By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re “talkin’ turkey”! You may already know that the bird is named after the country. But why? It turns out that exploring that question can tell us a lot about Thanksgiving too.
So, the story of the turkey’s name starts with Portuguese trading, and confusion with a similar bird, the guinea fowl. The guinea fowl comes originally from Africa, where it has long been an important food. The Romans spread it from North Africa across their empire, but when that fell, the bird disappeared from Europe. However, the guineafowl was reintroduced into Europe by the Turks in the 15th century, when it became known as the turkey-cock or turkey-hen, in other words the poultry from Turkey, in the belief that that’s where the birds came from. The origin ofthe word Turk itself is uncertain, though it might have been recorded as early as 177 BCE in Chinese as Tu-kin referring to a people living south of the Altaian mountains. In Persian, turk is said to mean “a beautiful youth”, “a barbarian”, or “a robber”, however it might in fact come from an Old Turkic root which means “created”, “strong”, or “lineage”. Oh, and turquoise also comes from the county’s name, for similar reasons of trade, and was sometimes called turkey stone or simply turkey.
Speaking of trade, it was the spice trade from India that was the real prize commodity at that period. The Ottoman Empire and the Venetians had the direct route locked up between them, and were thus making a mint from selling Eastern spices to all of Europe, but the Portuguese decided on an altogether more adventurous plan to reach India entirely by sea, by sailing around Africa. And after Vasco da Gama’s explorations at the end of the 15th century, they started shipping spices back from Calcutta, India to Europe. They traced their way along the coast, and would of course stop at various points picking up other commodities that were available, including guineafowl from West Africa, so they brought them back to Europe as well, along with their haul from India. Well, the Portuguese realised what a goldmine they were sitting on (almost literally — in addition to the spices from India, they picked up gold, ivory, and slaves from West Africa), so they did what any emerging capitalist venture would do: keep the details of their trade routes and sources a corporate secret. So no one back in Europe knew exactly where anything the Portuguese were importing came from. Including the guineafowl. While some still called them turkey-cocks, they also started to pick up names like, in French, poule d’Inde, “hen from India” or simply dinde, or, in Dutch, kalkoen, referring to Calcutta.
So how did names like turkey and dinde come to refer not to what we now know as guineafowl but to the bird native to the Americas? At about the same time the Portuguese traders were importing all these goods from their trade route to India, the early 16th century, they also picked up ‘real’ turkeys in the mid-Atlantic island trade from Spanish merchants, who had brought them back from the new world, after Columbus, in an attempt to reach the Indian spices by sailing across the Atlantic, bumped into the Americas (not that he knew it at first). The Spanish conquistadors had been the first Europeans to encounter the new-world turkey, which had long been domesticated by the Aztecs, who called the male huehxolotl and the female totolin. Turkeys were an important animals to the Aztecs (as well as the Maya and other Meso-American groups), to the point that they were associated with the Aztec trickster god, Tezcatlipoca, who could appear as Chalchiuhtotolin, the jewelled turkey, and whose priest would be decorated with turkey feathers.
The Spanish had already been bringing turkeys back for a little while (along with all the gold they plundered from the Aztecs), but it was the Portuguese importing the two similar types of bird (guineafowl & new world turkeys), and keeping the sources of both of them vague or secret, that led to Europeans confusing the two, and calling them all by the same name — ‘turkey-cock’ or ‘hen from India’ or whatever — and the original Spanish error in thinking of the new world as India didn’t help to clarify anything. To be fair, the two birds did look fairly similar, particularly the helmeted guineafowl with its distinctive head and spotted feathers.
So in the end, the name turkey stuck for the new world turkey, but the guineafowl came to be distinguished by the name it has today when its association with the area of Africa known as Guinea became clear.
That part of the coast of West Africa came to be called Guinea by the Portuguese, who as we’ve seen were the European experts on West Africa. They probably got it from a North African language, maybe the Berber word aginaw meaning ‘black’, in reference to the dark colour of the skin of the inhabitants further south in Africa. Later on, when the European traders reached the South Pacific they used the name New Guinea to refer to one of the large islands they found there due to perceived similarities in the populations. In the 17th century, the English started making a gold coin that came to be known as the guinea, initially for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa (who profited from the slave trade in the region), and made from the gold they also imported.
