A draft commentary on the chapter “Cosmic Boar” by Assamese scholar and writer Banikanta Kakati, in his 1952 book, “Visnuite Myths and Legends in Folklore setting” (Gauhati: Sri Tarini Das). It was written as an accessible commentary for a reprint of the book that never eventuated to my knowledge. I am not overly familiar with anthrpological analysis of myth, so an amateur take at best but with my human-animal spin. By Paul G. Keil
Banikanta Kakati’s chapter “Cosmic Boar” begins by following the evolving symbol of the wild boar through the Brahmanas to its manifestation as an avatar of Vishnu in the Puranas and Tantric literature. Vahara bringing up Bhumi from the primordial waters is a myth referred to as “earth diver”, a “cosmogenic solution” told across a variety of cultures in Eurasia and the Americas (Williams, 2003). However, Kakati’s comparative interest extends further than a single, mythical type and instead focuses on the wild boar as a common motif found in the sacred lifeworld of many peoples. He goes on to identify how the boar as a mythological figure manifest in many other cultural belief systems both within and beyond South Asia. The pig can be enacted in multifaceted ways as sacred and sacrificial object, a being who has close relationship to fertility and agriculture, depicted as a fighting spirit and sometimes demon. Beyond the organisation of the various manifestations of mythical boar under common categories and gesturing to the possibility of diffusion, Kakati’s chapter offers no detailed framework to make sense of why such commonalities have emerged.
By assembling a kaleidoscope of porcine symbols, Kakati seems to invite the reader’s own observations and questions about how these myths from diverse regions might be connected. Through Kakati’s implicit guidance, it is easy to be struck by how the wild boar resonates across these accounts, leading us to the question, “Why the wild boar?” In this commentary on the Cosmic Boar chapter, I will offer my complementary thoughts on the connections Kakati draws between the boar of the Visnuite and Hindu tradition and the traditions of a wide array of communities and civilisations.
I am not a scholar of myth or religion. I cannot contribute original material to expand upon the boar-related mythos that Kakati has gathered (although see van de Geer, 2008, for descriptive list of various boar representations in India). Nor can I expertly critique and articulate the theories of diffusion Kakati aligns with. Instead, I am a researcher of human-animal relations and am largely interested in the mundane rather than the sacred, the embodied rather than the symbolic. This does not mean there is no interrelation between these domains. The figure of the wild pig in folktales, legends, and myths are not free-floating symbols, travelling across time and space, detached from the animals they are related to them. These symbolic ideas are shaped by and in turn shape people’s relationships with pigs. To help make sense of how shared traits of the mythical wild boar might have emerged, I turn towards the material conditions and deep historical entanglement between Homo Sapiens and Sus scrofa. While adopting an ecological approach to interpreting animals in myth is no way novel, I employ this approach as one way to grasp the worldly or even universal quality I perceive as inherent in Kakati’s work.
When anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa and throughout Eurasia’s diverse environments, it is likely that one of most common more-than-human inhabitants they crossed paths with would have been the pig, Sus scrofa. The pig had evolved out of island South East Asia 1-2 million years earlier, when it diverged from its Suidae ancestors. Wild pigs had already spread across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe by the time humans had reached these areas. In fact, the only places where our ancestors would not have encountered pigs were regions dominated by harsh winter conditions of arid deserts (see Wehr, 2021). Pigs are extraordinary animals, they are omnivorous, intelligent, and highly adaptive, quick to exploit anthropogenic and natural environments. In many ways, pigs are just like humans.
Archaeological findings across Eurasia reveal how significant pigs were within a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and worldview. The earliest known representation by humans is a 45,000-year-old cave painting in Indonesia of a babirusa pig (a suidae relative of Sus scrofa; Brumm et al., 2021). The Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madya Pradesh dated 10,000 years ago depict giant figure of a wild boar (possibly deified) chasing people. Ethnologists consider cave paintings of animals as revealing a “’mystical solidarity’ between hunter and game” and a means of connecting with significant nonhumans through symbols (Sax, 1998). Neolithic sites in modern day Iran found remains of ritual food practices in a pit that contained 19 carefully placed wild boar skulls with their tusks removed (Bangsgaard et al 2018). An array of archaeological evidence in Europe suggest that wild pigs were both in abundance and popular prey for thousands of years. The skills, knowledge, stories, and myths that mediated interaction with wild pigs and accumulated by groups over time would have translated effectively to varying degrees across different environments in which they encountered these more-than-human beings.
