Professor Bamfield's Rare-Breed Pigs
Early print of a pig
oink oink in Polish

Pigs, Origins and Meanings:

The Differences between Pigs, Hogs and Swine

PigIn UK English, the words 'hogs', 'pigs', and 'swine' all denote the same thing - a pig, a 'domesticated even-toed ungulate derived from the wild boar' (The Oxford English Dict.). 'Pig' originally was applied only to young pigs, a use now common only in the U.S. 'Hogs' and 'swine' seem to be the normal American words used generically for pigs, but in the UK 'pigs' comprises all pig animals whatever their age, although 'hogs' and 'swine' may be used in commerce. The origin of the word 'pig' is uncertain: the OED suggests it may have a lost Middle English origin similar to the surviving picbred (meaning 'acorns' or pig-bread).

Origin of Pigs

Pigs were first domesticated in the area of what is now eastern Turkey around 9000 years ago by Neolithic tribesmen using wild boar stock. This was the start of the move by humans from hunting to farming. By BC 4900, written records show that pigs were being reared in China. In 4000 BC the Emperor of China ordered all Chinese people to rear pigs.

Early Pig 1683It was once thought that European pigs originated from this single source in Turkey. However recent research from the Universities of Oxford and Durham (Larson, Dobney et al, Science, 2005) has shown that European domestic pigs originated in both Italy and Germany/Central Europe around 1500 BC. Other locations of pig domestication included northern India and the China. By 800 BC pigs appeared in Britain.

A small number of pigs were introduced to North America by Hernando de Soto in 1539 and by the time he died three years later the herd had grown to 700 pigs. In New York, semi-wild pigs became such a nuisance to inhabitants that a wall was built to keep them out. 'Wall Street' survives to this day.

The 'Meaning' of Pigs

Pigs are not simply farm animals but have been invested with a number of often contradictory meanings. Historically, pigs and their close relatives, wild boar, have been used as badges, heraldic devices, or as symbols.

These meanings were:

Pigs, mainly sows, were a symbol of fertility. In Celtic mythology, the sow-goddess Henwen was the animal form of the goddess of imagination. In Egyptian mythology, the Sky Goddess Nut could take the form of a celestial sow (1085 BC), whilst in Greece the worship by women of Demeter/Ceres the goddess of abundance was closely linked to the sacrifice of piglets.

ancient piglet sacrifice

Boar on King Richard III's coat of armsBoar: a fierce opponent and valiant warrior who fights to the death. It was used as a heraldic device - for example King Richard III's coat of arms carried a boar in recognition of his prowess as a soldier. A boar's head might also be used in this way. In Ireland, boars were frequently used as war symbols, being clever, indomitable, and ferocious.

Queens' Cambridge badgeBoar's head: also seen as a token of hospitality - as seen in this badge used by Queens' Cambridge

Piggly WigglyThe Friendly Pig: since the end of the nineteenth century the pig has been represented popularly as a friendly, smiling character. The first self-service store opened in Memphis Tennessee in 1916 by Clarence Saunders was called 'Piggly Wiggly' - pigs are frequently used for commercial advertising in the American South. Saunders never explained why he chose the name 'Piggly Wiggly' for his store.

Patron Saint of pigs

St Anthony The Great - painting  by Pierodiossimo.Pigs have their own Saint, St Anthony The Great, also referred to as 'the Abbott'. St Anthony was an Egyptian Christian in the pre-Islamic period, who lived in the desert as an anchorite for part of his life. He is also the patron saint of swineherds and pig keepers. St Anthony is normally portrayed with a pig nearby, as shown in this painting is by Pierodiossimo.

Pigs are Popular

Pig Mug by Roger HargreavesPigs have been tremendously popular all over the world. Pigs were originally foragers in woods and fields, looked after by swineherds, itinerants or members of the family. It was the custom in many parts of the west for families to keep a couple of pigs, fed on scraps, a source of manure, food, a method of rotovating land and of recycling waste. This still is the custom in many Asia-Pacific countries.

Pigs, along with bears, are popular means of personalising domestic products, such as mugs. Pigs are often used as cartoon characters, e.g. 'Porky Pig'. There are two major pig-oriented films, Charlotte's Web and of course Babe the sheep-pig. Pigs are usually represented as pink, divested of their earthly exteriors and timid, meek, humble, simple-minded creatures.

Why do Pigs have a Ring in their Noses?

The earliest records of a ring in the pig's nose occurs in the English Middle Ages. Swineherds were permitted to graze their pigs on Royal forestland from Midsummer Day to the 15th January, but on condition that the pigs were ringed in order to minimise the damage to young trees. Pig ringing (which inhibited deep rooting) became law with very stiff penalties for offenders. It is probable that the practice goes back far earlier, but was unrecorded. Today nose rings are used to inhibit foraging and rooting by pigs kept outside.

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