Monday, July 19, 2010

the plight of the pig

Diving Pig by Michael Sowa

Dogs look up to man. Cats look down to man.
Pigs look us straight in the eye and see an equal.

Winston Churchill

Let's face it, the poor pig really does get a bad rap. Quite unfairly, pigs have become synonymous with all kinds of negative attributes, especially greed, gluttony, and uncleanliness.

This isn't a new thing. In Judaism and Islam, pigs are the epitome of unclean and inedible animals, the animal that is central to the concepts of treif and haram. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish writer, pronounces pigs lazy scavengers, the embodiment of vice. The prohibition against eating pigs in the Ancient Middle East may have stemmed from the fact that pigs were the only animals that competed with humans for the same food stuff, since cows and sheep ate grass. It was likely a socio-political move into practicality through the ancient religious leaders of the two faiths in order to maintain the food supplies for the region.

In ancient Egypt, pigs were associated with Set, the rival to the sun god Horus. When Set fell into disfavor with the Egyptians, swineherds were forbidden to enter temples. According to Herodotus, swineherds were even a kind of separate sect or caste, which only married among themselves.

my great-great-grandfather,
Palestine Hanna and his pig

Taking it a step further, the nasty attributes ascribed to pigs have often led to critical comparisons between pigs and humans. There are tons of idioms that refer to the negative qualities traditionally ascribed to pigs. They are commonly associated with greed in various forms. Pigs are also associated with dirtiness, probably related to their habit of wallowing in mud. Even the untidy little Peanuts character was called Pig-Pen. How many times have you heard someone called "swine"?

Here are just a few piggy idioms I came up with:

  • Eat like a pig
  • Pig out
  • Sweat like a pig
  • Bleed like a pig
  • Squeal like a pig
  • Greedy as a pig
  • Road hog
  • You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig
  • When pigs fly
  • It's plain as a pig on a sofa
  • Clumsy as a hog on ice
  • Content as a dead pig in the sunshine
  • Wild as a peach-orchard hog
  • Too many pigs. Not enough tits. (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Buy a pig in a poke
  • In a pig's eye
  • Slicker than a greased pig
  • Make a silk purse out of a sow's ear
  • Don't cast your pearls before the swine
  • Pig's arse (Australian, expressing disbelief)
  • On the pig's back (Irish, signifying living easy)

A few interesting little bits of pig folklore:

  • In European folklore, there is a widespread belief that pigs are intensely frightened by mirrors.
  • In many European countries, a feast has formed around slaughtering a pig.
  • In Germany, pigs are known as a symbol for good luck. Marzipan pigs are a popular confectionery, especially as a gift on New Year's Eve.
  • In 1880's New York, a tradition developed of sharing a peppermint-flavored, hard candy pig with one's family after Christmas Dinner, with the hope that it would bring health and prosperity throughout the next year.
  • Fishermen in North East England regarded pigs as harbingers of bad luck. Pigs would not be carried on boats: a fisherman seeing a pig on his way to work would turn round and go home. This even extended to a prohibition of the word "pig" on board a vessel. This is why the animals were referred to, across the North East, as "gissies".

All this to say, cut the piggies some slack. They're not such a bad animal. Actually, they are quite intelligent. Research was done with pigs in the 1990s. One of the experiments was to train the pigs to move the cursor on a video screen with their snouts. When the pigs used the cursors again, they were able to distinguish between scribbles they already knew, and scribbles they were seeing for the first time. The pigs learned this skill as fast as the chimpanzees.

All species of pig are smarter than dogs, and capable of abstract representation. “They can hold an icon in their mind, and remember it at a later date,” says Professor Stanley Curtis of Penn State University, who discovered that pigs dominate at video games with joy sticks. Curtis goes on to say, “Pigs are able to focus with an intensity I have never seen in a chimp.” The studies also showed:

  • Pigs lead complex social lives that behaviorists once believed to be true only of primates.
  • Mother pigs sing to their piglets while they are nursing.
  • They excel at video games that would be hard for a young child, and sometimes better than the primates.
  • Pigs dream.
  • Pigs have a good sense of direction, and can find their way home from long distances.