When sedentary living and agricultural economies began to form across Eurasia, these emerging socio-ecological relations and associated resources created the opportunity for novel forms of human-pig interaction alongside hunting. Crops are attractive to wild pigs as a source of food; humans would have needed to protect these plants from hungry wild boars. Further, if we can imagine that waste produced by settlements could be attractive to the wild ancestors of dogs then it is no great stretch to believe that wild boars would also had taken advantage of these dumps (as they still do in modern cities). The subsequent domestication of pigs in the Near East in 8500-11000BC resulted with both species living in more intense proximity and people became become familiar with Sus Scrofa in ways not possible before, learning how to manage and care for these animals. Domestic pigs linked people in new ways, playing an important part of exchange between different communities, leading to their spread across Eurasia. Further, pigs facilitated movement to new places. When humans colonized the Pacific islands, they brought pigs with them, who were then set free to run wild and be hunted. Feral pigs revert to expressing morphological and behavioural traits uncannily like their wild porcine ancestors. A strategy of European colonisers was to deposit domestic pigs in places like New Zealand and South America where they could be hunted later as a source of food in the wild.
In every sense of the term, pigs are what Haraway (2008) calls “companion species”, beings with whom we are deeply entangled in a co-shaping relationship. Wild boars are an essential part of the human story, as we are in theirs. Hunting and agriculture for thousands of years have been important sites of encounter between these two species, and still are. No less in various parts of Northeast India where farmers in will spend their evening perched above rice crops to protect them from porcine herds, or where wild boar will still be poached for meat as a delicacy over and above the domestic pig. For those people with whom they interact with regularly, wildlife can have a “corporeal charisma”, that is, “to the affections and emotions engendered by different organisms in their practical interactions with humans over varying time periods” (Lorimer, 2007, p. 921). The sacred fascination with and mythological traits of wild pigs reflect people’s mundane, flesh and blood interaction with these creatures. And in turn, the sacred charisma of wild boar can shape how people interact with these beings. Within certain cultures, the pig seems to possess a vital force that brings these animals constantly to attention (Lorimer, 2007). The presence in folktales, legends, and myth, constitutes part of this charisma, a magnetic effect that can both attract and repulse.
To a degree, we can look towards practices of hunting and agriculture – or other common contexts in which people’s observations of and encounters with wild boar are situated – to make sense of the shared traits the mythical boar expresses across cultures. Take for instance, Kakati’s (p. 81) note that the boar’s association with a storm god is a quality that extends across “Hindu, Germanic and Celtic myths” and a symbolic relation often closely linked to agriculture and fertility. The boar’s practice of uprooting the earth creates a landscape that resembles a tilled field. Biologically, pigs are deeply dependent on waterbodies, and the high reproduction rate of wild pigs is known to be timed with rains and high agricultural yield. Yet the presence of a herd of wild pigs can also deprecate crops with their hungry, rooting activity. These animals can be, as Kakati notes, ambivalent agents of growth and loss, both gods and demons. Interestingly, the wild pig’s links to rain and farming across these worldviews reveals them as beings of both the water and of the earth; Doniger (1998) calls the boar in the Visnuite myths as an “aquatic animal”. The amphibious nature of the wild boar is what allows it to participate in the larger cosmic drama – beings who can move between the formless cosmic waters and the earth, who can bring about creation and destruction.
Kakati further notes wild boar’s association with storms can also be linked the being’s manifestation as a “fighting god” or traits that amplify its adversarial spirit (see also van de Geer, 2008 on Panchatantra). In Greek and various European myths, origin accounts of heroes can sometimes revolve around the confrontation with and successful killing of a wild boar (Yamamoto, 2017). The notion of the wild boar’s vital, aggressive, and dangerous nature is likely related to the provocative encounters with these animals, such as during hunting, where male wild pigs might turn to attack the hunter and can seriously injure or kill the human.
