After receiving an email from a reader interested in the mythology surrounding bears, I remembered my own obsession with the boar. This was written some time ago, and one day will hopefully be expanded for a small illustrated book. Forgive the in-line citations, which may be an eyesore, but it would take too long to turn them into footnotes.
The Boar in Myth, Religion and Archaeology
Anne Ross writes that the boar was the most important cult animal of the Celts (390). As “one of the most ferocious and aggressive animal[s] a person was likely to encounter” (MacKillop 45), the boar became a symbol of military prowess and brute strength; but by virtue of being the favored food both of the Celtic gods and of mortals, the boar became a symbol of plenty as well. These two natures, the aggressive and the giving, were combined and, considered religiously, became symbolic of the chaotic and unpredictable forces of nature—forces that could lead to an early death, open up a passage to the Otherworld, or provide the generosity of physical sustenance. (Similarly, the boar also became associated with illicit love of various kinds, whether incestuous or extramarital.) Finally, the boar became associated in stories with the nature of time itself, whether national history, the round of the year and the seasons, or the beginning and end of one’s life. A brief look at the boar’s place in Indo-European mythology and European archeology (both of which the Celtic myths are heir to) will suggest the rich nature of the reverence shown to the boar throughout history, from India to Ireland.
II. The Boar in Indo-European Mythology
The boar holds an important place in the mythologies of most Indo-European peoples. A few examples will suffice:
In India, one of the forms of the creator Prajāpati was the boar, in which he “spread out the earth” (Leeming 52) and gave birth to the gods. In another story, Varāha (“the boar”) was an avatar of the god Viṣṇu, in the form of a boar. When the demon Hiraṇyākṣa threw the earth into the ocean, Varāha killed the demon and lifted the earth out of the water with his tusks (Johnson 341). Another version of this story has the demon not throwing the earth into the sea, but bringing about a flood that submerges it. In this context, Varāha enacts the well-known motif of the Cosmic Dive (encountered also in Siberia, Eastern Europe, and North America), in which a deity descends to the bottom of the primordial sea to bring up only a small amount of soil, from which the entire earth will expand (Leeming 52).
In Greece, the defining event for the generation before the Trojan War was the Calydonian Boar Hunt, a version of which is given in Ovid (223-28; 8:267-546) and Apollodorus (9; 1.65-75). Here, as in later myths of great boar hunts, the one who kills the boar is also killed himself. The Fourth Labor of Heracles is the capturing (and bringing back alive) of the Erymanthian Boar. Heracles only succeeded by chasing it to exhaustion far into the mountains and the deep snow (Apollodorus 32; 2.87). The scene of his returning with it became a favorite subject in Greek art, with the king who demanded the labor cowering in a jar, fearing the boar but also wishing to see it (March 300). In The Odyssey, we learn that the scar which allows the old nurse to recognize Odysseus was inflicted by a boar when he went hunting as a child on Mount Parnassos (Homer 292; XIX 392-4). Finally, like the Irish hero Dirmait below, the youthful god Adonis (who came to Greece either from Cyprus or Assyria), had his birth and death associated with the boar. According to Apollodorus (67; 3.183-185), Adonis’ mother (through the wiles of Aphrodite) fell in love with her own father who after realizing her identity, he tried to kill her, but she was transformed into a myrrh tree. Adonis was born when a boar “gored the trunk of the myrrh tree with its tusks” (March 35), and he was later killed by a boar while out hunting. While alive, the goddesses Aphrodite and Persephone both fell in love with him, and it was determined that he spend the spring and summer with the former, and the winter with the latter, thereby associating Adonis’ life (and so his birth and death) with the seasons, the agricultural year, and the religious significance those events held (March 35). Apollodorus (67; 3.183) says mysteriously (but does not elaborate) that Adonis was killed by a boar “because of Artemis’ anger,” while Robert Graves (70-1), citing a handful ancient sources, identifies the boar as the war god Ares is disguise, killing Adonis in a jealous rage since Aphrodite preferred Adonis to himself.
In Norse myth, the name Hildisvini (“battle pig”) is given as either the goddess Freyja’s boar “or her lover or protégé” (Lindow 173); in explanation, Lindow suggests Freyja may have transformed a lover of hers (not her husband Frey) into a boar. Finally, in Valhalla the dead warriors in Odin’s company feast on the ever-renewing body of the boar Saehrimnir, “who is cooked every day but is whole again in the evening” (Sturluson 47).
Many of these themes, from the boar’s place in creation and proto-creation, a great boar hunt, sexual transgression, human transformations into a boar and back again, and the importance of the boar in divine and human food, will recur in the Celtic myths below.
