I came across these two prayers for pig hunters recently…
‘Dear Lord. May all dogs be blessed with your grace. To all who wander the fields and forests, may you guide them safely back to camp. Thank you for the blessing of hog meat. Let the hunters always remember it is a gift from you. Thank you also for the hunting knowledge, fellowship, and outdoor experiences you give the hunters. May they always remember these blessings from you. Amen.’
‘Lord, forgive me the butt whupping we’re about to put on your pigs, for they know not how to stay the heck out of my fields till after the harvest is over. Amen.’
Who am I to measure the gravity of prayer? But I find these prayers fairly meager and unachieved with the ‘amen’ tagged on the end as some kind of divine approbation that certifies and verifies and gives the celestial thumbs-up to all that preceded it simply by its mere inclusion as the last word.
There is a lot to say about these prayers but I’d just say this: where is the holiness of the pig here besides as meat?
I looked up these prayers because recently on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia the oldest cave painting of a figure ever was found – a pig. And presumably the handprints of the artist are right above the figure. It’s image is right at the top of the page.
It is a remarkable finding that pushes back the history of humans in that part of the world even further and gives archeological evidence for the spread of humans all over that part of the world in regards to timing.
But just like the famed cave paintings from France and Spain that are full of aurochs and ibex and all manner of animals that clearly inspired awe in the painters because they painted thousands of them. Next to the pig painting there are degraded images of other pigs. The cave system is not well explored yet so who knows what other wonders will be found there. But for the moment we know that the people who painted this pig were absolutely human like you and me and like the painters in Lascaux and Chauvet and elsewhere. They probably found great wonder in the pigs among them and painted them to try to remember them somehow.
Now I don’t know for certain what these ancient ones thought of pigs or what pigs meant to them but I’d bet good money that they were more than simply meat to them. So let me reflect on their possible meaning by inference or reflection by doing some remembering from here in our time in the direction we would call backwards. And we will certainly do some forgetting along the way. And also not even realize that forgetting has happened.
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. What with those two rows of nipples running from the sow’s belly to breast and feeding a dozen piglets at once the pig was like the Great Mother – feeding in abundance.
Alison Deming in her book ‘Zoologies’ writes
“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 Goddess 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 deal 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. Theseus, 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 Typhon (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 demi-goddess Atlanta.
Pigs appear all throughout The Odyssey, though largely in the background of the story: Odysseus is the king of Ithaca, an island renowned 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.
Aeneas, 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. The pig’s fall from grace in this period can certainly (but not only) be attributed to their association with women’s mysteries and the casting aside of the ancient Goddess centric religion for the emerging masculine monotheism. But there is another aspect as well to consider – the emerging proto-urban and urban life forming in the Middle and Near East. Mark Essig writes in his 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.’ “
It is hard to consider that cattle somehow were less filthy than pigs from a sanitation perspective in a semi-urban environment but there it is as something to consider.
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. TheTáin 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 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. Not forgetting the little piglet who accompanied Merlin during his time of madness in the forest after the battle of Caledon in which he committed a heinous crime. The piglet can be seen as a familiar who assisted in the healing of Merlin as he immersed himself in the natural world and as an emissary from Cerridwen, the Great Mother, who watched over his redemption.
All together this adds to the heartbreak of industrial factory farming of pigs. This animal that has been so close to us for so long and held in such esteem and in such esteem to even be hated means that their presence has mattered and made us.
So the pig hunter and their prayers from the beginning of this piece…mercy to them for having none of this memory spoken upon their lips. How often are our best intentioned prayers thinning threadbare covers for what we wished could be deep and warm bedding?
And after all this, what does this tell us about the old timers in Sulawesi and the pigs that lived there and their lived relationship? It is hard to say for sure but my guess still sits that they were amazed by them and saw their lives entwined with theirs. So if you have prayers, may your prayers on this day or in the days to come be pointed in the direction of remembering of all you will leave out of your prayers. You will forget and leave out that which was worth speaking towards and will have to go on. Me too.
And again, if you have prayers, may your prayers be in the presence of old stories that you don’t know. Pray to be in the presence of them too. May they be revealed in good time. May some of these emerge if you sit with pig on your plate.
And if you don’t pray…this remembering and presencing of old stories might just well be enough.
This is an attempt to have some courtesy towards the living world that we are lucky enough to inhabit. The cows. The tallow. The pigs.
Thanks for being willing to do some remembering with me.
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