An Annotated & Illustrated Collection of Worldwide Links to Mythologies,
Fairy Tales & Folklore, Sacred Arts & Sacred Traditions
by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.


Creatures of earth, air, & water
who share their wisdom & humor

An Essay on:
Pigs in History,
Culture, & Art

By Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.

Organic Consumers Association


The Pig in Our Childhood & Beyond

Children around the world grow up with animal sounds as part of their vocabulary. In the English-speaking world, "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" familiarizes each new generation with a cow's moo, a hen's cluck, a horse's neigh, a duck's quack, and, of course, a pig's oink:
Old MacDonald had a farm,
Ee i ee i oh!
And on his farm he had some pigs,
Ee i ee i oh!
With an oink-oink here,
And an oink-oink there
Here an oink, there an oink,
Everywhere an oink-oink
Old MacDonald had a farm
Ee i ee i oh!
The animals making these sounds play well-known roles in nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Cows are represented by, among others, the cow who jumped over the moon, the purple cow, and the cow that Jack traded for the seeds that grew into a magic beanstalk. Enchanted horses sprout wings and fly through the lore of many lands. Representing poultry, roosters welcome the dawn in countless tales; "Chicken Little," ever-terrified that the sky is falling down, runs frantically through our childhood memories; Hans Christian Anderson's unhappy "Ugly Duckling" turns into a much-admired swan; Looney Tunes' aggressive "Daffy Duck" makes us laugh; and the goose lays an egg of gold.

...The pig, however, is childhood's most represented of all barnyard animals. The shy vulnerability and goodness of Wilbur, the pig in Charlotte's Web, is why Charlotte spins words into her webs and saves him from slaughter. Looney Tunes' "Porky Pig" is portrayed with a kindly, childlike awkwardness. "The Three Little Pigs" give us one pig-hero who is industrious and clever as well as his two careless brothers. The pig in the 1995 film, Babe, is lovable and smart. The Muppet Show's Miss Piggy has an "attitude" that delights us all. These pigs charm us with their antics and also teach us about our own humanity.

But humanity's relationship with pigs has a darker side that emerges when we project our fears and prejudices upon them. To call someone a "pig" implies the person is filthy, lazy, obese, disgusting, and stupid.  In fact, pigs are more intelligent than dogs and, like many creatures (including humans), highly sensitive to environmental and spatial stress.  Unlike cows who have two stomachs and therefore can graze and process grass as their primary food source, pigs, like us, have only one stomach and cannot survive on grass -- they need grain, fruits, vegetables, roots, and thus must compete with many other animals (including humans) for many of the same foods. Because of this, pigs, far from being lazy, are constantly digging, rooting, and ferreting-out food to maintain, not a state of "obesity," as would be the case with humans who eat continually, but their normal pig-weight and good health. As for being "filthy," they do love wallowing in mud, which is soothing to their nerves and skin just as it is for many large, sensitive mammals like elephants and rhinos -- even humans prize mud-baths and are willing to pay a fortune at spas for the privilege.

It is said that of all non-human animal flesh, pork tastes most like our own. Perhaps that partially explains why we created a gulf between pigs and humans that clearly differentiates their flesh from ours. Thus, we call them slobs, dirty, fat, stupid -- and nothing like us. This allows us to eat them without guilt. The repressed and never-asked question, of course, is this: if pigs are really so disgusting, why would we want to nurture our bodies with them in the first place? Yet pork, whether pigs are viewed positively as winsome friends, or negatively as repulsive and gross, remains a favorite on our menus.

Among some peoples eating pig-flesh is as taboo as eating human-flesh. The ancient Egyptians, Jews, Moslems, and various African tribal peoples considered pork "unclean." Many reasons were given but since the pig is neither dirty nor "unclean" (unless it is raised under filthy conditions by humans), one might wonder if perhaps the real reason for the inner conflict is precisely because the flavor of pork teeters too close to our cannibalism taboos.  As if to bear this out, in cultures where eating pork was forbidden, pigs were often used as ritual sacrifices, worthy of being sent either as gifts or as messengers to the gods.

History, Archaeology, Sacrifice, and Lore

General Background

The pig has a long history of connection with humans. Unlike horses, mules, and oxen, they could not pull our plows or carts. They gave us neither milk to drink nor wool to spin into clothing. They were of value to us for only one thing: food, for pork is rich in protein, fat, niacin, zinc, phosphorus, and other crucial minerals (see below). In times of great cold, the meat from pigs helped our ancestors survive. Thus, pigs were revered for the precious gift of their lives. Among our remote ancestors, they were not viewed as things or objects.  They were alive, highly intelligent, filled with life-force and energy. They were honored in seasonal rituals for the gift of survival they gave our ancestors, who raised them from piglets and often loved them as pets.

