The Black Pig and the Carrion Birds

“There are strong indications . . . that, in ancient times, the boar was held in great dread, or perhaps in great estimation.” 

W. G. Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland (1902)

“Not as a vulture but a dove
The Holy Ghost came from above.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863)

I was on the river Saturday afternoon, and from my canoe saw, among other things, the carcass of a dead black pig stretched out on the muddy river bank.  I cannot say why this black pig died, but can say its death was not lamented, since such black pigs are hereabouts abhorred as vermin and a pestilence.  They are, in fact, a feral breed descended from domestic swine that long ago escaped or were released into the wild.  The offspring of the liberated swine prospered in central Texas, where winters are mild and nuciferous trees are plentiful.  But even as they prospered, they were no longer esteemed as a ready source of easy meat, and were instead dreaded as rooting vermin that tore up the land.

Wild pigs are gregarious animals, and a roving and rooting company of these beasts is properly called a “sounder of swine.”  So we are told by George Turbervile in his Book of Hunting, published in 1575.  I cannot discover the root of this word sounder, but will say that a sounder is composed of a boar, his several sows, and their squealing litters of piglets.  Male piglets are expelled from the sounder in their third or fourth year, whereupon they become a “singler” or “hogsteer.”

These terms are applicable to wild pigs only, pigs penned or under the watchful eye of a swineherd are known simply as a herd.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle noted the difference in one of his historical romances.

“No man of gentle birth would speak of a herd of swine; that is peasant speech.  If you drive them it is a herd.  If you hunt them . . . . one talks of a sounder of swine.”*

We can therefore see why wild pigs were held in both dread and esteem.   They were esteemed for their fighting spirit by men who esteemed a fighting spirit, and they were dreaded by peasants who esteemed nothing but a steady supply of bacon and turnips. 

* * * * *

I did not inspect the carcass on the river bank, and so cannot tell you if it was the remains of a stricken sow, a hapless hogsteer, or a decrepit and deposed boar.  But the carcass was being inspected by what is properly called a wake of vultures.  Vultures form a wake when they are gathered round a dead body, just as humans do.  Vultures gathered in a roost are called a committee, whereas vultures wheeling in the sky are called a kettle.  It is said that a vulture can smell the reek of a decomposing carcass from a mile overhead, and that a kettle of vultures is wheeling round this appetizing plume.

Although vultures perform the valuable service of clearing the earth of noxious waste, we look upon them as filthy and loathsome creatures.  Indeed, if you approach a committee of vultures roosting in a tree, you will find that they have their own distinctive reek.  This comes of the fact that that their bodies are designed to disinfect their gory legs with regular showers of cleansing urine.  It is therefore unsurprising that we use the vulture to symbolize a vile disposition in ourselves.  This is not simply because vultures are associated with death, since men esteem many deadly beasts.  It is because the vulture is a beast that exploits death rather than inflicts it. 

Thus men who fatten on the misfortunes of others are called vultures, whether they strip the gear from dead and wounded soldiers, or strip the assets from desperate, friendless widows.  Lawyers are often likened to vultures because they seem to smell misery from a mile away, and then to descend on a dead or wounded person like a wake of these vile birds.

Longfellow thus used the vulture to symbolize the demonic opposite of the Holy Spirit, because the one comes to succor and the other to strip.

“Not as a vulture but a dove
The Holy Ghost came from above.”

* * * * *

The tableau that I the other day observed on the muddy bank of the Brazos therefore struck me as a portentous and ominous sign.  The ambiguous emblem of a black pig lay dead or dying in the mud, and, sensing its distress, a committee had risen from its roost and descended as vultures from above.

As I drifted past on the silent river, this wake of carrion birds was quarreling over which would have the privilege of tearing away the first strip of flesh.

*) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel (1906)


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