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Weekly Edition 039: Saturday 24th November 2001

<< Island Ecology by José P Ribas

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An Anthropological View
by Kirk W Huffman

"Ric com un Verga"
Of Pigs and Men on Eivissa/Ibiza - Part Nine

This week I was meant to be dealing with the last family feast/dinner that closes the matanša (pig killing) day amongst rural pagesos eivissencos (Ibicenco peasants), but the large amount of time spent relatively immobile during the last two intense storms over this part of the world over the last couple of weeks has given me time to ponder an aspect of pigs that is almost completely unknown amongst the younger generation of Ibicencos, but widely known amongst many of the cultures of northern Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific. I am thinking here about hermaphroditism amongst pigs, i.e., pigs that are born exhibiting aspects of both male and female characteristics. In traditional Eivissa it was considered a problem: in many of the cultures of northern Vanuatu it is considered almost 'a gift from the gods' and has major cultural implications. Readers overseas at this point may scratch their heads and think, "What is this Ibiza website all about? All we want to find out about are the discotheques! We have been subjected so far to eight articles about the importance of pigs on an island that we thought only existed for 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' and now we are delving into hermaphrodite pigs! What's going on?" Well, 'Electronic LiveIbiza' is, without doubt, the only Ibiza website with enough 'balls' to really look at certain things in depth - or to even mention them at all.

Intersex pigs. The proper scientific term for hermaphrodite pigs is 'intersex pigs'. Farmers in England sometimes call these rare pigsĺ 'sports'. This pig intersexuality is found worldwide and about 1% of pigs born on farms in Europe and the United States are born as intersexuals. This happens as the result of hormonal mistakes during development and almost always concerns the masculinization of a female pig. There is, however, an even rarer kind of pig sexual hybrid, which is basically the feminization of a male pig: these rarer hybrids occur about only once in every 20,000 pig births. In the latter cases a genetic male pig, because of a defect in its enzyme pathways, gets insufficient exposure to testosterone. This results in the animal, when mature, having predominantly female external genitalia but male internal organs. Technically, this latter condition is termed 'male pseudohermaphroditism' and there has been much scientific interest in similar conditions amongst humans. The former, commoner, kind occurs amongst pigs in Europe, The US, and Eivissa. The latter, much rarer, form occurs widely in northern Vanuatu. World attitudes to such conditions in pigs seem to mirror world attitudes to such conditions in humans, varying from the 'it's a problem' attitude to one where such conditions are considered to be something special or at least something not to be despised.

'Cabra Boc'/'Truja Porc'? It is the widespread existence and ritual use of 'hermaphroditic' pigs in northern Vanuatu that led me to enquire amongst Ibicenco friends about the possible existence of and attitudes towards intersex pigs amongst rural peasants here on the island. My questions were almost invariably greeted with astonishment, particularly amongst younger Ibicencos who assured me that no pigs like this (had ever) existed on the island and that there was no name for them. But one should never give up. I remember being faced with a slightly similar situation in 1994 when I was trying to find out the Eivissenc language term for a 'lullaby', normally called 'cancion de cuna' (cradle song) in Spanish. I went around asking many Ibicenco friends what they called a 'cancion de cuna' in their language. The unanimous reply was that there was no such term in Eivissenc language. This puzzled me greatly, as all cultures in the world have soothing songs that are sung to young babies, to calm them and help them to relax and sleep. I was very puzzled. Were pagesos eivissencos possibly the only culture in the world not to have such a universal human cultural attribute? Admittedly, many of the younger generation in our 'modern' Euro-American series of cultures might not know how to sing a lullaby even if their lives depended upon it, but that is just one of the many signs of the breakdown in cultural transmission in our modern societies, where rapid technological advances seem to parallel the increasing 'primitivization' of many non-technical aspects of our cultures. At least the concept of lullabies exists in our cultures, and one only has to ask one's grandparents. But here on Eivissa I seemed to be faced with a blank cultural wall: such cradle songs did not exist. Well, that is what I began to think, until a chance hint made me realize that I was possibly asking the right question but in the wrong way, that maybe what I was asking for did exist but not in the way that I was asking it. I found out that my mistake was asking for the Eivissenc language equivalent of '(Spanish) cradle songs'. It suddenly struck me that it is rather difficult to have 'cradle songs' if one is from a culture, like traditional rural Eivissenc culture, where, to put it mildly, cradles were not a well known cultural item. That was the breakthrough: Ibicenco peasants didn't have cradle songs, but they did/do, of course, have lullabies. The difference was/is that pagesos eivissencos traditionally held/hold the small children in crossed arms held to one side of the body whilst singing to them. Thus they have 'crossed arm songs', canšo de brassols.

