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« Tuna 4 / 2017

The Pig, Pig Keeping and the Use of Pork as Food in Estonia in the 13th to 16th Centuries

The pig has been part of the diet of inhabitants of Estonia for thousands of years. It is not merely an important foundation pillar of local food culture, rather it is an equally important part of the identity and lifestyle of the people who have lived in this land. The pig has had deep cultural meaning in these parts. Living long-term side by side, getting to know the nature and attributes of the pig, yet also misunderstanding, have deeply embedded the pig in mankind’s thought patterns, figures of speech, cults and magical perceptions.
Bone matter found in archaeological excavations indicates that the wild boar was already part of people’s diet in these parts over 10,000 years ago, and the domestic pig appears in find material at the end of the Stone Age. More evidence and more concrete information concerning pig keeping, the use of pork as food, and attitudes towards the pig in Estonia have been found only from the Middle Ages onward, chiefly due to the existence of written sources. It is difficult to estimate the scale of pig keeping at that time, yet in so far as the pig was an animal kept purely for its meat, cattle breeding was still of greater economic importance. At the same time, pork was valued more than beef as food, especially ham and bacon, and as a rule it was also more costly. Keeping pigs affected and shaped the everyday life of the inhabitants of Estonia in a variety of ways, both in the countryside as well as in the towns, firmly placing its stamp on people’s quality of life and living space. The pig forced people to reckon with it. It was important enough to leave its imprint in laws, various regulations, ordinances and other normative sources. Among other things, articles concerning pigs in Livonian laws also express the general attitude of that time towards (domestic) animals. Animals were property that was sold, given as gifts, pawned, but were also stolen and even damaged. In the Middle Ages, people’s attitude towards domestic animals was practical above all, and in legal texts, they are equated with things.
The pig had an important place in Estonian folk beliefs in ancient times. The pig cult encompassed fertility, the fortune of the family, power and might. The 13th century conquest of Livonia and the Christianisation of the land brought new value judgements and a different attitude. The pig has a negative meaning in both the Old and New Testaments. The pig is referred to as a filthy, unclean animal. The pig is associated with witches as well as vices and sins, above all with greed and gluttony in Christian iconography. The culture of ancient warriors and medieval knight culture represent a different attitude towards the pig, admittedly towards the wild boar primarily. The wild boar’s warlike and courageous nature was the model for the medieval warrior. This is the reason why the boar is found on the coat of arms of some Livonian noble families.
St. Anthony – the patron saint of pigs – represented a positive attitude towards the hog-nosed beasts in the medieval church. Churches and chapels, altars and secular brotherhoods dedicated to St. Anthony speak of his veneration in medieval Livonia. The Estonian peasantry held this saint in particularly high esteem. Considering the meaning of the pig in ancient Estonian cult beliefs, it was evidently not difficult for the people to espouse the patron saint of the pig. Country chapels were built in his honour and he was brought oblations. The veneration of St. Anthony among the commoners of Livonia took on an appearance that was altogether unacceptable to the church. Thereat it is not impossible that it was the pig in particular that was the connecting link, so to speak, between the popular medieval saint and Freyr, the ancient Norse god of fertility and the phallic cult associated with him. In other words, the ancient Estonian pig cult that included fertility magic had perhaps received influences from the cult of Freyr. The Estonian folk calendar knows the day commemorating St. Anthony as the “feast day of pigs”. Yet even still in modern times, the memory of the pig’s age-old, ancient connection to power, fertility, and also to fire and the sun had not completely died out in local folk beliefs and customs.