As ever, dear readers, welcome.
Pigs have had a prominent place in Western literature for many centuries. In my first encounter with them, they were deeply interested in architectural experimentation and predator control.
One built a house of straw, a second a house of sticks, the third a house of bricks, as in the illustration. Needless to say, when a wolf with very strong lungs arrived, he blew down the first and second houses, dealt with the residents, but failed against the third.
In case you don’t know this story, commonly called “The Three Little Pigs” in English (and that’s just one name for it—see this LINK for various versions– https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0124.html#halliwell ) here’s a standard telling, from Andrew Lang’s 1892 The Green Fairy Book: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33571/33571-h/33571-h.htm .
Although there are claims that the story is older, the earliest versions I’ve seen so far all date from the 19th century. There’s a somewhat odd one from 1853, to be found in English Forests and Forest Trees: Historical, Legendary, and Descriptive, 189-190, in which the three pigs have been replaced by three pixies. (“Pigsy” is a variant spelling for “pixie”, so perhaps that’s where the confusion came in. Here’s a link to English Forests, in case you’d like to see the story in context: https://archive.org/details/englishforestsa01unkngoog )
Pigs themselves, however, appear at the very beginnings of Western literature, where we see Herakles dealing with a very large member of the species, the Erymanthian Boar, as one of his Labors.
(The person in the pot is his relative, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who has been given the job of devising and supervising the labors of Heracles, which are supposed to be a kind of penance for Herakles’ earlier murder of his first wife and their children–oh—and pulling his house down around them, as well.
Needless to say, he quickly comes to regret his appointment, taking refuge in this pottery bunker whenever word comes to him that Herakles has returned with a new trophy.)
And, in the case of a wild boar, perhaps he was wise to do so. The modern variety
can weigh over 600 pounds (272kg), is fast on his feet, and is said to be extremely intelligent.
Here’s the view of a 14th-century AD hunter on the subject:
“. It is the beast of this world that is strongest armed, and can sooner slay a man than any other. Neither is there any beast that he could not slay if they were alone sooner than that other beast could slay him, be they lion or leopard, unless they should leap upon his back, so that he could not turn on them with his teeth. And there is neither lion nor leopard that slayeth a man at one stroke as a boar doth, for they mostly kill with the raising of their claws and through biting, but the wild boar slayeth a man with one stroke as with a knife, and therefore he can slay any other beast sooner than they could slay him.”
(The Master of Game, primarily an early 15th-century English translation by Edward Duke of York of Gaston Phebus’ Livre de Chasse, written in the late 1380s. For a modern edition and all that is said about boars, see this link: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43452/43452-h/43452-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI)
Besides weight and speed, the killing weapon, as described above, is the tusk—
Our second view of a boar is from the Kalydonian Boar Hunt.
This illustration is from the neck of the well-known early 6th-century BC “Francois Vase” (actually a large volute krater or mixing bowl—Greeks, at least at parties, usually mixed their wine with water). One of a number of epic stories, like the attack on Troy, which brought in many famous heroes, it all happened because the king of Kalydon in western mainland Greece, neglected to make a sacrifice to Artemis.
(Here she is, with her twin, Apollo.)
In return, Artemis, as the mistress of wild animals,
sent a boar to terrorize the land and destroy the crops. As boars’ method of grazing rips up the landscape,
this was probably even more serious than the direct threat of porcine violence. Hunters gathered from all over the ancient Greek world (many of them are named on the vase) and, although the boar was ultimately killed, Artemis’ vengeance continued as a quarrel broke out over who would claim the carcass and this led to a civil war.
It’s no wonder, then, that the proto-Greeks, whom we call the Myceneans, would manufacture a piece of what I would suggest is trophy-armor, a leather cap covered in boars’ tusks.
As teeth dry out and become brittle after leaving the gums, I doubt that this would have provided much protection in battle, but it would certainly have backed up a warrior’s claim to being a more-than-capable hunter.
Odysseus himself, is given one of these in Book 10 of the Iliad—
“And Meriones gave to Odysseus a bow and quiver
And sword, and put a cap around his head
Made of hide. It was pulled tightly inside with many straps
And outside the white tusks of a shining-tooth boar
Were well and skillfully held close together…”
(The Iliad, Book 10, 260-265, my translation)
And Odysseus had good cause for being glad that at least one boar had contributed his tusks: when Odysseus was a teenager, he had gone on a hunt with his grandfather, Autolykos, and a boar had ripped open his thigh,
leaving a scar which was visible many years later. This scar provided evidence which was handy in helping to prove that he was Odysseus, when he had secretly returned to Ithaka after 20 years away, but had almost proved the end of his secret—and perhaps of him—when it was identified by his old nurse, Eurykleia, who, in her surprise, was only blocked by Odysseus’ quick reaction from revealing his identity.
In The Odyssey, there is another approach to dealing with swine, however. Circe the sorceress, who has a menagerie of one-time savage beasts already,
has no need to hunt them when, with a magic drink and a tap of her staff,
she can have as many pigs as she wants, with no risk at all—to herself.
At least at first…
There’s more to be said, but, lest we pig out on the subject (sorry!), I’ll continue this in my next posting, where we’ll move from the Classical world to the medieval.
In the meantime,
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
And know that, as always, there’s