ONCE UPON A TIME, the old-fashioned Englishman saw all continentals as contemptible garlic munchers. Because garlic stinks. Well, that sort of makes sense, you might think, because after all garlic does stink. Except that garlic doesn’t stink at all, it smells great: try resisting a piping hot slice of garlic bread! But garlic does stink when it’s on the breath. And then there is kimchi. Now kimchi, that tastes
great but surely it stinks.
Ah, you have a point…
But hey, what about pickled onions?
What about… KIPPERS?
Isn’t this “garlic stinks” business a case
of the stink being on the nose of the beholder?
The fact is, there is always a perfectly reasonable reason for the cultural shunning of a food: it stinks, it’s dirty, it carries diseases, it’s unhealthy, it’s disgusting, it’s barbaric. Actually, it could very well be barbaric, but I will leave that one for another occasion. For now, let’s look at the “stinky and dirty”.
And so let’s take pork because pigs, as we all know, have that reputation – of being stinky and dirty. Pigs were made taboo to the Israelites in the book of Leviticus a very long time ago, and today, millions of people refrain from eating pork on the grounds that the Bible declared the pig an “impure” animal. This is a religious rationale that accompanies a religious practice, and whatever your opinion of it, there is no contradiction in it. But then, there are also millions of people who are of the opinion that pigs are dirty and that you can’t beat the taste of bacon – and many of these people also believe in the teachings of the Bible. And then again, ask almost any non-believer who happens not to be Chinese or Southeast Asian, and you are sure to be told that pigs are dirty animals. And if, on the other hand, you ask a pig advocate or a pig farmer, they will square with you that contrary to popular opinion, “pigs are actually very clean” and that pork, besides, is the “new white meat” – by which they mean that pork is healthy.
So what is it about pigs? Why did the ancient Israelites think the pig dirty? And more to the point, why should we, a few thousand years later, think more or less the same thing even as we drool over roast pork?
Pigs taste good, you might say, but they stink. And I’d have to agree up to a point: pigs really do stink when they are kept in closed quarters. But a lion’s den doesn’t smell of roses either, and yet we don’t think of lions as dirty and stinky but as noble animals. And let’s get real, pretty much any animal kept in closed quarters is going to stink: try putting a few humans together in a cramped space, take their deodorant off them and see what you end up with. So, if pigs stink, is it not on account of the stinking conditions we impose on them rather than a natural state of stinkiness?
The fact is pigs don’t have to stink. Certainly the pigs I met in the village streets in southwest China didn’t stink one bit and they were perfectly pleasant creatures. They were not very big either, and they had black hair, and their babies were just the cutest things, like all other baby animals are.
So, since the pigs stink argument doesn’t quite cut the mustard, let’s go to the next common man’s explanation as to why pigs are dirty because the Bible says so: the argument that the ancient Hebrews who knew nothing
of microscopes or germ theory “somehow” knew that pigs were carriers of various pathogens and trichinosis in particular. Well, it is also true that the Jews are extremely clever people, take Einstein for example… but surely, there has to be something a little less anti-historical than this explanation.
Then, there is the next common man’s theory, which holds that, as is well known, pig flesh (or is it pig fat?) is particularly vulnerable to heat, and therefore would spoil dangerously fast in the Middle-Eastern climate. Which of course begs the question of how much slower might the rate of spoiling of sheep or beef flesh be in the same hot climate.
Interestingly enough, the influential anthropologist Marvin Harris posited an explanation for the Biblical taboo along a somewhat similar ecological reasoning, arguing that the ancient Hebrews did not keep pigs, because pigs are not well suited to life in arid climates. But this too does not entirely add up because pigs were raised in Greece (Aristotle believed the pig to be the animal most like humans) and Italy. And in any case, the Bible
also categorises the camel as an unclean animal, just as unclean as the pig, and there are few animals more suited to living in arid climates than camels.
But anthropology, like food, has its fashions, and some are eminently brilliant. So, before Marvin Harris, there was Bronislaw Malinowski who showed us that cultures were not just assemblages of random and exotic items, but functioning wholes where myths and taboos play core political, social and economic roles. Then came structuralism, and Lévi-Strauss
who taught us that animals were not just good to eat, but that they were good to think with – and the story of the pig is certainly about to prove his point. And then came Mary Douglas, a functional-structuralist, who reasoned that
the abominations of Leviticus stemmed, not from any ecological reason, but from the Israelites’ mental ordering of the universe, and the demands of their political boundaries. And so, to begin…
Douglas examines each of the categories of animals that Leviticus declares safe to eat as well as the many more unclean creatures, both unsafe to eat and unsafe to touch. The clean animals (mammals) are those who chew the cud and have hooves divided in two; the clean water creatures are those that have fins and scales; among the insects those that have wings and four jointed legs such as crickets and grasshoppers. All of these animals are clean and safe to eat. The animals, fish, birds, insects who fall outside of the categories so defined are trefah – “ritually unclean”, unfit for the temple or the altar. Among the unclean creatures, Leviticus names a great number of birds including the bat, all the animals who walk on their paws (who are uncloven), as well as the cloven animals like the pig because the pig does not chew the cud and the camel who chews the cud but whose hooves are not split in two in the correct manner, and finally the rabbit who chews the cud but is not cloven. Douglas notes that the unclean animals are those who fall either outside or in between, the clean categories. In other words, these animals are ritually defiled because they create disorder in the divine arrangement. She concludes that the reason for the pig taboo lies in the fact that the pig transgresses the ungulate category, and not least, that it was eaten by non-Israelites.
