Jews, pigs, blood, and the Goddess

By | Sunday, February 21, 2021 Leave a Comment

 Jews, pigs, blood, and the Goddess


Almost six years ago I first wrote about possible explanations for why Jews don’t eat pork. The essay was lengthy, yet it was incomplete – I could find no definitive answer. I can’t blame myself; no one really knows why Jews have a prohibition against pigs, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever be certain. For all my work, I didn’t have an answer any more than anyone else. Though unsurprising, it was deeply unsatisfying.

Over the years, I have kept my ears open for hints and clues that might help me come up with a better answer. This, then, is the result of pondering the question in the back of my mind over the years. I will not re-cover the ground that I plowed before. If you would like to read or review what I previously wrote, please check it out - Why Do Jewish Dietary Laws Prohibit Pigs?

Here, presented for your consideration, is my new hypothesis as to why Jews not only do not eat pork, but shun swine in every way: The Taweret Hypothesis.

Note: I am assuming that the laws of kashrut were not divine dictation, but rather that they are a human invention. If the rules laid out in Leviticus are truly the word of God, then no rationale need be ascertained. Also, I covered this postulate at some length in my earlier post.

I am also assuming that some portions of the Torah are at least based in truth, notably Exodus. Undoubtedly Exodus was corrupted through retelling as oral history, "spun" to make the story express the values that the author(s) held, and likely conflates multiple events into one, but, I believe it is at least loosely based on real events.

The archeological record is apparently spotty. The mud-brick houses of slaves in Egypt did not stand the test of time, and a tribe wandering in the desert left behind little besides footprints. But, archeologists and Egyptologists tell us that various Semitic groups were present in different parts of Egypt at around the time that Exodus was supposed to have occurred. Some Canaanites were trading with Egypt, others resided there, others were slaves, and still others became Pharaohs! Some escaped slavery, others merely moved on, and others were expelled when their dynasties fell. There is also debate as to whether any of these groups belonged to the "cult of Yahweh". Though these questions remain unresolved, there is general agreement that people who later became Israelites were probably in Egypt in some capacity at some point in history.

Leviticus 11:1-8


1 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, to say to them:


א וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה וְאֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹ֥ר אֲלֵהֶֽם:

2 Speak to the children of Israel, saying: These are the creatures that you may eat among all the animals on earth:


ב דַּבְּר֛וּ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֹ֤את הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תֹּֽאכְל֔וּ מִכָּל־הַבְּהֵמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:

3 Any animal that has a cloven hoof that is completely split into double hooves, and which brings up its cud that one you may eat.


ג כֹּ֣ל | מַפְרֶ֣סֶת פַּרְסָ֗ה וְשֹׁסַ֤עַת שֶׁ֨סַע֙ פְּרָסֹ֔ת מַֽעֲלַ֥ת גֵּרָ֖ה בַּבְּהֵמָ֑ה אֹתָ֖הּ תֹּאכֵֽלוּ:

4 But these you shall not eat among those that bring up the cud and those that have a cloven hoof: the camel, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you.


ד אַ֤ךְ אֶת־זֶה֙ לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְל֔וּ מִמַּֽעֲלֵי֙ הַגֵּרָ֔ה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵ֖י הַפַּרְסָ֑ה אֶת־הַ֠גָּמָ֠ל כִּי־מַֽעֲלֵ֨ה גֵרָ֜ה ה֗וּא וּפַרְסָה֙ אֵינֶ֣נּוּ מַפְרִ֔יס טָמֵ֥א ה֖וּא לָכֶֽם:

5 And the hyrax, because it brings up its cud, but will not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you;


ה וְאֶת־הַשָּׁפָ֗ן כִּי־מַֽעֲלֵ֤ה גֵרָה֙ ה֔וּא וּפַרְסָ֖ה לֹ֣א יַפְרִ֑יס טָמֵ֥א ה֖וּא לָכֶֽם:

6 And the hare, because it brings up its cud, but does not have a [completely] cloven hoof; it is unclean for you;


ו וְאֶת־הָֽאַרְנֶ֗בֶת כִּֽי־מַֽעֲלַ֤ת גֵּרָה֙ הִ֔וא וּפַרְסָ֖ה לֹ֣א הִפְרִ֑יסָה טְמֵאָ֥ה הִ֖וא לָכֶֽם:

