(Essay 1) The Old Sow by Hearth Moon Rising

Ahhh the lovely pig. Discriminating in taste, amiable in temperament, intelligent, affectionate, adaptable. The fertile mother surrounded by her hungry brood. The corpulent body of plenty. The bon vivant relishing her bath of clean cool mud. Little wonder the Sow Goddess was so revered in ancient times. From Egypt to Northern Europe, wherever there were forests or fields, wherever people hunted or grew grain, the sow held a central place in myth and worship. Yet even before Christianity maligned the pig (unfairly) as the epitome of greed, ignorance and filth, the Old Sow was beginning her popular decline. Not even the resurgent Goddess movement has been enough to restore the porcine beauty to her place of honor.

Photo Scott Bauer
Photo Scott Bauer

The prolific breeding of the pig’s wild boar cousin (half a dozen piglets or more), her rapid growth, and her habit of feeding on carrion make her an embodiment of the goddess as creator, nurturer and death guardian. An animal important for community wealth or sustenance usually becomes a focus of worship. At one time the wild boar, weighing up to 500 pounds, provided a bounty of meat as well as a test of courage and wiliness for the hunter. Boar leather was used for shoes and tools, and boar bristles were used for brushes. By Roman times the wild boar was no longer an important food source in Celtic territories, but highly ritualized boar hunts continued.

Paleolithic depictions of boars are present in cave paintings, although they are not as common as equine or bovine pictures. The lower jaw bone of a boar is frequently found in Paleolithic graves, including a Neanderthal cemetery in present-day Israel. The boar probably became a symbol of death because it supplements its vegetal diet with carrion.

From Neolithic times the artistic record of the boar is more profuse, including a breast-and-boar-tusk theme at Catal Huyuk and terra cotta, amber, bone, and stone figurines from the Baltic and Balkan regions. In northern Italy a goddess figure carved in a boar’s molar has been found. Some Minoan seals have boar depictions.

Arduenna on boar. Photo British Museum.
Arduenna on boar. Photo British Museum.

In Germanic lore the goddess Freya and her brother Freyr take the form of a boar. Freya is a bringer of wealth and a patroness of dead heroes. She is the most popular goddess of the seidr, the Germanic practice of shamanic visioning. The Celtic goddess Arduenna, mistress of the Gaulish forests, rides throughout her territory on the back of a wild boar. The Romans equated Arduenna with their huntress Diana, so she probably possesses similar characteristics in the realms of birth, protection and death. The ubiquity of Celtic boar imagery is striking: boars appear on swords, armor, cauldrons, bowls, jewelry, coins, and figurines. While the Egyptians partially anthropomorphized their animal deities and the Greeks entirely anthropomorphized theirs, Celts usually depicted deities in animal form prior to Roman influence. Since this practice was still recent at the advent of Christianity, artists reverted back to animal depictions in the early Middle Ages. This is why early Christian Celtic-Germanic art is so replete with animal images, and why many bishops objected to this so vehemently. The scarcity of boar imagery in Celtic Christian art is notable, given the profusion of other animals and the high representation of boars in pre-Christian art. Boars did continue to appear on jewelry, heraldry, and armor.

Detail from Gundestrup Cauldron showing figure with boar on helmet. Denmark, first century b.c.e.
Detail from Gundestrup Cauldron showing figure with boar on helmet. Denmark, first century b.c.e.

 

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.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Hearth Moon Rising.

Sources:

Barrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Diamond Books, 1991.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Cooper, D. Jason. Using the Runes. Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press, 1986.

Germond, Phillippe. An Egyptian Bestiary: Animals in Life and Religion in the Life of the Pharoahs. London: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts: The Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1994.

O’Sullivan, Patrick V. Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1991.

“Pigs,” Ancient Egyptian Bestiary, http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/bestiary/pig.htm

“Pigs in Egypt,” Tour Egypt, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/pigs.htm

“Welcome to Eleusinian Mysteries,” Eleusinian Mysteries, http://eleusinianmysteries.org/SubjectIndexP_Z.html

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