Origin of the Wishbone Tradition
Posted on February 22, 2014
The superstitious ritual of breaking a wishbone has been around for centuries with an interesting history rooted in Medieval Europe. As far as historians and archaeologists can tell, in 15th Century Europe the Etruscans, an ancient Italian civilization, believed geese had supernatural visionary powers as oracle birds with these prophetic powers residing within its bones. The Etruscans observed the migratory behavior of geese and believed their reappearance each year signaled the return of the sun, the arrival of spring, and with it, fertility and prosperity.
The day to celebrate the magical and prophetic powers of the goose was November 11, Saint Martin’s day. After feasting on a fattened goose its bones would be dried in the sun, and the next day the breastbone in particular would be examined to predict the severity of the approaching winter. A dark wishbone predicted a severe winter, whereas a lighter color forecast a mild winter.
In 1455 German physician, Dr. Hartleib witnessed and described this practice, and also noted that the Teutonic knights of the time would use a goose’s wishbone to determine the most advantageous time to wage war.
Some sources allege the Etruscans wishing to benefit from the powers of the oracle would pick up the breastbone also known as the furcula and stroke it whilst making a wish; hence the modernization of its name.
It has also been suggested the highly superstitious Etruscans would practice a bizarre ritual known as ‘alectryomancy’ or ‘rooster divination’ using roosters as walking Ouija boards. They would draw a circle on the ground and divide it into wedges representing the letters of the Etruscan alphabet. Small bits of food would be scattered on each wedge, and a chicken or rooster was placed in the center of the circle. As the bird snacked, scribes would note the sequence of letters that it pecked at, and local priests would use the resulting messages to divine the future and answer the city’s most pressing questions.
As the Romans crossed paths with the Etruscans, they adopted some of their customs, including ‘rooster divination’ and making wishes on the furcula. According to legend, the Romans went from petting the bones to breaking them due to a supply and demand situation. Two people would wish on the same bone, then break it to see who got the bigger piece and their wish.
As the Romans left their cultural mark throughout Europe, they brought the wishbone superstition to England. Breaking the wishbone was well established as a British tradition by the time the Pilgrims reached the New World. Thus, the ancient Etruscan superstition became part of celebration (by way of Rome and England).
Etymologists claim the expression ‘get a lucky break’ initially applied to the person winning the larger half in a wishbone tug-of-war.
Due to our fascination of this superstitious tradition, we designed a contemporary good luck charm for both men and women, titled Gypsy Spells & Wishing Wells - $79. Available online, it has been cast in solid brass directly from a wishbone Mum gave me after one of her famous Sunday roasts!