United Poultry Concerns June 1, 2005

The Thanksgiving Turkey in America as Ritual Scapegoat
In the American Tradition of Sacrifice and Protest

@2005 By Karen Davis, PhD

Presented at the Ninth Annual Conference on Holidays,
Ritual, Festival, Celebration, and Public Display
Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, June 2-4, 2005

Myths of origin – the Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, the American Thanksgiving – act as informing principles of existence, and in this sense they can promote ethical insight and change, or they can be invoked ironically to protect the “fallen world” from their infiltration. – Karen Davis, The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality , 164

Nothing so unites us as gathering with one mind to murder someone we hate, unless it is coming together to share in a meal. – Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner , 33

Although the turkey is tied to the American character and sense of national identity, traditionally the bird has not been a respected figure in America. The turkey is ceremonially linked to Thanksgiving, the oldest holiday in the United States. Yet unlike the bald eagle, the turkey is not a symbol of prestige or power. Nor, despite frequent claims, is there any evidence that Benjamin Franklin promoted the turkey as the national bird—more “respectable” than the bald eagle—except as a passing jest in a letter to his married daughter, Sarah Bache, on January 26, 1784, two years after the bald eagle had already been adopted (Bigelow, 279-280).

The turkey is culturally rooted in ambiguity. The opinion of a 19th-century hunter quoted in The Wild Turkey, by A.W. Schorger, is typical. Turkeys, he said, are “the wildest and the tamest, the most cunning and wary, and the most stupid and foolish of all birds” (146-147). While the wild turkey has a long history of involvement with Native American, Colonial American and European cultures, today the bird is mainly invoked to disparage domestic factory-farmed turkeys. Little has changed since the consumer newsletter “Moneysworth” proclaimed on November 26, 1973: “When Audubon painted it, it was a sleek, beautiful, though odd-headed bird, capable of flying 65 miles per hour. Today, the turkey is an obese, immobile thing, hardly able to stand, much less fly. As for respectability, the big bird is so stupid it must be taught to eat” (“Light and Dark Sides”).

In keeping with this hostile description, the word “turkey” has developed into an all-purpose term of derision, a synonym for failure and worthlessness. In 1984, Andrew Feinberg wrote in The New York Times that by 1873, “turkey” had come to mean an advantage or easy profit; soon the word came to refer to anyone who could be easily duped or caught. According to Wicked Words, students before and after 1945 used the term to characterize an incompetent person who continually makes mistakes (Rawson, 394). It wasn’t long before “turkey” became a political byword for mockery of U.S. administration officials, which it still is.

Turkey bashing can be traced back in part to the “turkey shoots” of colonial times. In the turkey shoot, live turkeys were tied to trees or put in boxes to be shot in the head. The “sport” is based on the shooting of wild turkeys at roost in the trees. According to a writer in 1838, turkeys are “easily killed at roosts, because the one being killed, the others sit fast.” In 1947, it was said that “when turkeys are fired at on their roost, they only fly to the nearest tree so that all of them can be shot” (Schorger, 381). Thus a “turkey shoot” came to signify a simple task or an easy target.

Surprising to many, the bird the early Europeans encountered was not the bird that dominates modern hunters’ discourse—“a formidable opponent playing a game that is tough to beat,” in the words of a sports writer. From the 17th through the 19th centuries, wild turkeys were characterized as showing an almost Disneylike friendliness towards people. According to Madson, “Wild turkeys, as the first settlers found them, were as trusting and unwary as they were plentiful” (54). A record of observations bears this out.

Wild turkeys drinking at the river were so undisturbed by a nearby hunter that he took away their broods of chicks without difficulty. They came so close to people they could be shot with a pistol. They showed indifference to fires built where they roosted. They were notoriously indifferent to disturbance at roost, which made shooting them at night very popular. They appeared to hover near our fire so we killed them all. Nelson near Durango had the experience of seeing an old male turkey continuing to walk towards his campfire though it was not killed until several shots had been fired. Wild turkeys would come to our house and roost in the trees with the chickens and domestic turkeys. They often sat with their young on my fences so trustingly that I found it difficult to bring myself to shoot them. They evinced no particular alarm, nothing like that which one of these birds would be apt to show at the present time under similar circumstances. Merriam’s turkey in Mexico originally showed no more wariness than its eastern relative. Turkeys could be so trusting that an observer might believe they were domestic.
(Schorger, 133-136, summarized in Davis, 76-77)

For this, however, turkeys were neither respected nor protected. On the contrary, because of their amenable character, turkeys were easily trapped and penned, and when people grew tired of eating them, they were often left to starve and die (Schorger, 403).

