A Cultural History of the Chicken ; Millions of Fowl Are Being Slaughtered in Asia as the Avian Flu Epidemic Spreads. in the West, Poultry Is Plucked off the Supermarket Shelves. but Does the Familiar Bird Deserve to Be Public Enemy No 1? MATTHEW SWEET Explores Its Distinguished Social, Artistic and Culinary Life

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Seven thousand years ago, humanity invited a jungle fowl named the Malaysian russet-coloured megapode into its back yard. As the years passed, agricultural technologies shaped the bird into the planet's most efficient meat-producing machine and a symbol of mass consumer culture. This week, the Royal Thai Army abandoned its traditional pursuits of beating up asylum-seekers and taking pot shots over the Burmese border, and declared war on hens. So now may be a good time to renegotiate our relationship with the chicken - before it takes revenge on us for seven millennia of jiggering with its genes, using it as an exemplum of stupidity, and stuffing its behind with sage and onion.


The symbolic and folkloric life of the chicken is much more varied and vivid than the one pursued in real life by the average bird - not difficult, when most spend their entire existences crammed into dark rooms with 2,000 of their closest relatives, waiting for their legs to snap under the weight of their artificially enhanced breasts. The chicken's role in spirituality has mainly consisted of getting its throat cut by everyone from Haitian juju men to Roman emperors to suburban couples with a thing about all-over body-shaving and Dennis Wheatley. Even the touchy- feely comforts of the Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help books, and the genteel Sunday lunch voodoo of wishbone-pulling, require or imply some form of avian sacrifice.

Occasionally, however, the chicken has enjoyed a more fulfilling role in religious ritual. Men, the moon-god of the Phrygians, widely worshipped in Asia Minor in the first century, never went anywhere without a hen and a pine cone. However, the Los Angeles Chicken Boy - a 22ft-high fibreglass statue of a rooster-headed boy clutching a take-away bucket - is not an idol of religious devotion, but the mascot of a now-defunct downtown drumstick-trough.


There's no chickeny equivalent of Greyfriars Bobby or Black Bess. No cockerel ever dragged its master from a burning hayrick, or risked its life to deliver a message behind enemy lines. History's chickens of distinction have, to a bird, been victims of circumstance. A Rhode Island Red named Violet, for instance, made a fleeting appearance in the headlines in 2000, when her mysterious death disturbed the tranquillity of the Essex village of Finchingfield. Her life was insured for pounds 1m, but the firm refused to cough up the cash unless her bereaved owners could prove that she had been a) despatched by the parish councillors who were alleged to have objected to her presence on the village green, or b) assassinated by aliens.

Similarly, Mike, a Wyandotte rooster commemorated by an annual festival in the town of Fruita, Colorado, owes his fame to a farmyard accident in 1945, when a gingham-clad lickspittle named Lloyd Olsen failed to execute him for the pot. Although Olsen's axe- blade decapitated Mike, most of the creature's brain stem survived intact. The bird declined to expire, and continued to scratch and strut and make unsuccessful attempts to peck the ground with its absent beak. For 18 months, Olsen toured Mike around the Colorado carnival circuit, prolonging the creature's peculiar afterlife by using a pipette to drop liquid nutrients down its open oesophagus.


The fate of Lily, the tick-tack-toe chicken of Chinatown, was more dignified, but it's hard to believe that her four decades of service in a Manhattan amusement arcade were all chalked up by the same animal. Lily was a back- room gambler who never lost a game: the clucking equivalent of Paul Newman in The Sting. Al Pacino gave her a name-check in The Devil's Advocate. Activists muttered their suspicions that her behaviour was produced by the covert administration of electric shocks. Until her liberation by an animal- rights campaigner in 1998, she occupied a peculiar contraption in a rank of video games and pinball tables at 8 Mott Street. …