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Post Pigs and Culture in Asia, New Guinea, Australia
Created by John Eipper on 01/21/17 7:38 AM

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Pigs and Culture in Asia, New Guinea, Australia (Martin Storey, Australia, 01/21/17 7:38 am)

I am not an expert in wordology*, but I can contribute elements of answer to John E's question on pigs from first-hand experience.

My wife, who is Chinese although not from China, tells me that the pig is also maligned amongst Chinese people. She herself thinks otherwise: she grew up on a pig farm, still loves eating pork like everyone else in her family, and often reminds us how a pig heart valve graft gave her late father extra years of life. Moreover, and speaking from her own experience, she calls pigs the "cleanest animals."

As the Pig is one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac, about one in twelve ethnic Chinese must have been born during a Year of the Pig. Wikipedia informs us that every 10th of the 12 months in the Chinese Lunar calendar is a month of the Pig, and every day between 9 and 10:59 PM, it is the hour of the Pig. What's more, we learn of Pig-signed people that "they are artistic, refined, intuitive, intelligent, and well-mannered. These souls love the preliminaries in love, and are fine artists in their lovemaking." A simple combinatorial brain teaser to flush the blush: assuming that births are randomly and uniformly distributed in the calendar, how many Chinese people are pig archetypes, or have a parent or child who is?

Turning to Southeast Asia: while with the UN in the late 1980s, I worked briefly in Thailand where I was a guest in a number of homes. I was quite surprised to see tacky posters of pigs hanging on walls in several. Then I was introduced to a lady called Pig, and to another one. Unfortunately I cannot remember whether that name was their actual name or a translation that they asked me to use. Either way, I was given a simple explanation for all these pigs, and there is nothing "cochon" about it: pigs have fair or pink skin, which is considered a very desirable attribute for people in Thailand--just like in other Asian countries. Hanging a pig poster in the room of expecting parents or of a young child is a way to wish for a fairer-skinned child, and naming one's child Pig there is not beyond the pale...

Further East, pigs are at the main object of power in New Guinean societies practising the Moka (quoting Wikipedia again): a highly ritualised system of reciprocal gifts of pigs through which social status is achieved.

In my adopted country of Australia, pork on the plate is just that, but pigs in the bush, also known as razorbacks, are detested feral pests. Introduced by the First Fleet in May 1788 when 49 pigs were brought into Sydney as a food source, there are now an estimated 23 million feral pigs in the country, ravaging native fauna, flora and soil. That this be exactly the current estimate of the human population in Australia is a coincidence. Wikipedia again: feral pigs "are considered to be the most important mammalian pest of Australian agriculture." Occasionally, a feral pig is featured in the national papers if it has newsworthy monstrous proportions. There is some irony and circular viciousness to the fact that humans, who upon their arrival some forty thousand years ago probably caused the extinction of all Australian megafauna, may now be responsible for the evolution of a new megafauna which, if anything, accelerates the destruction of the natural environment.

There is an apparent inconsistency between the last two paragraphs, given that New Guinea and Australia were joined by land until about 8,000-10,000 years ago: how can pigs be so important and entrenched in New Guinean tradition, but just-arrived in Australia? Should it not be the same on both sides of the Torres Strait? The answer, I have just learned surfing the net, is that New Guinean pigs too were introduced with human intervention, from mainland Asia according to recent genetic studies, but much longer ago, around the time when the land bridge disappeared under water.

*And I am not sure what the word is for the appreciation of animals, but it is not zoophilia...

JE comments: Perth's own Martin Storey doesn't write WAIS often enough, but his posts are always worth the wait. This one's a whole-hog of an informative post. Dare I go out on a limb and ask a question: aren't pigs especially prized in traditionally "anthropophagic" societies, such as New Guinea? There is a popular notion that pigs and humans taste nearly the same. I don't know who conducted the experiments.

A joyful New Year to you, Martin!

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  • Pigs in Celtic Culture (Jose Manuel de Prada, Spain 01/22/17 4:56 PM)
    Pigs were quite important for the Celtic peoples of Europe, and are featured often in Welsh and Irish Medieval literature.

    For example, in one of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, an early set of interconnected mythological Welsh narratives, we are told that the first pigs seen in Britain were a gift of Arawn, king of the Otherworld, to Pryderi, Lord of Dyfed. Disguised as wandering storytellers, envoys of another realm stole the pigs, and a bloody war ensued.

    According to Miranda Green's Animals in Celtic Life and Myth (London, Routledge, 1992) in the Celtic countries "[p]igs were and are kept almost exclusively for their meat: they are a very valuable resource in that they are able to eat virtually anything and convert a great variety of organic matter, inedible to other species, into high-quality meat. It is often thought that the Celts spent much of the time hunting boar and that this was their source of pork, but it is clear from the faunal record that most pig bones on Iron Age sites are those of the domestic pig" (p. 18).

    From what Green says elsewhere in the book, pig bones, as well as those of other domestic species, appear in graves, and were used in a ritual context.

    When and why in the Middle East pigs at some point became taboo is a question I'm not sure anyone has answered satisfactorily.

    No doubt, at some point the capability of pigs to eat anything began to be seen as a rather negative trait.

    And there is also the fact that trichinosis is associated with the consumption of pork.

    Many years ago, in New York City, I met a Jewish-Argentinian scientist (I think he was a physicist) who tried to persuade me that there is written evidence, in the form of clay tablets, that the taboo on pork had been fostered by the Levites, because they traded in pigs with non-Jews and allegedly this benefited their business.

    Obviously he was joking, but he spoke about this with enthusiasm.

    JE comments:  Great to hear from you, José Manuel.  I'm eating pig as I type these lines--pepperoni pizza.  In my book, it's the perfect food.

    I teach my students that the Inquisitors in Spain were always vigilant about who ate pork and who didn't, as a litmus test for authentic Christians.  Don Quixote was careful to serve duelos y quebrantos (scrambled eggs and chorizo?) on Saturdays.  Does José Manuel or anyone in WAISworld know if the Inquisition ever brought charges for non-pig eating, or is this another myth associated with the era?

    How many in WAISworld have read the Four Branches of the Mabinogi?  I'll plead ignorance.  It's the oldest known work of prose in Britain.  All good Welshmen and Welshwomen must know it--Nigel Jones?

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  • How to Keep your Pigs Clean (John Heelan, UK 01/23/17 3:59 AM)

    Martin Storey's piece (21 Jan) reminded me of when we kept a few pigs in our farming days for family consumption. We found that the secret of having clean pigs relied on the way they were managed, as they are basically clean animals if managed properly.

    For example, when introducing them to a sty, we found that it was best to put them in the opposite side to the slatted area where they would defecate. As a result they would scurry to that area, defecate from the stress of being moved, and thereafter always "go" in the same place. We also found that when we replaced their straw bedding, they preferred doing it themselves, enjoying themselves ripping up the straw bales, tossing them in the air and thus distributing the straw around the sty. My wife told me once that when she was coming back from market with a new set of piglets crammed into the back seat of her vehicle, she heard another driver comment when both were stopped at traffic lights: "Aren't those children ugly!" (smile)

    JE comments: Piglets in the back seat?  In the US, you would get stopped for not having them in an approved child seat.

    Pigs and cleanliness invite a nature-nurture debate.  John Heelan teaches us that pigs are only as dirty as the people who keep them.  So when we say "filthy pig," are we really pointing a finger at ourselves?

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