III. The Boar in Archeology
From at least 8000 BC, the wild boar was hunted in Europe (Dark 50), and evidence from the Dneiper Valley (Ukraine), c. 5000 BC, shows that social hierarchy was in part expressed by the use of boar tusks sewn to the thighs and shirt (Anthony 246). Around 2000 BC in Greece, and c. 2400 – 1800 BC in Western Europe, boar tusks (and in some cases bones and horns) were being used for corselets and bows (Keeley and Quick 115, and Czebresuk 480). Finally, on the famous Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark, dating c. 100 BC, a boar is shown both attending the god Cerunnos, and on the crest of a cavalryman in a military procession (MacKillop 45).
These examples, varied in time and place, are only a small representation of the evidence that shows the boar’s importance economically, socially, militarily, and religiously. These associations had yet to wane by the time of literature of the Celts and their neighbors were written down. A small glance at the Old English Beowulf (which carries with it Danish, Celtic, Norse, and Germanic roots) reveals “a pyre heaped with boar-shaped helmets” (Beowulf 77; l. 1112), a “boar crest” (93; l. 1327), “boar spears” (101; l. 1438) and a “boar-framed standard” (147; l. 2152). This while a warrior in The Táin is equipped with “an ivory hilted sword, the hilt cut from a boar’s tusk” (226).
The boar was also important to the ancient diet. The bones of pigs are regularly found in Celtic burials (Bartosiewicz, 367), and they are associated with the food of afterlife feasts in both Norse myth (as above) and in Celtic as well (367). Miranda Green suggests that the boar’s dual-symbolism (aggressive and giving) met in the warrior tradition where (as in the tale of Bricrui’s Feast), the heroes of Celtic myth bicker over who is more deserving of the “Champion’s Portion” of pork (Green 139).
Naturally, then, the human hunter or soldier became associated with the boar, and his prowess may have been gauged by nicknames or titles denoting it. M. L. West points to the prevalence, from The Iliad to Norse and Hindu myth, of theriophoric names such as bear, wolf, or boar, given to warriors (450). (This is true in the case of Odysseus, whose scar, at an important moment, “identified” him with the boar.) While in The Tain, when Cuchulainn and Ferdia first meet before their duel, the former says of himself, “Like a great boar/before his herd,/I’ll overwhelm you/before these armies” (181), and during one of the great battles that concludes The Tain, one man (Menn mac Sálchada) is said by Fergus to be “a gashing beast, a wild boar in battle, a raving bull” (233).
The boar was, finally, also given royal associations as well. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophecies of Merlin, Arthur is called “the Boar of Cornwall” (Lacy 179). Patrick Ford also notes that the Irish words torc and tríath “mean both ‘boar’ and ‘chieftain, hero’ ” (16). This association cannot seem that far-fetched, after all, considering the multitude of meanings already heaped on the boar, whether of physical and spiritual sustenance, success in battle, as well as an unpredictable wildness beyond human understanding or control. It is interesting that this association remained strong as late as c. 1400, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, Gawain encounters the lord of a castle who hunts, on three successive days, a deer, a boar, and a fox. This same lord also turns out to be the Green Knight himself, embodying in one person the king, the hunter, and a supernatural entity. While the religious symbolism of the boar and the other animals is gone, there is still a hint of some buried ritual, both in the beheading game the story revolves around, and the nature of the hunt itself (Lacy 419-20).
IV. The Boar in Celtic Myths
Many characters in Celtic myth were transformed into a boar, most prominently Tuan mac Cairill, the last survivor of the contingent of Partholonians who came to Ireland in prehistory. Tuan alone survived, the rest of his people being killed off by a plague. Along with becoming a boar, Tuan also was also transformed, in turn, into a stag, a bear, an eagle, and finally another magical animal in the myths, a salmon. It is in this last form that he is caught and eaten and reborn as a human being. Later in life he is able to recite the whole of Irish history to St. Finnian (MacKillop 292-6, 414), and it is significant that one of the forms that allows his physical survival, as well as the reception, survival, and transmission of Irish history, was that of a boar.
