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Title: Sacred chickens
Original Title: Poulets Sacrés
Volume and Page: Vol. 13 (1765), p. 203
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Dena Goodman [University of Michigan]
Subject terms:
Roman necromancy
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA):
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Sacred chickens." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Dena Goodman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2007. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Poulets Sacrés," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 13:203 (Paris, 1765).

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens . The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them. They had these chickens brought from the island of Negreponte. The Romans were very careful not to give out false omens drawn from the sacred chickens after the fatal adventure of the person who took it into his head to do so under L. Papirius Cursor, consul, in the Roman year 482.

He declared war on the Samnites, says Livy, book X , and in the situation in which they found themselves, the Roman army ardently desired that a battle would ensue. However, it was necessary to consult the sacred chickens ; and the desire for battle was so general, that although the chickens did not eat at all when they were taken from their cage, those who were charged to observe the omen did not fail to report to the consul that they had eaten heartily. At this, the consul promised his soldiers at the same time both the battle and the victory. However, there was a dispute among those who guarded the chickens about this omen, that it had been reported falsely. The brouhaha got to Papirius himself, who said that a favorable omen had been reported to him, and that he would hold to it; that if he had not been told the truth, it was the business of those who drew the omens, and that all the evil would fall on their heads. He immediately ordered that these unfortunates be put in the front lines; and before the signal for battle could be given, an arrow flew, without anyone knowing from what side, and pierced the guard of the chickens who had reported the omen falsely. As soon as the consul heard this news, he cried:

“The gods are present here, the criminal is punished; they have discharged all their anger upon him who deserved it, now we have nothing but reasons to hope.”

Immediately he had the signal given, and he won a complete victory over the Samnites. It is quite apparent, says M. de Fontenelle, that the gods had less to do with the death of this poor guard of chickens than Papirius did, and that the general wanted to shoot a subject in order to reassure the soldiers, whom the false omen could have shaken.