Many Middle Eastern societies had strong taboos against eating pork, taboos that predate the giving of the Torah. Here's why.
From Mark Essig’s Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig via Longreads.com:
…Animals destined for [the workers building the Great Pyramid at] Giza had to walk hundreds of miles through an arid landscape, feeding on grass and leaves along the way. Well suited for such a journey, cows, goats, and sheep were herded to Giza by the thousands. Pigs, however, would not have found the food or shade they needed along the way. The state couldn’t move pigs around, so it ignored them.
This pattern appeared throughout the Near East: officials developed complex food-provisioning systems that depended on the long-distance movement of cows, sheep, and goats. Pigs didn’t fit into such schemes. But despite—or perhaps because of—their lack of usefulness to bureaucrats, pigs didn’t disappear. Instead, they stuck to their original role as scavengers. People on the fringes of society with little or no access to state-supplied food embraced them as a source of meat. Priests and bureaucrats, who dined on lamb and beef, came to despise pigs. Only the poor ate pork.
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A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into.
For its first 4,000 years, agriculture remained a modest affair. The farmers of the Near East lived in mud-brick huts in villages ranging in size from a few dozen to a few thousand people—places like Kom el-Hisn, which did not change much from one century to the next.
The pace of change picked up about 5500 bc. That’s when people in Mesopotamia—the lands around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Syria and Iraq—developed irrigation agriculture. A thousand years after that, the plow appeared. The first true cities, with tens of thousands of residents and complex social organizations, appeared about 3500 bc. The Mesopotamians invented writing—first pictographs and later the more abstract cuneiform—and built the first monumental temples, called ziggurats, to worship their gods. Across the Red Sea, Egypt got a slightly later start but achieved more lasting success. By about 3000 bc, Egyptian rulers had unified a ribbon of land stretching for six hundred miles along the Nile. Scribes created a hieroglyphic writing system about this same time, and laborers were put to work on pyramids.
Culture depends on agriculture, and in Egypt and Mesopotamia the two flourished together. Both empires emerged from desert landscapes along rivers. No one had settled these areas earlier because there wasn’t enough rain for farming, but irrigation allowed farmers to exploit the rich soil deposited by seasonal floods. That soil produced crops in great abundance, which meant some members of society could give up agricultural work and devote themselves to making crafts (pottery, baskets, bricks, tools, weapons), building temples, keeping records, fighting battles, and serving the gods. “A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into,” George Orwell once wrote. “The other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.” Only when farmers grew enough food to fill the bellies of bureaucrats, priests, and soldiers could these elites go about the business of creating what we call civilization.
Mesopotamia and Egypt built centralized economies and strictly controlled the distribution of grains, dairy products, and meat to the population. The city of Puzrish-Dagan, for example, served as an administrative center for Mesopotamia’s Third Dynasty of Ur, which lasted from 2112 to 2004 bc. Surviving records show that the ruling dynasty requisitioned tens of thousands of animals from outlying areas. One archaeologist tabulated the records from this economic center, tracing the flow of more than 10,000 animals that arrived from the provinces and were then distributed throughout the urban center. The temple claimed lambs and kids, and soldiers ate cattle and older sheep. The records make no mention of pigs. As in Egypt, they existed but held no interest to the state.
Villagers in both Mesopotamia and Egypt kept pigs purely on their own initiative. Throughout the Near East, pigs could be found wherever there was water. Towns near natural pig habitats—along the Jordan River, for instance—kept the most pigs because the animals could supplement urban scavenging with foraging in the woods and marshes. Towns in drier areas kept fewer pigs. Nomadic pastoralists, on the move for much of the year, kept none. Archaeologists have plotted on maps the areas that received enough rainfall to allow farming without irrigation. All villages within those areas showed evidence of pig remains. In other words, if it was biologically possible to raise pigs, people raised pigs.
There were variations within this broad pattern. At Tell Halif, a small site on the edge of the Negev desert in what is now southern Israel, the archaeological record shows dramatic swings in the reliance on pork: pigs account for more than 20 percent of animal bones in garbage heaps dating to 3000 bc. That figure plunges to less than 5 percent five hundred years later, rises again to 20 percent by 1500 bc, and finally drops once more to less than 5 percent by 1000 bc. Changes in rainfall levels cannot explain those swings. It seems that the true reason was political: periods of highest pig use correspond with times of weakest state control. Halif was located along a major trade route; when the political situation was stable, the town likely became integrated within a regional economy, and a steady supply of sheep and goats flowed through. When the ruling dynasties descended into chaos—as they did rather frequently—the town had to fend for itself. That’s when the villagers turned to pigs.
The rise of strong states discouraged pig raising in another way as well: by changing the landscape. As populations grew, they put increased pressure on the land. Farmers felled oaks to make way for olive groves and drained marshes to plant crops. The land, often poorly managed, deteriorated from forest to cropland to pastureland to desert, with each successive stage providing less habitat for pigs. By the time desert scrub prevailed, only sheep and goats could survive. As pigs lost habitat, they likely began to raid crops in the field, threatening the food supply and thereby earning a spot on the state’s hit list.
Pigs didn’t fit into the new political and agricultural order. As time marched on, they began to disappear. At many archaeological sites, pig bones remain common up through about 2000 bc, then dwindle away. A thousand years later, few people raised pigs in any quantity.
In a few spots, however, pigs persisted. They remained important for sites like Tell Halif that were on the margins of empire, far from the urban centers. And pigs became crucial to the marginal people living within those urban centers. Careful sifting of debris from streets has turned up shed milk teeth—baby teeth—of piglets, evidence that pigs were living and breeding among the homes of the world’s first great cities. But not everyone in those cities partook in equal measures. Archaeologists tend to find pig bones in the areas of cities where the common people lived. In elite areas, they find more cattle and sheep bones.
