“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.