Take a moment to picture man’s best friend. The image that comes to you is likely the happy-go-lucky visage of your favorite canine companion. While Fido is certainly the most obvious answer, consider another candidate instead: the chicken. Humble and unassuming, the common domestic chicken may not seem like much, but throughout the last 10,000 years of human history this feathered fowl has been an ever-present influence.
Previously thought to have emerged around 2,000 B.C., current research now indicates that chickens were first cultivated as domestic animals as early as 8,000 B.C. (1) Early uses for chickens seem to have focused less on food and more on activities such as rituals or sport. (2). In areas where the decidedly inhuman practice of cock-fighting still occurs, this may be considered the world’s oldest continuing sport. (3) For the sake of this article, by the way, “chicken” will be used to refer to both sexes. Often, “chicken” is meant only to refer to female birds. For the sake of clarity, when specifying the sex of the chicken, “rooster” and “hen” will be used instead.
We know them, most of us eat them, but what meaning do chickens hold for us? To answer that we will dive into the spiritual, mythological, and folkloric traditions that have arisen around these birds. From endless fables and idioms to ancient augury, there is an almost bottomless well of cultural meanings associated with this understated bird.
Chicken Symbolism and Meaning
The symbolism of chickens is so vast that it is impossible to nail down one consistent meaning to attach to them. Associations for chickens often come from idioms and stories, and because of their prolonged contact with mankind, there is a near endless abundance of these.
Chickens are often colloquially associated with cowardice due to the common insult. Similarly, idioms like “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” associate these birds with wimpy-ness or panic. The classic “Chicken Little” story similarly connects chickens with foolishness, paranoia, and anxiety. (4)
Other idioms, though, treat chickens with a touch more dignity. Phrases like “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” refer to chickens as potential assets. The “cock of the walk” is an idiom that describes someone who is popular, confident, or at the top of their game. The phrase “All your chickens have come home to roost,” refers to chickens as the inevitable consequences of one’s actions. This is often used negatively, but its meaning is quite similar to the chicken-free idiom “You reap what you sow.”
There are also plenty of heavily gendered meanings associated with chickens. Chickens are sexually dimorphic, meaning that male and female chickens have visually different anatomy. Roosters are typically associated with virility, lust, aggression, and masculinity. Hens are often associated with more feminine traits like maternal care, protective instinct, and domesticity.
Even the English language has been permeated by chicken imagery. The word “broody” refers to the attitude that hens experience when they are ready to sit atop their eggs and protect them. “Hen-pecked,” meaning nagged, refers to the association of hens with chatty or headstrong women. “Cocksure” or “cocky” refers to the assertive confidence exuded by a strutting rooster. There are many more examples of chicken imagery in language and culture, but suffice it to say that these birds are so very meaningful to human beings that the nuances of context must be considered when interpreting them as signs.
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Chicken Christianity Symbolism
In Matthew 23:37 Jesus describes a mother hen’s watchful and nurturing love for her chicks as a metaphor for his feelings towards the people of Israel. (5) In this way, the hen in Christian iconography is an enduring symbol of maternal love and Christ-like sacrifice.
Chicken Celtic Symbolism
There are countless old Irish idioms involving chickens. A great deal of these idioms refer to hens as metaphors for femininity or womanhood.
The rooster, also, is symbolic of the the Gallic (Continental Celtic) people on account of the Latin “Gallus” meaning “rooster” resembling the word “Gaul.” The Gallic rooster continues to endure as a symbol of France.(6)
Chicken in Dreams
Chickens in dreams can have so many different meanings, that the dreamer must do some leg work when it comes to interpretation. Look for areas of your life in which your chicken-related dream makes sense and carefully consider your dream’s context.
Dreaming of a single chicken may indicate that you are feeling isolated or feeling the need to strengthen or connect with you support system. Chickens are not solitary animals. A single chicken on its own would be feeling quite lost and anxious.
Dreaming of a hen with chicks is representative of a feminine nurturing spirit. This may be a positive sign for the dreamer who intends to have children soon. It may also represent a change in the relationship between the dreamer and their mother.
Dreaming of a rooster points to a looming problem. The rooster reminds us to attack our problems head on and with confidence. A “fake it until you make it” attitude may be necessary to confront the dilemma that the rooster represents.
A rooster and hen together represent the anima and animus; male and female spirit inside each person. It is not uncommon for dreamers to connect with their opposite gender spirit through dreams. This can be an enlightening and introspective experience that helps to bring the spirit into balance. (7)
Chicken Encounters and Omens
An encounter with a chicken can be a powerful omen. Used in augury and fortune telling since ancient times, the chicken has long been believed to be capable of guiding and informing human beings with knowledge of the future.
Encountering a large group of chickens is an auspicious sign. Chickens are livestock and represent prosperity and abundance. To encounter a large group implies that a good harvest lies in your future.
A hen, especially with eggs or chicks, is a very positive omen of fertility. For individuals or couples trying to conceive, an encounter with a hen is a lucky sign indeed.
An encounter with a rooster usually represents a challenge. Fear not, though, for challenges are often opportunities. Like the cocksure rooster, remember to confront your problems and face those challenges head on. The rooster surely knows that the only way out is through.
