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Known to be one of the most ferocious and aggressive animals, the wild boar is native to the whole of Europe and North America. These animals are often fearless and have no problem defending against or attacking people.
In today’s world, when we refer to someone as a “boar”, it’s meant to be an insult that denotes barbaric and crude behavior. But the ancient Celts viewed this animal in an entirely different light; it was a sign of a fierce warrior and a symbol of hospitality.
Boar Reverence in Celtic Cultures
The Celts admired the fearsome aggressive qualities of the boar, and its ability to defend itself to the death. This came to symbolize the courage, bravery, and ferocity that the Celts were famous for.
All over the Celtic world, the wild boar was an object of reverence. Boars were both a dark and vicious force and also a magical and wondrous entity.
Many Celtic stories refer to the wild boar and demonstrate its significance, reflecting the animism featured in Celtic belief. Some of the symbolism associated with the Celtic boar include:
- Good Health
- Otherworldly Activity
The boar represented divine war, funerary rites, and great feasting sanctioned by the gods. Many artifacts of boars found on standards, coins, altars, burials, statues, and other images attest to this. It’s clear that some were temple treasures.
Statues of boars often accompanied images of armed warriors and depictions of boars adorned swords, shields, and helmets. Many warriors would wear boar skins when going into battle. Boars’ heads also decorated Carnyx, a long bronze trumpet played as a war cry.
Celtic Myths About Boars
Many myths relate how boars are often the cause of death for many great heroes and warriors. Some of these describe the boar as a trickster, full of disobedience and deception.
- The story of Diarmat and the Boar of Benn Gulbain display the eternal spiritual battle between the forces of light and dark. This Irish tale relates how the boar, a symbol of darkness, kills 50 of Diarmat’s men, signifying the power of light. A single boar is responsible for the death of 50 warriors, showing how overwhelming darkness can seem in the face of light.
- Another story about the adulterous love between Isolde, the daughter of the King of Ireland, and Tristan, a Cornish knight, is a popular tale where the symbolism of the boar plays an important role. Not only does Tristan’s shield depict a wild boar but Isolde also dreams about the death of a great boar: a foreboding of Tristan’s end.
- An Irish narrative about Marban, a hermit who has a white pet boar, depicts the animal as a gentle, fertile creature.
- Another Irish story, “Lebor Gabala”, tells of the many transformations of Tuan mac Cairhill, a fabled magician. He starts as a human that grows to old age. Upon weakening and dying, he comes back as a different creature and experiences several of these transformations. In one of these cycles, he lived as a boar and distinctly discusses his observations of human activity on the edges of reality. In this form he was Orc Triath, the king of boars. Tuan describes his experience as a boar in an affectionate and almost proud way.
- The tale of Pryderi and Manawydan details the pursuit of a gleaming white boar that leads the hunting party into a trap from the Otherworld.
- There are a few tales about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table fighting boars with gold or silver bristles. There are a host of other stories too, all indicating or featuring the importance of the boar’s bristles and color.
Presence at Graves and Tombs
The funerary rites of the ancient Celts are riddled with boar imagery. Graves in Britain and Hallstat have boar bones and there are whole boars found buried in a similar fashion as the cats of ancient Egypt. These types of sacrifices seem to either accompany the dead in the afterlife or were made as an offering to the god of the underworld.
Boar Meat at Feasts
Boar meat features prominently in feasts throughout ancient Celtic myth and Christianized medieval literature. During Celtic times, boars were sacrificed to the gods and then served with an apple in its mouth. Not only did they believe this was food for the gods but the Celts also perceived this to be a sign of great hospitality. It was a wish of good health to the guests.
The Boar as a Symbol of Deity
The word for boar in ancient Irish and Gaelic is “torc”, connecting the boar directly to the god Cernnunos. On the Gundestrup Cauldron, Cernunnos is depicted sitting with a boar or dog at his side and a torc in his hand, a metal necklace.
Another deity associated with the boar is the Goddess Arduinna, protector and guardian of the Ardennes forests that intersects Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. Arduinna’s name means “wooded heights”. Depictions show her riding a boar or standing next to one. In some depictions, she’s shown holding a knife, symbolizing her communion with and dominance over the boar, with a capacity to kill or tame it.
The Boar During the Roman Occupation of Gaul and Britain
Although we know the Celts considered the boar a sacred creature, the height of boar worship occurred during Roman occupation throughout Gaul and Britain. There are several of these deities, all with manners of worship slightly different than the next.
The boar connects to the god, Vitris, who the Romans and Celts worshipped around Hadrian’s Wall in the 3rd century AD. His popularity among males, particularly soldiers and warriors, reigned high as there are over 40 altars dedicated to him. Some depictions show him holding onto, riding on, or standing next to a boar.
Yet another Brythonic god is Moccus, the swine god of the Lingones tribe, who inhabited the region between the Seine and Marne rivers in the area around Langres, France. He was often invoked by hunters and warriors, who called upon him for protection.
His name derives from the Gaulish word for wild boar, “moccos”. The Old Irish word “mucc” also describes a wild boar along with the Welsh, “moch” and Breton “moc’h”. It’s interesting to note that, even during Christian influence of the British Isles, “muccoi,” “mucced” or “muiceadh” were names for swineherds. All these connect to the past worship of Moccus because people believed swineherds had a special, mystical role.
The Celts living around the Iberian Peninsula of Spain during Roman occupation worshipped a god named, Endovélico. Votive offerings found around this area display prayers, carvings, and animal sacrifices to him. Many depictions of Endovélico show him as a boar and sometimes as a human. Most of his worshippers were those who had taken an oath – either soldiers asking for protection or women who undertook their families’ health. A lot of the proceedings with Endovélico have a distinct connection to dreams.
Today, when we refer to someone as a boar, it holds a negative connotation. This simply wasn’t true for the ancient Celts. They loved the boar’s ferociousness and they used it as a symbol for warriors and their battle gear, which carries with it a far nobler inference. The boar also provided food and, with so many gods connected to it throughout the region, was a sign of hospitality, bravery, protection and good health, among other things.