The fact that pork is the world's most widely eaten meat represents, in a way, a victory of the laity over the clergy.

Two of the world's leading religions, Judaism and Islam, forbid the eating of pork, while Buddhism has a tendency to turn its adherents toward vegetarianism, (but Buddha himself, vegetarian take pleasure in telling us, is supposed to have died from eating spoiled pork).

There are, in addition, islands of nonpork-eaters scattered haphazardly throughout the world: Navajo Indians in North America and Guyana Indians in South America; Laplanders in Northern Europe and Yakuts in Turkey; Borneans in Indonesia and, until very recently, the Japanese.

In ancient Greece, worshipers of the gods of grain and fruit, Cybele and Attis, were forbidden to eat pork (or fish), probably because these foods were in competition with those of their patrons. In Hawaii, women were forbidden to eat port until 1819, and even today they are not allowed to prepare and cook the kalua (roast pit), which is the main dish of the ceremonial feast, the luau. Sylvester Graham, the promoter of Graham bread, advised his followers not to eat pork.

"The swine, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean unto you," Leviticus warned sternly. "Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch."

"Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, the flesh of the swine, what has been hallowed to other than God, the beast strangled," the Koran echoed.

The prohibition of pork was not necessarily an invention of the Isarelites; they may have picked it up from the Egyptians. Herodotus wrote that swine herds were despised in Egypt and were not allowed to enter the temples.

"The Egyptians regarded the pig as an unclean animal," Alexandre Dumas wrote. "If someone of any social status touched a pig, he was supposed, to purify himself, to wade into the Nile, clothes and all. Only on one day and in one circumstance was it permitted to eat pork, at the time of the full moon: iThe animal was being sacrificed to Bacchus and Phoebe. Everbody knows that the Israelites regarded the flesh of the pig as unclean, but everybody knows that this proscription was less religious than hygienic."

Everybody is not quite so sure about this today. "I have never been able accept the explanation that 'pork is unhealthy in the Near East,'" Owen Latimore wrote to me in 1974, "in spite of ceremonial washing and purification gestures, the premodern Near East . . . was never notable for hygiene." Indeed, the argument that pork spoils quickly in the climate of this part of the world hardly holds water; so does the mutton that replaced it there, and its ancient peoples were sinful in the art of preserving food. Pork was widely eaten in the Near and Middle East, including Egypt, from Enolithic times; not until about 100 B.C. was it frowned upon. The reason does not seem to have been hygienic.

"This was the time at which Indo-aryan nomads were ranging great areas of Eastern Europe and Western Aisa," wrote Reay Tannahill in "Food in History." "Sheep, goats and cattle were the livestock to which the nomads were accustomed in their home territory, and they appear to have had an almost pathological dislike of the pig -- a contrary animal, with little stamina and a constitutional objection to being herded. Half a dozen pigs gave far move trouble than a hundred sheep. The Indo-Aryans were responsible for spreading many new ideas and techniques through the lands they invaded; it is possible that they also spread their loathing for the pig, and that this was the stimulus which converted a general wariness of pork into a full-scale prohibition."

Lattimore goes a little further. "When the ancient migrating Hebrews approached the coast," his letter continued, "they found it held by the Philistines -- another Semitic people, but maritime and urban. An English archeologist pointed out long ago, so long ago that I have forgotten his name, that not a single Philistine settlement has ever been excavated that was not rich in pig-bones . . .

"When the Hebrews encountered the Philistines, if a Hebrew family began to rely for food on coastal shellfish (also prohibited for Jews) and keeping pigs, that meant settling down, and a loss of manpower to the still nomadic sheep and goat-herding tribes. For the chieftains, who needed instantly mobilizable warriors, this meant that "this practice must now be stopped," and in such cases it is usual to find and apply a religious or quasi-religious sanction defining the 'unclean' . . .

"The Mongols, who never have been under Semitic influence, Hebrew or Arab, still have lingering prejudices against both fish and pork, though the present government is persuading people to eat them. In the case of pork, the traditional prejudice is socially expressed: If you eat pig, you're starting to 'go Chinese.'"

The prohibition of pork, in short, would seem to result from the circumstance that the pig is incompatible with a nomadic society. Pig raising implies settling down, stability, the acceptance of a sedentary existence. For peoples that did not want to settle down, the pig represented a hostile alternative, all the more dangerous because it was tempting. The nomadic Hebrews and Arabs, the nomadic Mongols, protected the way of life they preferred, the first two by religious ukase, the third by social disdain. Some of the other groups that do not eat pork are nomadic too: the Laplanders still are, and the Navajo Indians were until their wanderings brought them into contact with the sedentary Indians to their south, who converted them to agriculture.

The taboo against pork did not necessarily stem from a single cause. There may also have been one that was rooted purely in religion -- or in superstition, if you prefer: the association of the pig with the forces of evil.This also happened about 1000 BC.

It was during the Middle Dynasty that Egyptians began identifying the pig with Set, god of evil. At the other side of the world and at least two millenia removed in time, we find Magellan being offered a feast in the Philippines preceded by an elaborate ceremony that his chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, described as "a rite for blessing swine." In his mind, apparently, the ceremony was analogous to saying grace, but it seems quite as likely to have been a means for propitiating the spirit of an animal capable of exacting revenge for the injury done it.

The view of the pig as a diabolic animal seems to have seeped into Christian legends, for instance, in the case of St. Anthony (an Egyptian), whose symbol is the pig. There is a story that accounts for this by telling how a sow led her litter, born blind, to the saint, who restored their eyesight; the grateful animal became his faithful companion for the rest of her life. This does not explain why the representations of the saint always show him leading the pig by a leash.

There is an earlier story that credits the saint with having gained power over the devil by resisting his temptations, so that thereafter he led him about, tethered, in the form of a pig. This would seem more consistent with the fact that St. Anthony is the patron of sausage makers.

Was it because the pig represented evil, if only vaguely, that eating pork in Lent was considered a much more heinous crime than other violations of fasting? "He who has eaten pork instead of fish is taken to the torture like a patricide," Erasmus wrote, and indeed his contemporary, the 15th-16th century poet Clement Marot, was imprisoned and narrowly escaped being burned alive for having eaten pork in Lent.

The pig was treated with exceptional severity by the medieval courts, which held animals as well as human beings accountable for their crimes. Thus, in 14th-century France, the tribunal of La Bazogne condemned a pig to be hanged for having killed a child. One of its feet was cut off first, and it was then dressed for its appointment with the gallows in human attire, complete even to gloves.