Reflections on roosters & hens in culture and scripture

The old brown hen and the old blue sky,
Between the two we live and die
The broken cartwheel on the hill.
— Wallace Stevens

Songs about chickens:

Scripture that inspired these themes:

Christian Commentary

Be Not Afraid
— Nadia Bolz-Weber
… We already have plenty of messages out there telling us that everything will be ok and we will feel safe if we can just manage to hoard the amount of hand sanitizer that guy in SC did, and then maybe muster up the compassion of Mother Teresa, the physique of our Crossfit Coach, the entrepreneurial genius of Mark Zuckerberg, and now, the fearlessness of Jesus. … So maybe our hope for becoming unafraid is found in the rest of this story – the part where Jesus calls Herod a fox and then refers to himself as a mother hen. A mother hen. … A mother hen cannot actually keep a determined fox from killing her chicks. So where does that leave us? I mean, if danger is real, and a hen can’t actually keep their chicks out of danger, then what good is this image of God as Mother Hen if faith in her can’t make us safe? Well, today I started to think that maybe it’s not safety that keeps us from being afraid. Maybe it’s love. Which means that a Mother Hen of a God doesn’t keep foxes from being dangerous…a Mother Hen of a God keeps foxes from being what determines how we experience the unbelievably beautiful gift of being alive. God the Mother Hen gathers all of her downy feathered, vulnerable little ones under God’s protective wings so that we know where we belong, because it is there that we find warmth and shelter. But Faith in God does not bring you safety. The fox still exists. Danger still exists.  And by that I mean, danger is not optional, but fear is.  Because maybe the opposite of fear isn’t bravery.  Maybe the opposite of fear is love. … Because the Herods of this world, the dangers of this world the foxes that may surround us, do not get to determine the contours of our hearts. Nor the content of our minds. …
So to hell with fear. Because it does nothing to actually keep the bad things from happening ….it just steals the joy of appreciating the good things around us. So, love the world, good people …

Nadia Bolz-Weber thinking about before and after the rooster crows: “Because these people of the Holy Week story are we people.  And we people are the likes of which God came to save. God did not become human and dwell among us as Jesus to save only an improved, doesn’t-make-the wrong-choices kind of people. There is no improved version of humanity that could have done any differently. So go ahead. Don’t wait until you think your motivations are correct.  Don’t wait till you are sure you believe every single line of the Nicene Creed (no one does).  Don’t worry about coming to church this week for the right reasons. Just wave branches. Shout praise for the wrong reason. Eat a meal. Have your feet washed. Grab at coins. Shout Crucify him. Walk away when the cock crows.  Because we, as-we-are and not as some improved-version-of-ourselves…we are who God came to save. And nothing can stop what’s going to happen.”

FUN FACTS

Did you know that Henny Penny and Chicken Little, ala “The sky is falling”, are basically the same character retold in variations on folktales across Europe and North America? It was an oral tale finally written down and published by the Brothers Grimm. It has undergone many edits over time, but generally involves a chicken who believes that the world is coming to an end. Sometimes it has a happy ending that includes courage and sometimes the chicken is eaten by a clever predator like a fox.

Does anyone recall The Little Red Hen? This is an American-born folk tale collected by Mary Maples Dodge. In summary, “The story is meant to teach children the importance of hard work and personal initiative … A hen living on a farm finds some wheat and decides to make bread with it. She asks the other farmyard animals for help planting it, but they refuse. The hen then harvests and mills the wheat into flour before baking it into bread; at each stage she again asks the animals for help and they refuse. Finally the hen has completed her task and asks who will help her eat the bread. This time the animals accept eagerly, but the hen rebuffs them stating that, just as she made the bread herself, she will eat the bread herself, and runs away with the bread.”

FOLK SAYINGS

  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
  • Why did the chicken cross the road?
  • Who set the fox in the hen house?