In the ancient world, all animal food was sacrificial food. A life taken was offered to God before it was consumed by people. Therefore, a food that was unfit for human consumption, was also and, primarily, unfit for the altar. And a food taboo maintained the cosmic order and political boundaries because people who did not share the same gods, did not share divine sacrifices, did not share the same foods, which is also to say that people who did not share the same gods belonged to distinct societies. And indeed, all ritual endeavour was once consecrated through the ritual sharing of food – from weddings and funerals to the marriages of kings and peace making between enemies.
In the original text (I apologise for the short cuts) Mary Douglas’ essay is a wonderful, subtle and elegant analysis, and one that remains fundamental reading for all students of anthropology. Nonetheless, it misses a couple of things.
Firstly, it strikes me that Leviticus rather than prohibiting the pig, the camel and the rabbit specifically, actually prohibits any and all of the four-legged animals who are lacking the essential biological characteristics of either sheep, goats or oxen. The pig, the camel and the rabbit are simply examples of the fact that all the explanations given in Leviticus as to why animals are unclean, converge on a single point: that the standard of cleanliness is sheep or ox-like. At the same time, Leviticus ignores a conspicuous characteristic of both oxen and goats: horns which are lacking in the sheep (at least in the female of the species). This is an interesting omission because the Ox and its horns occupied a privileged place in the symbolic and ritual life of the ancient Mediterranean. But if the Book of Leviticus were to include “horns” with split hooves and chewing the cud, if it held horns as a criterion of purity, then its ritual taxonomy might remind the Israelites of the forbidden Bull and other horned deities of Egypt and Canaan. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that Leviticus, by design rather than by default, establishes the standard of ritual purity in the sheep. The sheep is the sacrificial animal.
By extension, the horned sheep, the goat becomes a sort of “faulty sheep”, and by the same logic, it was therefore the scapegoat, and not the scapesheep, which in the ancient Hebrew ritual of atonement, was sent into the desert, loaded with the sins of the community. Much later, Jesus would speak of sorting the sheep from the goats, and Christian zoosymbology would go one step further: it would oppose the Lamb of God to the goat of Satan, the fallen angel.
And surely, when it places the sheep at the centre of the covenant between men and God, the Book of Leviticus does nothing less than affirming the Israelites’ shepherding economy and traditional way of life at the heart of the universal order. Leviticus makes the point that the Israelites are shepherds, that their herds please their God, and that they should stick to what they do, and stick to what they eat.
Well, if there is a material foundation to the pork taboo, wasn’t Marvin Harris onto something? The answer is yes… and no. No, because Harris argues that the Biblical taboo has an ecological rather than an economic foundation. Of course, there must also be a correlation between economy and ecology but that correlation can lie deep in history and is not necessarily sustained through changing circumstances. Take Australia: Aboriginal people eat kangaroos, for the obvious reasons that as hunter-gatherers, they ate the foods found in their environment. This is a sound ecological basis for eating something. But the British, the newcomers, the invaders, were most reluctant to adopt this source of food, and they stuck to their most un-ecological farming.
It is only very recently that mainstream Australia has begun to eat kangaroo meat, and kangaroo meat still occupies a very marginal space in the supermarket fridge. Instead of adapting to the natural environment, the British adapted the environment to their idea of the natural order. They transported and imposed their original food economies onto their new landscape. The kangaroo was defiled, fit for dogs, not for humans.
Where the Biblical pig is concerned, Marvin Harris has it somewhat backwards: the Israelites did not eat pigs, not because it did not make ecological sense for them to keep pigs, but because they did not keep pigs in the first place, because the pig was not part of their economy. But this, on the other hand, more than likely implies that the Israelites had not kept pigs in the place they had left behind: Egypt. And as it turns out, the Egyptians themselves strongly devalued pig husbandry as well as pig sacrifices. And so, if there is an ecological or a “real” reason for the origins of the Biblical proscription of the pig, it is in Egypt that we are likely to find it.
Pigs are largely incompatible with nomadic animal husbandry but they are the perfect animals for sedentary agriculture. Pigs feed on scraps, and on what they may clean up of the farmyard and the village streets. Pigs don’t need pastures, they don’t need to be moved across mountains at various seasons, and they are raised in such a variety of climates around the world that they are kings of adaptability.
So why did the Egyptians frown on pig husbandry? Well, the truth of the matter is that although the question of the origins of the devalued Egyptian pig has not caused quite as much ink to flow as the Biblical pig, the academic jury has yet to reach consensus on the topic.