The modern habit of despising the turkey is accordingly not new, but a variation on a theme in American history. Prior to the 20th-century revival of the bird Americans nearly drove to extinction in the 19th century, the turkey got mixed reviews as a game bird, with an accent on disparagement. Turkey hunters and the United States Department of Agriculture say that while the Southwest and Northern Indians esteemed the bird, American Indians such as the Cherokee and the Apache scorned turkey meat and despised the turkey as a cowardly, timid bird, unworthy of their prowess and status (Marsden, 54; “Turkey Trivia”).

The 20th-century effort to create or restore a “true wild turkey,” using everything from artificial insemination to high-tech trapping and relocation of turkey populations “tainted with domestic blood,” has been largely superficial. The so-called wild bird keeps revisiting the human scene, walking around in suburbia, midtown, the Bronx. “Wild turkeys,” according to a biologist, “often seem unperturbed by people, especially when tempted by a feast and not chased by dogs or guns” (Brodie, C6). Jonathan Yardley’s “Gobble Squabble” is typical turkeyday humor: “In all likelihood it is to the stupidity of turkeys that the ghastly custom of eating them at Thanksgiving can be traced. When the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down to their celebratory repast lo these many years ago, they ate wild turkeys that had been shot for the occasion, probably because the turkeys wandered into town wearing signs that read SHOOT ME.”

The mythology of antiquity offers two opposing models of the human-nonhuman animal relationship central to this discussion: the Orphic model and the Dionysian model. The Dionysian model is based on the primitive god Dionysus, the Greek personification of intoxication, ferocity, and the chase. Followers of Dionysus were famous for their frenzied dismemberment and devouring of live prey. Wild animal fled from their Dionysian pursuers, scattering in fear in all directions prior to being torn apart when caught.

The legendary Orpheus was not a god but a mortal revered for the godlike, peace-bringing power of his music. Each morning Orpheus greeted the sun with his song. His melodies attracted the birds and other wild creatures; even the mountains were moved by his music. The poet Ovid tells how “with his singing Orpheus drew the trees, / The beasts, the stones, to follow. . . .”

Orpheus charmed animals but he did not deceive them. He lured animals to himself but not to harm them. It is easy to imagine the turkey among the animals Orpheus would have charmed, because the turkey is drawn to music, of which there are some interesting accounts, like this one by musician Jim Nollman: “I went to Mexico for a while, and lived next door to a family who kept a turkey in their yard. Every time I would hit a certain high note while practicing on my flute, the turkey would gobble. I spent a month playing music beside this turkey. . . . Eventually I noticed he would stand by the fence, waiting for me to arrive and play” (Bartlett, 7).

Dionysus and his followers, which included the Maenads, the “Raving Women,” also lured animals to themselves, as well as chasing them. These manic embodiments of “false Orpheus,” who finally tore Orpheus to pieces, drew the denizens of the forests and fields from their hiding places to suckle and soothe them as part of a destructive seduction ritual. It is easy to imagine the turkey among the animals fooled by their wiles, as the turkey’s allurability is a primary attraction of turkey hunting. According to a hunter quoted in The New York Times, “The name of the game is calling the bird close. . . . That’s the rush” (Stout).

Teasing “love sick” turkeys with sirens’ songs is a key element of the euphoria leading to the climax of pulling the trigger in turkey hunting. Turkey hunters brag about the erotic pleasure they get from mimicking turkey courtship behavior, imitating a “hot hen” so that a lovesick tom will “offer its head and neck for a shot” (Stout). They brag about the technology that enhances their salacious slaughter. While the paraphernalia of mimicry, gadgetry, and language is designed to focus less attention on the turkey than on the hunter for whom the bird is a mere object, at the same time, it is necessary that the hunter experience the bird as a living being who in return experiences the hunter and the hunter’s pursuit, just as in conventionally recognized hate and sex crimes, apathy and empathy combine psychologically in the perpetrator.

The involvement of sex in turkey hunting shows that the wild bird is as vulnerable to human sexual violence and degradation as the domestic turkey is. Consider this extract from Jim Mason’s account of his job as a turkey inseminator for ConAgra (the largest turkey processor in the U.S.) in Missouri.

They put me to work in the pit, grabbing and “breaking” the hens. I had to reach into the chute, grab a hen by her legs, and hold her—ankles crossed—in one hand, as she beat her wings and struggled. I wiped my other hand over her rear, which pushed up her tail feathers and exposed her vent opening. The inseminator took a straw full of semen, inserted it in the hen, then let her flop away on the floor. The breakers and the inseminator repeated this until all the hens in the house had run through this gauntlet. . . .

