Hog Wild in Athens B.C.E.! Role of Pigs in Social and Religious Life Provides Insights into Ancient Greece

How much can just one trait tell us about a culture? Ask the ancient Greek pig

Release Date: August 16, 2000 This content is archived.


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The role of pigs in ancient Greece reveals a great deal about that culture's social structure, daily life, religious rituals and belief systems, according to a UB classicist.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Pork may be today's "other white meat," but when it comes to hog heaven, we can't hold a candle to the ancient Greeks.

Susan Cole, associate professor and chair in the Department of Classics in the University at Buffalo's College of Arts and Sciences, can wax rhapsodic on the subject of Hellenic porkers and has spent years researching the role they played in Greek social and religious life.

She says Greek piggery offers an object lesson in how the study of any single trait or object in any culture during any historical period can reveal a great deal about that culture's social structure, daily life, religious rituals and belief systems.

Aristotle called pigs "the animals most like people," an idea that if widely shared, Cole says, may be one reason for their ubiquity in Greek religious ritual, which is the aspect of Greek pig-life that has received much of her scholarly attention.

"Meat production was always a tricky business in the eastern Mediterranean," Cole says. "In the context of early cities, swine were economical to raise, easy to sell, hard to store and good to eat, and for that reason they were certainly the stars of family dinners and temple feasts.

"The Greeks didn't waste many resources, however, and upon close inspection," she says, "we find that even animals raised for food had other important emblematic and ritual cultural uses."

In Greece, for instance, the pig served as a sacrificial animal, a votive offering to gods, especially those who preferred swine to a chicken or a hecatomb of oxen. Since protein was an important food group but less available than grains and vegetables, it was the rare pig whose entire self was consumed in the sacrificial flame. Instead, since that meat went bad quickly, it was important that freshly killed animals be distributed for food as efficiently as possible.

This was one function of the ubiquitous Greek cults, relatively small circles of individuals united by a particular religious devotion or practice that met to offer sacrifices on behalf of their patron deities.

Nearly all Greeks belonged to several cults -- some made up of kin, some of neighbors, women, civic leaders or groups of craftsmen for instance; others had a military or civic function. In any case, like everyone else, cult members ritually made animal sacrifices in the temples to honor and recognize the principles and powers represented by individual gods.

When a cult presented an animal for temple sacrifice, only part of the sacrifice was consumed by fire. That part was for the god. Although there were exceptions, the rest was usually shared by the sanctuary attendants and members of the sacrificing cult.

Unless the sacrifice was small, like a piglet or a single chicken, this meant that each animal sacrifice offered a good source of protein for those involved in the ritual. One function served by the cults was its distribution immediately after the sacrifice.

Cole points out that meat distribution, particularly of a large animal like a sow or a boar, frequently took place at a sacrificial meal -- a fairly large dinner party -- held for members of the cult that had purchased the animal used in the sacrifice. In fact, Cole says, ancient dinner menus and records from sanctuaries and cults have survived and clearly indicate the importance of pork as a valued source of protein.

Cult meals also served many other purposes. They promoted group cohesion and identity, and facilitated planning for the hundreds of civic and private celebrations on the annual Greek calendar. They also were opportunities for special recognition of individuals and groups, and served as the locus for initiation into the cult, which in the case of kinship cults, provided an important legal function.

"As in many cultures, the animal -- pigs, in this case -- were paradoxical objects," Cole explains. "They weren't only a source of food, but played a varied and complex role in Greek life.

"For instance, we know from ancient literary and archaeological sources that large numbers of pigs were eaten. These were adult pigs or boars, however. Piglets were considered 'polluted' or 'filthy,' meaning ceremonially or morally impure.

"Polluted objects were not only not eaten, but avoided for fear of contamination, except when their 'foulness' could be ritually controlled," she says. "Ritual sacrifice then, could accommodate a piglet's nastier qualities, whereas the dining room could not.

"Although they didn't eat them themselves," Cole continues, "families continued to sacrifice plump piglets to their favorite gods and men swore their oaths on the testicles of boars, an indication of the role pigs played as fertility objects."

"Precisely because they were polluted, however, piglets were used in purification rituals because to the Greek way of thinking, like was considered to be attracted to like. There were exceptions, however," Cole says. "Aphrodite was said to find swine so repulsive that she preferred her sanctuaries to be cleaned with pigeons."

Cole adds that pigs were particularly important in religious rites practiced by and for women who, metaphorically at least, were linked with cultural, personal and agricultural fertility. In fact, Cole says, pigs are frequently found in rituals related to Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and agriculture.

"Women 'dined for Demeter' on barbecued sow, for instance," she says, "and left buried piglets to rot in specially prepared holes in the ground until they were dug up the following year during a festival that was also for Demeter."

Another metaphorical similarity between Greek women and pigs was that women, like piglets and the dead, were considered to be "polluted" when not ritually "contained."

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