According to the anthropologist-archaeologist Richard Loban (Pigs and their Prohibitions, 1998), the Egyptians had ecological, economic, political and ritual reasons for shunning pigs. Wild pigs were commonly found in the wetlands of ancient Egypt up until desertification began encroaching on habitable land, in 5000 BC. The problem for the wild pigs, however, lay not only with nature, but with domesticated cattle. As grazing lands shrunk, the Egyptians were forced to drain the marshes along the Nile to grow fodder for their herds. Pigs need water, and in the resulting competition for this precious resource, the pig presented limited advantage for Egyptian domestication. Although the pig produces far more meat than either sheep or oxen, it cannot be milked or used for carting, tilling or pulling. But according to Loban, the pig’s status was not only marginalised on ecological and economic grounds, it was foremost devalued on politico-religious grounds, after the kings of Upper-Egypt defeated the kings of Lower-Egypt in 1700 BC. The monarchy of Upper Egypt was heralded by the falcon totem and the god Horus, whilst the monarchy of Lower-Egypt was heralded by the god Seth and the black pig totem. Following the unification of Egypt, the winning monarchs prohibited the sacrifice of pigs, as the totemic emblem of their defeated enemies was abhorrent to the victorious god Horus. The ruling classes of Egypt thus came to shun Seth and the consumption of pork. Pigs were still raised in Ancient Egypt, but their numbers were limited, their sacrifice restricted, and they were associated with the poorer social classes.
And so, here you have it, Richard Loban’s version of the events sounds pretty convincing and you may well wonder what else could possibly be said on this topic to justify the coming pages… But there remain a few issues, for one: why should it be that such an ancient ritual taboo still resonate and be surrounded by so much mystery, millennia after the fact?
Virtually all religions understate or even deny the material or human anchor of spiritual life. For religious Truth to transcend the human condition, it must first of all forget its human origins. Thus, taboos endure beyond the circumstances and conditions that gave rise to them, beyond history, and beyond reason because they are experienced as divine or natural law. Taboos are the gatekeepers of our savagery, and for better and for worse, tradition shapes unquestionable and unquestioned habits. We hold many ideas and attitudes that have never been taught to us in any direct form.
Old ideas die hard. Science may have shaken our intellectual perception of animals, but what inspires our ordering of the animal world is not Linnaeus’ biological taxonomy but our economic requirements. Our empathy is not equally distributed between the animals we categorise as those we eat and those we don’t, those useful and those noxious, those domesticated and those wild, those native and those feral. These categories have no other scientific basis than the science that confirms the animal’s place in our economy of needs.
Beyond this, we are still clinging onto the deeply held belief that we stand apart from the other animals. For we learned a very long time ago that we were made in God’s image and that only we have immortal souls. Should we lose the conviction of our separate superiority, we would find it much harder to mistreat and kill animals for food. Which is what happened to Buddhists. Gautama did not require vegetarianism of his disciples, but when Buddhists learned that the soul inhabiting an animal or a human body is on a Karmic path shared by all sentient beings, when they learned that Karmic retribution is the hand-maiden of compassion, they found themselves compelled to refrain from killing and eating land animals. In the nineteenth century, Darwin reminded Europeans that they were part of the animal kingdom, but over a century later, the spiritual shock has not been entirely absorbed: we were pushed out of Paradise but we are still standing in our pride, and at the top of the food chain. And as Mr and Mrs Civilization will tell you with Gradgrindish righteousness, we are not like the other animals, who are not very smart and who have germs and harbour parasites. For animals must necessarily be missing something that we humans have: a soul, intelligence, feelings, cleanliness… and surely our dearest prejudices must be based in our own and uniquely human capacity for reason – hence our predilection for attributing reasonable grounds to our deepest and most enduring convictions, and for granting, in shameless disregard for historical realities, scientific instincts to long gone ancestors who classed the bat as a bird and the rabbit as a ruminant.
Indeed, animals carry pathogens – and humans don’t?
And so now, take not the pig but the dog. We, in Australia, don’t eat dogs because a dog is a man’s best friend. And because dogs are our best friends, we have pet dogs who live in our homes, sleep on our beds, and some even eat from our tables (bad dog!). But we, in Australia, do not allow dogs into our airports, our supermarkets, our restaurants, and all the other places where Public Rules of Hygiene command that dogs should be left at the door – except for seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs, police dogs, military dogs, customs sniffing dogs…
Evidently, our holy rules of hygiene are not wholly inflexible, because it is also a fact that a dog is a dog.
There is a simple method to evaluate the relative degree of cultural defilement attaching to animals: the animal name calling. Let’s try it with the domesticated species: You rooster, rabbit, duck, pigeon… no that does not work. You sheep? Yes, that’s a bit of an insult. You cow? Definitely. Donkey! That too. You dog! Yes. Bitch! Pig! Swine! Wow, we’re getting really nasty here.
But now try this: You pork! You beef! You mutton! You horse! That actually sounds really funny.
Obviously, it’s not only about whether we eat them or not. In Australia, we don’t eat horses, donkeys or dogs. So let’s group the farm animals according to what we do with them: cows, sheep, pigs and swine, we raise, and beef, mutton and pork, we eat; donkeys and horses, we use for work and we ride; dogs and bitches, we work with and keep for the pleasure of their companionship. But in actual fact, the dog and his wife have such a complicated story (almost as complicated as the pig’s) that I will have to keep it for another occasion.
Meanwhile, we can see that if we group the words as I have done above, the categories somewhat speak for themselves: the word that defiles the animal is the word associated with the raising of the animal, and ultimately with the production of meat. The neutral words signify the dead animals, the animal as meat, and are thus associated with food consumption. In other words, the degree of defilement of the animal, either as a living being or food-flesh, can be correlated to human structures of economic and political power: the production of meat goes with the peasant class, the consumption of meat with the upper class. English usage, of course, makes this association especially plain for the words pork, beef and mutton are also derived from French, the language of the Norman invaders who established their rule over England and its peoples.
