Pigs in Ancient Egypt
by Marie Parsons
There is some divided speculation about the existence and usage of pigs in ancient Egypt. Was the Set-animal a pig, and therefore was the creature considered taboo since Set was thought to be an "evil" god? Was the pig connected with trichinosis and therefore thought unfit to eat? Was it simply considered unclean because of its particular habits? Did it exist at all in Egypt?
It is very unlikely that the ancients knew of any connection between trichinosis and eating undercooked pork.
There is no evidence they had any taboo against more toxic materials or that they even knew of the existence of such dangers. Pigs were herded, raised, and occasionally eaten, throughout Egypt from the Predynastic period into the Late Period and Graeco-Roman times.
The local breed of domestic pig in ancient Egypt descended from an indigenous ancestor, sus scrofa, the Wild Boar. It was once abundant in the country and had a fairly extensive range throughout the Nile Valley, in the Delta, the Faiyum and the Wadi Natrun. The species only became locally extinct around the turn of the 20th century ACE, due to over-hunting and loss of its prime habitat.
The oldest domestic pig remains presently known in Egypt come from the large Predynastic settlement site of Merimda Beni Salama in the western Delta, dated to the fifth millennium BCE. Pig remains have been found throughout Egypt at sites such as Hierakonpolis, Maadi, Abydos, and Armant, near graves belonging to the poorer classes, indicating that pork was an element in their diet, at least at the Predynastic period. Cattle bones were found in graves belonging to more elite burials.
If there was a prohibition against eating pigs among the upper classes, there was none against raising them. In the early Fourth Dynasty tomb-chapel of Metjen at Saqqara, the deceased states that he received a bequest from his father that included "people, small livestock and pigs." The Eleventh Dynasty tomb of the nomarch Khety at Beni Hasan depicts a herd of pigs, the first in Egyptian art since the First Dynasty. Yet, while pig-farming continued on during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods, swine are conspicuously absent from the scenes of daily life that cover the walls of tomb-chapels of the upper classes and do not appear in the somewhat extensive offering lists. The explanation may be as simple as the fact that pigs are associated with grubbing in the dirt and rolling in the muck, perhaps considered unclean activities.
Pig-farming expanded during the New Kingdom. Inscriptions indicate that temples and wealthy citizens maintained large numbers of them on their country estates, and tomb-chapels of several nobles from the early 18th dynasty illustrate swine as well as other farmyard animals. The mayor of el-Kab relates that he owned a herd of fifteen hundred pigs. A temple of Amenhotep III at Memphis was endowed with some 1000 pigs and 1000 piglets, and the mortuary temple of Seti I at Abydos held large herds of swine on its domains.
Pigs are also shown in use for farming itself, as they tread seed into the soil, even into the time of Herodotus. Inscriptions on ostraca and other findings indicate that the workers at Deir el-Medina occasionally indulged in meals of pork. So pigs were bred, raised and occasionally eaten in different places. What of the religious connection? Votive faience pig figurines dating to the first dynasty have been recovered from Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Elephantine Island. The figurines from Abydos were found by Petrie inside what he considered to be the sacred compound of the god Osiris.
The Egyptian Museum in Berlin also holds a ceramic statue, dated to the Naqada I period, of what has been called a pig deity, indicating at least that swihttp://www.aknsolutions.com/touregypt.net/administrator/index.php?option=com_content§ionid=-1&task=edit&cid=5181ne formed a part of religious life at this time. The Brooklyn Museum also possesses a cylinder seal dated to the First Dynasty that displays figures of bristling pigs carved on it, and other seals from this period also depict pigs.
According to some traditions, the god Min, most associated with the city of Coptos in Upper Egypt, was born of a white sow. In a charm against snake bite, he is described as son "of the white sow of Heliopolis/Iunu" which is a form of the goddess Isis.
The god Set appears as a pig with erect bristles in the Annals of King Sahure of the fifth Dynasty on the Palermo Stone. The passage is translated in Marshall Clagetts volume as follows: "The first occurrence of going to the South and Inventorying the House of Horus-Set." The accompanying note indicates that this is not a certain rendering, since instead of a falcon-sign for Horus, there is an owl, and the sign for Set is presumably a pig, though it also resembles an anteater. If the translation does refer to a House of Horus-Set, perhaps at this time Set was not considered "evil".
Beginning in the Third Intermediate Period, statuettes and amulets of a rooting sow nursing her litter were popular, representing the sky goddess Nut. Conversely, spells in the Coffin Texts and in the Book of Going Forth By Day (Book of the Dead) show Set turning himself into a boar, leading some scholars to speculate that the pigs connection with "evil" forms the true basis of its small use in food consumption and temple offerings.
The god Set, associated with the pig in iconography, was by the Late Period and the Hellenistic age in Egypt to be the "evil" murderer of the god Osiris, and the adversary of the god Horus. Yet, Seti I had been perhaps a priest of Setcertainly his name meant "Man of Set," and he was not considered an evil king. Set also continued to be worshiped at Ombos and Tanis and other locations.
The question as to whether or not the pig was taboo becomes murkier perhaps when it is considered that the animal played a part in medicine. The Ebers Papyrus lists humor of "pigs eyes" to be injected into the ear to cure blindness. Another prescription for the eyes included the blood of pigs. Pigs tooth and other ingredients were crushed and bandaged onto infected parts of the body to expel exudations, perhaps a reference to pus or eczema. Pigs viscera, including the brain, was an ingredient in another cure to combat a form of cancer.
As in todays western culture, where "Pork" is getting a face-lift being called "the second white meat" in order to boost its consumption, perhaps more study of the place of the pig in ancient Egyptian society will uncover new information.
- Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
- Animals in Ancient Egypt by Patrick Houlihan
- Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses by George Hart
- Ancient Egyptian Science, Vol I, by Marshall Clagett
- Food: the Gift of Osiris by William J. Darby, Paul Ghalioungui and Louis Grivetti.
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion.To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.