Longer list of common phrases — collected by Wendy Ainsworth

  • Be chicken – to be afraid
  • Nest egg – to save a little money each week
  • Scratching out a living – to earn enough to get by on
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch – don’t plan on something before it actually happens.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – don’t plan on an outcome before it actually happens.
  • Chicken feed – small amount of money
  • Feather your nest – saving for the future
  • Hen house – large number of females living in the same house
  • Mother hen – very protective
  • Madder than a wet hen – very angry
  • Fussing like an old hen – angry
  • Scarce as hen’s teeth – extremely hard to find
  • Chick – a woman 
  • Hen-pecked – nagged
  • The rooster may crow but the hen delivers the eggs
  • Rooster games – willing to fight instead of trying to work out a problem
  • Flew the coop – gone
  • Up with the chickens – waking early with the sunrise
  • Walking on eggshells– treading softly where certain people are concerned; trying not to upset someone
  • Like a chicken with it’s head cut off – running around with no direction
  • Shake a tail feather – get moving
  • Strutting’ your stuff – Showing off
  • Bird brain – senseless
  • Dumb cluck – senseless
  • Ruffle your feathers – something annoys you
  • Chicken-hearted – Not brave
  • No spring chicken – An older person
  • Hatch an idea – put a plan into motion
  • Egg on your face – caught in an untruth
  • Rule the Roost – to be the boss
  • Pecking order – hierarchy, your rank
  • Play Chicken – a stand off, who will give first
  • Brood over it – to worry over a problem
  • Chicken scratch – poor handwriting
  • Bad egg – less than honest person; poor moral standards
  • You have to break some eggs to make an omelet – sometimes you need to make a mess to get something done
  • It’s not what it’s cracked up to be – disillusionment 

Scholarship on chickens around the world and in our religious tradition:

Reflections on the fierce & protective love of a hen vs the predatory nature of a fox … choosing the unexpected, challenging expectations along the Way … themes from Luke 13

Her love of her children definitely resembles my love of mine. – Alice Walker

Hen-Love

It is one of those moments that will be engraved on my brain forever. For I really saw her. She was small and gray, flecked with black; so were her chicks. She had a healthy red comb and quick, light-brown eyes. She was that proud, chunky chicken shape that makes one feel always that chickens, and hens especially, have personality and will. Her steps were neat and quick and authoritative; and though she never touched her chicks, it was obvious she was shepherding them along. She clucked impatiently when, our feet falling ever nearer, one of them, especially self-absorbed and perhaps hard-headed, ceased to respond.
— Alice Walker


Once you know how to come home to yourself, then you can open your home to other people, because you have something to offer. The other person has to do exactly the same thing if they are to have something to offer you.
— Thich Nhat Hanh


I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.

Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.

I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out

Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn.
I have entered
The hen house.

— Mary Oliver, Farm Country


The Lifted Up One, the One who sits high and walks low, taught that the thoroughfare to God is full of bypaths and back roads.
The way up is down.
The way in is out.
The way first is last.
The way of success is service.
The way of attainment is relinquishment.
The way of strength is weakness.
The way of security is vulnberability.
The way of protection is forgiveness (even seventy times seven).
The way of life is the way of death — death to self, society, family.
Know your strengths. Why?
Because that’s the only way you can Lay Them Down.
God’s power is made perfect … where? In our weakness.
Want to get the most? Go to where the least is.
Want to be free? Give complete control to God.
Want to become great? Become least.
Want to discover yourself? Forget yourself.
Want honor? “Honor yourself with humility.”
Want to “get even” with enemies? Bless and love them.
— Leonard Sweet, Excerpt from Jesus Drives Me Crazy

On Hens

… drooping their wings for some to creep under, and receiving with joyous and affectionate clucks others that mount upon their backs or run up to them from every direction; and though they flee from dogs and snakes if they are frightened only for themselves, if their fright is for their children, they stand their ground and fight it out beyond their strength.” — Plutarch, 1st Century AD

… under the shadow of their wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce defense – striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful clamor, using both wings and beak – they would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight.” — Ulisse Aldrovandi

The forest fire had been brought under control, and the group of firefighters were working back through the devastation making sure all the hot spots had been extinguished. As they marched across the blackened landscape between the wisps of smoke still rising from the smoldering remains, a large lump on the trail caught a firefighter’s eye. … As he got closer he noticed it was the charred remains of a large bird, that had burned nearly half way through. Since birds can so easily fly away from the approaching flames, the firefighter wondered what must have been wrong with this bird that it could not escape. Had it been sick or injured? … Arriving at the carcass, he decided to kick it off the trail with his boot. As soon as he did, however, he was startled half to death by a flurry of activity around his feet. Four little birds flailed in the dust and ash then scurried away down the hillside … The bulk of the mother’s body had covered them from the searing flames. Though the heat was enough to consume her, it allowed her babies to find safety underneath. In the face of the rising flames, she had stayed with her young. Her dead carcass and her fleeing chicks told the story well enough–she gave the ultimate sacrifice to save her young. — Jacqueline, DeepRoots blogger

