Pigs: beliefs and attitudes

“Pigs in their various forms, from wild boar to domesticated swine, are extremely ambivalent figures in myth, sacred in some contexts, demonic in others, or (in the paradoxical manner so common to magical tales) both revered and shunned at the same time. The pig as a sacred animal seems to belong to the early goddess religions, about which our knowledge is far from complete — but carvings and other artifacts found all across what is now western Europe indicate that the pig was an aspect of the Great Goddess, associated with fertility, the moon, and the season cycles of life and death.”
Terri Windling

The history of pigs and humans is long, intertwined and full of conflict.  As a result, our beliefs, stories and folklore around the pig is very varied.  They have been symbols of wealth and status, as well as derided as animals of dirt and filth.  Perhaps the best known belief around pigs is that certain religions denounce eating them.

Why the pig is seen as taboo seems to be a much debated idea with few certainties and many suggestions.  One of these being that it was because pigs were dirty and they ate refuse.  A first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, apparently said that pigs were lazy scavengers who would eat human corpses given the chance.  As both the embodiment of vice and potentially having eaten humans, pigs were thus unfit for human consumption.

Whilst no one seems quite sure why pork was forbidden, the kind of meat you ate, or didn’t, could at various points in history get you killed.  The Spanish Inquisition was one such point in time and not eating pork could mark you out as a traitor.  To try and combat this, people would keep pigs but not eat them, or cook pork like food to try and throw off suspicions.

Elsewhere in time and space, pigs were important sources of food as they were economical to raise.  It was possibly because of this that they were popular with peasants, another possible reason for certain groups of society to refuse to eat them.

Pigs were also important in ritual, although not in ancient Egypt where pigs were considered unworthy sacrifices to the gods, with the exception of the Moon and Dionysus.  In ancient Greece, piglets were sacrificed to the gods and men swore oaths on boar testicles.  Likewise, they were important in Roman sacrifices.  Pliny the Elder had some interesting thoughts on pigs, noting their intelligence and observing that a pig whose tail curls to the right hand side are more likely to appease the gods in a sacrifice…

In China we also see the importance of the pig.  It is thought that the pig was the first domesticated animal there which may explain its place of power.  Between 4700 and 2900BC pigs had ritual importance and the dead (humans) were buried with jade or ceramic pig figures as a symbol of status.  Pigs remain important to the Chinese economy and culture and apparently, the mandarin character for family and home is represented by a pig inside a house.  The pig is also one of the Chinese zodiac animals and is associated with fertility and virility.

For the Kaulong people of Papua New Guinea, pigs are important both physically and symbolically.  They are sacrificed and their meat is shared in ceremonial displays such as for a child’s first tooth eruption, as part of male initiation rituals, to mark female puberty and for marriages and deaths.

For some interesting folklore titbits, I return closer to home with what I believe are British or European beliefs about pigs:

  • They were associated with weather in folklore and it was said that they could see the wind approaching and would let you know by rushing around with straw in their mouths.
  • Fishermen considered them a bad omen and wouldn’t go to sea if they saw one.
  • It was bad luck for a bride to see a pig on her way to the church.
  • To kill a certain (but varied) number of pigs, then the devil may appear, sometimes even in pig form. And if a devilish pig were to bite you, it was said you’d get cancer.
  • Confusingly though, pork soup was a remedy for many things and pigs blood could cure warts.
  • If, however, you ate pig brains then you’d lose control of what you said.

Turning to literature, we find some pigs that do their best to break the stereotypes of the species.  There is babe from Dick King Smith’s Sheep pig who overcomes people’s perceptions of the pig as stupid.  Instead of bulling the sheep into action, he politely asks them instead.  There is piglet from winnie the pooh who is a timid, scared little pig who overcomes his worries and fears repeatedly throughout the tales.  There is the pig in charlotte’s web saves the farm.  And of course there are many more.  Some who fit the stereotypical ideas of pigs, and some who defy them.

In language however, we still find the idea of pigs as dirty, lazy and smelly emphasised.  We talk of pigging out, being pleased as a pig in muck, we call people pig ignorant and tell them to get their snout out of things.  We repeat the old adage you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear but we also talk of globetrotters, although for most of us, an image of the well travelled pig doesn’t spring straight to mind.

Talking of language and how the word pig has come to mean much more than a four legged animal, pigs have been used in a derogatory way for hundreds of years to dehumanise certain groups of people, including Jews.  In late medieval Germany, a condemned Jew was led to execution wrapped in pig skin and in some executions, the victims were hung upside down, by the legs in the same manner as the pigs who were hung alongside them.  Commenting on the dehumanisation of minorities, Boria Sax observed:

“Those who wished to brutalise and slaughter other people… would find it psychologically easier if they thought of their victims as swine.”

And finally, we talk of piggy banks, despite them having very little to do with pigs.  The Middle English word pygg referred to a type of clay used to make jars, such as those jars you would keep money in.  Over the years it has become piggy bank and thus we find the pig shaped ones we know today.

Useful resources:

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:

Wild Boar

Like with some other animals I’ve looked at, the boar found in America is different to that found in Europe.  Again, I shall be considering the European boar as it is closer to home and as such feels more relevant to me.  Wild boars are extinct in Britain with the last being thought to roam in the 13th century however because of interbreeding with domestic pigs and the blurred line between the two, it’s not possible to be precise.  To try and prevent this line from blurring further, I’ve decided to do an entirely separate post about pigs.  I wanted to look at the pig as well, partly in its own right and partly as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot cards the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’ve decided to focus my pig thoughts there instead of having it as an add on to the boar.