As to the donkey, surely anyone who has had anything to do with either horses or donkeys can confirm that donkeys are every bit as intelligent and stubborn as horses, but it is also a fact that the donkey is the poor man’s horse.
But now, this socio-economic take on defilement is not the whole story. No doubt, peasants are defiled, they are “dirty” because they are at the bottom of the power structure, but they are also defiled because their daily dealings with “dirty animals” erodes their human status. Think of it: the modern farmer has come a very long way from the medieval peasant, but nevertheless, measure the emotional resonance which attaches to the words pig farmer as opposed to sheep farmer, cattle rancher, horse breeder.
And then, think about this: a sheep is a person without a will of their own, a cow is a stubborn and nasty person of the female gender, and a person we call a donkey is both stupid and stubborn. A pig, however, is worse than that, a pig is a nasty, disgusting, individual. And a swine…
So, here we go again, back to the pig.
And back to the Bible.
One thing which is of particular interest and very much overlooked when discussing the Book of Leviticus, is that the food prohibitions it contains do not especially single out the pig from among the other unclean animals. Where unclean is concerned, the pig is on par with rabbits and camels, with virtually all flying creatures, a range of sea creatures, and insects. But when was the last time you heard anyone putting their two bobs worth on the real reasons behind the Biblical rabbit taboo? Evidently, the beliefs that the pig is a biohazard factory go well beyond the intentions of Leviticus, and they must originate in more recent history.
Indeed, it is my opinion – after much reflection – that contemporary ideas on the dirtiness of the pig originate, not so much in Jewish notions of ritual purity and uncleanliness, as in Christian notions of sin.
So, let’s return to… the “beginnings”.
According to scholar of Jewish history, Misgav Har Peled, ideas about the polluting powers of pigs gained importance among the Jews about two thousand years ago, under Roman occupation when the pork taboo became a locus of both Jewish and non-Jewish identities, and consequently, a locus of Jewish resistance. But again, if this makes historical sense of the Jewish preoccupation with pork, it does not explain why or how this two-millennia old contention should endure in non-Jewish, pork consuming cultures. After all, it was such a very long time ago, and the Jews were a very small minority in the vastness of Imperial Rome. Except, of course, that the Jews had inordinate importance: because out of Judaism grew Christianity. And not only Jews, but also medieval Christians believed that pigs were dirty and they (the Christians) believed that pigs were a source of diseases.
In his fascinating book, Le cochon est toujours coupable [The pig is always guilty], French historian of animals, Michel Pastoureau writes that medieval Christian attitudes towards the pig were negative, although not universally so. The pig was highly valued as a source of food for no part of it was ever wasted (think piggy bank and the virtues of saving one’s pennies) and sows were praised for their fertility. But the pig was also believed to be a source of pestilence and perceived too, as a sinner. For Pastoureau, these medieval notions open a window of understanding on the history of our own ambivalent views of the pig. I could not agree more.
However, Pastoureau is also of the opinion that there is a truer and underlying cause for our sempiternal disparagement of the pig – somewhat as there must be a truer, valid and reasonable reason justifying the Biblical pig taboo. Now, Pastoureau dismisses the usual ecological arguments for the obvious reasons, and proposes that the problem with the pig is Aristotelian – that the problem with the pig is that it most resembles man. For the Greeks were thoroughly cognisant of the biological resemblances between pigs and humans, and modern science has proven them right, with the result that today, we not only “harvest” pigs for food but also for a variety of medicinal products. Pastoureau also notes that the pig figured prominently in medieval animal trials, the bizarre practice that committed animals who had offended against humans, to be tried, judged and sentenced in real courts of law, like human persons. The pig, for Pastoureau, is the “badly loved cousin”, who is the object of our attraction and our rejection because it is too close to us. Eating pigs, in other words, makes us feel uncomfortable because in our deeper unconscious, we experience it as cannibalism.
Pastoureau has a point: the medieval pig was somewhat human-like, not only because its internal organs looked like our own, but also because unlike the other farm animals, it usually circulated in the farmyard and in the village streets (which may partly explain the frequency of its appearance before the judge). But then again, this cannot be the whole of the answer, because the Chinese pig too lived in the streets, and in more remote rural villages, it still does so today, and in China, the pig is not perceived as a source of either physical or moral contamination.
In short, ambivalent attitudes towards the pig are not universal, and Pastoureau’s proposition raises the question of why the pork eating Europeans should suffer from cannibalistic guilt and not the Chinese. Why would the pig appear more human to the French than it does to the Chinese?
Before we begin to understand how medieval beliefs possibly come to bear on our contemporary notions of the unhygienic pig, we first need to think of what dirt and disease meant for our medieval forebears. Which is to say that we need to take into account what the words dirt and contamination meant before we discovered germ theory.
