The Pig in Ancient Egypt

Ivory model of a boar

Egyptian Name:

Rry, Shay, or Shai



The local breed of domestic pig in ancient Egypt descended from an indigenous ancestor, the Wild Boar. It was once abundant in the country and had a fairly extensive range throughout the Nile Valley and Delta. The species became locally extinct around the turn of the 20th century C.E., due to overhunting and loss of its prime habitat. The ancient Egyptian pig was high-legged, with bristles, a slender snout, and dark skin. In ancient Egypt pigs cost two or three times as much as a goat, and one-sixth as much as a donkey.

Wooden statue of a pig

The pig appears to have been domesticated in Egypt as early as the beginning of the Old Kingdom. Although New Kingdom scenes depict pigs treading seed into the soil, they were principally kept for their meat. Pork, like goat meat and mutton, was the meat of the middle class and was not used for offerings to the dead. The Roman author Athenaeus, who lived for a time in Egypt, recorded one way that the ancient Egyptians ate pork that may be the earliest reference to a sandwich: "Each diner is served with a loaf of pure wheat bread molded flat, upon which lies another loaf which they call oven-bread; between them is a piece of roasted swine flesh." Pork fat was used for frying and as a condiment.

Although pork was never used in temple offerings, pigs are nonetheless included in lists of temple assets. Inscriptions indicate that temples and wealthy citizens maintained large numbers of swine, and tomb-chapels of several nobles from the early 18th Dynasty illustrate swine as well as other farmyard animals. The mayor of el-Kab relates that he owned a herd of 1,500 pigs. A temple of Amenhotep III at Memphis was endowed with some 1,000 pigs and 1,000 piglets, and the mortuary temple of Seti I at Abydos held large herds of swine on its domains. Priests were forbidden from eating pork, pigeon, mutton, garlic, or onions.

Clay model of a pig

Pigs were kept in pens and fed grain and household scraps, and specialized farrowing units have been uncovered in the workmen's village at Amarna. Within each pen, a small walled sty confined the litter, while the sow was able to pass its high threshold into the larger feeding yard. To spare the villagers the smell, the enclosures had been sited on the south and east sides in the lee of the prevailing winds.

Yet, while pig-farming continued during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, swine are conspicuously absent from the scenes of daily life that cover the walls of tomb-chapels of the upper classes and do not appear in the somewhat extensive offering lists. The explanation for this is that pork, like mutton and goat meat, was considered to be a "low-class" food and thus not pictured in the tombs of the elite.

Faience statue of a sow nursing her litter

It is also important to note that in the Egyptian religion, dietary taboos were restricted to the animals and plants in which certain deities manifested themselves. The taboos relating to a specific god applied only to the priesthood and followers of that god. Taboos thus had a primarily local character, which no power outside the city or nome in which the god was venerated. It is probable that only the pharaoh - the high priest of all the priesthoods combined - was bound by every dietary taboo, including the prohibition of pork. During the festival of Horus' victory over Set, people ate pork, and those who could not afford it ate pig-shaped loaves of bread instead.

As in the case of the hippopotamus, the male pig was associated with the evil god Set and shunned, while the sow was associated with a benevolent goddess. As early as the 1st Dynasty, faience or ebony statuettes and amulets of a rooting sow nursing her litter were popular, representing the goddess Nut. These amulets were often given at the time of the New Year, and were buried with the dead. These amulets depicting a sow, either walking alone or with up to seven piglets marching between her legs, were believed to endow their wearers with fecundity. The goddesses Iabet, Isis, and Taweret were occasionally pictured as a sow.

Livestock of Ancient Egypt

The Meat of Ancient Egypt