“We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us”
J.C. Bridge no.382, page 149
J.C. Bridge does not say why this proverb is supposed to be characteristic of Cheshire, and nor is he at all helpful as to its origins and meaning. One of the puzzles in the proverb is the idea implicit in the phrasing that being eaten by a pig does not necessarily result in instant death. Alternatively, the phrase might be interpreted as suggesting that we will live until we are supposed to die unless the pigs get to us first, suggesting an interruption to the divine plan that would otherwise see us die on a certain date. How to get nearer to the actual meaning?
Bridge, apparently in an attempt to elucidate the situation, makes the sole comment “We shall live till we die like Tantrabobus” and leaves us to make of that what we may. I remained unenlightened. I had no idea what or who a Tantrobobus might be, and the matter is still more than a little opaque. The word was certainly a late 18th century colloquial term used in the U.S. state of Vermont. The Only in Arkansas website describes it as follows:
A Tantrabobus, or ‘Haint’ was an evil monster rumored to live inside wells. According to Philip Steele’s book Ozark Tales and Superstitions, children were encouraged to never look inside wells lest the monsters place a spell on them and draw them down into the darkness forever.
[Ozark is an area shared between neighbouring Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma]
This story is echoed in various Arkansas-related websites and books, and was clearly a widespread legend, perhaps dreamed up and disseminated by parents to warn children against the dangers of deep wells. Painting the ceiling of a house porch blue was supposed to scare off the haint.
Unless the origins of the well-inhabiting monster were in England, it’s difficult to see how it relates to a Cheshire proverb. A slightly different word, however, does originate in England. “Tantarabobs” was apparently a Devonshire name for the devil, and the Oxford University Press’s blog offers another devil-related version:
Tantrumbobus is a relative of Flibbertigibbet, Hoberdidance, and Obidicut (also known as Haberdicut), the fiends mentioned in King Lear. I wonder whether English dander “to walk around; to talk inherently” and especially Old High German tantaron “to be out of one’s mind” are kin of the British devils, and, if so, whether those devils were also known on the continent.
All very interesting, but I still had no idea why anyone might be eaten by a pig before the date in Death’s personal organizer.
The country of the Gadarenes
In ancient Egypt, the pig is associated with Seth, the ambivalent but mainly trouble-making deity, in direct opposition to the good god Osiris, who Seth killed and dismembered, scattering his remains in the Nile (but don’t panic; he was re-assembled and resurrected by the goddess Isis). Following the Egyptian idea of evil and pigs being identified with one another, I had a look around and sure enough, the Christian devil is sometimes equated to a pig. According to the Open Bible website, there are numerous verses that concern themselves with pigs. One in particular, in Matthew 8:28-32, tells a story of transmogrification, whereby humans are converted into pigs (English Standard Version):
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.
Fascinating and horrifying, but not an explanation of being eaten, unless “eat” is a metaphor for being transmogrified / transmigrated. This is what Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) inferred in the late 19th Century. His longer version of the proverb is “Ah well, we shall live till we die, if the pigs don’t eat us, and then we shall go acorning.” He writes that the proverb is “a clear survival of the belief in transmigration, for he who is eaten by a pig becomes a pig, and goeth with the swine to eat acorns.”
The story Jeffries recounts to illustrate this is the nearest I have found to an explanation of the proverb. He tells the tale of a village elder who had been generous to everyone around him, but had suffered persecution. He magnanimously ignored the offenses against him, but his rather less forgiving family consoled themselves with this proverb. I take it from this that the family thought that the perpetrators would suffer some form of retribution roughly comparable to being consumed by pigs and forced to eat acorns.
In other words, what goes around comes around.
All of that offers some sort of answer about the connection between the Tantrabobus, the pig and the devil, and also gets close to what the proverb may mean, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near to explaining why this proverb was considered by Bridge to have some peculiar connection to Cheshire. So my final question concerned the role of pig in Cheshire farming through the centuries prior to Bridge’s 1917 book.
Pigs in Cheshire
Generically, because pigs are omnivorous, will eat agricultural and household waste and will happily forage in woodland, and because they have big litters of piglets that can be eaten or sold, they offer a useful complement to the big three livestock breeds: cattle, sheep and goat. The big three give birth to only one or two infants at a time, and although these too can be eaten or traded, their great value lies in the fact that the females can be milked and used to produce dairy products. In terms of both meat and dairy, livestock represents storage on the hoof. If disease hits any of the big three herds, the recovery time can take many, many years. The big three are therefore curated with great care, whilst pigs, being both easier to feed and producing multiple offspring, are inherently much more disposable.