The Ancients, including the Israelites, conceived of dirt as ritual pollution, as a boundary between humanity and divinity – a physical or mental state which made one unfit for the temple. Entering the temple in a state of pollution, or bringing an object of pollution into the temple, however, was only one of many potential means of offending fickle and irascible gods whose dealings with humanity, for much of the time, ranged from unpredictable to incomprehensible. In this worldview, ritual pollution, contamination and disease, but also natural catastrophes, crop failures and defeat in war could all be connected to divine disinterest, retribution or entertainment. Hence, the distinction between dirt as ritual pollution and our modern concept of dirt as bacterial residue is a significant one, because it might have made sense to the Ancients to connect the cause of an earthquake to the wrath of Zeus and the source of the latter to the polluted state of a fallen hero, but no one in their right twenty-first century mind would ever think of seeking the cause of
an earthquake in the bacteria multiplying in a human armpit.
Medieval and Renaissance Christians did not conceive of physical dirt as we understand it any more than the Ancients did. Real dirt, in fact, had positive value for the most devoted (to say nothing of the fanatical) Christians who held the physical body in the highest contempt. Writing on the Spanish Inquisition, James Maxwell Anderson cites the reflections of Spanish monks who viewed bodily dirt as a test of their own moral purity: they refrained from bathing and slept year round in the same frock so as to “arrive at the odor of sanctity”.1
But Christianity did not simply re-invent the old European world, it also superimposed itself on existing knowledge and customs, excising where it could, former beliefs and practices which it judged incompatible. Medieval Christians’ ideas about health and illness were in large part inherited from pagan days. Disease was believed to result of an imbalance of the humours, of the evils deeds of demons, the desires of ill wishers, a hiccup in the alignment of the planets. Health was restored by means of special diets, potions, and bloodletting but also by alchemy, astrology, magic, and prayers invoking Mary, the angels and the saints, many of whom were the patrons of particular diseases. However, medieval Christians also believed that disease could be punishment from God in retribution for their personal sins.
Medieval humanity thus lived in a pervasive state of inconsequential physical filth, coupled with physical and spiritual danger. The flesh could be punished, repressed and chastised; it could be given temporary reprieve, but ultimately only the spirit could be saved; only the spirit could live into eternity. Not all Christians, evidently, agreed on the finer points, and much of the theological debate was caught between a vision of the natural world as God’s creation and one of physical nature as the fount of sinful desire. But in the end, the Christian view of nature as God’s creation could not avoid being challenged by the profound conviction that opposed perishable flesh to the immortal soul. An imbalance of the humours was explanation enough for various individual diseases, including leprosy; but a pestilence was more likely blamed on the evil doings of supernatural beings or of a passing comet – or be understood as divine retribution. Where, then, was the line between legitimate and illegitimate healing? Was healing doing God’s will or was it defying God’s judgement?
The medieval notions pertaining to the contaminating powers of the pig can only lie in ideas about sin, not hygiene, not pathogens, and not parasites. The fact is medieval Europeans were people who cultivated their body odours and emptied their chamber pots on each others’ heads, so how would they have differentiated between the pigs’ stench and their own in the midst of the stench that pervaded their filthy towns? Think about this too, pigs surely fed Christians more often than they made them sick, and surely the pig was, if anything, a helpful disposal unit. And finally, think of the fact that not only the pigs were blamed for various plagues, but also women, heretics, and of course the Jews who did not eat the pigs.
Looking back to Roman times, all of the Europeans’ forebears: the Romans, the Gauls, the Britons, the Germans, the Norse, not only raised and ate pigs but also sacrificed them to their gods. By definition, a sacrificial food cannot be impure, or at least, it must be purifiable. The cultural correspondence between food and sacrifice among all these peoples was an appropriate one. The Romans kept pigs, ate pigs and sacrificed pigs, just as the Jews kept sheep, ate sheep and sacrificed sheep. So how did the pig of Antique Rome, a sacrificial offering fit for the gods, turn into the dirty animal of late medieval Europe fit for producing delicious hams and sausages and causing diseases?
Evidently, the ritual difference between medieval Europe, the Jews and the Romans lies with the Roman Catholic Church.
So let’s now look at the Church’s own beginnings. The Gentiles who converted to Christianity shortly after the death of Jesus converted to what was then a sect of Judaism. Christian converts were therefore compelled
to adopt Hebraic ritual precepts. Quite naturally, there arose a degree of cultural resistance to some of those, and in particular to circumcision. The issue was first broached at the Council of Jerusalem held in 50 AD, which not only dispensed converted Gentiles from circumcision but also from most dietary restrictions. Had Jesus not said that defilement was what came out of the human mouth, not what went into it? (Matthew 15) And if you are still thinking that hygiene ever had anything to do with it, think again, because Jesus was responding to the Pharisee who had rebuked him and his disciples for breaking the rules of ritual tradition and, in this particular instance, for not washing their hands before eating their bread.
The converted Roman Empire, however, would reinstitute the full force of ritual to the Christian faithful. Just how forcefully can be measured in the fate of the unbaptised newborns who are destined to limbo, or even to hell: There is no such thing as presumed natural innocence in the Catholic faith, all human life is tainted by the original sin and only the rituals of the Church can bring salvation. One is born from the flesh, and more precisely from woman, in a state of sin, and one returns to God in the spirit through the Church, through the administering of the first and last rites. In this perspective, flesh and all that pertains to it is sinful. And since the most sinful are by definition the most offensive to God, it follows that in the popular imagination, if not in the direct teachings of the Church, who-ever and what-ever cannot be redeemed by the protective powers of the sacraments (women’s bodies, Jews, Protestants, heretics… and pigs) risks drawing the wrath of God upon all – in the form of a pestilence, a Black Plague, or an earthquake.
