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It has been a while since I have done a post concerning all things gothic.  To this end, I was researching images of the magnificent ruined Melrose Abbey in Scotland when I stumbled across the following picture of a gargoyle from Melrose’s ruined walls.

A gargoyle/sculpture on Melrose Abbey

An older photo of the same sculpture

It’s a pig playing a bagpipe!  And it isn’t alone.  Apparently this was a very popular image in the medieval Celtic world.  Pigs with bagpipes show up again and again in carvings and illuminations from Ireland, Scotland, and North England–and nobody is sure why.

Another carving of a pig piper from an ancient misericord in the cathedral city of Ripon in Yorkshire

In an article concerning the history of the bagpipe, distinguished Scottish historian (and piper), Hugh Cheape, speculates about the reason:

Strong visual imagery is a consistent and important element in medieval art and sculpture, and the bagpipe is found being symbolically played by pigs and angels. There are intriguingly different ways of explaining the pig pipers of the medieval period. On the one hand, by giving the bagpipe to a pig, it emphatically lowers the status of the instrument but associates it with the animal which could provide an airtight reservoir for the pipe bag. On the other hand it was said that pigs were lovers of music and were often shown in art as musicians, especially in ‘Bestiaries’ which were a popular type of book in the medieval period describing animals in a sort of ‘natural history’ but placing them in an ‘unnatural history’ of allegorical narrative.

How delightful!  I am a big fan of pigs and I probably ought to write about the bagpipe, that strange shrieking instrument, which is believed to have an ancient history dipped in war and magic.

Oh, and I should not neglect my original purpose of showing Melrose Abbey, the epitome of Gothic architecture in Scotland.  Constructed in 1136 by Cistercian brothers, Melrose Abbey replaced an ancient monastery to Saint Aiden which had been founded in the 7th century. The new Melrose Abbey was burned by Richard II in 1385 but rebuilt. In 1544, English armies again burned the rebuilt Abbey as part of their effort to coerce the Mary, Queen of Scots to marry the child son of Henry VIII.  After this the Abbey was not rebuilt, but its beautiful ruins are a major tourist destination in their own right.

The ruins of Melrose Abbey


Theseus Fiighting the Crommyon Sow and Phaea (Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci)

In Greek myth, the Crommyonian sow was a great she-pig which lived on the Isthmus of Corinth and tormented travelers until the Athenian hero Theseus came along and killed her.  In some tales the sow was a lone wild animal, but in other stories she had a human woman named Phaea associated with her: it is unclear whether this woman was young or old, lovely or haggard, a rude swineheard or a great sorceress.  A few sources indicate she herself might have been a shapeshifter who became the pig.  Whatever the case, Theseus slew her in addition to her sow.  The Borghese Gallery has a very strange relief sculpture by Vincenzo Pacetti which portrays Theseus handling Phaea’s nude (human) corpse and looking perplexed.

It’s kind of unclear what happened here. Of all the children of Echidna, the Crommyonian sow seems to get the shortest shrift in art and literature.  The sow vanishes from almost everything made after the fifth century BC.  There are numerous red and black vases depicting Theseus fighting the great pig and/or her associated sorceress, so it seems like the story was important to Athenians.  However the full version of this myth seems to have been lost in the mists of time and all we have are allusions and brief conflicting accounts [this sentence could apply to just about everything—ed].  Strabo asserts that the sow was the mother of the great Calydonian boar, whose mythical life and death engendered much strife, chauvinism, murder, and grief in the pantheon of Classical heroes. So perhaps, like Echidna, the sow found her greatest fame through her descendants.

A Wild Sow with her Shoats

I am going to go with Strabo and assume that the Calydonian Boar has a place in my musings about Echidna (being her grandson and all).  The boar was sent by Artemis to obtain revenge on King Oeneus the winemaker who forgot to honor the goddess with ritual sacrifices.  The monster destroyed the king’s vineyards and murdered his subjects, but it was only when Oeneus gathered the heroes of his age and sent them out (with his beloved son Meleager) to kill the boar that the virgin goddess obtained her true and terrible revenge.  The machinations behind the story are long and complicated (and sad), but the story of the hunt of the Calydonian boar suits my Halloween theme for an entirely different reason.  This was a favorite theme of sarcophagus makers who enjoyed sculpting beautiful armed nudes in the passion of the hunt.  Beneath is a gallery of Calydonian boar themed sarcophagi from the lost classical world.  The makers knew the story’s terrible fatalist tragedy (which I am not telling you) and they found it a most fitting subject for funerary art:

Roman marble sarcophagus from Vicovaro (municipality northeast of Rome), carved with the Calydonian Hunt (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome)

Attic sarcophagos. Pentelic marble. Found at Ayios Ioannis, Patras.

Greek Sarcophagus of the Calydonian Boar Hunt (Piraeus Archeological Museum, Athens)

Sculpted neo attic sarcophagus representing the Calydonian boar hunt with Atalanta and Meleager in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (Second quarter of the 3rd c. AD)

A Sarcophagus with the Calydonian Boar Hunt (provenance unknown)

Etruscan cinerary urn with boar hunt, 2nd C BCE, Volterra Museo Guarnacci


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

December 2022