During the Anglo-Saxon period, the pannage system involved the seasonal driving of pigs into woodland to feed upon acorns, nuts, rhizomes and roots. In some areas this persisted well into the Medieval period. Cheshire, once full of rich forests, was ideal pig territory, offering shade, food and shelter, because pigs, in their natural environment, are woodland dwellers. Although often seen in Britain today in open fields, in their preferred habitat they forage with their leathery snouts for roots and nuts under trees, and they nest in hollowed-out depressions. They cannot perspire, so they wallow in woodland mud and pools of water to keep cool in the summer. Sociable creatures, they tend to form communities.
In the later Middle Ages, there is plenty of evidence that pigs were increasingly managed as a resource, making use of their singularly indiscriminating appetites to trim down agricultural stubble, devour household waste (including food leftovers and household rubbish) and the by-products of dairying, and in Cheshire this was particularly related to cheese-making. Many became enclosed in fields, gardens and even sheds. A single pig could be kept by even the poorest householder, and the owner of several pigs could generate a good income by selling both piglets and fattened pigs for slaughter. As late as 1550 it is recorded that pigs still roamed the streets in Chester, and they were probably even more prominent in everyday village life.
In the latter part of the 18th Century, pig keeping was usually an essential part of farming practise, even on farms dedicated to cheese-making. Geoffrey Scard gives the example of a 25 acre dairy farm majoring on cheese, which had the following holding of livestock in the latter part of the 18th Century:
9 crossbred Cheshire shorthorns, 2 yearling heifers, 2 heifer calves, 10 pigs and 20 hens.
Pigs were clearly an essential part of the economic profile of the farm. Scard next gives the example of the much larger 243 acre dairy farm at Cholmondeley in the 19th Century. The following animals were kept:
2 ponies, 3 carthorses, 51 milking cows, 16 two-year heifers, 17 yearling heifers, 15 heifer calves, 1 bull, 66 Shropshire ewes and lambs, 55 half-breed withers and 100 pigs.
In simple numbers, pigs dominated, but as a balance to cattle and sheep. In the late 19th Century, a breed known as the Welsh became popular. A very pale pink-white, with big lop-ears, it was first mentioned in the 1870s when, according to the British Pig Association, there was a considerable trade in Welsh and Shropshire pigs into Cheshire, specifically for fattening on milk by-products, from cattle (and possibly sheep). The milk by-products would have had to be disposed of and wasted if not consumed, so it was essentially free to feed pigs who became fatter and more valuable and were handy waste disposal units to boot. By contrast, the feeding of cattle was expensive, so using milk by-products to feed pigs helped to pay for the upkeep of cattle.
From this we can conclude that the pig had an important role in Cheshire, and that this may account for why Bridge considered the proverb to be peculiarly appropriate in a book of Cheshire proverbs.
All of this is pure speculation, but what an awful lot of fun 🙂
For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.
An index of all posts in the Cheshire Proverbs series can be found on the Heritage page
Books and papers
Bridge, J.C. 1917, Cheshire Proverbs and Other Sayings and Rhymes Connected with the City an County Palatine of Chester Phillipson and Golder (Chester)
Hamilton, J. and Thomas, R. 2012. Pannage, Pulses and Pigs: Isotopic and Zooarchaeological Evidence for Changing Pig Management Practices in Later Medieval England. Medieval Archaeology 56(1), p.234-259
Jeffries, R. 1948. Field and Hedgerow: Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies. Lutterworth Press
Newberry, P.E. 1928. The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (Nov., 1928), p.211-225
Scard, G. 1981. Squire and Tenant: Rural Life in Cheshire 1760-1900. Cheshire Community Council
British History Online
Later medieval Chester 1230-1550: Economy and society, 1350-1550
The British Pig Association
Only In Arkansas.com
Arkansas Superstitions: The Tantrabobus in Grandpa’s Well by Liz Harrell
Oxford University Press blog
A few bogus etymologies: “tantrum,” “dander,” “dandruff,” and “dunderhead,” along with “getting one’s goat” by Anatoly Liberman
The history of the word “bogus”