So, next time someone calls you a pig, feel free to take it as a compliment.


  1. great post entertaining and educational!!

    don't forget the pig (often called boar) is also featured in the chinese zodiac and those born in the year of the pig are regarded as honest, kind and true to others!

  2. Fabulous post. Loving it!
    Ending up watching a lot of "Olivia" here with my boys.
    At least that show is Pig friendly!

  3. Ham it up! You picked a very clever theme and I'm curious about the thought process that inspired you to contemplate the pig extensively--dreams, photos?

  4. One of my favorite children's stories, Charlotte's Web paints a great picture of the pig, Wilbur.

  5. I loved the film Babe so so much. And of course you're right - that pigs get a bad rap. They aren't pretty and the sounds they make? Not pretty.

    You are something, Willow. What a great post.

  6. How did that childhood rhyme go when counting your toes?

    Life is the hog, and the piglets. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the bacon, we fail to enjoy the hog God provided us.

  7. I feel enlightened now. Thanks for sharing. Taking the family to the county fair this wee and I'm sure I'll be looking at the pigs in a whole new, respectful light.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. You have resurrected memories of childhood, my grandparent's farm and helping 'slop' the pigs every morning! Actually lovely memories ..

  9. Some interesting piggy facts! That sure was one pig pig with Palestine!

  10. Imagine that, playing video games and being beat by a pig! Now I know why I don't play them. ;-)

    The pig in the picture looks like a Woolly Pig (Mangalitza).

  11. John, I'm not sure whether it's the pig that's so big, or Palestine that's so small. He was a tiny little man.

  12. intersting facts on the pig...just think we would have no bacon without pigs...and bacon makes everything better. so thankful for the pig...smiles.

  13. I like it, take it as a complement. Ha. When I was quite young we had pigs. I would be with the baby pigs as they nursed and I would grunt with the mama pig. I must have been a real silly little girl but I did not think it odd at all to be with the pigs in the pig pen.

  14. I was going to mention Babe, but you beat me to it! And don't forget Porky!

    There is some evidence to show that the ancient prohibition on eating pork stems from the risk of contracting trichinosis from infected swine.

    In the town I used to live in, there is a bbq place called Memphis Smoke. Above the door it ssys, "Swine Dining".

  15. I love Sowa's Diving Pig and pigs in general. I even have a collection, my favorite piece being a happy birthday pig figurine wearing a party hat and high-top tennis shoes. Yay to the pig!

  16. I think some of the reason for the prohibition of eating pork was due to the worms they carried that would be transferred to humans.

    But you are right, pigs get a bad rap. they are very smart. But I think that is true for most the animal kingdom. We are just now able to make some determinations of how intelligent other species are. Our attitude was always that if they couldn't talk to us, they were stupid beasts that didn't think, didn't communicate among themselves, didn't remember, etc.

  17. In the UK, to tell 'a porkie' is to tell a lie. It comes from the rhyming slang Porkie pie/lie.

    I love your mid-way-window to the left of your front door. I presume it is on a stairs?? Lovely house; sorry Manor House.


  18. One more...the supermarket chain named after the Pig..."Piggly Wiggly"....I will not eat bacon today....You can take that to the Piggy Bank....bkm

  19. One more...the supermarket chain named after the Pig..."Piggly Wiggly"....I will not eat bacon today....You can take that to the Piggy Bank....bkm

  20. Cro, yes that little window is in the front stairway! Heehee, it's really not nearly a manor house, but was named Willow Manor by the original owners.

  21. i totally pigged out on your piggy post willow! superstition - well bacon was never so funky. steven

  22. fine post there Willow
    I happen to adore little piggies..
    and of course pork roast w/apples

  23. I can barely remember what you wrote because I am in shock over that photo of your great-great grandfather and his pig - amazing. I've never seen such a beast. Is this a particular breed that just gets this large or is that some kind of miracle pig? Forgive me, I'm a city girl.