Chicken in Mythology & Folklore
Present in the mythologies of many cultures worldwide, the ubiquitous chicken has roles that range from sacred symbol to harbinger of doom.
Alongside the association of the hen with motherly affection, there is one other significant appearance of chickens in the Bible. It is foretold by Jesus, prior to his betrayal and crucifixion, that Judas will deny him three times “before the rooster crows.” (8)
Japanese mythology features a giant monstrous rooster called a “Basan” which breathes fire. (9) Other mythological references to otherworldly chickens and roosters abound in Japanese myth, but the Basan is the most striking example.
The Basan is quite reminiscent of ten European “cockatrice.” The cockatrice is a monstrous dragon-like creature with the head of a rooster. In many traditions, this beast can breathe fire or turn men to stone with its gaze. Similarly, the monstrous serpentine basilisk is said to hatch from a chicken’s egg.
In Ancient Greek culture, and especially in Roman culture, the chicken was an extremely significant animal. Chickens were frequently in augury and ornithomancy as instruments to predict the future. These chickens were considered sacred and the individuals who cared for them were even given special significance as well. Chickens would be released in preparation for an important decision. Food would be scattered, and if the birds ate then fortunes were good. If the chickens refused, however, then the action in question was considered inadvisable. (10)
This process was sometimes used to make military decisions. There is a particular story of a Roman general named Pulcher who grew so enraged when the chickens predicted an unfavorable outcome that he flung them into the sea. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, he ended up losing that battle. In a bizarre unfolding of circumstances, he was tried and convicted in Rome, not for losing said battle, but for undermining the morale of his men by renouncing his faith in the chicken oracles. (11)
Chickens, and a few other species of birds, are also associated with medicine in these ancient cultures. Ancient folk medicine included some rather questionable cure-alls which utilized a mixture of chicken feces and honey to be taken orally. (12)
Chicken Spirit Animal
The chicken spirit animal is down to earth and humble. But make no mistake, the humility of the chicken spirit animal is not a result of weakness. Instead, the chicken spirit animal is simply grounded. They are blessed with a great deal of perspective and clear-sightedness.
If nothing else, an individual with the chicken spirit animal knows who they are and what they want. Not prone to flights of fancy, people with this spirit animal are typically born pragmatists who crave a simple life. They may find that traditional ideals appeal to them much more than to their head-in-the-clouds peers.
People with the chicken spirit animal are honest to a fault and tend to be somewhat blunt. This bluntness can get them into trouble, an affliction that is not helped by their stubborn and headstrong nature.
Though they are extroverts to their cores, they are unlikely to enjoy being the center of attention, preferring instead to keep a watchful eye over their loved ones from an inconspicuous location. People with the chicken spirit animal are not, however, shy. Not in the slightest. They exude a quiet effortless confidence, and know when the time is right to strut their stuff.
Chicken Totem Animal
Along with the traits of the chicken spirit animal, the chicken totem animal is present in people with a strong parental instinct. These people tend to be uncomfortable when they have nobody in their lives to nurture.
This parental instinct can inspire in people with the chicken totem animal a tendency to be over-protective of their loved ones. This can mean intense anxiety over their loved ones’ well-being and fierce anger towards potential threats to that well-being.
People with the chicken totem animal, like the sexually dimorphic chicken, tend to be very connected to the femininity or masculinity of their nature. Often, they will seek relationships with people who are equally intensely connected with the opposite gendered spirit as a way of obtaining balance.
Chicken Power Animal
The power of the chicken power animal is instinct. As a power animal, the chicken grants a sixth sense for danger and deception. People with the chicken power animal have a heartfelt desire to seek out the truth, and may rely on this talent for instinct in pursuit of the truth.
The chicken power animal is very watchful, and people with this power animal tend to be blessed with good luck. Even difficult situations may be opportunities in disguise. Therefore, be prepared to take a leap of faith on occasion.
Chicken Tattoo Meaning
A chicken tattoo can have so many different meanings that perhaps the only way to discover its meaning is to ask the person with the tattoo! From connotations of family, parenthood, and protectiveness, to the fierce nature of roosters, to the good luck and abundance often associated with chickens, a chicken tattoo has as many different meanings as chickens do themselves.
An oracle of the future, a dependable source of nourishment, an enduring symbol of a mother’s care, these are all roles that chickens have held in human cultures. In fact, this barely scratches the surface of the cultural impact of chickens. The obvious reason, of course, that chickens have made such an impressive mark upon human society is the simple fact of their long history in the lives of mankind.
Perhaps, though, there is a bit more to say about the humble chicken. Before the era of the factory farm, chickens were a constant part of the tapestry of daily life for most people. In much of the world this is still the case. They lived in our gardens, they provided us with eggs, and we delighted in watching them grow and prosper until eventually relying on them to sustain us. This relationship is lost on many of us now.
Although most cultures still rely on chickens, the appreciation that we once had for them, and the warm familiarity that we shared, has faded. This is a tragic injustice that ought to be corrected. For those of us who feel connected to chickens, this is a spiritual calling. For all of humankind who has prospered from the offerings of chickens, it is a birthright. We appreciate you, chickens. Or, at least, I do.