As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In my last, I began to talk about pigs in early Western literature, from Herakles’ capture of the Erymanthian Boar
to the Kalydonian Boar Hunt,
to the scar on Odysseus’ thigh, which almost got him killed when it was discovered by his old nurse, Eurykleia.
In all of these stories, the pig in question is a wild boar and hunting it down was both an heroic sport and a form of pest-control.
There was so much material, however—much more than I could use in a whole series on pigs—that I thought that I would add a second posting to take the story a bit farther.
If you do your own research—and I hope that you will—you will find that there are all sorts of theories about the importance of the boar in the world of the early Indo-Europeans, and the Celts, in particular, but, practically speaking, the main importance for such people was this—
(For several interesting postings on the subject of boars and symbolism, see:
Apologies, by the way, to any reader who is a vegetarian or vegan, which is why I selected this authentic historical illustration.)
Pigs supplied a major source of protein for anyone who kept them. The meat was also, as I understand it, easy to preserve, either by smoking
and, in a world before refrigeration, such preserved meat would be crucial for surviving winter in northern climates.
(We take salt for granted, but in earlier times, salt was an extremely important and valuable commodity. One source of power for the early Romans, in fact, was that their settlement, on those seven hills, potentially controlled a ford across the Tiber over which ran the Via Salaria, the Salt Road, which led inland from the salt pans on the west coast of Italy.)
It’s not surprising, then, that pig was the preferred food of heroes. The warriors carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla were said to be fed by Saehrimnir, a boar who could be killed, consumed, and reborn every day as the main course in feasts.
And, in the Irish world, their heroes could come to all-out warfare over the carving and distribution of Mac Datho’s pig.
(This is a wonderful, weird story—like so many Old Irish stories–and the first one I studied when I began to learn Old Irish. Here’s a LINK to an early translation by A.H. Leahy (1857-1928) so that you can enjoy it yourself: https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/version-en/datho2-en.html )
By ingesting the boar, we might imagine that heroes believed that they acquired something of its power. By putting it on their helmets, as is not only mentioned in Beowulf (see lines 1326-1328), but for which we have archaeological evidence,
perhaps Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) warriors thought that they could add a little of the menace that boars in the wild could convey.
You only have to look at the kind of spear used in hunting them to see what those who did feared—
When a boar attacked, it would continue attacking, even if it ran onto your spear, which is why there is that crosspiece below the head: to try to stop if from getting any closer!
Pigs might feed heroes, but pigs themselves need feeding. They are omnivores who, in the wild, spend their days consuming what lies on the ground or digging into it.
In feudal western Europe, one could have pannage, which is the right to graze pigs on common land.
Pigs were turned out in late summer/early autumn, when many of the trees were shedding their fruit, like hazel and acorn.
Here we see two farm workers assisting the trees—and the pigs.
In later autumn, they were rounded up and slaughtered, most of the meat probably being preserved for winter, but a certain amount being put aside for the traditional turn-of-the-season feast, around the end of October—the holiday we still celebrate here in the US as Halloween.
If pigs were that important, both heroically and historically, perhaps pig-keepers were, as well? Certainly, in the Old Irish story of “The Quarrel of the Two Pig Keepers”, Friuch and Rucht, the two keepers, are not only attached to royal households, but have a knowledge of magical arts, being shape-shifters, who eventually battle each other in various forms until they are finally trapped in the bodies of two bulls. (To learn more about this, here’s a link to Lady Gregory’s 1902 translation, Cuchulain of Muirthemne: https://archive.org/details/cuchulainofmuirt00greg_0/page/268/mode/2up Turn to page 268 and read on.)
Which brings us to the title of this posting: if pig-keepers aren’t always pig-keepers, at least in the Old Irish story, are pigs necessarily always pigs? In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series,
which is based upon Welsh versions of Celtic myth, we have two characters who aren’t quite what they seem. The first is Taran, a foundling, appointed by his master, Dallben (that’s DATH-ben, with the double ll sounding a bit like a lisp out of the side of your mouth), as Assistant Pig-Keeper. By the end of the series, we—and Taran—discover that he is, in fact, the heir to the throne of Prydain (sorry for the spoiler, but the books are so good that it hardly matters). As Assistant Pig-Keeper, Taran has only one pig, Hen Wen (“Old Whitey” from hen, “old” and gwyn, “white”?), who, like Taran, is not what she appears to be but is an “oracular pig”: that is, a pig who can sense the future, which she conveys using a bundle of letter sticks.
From threat to food source to symbol of power to agent of prophecy—what else might an ambitious pig be or do?
As always, thanks for reading,
And know that, as ever, there is
The first image, of Herakles and the Boar, is a cast bronze by Giambologna (jahm-boh-LOE-nya), actually Jean de Boulogne (1529-1608).
In his time, he was a famous and influential sculptor, but equally known for his work in bronze. There are lots of images available on-line of his marble work and his bronzes, but my favorites are his wonderful cast bronzes of animals and birds, a group of which I saw in Florence some years ago. Here’s a particular favorite–