|Saturnalia chickens by Dr Helen Forte|
Although I have never kept chickens, I will always remember something the late A.A. Gill once wrote: ‘It is virtually impossible to hold a hen and not smile.’
|A white 'Silkie' hen via Wikimedia Commons|
|Westbourne House School, Chichester|
|Sewer Demon display at Westbourne House School|
|Roman tombstone of 13-year-old Threptus|
I was also inspired by a fan of Italian ancestry with a sweet face named Marco.
|Mark Benton as Floridius in The Roman Mysteries|
One of the best things about Floridius is that he keeps sacred chickens, which gave me an excuse to put lots of history chickens in these books.
Not knowing the least thing about domestic fowl, I read some books, watched some YouTube clips and called on the services of one of my former pupils, a boy named Ben Udy who kept exotic hens. Working with Ben, we came up with a lexicon of chicken-speak. It would make them fun for parents, kids and teachers to read aloud.
1. BROODY PURRING/VERY CONTENT
a) Brk-brk, brrrrk (very soft)
b) Wrr, wrrk, brrr (very soft)
c) Wrrroooww (very soft)
a) Buuuuurk! (frog-like croak)
b) Buuurk, buurk-buurk (whiny)
Body language: loosely feathered, ambling inquisitively but not purposefully, stop to preen, cluck gently.
a) Brp, brp! (when not moving)
b) Bweerp, bweerp, bweerp (when moving)
4. MEDIUM/COMMON ALARM
Bk-bk-bk... (varying repetitions)
5. HIGH STRESS, POST-DANGER
a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK!
b) Bk-bk-bk, b’kak!
c) Bk-bk-bk, bkaaaah! [sometimes forget final K]
d) Bock-bock-bock-bock-bock, begowwwwk! [big ]
6. HIGH STRESS, ‘DANGER’ STILL PRESENT
a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK!
nb) BK-BK-BK, B’KAK! [small hens]
c) BOCK-BOCK-BOCK, BEGOWWWK! [big hens]
Ben also told me about Silkie chickens, which have feathers that are as silky as hair. Thus was Aphrodite born, the hen who is like a pet for Threptus along with Felix the kitten.
Threptus first meets Floridius and his sacred chickens in the final story in my volume of Mini-Mysteries, The Legionary from Londinium.
The sacred chickens go on to feature in all four Threptus books, which we’ve called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, but they really come into their own in the third book of the series, The Thunder Omen, set during Saturnalia. It starts out like this:
It was early morning on the first day of the Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter festival of gift-giving, feasting and dancing. It was a topsy-turvy holiday when anything could happen. In the port of Ostia, in a one-room shack behind a temple, eight sacred chickens were dancing on a table.
Threptus has made each chicken a small conical hat called a pileus. Minimus illustrator and Latin teacher Dr Helen Forte made me a special colour plate showing seven of the sacred chickens plus Felix the kitten. They are all wearing the pileus, the freedman’s cap, to show that normal rules don’t apply.
|Dancing sacred chickens by Dr Helen Forte|
Long live the sacred chickens...
... and Yo, Saturnalia!