It’s not quite an annual outbreak, but it’s frequent, and it’s seasonal. I’m talking about the appearance of stories in the public press about guys—it’s always a guy—making predictions as to the coming winter through the examination of pig spleens. This makes great copy in the local color tradition of reporting.
It is an activity that feels ancient, because it is. Well known to the ancient Romans were those practitioners of divination known as Haruspices. Their ranks were filled by Etruscans, descendants of the more ancient occupants of the Italian peninsula, and they were sanctioned by the Roman Senate. Their charge was to determine the will of the gods—which is to say, to divine the course of future events—through the examination of the entrails of animals killed for sacrifice. The Haruspices mainly examined the liver for the knowledge it might reveal, but sometimes they used other organs, too.
Between then and now there must be a vast body of folklore in Europe and in America. It seems as though the tradition of reading entrails arrived here through various ethnic lines, came to focus on pig spleens, and became mainly concerned with the prospective severity of winter. This makes a certain amount of sense. Hogs were the large animals most commonly slaughtered by ordinary people, and they were killed in the fall. So the spleens were available, and the impending winter was on the minds of those who had the spleens in hand.
One more point about this practice—modern reports come from the plains region, and mainly from the northern reaches of the prairies. Which also makes sense, given the relative importance in these parts of winter in the popular imagination.
The latest pig spleen reader to appear in the news is 83-year-old Norbert Schulz, of Pingree, North Dakota. “I got it from the old-timers,” he says. “A lot of old-timers went by the pig spleen.”
Not far away, near Steele, is another spleen-reader, Paul Smokov, also an octogenarian. He got written up by the Associated Press in 2007, which resulted in invitations to go on television with Jay Leno and David Letterman. According to his granddaughter, though, he told both of them he couldn’t come, he had cows to feed.
Those invitations would not have been spurned by Gus Wickstrom, of Tompkins, Saskatchewan, the most famous of all the modern pig spleen prognosticators. It would be fair to say that Gus was preoccupied with pig spleens. He offered predictions every fall, based on a diagram he made of the parts of the spleen and the implications of the conformation of each part as to upcoming weather. He also took little bites from the raw spleen and indicated the taste meant something about the weather, too.
In fact, old Gus made pig spleens a regular part of his diet, alleging they had aphrodisiacal qualities, a subject he delighted to discuss with female reporters.
Gus Tompkins passed away in 2007, but his craft is being carried on by a nephew, Jeff Woodward, who has his own website, pigspleen.ca. In the old days it was the Roman Senate who sanctioned the Haruspices. Nowadays, I suppose, it is the popular media.