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Pigs: Mirrors Of Humanity Through The Ages

11/03/2016 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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The Young Family by Patricia Piccinini at the Bendigo Art Gallery

In Western literature and popular culture, pigs are everywhere--in proverbs, legends, children's stories, novels. They appear as images of disgust, and warnings against greed, but also as comical, naïve, scheming, ingenious--heroic, even.

What is it that so fascinates us about these ungainly, muck-loving creatures?

Pigs in the ancient world

Pig imagery in Western and Near Eastern culture goes all the way back to the Bronze Age. For the ancient Hebrews, and later for Muslims, pigs were synonymous with uncleanness. The eating of pork is forbidden to both Jews and Muslims. In the Christian gospels, an evil spirit driven out of a human being by Jesus enters into a herd of pigs, and drives them over a cliff. The explanation for the negative image of the pig is usually found in their unclean lifestyle, in their love of dirt and habit of eating carrion and snuffling around manure.

To call someone a pig is to sum up that person as selfish, unmannerly, crass, just unpleasant generally.

It seems likely that the pig was rejected, too, for its associations with pagan worship. James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and Robert Graves' The White Goddess, both point to the sacredness of the pig to pagan figures of the Mother Goddess, in Palestine and all around the ancient Mediterranean. Incidentally, even Vishnu has a boar incarnation: Varaha.

Proverbs

The negative connotations stuck and made their way into idiomatic language. To call someone a pig is to sum up that person as selfish, unmannerly, crass, just unpleasant generally. Making a pig of oneself, or pigging out, is, of course, synonymous with gluttony. It's also possible to make a pig's ear of something, meaning to botch it up, or do it badly. Or to be pigheaded, refusing to listen to reason. When something or someone can't be made more refined or elegant, people say, "You can't make a silk purse out of a pig's ear." The most insulting term the radicals of the 60s could think of for the police they so despised was, you guessed it, pigs.

Respect for pigs

More recent portrayals of the pig in Western culture have been friendlier, however. One champion of the pig is the 20th-century author G K Chesterton, who actually praises the animal for its beauty. Its shape is, Chesterton claims, in his 1920 essay 'On Pigs as Pets', one of "the loveliest and most luxuriant in nature." He compares it lyrically to the lines drawn by "rushing water", or "in a rolling cloud."

In his poem 'View of a Pig' (Lupercal, 1960), the poet Ted Hughes writes with awe of the animal's power and ferocity.

In his poem 'View of a Pig' (Lupercal, 1960), the poet Ted Hughes writes with awe of the animal's power and ferocity. Even a young pig, he points out, is capable of a squeal "like the rending of metal". Adult pigs can eat dead cats, and even cinders, the poet tells us. Their bite "is worse than a horse's: they chop a half-moon clean out." Hughes' description is hardly an unreserved recommendation; but his descriptions do invite respect, and even a perverse admiration.

'This Little Piggy Went To Market'...and beyond

In stories for children, folk tales and cartoon films, pigs tend to be stand-ins for young humans who are learning about life. The fictional animals are generally depicted as small, chubby, cute, sometimes gluttonous or selfish; but also often determined, resourceful, and capable of learning from experience. Some of these pig stories are about survival in a dangerous world. Others offer models of friendship, or of family life.

Beatrix Potter's story The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913), tells of a young pig sent out from home to seek his fortune. Finding the world a dangerous place, he cleverly evades the threats, ever-present to pigs in a world of hungry humans, of being killed and turned into bacon. After he meets up with the lovely young Berkshire sow, Pig-wig, the pair escape to the next county, where they live happily ever after.

In stories for children, folk tales and cartoon films, pigs tend to be stand-ins for young humans who are learning about life.

A more complex version of the threat-and-survival theme can be found in the classic children's story, Charlotte's Web (1952). EB White's lyrical celebration of family life on an American farm was adapted for the screen as a Hanna-Barbera cartoon in1973, and again as a film with human actors in 2006. In both the book and the films, the young pig Wilbur is shown as naive, only slowly finding out about the world. When he learns from the other farm animals that he is destined to be slaughtered, Wilbur appears as a self-pitying and somewhat self-centred character. He gradually comes to care about others, however, through the example of self-sacrifice shown by Charlotte the spider, who saves Wilbur's life.

Dick King-Smith's story for children, first published in the UK as The Sheep-Pig (1983), and later filmed as the box office hit Babe (1995), offers parallels with the plot of Charlotte's Web. There is a major difference, however, between the two stories. While Wilbur in Charlotte's Web is saved by Charlotte's cleverness, King-Smith's fictional pig evades death largely thanks to his own skill in herding sheep.

The ancestors of pig-survivors like Pigling Bland or Wilbur, are to be found in folklore; as in the story of 'The Three Little Pigs', where the cleverest of the three builds his house of brick, and so escapes the fangs of the Big Bad Wolf.

Other young pigs in fiction inhabit less challenging, if still sometimes bewildering, environments. The shy, stammering young pig in the Warner Brothers cartoons is a case in point. He seems out of his depth in the world. If he gives way to the odd angry outburst in showdowns with Daffy Duck, perhaps these bouts of rage are just one more symptom of his general confusion? An equally naïve and immature character, is Piglet, in AA Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories. His role is mainly that of loyal sidekick to the Bear. Piglet echoes Pooh's words, joins in his songs, and generally walks in Pooh's footsteps.

While humans share with pigs their tendency to gluttony, most fictitious renderings of pigs are a projection of human qualities that the real-life animals do not possess at all.

Peppa Pig and her family present children with a safe and cheerful world, where the characters can explore their surroundings, supported by caring adults, and with very little risk. The worst that might happen in a Peppa Pig story, is for Daddy Pig to fall over (without hurting himself), and upset a bucket of soapy water. Even when the family go ballooning, and the balloon gets stuck in a tree, Grandpa Pig is on hand with a ladder to get them all down unharmed.

Grown-up Pigs

While most fictional pig protagonists are children, others have been assigned more mature roles. Miss Piggy of the Muppets, is a case in point. With her elegant gowns and hairstyles and her eternal pearl necklace, this porcine female has clearly left her piglet-hood well behind her. Bosomy and glamorous, temperamental, always impeccably dressed, narcissistic and yearning for fame, Miss Piggy possesses every stereotypical trait of the would-be music star.

Orwell's political allegory Animal Farm (1945) finds a very different use of the image of the pig; all male ones, in this case. In Orwell's tale of the hijacking of the Russian revolution by Stalin and the power-hungry clique around him, it seems fitting that the author chose pigs to represent his Communist Party members. The pigs of Animal Farm are intelligent and ruthless, as well as entirely self-interested. It is not difficult to imagine them coming at last to resemble the capitalist humans they have initially helped to overthrow.

Is it the physical appearance, the pig's pinkness and roundness, that remind human beings of themselves?

In the 21st century, pig characters have even made it into video games. In Hogs of War, developed by Infogrames Studios, competing armies are represented by pigs of opposing nations, as they fight a world war to control the valuable resources of pigswill (oil) held in 'Saustralasia'. An Orwellian parable for modern times, perhaps?

While humans share with pigs their tendency to gluttony, most fictitious renderings of pigs are a projection of human qualities that the real-life animals do not possess at all. Why the pig is so often the animal of choice to represent human characters in fiction is actually something of a mystery. Is it the physical appearance, the pig's pinkness and roundness, that remind human beings of themselves?

However it's explained, one thing is sure: in spite of all the bad things that have been said about the pig down the ages, or possibly because of them, images of pigs in human form (and vice versa), are here to stay.

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