  24. Here in Spain, the pig needs no vindication as it is a central part of the culinary culture and is present in almost all meals in one form or another. The cured jamón serrano is a real treat and one of the proudest staples of the Spanish diet. The feasts you mention around pig slaughtering days still go on. My brother-in-law is an avid hunter of wild boar. Perhaps one day I will post on some of these doings. The photos are a bit offputting, but there are great stories and anecdotes.

  25. Also we have become a bacon-crazy nation! Hardly a star chef doesn't proclaim the excellence of PIG..
    Why are we so conflicted..from Swine to Miss Piggy?

  26. I just love that illustration my Michael Sowa...adorable!

    The one area where pigs do not get a bad rap is in taste:) I would believe it if someone told me that bacon is the best loved taste in the world...there is a saying that everything tastes better with bacon! and roast pork cannot be far behind....

  27. Funny thing about animals, dogs and cats dream, hoe often have you heard someone called a stupid cow? I have watched cows birthing with their friends standing around them lowing encouragement. Elephants have a complex family and tribal system but only man has the arrogance to deem himself above everything else to justify slaughtering and eating the young of others.

  28. all reasons listed above, validate my everlasting love as my favorite animal the Pig.

    I think they are adorable! Talked my dad into a potbelly when I was a teenager....

    he regreted that later.. .hehe

  29. I have a print of 'Diving Pig' hanging on my wall. Fell in love with it the first time I saw it in gallery window in Morgantown WV. Great post Willow. A pig will also happily become an alcoholic if provided access to beer. ha!

  30. Great post, all the above mentioned are why I don't eat pork anymore.

  31. This little piggie went "Wee-wee-wee...all the way home!

    We raised pigs on the farm--along with lots of other creatures. They tell me my baby sister was being once attacked by pigs--she was tiny, and had fallen into the pigpen. Further, they say I--age 11--jumped right in, pulled her to safety, and saved her life.

    I remember none of this...and I was sober at the time!

    Thanks for letting me rant....

  32. "Like a pig in a Zhivago hat." - An American colloquialism describing a propensity to academically entertain with a particular flair for efficiency and grace.


  33. Yes - strange about all the pig-lore. Pigs don't sweat, apparently. Every poor family kept a pig in Europe, they eat anything, and so are easy to nurture. They even eat shit, which may explain some sensitivities from all races except the Chinese. I've never had a relationship with a pig (honest) so I don't know whether or not I could do the deed if and when the time came. I also have a bit of Jewish ancestry, but that has nothing to do with it.

    Here in Bath, pigs are honoured as the guides to the Underworld for King Bladud, the founder of the hot springs - a Celtic thing, I think.

  34. Back when we kept a milk cow, we raised a pair of feeder pigs every year to consume the excess buttermilk and whey. In the Appalachians, pigs were always a vital part of the family economy.

    They are fine animals -- but their size and their destructive way with a garden make them problematic as pets.

  35. Great Pig Lore and facts!
    Johnny Carson always spoke highly of pigs on the old Tonight Show. And I have NO idea why I thought of that.
    Brains are so odd.

  36. Great that you tell it like it is with pigs. I have always thought that they got a bad rap! -- barbara

  37. Pigs are funny, entertaining, stubborn and way too smart for us.
    And piglets at the fair were what finally made me give up meat. I could not look at those adorably, pink little babies tumbling around their mother and pretend they weren't my ham, my bacon.
    My friend who runs the Catskill Animal Sanctuary seems to hold pigs in a place of special favor. And my mother's favorite pet ever was her 4H pig, Henrietta. She used to sleep with her - Henrietta walked her home from school. And because it was Indiana in the Depression, her family ate her.
    I sometimes think it's the humans who aren't so smart.

  38. And don't forget to "Eat high on hog..."
    Whenever my sister Sue and I would ride past a Piggly Wiggly grocery, we would look at each other and say in unison:
    "They ain't no kin to Hoggly Woggly!" I guess we made it up, but we would collapse into giggles as we said it.