In “Culhwch and Olwen,” one of the tests put on Culhwch, before the giant Ysbaddaden will allow him to marry his daughter Olwen, is to retrieve the tusk of the chief boar, Ysgithrwyn, for Ysbaddaden to shave with. The giant adds: “And it will do me no good unless it is pulled from his head with him alive” (Mabinogi, 140, 152), recalling the earlier labor of Heracles. Later in the story, Culhwch (along with Arthur and his retinue) are also required to hunt the boar Twrch Trwyth, this to retrieve the comb and razor between its ears (again to assist Ysbaddaden in his grooming). The battle with Twrch Trwyth is epic—the boar kills a fifth of Ireland, and when Arthur fought him alone, and unsuccessfully, for for nine nights (Mabinogi 153; MacKillop 417). We learn that the boar had once been a king, but that “God had changed him into a swine for his sins” (Mabinogi 153), combining the boar’s association with transformation and kingship. There follows a chase through Ireland, and over to Wales and elsewhere, the boar and his offspring destroying and killing, and Arthur and his men following and fighting. At one point he is nearly drowned in the River Severn, but upon escaping is chased through Cornwall and into the sea, never to be seen again. It was only from “misery to misery” (156) that the comb and knife were taken from him—and still, the strength and mysterious power the boar represents could not be completely overcome. Also in The Mabinogi (in “Math son of Mathonwy”), Gwydion goes in search of his nephew Lleu, who has been transformed into an eagle. One evening at a peasant’s house, he inquires of the sow just returning to her pen, and when asked, the swineherd is not sure where she goes during the day. The next morning, Gwydion follows the sow, and it is by her guidance that he comes to a mysterious oak tree and an eagle atop it—and eagle he soon recognizes as his nephew (107). Earlier in the same tale, as punishment for raping the woman that would become his wife, Math turns Gwydion and his brother Gilfaethwy, successively, into a hind and a stag, a boar and sow, and wolf and a wolf bitch. From their union as boar and sow a son is born, later transformed into a human and named Hychdwn (97-98).
In keeping with the themes of transformation, kingship, and creation, we are told in one of the tales preceding The Tain of two pig-keepers, Friuch (named after a boar’s bristle) and Rucht (named for a boar’s grunt). Aside from being the pig-keepers of the kings of the síd of Connacht and the síd of Munster, they were also accomplished magicians, and could take any form they desired. So when a feud between their respective kings spilled over and caused enmity between the two of them, they spent one year as birds of prey, another underwater (apparently as fish), then as two stags, as two warriors, two phantoms, two dragons, and finally two maggots, and in each form they never stopped pestering each other (The Táin 46-49). In this final form, they were drunk up by a cow of Queen Medb and King Ailill, from which the great white bull, Finnebennach, was born, along with the brown bull, Dub, of Cuailnge. It was over the latter bull that The Tain was fought.
Finally, like the story of Adonis, many of these themes come together in the Irish story “The Pursuit of Dirmait and Gráinne.” Diarmait is associated with boars at his birth and his death, again showing the boar’s associations with both creation and destruction. His father Donn sent him to be fostered by Angus Óg at Brug na Bóinne; while there, Donn learned of his wife’s infidelity with Angus Og’s steward, Roc. He murders the child of his wife and Roc, but Roc is able to raise the child from the dead—but he turns him into a boar, and orders him to hunt Diarmait to death. When he is grown up, Diarmait attends the wedding feast of his uncle Fionn, and ends up eloping with Fionn’s new wife, Gráinne. Another chase throughout the land ensues, one which does not end until Diarmait is called back to Brug na Bóinne to help hunt a wild boar that has killed everyone who has tried to kill it. (We find out that Fionn himself organized the hunt, at which he knew Diarmait must die.) At the end of their struggle the boar “made an eager and exceeding mighty spring upon him, and ripped out his bowels and his entrails so that they fell about his legs” (Cross and Slover 412). Yet as the boar made his escape Diarmait killed it with one last throw of his sword. So near death, Diarmait begs Fionn (who has returned to gloat a bit) for a drink from the nearby well, which would heal him. Three times Fionn makes to help him, and three times, as he returns from the well, he lets the water slip through his fingers, and Diarmait dies (Cross and Slover 412-15).
For me, if anything can be said after such a quick survey of this material, it would be a note of admiration for ancient paganism and polytheism. That they were able to take the brutalities, difficulties, and mysteries of the natural and animal world and make them meaningful and even life-sustaining has never ceased to impress me.
For the Celts, the boar was the principle animal that allowed for such an overflow of meaning, and came to be associated with everything from brute strength to the vagaries of the supernatural, to time itself. More than a few of the tales above are also associated with the cycles of time—Diarmait’s life, the transformations of the pig-keepers and of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy (which occurred on a yearly basis), and others. These connect the boar to the cycle of religious holidays, to the holy year, and the round of agriculture and all other activities that are tied to the seasons. This while the story of Tuan mac Cairill involved not just time but all of history. While Tuan mac Cairill’s story and many of the others also involve other animals (birds, fox, deer, etc.), the boar was easily the most prevalent and rich symbol the Celts could call upon. So rich was it that Anne Ross could simply say of the boar that “[i]n it were contained all the passions of the Celtic peoples” (Ross 404).
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