Pigs - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Circe, the sacred sorceress, notoriously transformed men into swine; historically however, pigs are more usually identified with powerful goddesses and witches than with their transformed victims.

Perhaps no animal evokes as passionate a reaction as does the seemingly humble pig. Few cultures are traditionally neutral towards pigs; instead pigs tend to inspire either intense reverence or loathing. Some ancient cultures, the Celts for instance, perceived pigs as sacred, holy animals; other cultures understand pigs to be just the opposite. Most famously, pork is a tabooed food for Muslims and Jews. Perhaps in reaction, in certain parts of medieval Christendom, to eat pork developed almost a sacramental quality: one could prove one were a good Christian by eating pork with gusto.

So some cultures perceive pigs as bad, while others see them as good. It seems so clear, doesn’t it—almost dualist? Well, when one approaches the sacred, nothing is ever that simple, and perceptions of pigs are no exception.

Prohibitions against consuming pork in what is now considered the Middle Eastern region pre-date both Islam and Judaism. The ancient Egyptians also refrained from eating pork under religious taboo, perhaps because of its associations with the dangerous sorcerer deity Set. Swineherds occupied the absolute lowest niche in ancient Egyptian society—the equivalent of India’s Untouchable caste. (Although one wonders, if no one was eating pork, why there were any swineherds at all?)

There is a belief common to many anthropologists and scholars of religion that intense food taboos virtually always arise only when something is too holy to be eaten. In general, tabooed meat derives from an animal that is (or once was) a culturally sacred totem. In plain English, the forbidden animal was once a holy beast; too sacred to eat, often too sacred to even discuss freely, so that later generations may no longer recall or understand the true original impetus for the prohibition.

Conversely, in Christian areas, pigs were simultaneously perceived as lucky and treated with contempt. Today, if someone is described as a “pig” virtually anywhere on Earth, not only in Jewish or Muslim areas, it’s almost inevitably meant as an insult.

Image Pigs are frequently used to represent the epitome of sloth, greed, carnal pleasures, and slovenliness.

Image In medieval Christian art, the pig symbolized gross materiality and the inherent bestial nature that humans should strive to rise above.

Image In Buddhist iconography, the pig epitomizes desire in all its forms.

People first domesticated pigs some five to seven thousand years ago, however, like cats, there are only slight distinctions between wild and domestic pigs. Abandoned domestic pigs return to a feral state easily and are notoriously self-sufficient. The term “boar” is used to refer to the wild European pig once widespread throughout the forests of Europe and the British Isles and believed to be the ancestor of modern domestic pigs. “Boar” also names the adult male domestic pig. (The female pig is a sow.) To avoid confusion, the term “pig” is used in this section to refer to the entire porcine family, wild, feral, and domestic, unless specified otherwise.

Pigs, in some ways, occupy a sacred niche similar to that of the bear, an animal whose sacredness is also considered too potent to even discuss. Like bears, pigs are associated with dangerous but fiercely devoted mothers, lunar deities, herbalism and root magic, and Earth’s gestation during winter. Bears and pigs also featured in similar sacrificial rituals and practices. Male and female bears are also called boars and sows respectively.

Pigs are highly intelligent. Today they are frequently kept as pets and many people claim that pigs are more easily trained than dogs. However, pigs are also notoriously stubborn and strong-minded. (As they can grow to be quite formidable in size, it may also be more physically challenging to persuade a recalcitrant pig to change its mind.) They are potentially destructive creatures. They do not graze like sheep; instead, they famously root, overturning the Earth in search of the delicacies they enjoy. (It is believed that pigs introduced humans to the pleasures of truffles; from a folkloric or mythic perspective, pigs are associated with mushrooms in general, and with Amanita muscaria in particular.)

Pigs are large, fierce, and stubborn. Although pigs are not predatory—they do not seek to harm humans—neither will they back down from a fight. Once they are in an aggressive mode, they may even pursue a fleeing person. A fast, angry, stubborn pig is a dangerous one. The most formidable pig ancient people would have met would have been a mother pig.

Wild boars form groups called “sounders.” Each sounder has approximately 20 members, although some have considerably more. Each sounder consists of several sows with their offspring; adult males only join during the breeding season but otherwise live alone. Sows are quite capable of providing for their piglets as well as protecting them independently or in conjunction with other sows.

Ancient people thus identified sows with the ideal of the fierce mother who protects her young no matter what, similar to the bear or crocodile mother. Pigs became identified with the goddesses who also epitomized the ideal of the aggressive, fervently devoted mother.

Pigs do not deserve their reputation as filthy, slovenly creatures. They lack sweat glands and thus find relief by lingering in water or wallowing in mud when they are hot. (According to one legend, the healing properties of the thermal waters of the city of Bath were discovered after pigs were observed wallowing in its mud.)

For a variety of reasons including this affinity for water, their propensity for “rooting” in Earth in the manner of a root-worker or herbalist, their identification with fecund but fierce mothers, and, not least, because of their lunar crescent-shaped tusks, ancient people identified pigs (even male ones, because of those tusks) with the female principle, with the moon, witchcraft, and with powerful magically potent female deities.

Image No creature is as identified with Earth’s pleasures, gifts, and comforts as is the pig.

