(Essay 3) The Old Sow by Hearth Moon Rising

Read Meet Mago Contributor Hearth Moon Rising.

The Hebrew prohibition against pork was a product of the agricultural realities of the Levant. While Egypt and Mesopotamia were able to amass large stores of grain that could outlast prolonged drought, the harvest in this region was sparse and uncertain. It did not make sense to divert precious grain stores for porcine consumption when much of the arid land would only support grass. Goats and sheep were better suited for the region even though kids and lambs grow more slowly than piglets.

Detail from temple wall showing pig with other domestic animals. Malta.
Detail from temple wall showing pig with other domestic animals. Malta.

The taboo against pork precipitated a crisis for early Christians. If they allowed converts to eat pork they could no longer consider themselves a Jewish sect, even a controversial one. Yet Christian leaders desired converts in Europe and Asia Minor, where pork was widely consumed among the poorer classes (who happened at that time to be more open to their message). It was not simply a matter of substituting pork for chicken or beef like we would do today in our grocery shopping. Low income laborers kept pigs because pigs demanded little time and effort, and they did not have the resources to buy or raise other animals to meet their high protein requirements. It was either loosen dietary restrictions or abandon efforts to convert Greece and Rome.

“Isis of the Sow.” Cairo Museum. Roman style.
“Isis of the Sow.” Cairo Museum. Roman style.

At the same time devotion to the Sow Goddess could not be allowed to continue, not in Greece or anywhere else. Hence negative references to pigs in the New Testament outnumber those in the Old, and church leaders continued to inveigh against the wretched swine. From the point of view of the convert, to enjoy continued dependence on grain and pork while reviling the Sow Goddess required a change in thinking that was profound. It was only natural that the Great Sow would nourish the grain harvest, since pigs and humans depended on it. The task of humans, as pagans understood it, was to demonstrate gratitude for her largess and to remind her occasionally where her interest lay. Christian emphasis on the rewards of heaven was partially driven by the need to break allegiance to the powers that made life on earth possible.

As Christianity spread to northern Europe, clerics continued to rail against the pagan swine. In forested areas pigs roamed half feral feasting on acorns, linking the sow with the oak tree so sacred to the Celts. Magical or enchanted pigs appear often in the Celtic romances, although any goddesses associated with these pigs have been unrecorded. Robert Graves in The White Goddess presents a theory that the Welsh goddess Cerridwyn is the sacred White Sow, and this conjecture is generally accepted by practicing Pagans, if not by academics. Celtic folklore includes many references to fairy pigs. Sometimes the pig or boar leads unsuspecting men or dogs directly into the Otherworld. One story features a self regenerating Otherworld pig. Folklore featuring fairy pigs survived well into Christian times. Says Patrick V. O’Sullivan in Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds: “Pigs were often seen going in and out of forts, which would seem to indicate that fairies were as fond of their bacon and cabbage as their human neighbors. Occasionally, pigs came out of rivers and streams, and these too were enchanted porkers.”

Pictish stone with boar image. Scotland. Photo Kim Traynor.
Pictish stone with boar image. Scotland. Photo Kim Traynor.

The Pagan revival beginning in the mid twentieth century has not reignited much interest in the pig and the Sow Goddess. The association of pigs with ugliness, dirt and stupidity continues to prevail in most quarters, even though people in direct contact with pigs will insist that they are both intelligent and clean. Despite my promotion of pigs for over twenty years I have not convinced any crones to accept “Old Sow” as an honorific. I do not think this is entirely due to Christian propaganda. After all, the snake has been vilified as much if not more. Nor can it be attributed to the pig’s domestic status, given the popularity of Pan, though wild animals and domestic companion animals do tend to attract more devotees. The sow’s lack of sex appeal, at least in male defined terms, probably plays a significant role in her neglect, but crone goddesses such as Baba Yaga or Cailleach Bhear do have a following.

Part of the reason the sow continues to wallow in ignominy is that the biggest impetus for the Pagan revival, at least in numbers, has come from America, where wild pigs are not regarded with any warm feelings. The boar and her cousins are not native to the Americas, and the first pigs were brought by colonials who allowed them to forage freely, causing conflicts with natives that sometimes erupted in violence. Pigs are gourmets as well as gourmands, and they naturally chose the foods that humans also prefer, so they depleted certain nutritious wild plants quickly. Feral pigs continue to wreak ecological havoc in many forested regions despite decades of work by state wildlife agencies to eradicate them.

To be continued. Read part 1 and part 2.

Hearth Moon Rising is a Dianic Priestess living in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and the author of Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestesswww.invokinganimalmagic.com. She blogs at www.hearthmoonblog.com.


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