For most of us, the closest we come to a chicken is when it’s on a plate surrounded by vegetables, but chickens have been humans’ domestic companions for millennia.
In her charming, fact-packed book, as full as an egg, Annie Potts, associate professor at the University of Christchurch’s New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, explores the chicken’s cultural role, backed by a scientific look at its biology and behaviour. In different cultures, chickens have been revered as creators of the cosmos and used in art and sport (eggrolling, cockfighting) and for fortune-telling – from oomancy (predicting the future by interpreting egg whites) to divination by reading their entrails.
They have been sacrificed for their supposed magic properties, eaten as part of ritual practice or rationed because of their sexual power. In parts of India, women may not eat the eggs of wandering chickens lest this encourage them to be faithless, and an African tribe believes eggs are an aphrodisiac and forbids women to eat them. Although Jesus admired the protective nature of chickens, comparing himself to a mother hen (Matthew 23:37), human beings have been eager to project their own taboos and prejudices onto hapless gallinae. In medieval Switzerland, a rooster allegedly laid an egg and was found guilty of heresy and burnt at the stake. Chickens are ever-useful gender role models to stifle uppity women, too. A co-worker once terminated my whistling with her Pitcairn Island version of medieval folklore: “Girls that whistle and hens that crow ought to have their heads amputated off.”
Westerners may not be as immune to chicken magic as we care to think: we pull wishbones and the symbolism of Easter eggs is still potent. Potts shows us there is much to learn and admire about chickenkind. But although the book beguiles and delights with well-chosen images and tales, its tone darkens as it moves into the 20th century. Ours is the age, she asserts, that transformed chickens from animals renowned for their bravery, fortitude and devotion to parenthood into the least-respected and most-manipulated creatures on the planet. As the marketing boys moved in, the lives of chickens became nasty, brutish and short, and they morphed from animals to exploitable stock units. Potts’s research into hens in the arts is wide-ranging enough to include Fiona Farrell’s Book Book, yet one major New Zealand creative contribution to chook art has escaped her. Garner Wayne’s joyous 1965 anthem to inter-species romance, Love in a Fowl House, is absent. Next edition, perhaps.
CHICKEN, by Annie Potts (Reaktion, $39.95).
Dale Williams is a writer and editor.