Although much has been written about the relationship between people and “pigs” (šʒj, rr(t), and jph) in pharaonic Egypt, it is only in recent decades that some longstanding misconceptions have been exposed. It is now generally accepted that the local breed of domestic pig (Sus domesticus) descended from an indigenous progenitor, the wild boar (Sus scrofa), which formerly abounded in the Nile Delta, the Wadi Natrun, the Faiyum, and elsewhere. It became extinct around 1900, as a result of over-hunting.
The oldest domestic pig remains presently known in Egypt come from the large settlement site of Merimda Beni Salama (western Delta), initially occupied in the early fifth millennium BCE. That pork formed an important element in the diet of some Predynastic Egyptians is confirmed by the presence of pig remains at sites throughout the country, particularly in Lower Egypt. In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic cemetery at Manshiyet Abu Omar (eastern Delta), burials of the poor frequently contain pig bones, while those of the elite have cattle bones. Pig meat may always have been regarded in ancient Egypt as table fare for those of humble station.
A small number of votive pig figurines, of first dynasty date, have been recovered from several temple sites. Textual and zooarchaeological evidence indicates that pig-farming continued to be practiced during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Swine are, however, conspicuously absent from the panoramic scenes of daily life decorating the tomb-chapels of the privileged classes of these epochs, nor are they mentioned in their extensive offering-list menus. Pigs were evidently regarded as an unclean food for the pious dead who sought to keep ritually pure in the beyond. The origin of this prohibition is obscure, but the pig's legendary associations with grubbing, dirt, and filth may have prompted its lowly status, especially in religious and funerary contexts. This taboo varied over time, was probably never absolute, and may have applied exclusively to a certain segment of society, such as priests, or only at particular times of the year. It appears to have escalated sharply during the Late Dynastic period and beyond; the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (II, 47) also remarked on Egypt's underclass of swineherds.
In the New Kingdom, information on pigs in Egyptian animal husbandry expands considerably. Inscriptions indicate that temples and wealthy citizens maintained large numbers of them on their country estates. The tomb-chapels of several notables of the first half of the eighteenth dynasty illustrate swine alongside other farmyard beasts. Pigs are also portrayed being driven over newly sown fields, treading seed into the muddy soil, a practice still current a thousand years later when Herodotus (II, 14) visited the country. Excavations during the 1980s in the workers' village at Akhenaten's capital at Tell el-Amarna have revealed an extensive pig-farm. Other evidence suggests the widespread consumption of pork, at least among the less affluent. Pig-breeding continued to be a relatively important economic activity in Egypt through the Greco-Roman period.
In Egyptian mythology, the male pig was regarded as a symbol of evil. In Spell 157 of the Coffin Texts, and later in the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead, chapter 112), the typhonic god Seth transforms himself into a black boar in his conflict with the sky god Horus. Reliefs on Horus's Ptolemaic period temple at Edfu show him triumphing over Seth, who is in the form of a large boar. Many scholars have interpreted this myth as the underlying cause for the selective shunning of pig meat in ancient Egypt. Conversely, beginning in the Third Intermediate Period, delightful statuettes and amulets in the shape of a rooting sow nursing her litter of piglets were popular; they represent the sky goddess, Nut, although some identify them with Isis. These objects were thought to endow their owners with fecundity.
- Bonneau, Danielle. “La sacrifice du porc et Liloïtion en Pachôn.” Chronique d'Égypte 66 (1991), 330–340. Discusses the pig as a rare sacrificial animal, and the question of pork consumption in ancient Egypt.
- Firmage, Edwin. “Zoology (Fauna).” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 6, pp. 1109–1167. New York and London, 1992. A thorough review of pigs in the ancient Near East, including Egypt, with special attention to pork prohibition.
- Hecker, H. M. “A Zooarchaeological Inquiry Into Pork Consumption in Egypt from Prehistoric to New Kingdom Times.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 19 (1982), 59–71. Survey of zooarchaeological evidence for pigs in ancient Egypt.
- Helck, Wolfgang. “Ein Verlorenes Grab in Theben-West TT 145 des Offiziers Neb-Amun unter Thutmosis III.” Antike Welt: Zeitschrift für Archäologie und Kulturgeschichte 27.2 (1996), 73–85. Includes an excellent overview of the pig in pharaonic civilization, with many references.
- Houlihan, Patrick F. The Animal World of the Pharaohs. London and New York, 1996. The chapter devoted to farmyard animals includes swine; extensive bibliography.
- Ikram, Salima. Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt. Orientalia Lovaniensia Anacleta, 69. Leuven, 1995. Stresses that the archaeological and textual records prove that pigs were readily consumed in ancient Egypt, despite Herodotus's report.
- Miller, Robert L. “Hogs and Hygiene.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 (1990), 125–140. Important study on the value of pigs in the subsistence economy of the workmen's villages at Deir el-Medina and Tell el-Amarna.
- Redding, R. W. “The Role of the Pig in the Subsistence System of Ancient Egypt: A Parable on the Potential of Faunal Data.” In Animal Use and Culture Change, edited by Pam J. Crabtree and Kathleen Ryan, pp. 20–30. MASCA Research Papers in Science and Archaeology 8, Supplement. Philadelphia, 1991. Survey of pig use in ancient Egypt and its relationship to political centralization.
- Simoons, Frederick J. Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present. 2d. ed. Madison, 1994. Interesting discussion on pork avoidance in the ancient Near East, including Egypt.
- te Velde, Herman. “Some Egyptian Deities and Their Piggishness.” In Intellectual Heritage of Egypt: Studies Presented to László Kákosy by Friends and Colleagues on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday, edited by Ulrich Luft, pp. 571–578. Studia Aegyptiaca, 14 Budapest, 1992. The author studies the “piggishness” of the gods and the associations of the pig with Seth and other deities.
Patrick F. Houlihan