens were worth adding to the 1692 law that made it illegal for slaves to own livestock so they were soon integrated into African American culture and folkways. Many African born slaves would have been familiar with chickens prior to their abduction and already know how to care for and make good use of them.
During the Victorian era, “Hen Fever” prompted people in England and the US to keep exotic chickens as pets and status symbols and we began breeding them more for looks. During the mid-1900s (CE) we developed factory farming and selective breeding to allow chicks to grow fatter more quickly and chickens became cheap and easy to churn out in mass quantities and soon became a cheap and easy source of meat. Thanks to marketing and a steady supply, chicken is now the most popular meat in the world.
Archaeologists believe that chickens were primarily domesticated for the purpose of cockfighting, not for food. Ancient images of cockfights have been found in the Indus Valley region. Cockfighting took on a spiritual significance in many areas, and, while it is illegal in many places today, the sacred cockfight still holds significance throughout the world.
Cockfighting and chickens were probably introduced to Greece from Persia in about the 5th century BC and an annual cockfighting festival held religious significance, as well as entertainment. Roosters were held up as paragons of valor and their behavior presented an example for young warriors to live up to. The Romans initially took a dim view of cockfighting but had thoroughly embraced the sport by the first century AD for strictly entertainment purposes involving gambling. By then they had lost their religious significance in Greece as well.
Cockfighting remains a very popular entertainment during various festivals throughout Asia. In some areas, they are merely festival entertainment, but others attach spiritual significance to them. In India, secular cockfights might be broken up by police, but cockfights held in temples are not interfered with. These fights, which feature blades attached to the roosters’ spurs, are bloody and represent a blood sacrifice to the Gods.
Although cockfighting (tajen) is illegal in Indonesia, it is tolerated within a religious context. Hindu temples in Bali host them regularly to drive away evil spirits, and also as a form of blood sacrifice to propitiate these spirits. This is called tabuh rah “spilling blood”. Cockfighting also features in funerary rites in parts of Indonesia. (https://www.earthstoriez.com/traditional-tajen-cockfighting-bali/)
In Taoist tradition, cockfighting is part of the spring festival related to a custom of extinguishing and relighting a sacred flame, representing the renewal of the sun.
Although it is probable that cockfighting once held some spiritual significance throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, it is now primarily entertainment in those areas and was once very popular in the Southern part of the United States as well. It is now illegal in all 50 United States and animal fighting is banned under US Federal law.
I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I support or like cockfighting or suggest that you engage in it. (I have a pet rooster, after all.) Cockfighting is cruel. It ultimately results in the bloody and painful death of a cock. But it’s also an important part of the evolutionary and spiritual history of the chicken. And it’s important to note that cockfighting traditions, both spiritual and secular, hold the cock in very high regard. The birds are prized and well cared-for, hand fed, petted and loved on right up to the moment of the fight. Winning cocks are status symbols and the loser is often quickly killed when it is obvious his injuries are fatal and often presented to the winner’s family for their supper. The cock as an icon is generally highly respected in these cultures as well; symbolizing valor, strength, nobility, and courage so that even where cockfighting is a strictly secular activity, the cock itself has a deep and mystical symbology attached to it; certainly more so than in cultures where chickens are just for eating.
The chicken is a popular sacrifice in African and diaspora and Latin American traditions. Some Gods prefer the chicken as a sacrifice and, in some cases, color and sex are prescribed. Occasionally a chicken is sacrificed as a symbolic stand-in for a person. For example, if a person is ill or determined to be under attack by spiritual forces, a chicken may be identified as the person and then killed in the place of the human, thus ending the illness or attack. In the Jewish tradition of kapparos, on the day before Yom Kippur, you may transfer your sins into a chicken (or other small animal) and have it sacrificed for your absolution. (See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/it-officially-legal-ritually-kill-chickens-streets-new-york-city-180956667/)
The chicken seems to be a good vessel for spirits in general and may be used to draw out an unwanted spirit during exorcisms or simply be kept nearby during ritual to draw any evil spirits into the chicken so that they leave the people alone. The chicken may be killed afterward, but sometimes it is not. (Watch a mini-documentary featuring Romanian witches. In one scene, a witch uses a chicken to draw a spirit out of a person)
It should be noted that chickens that are sacrificed are still usually eaten by human participants.
