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February 2007

February: Pigs



  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Spring Cleaning in the Studio
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Art, Escapism, and Despair
  • Behind the Art:
    Folds and Fabric in Art
  • Myths and Symbols:
    A Gift from the Netherworld
  • EMG News:
    News for February!


  • Huggable Art: A Plushie Tutorial
  • Dragon Thrall: A Rambling Walkthrough


  • Fiction: The Three Little Pigs: Memoirs of a Misunderstood Wolf
  • Fiction: Piglet
  • Fiction: The Day the Pigs Invaded


  • Movie: The Host
  • Movie: Sinking of Japan
  • Movie: Pathfinder
  • Movie: Silk
  • Movie: Pan’s Labyrinth

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  • A Gift from the Netherworld
    Myths and Symbols
    by Marina Bonomi

    According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, the word pig has the figurative meaning of: greedy, dirty or unpleasant person, to which the Collins English Dictionary adds (for 'pig' as a verb) to live in squalor and to devour (food) greedily. Given how things stand, why devout a column (never mind a whole issue of our 'zine) to the colloquial epitome of sloth and greediness?

    Were this a zoological magazine, one could discuss imposed conditions of living against species' preferences (I can testify firsthand that the average pig, when given a choice, is way cleaner than the average dog). This not being the case, though, let us just say that the pig's bad reputation comes to European (and American) popular culture from the Scriptures: pigs having cloven feet but not chewing cud, were (and are) one of the forbidden sources of food for observant Jews and (derivatively) Muslims, and as such one of the impure animals.

    While the prohibition did not carry over to Christianity, the pig definitely maintained its bad reputation, Clement of Alexandria writes, quoting Heraclitus: "The pig enjoys (wallowing in) mud and dung", the use of pork, continues Clement, is then the mark of those who live dominated by their senses (1).

    Swine, though, had a sort of iconographic revenge. In many Roman Catholic churches (most notably old ones in farming regions), visitors can notice a peculiar statue of an old but vigorous man in simple burlap robes with a pig at his side.

    The man is Saint Anthony the Great (2), and the pig, originally meant as the symbol of the temptation of lust the saint overcame in life, became in popular tradition a sort of companion, and was the main reason why Anthony became the patron saint of farm animals.

    In China, the pig is one of the major sources of food. Growing fast and eating almost anything it was and is the ideal animal for a country where farmland is too precious to be used for pasture (3).

    The role of swine in Chinese domestic economy was so great that the Chinese character for family is written putting the radical for pig under a roof, those two things being the essentials needed for a self-sustaining family.

    The pig is the last in the sequence of twelve symbolic animals (in the West commonly called the Chinese Zodiac) associated with years in eastern Asia.

    The whole sequence is: rat, ox, tiger, hare (or rabbit), dragon, serpent, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog, and boar (or pig). Each animal is also associated in turn to one of the five elements (4), giving a complete cycle of sixty years.

    The year beginning on February 18th will be the year of the Fire Pig. Although non-Asians often laugh at the mention of a year devoted to the pig while more glamorous animals are left out (at least that is the reaction I usually get when speaking of the Chinese calendar in schools), as a friend of mine told me a few days ago: "Almost every household will hope for a baby in the Year of the Pig; the animal is an omen of prosperity".

    Buddhism, though, has a different view of swine: they are usually meant as symbols for ignorance and greed and as such one is used in the famed Chinese novel Journey to the West (5).

    In the novel, celestial marshal Tian Peng gets drunk during a banquet and attempts to flirt with moon goddess Chang E. In punishment he is banished to the mortal world, but, due to a mishap, is born as an half-man, half-pig creature. Pigsy (his name in English translations), will later join forces with Monkey and Sandy, helping the monk Sanzang in his quest for the sacred Sutras and thus finding his own redemption.

    In Europe there is another literary work where pigs play, unknowingly, a very relevant role. It is the Welsh collection of tales known as Mabinogion (6). In the first of the four Mabinogi branches (the oldest tales who formed the basis of the work), king Pwill of Dyvet kills a white deer, the quarry of Arawn, one of the kings of the Netherworld. Arawn proposes that, in exchange for this trespass, Pwill will take his place and fight an enemy he himself cannot defeat. The exchange is made, and Pwill behaves in a very honourable way, earning Arawn friendship (and, in the rest of the story, a fae bride, Rhiannon). Pigs, hitherto unknown in Wales, are (in the third branch) a gift from Arawn to Pridery, Pwill's son, and the indirect cause of a war and Pridery's death.

    When Math, the wizard king of Gwinedd, was not in war his feet had to rest in a virgin's lap (7), one of his nephews falls in love with the girl, his brother Gwydyon, himself a magician of note devises a plan to help him get what he wants.

    He offers to go to Pryderi's court and get from him some of the new, precious animals he had from Arawn, Math agrees. Gwydyon travels dressed as a bard, with eleven companions, and horses and hounds he had conjured by magic, he is received well, but his request is not granted, Pryderi refusing to give the pigs in gift or sell them until their number has doubled, as was his agreement with Arawn. Gwydyon offers a way around the pact: exchanging some pigs with the horses, hounds and precious shields he has with him. Pryderi agrees, and Gwydyon leaves with the pigs. The day after the illusion disappears and Pryderi is left, very literally, with a handful of mushrooms and dry leaves. War results, Math's virgin is left behind at court and Gwydyon's brother forces her. Meanwhile Pryderi proposes to end the war by single combat between himself and Gwydyon, the offer is accepted and Gwydyon wins. The men of Dyvet, sadly, leave, bringing back home Pryderi's body. The two scoundrels, though, don't escape unscathed, as soon as Math comes back, the girl Goewin tells him what happened, he makes her his queen and, in punishment, changes his nephews in wild animals, they live the first year as deer and doe, the second as boar and sow, the third as a couple of wolves, each year producing offspring that later will win renown as great and loyal warriors.

    From the times of the Mabinogion onward, pigs keep appearing in Celtic literature, ancient and modern, often showing preternatural abilities as becomes their nature of otherworldly animals. Going into more detail, though, is beyond the scope (and space) of this column, so I'll leave to you the pleasure of discovery, with my best wishes for the Year of the Pig.


    (1) Clement of Alexandria (born mid-second century AD.-died between 211 and 216 AD) relevant figure in the early Christianity. It is worth noting that pork was one of the main foods in the Roman Empire. Is Clementís statement a stab at the late empire's habits and social situation?

    (2) Saint Anthony the Great (251-356), one of the most important figures among the Desert Fathers.

    (3) Only about 10% of mainland Chinaís territory is farming land.

    (4) In Chinese tradition the elements are: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

    (5) Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature (the other three being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber), in the English speaking world is often known as Monkey. The novel was published anonymously in 1590, it is a fictionalized account of the legends surrounding the travel to India of monk Xuan Zang (also called Sanzang) in order to obtain and bring back to China the sacred Sutras.

    (6) The Mabinogion is a collection of prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts, some of the oldest stories, although put in writing in a rather late date, may go as far back as the Iron Age. The so called Four Branches of the Mabinogi are highly mythological in content and probably the oldest.

    (7) This kind of life-or-death obligation is similar to the Irish geas: an obligation the hero needed to observe (doing or avoiding something) in order not to bring about his own ruin.

    Illustration credits

    Both illustrations are property of the columnís author

    Marina Bonomi

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