Suckling Pigs and Divine Nobles in Ancient Egypt

[First posted August 2009,  Revised 08 December 2011]

The topic of pigs in Ancient Egypt has had a history based, in early years, perhaps more on pigs in Egypt today rather than the raising of pigs based on textual and pictorial records from the Nile Valley.

More pig remains have been recently found at Amarna, the residence of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, suggesting that pigs may have been ritually/symbolically injured and/or killed – in addition to being eaten.

Pig remains at Amarna. Source> The Amarna Project

  • A recipe for Wild Boar in Groundnut Sauce will be found at the bottom of the blog.

An intriguing footnote to the history of pigs in Ancient Egypt is found in the tomb of the Vizier Kagemni Kagemni - sm who lived c.2330 BC during the Old Kingdom.  In his tomb *mastaba* are wonderfully detailed scenes in raised relief ,  of daily life and of wild life.

Herders move cattle across the water, the herder in front holds a calf that is calling to its mother, thus hurrying the herd forward

In the lower register, herders move cattle across the water, the herder in front holds a calf that is calling to its mother, thus hurrying the herd forward. Source>

Fishermen spearing fish - over 10 varieties are shown

Fishing by means of spears and hooks - over 10 varieties of fish are shown in the full register. Source

Hunting hippos with spears and ropes

Hunting hippos with spears and ropes - a dangerous occupation; hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal. They are mean and fast. Source

One of the scenes showing livestock and fishing activities

Livestock and fishing activities. Source>

In the top register of the above relief is shown a swineherd giving what appears to be milk to a piglet.  Another swineherd stands beside him with a vessel containing the milk.  Closeup:

Source:  (c) Max Buten

Source: (c) Max Buten

I think that the objective is not to feed an orphaned pig, but to produce fattened suckling pigs for Kagemni’s court.   If so, then the depiction suggests that pork was specially raised and eaten by the elite – at least in the Old Kingdom – and was not an animal eaten primarily by the poor as often suggested for later periods of Egyptian history, which was specifically stated by Herodotus, who lived over 2000 years later than Kagemni.

‘Even’ food taboos change in the same locale over time.  But the tenancy to think and write about  ancient Egypt as a kind of timeless entity can obscure this reality.

What kind of pig would this have been?  Ancient Egyptian pigs were long snouted and closer to wild pigs, such as this one:

Wild boar in the swamps.   Source: Wikipedia

Wild boar in the swamps. Source: Wikipedia

The importance of pigs for Kagemni is suggested in one of his many titles, ‘Overseer of the King’s Fowling Marsh‘.  As shown above, pigs thrive in marshy areas, and from the scenes shown in the registers of his tomb, marshes and aquatic activities were important in Kagemni’s  economic and social activities.  It is possible that suckling pigs were roasted as in Bali, where they feature as a major culinary treat being spit-roasted:

Spit-roasted suckling pig in Bali.  Source:

Spit-roasted suckling pig in Bali. Source:

And as we will see in an upcoming blog,, at least in later periods of Egyptian history, different parts of the pig were used in medical treatment, in spite of their mixed reputation.  All of which suggests, at least to me, that throughout over 3000 years of history there are simply too many lacunae along the historical trail to allow for many generalizations.  A bit of data here; a bit there, serendipitously preserved, is what remains.  Kagemni apparently raised suckling pigs for the table – but royalty during the time of Herodotus wouldn’t be seen dead with such a depiction in their tomb… At least not according to Herodotus.

The Noble Kagemni:

Kagemni, Tomb at Saqqara.  Source:  (c) Greg Reeder

Kagemni, Tomb at Saqqara. Source: (c) Greg Reeder

“The State Vizier, Kagemni, says: ‘I was the favourite of (the pharaoh)…  I filled the task of civil servant of the state, in the time of (the pharaoh) Unas.  His Majesty rewarded me very generously… (he) named me as the head of all offices, on service at any hour at the Residence.  His Majesty had confidence regarding all things which (he) had ordered to be done, because I was capable… You won’t be able to throw slanders against me, because the sovereign knows my character and my conduct…pleased that in his civil servant…speaks the truth and repeats the good in what the king likes.’”

– Inscription from the tomb.  Source:  Osirisnet

Mastaba (tomb) of Kagemni under Pharaoh Teti I of the VI Dynasty

Mastaba (tomb) of Kagemni under Pharaoh Teti I of the VI Dynasty

I want to end with a few words about the Vizier Kagemni, in whose tomb all of this information is found, for he was a fascinating nobleman.  He married the Pharaoh’s daughter and aside from being Vizier, held over 100 other titles, amongst which were several that are interesting for their agricultural activities:

Some of Kagemni's titles that I've selected.  Source:  Osirusnet

. Source: Osirusnet

Above are listed several of Kagemni’s titles that I’ve selected, showing the importance of various agricultural activities.  He controlled not only fowling grounds, but also the granaries of Upper and Lower Egypt as well as what must have been a major vineyard

As for the Instructions by which future generations remembered him, only a few lines are left.  They are sections that deal primarily with food and eating:

When you sit with company, shun the food you like. Restraint of heart is (only) a brief moment! Gluttony is base and one points the finger at it. A cup of water quenches thirst, a mouthful of herbs strengthens the heart. A single good thing stands for goodness as a whole, a little something stands for much. Vile is he whose belly is voracious; time passes and he forgets in whose house the belly strides. When you sit with a glutton, eat when his appetite has passed. When you drink with a drunkard, partake when his heart is happy. Do not grab (your) meat by the side of a glutton, (but) take when he gives you, do not refuse it, then it will soothe.

