Saturday, February 17, 2007
Another New Year: Year of the Boar or Pig
The Chinese Lunar New Year begins on 18 February 2007. The Moon will usher in the Year of the Boar, or Year of the Pig. Actually, the Chinese have two different systems by which the years are designated. There is the Animal system which is a twelve-year rotation, with a different animal as guardian or symbol of each year. The other system is the 'Stem-Branch' system, with a cycle of 60 years. Using this system, the year that begins on 18 February 2007 would be the 8th year of the cycle with the name DingHai. Most people accept this to be the 4705th year in the Chinese Calendar, demonstrating its great antiquity.
Both the Pig and the Boar have been considered to be powerful and sacred animals in many different cultures and myths. The pig was sacred to Demeter and were a central part of the Eleusian mysteries. Demeter often was depicted carrying a pig. As a symbol of the Great Goddess herself, the pig is an Animal with the power both of life and death. A mother pig can choose either to suckle or devour her young. Furthermore, like the Great Earth herself, the pig consumes all, transforming it into compost in which new life can be brought into being and sustained.
The Attic Thesmophoria was an autumn festival, celebrated only by women in October, but its rites featured the pig. The festival commemorated the descent of Persephone into the Underworld and her subsequent return to the Earth. During the Thesmophoria, pigs, cakes of dough and branches of pine-trees were thrown 'into the chasms of Demeter and Persephone'. Serpents within these sacred caverns or vaults guarded them and consumed the offerings. The festival was an annual affair and every year women designated as 'drawers' would purify themeselves ritually for three days then descend into the caverns, clap their hands to keep the serpents at a distance and bring up the decayed remains of the pigs, cakes and pine-branches from the previous year. These remains, after having been blessed on the alter, would be sown with the seed-corn at sowing time.
In the 'Golden Bough', Sir James Frazer makes a comprehensive study of the Boar, Sow and Pig both as embodiments of the corn-spirit and as Deities in animal form.
In Thüringen, when the wind sets the young corn in motion, Frazer writes that the inhabitants say that, 'The Boar is rushing through the corn.' In Estonia, the last sheaf was named the 'Ryeboar', and the man who cut it would be saluted with a cry: 'You have the Rye-boar on your back!' Frazer provides numerous examples of this custom in different forms. Throughout most of Northern Europe, the last sheaf of grain cut was named 'the Sow' or 'the Boar'. In many cases, the man who cut the last sheaf actually was bound into a sheaf himself with ropes and dragged by a rope along the ground. Other custome including the blackening of the face of the man, shutting him in the pig-sty or feeding him special delicacies while calling to him as one would call to the pigs. Obviously, the man who cut the last sheaf was deemed to play the role of the ancient 'sacrificed god'. Rather than being killed, he would participate in rituals of substitution. In other cases, a real pig was sacrificed at the time of sowing the grain. The Thuringian salutation describing the man with the RyeBoar on his back is a graphic description of a magical synthesis of human with sacrificial god.
In one district in Germany, there was a specific bone of the pig that featured in a special ritual. The flesh from this bone would be boiled on Shrove Tuesday, but the bone itself would be placed among the ashes which the neighbours exchanged as gifts on St. Peter’s Day (22 February, then mixed with the seedcorn.
In many parts of Northern Europe, there was an old custom of eating pea-soup with dried pig-ribs on Ash Wednesday or Candlemas. The ribs then would be collected and hung in the room till sowing-time, when they would be inserted into the sown field or in the seed-bag amongst the flax seed.
As demonstrated by all these old customs, the pig was believed to be a sacred symbol of fertility and blessing.
The Scandinavian custom of the Yule Boar is somewhat familiar in the West. At Yule, it was customary to bake a loaf in the form of a boar-pig and to name it the Yule Boar. The corn from the last sheaf often was used to make this loaf of bread. Throughout Yuletide, the Yule Boar would stand on the table and often would be kept even until sowing time in Spring, when part would be mixed iwth the seed-corn and part given to the ploughman and plough animals to eat. This was believed to bring a good harvest. This custom was derived from the more ancient custom of sacrificing a real boar at Yule as well as the custom of sacrificing a man in the character of a Yule Boar. Even in the 19th century in Sweden, there were places where a man would be wrapped in a skin, carrying a wisp of straw in his mouth so that the straws projecting from his mouth would give the appearance of boar bristles. A knife would be brought to an old woman who, with her face blackened then would pretend to sacrifice him.
Throughout Eastern Europe, old customs of baking loaves from the last sheaf of grain that would be designated as the 'Boar' would be kept on a table, then divided to be used, partly at the New Year and partly at sowing time.