  39. Love the pig info and I enjoyed the video. Wilbur, and currently Olivia, are my favorite pigs.

  40. Last year in an expressive arts course we were learning about sand tray therapy in which the one undergoing therapy chooses from a collection of small toys and creates a "world" in a tray of sand. When it was my turn to "play" I randomly chose a pig and a dog who were wandering in their sand world. Later when I was trying to interpret my sandtray world, I was surprised to learn about the symbolism of the pig, such as intelligence, abundance and as you say, leading and finding the way. This added an unexpected dimension to my story.

    Great post - it would serve us all well to look at everyday images from more than one side!

  41. Enjoyed every word of this fascinating post.

    Apple sauce anyone?

  42. Very interesting, fun and very informative. I guess you had them all. I cannot come up with any more.
    Pig, the other white meat.LOL

  43. Just think of Wilbur. You can't get any sweeter than that.

    Every time I see that pic of Palestine and his pig, I think somebody needs to throw a big saddle on that thing! :)

  44. Who would have thought that so much could be said about pigs! Rather "porcine" results I'd say :)

  45. One of my very favorite sayings, though I'm not sure who coined it, is :

    You should never try to teach a pig to sing, because it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.

    For some reason I find myself using it more and more as time goes by...

    And if a pig is a grown up piglet, does that mean a ham is a grown up hamlet ? There's a town near here named Ham, by the way.

  46. The town is named Ham....just Ham? Don't tell me. You live in Ohio, right?

  47. This post....... fabulous, great, funny & sooooo interesting!!

    P & L

    Agneta, the swe.....

  48. Winnie-the-Pooh's best friend (after CR) is Piglet, don't forget.

    Your great-grandpa's porker is Some Pig! (somebody had to say it)

  49. I enjoyed all of your piggy post. If you are interested have a look at this site for a Kunukune piglet video It's cute!

  50. Hi Willow,
    Totally enjoyed this post. I loved the film Babe, but I actually adore pigs. They do get a bad rap and they are intelligent and very clean animals really. This was delightful!

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  52. Pigs are very peopleish. I enjoy the Draw A Pig personality test!

    This is not the first one I drew, but it is the best:

    My pig has boots.

  53. Once again, I discover that we share a liking and respect - for pigs. To me they are the most glorious animals, the ones I always feel the greatest rapport with. Indeed, to many of my friends I am known - affectionately I hope - as Mr Hog.

  54. Mother pigs sing to their babes while they're nursing? Ohh. I can relate to that.

    I still say to my now-grown kids, "At'll do, pig" a la James Cromwell's farmer to Babe. There is no cuter pig than that one, with Christine Cavanaugh's voice.

    Now I'll be singing Stevie's song today, love it.

  55. In Sweden we eat ham for Christmas, and on a traditional Christmas smörgåsbord there should be a pig´s head with an apple in it´s mouth. I´m not kidding!

  56. Marilyn, thanks for the link! That kunekune piggy video is just adorable!!

  57. Dogimo, I'm a sucker for personality tests, and such. Your pig was incredibly unique! (The tail part of the interpretation made me giggle.)

  58. Merisi, a woolly pig?! That that's definitely my kinda pig! heehee

  59. Willow, I forgot to mention that a favortie nickname for our hometown of Birmingham is The 'Ham!

  60. Love this pig post. My father grew up in Nebraska, in a ranching family. He had a pet pig named Cleo, and to this day he still talks of his love for her. I'll have to show him this post!

  61. As I am from Iowa -- home of, I think, more pigs than any place else on earth! -- I have to comment! Heh!

    Maybe someone else has already said this, but do you realize that the pig is the only animal (that I know of) that will never over eat?

    Horses, cattle, etc. will eat until they get sick and sometimes die. We call this bloating. A pig never bloats because it never over eats.

    I do not care a lot for pigs because of the smell - a group of pigs do not smell good, believe me! But they are actually very smart animals.

    Take care and thanks for stopping by my very on again and more likely off again blog!

  62. good pig info--they are delicious

  63. We always used to say 'Pigs is equal!'

  64. They also root our truffles, which must be good! It would appear that a fashion is growing for miniature pigs being kept as pets. Not sure that's a good idea for the pigs!