7 And the pig, because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud; it is unclean for you.


ז וְאֶת־הַֽ֠חֲזִ֠יר כִּֽי־מַפְרִ֨יס פַּרְסָ֜ה ה֗וּא וְשֹׁסַ֥ע שֶׁ֨סַע֙ פַּרְסָ֔ה וְה֖וּא גֵּרָ֣ה לֹֽא־יִגָּ֑ר טָמֵ֥א ה֖וּא לָכֶֽם:

8 You shall not eat of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.


ח מִבְּשָׂרָם֙ לֹ֣א תֹאכֵ֔לוּ וּבְנִבְלָתָ֖ם לֹ֣א תִגָּ֑עוּ טְמֵאִ֥ים הֵ֖ם לָכֶֽם:

Why pigs?

Many animals of the land, sea, and air are prohibited in Kashrut. Why then do I, and other researchers, care so much about the rules pertaining to swine?

It is because pigs stand out as a special case. I turn here to (though in this they are hardly alone):

“There is probably no animal as disgusting to Jewish sensitivities as the pig. It’s not just because it may not be eaten: there are plenty of other animals that aren’t kosher either, but none of them arouse as much disgust as the pig. Colloquially, the pig is the ultimate symbol of loathing; when you say that someone ‘acted like a chazir [pig],’ it suggests that he or she did something unusually abominable. Indeed, many people think of pork, ham, bacon, etc., as the most unkosher foods there are… It’s not the only animal on the unkosher list, but it gets the worst treatment of any of them… Many call the animal davar acher, ‘another thing,’ rather than by its proper name.” 

[Side note: A Jewish friend of mine refused to even read an earlier version of this piece because it was about pigs. That's way beyond bacon.]

It is interesting that in Islam too, pork is a special case. Halal bans three categories of food (carrion, blood, and food that had been used as an offering to any god other than Allah), but only one animal. That animal is the pig, which is called out by name as being haram (forbidden).

Pigs as the sacred animal of Egyptian goddesses

I believe that the total ban on pigs and pork resulted from the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt; but they did not adopt a ban on pork in imitation of their former masters - rather it was a reaction to Egyptians holding pigs as sacred, not profane. Specifically, it was a reaction to the worship of the goddess-demon Taweret.


Statue of Taweret

Taweret, “The Great One”, or “The Great Female”, was a goddess of maternity and childbirth, and protector of women and children. Her sacred symbols were the hieroglyphs, sa, meaning protection and ankh, life – thus, she was a protector of life. Her appearance echoed the power that she wielded. She was presented as a combination of a hippopotamus, crocodile, and lion. All three are animals with great strength, well equipped to protect offspring. It was believed that she assisted women in labor and scared off demons that might harm the mother or child.

The Great Female was the goddess-demon defender of women and of the female realm. Taweret protected the home where her image was placed, and this is where she was worshipped.

The way she was regarded is unlike that of the majority of Egyptian gods and goddesses. Most gods had temples built by Pharaohs to glorify them and provide a home for them on earth. Commoners rarely, if ever, went into to these temples and were excluded from performing rites. They may have gone to the temple to pray or make offerings, but would not normally have entered the edifice. Indeed, certain casts were “unclean”, and thus banned from access to temples altogether.

What does Taweret have to do with pigs and Jews?

How does an Egyptian goddess relate to the Jews, and why would she cause the Jewish priests to declare pigs the most vile of all creatures on earth? Stay with me, because this is going to be a twisty ride, but it ends up in some interesting places.

Evidently, Egyptians believed that hippos were swine. Indeed, they were called “water sow”- not only pigs, but female pigs. As with many gods, Taweret had multiple names. Among hers was Reret, “the sow”. So, since Taweret was part hippopotamus, she was also part pig.

Leviticus provides a hint that the Jews agreed that hippos were pigs, since they were not named in the Kashrut. If hippos and pigs were both seen as swine, then only one of the two needed to be mentioned – which is the case. Had the Patriarchs believed that hippopotami were a separate species, then Leviticus should have listed them. As it happens, hippos do not have cloven hooves, nor do they chew their cud, so they embody a special case that we would expect to have been noted. But hippos are big, fierce, dangerous, nocturnal, animals. They spend their days in the water, only coming out at night to forage. We can imagine that few people got close enough to examine their feet. The images of Taweret give no clue, as she has the paws and feet of a lioness. I suggest that Jews of the time did not know how they were shod, and already believing that they were pigs, did not brave the hazard to find out.

