By Emily Miranker, Project Coordinator
Growing up in the very multicultural city of San Francisco, Chinese New Year has always been one of my favorite holidays. It’s bright and noisy, with dancing, fantastic animals, cymbals, and vibrant costumes.
The vivacity and strength that the rooster symbolizes, prevalent in many traditions beyond Chinese astrology and the Greco-Roman West, is evident in the cheerful design by the late Clarence Lee. Lee designed an entire series of twelve stamps for the Chinese zodiac cycle, starting with the Year of the Rooster in 1992.[i]
The Year of the Rooster starts on the 28th thanks to a (legendary) challenge set by an emperor of China (for a fuller and charming retelling of the story, click here). Briefly, the emperor told all the animals to race across a river. The first twelve to reach the far bank would have a year named after them – these twelve years make up the zodiac. Famously, the trickster rat caught a ride on the powerful ox, and leapt off his head at the last minute onto the far bank thus coming in first. This year’s star, the rooster, found a raft and came across the river on it along with a goat, who cleared weeds from their path, and monkey, who paddled the raft. The rooster was awarded the eighth year in the zodiac in honor of his resourcefulness and teamwork.
In addition to the above qualities, the Chinese believe roosters symbolize moral fortitude and protection. Their role as protectors may originate from the habit of watching for the day to return; heralded by their crowing at dawn. Scientists have actually discovered that, in fact, it’s not the first light of morning that triggers roosters crowing (they can crow at any time of the day; how much and when depends on breed and personality). Rather, it’s a roosters internal body clock.[ii] This watchful quality spoke not only to the Chinese, but to the ancient Greeks for whom the rooster was a symbol of the god of healing, Aesclepius.
The god of medicine and physician, Aesclepius is depicted along with his daughter, Hygeia, goddess of health, over the entrance to the New York Academy of Medicine.
Aesclepius sometimes took the form of a rooster when appearing to supplicants, and the bird was also sacrificed in his honor. As it’s a symbol of restoring health, watching to keep illness and evil at bay, the rooster is one of many health and medicine icons that decorate the interior of the Academy building.
In this painted ceiling ornamentation from our lobby, a rooster dances with a dog, also sacred to Aesclepius. Like the rooster, the dog stands for watchfulness, driving away death.
Other roosters you’ll find in our library include this rooster, with his hen and chicks, from the 1536 Hortus Sanitatis, a natural history from Germany.
Jumping fifty years ahead, still from Germany, we have one rooster with fantastic plumage and an eerily long tongue for a bird, and his more sedate and regale fellow. They feature in a cook book by Marx Rumpolt, head cook to the Elector of Mainz, which includes nearly 2,000 recipes and instructions on how to make wine.
The above rooster (mid-squawk?) is from the third of a five volume set, the Historia Animalium, the most famous work of Conrad Gessner. Gessner was a 16th-century Swiss physician and naturalist. The woodcuts in our 1555 edition of the third volume were hand-colored and have many of the birds’ French names added by a reader of the past. Gessner did draw, but most of the woodcuts in his volumes were the work of others. Their identities are largely unknown, except for Lucas Schan, an expert fowler, who drew images of birds.[iii]
For the grande finale, my favorite rooster is this glorious French fellow, the Coq Gallante, who is just a decoration made of plaster and not an actual fowl, atop a sumptuous Victorian savory pie featured in The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery by Theodore Garrett (1898). The meat pie is surrounded by real, edible game birds, mini pies, and cooked eggs on a bed of parsley. Monsieur Gallante’s sash says, “A Votre Sante;” French for, “To your good health!” I can think of no better wish for the New Year.
[ii] Lee, Jane J. “How a Rooster Knows to Crow at Dawn,” National Geographic. March 19, 2013.
[iii] S. Kusukawa. “The Sources for Gessner’s pictures for the Historia animalium” Annals of Science, Vol. 67, No. 3, July 2010. 322-323.