Divination by Chicken
It is probable that cockfights were held as divinatory rites throughout the ancient world. Kakkuta Sastra is a complicated form of divination used in India ( Andhra Pradesh, coastal area)that involves cockfighting and astrology. It may have come originally from the Indus Valley region.
Augurs in ancient Rome kept chickens, cared for by the pullarius, to consult in matters of importance, particularly those of a military nature. This was called ex tripudiis, and the answer provided by the chickens was called a tripudium. While any bird could give a tripudium, chickens were preferred. When an important question was to be put to them, the pullarius would open their cage and scatter food about, special cakes were made for this purpose or they used legume seeds. If the chickens came out and ate the food eagerly, scratching about as happy chickens do, the omen was good. If they refused to come out and showed no interest in the food, the omen was bad.
The Book, Memorable Deeds and Sayings: A Thousand Tales of Ancient Rome by Valerius Maximums (tr Henry J Walker) Tells us several stories of the follies of ignoring the chicken oracle. During the first Punic War, Publius Claudius(~340s BCE), was furious that his oracle chickens wouldn’t eat come out of their coop and predict a stellar naval victory and declared that if they didn’t want to eat that they could drink and threw them into the sea. After he lost most of the Roman fleet in the crushing defeat that followed, he was tried for impiety. Gaius Hostilius Mancinus (~130s BCE) suffered a humiliating defeat and was subsequently turned over to the enemy by his own people during the Numantine war, despite the fact that his chickens attempted to warn him off of the attempt by running off into the underbrush and disappearing altogether. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus ignored his chickens (and several other portents) when he decided to run for election to Tribune (133 BCE) and was soon beaten to death and thrown into the Tiber by a bunch of angry Senators.
Chicken entrails were occasionally consulted by the haruspex and Cicero’s De Divination, book II suggested that many believed chickens gave very clear readings indeed. He also mentions that Boeotian bards believed that a cock’s crow foretold a victory; Though he mocks the idea, saying “is there any time, day or night, that they not liable to crow?” and says “you talk as if a fish and not a cock had done the crowing.” It should be noted, when using Cicero as a source, that he had rather a dim view of divination as a whole and much of the conversation of this work is mocking its various forms, even though he was an augur himself.
One method of divination by chicken involves cutting the chicken’s throat (or removing its head) and letting it go and observing its behavior. The chicken will flop around, possibly run around and eventually settle into a final position from which the diviner can make a prediction. An anecdote in Smithsonian tells of an example of this method in Mali where the chicken falls to the right or left when the answer is yes, and forward when the answer is no. When Aid Workers brought modern a modern breed of chicken (Rhode Island Red) to the island, this method failed, as the breed has been selected according to the dining preferences of the modern Western pallet and its oversized breast causes it to just fall forward every time.
In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the Kammu people use chickens extensively in ritual and the thigh bones of a sacrificed chicken are examined afterward. The left thigh bone tells what is happening to the reader and his kin, and the right bone concerns the neighbors. The number of holes and their positions are noted and small sticks stuck into them to see the angle of the holes. Many variations of chicken bone divination exist in this region.
See also Osteomancy
Chickens for healing
While chickens are occasionally used in ritual healing to draw out disease in the same way an evil spirit might be drawn out (I discussed this in the “sacrifice” section), the most common way of using chickens for healing is chicken soup. Science has backed up the long-held home remedy for a cold by confirming that chicken broth does indeed have some anti-inflammatory properties. The use of chicken for medicine dates back at least to the second century BCE when Galen prescribed chicken gizzards, among other things, for bedwetting. In Asian cultures, chicken, particularly the fibro melanistic chickens (the Silkie breed being the best well known of these) is prized for its medicinal properties and given to women to help recover from childbirth.
Chickens for home protection
While modern vernacular calls the cowardly a chicken, and describes someone in a state of distraction or panic as “running around like a chicken with your head cut off”, ancient symbolism of both chickens and roosters was much more favorable. Chickens are associated with loving care and protection of offspring and are the ultimate foster mothers. Indeed a broody hen will accept any egg, and any chick you put under her with barely a ruffle and will care for it as her own, even as it grows to twice her size.