The semen came from the “tom” house. My job was to catch a tom by the legs, hold him upside down, lift him by the legs and one wing, and set him up on the bench on his chest or neck, with his rear end sticking up facing Bill. He took each tom, locked his crossed feet and legs into the padded clamp, then lifted his leg over the bird’s head and neck to hold him. Bill had a handset with glass tubes and a syringe in his right hand. With his left hand, he squeezed the tom’s vent until it opened up and the white semen oozed forth into the sucking end of the glass tube. We did this over and over, bird by bird, until the syringe filled up. As each syringe was filled, I ran it over to the hen house and handed it to the inseminator and crew. (Mason [“Frank Observer], quoted in Davis, 84-85)

Such treatment cannot be dismissed on grounds of mere economic efficiency alone. Like the hunting described above, it suggests a hatred that humans have had for nonhuman animals through the ages, rooted in our hatred of ourselves for being animals, which we project onto them. In his book, An Unnatural Order, Jim Mason calls this hatred of the animal misothery. Mason writes: “I have coined the word misothery (miz OTH uh ree) to name a body of ideas that we are about to discuss. It comes from two Greek words, one meaning ‘hatred’ or ‘contempt,’ the other meaning ‘animal.’ Literally, then, misothery is hatred and contempt for animals. And since animals are so representative of nature in general, it can mean hatred and contempt for nature—especially its animal-like aspects” (163-164).

At the same time that humans experience misothery towards nonhuman animals and the “degrading” condition of animality, because we are animals and because the knowledge that we are animals is embedded in our biology and in our status as creatures rooted in the natural world, we are ambivalent. Hence, human misothery towards animals and the condition of animality may be considered “hypocritical” in the cautiously optimistic sense offered by Eli Sagan in his essay on aggression, in which he says we must “treasure and expose that hypocrisy, because within it we will find the possibilities of further change” (110).

A basis for cautious optimism is the amity that many people feel for animals, which may be gaining ground on the animus that has characterized so much of our relationship with other species and nature, of which our treatment of the turkey in America is emblematic. Because of its mythic role in American history, the bird comes loaded with all of the ambiguity and “hypocrisy” that the role implies. Just as the wild (“sacred”) bird and the domestic (“profane”) bird join together ambiguously in the popular image and the DNA of the “Thanksgiving Turkey,” so the bird is increasingly being placed in the role of ambassador of a gentler concept of Thanksgiving. In some cases people are adopting turkeys and treating them as guests at the Thanksgiving table, showing, through a different set of symbols, that there are ways other than ritual apologetics to give thanks, do good, and exorcise guilt (McNatt). 1

However, this is still a long way from the mainstream, which officially considers the charm of a turkey to consist in the fact that the bird tastes good, while providing the easiest way to feel part of a community, by eating and saying what everyone else does. Otherwise, the turkey is considered a “dirty bird,” addicted to filth and infected with harmful bacteria, that becomes magically clean only by being sprayed with acid, irradiated, cooked, and consumed, a “stupid” creature that figures in the seemingly incompatible role of a sacrifice (a pure, precious offering), while serving as a scapegoat under the collective idea that heaping society’s impurities onto a symbolic creature and “banishing” that creature can somehow bring purification.

Scapegoats are not just victims; they are innocent victims who are blamed and punished for things they are not responsible for. Theoretically, scapegoats are not seen as such by scapegoaters, because scapegoating is not about evidence but about transferring blame. The role of recognizing a particular instance of scapegoating belongs to the “outsider,” someone who sees the ritual from an unconventional standpoint, be it historical, cultural, subcultural, logical, or intuitive. In reality, people’s perceptions of a scapegoat event of which they are a part may be more or less clear. The scorn heaped on the turkey at Thanksgiving shows a degree of uneasiness and defiance that indicates an awareness of scapegoating by those who practice it.

The idea of the Thanksgiving turkey as a scapegoat may seem like a parody of scapegoating, but that is what a scapegoat is – a parody of guilt. The scapegoat after all is a goat. Animals, social animals especially, have been scapegoats in storytelling, myth, and history every bit as much as humans, and probably more, as the scholar of myth and ritual, Rene Girard, observes in Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation. “[I]n all parts of the world,” Girard says, “animals living in herds, schools, packs—all animals with gregarious habits, even if completely harmless to each other and to man,” have been villified (86). Under European penal codes, from the 12th to the middle of the 18th century, “guilty” animals were tried and convicted of crimes for which they were punished by being buried alive, burned alive, mutilated, hanged, and, in classic scapegoat fashion, banished from the place of their alleged crime (Evans, 138-139). In light of such history the so-called White-House turkey pardoning ceremony, in which each year prior to Thanksgiving Day, the President of the United States “pardons” a single turkey from slaughter, can be seen as an inverted scapegoat ritual, a parody of a parody, burlesquing “the acquittal of the accused” (Evans, 140, Davis, Chapter 7, 111-124).

