The Animal Cracker Oracle: An Adaptation of Prussian Customs

by Janina Renee

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

Breads, cookies, and other baked goods shaped like animals and other symbolic figures are a highlight of many European festival traditions. After reading about foodways in East and West Prussia (two areas that are now part of Poland), I was inspired to combine some of their baking traditions into a fortune-telling amusement with animal crackers. Although the old Prussians used baked goods in fortune telling games for the winter holidays, this "Animal Cracker Oracle" is something that can be done, for fun, at any time of year.

Before getting into the animal crackers, here's a little of the folkloric background: The Prussians had a good number of festive baking traditions, though these could vary from community to community. For Christmas, marzipan and pfeffernüsse (peppernut cookies) were the favorite treats; people even played little games with the peppernuts. For New Year's (which Germans more commonly call "Silvester," it being St. Silvester's Eve), bread-like cookies or cookie-like breads were eaten to bring luck and ward off misfortune in the year to come (though a few communities did this, instead, at Christmas). These cookies were typically in the shape of animals—including cats, hens, cows, and foxes—and were offered to family members as well as neighbors. Eating one of these cookies is described as "taking a piece of New Year." Farmers also mixed these cookies into the fodder, so their animals received a share of New Year, and hunters set them out in the forest, because the game animals also needed to be blessed. If a family owned a fruit tree, the father would heave one of the children up onto his shoulders, and the child would affix the cookie to the tree, saying, "I give you New Year, so give me fruit."

Another major Prussian tradition involved using cookies or breads called "Glücksgreife" (lucky grabs) in an Orakelspiel—a fortune-telling game (though in this case, other symbols were used instead of animals). This was such a popular practice that bakeries catered to it. People customarily bought these Glücksgreifen in odd numbers, with a group of nine being most common. The cookies were then covered by a plate or bowl, and each family member took a turn, reaching under the lid to grab a cookie whose shape predicted what he or she could expect in the year ahead. A cookie in the shape of ring predicted betrothal, while one in the shape of a man or woman predicted marriage. A crown-shaped pastry denoted either marriage or death, a swaddled baby or a cradle meant a child to come, a pastry shaped like a loaf of bread signified a good outcome, a ladder or key meant success or Heaven, a four-leafed clover was for luck, and another figure, simply labeled "luck," was a cross inside a circle (like a Celtic cross or hot cross bun). Some of the other pastry shapes included moneybags, death's heads, twins, wagons, ships, stars, hearts, crosses, chimney sweeps, hammers, beggars' staffs, ox-eyes, and snakes Because "Greif" can be a pun, as it means both "grab" and "griffon," it would have been delightful if some bakers had thought to make griffon-shaped pastries.

Here in America, we can't run down to the corner bakery and buy "ten pennies worth of luck" as the Prussians used to be able to do, because it is not customary for bakeries to produce pastries in a variety of shapes. However, one product that does feature a variety of shapes is animal crackers, so it is possible to carry on the fortune-telling tradition by assigning symbolic meanings to the animal figures. When I want to entertain my friends with this practice, I go around to different stores, including health food stores, to get a large enough selection of animal cookie products. I then pile a bunch of the [unbroken] cookies on a plate, cover them with a cloth napkin, and invite my friends to reach under and grab some. (One can use tongs to seize the cookies, for sanitary purposes, if a large number of people are involved.) I based the following list of animal symbols on the products that I was able to find locally, as well as those listed by Internet sources. If you come across animal forms not mentioned here, assign meanings based on what those animals mean to you.


Bear: When Wall Street is "bearish," the economic outlook isn't good. On the other hand, the bear is a strongly protective mother symbol.
Buffalo: Having everything you need, because for the Native Americans, the bison supplied all their wants.
Bunny rabbit: Small things will multiply.
Butterfly: Enjoy an extended summer. Hopi folklore sees the butterfly as a message of good times, Chinese as an invitation for love. (Butterflies and three other insect forms are from Keebler's graham "Bug Bites.")
Camel: You will have the resources to go the distance, but this also implies that you will have some distance to go—across the desert.
Cat (house cat): Attention is on the home life; you will have a chance to enjoy domestic pleasures.
Caterpillar: Expect a time of transformation—maybe a little bit later than expected, as the end of summer may be a bit late for caterpillars.
Circus wagon: This is the only animal cracker I know of in a non-animal shape. It could denote a time of being carried along with the parade, (i.e., you may not be in control, but you're part of the show).
Cougar: This is a good time to pounce on opportunities.
Crocodile: Now is your time in the sun; enjoy the chance to bask.
Donkey: If you manage to make an ass of yourself, bear it with good humor.
Dragonfly: An extended summer brings you dreamy afternoons that allow you to connect with the mysteries of nature.
Elephant: Traditionally a very lucky symbol, and also "the opener of the way." Opportunities open up as you surmount your obstacles.
Giraffe: Extend your reach; you have a chance to go for the higher-hanging fruit.
Gorilla: Though gorillas are actually gentle creatures, we have a proverbial saying about "the 800-pound gorilla in the room" when there's an obvious problem that people are trying to ignore. Acknowledge your obstacles, and then find a way to work around them.
Hippo: Look at the big picture; something massive is rising up before you.
Horse: You have the power to get where you want to go.
Hyena: The general situation will give you a good laugh.
Kangaroo: Make plans for two. Who do you have to carry?
Koala bear: Something that looks cute and cuddly may prove to have sharp claws.
Lady Bug: Traditionally a very lucky symbol. The Keebler's product has six dots, so you can have six lucky months ahead of you.
Lion: The season brings you recognition and a position of leadership.
Lioness: This season's focus is on the female provider. Think about how your foremothers acted as providers. (The cookie that looks like a lioness may actually be a cougar.)
Monkey: Good times give you a chance to monkey around; indulge the playfully curious animal within.
Owl: You may experience the twilight of some matter in your life, but your wisdom will enable you to see your way through.
Penguin: Prepare for a big chill.
Polar Bear: This could indicate a journey to a cold place, so make sure you are well insulated.
Ram: This is a high-energy time that lets you express your personal potency.
Rhino: You have the ability to tackle your problems head on.
Seal: You may find yourself amusing others with some kind of balancing act.
Sheep: The security of the flock—sometimes it's a good strategy to stick with the masses.
Teddy bear: Good luck comes through children or the things of childhood.
Tiger: In Asian culture, tiger images are used to protect children, so think about your strategies for personal protection.
Turtle: Take it slow and easy; you have the right to retreat into your protective shell.
: Now is not the best time to change your stripes. You may be better off to use protective camouflage to blend in with the herd.

By the way, animal crackers have a history and tradition of their own, having originated in England as fancy cookies. n the 19th century, many American bakeries also started marketing animal cookies. In 1902, Nabisco repackaged their "animal biscuits" as "Barnum's Animals,"and later as "Barnum's Animal Crackers." This is the product best known today; its circus-wagon shaped box has a string on it, so it can be hung from Christmas trees. Some people feel they shouldn't be called "crackers," because their sweetness makes them cookies, but the popular term has stuck.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2009. All rights reserved.