A rooster symbolizes protection and safety of the home and family. A sleeping rooster won’t wait till morning to crow if he is unexpectedly awakened, warning the family that something isn’t right. They are watchful creatures by day as well and will quickly spot a hawk and warn the rest of the flock to take cover. If a predator or unknown rooster comes near, they will chase and attack it with their sharp spurs. Yet a good rooster is very gentle with his hens and chicks, helping them find food and calling them over if he happens to scratch up something really good.
I have heard it said that the cock’s crow scares away the spirits of the night. Zoroastrian symbolism compares the cock’s crow at sunrise with the turning point of the battle of light and darkness. In Central European folk tales, the devil flees at the sound of the cock’s crow and the ghost Shakespeare’s Hamlet faded at the sound.
All chickens engage in scratching behavior and in African and diaspora, Latin America and various American folk traditions, spells are often laid down as tricks spread on the ground in the form of powders and other substances that the target is meant to walk over. Having a chicken, particularly a black hen, and more particularly black hens with frizzled feathers (the frizzle mutation causes feathers to curl counterclockwise) scratching around in your yard ensures that any such spells will be scratched up before they have a chance to affect you.
In modern Western and African folk magick, from what I have observed, the black chicken is the most preferred for magick. However, it appears that white chickens were preferred by the ancients, or at least the ancients who wrote things down, particularly for divination.
During the middle ages, a black cockerel was as much associated with witchcraft as the black cat.
Magical Curios from Chickens
Chicken feathers make feather dusters for cleansing the aura and fans for directing the smoke during cleansing rituals. An entire wing may be preserved for this purpose as well. Feathers may also be added to sachets, container spells and magical crafts and clothing for their protective qualities. They may also be burned and the ashes added to uncrossing powders. (See http://www.herbmagic.com/black-hen-feathers.html for more information and sales.) Primarily black hen feathers are preferred, and frizzled feathers are even better.
However, Jewish tradition states that chicken feathers prolong death agony, so care was taken that the bedding of the deathbed not contain them.
Chicken feet are powerful magical protection from any spells cast against you or negative energy directed at you, including, in some traditions, negative emotion-based energy, such as jealousy and desire which may inspire theft, thus the foot can be used as an anti-theft charm as well as to ward off the evil eye. There is also an implied threat in the chickens claws, and many practitioners will paint the claws bright colors on anti-theft curios to draw attention to them and enhance the threat.
In the case of an existing curse or crossed situation, the foot can be moved around the body in a scratching motion to scratch the negative energy out of your aura. This is usually done in combination with other efforts, such as smoke cleansing and ritual baths.
Some also use chicken feet for spells related to revealing hidden things and uncovering secrets, also relating to the chicken’s scratching habit.
I have also seen chicken feet used like poppets to represent targets for sympathetic magic operations. I have also seen it used like an alligator paw.
Chickens hearts can be used in sympathetic magic, particularly for curses. The heart can be named and pierced with a needle to cause pain to the enemy, or fed to an animal to ensure your power over the enemy.
When the wishbone is retrieved from a roasted chicken, two people can make a wish, each grasping one end of the wishbone and pull until the bone breaks. The person who is left holding the longer piece can expect their wish to come true. The person who is left with the smaller piece can place it over a doorway. The next person who passes through the doorway will be their future lover.
Chicken bones can often be used as a substitute for the bones of another animal in a spell. Apparently, chicken bones spray painted black are often substituted for black cat bones in curio shops.
Chicken eggs are used for divination, ritual cleansing, healing and exorcisms and their shells are used to make Cascarilla powder.
The cockerel is associated with Ares, Athene and Heracles
The bas-relief Persephone and Hades enthroned shows Persephone holding a hen as a cockerel scratches under her throne.
Socrates last word were reported “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius, Pay it and do not neglect it”
The black chicken is the sacrificial animal for Manman Brigitte
The grimoire called the Black Pullet(http://hermetics.org/pdf/grimoire/theblackpullett.pdf), supposedly written by a French soldier who was taught by an Egyptian Kaballist during the Napoleonic era. The hen in question requires some rather elaborate ceremony to bring into existence. This is clearly not an ordinary chicken. According to the text, these hens are used to find hidden treasure, and, of course, they scratch about to do so.
Images of Yuroba offering bowls, many featuring chickens, with discussion of symbolism http://www.randafricanart.com/Yoruba_offering_bowl.html