According to the book of Exodus, Jews were in bondage in Egypt for 430 years - more than 20 generations. During such a long period it is inevitable that Egyptian ideas would have entered Jewish culture. Indeed, they may have been compelled to express fealty to Egyptian gods and adopt their cultural adornments.

Exodus tells us that during their years of wandering in the desert, the Jews stopped at the base of Mount Sinai while Moses ascended to receive the ten commandments. It is written that Moses was gone for longer than expected, causing the people to despair that he would never return. They demanded that Moses’ brother, Aaron, create a god “to go before them.” They melted down their gold jewelry from which Aaron formed the idol of the Golden Calf.

This imagery did not come out of nowhere. Had the Jews departed Egypt as committed monotheists, it would never have occurred to them to create an icon of a god other than Yahweh. The statue they made was probably of the “Apis Bull”, a sacred animal that was worshipped as a god in Egypt and around the region. The story of the Golden Calf, if true, makes it clear that during their time in Egypt the Jewish people adopted at least a few polytheistic notions of the divine. Wandering in the desert for decades did not wipe away generations of cultural pollution from Egyptian ideology.

The Apis Bull

[Aside: It is said that there were non-Jews that escaped from Egypt with the Jewish slaves, and it was they that convinced the group to make the Golden Calf. But, even then, if the Jews had been committed to Yahweh, it is unlikely that these outsiders could have moved the group to make the idol. That Moses’ own brother could be swayed is strong evidence that the grip of Yahweh was weak.

As a further aside, I also have to wonder how a bunch of Egyptian slaves had more than a thimbleful of gold among them, but that’s for a different investigation.]

Once returned to Israel, the Patriarchs would have wanted to consolidate their power over the people. To do so they needed to eliminate the influence of Egyptian theology and restore the monotheistic worship of “the one true god”, Yahweh. As noted, most of the Egyptian gods would have been very remote to Jewish slaves. Indeed, though they may have been involved in building the temples, once consecrated it is unlikely that a Jewish slave would ever have been allowed inside.

Striking down the worship of such gods would have been relatively easy among the men. A Jewish man may have heard of Ra, Osiris, Horus, Anubis, and the rest of the pantheon, but they were the gods of their oppressors, not deities that they interacted with themselves. But Taweret was different. She was a goddess worshipped at home, by women, and for women. She was an active participant in the lives of both Egyptian and Jewish women.

Though matrilineal, Judaism has always been patriarchal. Women bore and raised children, kept the home, cleaned, cooked all the food, acquired the ingredients, made clothing and other necessary items, created extra crafts and foods to take to the market to sell, and on and on. Men spent as much time as possible praying, studying scripture, and debating with other men. This structure is seen through the ages, during the diaspora, and even in modern orthodox homes.

Egypt was not quite so rigidly patriarchal. There were female goddesses and sometimes female pharaohs. Even the Nile was considered to be a female goddess. In the patriarchal Jewish culture, an image of female power such as that presented by Taweret would have been a significant threat, not just to monotheism, but to the male power structure. Jewish women were certainly slaves in Egypt; It is hard to say if their lot was any better under the Jewish patriarchy. Jewish women needed the protection of their goddess. Taweret was there in the home, sitting on a shelf in the kitchen, depicted on a wall, and hanging as an amulet on a chain close to their hearts.

Amulets of Taweret

So, the men prayed and studied. Their devotion returned to Yahweh and no other. But terminating the worship of Taweret by women would have posed a much greater challenge. To achieve this, she, in the form of her sacred animal, was shunned. If you could not even look upon a sow, you could no longer worship Taweret.

One can imagine a man going to his wife and telling her that God has decreed that they may not eat blood, carrion, rabbits, camels, nor swine. This might change her cuisine, but not her relationship to her god, Taweret. Should that same man tell his wife that God considers pigs to be the vilest of animals, such that they may not be raised, eaten, touched, or even looked at, well, now she’s got a problem. Give up Taweret, or give up her husband, her children, and her community.


I hope I have made a compelling argument for this new hypothesis regarding the Jewish prohibition against pigs. Until someone builds a time machine, we can never be certain of the true answer. But none of the previous explanations have ever felt completely reliable. The Taweret Hypothesis I present here holds together rather nicely, showing not only why pork is not eaten, but why swine are considered utterly unkosher.

