On the death of the friendly pig. A tale of tragedy and disappointment, both ancient and modern

Like, I suspect, most people interested in the ancient world I’m a keen reader of Mary Beard’s blog “It’s a Don’s Life”. This week my imagination was captured by a puzzle she posed her readers – the interpretation of a grave stele from Roman Macedonia which seems to commemorate the death of a beloved pig. The stone was inscribed with a verse inscription extoling the pig’s friendly character, describing his travels and ending with his tragic demise in a road-traffic accident, crushed “by the force of a wheel”. The scene of the animal’s death is vividly depicted in a carved relief at the top of the stone, which shows him being trampled by some donkeys drawing a cart. What exactly was this monument Mary Beard asked? Was it real or some kind of spoof, perhaps the grave of a man who’s name for some reason was “pig” or sounded like pig, or a literary exercise given permanent form in stone?

My first instinct was to take the monument seriously as a real grave monument to a pig. If it was just a joke then it must have been a rather expensive one, as Mary Beard herself remarked. The first association that came to my mind was with Eleusis, the site of an extremely important ancient Athenian cult based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, or Kore (the maiden). Persephone had, of course, been taken by Hades to the underworld to be his wife and her distraught mother Demeter searched the earth for her. As goddess of agriculture Demeter’s grief stopped the plants from growing and caused misery for mankind. Eleusis was the place where, during her wanderings, she was believed to have taught mankind the secrets of agriculture. Demeter eventually found her daughter and made a compromise with Zeus, the king of the gods, that she be allowed to return to the earth for so many months of the year spending the rest of her time with her new husband in the world of the dead. For nearly a millennium at Eleusis, at a big annual festival, people would come from all over the Greek speaking world to be initiated into a cult of Demeter and Persephone in the hope that Persephone would intercede with Hades on their behalf to secure them a better life after death than the miserable shadowy existence that awaited non-initiates.

Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis
Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis

But what has all this got to do with pigs? Well, we don’t know a lot about what went on at Eleusis. The cult was a “mystery cult”, so-called because initiates were supposed to keep their experience of initiation a secret. But from a few scraps of information in the ancient sources, and in some later polemical Christian writers who were naturally very hostile to the cult, one of the things we do know is that initiates had to spend a period of some months rearing a sacred piglet. If I remember rightly what I’ve read about this they then had to take a bath with the pig in the sea at some point before taking it along to their initiation where they presumably sacrificed it. A marble statue of a pig has even been found at Eleusis which was most likely a votive offering left behind by someone who’d gone through the rites.

The grave monument from Macedonia seemed to me to suggest a parallel to the Eleusinian mysteries. The inscription speaks of the pig’s travels through various places in Macedonia and ends by saying “I have now lost the light longing to see Emathia and the Phallic Chariot. Here now I lie, owing nothing to death anymore”. Another thing we know about the rites at Eleusis is that they culminated in a moment in which certain sacred objects were shown to the initiates. Although we don’t know what these objects were, one theory is that they might have included a phallus, as a potent symbol of fertility. The epitaph sounds to me as though the pig, and his owner, were also heading for some cult place where they too hoped to experience a moment of revelation. I know rather little about the cults of Macedonia and from a brief online search I wasn’t able to find anything about a mystery cult at Emathia but it is quite conceivable that there was one. If the owner had had to spend some time looking after his pig, like the initiates at Eleusis, that would explain why he had become attached to it. For the animal then to be killed in an accident before the initiation could take place would have been tragedy enough to explain the setting up of the monument.

So, what did I do with these ideas? Well that’s where the modern tragedy and disappointment begins. I compressed them down into the 280 characters allowed by two messages on Twitter and with a degree of trepidation tweeted them to Mary Beard. Would she retweet my idea or mention it the comments section of her blog? I sat back and waited but no response came. I have never met Mary Beard and I know from things that she’s written about Twitter that she gets inundated with tweets so most probably she hadn’t even seen my message. Or, I wondered, perhaps she had seen it but just thought that the idea was plain daft. I thought about posting it again as a comment on her blog page but that seemed a little pushy. I had other things to do so I let it go and forgot about it.

Until, that is, yesterday evening when I looked at my Twitter feed and saw the following message by the Humanities Division of Oxford University:

“Via ‪@wmarybeard: The real experts have given a view on that pig’s epitaph ‪http://bit.ly/1be5npa including ‪@oxfordclassics Peter Thonemann”

I’m an admirer of Peter Thonemann’s work and I’ve met him – just a few times – since I’ve been in Oxford. He’s read some of my work and given me some useful feedback. I was sure that he’d have something sensible to say on the subject of the pig’s monument so I clicked on the link. I was, I confess, also sneakily hoping that that “including” meant that others were also going to get an honorable mention and that my idea about the mystery cult might have got through after all. Imagine how I felt when I read the following correspondence from Dr Thonemann posted by Mary Beard:

“It’s a perfectly bona fide pig, killed in the course of an Edessan festival, probably to Demeter. The pig’s owner had come a long way (along the via Egnatia, nicely described in the epigram) as a pilgrim to the festival. The pig was run over by a four-horse chariot carrying a monumental phallus (depicted on the stele) during the main festival procession. This numinous death gave the pig’s owner the spooks, and prompted the surprisingly lavish high-quality stele for the unfortunate porker. The pig’s owner had probably been intending to sacrifice this very pig later on in the course of the very same festival.
Just think – if you’d brought a pig a hundred miles to sacrifice it at a festival, only to find that the goddess preferred to see it crushed under the wheels of a chariot carrying an enormous willy, wouldn’t you set up a stele to commemorate it?”

Apart from the fact that he thinks the pig’s accident occurred during the festival and my reading was that the poor animal never made it that far the interpretation is near enough exactly the same as my own!

Now I don’t think for one second that Peter Thonemann has stolen my idea. It often happens in the world of science that two researchers arrive at the same eureka moment independently. Just as Newton and Leibniz were both working on the invention of calculus at the same time without knowing it and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace simultaneously formulated their independent theories of evolution by natural selection so too, it seems, with the solution to the Mystery of the Macedonian Pig Monument.

I must admit I draw some satisfaction from knowing that my idea was a sound one – sound enough for Peter Thonemann to also come up with it, and Mary Beard to accept it. Still, I can’t help feeling just a little a bit like Elisha Gray must have when he arrived at the patent office to register his new invention of the telephone only to discover that Alexander Graham Bell had got there slightly earlier on the very same day.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this. Perhaps it’s to do with how best to use social media to put your ideas across. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s always advisable to keep your sacred pig on a short leash.

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