What Is the Origin of a Good Luck Wishbone?

The Etruscans revered fowl as oracles.
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The ritual of two people pulling either end of a dried wishbone for the right to make a wish has been become popularized as a thanksgiving tradition in America. When the v-shaped clavicle breaks, the person who winds up with the larger piece is believed to have their wish granted. Although the custom is practiced in many places across the world, scholars have concluded that it originated with the Etruscans, ancient people of the Italian peninsula, at least 2,400 years ago.

1 Sacred Fowl

The Etruscans bestowed religious sanctity on the hen and the cock as clairvoyant creatures; the hen because she squawked right before producing an egg and the cock for announcing the dawn of each new day. Their behavior in certain situations was believed to provide auguries on important matters. If a bird was killed, its collarbone was dried in the sun. Anyone who made a wish or request while stroking the bone (but not breaking it) would supposedly gain the favor. The ritual, like many aspects of Etruscan culture, was picked up by the Romans. Scholars believe the custom evolved into breaking the bone because Roman dinner guests would engage in a tug-of-war over that prized part of the bird. In that form, the custom spread across the Roman Empire, and has lived on ever since.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.