The wild boar, with its swift feet and sharp tusks is a surprisingly shy animal, and generally tries to avoid humans. However, it can be a formidable beast if cornered and has come to symbolise courage and ferocity in many cultures.
Humans have been hunting boar for food for tens of thousands of years. Once native to Britain, this wild ancestor of the pig was hunted to extinction around the 13th century. In recent decades wild boar have escaped from captivity in parts of the Highlands as well as in England and there are now well-established populations in some areas. Quite a few place names in the Highlands include the word torc or tuirc, the Gaelic for boar. Among them is Coire Allt an Tuirc (hollow of the boar stream) in West Affric. It is tantalising to imagine these animals rooting through the woods here in centuries gone by.
Celtic and Anglo-Saxon helmets bearing boar-head crests have been found in a number of places; the crests were supposed to give protection to the warrior. Beowulf, in the Anglo-Saxon epic bearing his name, went into battle with a boar-head standard which was symbolic of his power as a leader.
Celtic and Arthurian mythology has many stories of boar hunts. In a Welsh tale from the Mabinogion, Culhwch seeks to win the hand of his beloved Olwen. He is clearly keen: Olwen’s father, Ysbaddaden, is a forbidding giant who issues Culhwch with a lengthy list of incredibly difficult tasks to fulfil before he can marry. The final tasks are to cut Ysbaddaden’s hair and shave off his beard. The giant’s beard was so tough that to soften it Culhwch had to obtain the blood of the Black Witch. And the only thing sharp enough to cut the beard was the tusk of Ysgithyrwn, the wildest boar in the land.
After killing this boar, Culhwch (with help from his cousin Arthur), had to get the only scissors and comb up to the task of dealing with the giant’s hair. These just happened to be between the ears of Twrch Trwth, an Irish king who had been transformed into an irate boar with poisonous bristles. Culhwch proved himself by rising to the task, when a lesser man might have given up (or resorted to hair removal cream).
We find a similar theme in many Greek legends. The fourth of Hercules’ twelve labours was to subdue the Erymanthian Boar, a monster that had been terrorising the locals. It didn’t prove to be much of a problem for Hercules though. He startled it with a mighty shout (a handy trick he picked up from his teacher, Pan), and fastened it with chains.
The Norse fertility god Freyr had a wild boar called Gullinbursti, meaning ‘Golden mane’. Its bristles glowed in the dark, illuminating his path. Freyr’s sister, Freya also had a boar called Hildesvini (‘Battle Swine’) which she rode into battle.
Another story relates how Merlin, driven mad with grief when his men are slaughtered in battle, finds refuge in the Caledonian Forest. Here he gains the gift of prophecy, and is later to be seen running wild with a wolf and a boar.
In the animated film, Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazake, the boars are the guardians of the forest. One of the forest gods is a boar, but goes on the rampage, destroying village after village, enraged by its mistreatment by humans. This magical film is full of symbolism revolving around forest destruction and humanity’s relationship with nature.
It is interesting that this fierce image is so prevalent, as boar are largely fairly peaceable animals, and pose little threat to humans. Many of the stories revolve around boar being hunted – a situation in which their famous temper would naturally be provoked, perhaps fuelling their feisty image! In contrast, within Druidic lore the female, or sow, symbolises generosity and the nourishment of the Earth.
Sources and further reading:
- Anon, Gantz, J. (translator).(1976) The Mabinogion. Penguin: London.
- Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
- Carr-Gomm, P. & S. (1994) The Druid Animal Oracle. Fireside: New York.
- Matthews, J. and Stewart, R.J. (1995) Merlin through the Ages. Cassell.
- McLeish, K. (1996) Myths and Legends of the World. Bloomsbury: London.
- 0’Connor, T. & Sykes, N. (2010) Extinctions and Invasions: A Social History of British Fauna. Windgather Press: Oxford.
- Sturluson, S. (2006). The Prose Edda – Norse Mythology. Penguin: London.