LIVING WITH THE WORLD PIG
The comparative study of myth has never reached a respectably conclusive, academic explanation of why there are common elements to myth, worldwide. Arguably the most popular frameworks in this field adopt psychological explanations to grasp how similarities emerge, for example, the shared evolutionarily inherited binary structures of cognition, as per Levi-Strauss, or the archetypal foundations of the psyche, as per Jung. While Kakati does not presume any clear or definite explanation for why the boar is a common motif he does gesture the reader to towards what is known as the diffusion theory of myth, whereby symbols and systems disperse across time and space (see Witzel, 2012, for an overview of comparative mythological approaches). Kakati wonders whether the boar image might have been carried forth from a common origin or a “remote stage of humanity” transmitted within and across groups and transforming over time. The reader is asked to consider how overlapping traits of a sacred boar among cultures might have taken shape through a dialogue with the unrecorded stories of indigenous people, or that conceptions were “distributed over wide areas by wandering people and also that trade springs up between various communities and the influence of culture flows along trade routes etc” (p. 81).
Kakati is aware of how symbols change and acquire new forms and meanings over time, as with the case with the boar in the Hindu text where “novel features” were added to older myths. Instead of limiting his questions regarding the origin, development, and meaning of Hindu mythology within the boundaries of sub-continent, Kakati’s curious eye gazes beyond the canonical texts of Hinduism, and finds symbolic kinship with other cultures, civilisations, and historical periods. Goswami (1988) commented that Kakati’s strength was gathering and organising empirical material in a manner whereby the reader is intuitively struck by the force of a hypothesis – in this case the supra-Indian origin of myth – rather than devoting the time to articulating a fully-fledged theoretical framework. I cannot say whether, methodologically, this was Kakati’s intention or not. However, reading the chapter for the first time I was compelled by the cosmopolitan vision of the piece. Visnuite traditions, such as those particular to Assam, are embedded within and emerge from a global dialogue and broader temporal pattern and not reducible to a single origin point in India. These traditions are participants in history and ‘citizens of the world, part of unfolding of an interconnected system of different worldviews, both great and little. Through the boar we can grasp how these very distinct times and cultures are related as a single community.
Returning to the mundane entanglements between human and pig, we need to acknowledge how these flesh and blood critters have made Kakati’s vision possible. I would argue that Sus scrofa are deeply cosmopolitan themselves, at least by the traditional, natural-historical and non-anthropocentric sense of the word, which is: animals who have an expansive geographic distribution and are “eat-anything-live-anywhere” animals (Glendenning, 2015, p.16). A perfect description for these adaptable and omnivorous beings. Such a capacity meant that wild boar crossed paths and lived with humans across diverse ecological contexts. And enabled humans to become more cosmopolitan too, for instance, when pigs were translocated by migrating humans into new environments to serve as a familiar and accessible food source. Wild pigs have played an important role in linking places and people. If boar-related legends or mythological boars with specific characteristics did diffuse over time from a geographic centre or were exchanged horizontally between traders, communities, and civilisations, it was people’s widespread and everyday knowledge of flesh and blood pigs that help make these myths and legends relatable, sensical, and charismatic. Human-porcine entanglement expansively crossed geography and history facilitated the motifs reproduction over time.
Pig bodies are materially and symbolically enacted in diverse ways and their meaning and form vary depending upon the cultural context through which they travel. The collection that Kakati weaves together comes from a broad range of societies and social structures, ecological practices and environments, languages and ontologies. Yet the familiar traits of the symbolic boar allow us to imagine a correspondence between these worlds, a shared or mediatory language through which they could perhaps speak to and comprehend each other. Lust and virility are associated with male pigs in ways that seems to link not only the Tantric myths, the Greek gods, Byzantine churches, medieval English knights (see Yamamoto, 2017), but also 21st century capitalism: the obsession with the boar’s mythical virility persists through the unusual use of synthesised male pig pheromones in some perfumes! Like other charismatic animals and companion species such as elephants or dogs, the wild pig is a more-than-human being who possesses a remarkable power that enables humans to “forge connections across difference” (Barua, 2013, p 600). Perhaps, if anything, a more fitting name for Kakati’s chapter would be “the cosmopolitan boar.”
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