By Ryan Mealiffe, MPhil Medieval History, Wolfson College, Oxford
Material Culture Shock
Enjoying a peruse through the Ashmolean Museum on a drizzly February day in Oxford, I stumbled upon two tiny pigs. Fuming with puffed-up cheeks, adorable in stature yet fierce in countenance, I locked gazes with one boar’s red terracotta eyes before reading its label: ‘Piggy bank… from the Majapahit kingdom, eastern Java, 1300-1500.’
At first, I was amazed; then, wildly curious. Who made the first piggy banks? What internal cultural logic might have been the creative impetus for Majapahit ‘piggy banks’? How much of this logic is shared by people around the globe who molded similar vessels in the image of pigs?
A Formidable Challenge
These terracotta pigs (known as cèlèngan in Javanese) have sent me down a research rabbit-hole that has required me to reflect on what it means to do global environmental history and the methodology necessary to graft together the history of non-human animals, cosmology, power, status, gender, and material culture from multiple contexts.
My specialization lies squarely in medieval Europe, not 13-16th century Southeast Asia. The cultural, lingual, and physical distance between medieval Europe and Majapahit Java presents a methodological issue, a knowledge rift, that is often daunting and off-putting for historians. While formidable, it is also an exciting opportunity to take inspiration from pigs and transgress the boundaries of fields, rooting around for new connections and methodologies. For me, that meant weaving a crossed history of interaction and mutually constructed symbology between pigs and people.
Transgressive Agents and Salvage Accumulators
The shared history between pigs and people is millennia deep. The people of Island Southeast Asia created art of local sus as early as c. 45,500 year ago, evidenced by cave art of a Sulawesi warty pig identified in 2021. Europe (and most of Eurasia for that matter) has a similarly ancient, complex history with the genus, whether wild, domestic, or somewhere in-between. Unruly and cunning animals, the plastic behavior of pigs has often made them both destructive and useful for people across Eurasia.
Pigs threatened an ordered, engineered landscape ‘tamed’ for agriculture. As Jamie Kreiner describes in her book Legions of Pigs, pigs are ‘unruly commodities’ that root, escape enclosures, eviscerate crops and reengineer landscapes. In Old Irish laws, trespass of pigs was dealt with severely because pigs always eat in groups, quickly trampling and uprooting crops. Isidore of Seville wrote of boars in his Etymologies: ‘The pig/sow (sus) is so called because she roots up (subigat) pasture, that is, she searches for food by rooting the earth up.’
In Majapahit Java, expansive irrigation systems and fields, built with corvée labor and cash taxes, were integral not only to the livelihood of farmers but for the trade empire and apparatus of royal power that relied on taxation, in the form of both cash and produce, and a trade monopoly over rice, salt, and spices. It is unsurprising, then, that the Majapahit law code Kutara Manawa imposed strict fines for tampering with rice cultivation. The Deśawarnana, a royal eulogy written in 1365 at the apogee of the empire to glorify the king Hayam Wuruk, also connects the maintenance of the rice fields to the tranquility of the world and provision of the king.
The main thing is the ricefields, dry and irrigated – whatever is planted, let it be fruitful, guard it and cherish it!… An increase in the King’s possessions is the fruit of it, his means of protecting the world.Deśawarnana, Canto 88
For the palace and its own area are like a lion and a deep wood: / If the fields are ruined, then the city too will be short of sustenance.Deśawarnana, Canto 89
The landscape of irrigation systems, fields, and bordering rainforests was perfect for wild boars and pigs, who tend to build their wallows in moist sites such as the edges of flooded areas and the muddy beds of canals or marshes. Recounting his experience in Java c. 1512 to 1513, Duarte Barbosa wrote that ‘swine of great size, both tame and wild’ were to be found on the island and noted their exceptional numbers. Herds of swine would no doubt find cultivated fields of appetizing crops attractive as they did in medieval Europe. The unruly nature of pigs threatened not only peasant livelihoods, but the prosperity of the realm. So why keep them, let alone associate pigs with amassing wealth?
People across Eurasia accommodated pigs because the same behavior that makes pigs transgressive also makes them useful ‘salvage accumulators,’ scavengers of natural resources otherwise unutilized by humans. Pigs scavenge landscapes to take advantage of whatever their environment grows, preserving wealth on their haunches which people salvage or ‘cash in on’ through slaughter. Unlike other animals that supply secondary products, the sole ‘product’ of pigs is their body – their ‘meat energy’ and high reproductive potential (fecundity). In this context, the breaking of cèlèngan parallels the lifecycle and the value of pigs as agents and biological vessels of accumulation.
