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.
As Alison Hawthorne Deming explains in her excellent book Zoologies:
"The process of pig domestication began in the Tigris Basin thirteen thousand years ago; in Cyprus and China, eleven thousand years ago. Sculptures of pigs have been unearthed in Greece, Russian, Yugoslavia, and Macedonia. Marija Gimbutas, in her keystone work The Godddess and Gods of Old Europe, writes that 'the fast-growing body of the pig will have been compared to corn growing and ripening, so that its soft fats apparently came to symbolize the earth itself, causing the pig to become a sacred animal probably no later than 6000 BC.' The goddess of vegetation sometimes wears a pig mask. Sometimes the pig figurine, fleshy and round, is scored with traces of grain pressed into the clay or is graced with earrings. The prehistoric goddess of vegetation dates back to Neolithic times and is predicessor to Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and harvest, whose temple at Eleusis was built in the second century BCE.
"The Eleusinian Mysteries," Deming continues, "became the principal religious ritual of ancient Greece, begun circa 1600 BCE. Originally a secret cult devoted to Demeter, the rites honored the annual cycle of death and rebirth of grain in the fields. The resurrection of seeds buried in the ground inspired the faith that similar resurrection might await the human body laid to rest in the earth. The religious rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries lasted two thousand years, became the official state religion, and spread to Rome. They laid the groundwork for Christianity's belief in resurrection and were ultimately overthrown by the Roman emperor in the fourth century CE.
"The canonical source of Demeter's story, the 'Homeric Hymn to Demeter,' dates from about a thousand years into the practice of these rituals. It is called Homeric because it employs the same meter as The Iliad and The Odyssey -- dactylic hexameter, the rhythm of 'Picture yourself in a boat on the river / With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.'
"The foundation of the Mysteries is Demeter's power over the fertility of the land. When her daughter Persephone is stolen by Hades to be his lover in the underworld, the mother's grief is so acute that she refuses to let the fields produce grain. People are in danger of starving, but Demeter resists, saying there will be no crops until she sees her daughter return. When Persephone does come back, after many trials among mortals and much dealing making among the gods, Demeter's sudden transformation of bare ground into a 'vast sheet of ruddy grain' marks the miracle of fruition returning after a fallow time and sparks the fertility cult of the mysteries. This metamorphosis occurs in mythic time, so it is safe to say that it continues in the present moment for the mind embracing its truth.
"Suckling pigs played a key role in the festival of Thesmophoria, a three-day rite that took place in October, the time for autumn sowing of barley and winter wheat. As I write this, the word sow catches my eye, as both noun for the female pig and verb for planting seeds. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the two words come from different Old English roots, but nonetheless history delivers the homograph to modernity still carrying freight from the ancients. Pig = grain. And the corollary, embedded in prehistoric art: pig = Earth = survival."
In stories from later periods of classical myth, the pig appears in a number of hero tales: not as a sacred animal now but as a monster to be slain. Thesues, for example, kills the Crommyonian Sow who is ravaging the countryside near Crommyon. This was no ordinary pig, but the daughter of Echidna (a snake-woman) and Typhone (the monstrous son of Gaia), named after the woman who raised her. The Crommoyonian Sow was, in turn, the mother of the Calydonian Boar sent by Artemis to punish the region of Calydon, where the king had neglected the rites of the gods. The creature is killed in the famous Hunt of the Calydonian Boar by the king's son Meleager, aided (for complicated reasons) by the goddess Atlanta.
Pigs appear all throughout The Odyssey, though largely in the background of the story: Odysseus is the king of Ithaca, an island reknown for its farmland and herds of fat swine. He is the son of Laërtes, an Argonaut who participated in the Hunt of the Calydonian Boar. During his long journey home from the Trojan War, Odysseus encounters Circe the sorceress, who turns his men into swine (and other animals)...and then falls in love with Odysseus and releases the crew from enchantment. When our hero reaches Ithaca at last, he hides himself in his swineherd's house while taking measure of all that's gone on in his absence, and it's there, among dogs and pigs, that he is reunited with his son Telemachus. He finally makes his way to his own house, disguised, where his elderly nurse recognizes him: while washing his feet, she spies an old scar he received from a boar hunt many years before.
Aneas, another hero of the Trojan War, is also associated with pigs. In Book VIII of Virgil's Aeneid, the river god Tiberinus appears to Aeneas in a dream to tell him his son is destined to found the great city of Alba. He will know place when he sees this omen: a spotless white sow with thirty white piglets. This comes to pass and the city, which will be Rome, is duly founded.