A hen is to her little chicks, next, a cover of safety. There is a hawk in the sky; the mother bird can see it, though the chickens cannot; she gives her peculiar cluck of warn-ing, and quickly they come and hide beneath her wings. The hawk will not hurt them now; beneath her wings they are secure … for, in the next place, the hen is to her chicks the source of comfort. It is a cold night, and they would be frozen if they remained outside; but she calls them in, and when they are under her wings, they derive warmth from their mother’s breast. It is a wonder, the care of a hen for her little ones; she will sit so carefully, and keep her wings so widely spread, that they may all be housed. What a cabin, what a palace, it is for the young chicks to get there under the mother’s wings! The snow may fall, or the rain may come pelting down, but the wings of the hen protect the chicks; and you, dear friend, if you come to Christ, shall not only have safety, but comfort. I speak what I have experienced. … The hen is also to her chicks, the cherisher of growth. They would not develop if they were not taken care of; in their weakness they need to be cherished, that they may come to the fullness of their perfec-tion. — Charles Spurgeon

Why A Hen Instead of a Fox?

A hen is what Jesus chooses, which – if you think about it – is pretty typical of him. He is always turning things upside down, so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to losers and paying the last first. So of course he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks. The image of God as hen is finally one that lays bare God’s vulnerability. When you are the mother hen, all you can do is open your wings wide and gather as many as you can. … Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first … The fox slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her – wings spread, breast exposed – without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. Which he does, as it turns out. — Barbara Brown Taylor

The Fox

… in Hebrew. Lions and foxes can be contrasted with each other to represent the difference between great men and inferior men. The great men are called “lions,” and the lesser men are called “foxes.” The epithet “fox” is sometimes applied to Torah scholars: “There are lions before you, and you ask foxes?”[4] In other words, “Why do you ask the opinion of foxes, that is, my opinion, when there are distinguished scholars present?” … Consider the following list of possibilities for “fox” in its negative sense: weakling, small-fry, usurper, poser, clown, insignificant person, cream puff, nobody, weasel, jackass, tin soldier, peon, hick, pompous pretender, jerk, upstart … In context, and referring to a local ruler, “fox” was a humiliating “slap in the face.”  … Jesus was direct. Antipas was a שׁוּעָל בֶּן שׁוּעָל (shū‘āl ben shū‘āl, “a fox, the son of a fox”), a small-fry.— Randall Buth, Jerusalem Perspective

Hen Stories

The great Persian poet Rumi had an extraordinary teacher named Shams. Even as a child Shams seemed different. His own parents struggled with whether to send him to a monastery or the village of fools. They did not know what to do with him. When he had grown he told them the story of the duck’s egg that was found by the hen and hatched. The hen raised the duckling with her other chicks. One day they walked to a lake. The duck went right in the water, Shams said to his parents, “Now, father and mother, I have found my place. I have learned to swim in the ocean, even if you must remain on the shore.” — Jack KornfieldVariation on Fox and Hen in Aesop’s Fables — Milo Winter 

One bright evening as the sun was sinking on a glorious world a wise old Cock flew into a tree to roost. Before he composed himself to rest, he flapped his wings three times and crowed loudly. But just as he was about to put his head under his wing, his beady eyes caught a flash of red and a glimpse of a long pointed nose, and there just below him stood Master Fox.

“Have you heard the wonderful news?” cried the Fox in a very joyful and excited manner.

“What news?” asked the Cock very calmly. But he had a queer, fluttery feeling inside him, for, you know, he was very much afraid of the Fox.

“Your family and mine and all other animals have agreed to forget their differences and live in peace and friendship from now on forever. Just think of it! I simply cannot wait to embrace you! Do come down, dear friend, and let us celebrate the joyful event.”

“How grand!” said the Cock. “I certainly am delighted at the news.” But he spoke in an absent way, and stretching up on tiptoes, seemed to be looking at something afar off.