Recent studies of pig mitochondrial DNA reveal that instead of being domesticated only from wild boars in the Near East and Asia, as was previously thought, and then slowly spreading worldwide through human trade and migration, pigs were tamed from local wild relatives in at least seven different locations. Although the original species of wild boar originated among the islands of Southeast Asia, our first evidence for wild boar-domestication dates back 9000 years to eastern Turkey -- and some centuries later to China.  Since we have no approximate dates for other regions, experts do not know if techniques for taming wild pigs spread by word-of-mouth, or if the idea arose independently. Experts do have firm evidence, however, pointing to further Neolithic domestication arising independently in Italy, Central Europe (with Germany as the probable center), Northern India, the Southeast Asian mainland, and Southeast Asia's islands. Thus, for example, European pigs are genetic descendants of Europe's own breed of wild boar, not Turkey's Near Eastern boar. Did ancient Europeans learn how to do this on their own? We do not know -- it is possible that Turkish migrants in Neolithic times brought the idea with them.


China Province Map

Early archaeological evidence for pig domestication in China was confirmed in 2005 at a sacrificial site built some7000 years ago in what is now Anbian Town, Hongjiang City of Hunan Province in central China (this is the third mainland province west of the upper tip of the island of Taiwan). Here, near an altar at the Gaomiao relics site, archaeologists found the buried remains of a human skeleton, making this the earliest human sacrifice ever found in China. Additionally, in thirty-nine sacrificial pits they found skeletons and bones from cattle, deer, bears, tortoises, elephants, rhinoceros, and dozens of other animals, including pigs -- the pigs' teeth, which are somewhat smaller than a wild boar's, confirm that they had been domesticated. Further, archaeologists found a cache of China's oldest white pottery specimens, which were decorated with patterns depicting the sun, phoenix birds, and unnamed "beasts," motifs also found elsewhere in China.

Jade coiled dragon, Hongshan Culture (c. 4700-2920 B.C.)
Liaoning Provincial Institute of Archaeology, Shenyang

Those "beasts" next bring us to China's Inner Mongolia, one of the early cradles of civilization in China, located along China's northernmost border. Here, archaeological discoveries connect China's most famous "beast," the dragon, with pigs. First discovered in 1935, Hongshan ("Red Mountain"), is a prehistoric relics site originating 7000-7500 years ago.

...Jade "Pig-dragon":  Xinhua News Agency July 27, 2004

According to Chinese archaeologists, the most significant Hongshan find are small, beautifully carved jade "Pig-dragons" -- the head on its serpent's body has the flattened snout and protruding eyes of a boar. In eastern China, later dragons would be crocodile-headed; in central China serpent heads would be combined with human bodies. But in the north, where the earliest dragons of all were discovered, the most ancient form -- and focus -- of dragon worship was a wild boar.

...Another pig-dragon from Inner Mongolia: Xinhua News Agency July 27, 2004

The people of that remote region survived by hunting and fishing. Buried along with human remains, many pig bones were also found at the site, an indication of the pigs' great importance to the populace -- possibly then, as now, pigs were a prosperity symbol. Archaeologists believe that local dragon-worship arose out of the inhabitants' reverence for their major food sources -- the wild boar, deer, snakes, and birds. Combining the boar's head with a snake's body, a bird's ability to fly, and perhaps the deer's gentleness, a primitive, protective, kindly dragon emerged.  As noted above, these images from the archaic Hongshan Culture are the earliest dragons ever discovered in China. Subsequently, the depiction of dragons with various animal heads, usually on a serpentine body, persisted for nearly 4000 years until the Han Dynasty.

Egypt and the Near East

Saqqara: 6th Dynasty tomb of Kagemni.
Photo © Max Buten
Skillfully supported by an Egyptian swineherd,
an orphaned piglet is lapping milk from the man's
tongue. A servant stands by with a jar of more milk.

The pig was respected elsewhere as well. In Egypt's early 6th Dynasty (c. 2345-2181 BCE), as the above tomb-art from Saqqara reveals, an everyday scene depicting tenderness between a swineherd and a piglet in his care was deemed worthy of the tomb of Kagemni, vizier to the pharaoh himself.

