(Essay 4) The Old Sow by Hearth Moon Rising

The belief among many Christian sects, as well as Jews and Muslims, that pork is “unclean” has influenced to some extent the health focus of the New Age. This belief appears to have been vindicated by the discovery of Trichinella spiralis in undercooked pork, but in fact pigs are not the only vectors of this parasite, which is also found in commonly eaten wild game. The “unclean” label from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant probably did not refer to any primitive understanding of trichinosis in pork. Mesopotamian cooking instructions emphasize the importance of cooking all meat, and a favored Mediterranean way of slandering the tribes outside the city states was to accuse them (probably unjustly) of not cooking their meat. The problematic nature of the trichinosis theory notwithstanding, pork products as they are marketed in the United States often are unhealthy, filled with nitrites and other chemicals or produced in high fat forms such as fried pork rinds. Perhaps the association of pigs with poor diet contributes to the Pagan neglect of pig deities.

Cylinder seal with boar. Iran, seventh century b.c.e.
Cylinder seal with boar. Iran, seventh century b.c.e.

Will the Sow Goddess be reclaimed? Doubtless those reviving modern forms of the Eleusinian Mysteries will remember Demeter’s link with the sow, although Graves believes these mysteries originally served to suppress Demeter’s sow cult while stressing her agricultural function. Traces of the sow connection can still be seen in the story of Demeter and Persephone, for instance when the swineherd reveals where Persephone has gone, and when Demeter’s footprints are transformed by a pig following in her path.

Etruscan ceramic boar. Italy, 550 b.c.e.
Etruscan ceramic boar. Italy, 550 b.c.e.

One Sow Goddess who gets a lot of attention is the Welsh shape shifting Cerridwyn, who can be many things to many people. She is usually pictured with a cauldron, which features prominently in the one surviving legend which mentions her name. People seem to either not know about the sow connection or to be uncomfortable with it. I took a survey of internet art featuring this goddess and in one hundred pictures found 83 did not include a pig image anywhere. Of the remaining 17 none featured a large or prominent sow, and in four the pig theme was so muted it had to be searched for carefully. Judging from the creative content of these pictures I think very few, if any, left out the porcine theme due to scholarly differences with Graves.

Freya is another popular Sow Goddess, usually pictured as a young woman with her other totem, the falcon. The sow connection cannot be disputed with Freya, but it is often ignored. She is worshiped as a giver of abundance and as one who presides over the dead, two core features of the Sow Goddess. She has a twin brother Freyr, who is a boar. Pre-patriarchal goddesses, when their cults are not weakened by being “married” to a patriarchal god, are usually virgin goddesses or part of a brother-sister (as opposed to husband-wife) dyad.

Coin from Eleusis with pig on back. Front shows grain god Triptolemus. Greece, 350 b.c.e.
Coin from Eleusis with pig on back. Front shows grain god Triptolemus. Greece, 350 b.c.e.

The Sow Goddess is a very old deity, probably originating as a sow-boar goddess in Paleolithic times. She rose in importance in the early Neolithic period, presiding over agriculture as the now domesticated pig became dependent on the same foods as humans. Her cult was undoubtedly a woman-centered one that patriarchal forces sought to obscure long before Christianity. At this point worshiping or not worshiping the Sow Goddess is a choice, but if we are drawn to goddesses such as Demeter, Nut, or Freya and refuse to acknowledge the sow, we are losing a core understanding of their character. The sow is not just one aspect of the Goddess, but the mother of many.

Read part 1, part 2, part 3.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Hearth Moon Rising.

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 priestess. www.invokinganimalmagic.com. She blogs at www.hearthmoonblog.com.

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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