  65. You just turned the traditional view upside down. Love a pig that sings to its babies!

  66. I'm late to the pork party, but it sure was a fun read. The wasband's father, a farmer who raised hogs had a bit of a saying, "He/she/it is as useless as tits on a boar." For the city slickers a boar is a male pig that's never been... ummm...castrated. *grin*

  67. Lovely post- Lovely PIGS! I had a pet pig - Pamela P.Wigg and she was the smartest most gentle pet I have ever had- when she had babies she was a good mother and the babies crawled all over me like kittens- LOVE pigs- she was neat and tidy and always said thank you when she got a barrel full of apples- she tilled our garden - planted tomatoes, the best tomatoes ever!Pigs are indeed human equals or a bit better and I like the pig am terrified of mirrors (my reflection)

  68. We visited a farm that had 800 pound pig, too big for market, so they just kept in around. He laid in the mud and sun, sighing with delight.

    Brilliant, I think...

  69. This is one of my favorite quotes of all time
    and true beyond true.
    However, I have never owned a pig but have had various dogs and cats....
    and doted on them

    So when are you coming to NY?

  70. I'll have to keep that in mind! Hahaaaa! I love that photo--you always have wonderful old photos, Willow. I was watching TV the other day when they did a segment on antibiotics in pigs to make them larger. Made me not want to eat any creatures since this is something I've been scared of for some time. Fun post.

  71. Such an educational and fun post!
    You are talented,creative, and brilliant! :-)

  72. Very good post, Willow! Most people, I think, greatly underestimate the abilities of animals to "feel" anything. The problem, of course, is that we have way too high an opinion of ourselves. My cat absolutely adores me as anyone visiting our home could tell you. Dogs will mourn their lost companions. Animals are wonderful. I think my will shall be written such that some animal charity will be the beneficiary.

  73. I love that photo of your great-great grandfather and his pig!

    I have noticed a pig meme around me lately. What's up with that I wonder?

    I love the info Willow. You really went whole hog here!

  74. Willow - I have recently discovered Magpie Tales and you have been kind enough to drop by and leave some comments - I love this post about pigs; if you have the time please read a post of mine under my blog "Musings" - A Different Time, you may enjoy it!

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  76. Fun post Willow. Feeling the loss of Barry today.

  77. wonderful post always


    Teddy picked you for the winner of the Farmhouse give away...

    email me your address to : and we will get it in the mail to you...

    Sending Love,
    Kary and Teddy

  78. Thank you, Kary!!! (and you, too, Teddy) What a fun surprise! It must be my lucky day! xx

  79. It does seem like the pig may have gotten a bad rap. I'm always complaining that I'm as fat as a pig, but I'll never lose weight because I tend to eat like a pig...unfortunately I love food. I also sweat like a pig, which is why I eschew yard work in the summertime. Too bad, because if I got more workouts I might not be as big as a pig.

  80. I loved that movie where he said that..In fact I have the movie..

  81. I'm tweeting that pig quote. Perfect truth!

  82. After reading this, perfectly cooked crackling from a scrumptious Roast Loin of Pork won't EVER taste the same dear Willow!
    Millie ^_^

  83. Pigs have been immortalised in song. Examples sung by some friends. (mine not the pigs')
    "Pig Noise Blew in from Winnetka" (George Golla)
    "There's a Pork Chop on the Corner of Pigsburg Pennswillvania." (Jim McBeath) and my favouirite: "Cracklin' Rosie." (Milton Saunders).

  84. Wicked post :) Just yesterday I was asked why some religions don't eat bacon, since after all this is England, and rashers are craved every morning by most... my parents are both Pigs in the Chinese zodiac... and they are smugly wonderful :)
    p.s. We get to know your name now? I must have missed the revelatory post!!

  85. Very intriguing post, thoroughly enjoyed it.

    If I may recommend, if you haven't already read it, please seek out the book Serious Pig, by John Thorne (North Point Press, 1996), and go to his essay of the same name. The section called "Defining It" is quite possibly the best essay I have ever read on the subject.

    I bring that up, because the Churchill quote is sort of the seed of Thorne's essay.


Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)