In Egypt's later dynasties, however, pigs were considered so "unclean" that their swineherds were forbidden to enter temples or marry women outside their caste. Nevertheless, during a full moon once a year, pigs were sacrificed, not to lesser deities, but to Osiris himself -- the mighty green-faced Lord of the Underworld -- and to mysterious Thoth, the moon-god magician who helped resurrect Osiris' mummy in the moonlit swamps of Egypt.

Why would "unclean" pigs be considered worthy of being sacrificed to these two powerful gods?  No one offers filth to their gods -- they offer either precious gifts or animals that represent valued attributes of their deities. Osiris brought his people prosperity by giving them fields of fertile crops that could be made into bread, beer, and wine. Yet he, who renewed all life, lived in the dark, fearsome realms of death. The pig, often used in Egypt to tread newly sown seed into the rich, dark, wet fields, was somehow recognized as sharing in the magic powers of both Osiris and Thoth. We can speculate that it was this eerie connection with the mysteries of life and death that made the pig "taboo." In other words, pigs represented the Unknown, not the "unclean," but human fear was displaced by disgust, which is why even swineherds were considered too tainted for normal human contact.

Sky-goddess Nut as a rooting Celestial Sow
Faience: amulet of fecundity
Period:  Egypt, 3rd Intermediate Period, 3rd Intermediate Period
Dating:  1085 BC–760 BC
Virtual Egyptian Museum

Despite the disgust, however, there remained ambiguity and paradox, for the Egyptians also thought of the stars as piglets. Sky-goddess Nut, whose starry body was painted in human form on the inner lids of coffins, where she offered tender solace to the dead, was also depicted as the Heavenly Sow, eternal mother of the piglet-stars. It was said that Nut devoured her brood of piglets each morning and then birthed them anew at twilight, suckling them throughout the night. We might view the infanticide with revulsion but we would be missing the point. Here again, as with Osiris, we are dealing with mysteries of darkness, death, and rebirth. The infanticide is not literal -- it is a metaphor for eternal cycles of renewal: being "devoured" is accepted trustingly, for one always returns to be suckled anew.

East of Egypt in the Tammuz-Attis-Adonis vegetation cults of Babylonia, Phoenicia, Syria, and elsewhere, Adonis -- perhaps the most famous example -- spent his gestation inside a myrrh tree in Arabia. When he was ready for birth, a great boar ripped open the tree and freed him. Several goddesses immediately fell in love with the exquisite child and took turns raising him. In early manhood, however, while hunting in the forest, Adonis was killed by a boar. The goddesses and their followers grieved bitterly and longed for his return.

Scholars interpret these myths in terms of agriculture's seasonal death and rebirth -- the often gripping storylines differ but this is irrelevant in terms of the underlying pattern. Osiris, for example, was first tragically slain, then magically resurrected; after that, his face was springtime-green as a sign of the true source of vegetation, for its roots come from where he lives and rules -- the Underworld.  As for Adonis' story, mystically, he himself was the boar, sacrificing himself to himself for the sake of his followers. From this perspective, especially in the Near East, sacred males -- including Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, and even Jesus -- fit the ancient and revered pattern of seasonally dying, rising vegetation gods.


In ancient Greece the seasonal vegetation deity was female, not male -- the Kore ("maiden" -- her later name would be Persephone). She was abducted by the Lord of the Underworld, her uncle Hades (Roman, Pluto), with the reluctant permission of her uncle Zeus, who ruled heavenly Mount Olympus. As Kore reached for a dazzling white flower growing in a meadow, Hades appeared out of nowhere and snatched her up.

...The Swine Herd, c 1845 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins

As it happens, a swineherd named Eubouleus was herding his pigs nearby. As Hades dragged Kore underground, the earth opened up, swallowing both maiden and swine. Hades made Kore as his wife and she became his prisoner in the Underworld.

Back above ground, Demeter heard her daughter cry out from a great distance away but she did not know what had happened -- and Kore was nowhere to be found. Demeter's sorrow was terrible to see as she searched everywhere for a sign of her lost child. At one point, deeply distressed and unable to continue, she hid in a dark cave and gave way to despair. She was discovered there by goat-god Pan, her male counterpart, for just as she was Lady of domesticated nature, he was Lord of wild nature. He convinced her to get up and keep on searching.

