Pigs: a history of mixed feelings

“Pigs and pork have, throughout history, been used to divide and unite people”
– Pia Spry-Marques

This will be the start of a few posts on pigs, mostly because there is so much to say about them.  It is because of this that I wanted to look at the pig its own right, not just as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot deck, the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’m also going to do a post that focuses on that specifically.

Our history with pigs goes back about 18,000 years and starts with the boar.  Boars are the ancestors of domestic pigs with spots and stripes that helped them blend into their environment.  These vanished, their tails became curly and their ears flopped as we domesticated them. Their tusks also disappeared and our attitudes towards them changed dramatically, shifting from a devil like enemy to a vital provider.

The domestic pig was bred from eurasion wild boars about 9000 years ago in Eastern Turkey and China simultaneously (some sources suggesting there were other domestication events at around the same time elsewhere but it’s complicated stuff).  As they were adaptable, had large and regular litters, were tough and were in close contact with humans (they would raid fields) they were a good candidate for breeding compared to other types of boars.  Pigs were also important compared to other domesticated species; they like living in groups, they are adaptable and they eat pretty much anything.  This meant they essentially looked after themselves and ate what we threw away, making them important to the history of agriculture and farming.

Today, pigs are widely distributed around the world, both down to their natural wanderings and human involvement.  From steamy rainforests to dry savannas to snowy woodlands, pigs are one of the most successful mammals on earth.  Evolution and human involvement has resulted in over 500 breeds of pigs today, but it isn’t just the pig landscape that has changed because of man.  The reverse is true, without the man-pig relationship, human history could have looked very different – exploration and civilisation were aided by the pig.

“Pigs are ubiquitous in the modern world, whether we are talking about the more than one billion domesticated pigs on the planet or the countless representations of pigs and ‘piggishness’ that circulate through most of the world’s cultures… Pigs have been structurally and symbolically significant in the making of human society and culture across the globe.  Pigs have fed us, entertained us and provided us with ways to think about our relationships with each other on this porcine planet.”
– Brett Mizelle

Despite this universality, pigs suffer from mixed reviews.  Whilst they have provided us with food and have been praised and celebrated, they have also been cast out and seen as dirty and smelly.

“The persistent uncertainty about whether pigs are good or bad animals is connected to the lived relationship between humans and pigs.  These attitudes reflect a moral ambivalence about the killing of pigs and ideas about pigs themselves, both of which are often factors in conflicts between human social groups.”
– Mizelle

Pigs provided a way for different classes of society to distinguish themselves and due to the association with lower classes, the pig increasingly became ostracised as a symbol of poverty, dirtiness and slothenlyness.  Mizelle also asks whether our conflicting feelings towards pigs may arise because of our similarities.  With pigs both physically near and physiologically alike, our treatment of them may induce feelings of guilt which we then transferred to the pig.  In order to treat it as we do, to keep it confined and to butcher it, we must psychologically distance ourselves from the pig.  And we can see this clearly in how we talk; male chauvinist pigs, pig ugly, smell like a pig, greedy pig and so on…

“There is a long history of porcine proverbs that describe efforts to convert the useless to the useful, the ugly to the pretty.  The maxim ‘You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ dates back to the mid sixteenth century.”
– Mizelle

Returning to the similarities between humans and pigs, we see also the need to distance them in order to eat them, calling the meat pork and talking of chops and bacon instead.

Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, with over half of it consumed in china.  Whilst I am not going to look too closely at meat, as Mizelle says:

“Different groups have consumed different cuts of pork over time, making pork consumption a useful lens into race, religion and class.”

And for more information about this, we can look to Mark Essig:

“The reputation of pork depends upon the life of the pig. In early medieval Europe, when most pigs foraged in the woods, pork was the preferred meat of the nobility. By 1300 most forests had been felled, and pigs became scavengers. In a medieval British text, a woman explains that she won’t serve pork because pigs “eat human shit in the streets.” Pigs also dined on human flesh, which was available because executed prisoners, among others, were left unburied.”

Even within the context of food, it’s clear that there are many views about pigs throughout time and space.  Stepping away from pigs as food, we have Aristotle who (despite almost certainly eating pork) called pigs “the animals most like people” because of their similarities to humans; little did he know just how alike to us they are.

Physiologically, pigs are very like humans and because of this, they play a key role in human medicine.  We have made use of them in skin grafts for burns, in making insulin for diabetics and we have pig heart valves.  Pigs have been used by medical students to practise their skill and researchers have utilised the similarities.  One horrific sounding experiment used live pigs to study the effects of atomic blasts and radiation during the Cold War.  Unfortunately for pigs, they play a life saving role in today’s medical landscape.  As pigs heal in a similar way to us, unlike rodents, they have been useful for medical experimentation.  They are also used in less obvious ways such as in gelatine for pills, in sponges used in surgery, in some blood clotting medicine and in wound treatment.

Beyond medicine, pigs are also found in make up, biodiesel, toothpaste, antifreeze, bone china, glue, in the manufacturing of train brakes and even in cigarette filters…

Whilst you might think this is all in recent history, medical experimentation using pigs actually has a long history.  As far back as ancient Greece, they were being used because human dissection wasn’t allowed at the time.  It was through a ‘squealing pig’ experiment that Galen found it was the brain, not the heart, that controlled actions and thoughts.

Pigs have proven useful and have helped to develop civilisation and scientific knowledge.  They have saved lives and we have rewarded them by casting them as dirty and smelly.  We love them and we hate them.  And I am struggling to think of any other animal which is subject to such conflicted feelings…

In later posts I’ll be looking at pigs the animals, the beliefs around pigs and I will do a post looking at the pig in the queen of pentacles animal totem tarot.

Useful resources:

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