The poor pig does not fare well in the myths the Middle and Near East, including those of the Abrahamic religions, where the animal is viewed as an unclean and defiled creature in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian stories alike. It is tempting to attribute the pig’s fall from grace to its association with women's mysteries -- but while this may have played a role, there are also practical reasons why the animal was shunned. As Mark Essig writes in his fascinating book Lesser Beasts:
"By the start of the Iron Age, about 1200 bc, elites in the Near East had begun to see pigs as polluting, a view that arose in part from the habits of urban pigs. Though cities had grown large, sanitation systems had not kept pace. Residents threw garbage into the streets or piled it in heaps outside their doors....Dogs and pigs had first domesticated themselves by scavenging human waste, but now that role made them pariahs. Filthy animals offended the gods and therefore were excluded from holy places. The people of the Near East practiced many different religions, but all agreed that the key sacrificial animals were sheep, goats, and cattle and that pigs were unclean. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, pigs never appear in religious art. The Harris Papyrus, which describes religious offerings made by King Ramses III, includes a detailed list of every desirable item to be found in Egypt and the lands it had conquered, including plants, fruits, spices, minerals, and meat. Pork does not appear on the list. 'The pig is not fit for a temple,' a Babylonian text reads, because it is 'an offense to all the gods.' A Hittite text declares, 'Neither pig nor dog is ever to cross the threshold' of a temple. If anyone served the gods from a dish contaminated by pigs or dogs, 'to that one will the gods give excrement and urine to eat and drink.' "
(You can read an engrossing except from Lessig's book here.)
The pig fared better among the Norse and the Celts, for whom -- as with the Demeter cults -- it was valued not only as a source of food but also as a divine animal, associated with the cycle of birth and death, the moon, the underworld, and intuitive wisdom.
In Norse myth, both Freyr (god of virility and prosperity) and his sister Freyja (goddess of love, sex, and fertility) held the wild boar under special protection, and are sometimes depicted together in a chariot drawn by a heavenly boar with golden bristles. In Hyndluljóð, an Old Norse poem that forms part of the Poetic Eddas, Freyja has a companion boar named Hildisvíni, whose name means "Battle Swine."
In Celtic Ireland, not only were wild boars and sows held in high esteem, but so were domestic pigs; and the swineherds who tended them were credited with magical powers. Their herds of swine would have been semi-wild, foraging for food in the forests of kings; the herders were thus semi-wild themselves and imbued with the woodland's magic. The Táin Bó Cúailnge and other ancient texts tell stories of swineherds who battle each other in contests of magic, or who utter prophesies at key moments in the lives of heroes and kings.
In Welsh legend, the enchantress Ceridwen (possessor of the Cauldron of Inspiration which turns Gwion Bach into Taliesin) is referred to as The White Sow; and in some Welsh folklore traditions she had the power to assume that shape. The following passage from The Mabinogion describes the introduction of pigs to that land:
"Lord," said Gwydion [to Math son of Mathonwy],I have heard tell there have come to the South such creatures as never came to this Island." "What is there name?" said he. "Hobeu, lord." "What kind of animals are those?" "Small animals, their flesh better than the flesh of oxen. But they are small and they change names: moch are they called nowadays." "To whom do they belong?" "To Pryderi son of Pwyll, to whom they were sent from Annwn [the Underworld], by Arawn king of Annwn."
Whereupon Gwydion concocts a plan to steal these animals for his own land, setting off all manner of troubles....
In fairy tales, lowly pig keepers usually turn out to be princes or princesses in disguise. Likewise, the "Pig-Sty Prince" of Arthurian lore, a child found abandoned among the swine, turns out to be cousin to Arthur himself and grows up to win the hand of a princess.
Today, science has confirmed that pigs are highly social and intelligent animals....which only makes their abuse by the modern system of factory farming all the more horrific. Perhaps if we recognized them (and all creatures) as sacred beings this could finally change.
The pig photographs in this post are from my friend Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (pictured below), a harpist, composer, and filmmaker here in Chagford who kept pigs for a time to forage in her beautiful woodland, Pigwiggen Wood. The sow is Blossom, and the piglets are ones she gave birth to back in 2010. They have since been re-homed...but not eaten, I assure you!
The art above (top to bottom): a Greek terracotta pig votive, circa 5th c. BCE; a figure of Demeter with pig found near Athens, circa 5th c. BCE; a marble pig votive; The Calydonian Hunt shown on a Roman frieze at the Amsmolean Museum, Oxford; Circe and her pigs in The Wanderings of Odysseus, illustrated by Alan Lee; a marble relief showing Aneas and his son with the White Sow of Alba; a Greek terracotta boar askos, circa 4th c. BCE; imagery from the Egyptian tomb of Ramses II depicting how Horus would judge souls in the afterlife, reincarnating the bad ones as pigs; a bronze boar statue from the Celtic sanctuary at Neuvy-en-Sullias, circa 1st c. BCE; "Gwydion steals the pigs of Pryderi" from The Mabinogion, illustrated by Alan Lee; The Pig Keeper by Warwick Goble (1862-1943); and The Pig-Style Prince by Harry G. Theaker (published in 1925).
The quotations above come from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Milkweed Editions, 2014), and Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig by Mark Essig (Basic Books, 2015). The poem in the picture captions, "Circe's Power" by Louise Gluck, is from The New Yorker (April 10, 1995), with thanks to Christine Norstrand for introducing me to it. The passage from The Mabinogion comes from the Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones translation (Dragon's Dream edition, 1982). All rights to the quoted text is reserved by the authors.