Similar misunderstandings can crop up on both sides of the enquiry fence. I remember once in 1992, high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia, inquiring through an Indian interpreter about the traditional use of a large square open stone 'tank' area (that looked like an early swimming pool) in an ancient abandoned stone city. Archaeologists had called the feature a 'water storage area', or something like that. They had, however, obviously not asked the isolated Indian groups living higher up the mountain who were related to, and partially descended from, the original inhabitants of that once-great city. My mountain Indian interpreter had spent some time down on the northern Colombian coast and was therefore well aware of many of the accoutrements of 'modern' life. He told me the tank was used as a 'telephone'. It was only after gaining further insights into the living traditional Indian culture higher up the mountain that I understood what he was trying to say. The traditional sun priests of this living culture often go into a deep meditation state for a period of nine days, during which time they are not permitted to eat anything. Their meditation and subsequent mental voyaging/travelling/communication is assisted by being in a secure, darkened place, much like the darkened cave or hut where they are originally trained for (a minimum of) nine years. This 'water storage area' was, in reality, the specially constructed place in the ancient city where the priests could meditate and communicate with the non-material world, secure and darkened once the priest was inside and a special covering was placed over the tank's top, to keep out the sun.

No one amongst the first Ibicencos that I asked about hermaphrodite/intersex pigs had heard anything about them, and all seemed to insist that such creatures 'could not be'. Most had not deemed it worthwhile asking the older people in their families as they were convinced that such strange animals did not exist (and also the whole thing seemed rather embarrassing). After repeated inquiries, though, one Ibicenco friend asked his elderly mother, and was surprised by the answer. Yes, she had heard of such pigs on Eivissa and she said they were like 'cabra boc'. In Spanish also a 'cabra' is a female goat. In Eivissa a 'cabra boc' is a female goat with certain male characteristics, an intersex goat. Such goats are looked upon as having an illness and are usually killed very young. And so with the very rare intersex pigs on Eivissa: once one had established that one old woman had heard about them and that 'they were like cabra boc', things began to fall into place. No Ibicenco friend has yet come up with a proper name for them, although one has suggested 'truja porc' ('sow boar'), which would follow the term for the similar goat, but an ancient special term may eventually surface. A learned Ibicenco friend told me yesterday morning that the reason that very few people know about such pigs here is that not only were/are they very rare (and the numbers of pigs on Eivissa are relatively limited, compared to other parts of the world) but that, like cabra boc, the condition was looked upon not just as a sort of illness but also as a sign of evil or bad luck, so such pigs would be killed very shortly after birth. They would probably not be much talked about either, as, as they were looked upon as a sign of evil or bad luck, one would not want to let one's neighbours know that one's truja (sow) had given birth to such a creature as then news would spread rapidly throughout the countryside to the detriment of the status of one's household (and the loss in status of one's 'embutidos').

This Eivissenc attitude to such intersex pigs contrasts dramatically with cultural attitudes to relatively similar pigs in areas of northern Vanuatu. Vanuatu is the peak of the 'pig culture complex' that is found throughout most of the Melanesian islands (West Papua/Irian Jaya, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I here exclude New Caledonia, as pigs never reached there in ancient times). In areas of Vanuatu, depending on the culture (and there are many!), male pigs can serve as a form of currency, but this is a currency which in its higher forms can have a soul and its own language. In the northern islands of Vanuatu the male pig's upper canine teeth are extracted when young so that the lower tusks can grow unimpeded, and grow they do, taking 6-7 years to form a complete circle. It is the tusk curvature (on the living pig, the tusk alone in itself has no actual 'currency' value) that denotes the value of the pig, and each development in growth of the tusk has a particular name and value. Certain cultures of northern Vanuatu believe that pigs possess a form of 'soul' that can be absorbed into a human if used - and basically, sacrificed - in the correct ritual way. Pig rearing, manipulation and sacrifice can increase one's social status through a complex hierarchy of graded levels and ensure one's safe passage to the World of the Dead. A series of islands in northern Vanuatu go a bit more into this pig world by culturally valuing not just male tusker pigs but also placing even greater value on hermaphroditic pigs, or pigs that might be called intersex pigs. The tusks of these pigs are more appreciated in this smaller chain of cultures, they grow more finely and are shinier, whiter. There is a major physical difference, though, between Ibicencan intersex pigs and their 'relatives' in Vanuatu. In Europe - and Eivissa - almost all the rare intersex pigs would be basically female pigs that are 'masculinized' (about one in every 100 births) whereas in northern Vanuatu these special pigs, known generally as 'Narave'/Narawe' in the local form of pidgin English, Bislama, are basically male pigs that have external feminine characteristics (about one in every 20,000 births in our 'European'/'Large White'/'China White' type of pigs). These latter, as mentioned above, are more properly called 'male pseudohermaphrodites' rather than 'intersexes'. The amazing thing is that in some of these areas of Vanuatu where the 'Narave'/'Narawe' is culturally useful and admired their frequency of birth is sometimes as much as 10% to 20% of the pig population. This situation has obviously been arrived at by selective inbreeding over the course of centuries, thus accentuating a culturally valued trait.

Which just goes to show you that what one culture may consider as bad, evil or abnormal can be looked upon as desired, appreciated and valued by another. And with those thoughts I leave you for this week.

Kirk W Huffman

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