Finally, Hecate, the crone-goddess of magic and darkness, admitted to Demeter that she had seen the abduction but not the perpetrator. The two goddesses turned to the Sun, who sees all, and he identified Hades. Demeter's grief turned to rage. Since she was the goddess of grain, her fury brought all growth to a standstill -- not even a stalk of wheat was allowed to grow. Frightened that all life would soon die, the frantic gods sought a compromise. Demeter finally agreed that her daughter would remain in the Underworld for the wintry third of the year, but would emerge young and radiant every spring to stay with her mother until it was time for her to leave at the time of the October-planting.

Kore's sorrowful farewell ritual in October was called the Thesmophoria. In preparation, her female worshippers raised piglets as their own children, playing with them, singing, caressing them. In October, in commemoration of the dark time when earth gaped open and swallowed up both Kore and swine, they brought their pets to an underground sanctuary where the frightened pigs were killed.

It was heart wrenching -- which was doubtless the ritual's intent. Raising a little creature as one's own, only to sacrifice it, put each woman in touch with Demeter's own anguish in losing her child. Each pig, in other words, served as each woman's surrogate Kore, which suggests that the ancient Greeks, like the Egyptians, shared an amazing, touching awareness that pigs somehow have an intrinsic, chthonic connection with mysterious realms of death.

It should be mentioned that before each year's sacrifice, the rotted little pig corpses buried the preceding year were dug up and mixed with the current year's crop-seed, to fertilize it. So from their deaths came renewed life, and the following year it would be the same as year after year a new wave of beloved little pigs was sacrificed and deeply grieved.

Thesmophoria -- there is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of this word: translations vary from a focus on laying down natural laws to laying down sacra (i.e., ritual items) in an underground cavern. The ancients believed, however, that the ritual had its origins in Egypt. If so, then using rational "logic" -- which is a Greek invention -- will never capture the deeper range of meaning that the concept (or felt-sense) originally carried in Egypt. However if we shift to the multi-dimensional thought-patterns of Egypt, it is not difficult to reconcile laying down natural laws with laying down sacra. In Greece, pigs were a dramatic, significant component of the sacra.  In an atmosphere of intense grief, they were "laid down" in the underground sanctuary, died, rotted, and were mixed with new seed the following year. If we remove the ritual's deliberately highly charged emotions and turn to Egypt, we find a remarkable analogy in the piglet-stars being swallowed each morning by the Heavenly Sow, sky-goddess Nut. Greece literalized the sacrificial process by using actual, hand-raised pigs, but the underlying dynamic still remains a metaphor for the "laying down" of natural law, of eternal cycles of renewal: once one truly understands the cycles, one can accept them trustingly, for one will always return to be cherished anew.

Northern Europe

In Celtic myth the gods had a magic cauldron of plenty.  Each night the leader of the gods would put a pig in the cauldron and cook him for their feast. Each morning the pig would return to life, only to be cooked and eaten anew each night. While one might wonder how the pig felt about endlessly reliving the same tedious fate (with apparently no respite for being petted, sung to, and loved), the myth itself reflects the unending plenty and prosperity offered humankind by pigs.

...In England, one of the best known monuments in the world, Stonehenge, is a site to which tens of thousands of tourists and neo-druids flock annually to celebrate summer solstice, supposedly in memory of ancient Druids. There is no scientific evidence, however, that our remote ancestors ever celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge -- they were probably too busy in their fields.

...On the other hand, thanks to pigs, there is evidence that points to winter solstice as the ancient time of celebration and merry-making.  Pigs in Neolithic Britain were an early domesticated variety that farrowed only once a year in the spring.  In 2005, scientific analysis of pigs' teeth from Durrington Walls, a ceremonial site near Stonehenge, revealed that the teeth came from nearly mature animals who were under a year in age when they were sacrificed -- and the large number of pig bones indicate that this was a major regional festival.  Only a winter solstice celebration satisfies those parameters. Thus, the simple teeth and bones of  pigs have provided us a window-in-time through which to glimpse a long vanished way of life.

Note: this essay is not yet finished.
The following are sections yet to be written when I find the time.
Workpoints for a Continuation of this Essay

Pigs Raised on Small Farms:
What are they really like?