Image No creature is as identified with the Corn Mother as is the pig.

However, as Earth’s pleasures became increasingly suspect, the pig’s reputation sank. Part of this ambivalence toward pigs may stem from the profound role pigs once played in pagan ritual; part may derive from the roots of why pigs played that role: the powerful identification of pigs with Earth’s bounties as well as with fierce, fertile female power.

Pigs were associated with sex, birth, new life, regeneration, fruitfulness, abundance, prosperity, divination, and love. Pigs also epitomize male and female reproductive sexuality. Sows are emblematic of fecundity. In Italy, as well as those areas once dominated by Rome, the word “pig” was used as a nickname for the vulva, similar to the modern usage of “pussy.” Small gold and silver pig-shaped charms were worn as amulets by Roman women to ensure fertility, and cowrie shells were frequently called “pig shells” in Europe, not because of their resemblance to swine but because of their resemblance to the vulva.

Pigs are associated with almost as many deities as are snakes. In fact, the deity whom pigs are most closely identified with today, Demeter, has two sacred creatures: pigs and snakes.

Image The Eleusinian Mysteries, dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone, was the most significant spiritual ritual in ancient Greece. Its ceremonies were initiated by the sacrifice of a pig.

Image When Persephone is kidnapped, only two voluntarily assist Demeter: the young swineherd who is the only eye-witness to the abduction (some of his pigs fall into the chasm that opens up to swallow Persephone) and the witch-deity Hecate, whose sacred animals also include snakes and pigs.

Image The Eleusinian Mysteries were not Demeter’s only sacred rites. She also presided over the Thesmophoria, a women’s annual autumnal mystery whose rituals involved both her sacred creatures, pigs and snakes. Because it was a “mystery” cult festival few details survive, however this much is known: during the ritual, pigs, cakes, and pine branches were thrown into underground chasms (or vaults), which were then covered so that they were contained within Earth. Snakes lived in these grottoes as guardians: they may have consumed much of the offerings. During the next year’s festival, the decayed remains were removed and incorporated into ritual. This ritual may have reproduced Persephone’s descent into the Underworld and her ultimate emergence.

Image Ceres, the Italian Corn Mother, eventually became profoundly identified with Demeter. Pigs were kept in underground enclosures of her shrines. Those seeking healing dreams were invited to sleep among the pigs. (See below for more information regarding pigs and dreams.) Silver and gold pigs were among Ceres’ votive offerings.

Image Artemis’ shrines were often decorated with boars’ heads or with their tusks. She famously sent the Calydonian boar to ravage the land as punishment when a king neglected to offer her what she perceived as her share of first fruits of his hunt.

Image Among the deities depicted as riding pigs are Arduinna, Baba γaga, Demeter, Freya, and Isis. Freya and Baba γaga will eventually come to be explicitly identified as witches.

Image Cerridwen, the Welsh witch-goddess, is sometimes called “The White Sow.” Pigs are her sacred creatures.

Image Among Brigid’s many animal familiars is one known as the King of the Swine.

Image The ancient Celtic deities known as hags are frequently described as having boar’s tusks.

Image Sometimes Hecate is depicted as having three heads facing in three different directions: although there are variations, a pig is almost inevitably among one of the three creatures. Hecate also occasionally manifests in the form of a black sow, particularly when she is in an aggressive mood.

Image Ezili Dantor is the Haitian lwa who epitomizes the aggressively independent, self-sufficient mother. Her sacred animal is the black pig, and she is powerfully identified with the small black self-sufficient pigs that once ran wild through Haiti and upon which rural Haitians depended for food and income. Those pigs, like Ezili Dantor, represented economic independence: as demonstration of their economic importance, the same word was used to name these pigs and banks. (In the 1980s, these pigs were eradicated and replaced by higher maintenance white pigs during a United States-sponsored program that remains controversial.)

Pigs, and specifically pig-sties, are also identified with oracular powers. An ancient method of incubating a prophetic dream was to sleep in a pig-sty. Although it seems humorous today because pigs are now commonly perceived as silly, lazy, useless, slovenly creatures, this method was once taken very seriously and is common to German, Italian, Romanian, Romany, Scandinavian, and Slavic traditions.

Image The one requirement is that the pen must contain at least one sow with her young.

Image It was once a German custom to nap in the sty on either Christmas Day or the day of the solstice to obtain lucky dreams and good fortune.

Image In Italian tradition, the ritual may be accompanied by invocations to St Anthony for maximum effectiveness.

White sows have particularly powerful lunar associations. The porcine profile can change dramatically—expanding and slimming down—in response to diet, pregnancy, and birth. This rhythmic shape-shifting was perceived as similar to that of the moon. Black sows are particularly identified with witchcraft. Black pigs, particularly small, fast ones, were often understood to be transformed witches engaged in spell-casting missions. Witch-hunters accused witches of offering black pigs to Satan.

See also Bears, Snakes, Transformation; BOTANICALS: Amanita Muscaria or Fly Agaric; CALENDAR: Yule; ERGOT; DIVINE WITCH: Artemis; Baba Yaga; Cerridwen; Circe; Freya; Hecate; Isis; Set; HAG; HORNED ONE: Chimneysweep.