What did the pig do? A look at why certain religions consider pork unclean.

In 1985, Marvin Harris considered the reason of the hate that the Jews and Muslims have against pigs. His first realizations were that it might not come from holy books like the Old Testament or the Koran. In the Koran, there is no mention of pigs per say but descriptions of unnamed animals. In the Old Testament, they talk about swine and how unclean they are :” And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.” (Leviticus 11:7). Further into his study, Harris thinks its more of an environmental and societal issue more than a religious one.

In the Islamic culture, Emperor Saladin had a very pronounced disgust for pigs and pig eaters, especially the Christians. He refused to see Egypt become as filthy as the rest of Europe by letting pigs grow there. For him, pigs were filthy as they were seen as excrements eaters and living in dirt. Harris indicates that pigs are usually very clean animals that would prefer to eat roots, vegetables and drink clean water. The only reason why the pigs would eat their own excrements is if they are starved and have nothing else to eat. Harris wonders why pigs are so taboo and chickens or goats aren’t. Chickens and goats are known to live in their filth and if they must, eat their excrements. In the Leviticus, pigs aren’t the only forbidden animal, cats, dogs and camels are as well. Unlike pigs, these animals only have their flesh forbidden so touching them and herding them is not a forbidden action.

Since the Maimonides emperor ate any kind if meat except pork, it would have been politically incorrect to only tie this to a biblical theory. They investigated the health problems related to the compsumtion of pork. It took at least 700 years to have an actual link between diseases and eating pork. This idea was fast discarded by the Orthodox Jews saying that there is no way that the word of God should be dismissed by “minor medical texts”. Harris said that it would have been easier if the Holy Texts said that they should not eat undercooked meat instead of only forbidding pork

In the Old Testament, there is a precise formula to know what to eat. The Leviticus states that the animal that has a divided hoof and they had to chew their cud. If the animal didn’t fit in one of these categories, it was deemed unclean, thus not to be eaten. Harris explains the origins of this formula with the camel. Camels are not filthy but they are forbidden to eat. At first it was only the cud chewer animals that were allowed but because the camel was deemed unfit, they added the divided hoof rule. Israelites wouldn’t eat camels because they took a long time to grow and they were need to live in the desert. On the other hand, the Koran specifically allows the consumption of camel meat and milk. When prophet Mohammed lived in the desert with his followers, camels were the main source of transportation and food. Harris says that an Islam that banned camel flesh wouldn’t be the Islam we know today.

Going back to the Egyptian pig taboo, one interpretation that could be made of it is that it reflects the conquest of the northern pork-eating country by the pork-abstaining legions. Harris’ interpretation is more down to Earth. He thinks that it is the over population of Egypt and its treeless lands. Pigs need shadow and cool mud to regulate its body temperature since pigs do not sweat. If the animal cannot have access to this climate, it will do what it can to survive, wallow in its feces and roll in its urine to keep their body cool enough to prevent heat strokes. The Egyptians didn’t understand the reasoning of the animal behind its actions so they immediately deemed the animal filth and unclean.

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