“Be willing to accept all parts of yourself and to courageously transform those parts which you don’t like”
– Animal Allies

The boar is about protection and about confrontation.  Not just confronting others, or protecting yourself from others but also about how we protect ourselves from ourselves and how there is a time and a place and a need for confronting yourself.  Where are you concealing things from yourself?  Where are you lying to yourself?  The boar, the powerful boar, can help you to tell you the truth and charging head first, can help you confront those parts of you that you try to hide.

The charging aspect of the boar comes up a lot – there is the obvious analogy of charging head first towards challenges.  The boar doesn’t wait patiently for what it wants, it doesn’t procrastinate the future away.  It is all about moving forward and strength, something that Rachel Patterson sums up nicely:

“Generous noble creature, the boar has been a symbol of warriors for centuries and features in many battle tales and legends.  He is full of masculine energy and brings bravery, balance and strength.”

With the boar, we have a power but it is not undirected, the boar’s power is about standing up for self and family and taking on battles, an aspect which is oft-repeated in symbolism and mythology.

The wild boar was the heraldic emblem of Richard III.  They were a popular choice, likely because of their association with fierceness in battle and symbolically they were used as an emblem of protection.  It was said that during a hunt, a boar’s tusks would get so hot they would singe the attacking dogs.  Instead of white hot tusks, the golden boar called Goldbristles had a glowing mane which would light the dark night and was associated with Freyr and by extension, with war and death.

A lot of my reading focused on war, battle, boar hunts and courage but there is an additional part of this animal that I find symbolically fascinating; their role in landscape.

Whilst the boar has vanished from the English landscape, their presence remains in place names such as everton and everleigh, with eofor meaning wild boar.  Closer to home for me, the saxon name for York was Eoforwic – wild boar settlement – which was turned into Jorvik – wild boar creek – by the Vikings and over time has become York.    Boars continue to live on in York’s art, with two white boars being depicted in stained glass in York Minster.

In addition to naming the landscape, the boar itself can, in large numbers, strongly alter the landscape through rooting and they play an important role in the decomposition of the forest floor.  By rooting through leaf litter to find food, they aerate the soil and this has important benefits for the environment.  Unfortunately, in some areas this behaviour has lead to human outcries that boars are destroying the land – we are very fickle and can see the same behaviour as positive and negative depending on our own interests.

“Wild boars have been described as many things, but they are always characterised in the light of human concerns and priories.  Even when their natural behaviour is praise, humans limit the extent to which they are allowed to practise it.”
– I don’t know where I got this quote from… Sorry!

Although the boar is about fighting, the idea of looking at what you are concealing opens you up to emotional healing and it was said that parts of the boar contained magic.  A boar skin placed on a wound made it disappear.  They were thought to know how to cure themselves of digestive disorders and whilst this may or may not be true, males do use their tusks to rip bark off trees to release pine resin.  They rub against this to harden their coats and repel insects.

The boar can appear to find food out of nowhere, making them an omen of prosperity, although you may need to look more closely and snuffle out the treasure from the waste.  You need to dig out what is under the surface and this ties is so well to the idea of confronting what is hidden.

Like all of us, the boar has more than one side and you cannot simply relegate it to a corner with a label hinting at destruction and confrontation.

Throughout history, wild boars have presented us with opportunity and danger.  They are a food source with tusks that could cause terrible damage and it was this risk that meant killing boar made you into a great warrior.  Because boars are generally secretive and shy, they only tend to come into contact with humans on human terms such as hunts.  This is why we often see them depicted as aggressive, ferocious and violent, you would be too if you were being chased by men and dogs with the intent to kill you.

“Ovid presents the Caledonian boar as a mighty adversary, allying it both with the forces of nature, the like deadly lightning strike, and human weaponry, such as the catapulted stone.  It is proud and intelligent, choosing the forest as its battleground, where its hunters are at an immediate disadvantage.  The hunters themselves do not appear in the best light, as they quarrel with each other, or foolishly vaunt their own prowess.  Even in death, the boar confronts them with their failings, as they gather round, afraid even to touch it.”
– Dorothy Yamamoto

Boar hunting took on social meanings beyond just needing resources the animals could offer.  It became a test of courage and a symbol of a man’s masculinity and status to kill a boar.  This was emphasised by their reputation which claimed that their fighting spirit was said to signify the fierceness of the rulers of the world.  Hunting may have been encouraged because of the Christian association of the boar with the devil and the boar was often associated with one of the deadly sins, whether it was anger, lust or gluttony.  A 14th century hunting manual says that the boar is:

“…black and ugly, like those who have lost the light of the spirit and live in benighted worldliness.  The boar shoves its face into the soil, like those whose only concern is filing their bellies and enjoying the delights of the flesh.  Even its feet are twisted and crossed, like those of the Devil.”

In one of the accounts I read, from around the first century, a roman writer was poking fun at boar hunting and was suggesting his friends take the opportunity instead for reflection and thinking, for hunting ideas or words or knowledge instead of boars. I love this idea and think it relates well to the snuffling out what is not necessarily obvious.  What is it you need to look for, to hunt for or to sniff out?  Perhaps a walk in the woods collecting leaves, trying to find a particular bird or foraging for mushrooms is what you need.