Postscript: Blood

Below is another thought regarding Jewish misogyny and the roles of cleanliness and blood.

And he shall slaughter the young bull before the Lord. And Aaron's descendants, the kohanim, shall bring the blood, and dash the blood upon the altar, around [the altar] which is at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” - Leviticus 1:5

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the alter.” - Leviticus 17:10-14

Jews held blood as sacred. Metaphysically, they believed that it was blood that carried the soul. One can imagine how such an idea might come about - a hunter, soldier, or farmer observes that as the blood flows out of a body, so the person or creature fades and dies. There is something special in the living that is missing in the dead, and that something follows with the blood. Certainly, in pre-modern times, an injury serious enough to cause heavy bleeding could easily lead to a life threatening infection, even if one doesn’t bleed to death. So, keeping your blood inside your body was pretty important.

Blood was used for sacrifice but forbidden for other uses. Kashrut prohibits the consumption of the “lifeblood of the animal”. After slaughter, animals must bled dry, either by hanging until the blood stops, salting, boiling, or a combination of these. The blood must then be covered up, lest it go to any other purpose. Indeed, even eggs must be checked. If a single drop of blood is found in an egg, it must be discarded.

Yet, horrifyingly, it turns out that women bleed once a month without causing them any lasting harm, and without being an offering to God. What kind of foul magic is this? If your soul is spilling out of you on a regular basis, that is something that needs spiritual management. That it comes from the same place that brings us new life makes it doubly problematic.

Bloody hippos, bloody women

Which brings us back to the hippopotamus.

“Hippos secrete a reddish oily fluid sometimes called ‘blood sweat’ from special glands in their skin. ... Their skin is very sensitive to both drying and sunburn, so the secretion acts like an automatic skin ointment. It also protects the skin from becoming waterlogged when a hippo is in the water.” - Scientific American

Hippos, which were believed to be swine, appear to sweat blood, and yet oozing blood does not harm them. Sound familiar? Metaphorically, hippos, and therefore pigs, are menstruating all the time.

The Torah includes a set of ritual purity laws, call the niddah (meaning “separation” or “family purity.”) The simple, normal, natural, and predictable act of menstruation separates a woman from her husband. She must not have sexual relations with him while niddah lest she transfer her uncleanliness. Failure to set a spiritual fence around this act of bleeding, and that of childbirth with its concomitant blood, threatens to make a woman and her family unclean.

Just as obeying the laws of Kashrut makes one tohorah (“pure” or “clean”), and breaking them makes you tum’ah (“impure” or “unclean”), so the laws of niddah must be followed to remain pure in the eyes of God and the community. Though rooted in ordinary life, the niddah is focused on the conceptual. While unclean, the woman can spread her impurity to others.

Leviticus 15:19 and 24: “If a woman has an emission, and her emission in her flesh is blood, she shall be seven days in her [menstrual] separation, and anyone who touches her shall be [tum’ah]…  until evening… And if any man lie with her at all and her [menstrual] separation will be upon him, he will be [tum’ah] for seven days….”

Leviticus 20:18: “And if a man lie with a menstruating woman and reveal her nakedness, and she revealed the fountain of her blood, both of them will be cut off from among their people.”

Once a woman’s menstruation has stopped, she has physically returned to cleanliness, but she is still spiritually impure. She must then go to the mikvah (ritual bath), to become truly clean. It is only through this purification ritual that she consciously changes her status from tum’ah to tohorah.

[Aside: I have absolutely zero proof of this, but I would venture to bet that some rabbi, 3000 years ago, didn’t like having sex with his wife during her period, then, hey presto, “God” told him that it was forbidden. Now, if you don’t like having sex with your wife during her period, fine, work it out with her, but don’t make women feel ashamed of their bodies for the rest of eternity. Geesh.]

Women are also made impure due to the blood of birth. After giving birth to a boy, a woman is “separated” (sexually) from her husband for 7 days and is not fully tohorah until 33 days have passed. After the birth of a girl those times are doubled. [Wow, were these rules ever written by a man!] It has been suggested that a girl child is herself a “fountain of blood”, so the double waiting period covers the mother and the female child.

If you are going to be physically separated from your husband, and metaphysically separated from your tribe for 7 to 14 days immediately following childbirth, you’d better bring Taweret with you. You’re going to need her, because the male god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and, Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah) is more concerned that all blood be reserved to him than he is about you and your infant.

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