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Alectriomancy – fortune-telling with chickens

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A rooster on the Roman mosaic
A rooster on the Roman mosaic

The Romans, as a nation famous for their godly fear already in ancient times, tried to run the state as often as possible in accordance with the will of the gods read through the signs of omens. The Quirite people respected birds very much, because it was from their flight that the future and divine intentions were foretold by means of auspices.

Few, however, know how much esteemed among the ancient prophets was… chickens. Fortune telling with fortune-telling chickens – alectriomancy (from Greek hen)had the status of public auspices, often of state importance. Even a specially appointed man, the so-called pullularius, whose task was to deliver the birds to the place and prepare them for divination. The proclamation itself usually consisted of observing birds pecking at scattered grains: a sign was read as auspicious when the hens ate it willingly, and unfavourable when they were not interested in it.

Suetonius in the biography of Tiberius describes the story of Claudius Pulcher, who before the sea battle of Drepanum off the coast of Sicily in 249 BCE he decided to consult the oracle by this method. When he saw that the chickens did not want to eat the grain, he ordered – furious – to throw them overboard so that they “drank if they did not want to eat” (he lost the battle, of course, losing 93 out of 120 ships).

The more inquisitive could rely on another form of alectriomancy to give a specific answer. The ancients recommended drawing a circle on the ground, divided into as many parts as the letters of the Greek alphabet (we suggest, twenty-four) and scattering seeds on them. At that time, a rooster of the colour specified by the fortune-telling, which had not yet known the hen, had to be let in (play on words – from Greek not married). The letters he approached first formed the oracle’s answer to the question. It is said that this is how Emperor Valens learned the name of his heir (the alectriomantic rooster pecked out the grain from the letters T.E.O.D).

Author: Grzegorz Bukowiecki (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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