So how does the Thanksgiving turkey fit the scapegoat pattern? Consider that not everybody is happy at Thanksgiving or Christmas as they’re supposed to be. Two cultures coincide during the holiday season, the official “pious” culture epitomized in the 20th century by Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, and nowadays by the neo-conservative, religious Right element, versus a miscellany of dissident, unhappy, irreverent, and marginalized individuals and groups, the two cultures being straddled by curmudgeons who lampoon the sanctities from secure posts within the system. If a citizen wishes to express discontent with the day that historian Elizabeth Pleck, in Celebrating the Family, calls “the day of guilt and grace, when the family hangs over you like an ax over the sacrificial victim” (37), derision of the turkey comes in handy. Blaming the bird allows a certain amount of criticism and resentment to seep into a celebration that Life magazine once said does not brook angst or serious criticism (“Thanksgiving”).

The turkey thus functions as a bearer of impious sentiments deflected from their true causes, like the obligation to be thankful, whether one has reason to be thankful or not. Sorrow, death, suffering, injustice—these are not the fault of the bird whose fate, after all, is to be murdered for the meal, which is a cause of many people’s great unhappiness. But these negatives contradict how things are supposed to be, how we’re supposed to feel, and what may be properly expressed. The person who wrote, “No meal can be sad,” is wrong. A meal made of misery makes many people both “nauseated and sad,” as JoAnn Farb, a former poultry industry pharmaceutical company employee, writes in her book, Compassionate Souls (143). James S. Henry generalized his own feelings in “Why I Hate Christmas.” “To anyone who has ever been to a turkey farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a new and somewhat less cheerful meaning,” Henry wrote. “Every single day during the run-up to these holidays, thousands of bewildered, debeaked, growth-hormone-saturated birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into boiling water” (23).

As a ritual scapegoat bearing a burden of sarcasm, the turkey fits into the carnivalesque tradition of taunting and torment stretching from Dionysus to Rabelais and beyond, in which “[a]ll that was terrifying becomes grotesque” (Bakhtin, 91). Opposite the sanctimony of pious occasions, the carnivalesque spirit emphasizes sarcasm, indecent abuse, the banquet, and a grotesque concept of the body. Its basic content is “f]ree play with the sacred” (396) in which “medieval laughter” seeks to defeat fear in a “droll and monstrous form” (91), according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his classic study, Rabelais and His World. “[G]rotesque forms of the body,” Bakhtin writes, predominate in European art and folklore, especially in the comic genre. “[T]he theme of mockery and abuse,” he says, “is almost entirely bodily and grotesque” (319).

Just as the banquet and the grotesque body go together in the carnivalesque tradition, so the human body and other animal bodies are grotesquely mixed in it. The “transformation of the human element into an animal one; the combination of human and animal traits is, as we know, one of the most grotesque forms” of the carnivalesque style, according to Bakhtin. The traits involved are specific to the genre: beaks, claws, snouts, noses, phalluses, breasts, excrement, belching, bloatedness. Only the eyes, he says, “have no part in these comic images,” because eyes “express an individual, so to speak” (316).

Nobody laughs at the Eagle. For impiety you have the Turkey. The turkey is the grotesque body at the core of America’s Gargantuan holiday feast, exhibiting those “physical and moral abnormalities” that have marked scapegoats through the ages (Girard, 92). The modern bird’s swollen body, distorted physical shape, and inability to mate naturally remind us not only of the cruel arbitrariness of fate, but of the sinister power of humanity. The carnivalization of the turkey functions as a magic formula for conquering our fear of being a “turkey.” We poke so as not to be poked at. By devouring another, we master our fear of being devoured. Today the fear of our own potential for gluttony, of being helplessly manipulated by the cosmic scheme, our fellow man, and our own folly has been transposed to the Comic Monster we are about to consume.

Theriomorphy, in which the human and nonhuman animal come together, takes place under these circumstances in a consummation in which a creature otherwise maledicted as dirty and stupid undergoes transmutation. The profane animal becomes the sacred feast. Such is the Harvest Festival of the carnivalesque universe. “The victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed by the very taste of the defeated world. Man triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself,” Bakhtin declares (281, 283, 285).