The Roman Catholic Church not only returned ritual to a thoroughly defiled and unforgiving Christianity, it also accomplished a ritual revolution. Having dissociated itself from its Jewish origins, the Roman Church proceeded to rescue firstly the Romans and then, over several centuries, the various tribes who invaded the defunct Empire, so as to deliver them from their pagan habits and beliefs. Thus, Christianity abolished all animal sacrifices, and transformed a great deal of pagan worship into objects of abhorrence.
Ritual blood letting made way for the universal symbolic sacrifice of the Son of God. The new covenant was sealed in bread and wine, the flesh and blood of Jesus, and the staple food of the poor. Now, since Christians did not become vegetarian, the end of animal sacrifice did not altogether result in the sparing of animal suffering and animal life; nonetheless, it was a civilising improvement because, although temple offerings aspired to higher spiritual causes, cupidity, blood lust, gluttony, idiocy and superstition provided equally valid excuses for all manners of ritual carnage. Meanwhile, another consequence of the abolition of blood rituals was the desacralisation of animal flesh-food. Indeed, in antiquity, the ceremonial offering of animal life was also about eating: about food distribution and festive sharing.
In Catholic life, by contrast, breaking the bread and drinking the wine during mass is never about eating. The communion is a symbolic act of spiritual cannibalism, the partaking of the body and blood of Christ, which requires the prior cleansing of the soul though confession and the cleansing of the body through fasting (not through bathing). Real food happens after the sacrament, it is never a part of it – in my days, every Catholic child was taught that much at Catechism. Real food is taken after mass because it feeds the profane body.
It is very likely that the pig was from the very beginnings of Christianity a source of unconscious defilement and guilt. Pork was a conspicuous boundary between Rome and the Jews, and acknowledged as such by both communities, and no doubt the consumption of pork bore witness to the converted Gentiles’ ritual incompleteness in Hebraic terms. In addition, as all Catholics know, unlike the Ox, the Donkey and the Lamb, the pig was not in the stable when Jesus was born. And the pig has been suitably exiled from the Christmas displays, the pantomimes and the crèches ever since Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, re-created the first Nativity scene in the 13th century. Although it is true that in Southeast Asia, you might just come across an adoring Nativity pig standing alongside other locally prized animals, watching over Baby Jesus in the manger. But here we are, a long way from Rome, in space and time.
As we all know, Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus but it has more ancient origins in the rituals of the Winter Solstice and the New Year observed by the Romans and the ancient European tribes. The traditional exchanges of gifts, the pine trees, the Yule log, the reindeers and the excessive eating are avatars of former rituals that have been preserved alongside the Christian ceremonial. No doubt, our perennial complaints about the excessive consumerism and the loss of the Christmas spirit are but modern echoes of the Church’s long-standing ambivalence about the most pagan of all its rituals.
Since real foodstuff feeds the profane body, it follows that all foodstuff in the Catholic scheme is profane. The reality, however, is somewhat more complicated because certain foods are specifically attached to certain religious festivals, and others not. It is also more complicated because the Church did not altogether extinguish former mental habits. Some foods, evidently, are more, or less, profane than others. Since the pig is more profane than most, the Christmas meal is dominated by fish (a core symbol of Christianity) and various birds, and pork is mostly absent from the Christmas menus of the traditionally Catholic countries.
Our own Australian Christmas ham is inherited from the English, and it is believed to hail from an ancient Norse sacrifice to do with the Winter Solstice and male fertility. Its persistence in the Christmas feast may be excused on the grounds that the Roman Catholic ritual never reached as deeply into the consciences of Britain as it did those of Italy, France, Spain, or Portugal. But then again, pork figures on the Christmas menus of southern Portugal and Mexico, and these are most definitely Catholic countries. So, where is the argument?
Well, there is an Iberian particularism about the pig. Anyone who has spent time in Spain will have noticed that pork features so prominently in the Spanish diet that it is virtually unavoidable. And if you are a vegetarian travelling in Spain, beware: you may well ask for a salad with no meat and be served a salad with jamón – for ham is not considered meat. Interestingly too, the word pig is less devalued in Spanish than in the other European languages. In Spanish, you cannot insult someone by calling him or her a pig. No doubt, Spaniards still think of the pig as a dirty animal, and you can disapprove of a person’s behaviour by saying that they are like a pig on account say, of their messy habits, their sexuality or their gluttony, but you can’t say You Pig! Traditional Mexican cuisine, for its part, is so focussed on pork that it makes no use of olive oil, in spite of Mexico’s historical and cultural connections to Spain… Or could it be because of those?
So, let’s take a look at Mexico.
