A beloved Thanksgiving tradition that can trace its roots back to Plymouth Rock, the breaking of the triangle is meant to give the winner good luck for the entirety of the following year.
For the non-anointed, these are two participants who, after taking the bone from the turkey carcass and allowing it to dry for a while, each grab one side of the bone. After both parties have made a wish, they then tear off the bone; whoever ends up with most of the bone is the winner. While arguably barbaric by today’s standards, tradition remains a mainstay in most American homes on the most typical American vacation.
But as fate willed it, the wishbone predates the arrival of the first American settlers – in fact, there are very few “Americans” on the wishbone tradition … and it certainly does not come from a Turkey.
An ancient people originally from Etruria, Italy, the Ecustrans were considered a Mediterranean commercial power between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC. It was a polytheistic people who recognized “gods for all those important places, objects, ideas and events, which were supposed to affect or control daily life”, according to Encyclopedia of World History. They also regarded birds as creatures of the divine variety, even practicing electromancy, or “an ancient form of fortune telling using a rooster to select grains of food placed on letters of the alphabet”, to predict the future, according to Folk Thursday.
The Ecustrans are the first to be credited with harvesting the furcula – aka the wishbone – but rather than breaking it after letting it dry in the sun for a few days, they gently stroke it while making their wishes. It is said that the breaking up of the triangle, and the subsequent competitive component, did not come into play until much later, after the tradition was absorbed by the Romans, largely because of the scarcity of chickens. The idea was that by breaking the bone in half, more people would be able to make a wish.
According to that of Peter Tate Flights of Fancy: birds in myth, legend and superstition, after the Romans had requisitioned the practice, breaking the triangle then became a traditional holiday custom, then making a pit stop in medieval Europe… via a goose. Because the goose was worshiped as an object of worship, its consumption was limited almost exclusively to special occasions such as Saint-Martin, a festival originating in France which celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the start of the harvest.
“Geese were also eaten on the night of Saint-Martin (November 11), an occasion on which the“ divination of the triangle ”or“ joyful thought ”took place: two people pulled the triangle (in technical terms, the furcula ) goose, and whoever broke the larger piece could either make a wish or be guaranteed lucky, ”Tate wrote.
The parallels between St. Martin’s Day and Thanksgiving – fall; harvest; gratitude – are evident, and it’s easy to see how, through the eyes of early American settlers, the tradition of triangles seemed obvious.
That said, a few other theories argue that the wishbone was actually some sort of sexual thing, too. In an exploration of old English literature that lends itself well to theory, Slate quotes the volume of 1908 New English dictionary, which then defines happy thought like “The name, like the synonym wishbone, [which] alludes to the playful custom of two people pulling a fowl’s furcula until it breaks; According to popular belief, whoever gets the longest piece (in some neighborhoods the shortest) will either get married earlier than the other, or get whatever wish he or she may wish to be fulfilled at that time. Through Folk Thursday, some claim that the triangle is divine not because it originated from within a divine creature, but because the bone “resembles the human crotch or female genitalia, revered as the giver of all life”.
Likewise, in his folklore compilation from the 1600s, Remains of Gentilism and Judaism, The English mathematician John Aubrey wrote: “It is common for two to break the happy thought of a hen-hen, or a rooster, etc., anatomists call it the Clavicula; this is called the joyful thought, because when the poultry is cut open, dissected or carved, it looks like a woman’s pudenda.
All that to say: it’s a bit of a weird tradition to be associated with the most American of vacations, given that it hails from an ancient Italian civilization and is also, perhaps, about sex. . (Pilgrims, in case you missed it, were deemed to be Puritans.) Something to ponder as you break bread with distant relatives and participate in all the other festivities this Thanksgiving – the chief breaking furcula in shape of pudenda among them.
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