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Schlossman, H.H. (1983). The Role of Swine in Myth and Religion. Am. Imago, 40(1):35-49.

(1983). American Imago, 40(1):35-49

The Role of Swine in Myth and Religion

Howard H. Schlossman, M.D.

After a sea battle— “… bits of human flesh sticking in the ring bolts … A pig that ran about the decks escaped unharmed, but his hide was so clothed with blood from rooting among the pools of gore, that when the ship struck the sailors hove the animal overboard, swearing it would be rank cannibalism to eat him.” (Herman Melville, White Jacket (Boston: L. C. Page & Co., 1950), pp. 296-97).

Among man's domesticated animals, the pig has found varied reception. Its behavior has been described with contempt and ridicule but its meat has been extolled for delicacy and gluttony through most of the world. In fact, swine are associated with gluttony both in eating and being eaten as told in metaphor and tribal rites throughout the ages.

In view of the widespread acceptance of pork as food, it seems strange that a few ethnic groups have a strong religious aversion to eating or even touching a pig. The Western World has known of the injunction among the Jews. The same prohibition operates among the Moslems of North Africa and the Orient. The Greek historian, Herodotus, among others, has described the ritualized avoidance by the ancient Egyptians who appear to have started this custom.

A number of explanations, ancient and modern, have been offered and will be surveyed shortly. This study offers another, as follows:

1.   The early agrarian culture of the Nile Valley developed a new cosmology of death and resurrection which had a ritual quality. It required an intact body for the afterlife.

2.   They tended to bury their dead in the relatively dry sands beyond the arable land fed by the annual Nile floods. Dessication mummified the bodies.

3.   Of the domesticated animals of these farming groups, pigs, due to their greater intelligence, tended to escape their pens and reverted to a semi-wild state.

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