Hunts and Feasts, Status and Gender
Wild boars were prime hunting game and a powerful status symbol in medieval Europe and Majapahit Java. Just as the aristocracy in Europe had the privilege to hunt in forests and celebrated the boar as a premier game animal, hunting wild boar was a privileged pastime among the Javanese elite. The hunt mapped political competition onto environment, an allegorical ritual of aristocratic domination over both nature and enemies on the battlefield. This connection is made clear by Isidore, who describes the boar (verres) as having great strength (vires). Anyone to quell such a fierce, tusked foe would display great virtus (courage, manliness). The boar hunt in Java overlapped significantly with the hunting practices of early medieval Europe. The Deśawarnana describes wild boar locked in combat with mounted hunters as ‘formidable’ with red eyes, terrible tusks as sharp as daggers, and foam dripping from their mouths. The more intimidating, colossal, and savage the boar slain, the more admirable the hunter.
The sows were pitiful when several were killed, / Overpowered together with their helpless young.
The boars now made ready to advance, / Four or five at a time – formidable, big and tall.
Their mouths were foaming, they were red in the eyes, / And their tusks were terrible, just like daggers.Deśawarnana, Canto 52
Both hunting traditions also gendered pigs. Whether female or male, boars were thought of as masculine in Europe while sows were associated with the feminine and fecund domestic pig. The Deśawarnana displays a more complicated but still binary association. Before being ‘overpowered’ and ‘pitiful’ after several were killed, the sows of Canto 52 protect their ‘helpless young’ with defensive aggression appropriate to their gendered role. The Majapahit understood pigs, whether sow or boar, as simultaneously fierce and fertile. In parallel, cèlèngan can symbolize both power and wealth (which helps to explain cèlèngan featuring piglets).
The superior dishes arrived, the trays all made of gold;
Promptly those bringing them forward took up positions before the King.
His food consisted of mutton, buffalo, poultry, venison, wild boar, bees,
Fish and duck, in keeping with the teachings of the Lokapurāna.Deśawarnana, Canto 89
Associations of status and gender also fed into the ‘superior’ place of pork at Majapahit feasts. Pigs populate many cantos of the Deśawarnana and its author, Prapañca, counts wild boar among the ‘superior dishes’ served at royal feasts and lists them among the finest gifts of homage paid by officials of tribute kingdoms. In reciprocity for gifts, the king served pork on ‘trays all made of gold,’ mirroring chivalric largesse between lord and vassal in medieval Europe. This diverges from the legal categorization of pigs in the medieval west as ‘minor’ or ‘lesser’ livestock. Even though the details are likely exaggerated to flatter and elevate the status of the Majapahit king, Prapañca considered gifting pigs/pork an important part in this spectacle of wealth and generosity, perhaps because it would confer similar status to hunting and slaying wild boar.
Out of devotion they brought gifts, competing with each other:
Pigs, sheep, buffaloes, oxen, chickens and dogs in plenty,
As well as cloth which they carried in one after another in piles;
Those who saw it were amazed, as if they could not believe their eyes.Deśawarnana, Canto 28
Situated in the context of Majapahit court feasts, royal hunts, and the accommodation of pigs for their capacity to store bodily wealth, the (oddly adorable) angry expression, aggressive stance, and tusks common among cèlèngan clearly evoke the fierce boar of the hunt. Their round bodies built from the fat (or clay!) of the land, command the power of a charging boar whose tusks have upwards of 100kg of momentum behind them. However, the power and bodily wealth of the boar is not entirely unwieldy, as many cèlèngan are restrained by chain-collars around their necks. For only one thing is more impressive, sure to confer more prestige, than slaying a beast: owning and dominating the fearsome and fecund nature of the boar.
Indeed he [Hayam Wuruk] was simply a divinity descended as he roamed the world.Deśawarnana, Canto 27
Divine Kingship and the Cosmic Boar
The king’s role as protector of the world and ‘lord of the lords’ (Canto 1) was a central tenet in the Majapahit model of divine kingship that developed after power shifted from Central to East Java. The Deśawarnana builds a case for Hayam Wuruk as a divine being – that the realm’s peace, prosperity, order, and prestige over the seas was proof of his elevated status. Without the paternalistic leadership of the Majapahit king and the monetary, material means to carry out his duties as Sang nata (‘one who puts things in order’) – the world would fall into chaos.
The Majapahit conception of a divine king who keeps the world in order alludes to Hindu cosmology, comparing the role of the king to that of Wishnu, the preserver of the world. Various kings of the East Javanese period adopted the names and likeness of deities on monuments, including Singhasari and early Majapahit rulers who bore names meaning ‘Wishnu’s incarnation.’ Hinduism in the early East Javanese period emphasized Wishnu and the kings of this period accordingly saw themselves as his incarnation. Even though Siwa (Shiva) became the central god in the Majapahit period, Prapañca draws upon the legitimacy of a long-established association between the role of kingship and the stories and symbology of Wishnu.
