The Holiday Goose
Thanksgiving is nearly upon us; on this American holiday, most families will be eating turkey as the main dish. The turkey, as a large indigenous bird that is easily found in the wilds of the New World, supplanted the goose as the sacred animal of the holiday feast. (In the Old World, the goose, as well as the pig, were the animals associated with festival meals). But we retain a simple tradition from the goose to the turkey: removing the stirrup-shaped “wishbone” and making a wish, then having two people pull the bone apart. The person holding the larger half gets their wish.
The goose had a long association with prophecy and divination, going all the way back to the time of the Etruscans, who examined the bones and the flight patterns of these birds to predict future events. The Romans inherited this practice from the Etruscans, and then spread it all over Europe.
Since feasts and festivals in the old days commemorated the changing seasons and the cycle of sowing and harvesting, divination in some form was always practiced: people wanted to know what was coming next – would the harvest be good, would the winter be bad? And so eating the goose that was slaughtered for the purpose of divining the future from its bones only made good sense.
The Messenger Goose
In legend, geese saved Rome by squawking and honking so loudly in their enclosure on the Capotoline hill in Rome that the Romans were alerted to a stealth attack by the Gauls and were able to defend the city (These were the sacred geese of the Temple of Juno). The story may really mean that the birds were used by oracles at the Temple to divine the Gaulish assault beforehand, or to predict the outcome of the battle.
Similarly, Saint Martin by legend tried to avoid becoming a bishop by hiding in a barn, only honking geese gave away his hiding place. Again, the legend seems to suggest that the Catholic priesthood performed some divination using geese bones to decide who should be appointed bishop. These techniques have been abandoned and then disguised in stories, over time.
It isn’t just that geese are used in divination: these stories seem to suggest that what the geese bones reveal cannot be suppressed, it becomes a truth that cannot be dodged, or hidden, or changed. That’s a lot more dynamic than just knowing the future. Psychologically, it could represent suppressed thoughts that must emerge, that are bound to burst to consciousness no matter what.
The Romans took the breastbone out of the goose, dried it, and then stroked it in order to have the divine message revealed to them. Over time, as the tradition spread over Europe, the wishbone was broken in two by two people vying for the fulfillment of a wish. It was no longer a divination but a kind of luck magic. I think originally, though, bringing forth a bone that framed the heart, the seat of emotion, and bringing out of the dark chest cavity of the goose into the full light of day, and then meditating over that, was probably more in the spirit of the idea of bringing a truth to light, a truth that needed revealing for the good of the person who sought that knowledge.
Our modern, more brutal tradition of breaking the bone in half to force Fate to hand us the goods is a bit more comical. But then again, we’re eating turkey now.
“Mother Goose” is an apocryphal old woman who emerged in 17th century France; she was believed to wander aroundthe countryside telling stories to children. I suspect she is a remnant of whatever goddess took the form of the divination goose, and her function in getting unavoidable truths into the light of day is still ongoing. The stories she was supposedly telling became canonized in various anthology collections, which, although apparently childish, hide very deep meanings indeed. The truth is certainly in these stories, and as long as they are told, they can never be ignored or buried. (The collection also has divination poetry in it).
There was an old woman, and what do you think?
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink;
Victuals and drink were the chief of her diet,
And yet this old woman could never be quiet.
– Mother Goose