And by the way, the story of the guinea pig is similar to that of the turkey. Guinea pigs, which are neither pigs nor come from Guinea, actually come from South America, where they were, and still are, an important food source in many regions, particularly around the Andes mountains, where they were domesticated some 7000 years ago. Like the turkey, the guinea pig was also important for ritual purposes. For instance among the Inca, guinea pigs were sacrificed to the gods and eaten as part of ceremonial or festive meals—not unlike the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner! Guinea pigs have also been used in traditional healing or divination rituals, and even turn up depictions of the Last Supper. The Spanish imported the animals into Europe — Queen Elizabeth I had one as a pet—where they came to be known as the guinea pig, likely because they were part of that same West Africa/mid-Atlantic trade route that led to the turkey/guineafowl confusion. So it’s perhaps not surprising that their name in French is cochon d’inde or “pig from India”.
But the confusion between the birds even seems to have tripped up scientists; when Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist, categorized them, he used the Roman word for the guineafowl (meleagris, ultimately from Greek), as the genus of the turkey and the species of the helmeted guineafowl.
There’s an origin story associated with the word meleagris: in the usual backward fashion of myth, it claims the bird was named after the hero Meleager. When Meleager was a baby, his mother Althea was told by that fates that he would live only so long as a log that was on the fire lasted. His mother, of course, put out the burning log and locked it away for safe keeping. Years later, his father Oeneus, who according to myth had given wine to the Greeks (so you might want to raise a toast to him at your Thanksgiving dinner), forgot to honour the goddess Artemis with the first fruits of his harvest at the annual harvest festival. Artemis was miffed and sent the monstrous Caledonian boar to terrorize the kingdom. Oeneus and Meleager organized a great hunt, and after the boar was killed, a fight broke out over the spoils, and Meleager killed his uncles. His mother, furious at the death of her brothers, throws the fateful log on the fire, and Meleager dies; his sisters, wearing black outfits of mourning, are in their grief transformed into birds, their tears becoming the spots on the bird’s feathers, and that’s the bird we now know as guineafowl. Actually, the word meleagris may (possibly) be a borrowing from Persian, from a word meaning ‘bird, fowl’, or more likely it’s just Greek meaning ‘black-silver’ describing the bird’s appearance, black with white spots. But it’s quite appropriate that the beginning of the whole Caledonian boar story is Oeneus’ failure to honour Artemis in a harvest festival—since it of course connects to the turkey’s starring role in the modern Thanksgiving feast.
But getting back to the new world turkey, though the turkey is often associated with the early thanksgivings in North America, today’s domesticated turkey descends from the Aztec domestic fowl that was brought back to Europe and selectively bred there, and was then introduced into North America by the English colonists, who saw the wild turkeys in the new land as being similar to “our English turkeys”, effectively appropriating the turkey as a European animal.
Both guineafowl and new world turkey spread through Europe in the 16th century, and by the end of that century the turkey had become the standard of feasts like Christmas dinner. William Shakespeare even mentions the turkey a number of times, including figuratively of a proud or arrogant person. And speaking of Shakespeare, his play The Tempest seems to have been inspired by the shipwreck of the Sea Venture on its way to the newly founded Jamestown colony, one of the sites (as we will see) that claims the first Thanksgiving in the New World.
So why is turkey connected so strongly to Thanksgiving? Well, the commonly-told story is of the feast held by the ‘Pilgrims’ at the Plymouth colony after surviving their first year, in 1621, to express their gratitude to God and to the local Native Americans, who had helped the colonists survive the harsh winter, and who brought turkeys to the feast. But there are a number of historical problems with the story. While the Native Americans certainly did help the settlers make it through the first winter, the colonists do not seem to have intended the feast as a reciprocal gesture of gratitude, but as (in part) a show of strength to allies they did not fully trust, and the relationship between the two groups was complicated from the very beginning. And even if the Wampanoag people did bring wild turkeys to the feast, the Settlers would already have been familiar with the domesticated turkey, or maybe even had some of their own, and in any case they weren’t a very big part of the dinner. Also, the pilgrims weren’t really Pilgrims (they never used that name for themselves, though I suppose it would have been appropriate — the word pilgrim comes from Latin per meaning “through” and ager meaning “field or countryside”, the idea being literally wandering through the countryside, and that ager root also gives us agriculture, appropriate for a harvest festival.) They were followers of Calvinism, though, and they were against holidays and merrymaking, and like many protestant groups they instead had an austere religious tradition of Days of Thanksgiving, which often, ironically, involved fasting (not feasting), and which could be held for a variety of reasons, whenever they felt the need to express gratitude to God. And the feast at the Plymouth colony was one of these, and did mark the successful harvest as well as their first year. But that first feast did not begin a yearly tradition, it was a one-off event; nor was it even the first “Day of Thanksgiving” held in North America.
