History of Greek Food

CHRISTMAS #2. Pig killing & animal sacrifice


Large numbers of pig carcasses are hanging on hooks in butcher shops. Christmas day is near….
Because the pig is the traditional meat for the most regions in Greece. And the days before and after Christmas is the peak of the pig killing season which begins  around the feast of St Demetrius (26 October).
Is there a connection between pig slaughtering and ancient animal sacriface?

It is known that ancient Greeks sacrificed pigs to Demeter, greek godess of agriculture and fertility, to her daughter Persephone and the chthonic dieties. Why? Partly because of the special powers attributed to pigs on account of their association with fertility and abundance of flesh and blood. Partly because of their association with dirt; since evil spirits were often equated with dirt, pigs’ death became equated with evil spirits’ death. For the same reasons pigs symbolized the ancient Greek vegetation daemon with the ambivalent powers to give fertility and destruction. Moreover, these animals were particularly important in rituals practiced by and for women (such as Demeter’s festivals). Why? Women were linked to fertility, however like pigs, evil spirits and the dead, they were considered ‘dirty’ when not ritually purified.

But in the year 392 A.D., the Olympic Pantheon was officially pronounced dead by Theodosios the Great, who made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. The truth is that the 12 ancient Gods had already declined, despite the fact that Christianity had absorbed many strands of ancient religion and philosophy. Did the animal sacrifices of the pagan Graeco-Roman world decline, as well?
Like a large part of the ancient Greek worshipping system which had been transformed and survived within Christianity – f.i. the hero and heroine cult, the honor paid to the dead etc.- conceptions, faiths, rituals and the strong tradition of animal sacrifice did transform too. Despite the criticism of the Fathers of the Curch, the decisions of Ecumenical and local Synods and the condemnations, animal sacrifice was much common among laymen throughout the Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. Why? Because on the one hand the Church did try to separate its cultic code from this kind of sacrifice but on the other hand it did not reject certain cults and rituals that had derived from the pagan religion. Why? Demetrios Constantelos (Christian Hellenism) has observed that ‘There were at least two distinct cultures during both the ancient and mediæval periods of Greek history: one peasant and one urban and elite. Mediæval peasant culture had more in common with ancient peasant culture than with the contemporary Christian culture of the educated urban elite, since it could more readily accommodate the lower forms of religious beliefs and practices.  So, in its attemp to spread the Christian faith, the Church did not systematically reject customs and beliefs that existed before and outside Christianity.
Until the 1960s, pig slaughtering was an important social occasion and a necessity,
for it meant full and plenty for all. Today pig killing is restricted in certain Aegean islands and mountain areas. However, killing and butchering are always done by the men who first make the sign of cross on the pig’s head, but it is always the women who make sausages, cure and smoke bones, meat, fat, cook, etc.

Some of the blood is poured on the fields or on the animals to ensure fertility and prosper through sympathetic magic.

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8 thoughts on “CHRISTMAS #2. Pig killing & animal sacrifice

  1. Ozlem

    ooops I was expecting to receive a notification. Thanks goodness I stopped by -by chance- today.
    so is it really based on some writer’s confusion on the topic?
    Pork & aygolemono & celery axxxx! Well some friends are bringing pork whenever they can, so I keep cooking and eating it here in Izmir. yes I guess I had my first in Crete.

  2. admin Post author

    Ozlem, in ancient Greek texts there are records of ritual killings and though many of them are mythical or late authors confused mythical details with past religious practices, some archaeologists have proposed human sacrifice as an explanation for their discoveries.
    Pork avgolemono eh? Did you taste it in Crete?

  3. Ozlem

    If I am not mistaking it s started with human sacrifices throughout the world in order to have fertile crops and as the civilization d improved they actually felt pity to sacrifice humans so they had started to offer only a small part of male sexual organ – and that was called circumsition afterwards. Later on the wives and/or the mates of men ve decided to offer cookies in the shape of male organ to be offered to fertility Gods/Goddesses, again for they didnt want their men to feel pain in order to have a fertile year.
    Afterwards and finally on various geographical territories, animal sacrifices were put into practice.
    (By the way, I wish they d sell pork in Turkey. I am dying to cook some with celery & aygolemono!)
    Kali xronia & xeretismous ap tin Smyrni

  4. admin Post author

    Thanks Cynthia! I accidentally found out that your comment had been stored in the spam box!

    Tasteofbeirut, Many of those rituals existed before Christianity. This implies that church, from the moment it had accepted them, tried very hard to give them new meanings and cover them with its ideology. Of course others rituals are of Jewish origin.

  5. tasteofbeirut

    I love to read your interesting posts. When I attended my nephew’s baptism last year, I was stunned to realize that so many rituals seemed totally pagan to me! (we did a procession holding candles around the pews, the priests gathered some wild herbs in a vial and sprinkled the baby with it, etc)

  6. admin Post author

    Tobias, the Greek meat consumption is traditionally based around pork during autumn and winter and around lamb during spring and summer.
    Until 1960s, a traditional Christmas meal was composed of cabbage dolmathes with minced pork meat filling, pork cooked with quinces, roast pork leg, pork cooked with leeks or/and celery, fried pork(North and North West Greece), pork with crushed wheat grains (North East Greece); boiled pork, pork cooked with hondros (cracked wheat grains cooked in milk and dried), baked pork, pork cooked with quinces or with chestnuts or with home made pasta or rice or chickpeas, etc. (Crete); pork cooked with cabbage or cauliflower or roast pork with garlic (Ionian islands) etc. Hen or turkey could be served on the second day of Christmas. However, in certain urban areas turkey could be the Christmas meat (West Crete, Syros, Asia Minor etc.)

  7. tobias cooks!

    Hi Mariana. I know that the Greeks eat pork all year around. Form what I can see at the butchers I am shopping at here in Athens, there is no increase of pork to be seen. So I wonder in which regions in Greece is this a traditional meat for Christmas?

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