Pigs in the Temple, Pigs in the Barn

© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen

Centering Thoughts:

 …and the unclean spirits begged him [Jesus], “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.”  Mark 5:12

The truly wise person kneels at the feet of all creatures and is not afraid to endure the mockery of others. Mechtild of Magdeburg

I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. Winston Churchill

Reflection: (after a telling of the Chinese Zodiac and the Great Race)

Throughout human history animal beauty and behavior have inspired poetry, art, symphonies, ballet, and other expressive endeavors. The gossamer beauty of the butterfly, the incredible speed of the cheetah, the graceful curves of the swan, and even the industry of the ant, fuel artistic imaginations and elicit appreciation for the creatures we share planet Earth with.

Not so the pig.

Instead, cultures around the world consider the domesticated wild boar ugly, lazy, greedy, and filthy. Even its vocal sounds don’t please—shrill squeals, gravelly grunts, and annoying oinks. More so than any other animal, we humans refer to the portly porcine to describe humans we dislike or that disgust us. For example, one who overeats is a stuffed pig; one who keeps a messy house lives in a pigsty; one who hoards is a hog; one who spends money indiscriminately lives high on the hog; and one who profusely perspires sweats like a pig—even though pigs don’t. And if you wallow, snort, root around, or slop about, friends will turn tail on you quickly.

Persistently disparaged, it should surprise no one that the pig arrived last in the Chinese Great Race. The pig was too focused on food (a heck of a hedonistic hog) and so indolent it needed a nap (such a sleepy piggy).

Followers of this millennia-old zodiac believe it provides guidance for our living. According to the zodiac system, your birth and animal year suggests likely personality traits and helps you determine auspicious dates for significant events, like marriage. Parents want children to be born in the Year of the Pig so that they will enjoy an easy, pig-like life. The year may be considered lucky, but it’s predicated on a poor opinion of the pig.

To the west in ancient days, the pig wasn’t so reviled. In Norse myth, the god Freyr rode a flying pig named Gullinbursti, or Golden Bristles. (And fact, not myth, there once was a predatory, prehistoric gliding pig—Phacochoerus aeolus—with wing-like skin flaps.) Freyr’s sister, Freya, had a companion boar named Hildisvini, or Battle Swine. These siblings were the god and goddess of virility and fertility. What’s more, in southern Europe and Mediterranean regions a Mother Goddess was revered in the form of a sow, or mother pig. Wannabe human mothers gave offerings to the goddess to enhance their own chances of becoming pregnant. Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility, and whose name indicates she’s a mother, is often pictured with her sacred pig. In earlier times she may have been revered as an anthropomorphic pig goddess.

Worthy of worship, the pig and wild boar form obvious fertility symbols. Female pigs can become pregnant as early as three months after their own birth. And any one litter can include a prodigious number of piglets—as many as 32. Sows more commonly produce a litter of less than 14, insuring each tiny tot a teat when it’s time to suckle. The strongest, most aggressive latch onto the forward nipples nearest to mom’s chinny chin chin because it provides the most milk, while the runts are relegated to the rear. Once rank order is established, like assigned seating, they return to the same nipple every time.

Though for a time the western world admired the sow’s fertility and the male boar’s potency, when the ancient gods and goddesses were displaced by the coming of Christianity, the pig fell from grace. The devil even was portrayed as a pig.

Do you know the nursery rhyme, “This Little Piggy”? Please say it with me. (on screen)

This little piggy went to market,

This little piggy stayed home,

This little piggy had roast beef,

This little piggy had none,

And this little piggy cried, “Wee, wee, wee!” all the way home.

The rhyme and numerous variations first appeared in English publications in the early 1700’s. According to Sara Rath, author of The Complete Pig, and William Hedgepeth, author of The Hog Book, the story line was not just about how farmers prepare their pigs for slaughter. It may also represent Pope Gregory’s Seven Deadly Sins named in 590 ACE. Let me explain.

This little piggy went to market         Pride (thinks it’s so smart, yet the butcher awaits)

This little piggy stayed home,             Sloth (it’s too lazy to go to market, and…)

& Greed (…it covets or longs to go to market itself)

This little piggy had roast beef,          Gluttony (fattening itself up with food)

This little piggy had none,                  Envy (jealous of the roast beef the 3rd pig has)

And this little piggy cried,                  Wrath (the runt cries in anger and dismay at life’s

“Wee, wee, wee!”                                 dangers; and this is not a fun ‘wee!” but a sad ‘waah’)

all the way home.

That takes care of six sins. Lust, the seventh, is symbolized by the pig itself—the proof of its lustful passion evident about 4 months after roaring boar and sultry sow mate.

If you think nothing good can be said about the pig, blame humans for making the portly pig vile and virtue free. In the wild, the boar is muscular, speedy and agile, a creature feared by hunters and unwary forest dwellers. Domestication transformed its respected wildness into disrespected tameness, fit only for farm residency and children’s storybooks. Because the pig will eat anything, humans feed it table scraps, even excrement. Because it has very few sweat glands and pale skin, it wisely wallows in mud to keep itself cool, avoid insect bites, and prevent sunburn. The pig’s skin is so like human skin it can be used to protect burn victims. And because the pig’s heart is similar in size and construction to human hearts, doctors hope perfecting its use in humans will reduce organ donation shortages. The pig’s sense of smell is so keen it can detect delectable truffles 3 feet deep underground.

If that’s not enough reason to admire the homely hog, studies prove it to be a super-smart animal, more so than dogs or chimps, and rivaled only by the dolphin. Their memory is so keen, they can find their way through a maze days later, without error.

Then why do we give them such a bad rap?

Perhaps they stand in for ourselves.

In Christian scripture, Jesus meets a man possessed by evil spirits. When Jesus draws out the man’s legion of demons, he casts them into a herd of swine. I think this is symbolic of how we cast our worst human behavior and characteristics onto the pig. Whether it’s people guilty of a deadly sin, acting uncouth, or we just don’t like them, we readily call them pigs. Instead, we should acknowledge the behavior as wholly human. Hedgepeth agrees, adding:

The passive pig may indeed be an ideal paradigm for modern man: man, like pig, who is a creature surrounded by filth and submerged in unavoidable dangers; who is a victim of circumstances created, in part, by himself; who is neither fully willing to do anything about his condition nor certain that if he were willing he would then be fully able—and on top of it all, who is, in some strange way, perhaps even capable of enjoying the whole thing. (Hedgepeth, page 26)

Do we enjoy the ugliness and danger in our lives, as he suggests? I think we do, to some degree, because eliminating what we don’t like or fear gives us purpose, even pleasure. If we didn’t enjoy some danger, no one would ever ride a rollercoaster, rock climb, or speed down a zip-line high above the ground.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle considered our association with animals, particularly those unloved like the pig. He wrote that we should treat animals well, no matter how ignoble they may seem.

We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals…for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.

Rather than think of the pig as lazy, let us appreciate its leisurely qualities. Our own lives would benefit from a bit more leisure and less stress. Rather than consider the pig a disgusting eater, snout deep in a trough, let us appreciate his gastronomic flexibility and willingness to recycle what others throw out. There is much to admire if we remember all that the pig can be, and not what we have made it. Long may we celebrate the beautiful pig’s inherent worth and dignity.

Questions for Reflection & Discussion

  1. What quality of the pig do you find worthy of respect? Share how it might be a quality you aspire to.
  2. Do you have an affinity with (or appreciation for) a particular animal? If so, what animal? Share or reflect on what meaning it has for you.
  3. Have you ever cast your sins (blamed offenses on others), or seen your own undesirable qualities in others? How has that realization affected or changed you?