The “wishbone” is a bird’s furcula (“little fork” in Latin), formed by the fusion of two clavicles. It’s important to flight because of its elasticity and the tendons that attach to it.
It’s important to humans because it’s been used for divination since the time of the ancient Etruscans. In the third edition of John Russell Bartlett‘s 1859 Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett thoroughly describes this wishing-bone: ” The bone, after being dried, is taken by two persons, who hold each shank between their fore-finger and thumb, and then pull until it breaks, at the same time wishing for something. The one in whose fingers the larger portion remains, it is said, will have his wish.”
According to historians, the Etruscans believed that chickens were oracles and could predict the future using an odd ritual known as alectryomancy. A circle was drawn on the ground and divided into wedges, like a pie, each one representing a letter of the Etruscan alphabet. Food was scattered on the wedges and a chicken placed in the center of the circle. As the bird pecked at the food, watchers would note the sequence of letters that it pecked at, and the local priests would use the resulting messages to divine the future. When the bird was killed and the wishbone dried, people would use it to make wishes.
We North Americans use the turkey wishbone to make wishes at our various celebrations. The British might be breaking those of geese, chickens, or other fowl. And, in British English, this wishbone was actually once called the merrythought.
The Oxford English Dictionary references English polymath John Aubrey’s late 1600s folklore compilation, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme. In a passage called Lotts, Aubrey writes: “Tis common for two to breake the Merrythought of a chicken-hen, or wood-cock, &c., the Anatomists call it the Clavicula; ’tis called the merrythought, because when the fowle is opened, dissected, or carv’d, it resembles the pudenda of a woman.”
Humans have unfused clavicles, also known as collarbones. I suppose that’s why we can’t fly. Wishbones have been found in most branches of the dinosaur family tree, too. So we’re all related: chicken, human, dinosaur, even if we don’t look alike.
Happy Thanksgiving, and merry thoughts to you all!