The Word a Day for today is pignus,

and it is accompanied by the comment:

It’s so unfair that in many cultures pigs symbolize all things uncultured.
In English we have idioms such as to pig out (to overeat), to be pigheaded
(stubborn), to be piggish (greedy or slovenly), to hog (take more than
one’s share) — all reflections of our bias. In truth, pigs are the most
intelligent animals after primates.  See more at

This comment about the much maligned pig reminded me of a tale regarding the value of pigs in Roviana, in the Western Province of Solomon Islands.  I heard from my in-laws a delightful story of how the early missionaries had the native people totally perplexed when they spoke about putting pearls before swine.  This was because to the Melanesians, the pig was a highly regarded and extremely valued animal, while pearls had little or no value at all.  they were regarded as not even as useful, for example, as the mother of pearl from the trochus shell, which was and is used for the beautiful inlay work for which the area is still famous.

In essence, the biblical metaphor was completely reversed.

Understanding was achieved when the missionaries switched to speaking of putting holy things (hopena) before dogs (siki).  The dog was considered the lowest of beasts. However this was not the best idea, to liken the misionaries’ words as valuable is all very well, but to insult those reluctant to listen to them by comparing them to dogs is not neceessarily brilliant logic.  To call someone a dog was the gravest insult. The only thing some might consider worse is to call them a crayfish-head (batu hikama) because the head of the crayfish is said to be full of faeces.

A similar amusing historical anecdote about mixed cultural messages was told to me of the time a British navy vessel came to pacify the natives of the Roviana and Vonavona lagoons with a demonstration of power.  They shelled the villages of some ‘troublemakers” but the captain of the ship came ashore to deliver a warning in person to Kengava, the chief of the Saikile clan.  Igava offered the captain a meal and served him in person, seating him on a chair at a european style table he had obtained somewhere.  Igava stood beside the table while the Englishman ate the food brought to him.

The British went away satisfied that, by his offering of food and his servile attitude,  Igava had demonstrated he fully understood his place in the scheme of things, while the entire Saikile tribe marvelled at how Igava had greatly increased his prestige (mana) by having this distinguished guest accept food from Igava’s own hands, and whats more , increased it even further by having the guest actually seated before him eating the food while Igava stood by.  In their eyes this was a clear demonstration of Igava’s dominance as well as his power and generosity.

The fact that this story is remembered by the storytellers so long after the event (in the mid 1800s, I believe) gives an indication of its significance.

Thus it can be seen that cultural context is very important if you want to understand someone.


About Uisce úr

Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
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