Jamestown, Virgina, the first English colony in the Americas, which is connected with Shakespeare’s play The Tempest you remember, has a recorded Day of Thanksgiving in 1619, two years earlier than the Plymouth event. It celebrated surviving a very harsh winter and not starving to death, and was triggered by the arrival of another ship of settlers with fresh supplies, so that they had food again.
But there’s an even earlier thanksgiving celebration in North America than Jamestown—in what later became Canada, which is appropriate since nowadays Canadian Thanksgiving is celebrated more than a month earlier than the American holiday. In 1578, the English sailor Martin Frobisher and his crew, attempting to find a Northwest Passage to reach China and India and all those valuable trade commodities, was driven back by storms and landed on Baffin Island, and declared a Day of Thanksgiving for their safe landing. So not a harvest festival, but still giving thanks for surviving hardship. Frobisher, who had started out his maritime career with a trip to Guinea — remember that place? — was not a careful and accomplished explorer, and gave up on his search for a northwest passage when he thought he found a source of gold — which turned out to be worthlesspyrite.
And there’s one last contender for the first Thanksgiving. Way back in 1565, the Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, after catching sight of land at Florida on the feast day of St Augustine of Hippo (who happened to be the patron saint of his home town), founded and named the new colony San Agustín, and immediately declared a Day of Thanksgiving to celebrate their safe arrival, which was attended by some of the native inhabitants. St Augustine, by the way, is held up by the Calvinists as having laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation, so I guess that brings us back to those so called Pilgrims.
Now, none of those ‘first thanksgivings’ established a tradition, or tied it to the turkey. But throughout the colonial period there were various Days of Thanksgiving, (as there were in the Canadian colonies: the first official national Canadian “Day of Thanksgiving” was declared in 1879 in honour of the Prince of Wales recovering from an illness), and there were various local harvest celebrations, but no ‘national’ holiday. However, a tradition of a general harvest festival did develop independently in New England, held in November, with a mainly religious focus. And that celebration tended to include turkey, becausethat bird had long been a feature of festive meals in England, replacing the goose and the guinea fowl, as I mentioned earlier. And so when Thanksgiving eventually became a national holiday in the US, elements of that New England tradition became widespread, like the turkey, and the cranberry sauce.
But not everyone is happy that there’s a national holiday that celebrates of the settlement of North America by Europeans. Since 1970, there has been a national day of mourning held at Plymouth Rock, on the same date as Thanksgiving, to commemorate the genocide of native people and the theft of native lands. So I should point out that although the turkey in the Thanksgiving feast has been turned into a symbol of the ‘peaceful’ and ‘friendly’ relations between settlers and Native Americans, actually it’s served because of the English tradition of eating turkey at celebratory feasts as a result of its appropriation by earlier European settlers from the Meso-American people they’d conquered, not because of it being among the foods contributed by the Native Americans at Plymouth.
But turkey is the one thing that Canadian Thanksgiving, which actually comes more directly from British harvest festivals, owes to the US: the United Empire Loyalists, who left the US for the British-held Canada at American Independence, brought the Thanksgiving turkey to Canada. Because by that point the Americans were really into turkeys — Benjamin Franklin even argued for the wild turkey to be the national bird of the United States, rather than the eagle, if you can picture that!
So, from first-fruits at a harvest festival, to early trade routes to India and secret origins, to the search for other routes to the Orient and the first feasts of thanksgiving, to the appropriation of food and land from the first nations, the story of the turkey’s name is in many ways the story of the spice trade; and exploring it teaches us about Thanksgiving, and *its* own origins in the many confusions, conquests, cultural clashes, and changes of that period. So if you’re sitting down to a Thanksgiving turkey any time soon, try spicing up the dinner conversation with a peppering of etymology, and consider the unexpected twists and turns that brought you, and it, here.
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