All these folk customs are derived from ancient beliefs in the divinity or sacred nature of the Pig or Boar.
In many ancient religions, the God represented by an Animal would be slain by that animal ultimately, a sacrifice of 'himself to himself.' The worshippers of Attis abtained from eating the flesh of swine, as the boar or pig was believed to be the embodiment of Attis, who in another legend slew the god hero. In various tales, Dionysus took the form of a boar or was slain by a boar. (Bear in mind the fact that these gods were slain in different ways in different legends. This may represent the various sacrificial rituals performed at different seasons, or it may reflect a synthesis of diverse ancient mystery religions.)
Frazer argued most convincingly that an animal regarded as taboo often originally was regarded as sacred rather than 'unclean'. Even in the case of the ancient Hebrews, whose contemporary attitudes towards pork are known throughout the world, Frazer writes:
'The attitude of the Jews to the pig was as ambiguous as that of the heathen Syrians towards the same animal. The Greeks could not decide whether the Jews worshipped swine or abominated them. On the one hand they might not eat swine; but on the other hand they might not kill them. And if the former rule speaks for the uncleanness, the latter speaks still more strongly for the sanctity of the animal. For whereas both rules may, and one rule must, be explained on the supposition that the pig was sacred; neither rule must, and one rule cannot, be explained on the supposition that the pig was unclean. If, therefore, we prefer the former supposition, we must conclude that, originally at least, the pig was revered rather than abhorred by the Israelites. We are confirmed in this opinion by observing that down to the time of Isaiah some of the Jews used to meet secretly in gardens to eat the flesh of swine and mice as a religious rite. Doubtless this was a very ancient ceremony, dating from a time when both the pig and the mouse were venerated as divine, and when their flesh was partaken of sacramentally on rare and solemn occasions as the body and blood of gods. And in general it may perhaps be said that all so-called unclean animals were originally sacred; the reason for not eating them was that they were divine.'
In similar fashion, in ancient Egypt, the pig which ordinarily was shunned as unclean, was given special consideration in an annual festival wherein:
'once a year the Egyptians sacrificed pigs to the moon and to Osiris, and not only sacrificed them, but ate of their flesh, though on any other day of the year they would neither sacrifice them nor taste of their flesh. Those who were too poor to offer a pig on this day baked cakes of dough, and offered them instead. This can hardly be explained except by the supposition that the pig was a sacred animal which was eaten sacramentally by his worshippers once a year.'
As this festival occurred on the day when Osiris was believed to have been slain by Set, it is evident that the pig in this festival represented the god Osiris himself.
Later myths identified Typhon, enemy of the god with the pig, declaring that it was in the shape of a black boar that Typhon had injured the eye of the god Horus and in a different myth, that it was when hunting boars that Typhon discovered and mutilated the body of the dead god Osiris. Despite this, it was the pig who was revered as sacrificial victim at the feast commemorating the death of Osiris and thus ultimately, the Pig or Boar represented the god himself. In the same fashion, the baby pigs who were thrown into the chasm representing the entrance to the Underworld were symbols of the goddess Persephone herself.
Even in Christian traditions, the pig is a symbol of good luck. In Europe, pigs made of peppermint are smashed (sacrificed) and the pieces distributed at New Year. Charms or ornaments in the form of pigs are considered to be good luck symbols. The expression 'a pig in clover' combines two traditional symbols of good fortune and signifies happiness and fulfillment of need. Personal 'money banks' often are made in the form of pigs: thus, the 'piggybank' familiar to children throughout the Western world.
The Boar is an ancient Northern symbol of courage as well as prosperity. Freyr's boar Gullinbristi or 'Gold Bristle', one of the magical gifts of the dwarves to the gods, was the ultimate symbol of protection and good fortune. In fact, the Gold Boar was a symbol of the Sun itself, giver of warmth and life. The goddess Freyja rode on a boar Hildisvini when not using her chariot. She transformed her lover Ottar into a boar to conceal his identity. The boar was a symbol of the Vanir, gods of fertility and rulers of earth forces.
One could give innumerable examples from myth and folktale. Suffice it to say here that the pig has attained a negative reputation unfairly. Although, like the dog, pigs are useful consumers of waste materials and therefore have served in many cultures as purifiers of the environment, they are not 'dirty' by nature any more than Nature herself is 'dirty'.
The Year of the Pig therefore should be a year of great good fortune for all. I will write about the Chines astrological significance of the Pig tomorrow when the New Year actually begins.