“What is it you see?” asked the Fox a little anxiously.

“Why, it looks to me like a couple of Dogs coming this way. They must have heard the good news and—”

But the Fox did not wait to hear more. Off he started on a run.

“Wait,” cried the Cock. “Why do you run? The Dogs are friends of yours now!”

“Yes,” answered the Fox. “But they might not have heard the news. Besides, I have a very important errand that I had almost forgotten about.”

The Cock smiled as he buried his head in his feathers and went to sleep, for he had succeeded in outwitting a very crafty enemy.

The Hen is a Symbol of Motherhood for Reasons We May Have Forgotten, So Let Us Recall— Dr. Karen Davis
In our day, the hen has been degraded to an “egg machine.” In previous eras, she embodied the essence of motherhood. In the first century AD, the Roman historian Plutarch praised the many ways in which mother hens cherish and protect their chicks, “drooping their wings for some to creep under, and receiving with joyous and affectionate clucks others that mount upon their backs or run up to them from every direction; and though they flee from dogs and snakes if they are frightened only for themselves, if their fright is for their children, they stand their ground and fight it out beyond their strength.”
The Renaissance writer Ulisse Aldrovandi described how, at the first sign of a predator, mother hens will immediately gather their chicks “under the shadow of their wings, and with this covering they put up such a very fierce defense – striking fear into their opponent in the midst of a frightful clamor, using both wings and beak – they would rather die for their chicks than seek safety in flight.” Similarly, in collecting food, the mother hen allows her chicks to eat their fill before satisfying her own hunger. Thus, he said, mother hens present, in every way, “a noble example of love for their offspring.” … I saw this love in action, when a hen named Eva jumped our sanctuary fence on a spring day and disappeared, only to return three weeks later in June with eight fluffy chicks. Watching Eva with her tiny brood close behind her was like watching a family of wild birds whose dark and golden feathers blended perfectly with the woods and foliage they melted in and out of during the day. Periodically, Eva would squat down with her feathers puffed out, and her peeping chicks would all run under her wings for comfort and warmth. A few minutes later the family was on the move again … One day, a large dog wandered in front of the magnolia tree where Eva and her chicks were foraging. With her wings outspread and curved menacingly toward the dog, she rushed at him over and over, cackling loudly, all the while continuing to push her chicks behind herself with her wings. The dog stood stock still before the excited mother hen and soon ambled away, but Eva maintained her aggressive posture, her sharp, repetitive cackles and attentive lookout for several minutes after he was gone … Sitting on her nest, a mother hen carefully turns each of her eggs as often as thirty times a day, using her body, her feet, and her beak to move each egg precisely in order to maintain the proper temperature, moisture, ventilation, humidity, and position of the egg during the 3-week incubation period. Embryonic chicks respond to soothing sounds from the mother hen and to warning cries from the rooster. Two or three days before the chicks are ready to hatch, they start peeping to notify their mother and siblings that they are ready to emerge from their shells, and to draw her attention to any distress they’re experiencing such as cold or abnormal positioning … A communication network is established among the baby birds and between them and their mother, who must stay calm while all the peeping, sawing, and breaking of eggs goes on underneath her as she meanwhile picks off tiny pieces of shell that may be sticking to her chicks and slays any ants that may dart in to scavenge. During all this time, as Page Smith and Charles Daniel describe in The Chicken Book, “The chorus of peeps goes on virtually uninterrupted, the unborn chicks peeping away, the newborn ones singing their less muffled song.” … During the first four to eight weeks or so, the chicks stay close to their mother, gathering beneath her wings every night at dusk. Eventually, she flies up to her perch or a tree branch, indicating her sense that they, and she, are ready for independence … Let us with equal justice perceive chickens with envisioned eyes that pierce the veil of these birds’ “mechanization” and apprehend the truth of who they are. In The Chicken Book, Page Smith and Charles Daniel remind us, most poignantly: “As each chick emerges from its shell in the dark cave of feathers underneath its mother, it lies for a time like any newborn creature, exhausted, naked, and extremely vulnerable. And as the mother may be taken as the epitome of motherhood, so the newborn chick may be taken as an archetypal representative of babies of all species, human and animal alike, just brought into the world.” … This is What Wings Are For.

Scroll to top