Amores cerdos: An early modern Spanish ode to the pig (and to pork)
May 24, 2018
Sometime before 1608, a Spanish poet by the name of Juan de Arjona wrote an ode to the pig (see source 1). It survives in an unlikely place: an undated early modern book of religious poems, most dedicated to saints, which bears the title Mystic songbook (Canciones místicas) on its spine (see source 2).
Our poem was a bit on the profane side for a songbook about saints: a celebration of pigs and pork.
The protagonist, perhaps the poet himself, finds himself stumbling around the Greek island town of Thetis, having realized he had lost the Muses' favor and could no longer create witty rhymes. In order to win back the Muses, who happen to be four rowdy peasant women, he invites them to help him slaughter a pig he has been fattening at home for Saint Martin's Day, on November 11. Overjoyed by the prospect of eating pork (yet again), the Muses Berta, Toña, Pedrala, and Mafelina launch into a long and tone-deaf celebration of the delicious, mud-dwelling, refuse-eating ungulate. In a voice that sounded like "a neighing foal" Berta began her song:
O noble beast of virtues rich
[she says] that to honor you as you deserve
your fame is great and my power but a pinch
O bestia noble y de virtudes rrica
[dice] que para honrarte como es justo
tu fama es grande y mi potençia chica
She went on to defend the pig from its "crazy and barbarous" critics. True, the pig was indeed a lazy creature. Donkeys, dogs, oxen, sheep, horses, cats, roosters - they all did good work while alive. But when donkeys died they left behind nothing but beetles (?), horses poisonous snakes (??), and oxen bees (???). An interesting view on spontaneous generation.
The pig, however, was another story, for if the others generated a plague of vermin upon death, from this animal's body would spring "a bishop, reverend and wide." A pig was like a miserly man with a fortune - quite worthless when alive, but generous when dead.
Arjona dedicated much of the poem to the Ancient Greek myth of the Calydonian boar, using it to explain the animal's fall from grace. This segment trades the humor of the rest of the poem for humanism - a bad bet. Image: the Calydonian boar hunted by the gods, by a follower of Antonio Schiavone (late 1500s?). Follower of Andrea Schiavone. 16th century. Hunt of the Calydonian Boar. Place: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
And give the pig did. It was not just that its hooves, its tripe, sausage, or bacon were delicious. Boar urine unplugged ears; pig fat washed in vinegar or fresh water cured burn wounds; its lard was good for swollen faces, its feces curing ‘cámaras’ or hemorrhages (no thanks). Its jaw grease cured dry skin rashes and neutralized poisons, and, just as important, this all-curing lubricant could even restore one’s eyebrows.
And though some surgeon big-mouth
Might say this animal is not couth,
I say he is healthier than the butcher.
Y aunque algun çirujano palabrero
Quiere deçir que este animal no es sano,
Yo digo que es mas sano que el carnero.
Delicious and healthy - casting pearls to swine, the Muses noted, was perfectly reasonable. Mafelina and Toña added, after a long digression about the glories of the mythological Ancient Greek Calydonian Boar, that,
I know well how much [the pig] deserves,
And I treasure more a ham and an onion
Than all the silver Potosí the King serves.
Yo que conozco bien quanto merece
Preçio mas un jamon y una cebolla
Que quanta plata al Rei Potosí ofrece
The five daydreamed of a palace of pork - decked with ham and sausage, and better than any king's court:
Black pudding, haunch, and pork marmalade,
High walls and haunches drape,
Much better tapestries than brocade.
La morçila, el pernil, el adobado,
Altas paredes y humeros viste,
De mejores tapiçes que el brocado.
The poet then apologizes to his soon-to-be meal, as no Muse could truly do it justice.
O gentle animal that much more achieves,
As is my prolix song's lesson,
The most bountiful animal exceeds.
I say this not to tire, but that your worth is reckoned,
So that anyone who should be enemies with you,
Is an enemy of holy Heaven.
Ò gentil animal que tanto puede
Que como pruebe mi prolijo canto
El animal mas provechoso exçedes.
Digo por no cansar, que vales tanto
Que el que tuviere enemistad contigo
Enemigo será del çielo sancto.
Perhaps whoever found this poem and compiled it into the Mystic songboook felt the same: that enjoying pork was a Christian duty. There is a sinister undercurrent here, for in the late 1590s and 1600s Granada's population of Moriscos - recent converts from Islam to Christianity - could be accused by their neighbors for refusing to eat pork. Moreover, some Protestants, including Calvin, suggested that Adam and Eve had enjoyed an all-vegetable diet (see source 3), whereas Arjona wondered if they ate anything but pork during this Golden Age. However, these religious matters were for another day. The poem closes as the sun sets upon Thetis, and as the protagonist prepares his "joyous" November 11 feast for himself and his Muses.
In early modern Spain, as in Paradise, pork was always on the table.