Some of the most compelling evidence of this pattern comes from the temple complex at Giza. At the official barracks, temple laborers ate provisioned beef driven there from far-flung villages. Nearby, however, another settlement grew up. This neighborhood, haphazardly constructed, most likely housed those who provided services to temple workers and bureaucrats—grinding wheat, baking bread, brewing beer. These people were not part of the official workforce and therefore did not receive food directly from the rulers. Instead they hunted, foraged, and traded for their food, or they raised it themselves. And what they raised was pigs. Although absent from the residences of official workers, pigs are common in this self-supporting area. Pork offered these common people what we would call food security: a source of meat under their own control.
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Poor people ate pork because it was the only meat they had. The elite refrained from eating it because they had access to other sources of meat. In time, though, the ruling classes began to actively avoid pork. The Greek historian Herodotus, in the fifth century bc, reported that an upper-class Egyptian man, after accidentally brushing against a pig, rushed into the Nile fully clothed to cleanse himself.
By the start of the Iron Age, about 1200 bc, elites in the Near East had begun to see pigs as polluting, a view that arose in part from the habits of urban pigs. Though cities had grown large, sanitation systems had not kept pace. Residents threw garbage into the streets or piled it in heaps outside their doors. This waste included spoiled food, dead animals, and human excrement. Information about ancient sewage disposal is scant; one of the few references is found in Jewish scripture. “You shall have a stick,” Moses tells his people in Deuteronomy, “and when you sit down outside, you shall dig a hole with it, and turn back and cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp, . . . therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.”
Evidence suggests that the Lord God saw quite a few indecencies among the Israelites and their neighbors. Sewer systems didn’t exist. A few elite homes and temples had pit latrines, but mostly people practiced what today is known as open defecation: they relieved themselves in fields or streets, and they didn’t bring a stick. This is where pigs enter the picture.
Pigs eat shit. In many villages around the world today, pigs linger around peoples’ usual defecation spots awaiting a meal. Some English pigs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the same habit. In China, archaeologists discovered a terra cotta sculpture, dating to about 200 ad, showing a pig in a sty, with a round, roofed building just above it. The structure was originally identified as a grain silo for storing pig feed, but the model in fact depicted a combination pigsty-outhouse: people sat on an elevated perch and made deposits to the hungry pig below. The practice was widespread—the same Chinese character designates both “pigsty” and “outhouse”—and has survived into the present on Korea’s Cheju Island. In the 1960s more than 90 percent of farmers on the island used a pigsty-privy in their subsistence-farming regimen, and they insisted the arrangement produced the sweetest pork in the world.
The pigsty-privy apparently did not exist in the ancient Near East, but pigs discovered this food source on their own. Tapeworm eggs have been found in fossilized pig feces from ancient Egypt. Since these eggs are produced only by adult tapeworms living in human guts, it appears that human feces formed part of Egyptian pigs’ rations. In Aristophanes’ play Peace, dating to the fifth century bc, a character notes that a “pig or a dog will . . . pounce upon our excrement.”
This particular dining habit did not improve the pig’s reputattion. Just as troubling was the pig’s taste for carrion, including human corpses when available. Eating human flesh and eating excrement are nearly universal human taboos, and eating animals that eat those substances carried a transitive taint. “The pig is impure,” a Babylonian text asserted, because it “makes the streets stink . . . [and] besmirches the houses.” An Assyrian text from the 670s bc contains these curses: “May dogs and swine eat your flesh,” and “May dogs and swine drag your corpses to and fro on the squares of Ashur.”
Dogs and pigs had first domesticated themselves by scavenging human waste, but now that role made them pariahs. Filthy animals offended the gods and therefore were excluded from holy places. The people of the Near East practiced many different religions, but all agreed that the key sacrificial animals were sheep, goats, and cattle and that pigs were unclean. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, pigs never appear in religious art. The Harris Papyrus, which describes religious offerings made by King Ramses III, includes a detailed list of every desirable item to be found in Egypt and the lands it had conquered, including plants, fruits, spices, minerals, and meat. Pork does not appear on the list. “The pig is not fit for a temple,” a Babylonian text reads, because it is “an offense to all the gods.” A Hittite text declares, “Neither pig nor dog is ever to cross the threshold” of a temple. If anyone served the gods from a dish contaminated by pigs or dogs, “to that one will the gods give excrement and urine to eat and drink.”
Many people, for many different reasons, rejected pork in the ancient Near East. Largely arid, it was a land of sheep, goats, and cattle. Nomads didn’t keep pigs because they couldn’t herd them through the desert. Villages in very dry areas didn’t keep pigs because the animals needed a reliable source of water. Priests, rulers, and bureaucrats didn’t eat pork because they had access to sheep and goats from the state-focused central distributing system and considered pigs filthy. Pigs remained important in only one place: nonelite areas of cities, where they ate waste and served as a subsistence food supply for people living on the margins.
This was the situation in the Near East around 1200 bc, when a tribe of people known as the Israelites settled in Canaan, west of the Jordan River in Palestine. Like most of their neighbors, the Israelites rejected pork. Unlike those neighbors, the Israelites came to consider pork avoidance a central element of their identity.
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I would rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
Scriptural dietary rules grew more significant with time. When the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were set down, few people in the Near East were eating pork. Archaeologists find no pig bones at all, or just a scattered few, in settlements from this period. Then, starting in about 300 bc, pig bones begin to appear in great profusion. The Greeks had arrived—and pigs would soon enjoy a renaissance after some nine hundred years of persecution.…