Even in light of this woeful victory, the days of unanimous deprecation and contagious consumption of the turkey may be numbered. America must somehow manage its portion of humanity’s primeval desire to have “somebody” suffer and die ritualistically for the benefit of the community or nation at a time when the consumption of nonhuman animals has become morally problematic in the West as well as industrialized to the point where the eaters can barely imagine the animals involved in their meal. The turkey is a kind of test case. Either “eating meat is fun,” as a journalist said in an interview about turkeys (Hall), or “eating meat is mean,” as a child told her mother why she would not eat turkey at Thanksgiving (Eisner). A question is whether, and if so how, the turkey, along with the billions of other anonymous “food production” animals, can be made to stand out for the majority of people amid the competing forces of culture and other considerations that get in the way.

As the single most visible animal symbol in America, the de facto symbol of the nation and the ”icon of American food” (Berman), the turkey brings into focus the conflict between ethical vegetarians and meateaters, animal rights people and the rest of society, and marks Thanksgiving's progress as a holiday in which personal values and cultural ideals come together most notably.


1 “As many people in the US prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, we are reminded by animal advocates that the US slaughters nearly 300 million turkeys every year for consumption. Globally, the annual slaughter of turkeys is at least 691 million, suggesting that the US accounts for a sizable portion of the world’s turkey slaughter. Per capita consumption of turkey flesh in the US has remained flat for about eight years, from a high of 18.2 pounds per person in 1996 to 17.3 pounds per person in 2004. Fighting against the continued consumption of turkeys during Thanksgiving and throughout the year, a growing number of animal advocates are highlighting the plight of turkeys using personal stories.” – “Farmed Turkeys: Welfare; Statistics; and Advocacy.” Farmed Animal Watch November 24, 2004: 1. www.FarmedAnimal.net

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967.

Bartlett. Kim. “Riding the Wave Length: A Discussion on Interspecies Communication with Jim Nollman.” Animals’ Agenda June, 1998: 6-10.

Berman, Richard. “Turkey police, beware.” Washington Times November 26, 1998, A19.

Bigelow, John, ed. The Works of Benjamin Franklin in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition, Vol. 10. New York: Knickerbocker Press-G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904.

Davis, Karen. More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. New York: Lantern Books, 2001.

Eisner, Jane R. “Will it be turkey or tofu?” Philadelphia Inquirer November 29, 1998, E7.

Evans. E.P. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1998. First published 1906.

Farb, JoAnn. Compassionate Souls: Raising the New Generation to Change the World. New York: Lantern Books, 2000.

“Farmed Turkeys: Welfare; Statistics; and Advocacy.” Farmed Animal Watch: Objective Information for the Thinking Advocate Vol. 2, No. 77, November 24, 2005. www.FarmedAnimal.net

Feinberg, Andrew. “Carve Only in a Fowl Mood.” New York Times November 22, 1991, B1, B3.

Girard, Rene. “Generative Scapegoating; Girard Paper: Discussion.” In Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation, ed. Robert G. Hammerton-Kelly, 73-145. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Hall. Evelyn. Phone interview with the author, June 8, 1998.

Henry, James S. “Why I Hate Christmas.” New Republic December 31, 1990: 21-24.

“The Light and Dark Sides of Thanksgiving Turkey.” Moneysworth: The Consumer Newsletter November 26, 1973.

Madson, John. “Once, he was almost a ‘goner’ but now Old Tom’s a ‘comer.’” Smithsonian, May 1990: 54-62.

Mason, Jim. An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

_____. (Frank Observer”). “In the Turkey Breeding Factory.” PoultryPress, Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall-Winter, 1994.

McNatt, Linda. “One lucky turkey will ham it up at vegan feast.” Virginian-Pilot November 25, 2004, A1, A14.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Book Two. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana Press, 1961.

Rawson, Hugh. Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present. New York, Crown Publishers, 1989.

Sagan, Eli. Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form. New York: Psychohistory Press, 1974.

Schorger, A.W. The Wild Turkey: Its History and Domestication. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Stout, David. “They Sit and Wait So Others Can Serve.” New York Times November 24, 1996, E3.

“Thanksgiving: What Did the Pilgrims Have that We Haven’t Got? The Key to Happiness – And Survival.” Editorial. Life November 24, 1947: 38.

“Turkey Trivia, Tidbits and Teasers.” N.d. National Turkey Federation webpage courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Visser, Margaret. The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York: Penguin, 1992. First published 1991.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Gobble Squabble.” Washington Post November 20, 1995, D2.

Karen Davis, PhD, is the founder and President of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. www.upc-online.org

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