The Spanish conquest of Mexico was over by 1521, three decades after the Christian conquest of the Iberian peninsula, when Muslims and Jews were ordered to leave, convert or die. In the decades that followed the mass expulsions and mass conversions, the Spanish Inquisition would sentence thousands of people to be burned at the stake because they had refused to convert, because they had retained their former religious practices in secret or because they were believed to have done so. Thus, Spanish Mexico was established at the closure of the Middle Ages, and during the most ferocious period of the Spanish Inquisition. And the Spaniards also instituted the Inquisition in Mexico. The Mexican Inquisition, however, was rarely brought to bear upon indigenous people whose pagan practices were to a large extent, and purposefully so, incorporated into Mexican Catholicism. In Mexico as in Spain, the Inquisition’s purpose was to expose crypto-Jews and secret Muslims, Protestants, heretics. Interestingly, whilst neither Spaniards nor Mexicans use the word cerdo [pig] as an insult, one may call someone
a marrano – which is today understood as “pig” or “piggish”, “messy” whilst originally (that is in the fifteenth century) the word referred specifically to converted Jews. And the term marrano is derived from the Arabic muharram meaning “forbidden”, and thus a reference to the original Jewish and Muslim pork prohibition.
For almost eight centuries, under the Caliphate but also under powerful Christian feudal lords, the Muslims, Jews and Christians of Spain had coexisted in peaceful asymmetry, in communities separated by law, taxation rates, ritual worship and, not least, dietary practices. Under the terror of the Inquisition and the threat of the stake, the conspicuous consumption of pork became a proof of authenticity for Christians and Conversos alike. As James Maxwell Anderson writes, the more people worried about their origins, the more pork they felt obliged to consume in public view.
Now, both Muslims and Jews had refrained from pork meat, but the religious boundaries between them and Christians were also evident in the traditional fats each community used for frying: pork fat, butter and olive oil. The Jews used olive oil exclusively, because their dietary rules not only forbade them pork products, it also prohibited them from combining meat and dairy products, and therefore from frying meat with butter. According to the food writer Claudia Roden, the terror of the Inquisition was so great that even Christians began to refrain from using olive oil for fear of being accused of being secret Jews.
The Spaniards introduced pigs to Mexico in the sixteenth century. Yet pork is now as ubiquitous in Mexico, which otherwise prides itself on its pre-Columbian culinary heritage, as it is in Spain. In fact, given that Mexicans fry with pork fat and shun olive oil, it is fair to say that pork is even more central to the Mexican diet than to the Iberic. And if you ask Mexicans why they don’t use olive oil to refry beans, they will tell you that they fry with pork fat, which they actually call butter [manteca] because manteca is simply the best. They could just as well turn around and ask you why you don’t use Coca-Cola to make Boeuf Bourguignon…
The Catholic Church did not invent the division between the profane and the sacred, nor did it invent the division between the profanity of the flesh and the sacrality of the spirit – but it made a big deal of it all. And the pig, in the Catholic worldview, operates a unique and paradoxical equation: the pig that was at the heart of the Roman food economy was thoroughly displaced from the symbolic realm of Roman Catholicism, whilst the Lamb, which was a relatively marginal animal, came to occupy the heart of Catholic sacrificial symbology. This would be a spiritual contradiction in most cultures, which quite logically tend to sacralise the most important foods – as bread and wine are in the Christian ritual. But to the Christians, Jesus, the Son of God, is the symbolic Lamb – not the piglet. And don’t you think that even this purely objective statement has a sort of sacrilegious whiff about it?
Yet, a long, long time ago, in the beginnings of the world, God had ordered Noah to take on board both the clean and the unclean animals because all the animals were guiltless. The guilty animal in the Hebraic tradition was not the pig, it was the occasional scapegoat, cast out to Azazel, who was to lose itself and the sins of men in the desert. Poor goat. But both the goat and the pig acquired a darker shade in Christian symbology. The goat became the animal aspect of Satan (helped somewhere along the way by its identification with Pan, the ancient half-goat god of nature) whilst the pig…
The pig could well have fallen victim to the Christian instinct that turned objects of pagan worship into super-negatives, but the pig has none of the magical and dark connotations which medieval Christians attached to snakes, bats, cats or crows – and goats. The pig is not a Satanic animal, it is not evil, it is dirty. But as I just explained, it cannot be dirty in Hebraic terms, because no animal is fit for the Christian altar. Dirt for medieval Christians was not ritual dirt, it was sinful dirt. And yet, Christians committed no sin by the act of eating pigs.
So, how was the pig sinful? What sin did the pig commit?
According to the learned writings of a French monk cited by Pastoureau, the pig commits the great sin of putting his nose into the ground instead of looking towards heaven and God.
How about that for a rational explanation? And given that sheep, cows, horses and donkeys, and basically all grass eating animals as well as all the other four-legged creatures who can’t sit at the table are likely to keep the better part of their faces turned to the ground for significant periods of time, we can dismiss that proposition without more ado.
Granted, the pig has a few bad habits: it rolls in dirt, and does you know what in public, and it will eat you know what where it might find it, but most animals are uncivilised to a degree, including our favourite companion pet, the dog. But the dog, you might say, is also defiled in some cultures, and it is somewhat tainted in the Anglo-Saxon psyche (You dog! You bitch!) – as opposed to French culture where the proverbial poodle can sit at most restaurant tables in all of its God-given innocence. As a matter of fact, to call someone a dog or a bitch in French could be about as effective an insult as calling them a teapot. But in French as in English, you can call someone a pig. So what is really and sinfully different about the pig?