Majapahit cosmology was inclusive of a complicated coalition of indigenous, Buddhist, and Vedic elements. This tradition included the legend of Vahara, Wishnu’s boar avatāra (divine incarnation). In the Hindu creation story, Vahara rescues the Earth from falling into the celestial waters, rooting land from sea. Paralleling Vahara, the king’s prosperity and control over the floodplain of the Brantas river valley through irrigation projects prevented water from once again consuming earth. The link between fertility, wealth, prosperity, and the maintenance of the world was further realized in the Javanese mythology of Panji and Candrakirana, incarnations of Wishnu and his consort Sri, the goddess of rice. Their union symbolizes a guarantee of agricultural fertility, the marriage of wealth and prosperity to continuity and protection. So, wealth, prosperity, agricultural fertility, and the celestial boar Vahara are closely coupled with East Javanese kingship.
The symbol of the boar connects to a web of meaning in Majapahit Java: parallels between the accumulation and salvaging of coins and meat, the glory of killing and taming wild boar, the generosity of gifting pigs and their meat, and the divine role of the king as protector of the world and controller of chaotic water paralleling the boar Vahara. This set of connected meanings provides an internal cultural logic for cèlèngan and supports two potential use cases: as gifts of homage and royal generosity, and as vessels for tax money intended for the king. Cèlèngan may have been gifts in lieu of real pigs, either to or from the king, filled with coinage and decorated to evoke a combination of the formidable boar of the hunt, the meaty-wealth of a pig intended for slaughter, and the divine nature of Majapahit kingship. This is further supported by the extraordinarily high density of cèlèngan around Trowulan, the administrative center and palace of the Majapahit rulers. These would have likely been larger examples, whereas smaller, modestly-decorated cèlèngan may have been used by households or tax collectors as vessels for tax money designated for the king not by writing, but by symbology. Of course, objects possess multiple, shifting meanings even in local contexts and cèlèngan likely took on other meanings and uses, especially among the common people of Majapahit.
I started this post with a simple question of origin: ‘Who made the first piggy banks?’ It is a question that suffers from many pitfalls. The idea of origin itself hosts an implication of cultural superiority. To credit ethnic or national identities as the ‘first’ to put hand to something of novel impact is a simplification of multiple, complex influences that, in this case, crossed in East Java, but many of which came from across the sea. Even in the most local example, cèlèngan derive their meaning from a web of influences that span beyond the imagined borders of Majapahit, through Asia and cross significantly with Europe. Studying the past in global terms problematizes this kind of unambiguous attribution by situating the local in a wider context of nuanced and hybrid influences, favoring an ambiguous, ‘muddy’ nature.
Cèlèngan are composite objects that cannot be understood outside a global web of meaning and influences neither fully Majapahit nor human. An environmental approach reminds us that the piggy bank would not exist without pigs – that human agency is intimately tied to the environment. By putting human agency into question, we must also take issue with an attribution of exclusively human origin. It is difficult to determine a rationale (an origin of the mind) for piggy banks because it was inherently ad hoc. Different people saw in pigs the function of money boxes and in money boxes the character, behavior, and capacity of pigs. Perhaps piggy banks are better understood not as material culture, but as material nature-culture in recognition of the practical engagement between human and non-human agents that make them intelligible. They are material reminders that humans are ‘partners in conversation with a larger world’. The ‘idea’ or ‘intention’ behind cèlèngan and their cultural associations could only be envisioned when Majapahit people interacted with pigs. If any ‘origin’ is identifiable, it is in the muddy patches where clay met pigs and people.
Doing History Like Pigs
The generative meanings produced by a crossed history of pigs and people between medieval Europe and Southeast Asia help to answer questions about cèlèngan and contextualize them in a comparative global history inclusive of non-human agents. The careful, belated conversation between two histories separated not only by space but by discipline yields insight that each record cannot substantiate alone. Pigs and people are global agents, co-producers of what is now an object recognized worldwide. Investigating the influence of such a relationship on material nature-culture requires a global scale and crossed history of sapiens, sus, and their shared environment that is careful to avoid simple comparisons. Doing history like this requires historians act like pigs; to jump the pen of national and disciplinary boundaries, transgress rules, root for new connections, and muddy the divisions between nature and culture.
About the Author: Ryan Mealiffe is a second-year MPhil Medieval History student at the University of Oxford. Their research focuses on the intersections of animal agency, material culture, cosmology, and environment in medieval Europe.
Header image: Illumination of wild boars, early 13th century. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1511, fol. 30v