He who is blameless in matters of food, no word can prevail against him. The shy of face, even impassive of heart, the harsh is kinder to him than to his (own) mother, all people are his servants. Let your name go forth, while you are silent with your mouth. When you are summoned, be not great of heart because of your strength among those your age, lest you be opposed. One knows not what may happen, and what god does when he punishes.

The vizier had his children summoned, after he had gained a complete knowledge of the ways of men, their character having come upon him. In the end he said to them: “All that is written in this book, heed it as I said it. Do not go beyond what has been set down.” Then they placed themselves on their bellies. They recited it aloud as it was written. It was good in their hearts beyond anything in this entire land. They stood and sat accordingly.

Then the majesty of king Huni of Upper and Lower Egypt died. The majesty of king Snefru of Upper and Lower Egypt was raised up as beneficent king in this entire land. Kagemni was (then) made overseer of the city and vizier. It is finished.”

Instructional literature in ancient Egypt was similar to Adab literature in classical Arabic – prescriptions on the correct manner to behave in different situations, etc.  The Emily Post of the Elite, and as is stated at the end of the Instructions of  Kagemni:

They recited it aloud as it was written.  It was good in their hearts beyond anything in this entire land.  They stood and sat accordingly.

+ + + + +

In spite of what popular accounts say, absolutely no recipes have been found from ancient Egyptian sources. A lot of pictures of agriculture, of food processing techniques, of offering tables, and the like.  But no recipes!  Therefore, I am putting up a recipe for wild boar that is used in our area – central Africa – and that is very delicious (Hint:  Try to use peanuts, not peanut butter).  It is from The Congo Cookbook, which I consider the best source for Sub-Saharan African food, recipes, and related lore on the net.  Check it out!

Wild Boar in Groundnut Sauce – Central Africa

In Africa, the term bushmeat is applied to any game caught in the wild. Wild boar (or wild pig) is a popular bushmeat in Africa (except among Muslims). If you don’t have any wild boar on hand, substitute any other game or pork.

What you need

  • two or three pounds of wild boar or pork (any part); cut into bite-sized or serving-sized pieces
  • salt (to taste)
  • black pepper (to taste)
  • a few onions, chopped
  • a few tomatoes, peeled and chopped
  • one cup peanut butter (natural or homemade), or similar amount of fresh or roasted peanuts
  • oil for frying

What you do

  • If using peanuts instead of peanut butter:
    Roast the peanuts in a baking pan in a hot oven, or on the stove in a large skillet, turning often. Remove the skins from the peanuts and mash them with a mortar and pestle, mince them with a knife, crush them with a rolling-pin, or use a chop them fine in a food-processor.
  • Heat a few spoonfuls of oil in a large pot. Add the meat and fry it until it is browned but not done. Reduce heat. Add water, salt, and pepper and simmer for about half an hour.
  • Add the tomatoes and onions and continue to simmer until the meat is done and becoming tender.
  • Remove some of the liquid and mix it with the peanut butter to make a smooth sauce. Add this to the meat-tomato-onion mixture.
  • Continue to simmer on a very low heat until the meat is very tender.
  • Serve with fried or boiled plantains, or Baton de Manioc, Fufu, or Rice

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Cuisine, Egypt-Ancient, Food, History, History of pigs, Livestock, Middle East, Nile Valley, pharaoh Akhnaton, Wild boar, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Suckling Pigs and Divine Nobles in Ancient Egypt

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  4. dianabuja says:

    Yes; perhaps in part due to an anti-social aspect of gluttony: over-eating and -drinking in the face of the destitute would not be be the best role model for a wise ruler. As well, religious dimensions (though certainly that was not the case in ancient Egypt).

    I agree about taboos beginning to appear in the Middle East during the time frame that you suggest – and continuing a little later with regard to the emergence of asceticism in the Nile Valley. Though elsewhere – and I’m thinking of sub Saharan Africa and elsewhere – food taboos are a part of traditional culinary practices, especially for persons moving through different life cycle categories.


  5. Interesting how often the anti-gluttony injunction turns up in different societies.

    Also agree about taboos. My suspicion is that say 800BC -couple of hundred years AD was a big period for taboo construction.


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