Well, there actually is one objective difference between the pig and the other four-legged farm animals of medieval Europe, and that difference certainly bears on Christian notions of sin. You see, unlike the sheep who is the symbol of divine sacrifice, and from whom we take both meat and wool, unlike the ox who is not only eaten but also used to till the fields, to carry loads and to pull carts, unlike the horse who is the mount of the knight, and unlike the donkey who carries the load of the peasant and who bore Jesus on his back, unlike the dog who has all the bad attributes of the pig as well as all of its intelligence, unlike all of these useful and working animals, the pig is raised for a single purpose: food. And food for the sake of food in the medieval mind is like sex for the sake of sex – highly suspect. What’s more, only the pig is pickled, smoked and preserved in mouth-watering hams hanging from the ceiling. Do you see where this is going?
Let’s face it, the pig in the Christian unconscious has a bit stacked against it: it was unclean to God the Father, and it was out of the stable when God the Son was born. But surely the pig is also dirty because it is sinfully delicious: because the Christians banished the pig from the altar but they could not take it off the menu. The pig is a sinner because pork is yummy; because yumminess is the high road to gluttony, one of the seven cardinal sins, and temptation is the low road to hell. If you don’t believe me, take it from the most influential, subtle and reasonable thinkers of the twelth century, Thomas Aquinas, who included among six principles of gluttony, the consumption of delicacies and the eager anticipation of dinner-time – that, I believe, took care of most of his contemporaries, as it would most of us today.
And so now we have it: the swine is dirty because it is made in the projected image of the sinners who both love and hate it. Christians do not sin by eating pork but they sin by loving food too much. And the pig is a glutton, not (only) because the pig perhaps loves food a little more than other animals do, but because those who love roast pork and bacon and who tremble at the thought of the smoked sausages calling out to them from their larders, are gluttons. That the pig, as Michel Pastoureau points out, resembles us does nothing to hinder this projection. But in the end, it all looks like a simple and an old story: the sinner who cannot resist temptation offloads his guilt on the innocent object of his desire. In short, the pig is to the gormandiser as the harlot is to the lecher.
The pig of Christendom is the scapepig – who goes, not into the desert, but in the village streets, loaded with the dirt of an ungrateful humanity. And since gluttony aspires to the same rationale as sexual lust, before you know it, the pig comes to embody both mortal sins, and thus ignites the fear of divine outrage and pestilential retribution. The unclean pig has become Original Sin squared.
That is a tough reputation to bear, and a tough one to shed.
Compare the place of the pig in the peasant economies and the gastronomies of continental Europe and China: they are equal. Compare the ritual status of the pig in Europe and that of the pig in Chinese civilization: they are light years apart. In China, before the industrialisation of food production, pigs had a relatively good life – until, of course, their fated day arrived. Even today, in remote villages, the pigs go about their own business in convivial freedom, and no one fears contamination. There is nothing profane about the Chinese pig, nothing to lock the pig out of the heavenly realm. In the Chinese zodiac, the pig is the sign of friendship, intelligence, generosity and kindness. The Eight Precepts Pig accompanies the monk Xuanzang on his journey to the West in search of the Buddhist sutras. And Pigsy may be somewhat obsessed with food and sex (as is the European pig) but he is the Celestial Marshall who commands the Heavenly navy. In China, the pig is a symbol of family, vitality and wealth and pork is a food offering suitable for the worship of the ancestors and the gods. Hence, the character 家 [jia] which means family and house, is nothing less than the representation of a pig under the roof of a house.
Recently, Pope Francis made a cryptic pronouncement regarding the fate of animals and the afterlife, which immediately propelled into the news headlines and through the internet, the rumour that animals go to Heaven. Animals, indeed, are not supposed to enter the Catholic Heaven. What is more, there are few patron saints of animals in the Catholic pantheon, perhaps because of the inevitable pagan overtones which animal patronage risks engendering. There is no patron saint of sheep, goats (the horned sheep), donkeys. Nevertheless, many of the saints showed great kindness towards animals. The iconography pertaining to the greatest of these saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, does not usually depict him in the company of a pig but, as I discovered roaming the internet (I had never heard of this during my years in Catechism), there is a patron saint of the pigs. His story is enlightening.
Saint Anthony lived in the third century AD, which is to say that he lived a few decades before the Christian conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and a thousand years before Thomas Aquinas devised his taxonomy of gluttony. By a beautiful irony, Saint Anthony also happened to live in Egypt, where this story of the pig began.
One day, while Anthony was doing penance as a hermit, Satan appeared to him in the shape of a pig. The pig, not surprisingly because Anthony was no doubt very hungry, was of a particularly violent disposition and, with great savagery, set upon our saint who responded in kind and beat the animal to death. Take that Satan!
Now, if it were not for the obvious symbolism, this would be a rather horrible story – and if it were not for what happened next, which was a true and wonderful miracle.
Because a great light descended upon the dead pig, and Lo and Behold, it was transformed into a live, regular, friendly farmyard specimen. After that, Anthony founded a monastic order dedicated to raising pigs and (guess what?) healing the sick and the poor. And in this manner, Saint Anthony lived among the swine
to the ripe old age of a hundred and five.
And so, as the farmer said to Babe, that’ll do Pig… that’ll do.
1 Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition, James Maxwell Anderson, Greenwood Press, 2002, p. 110.