Jenn Small and her Tamworths

Industrialization of Pigs
[See links on my Industrial Agriculture page;
also The Jungle by Upton Sinclair]

Terrified Pig from a Factory-Farm

In ancient times, as we have seen, pigs were honored and revered. That ceased when mass production turned family farms into gigantic rural "factories." Today the non-sustainable practices of industrial agriculture prevail. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, published in 1906 about abuses in the meat-packing industry. Much remains unchanged a century later:


...They climbed a long series of stairways outside of the building, to the top of its five or six stories. Here was the chute, with its river of hogs, all patiently toiling upward; there was a place for them to rest to cool off, and then through another passageway they went into a room from which there is no returning for hogs.

It was a long, narrow room, with a gallery along it for visitors. At the head there was a great iron wheel, about twenty feet in circumference, with rings here and there along its edge. Upon both sides of this wheel there was a narrow space, into which came the hogs at the end of their journey; in the midst of them stood a great burly Negro, bare-armed and bare-chested. He was resting for the moment, for the wheel had stopped while men were cleaning up. In a minute or two, however, it began slowly to revolve, and then the men upon each side of it sprang to work. They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft.

At the same instant the car was assailed by a most terrifying shriek; the visitors started in alarm, the women turned pale and shrank back. The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing-- for once started upon that journey, the hog never came back; at the top of the wheel he was shunted off upon a trolley, and went sailing down the room. And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in frenzy--and squealing. The uproar was appalling, perilous to the eardrums; one feared there was too much sound for the room to hold--that the walls must give way or the ceiling crack. There were high squeals and low squeals, grunts, and wails of agony; there would come a momentary lull, and then a fresh outburst, louder than ever, surging up to a deafening climax. It was too much for some of the visitors--the men would look at each other, laughing nervously, and the women would stand with hands clenched, and the blood rushing to their faces, and the tears starting in their eyes.

Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. There was a long line of hogs, with squeals and lifeblood ebbing away together; until at last each started again, and vanished with a splash into a huge vat of boiling water.

It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was porkmaking by machinery, porkmaking by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests--and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without a pretense of apology, without the homage of a tear. Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.

One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart's desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it-- it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: "Dieve--but I'm glad I'm not a hog!"....


If you think the horrors described by Upton Sinclair are part of our long-ago history, an equally horrific article on what pigs in the 21st century endure prior to their slaughter can be found at this website:

Nutrition, Bio-chemistry, and Health Data

Stressed, caged Pigs

Although rated unfavorably high in cholesterol, pork's positive attributes include "very high" ratings in protein, selenium, and thiamin, and "high" ratings in niacin, phosphorus, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and zinc. Further, pork offers the benefits of no sugar and minimal sodium.

Piglet Biting His Cage
...Complicating this favorable slate, however, is the danger of potentially serious diseases created by current pig-raising practices.  In today's pork industry, thousands of pigs are herded together in close quarters and so brutally compressed that many are trampled to death and many others go insane.  Such unremitting stress produces "stress hormones" released at the cellular level.  When the pig is slaughtered, the pork is filled with those unnatural hormones. Their effect upon the tissues of the human body have only recently become a subject for research and exploration.

[See this Danish research site on what stress does to pork:]

The Future
[See links on my Industrial Agriculture page]

Pigging Out on Organic Greens at Ancient Oaks


Selected Sources:


Science Magazine, "Worldwide Phylogeography of Wild Boar Reveals Multiple Centers of Pig Domestication": 11 March 2005.
China / Hunan Province:
China / Inner Mongolia / Hongshan Culture:
Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization by Georges Posener with Serge Sauneron and Jean Yoyotte (Tudor Publishing Company, 1959): see under "Pig."
The British Museum's The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson (Abrams, 1995): see under "Animal Husbandry."
Near East and Mediterranean:
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend: see under "Pig," "Adonis," and "Attis."
Northern Europe / Druids at Stonehenge:

Note: my complete Site Map and e-mail address are on my home page.

This page created with Netscape 4.7: colors may appear distorted on Macs.
Text and Design: © 2007 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.  All rights reserved

Page designed 29 December 2006.
Launched pre-dawn 15 January 2007.
18 April 2007: a reader informed me that Daffy Duck and Porky Pig are creations
of Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes, not Disney's.  I made the correction.
Much of this article was written during November 2006 for an encyclopedia; there are no footnotes because encyclopedias do not use them.  When I eventually learned that there would be no payment until the encyclopedia was published -- some 18 months away, I had to withdraw from the project for financial reasons.  Since Chinese Lunar New Year in 2007 is the Year of the Pig and since I already had great data from ancient China on the pig, I decided to make this data known right away.