Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Boar

Animals feature significantly in early Germanic art and culture, often carrying a mythological or totemic connection to deities. So far in our series of articles on animals the importance of the raven, bear, and wolf have been discussed, but arguably the most significant animal to feature in finds from the Anglo-Saxon and Viking period is the boar.

In this article, the cultural significance of the boar, its history, etymology, and role in mythology is discussed. 

According to Norse Mythology, the god Freyr possessed a great boar Gullibursti (Golden Bristles) on which he rode. His sister Freyja had a similar boar Hildisvíni (Battle Swine).

To the Anglo-Saxons, the fierce wild boar was a symbol of strength and fertility. Its image adorned their helmets. It was ceremonially eaten along with apples at the mid-winter feast. In the distant Bronze-Age, the boar with its crescent-shaped tusks was seen as symbolic of the Great Goddess. It reflected her three personae of battle-goddess, mother-goddess and finally, as ‘The Great Sow’, the devourer- symbol of death.


The etymology of the boar is complex. It would appear that the fundamental name for a ‘pig’ in Old English is or sugu. This means ‘sow’ and is cognate with the Old Norse sýr and the Old High German sau. These are derived from the Proto-Germanic *sugó, which is itself derived from the Proto-Indo-European suhzkéhz, which is similar to the Sanskrit sukarah - a wild boar or swine. An associated word with the same roots is the Old English swín / swýn which gives us the modern word ‘swine’. This is cognate with the Old Norse svín.

There seem to be two words in Old English specifically for the Wild Boar. These are Eofor (“Ever”) and Bár. Eofor, which is cognate with the Old High German ebur and the Old Norse jór / jöfur, derives from the Proto-Germanic *eburaz, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European *epuros. This is also the source of Latin aper - meaning ‘a wild boar’.
Our modern English word ‘boar’ comes from the Old English bár. from West-Germanic *bairaz. This is said to be of unknown origin with no cognates outside West Germanic. It is tempting to derive it from the Proto-Indo-European root *b(h)ars / bars - “bristling”.
The modern English term ‘hog’, comes from Old English hogg. This is thought to be a borrowing from Old Norse höggva - to chop or cut.


The Wild Pig (Sus scrofa) is the ancestor of the domestic pig. It is a true omnivore, eating almost everything, including small animals, invertebrates, and carrion. However, food of plant origin dominates. Historically, acorns and beechnuts were a favoured food. This is noted in the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem :
Ac byþ on eorþan elda bearnum flæsces fodor, fereþ gelome.
The Oak fattens the flesh (of swine) as food for the sons of men.
Wild boars live in family groups containing only females, young males and stripy piglets. The old males live alone. Both the males and the females can be dangerous, for the females are highly protective of their young, using their snout and teeth to fight and bite because they lack large tusks. The boar on the other hand charges and slashes upwards with its sharp tusks. Boars can grow to a considerable size, an adult boar often measuring over six feet in length and standing up to 3½ feet at the shoulder. They usually weigh up to 200lb but giants weighing over 700lbs have been recorded.

Wild boar generally forage in early morning and late afternoon or at night. They are fairly elusive and shy and only really dangerous when threatened. Many of the stories of their ferocity revolve around the boar being hunted - a situation in which their famous temper would naturally be provoked.

It is thought that the wild boar became extinct in the British Isles in the 13th Century due to hunting. In the 1980s, wild boar started to be farmed commercially but due to the intelligence and escapological talent of these animals that there are now sizeable colonies living wild in southern England.

The wild boar became an important prey animal for the early hunter-gatherers in Britain and Scandinavia soon after the end of the Ice Age when forests started to move to North, in about 9500 BCE (the Mesolithic ). The replacement of sub-arctic tundra by deciduous forest led to the northerly migration of red deer, elk and wild boar. The wild boar usually lives in a broad-leafed forest habitat, and among the trees, the oak is most important for swine because acorns are one of its favourite foods.
At this time Northern European tribes were still hunter-gatherers. Such a society was highly dependent on successful hunts which made the relationship toward animals quite special. In such societies, rituals are directed towards animals in order to achieve a successful hunt and to their spirits to placate them.

With the introduction of farming and domestication of animals, the approach changed. In around 3000 BCE, Neolithic farmers must have changed their religious emphasis. The hunt was no longer critical and became more of a sport, the fertility of the fields and animals now took a central role in peoples lives and thus also a central role in religion. With the domestication of swine, the need to hunt its dangerous wild cousin declined until it became the preserve of the well-equipped aristocratic warrior. It would seem, however, that the mighty Wild Boar continued to be hunted for other than his value as a good meal. Folk who keep pigs do not need to hunt boars, which is a chancy business if all one has is a spear. The boar has razor-sharp tusks and knows how to use them. The other difficulty is that the boar lives alone and is not easy to track. Nonetheless, hunting still went on both as a source for meat at times of the year when there was little meat available from domestic animals and for kudos. A hunter might well treasure a pair of boar-tusks and wear them, set with silver, as a pendant to demonstrate his bravery.

Roof tile showing Legio XX Emblem
Due to the association with bravery, both men and women sometimes received names containing the term for wild boar : in Old English, Eofor, in Old High German, Eber, in Old Norse, these names are related to the word jøfurr. Swedish runic inscriptions contain the forms iufur, iafar, and iofur. These mostly occur in areas associated with the Freyr cult. Eofor is a name known from Beowulf . There are some names in Britain that have eofor- as their first component but they all seem to be of the Scandinavian origin. Other examples include the Old High German Ebarolf (cognate with Old Norse Jórúlfr) and the Gothic Everhardur.
Three Roman Legions had a boar as their emblems: Legio I Italica, Legio X Fretensis and, most famously, Legio XX Valeria Victrix which participating in the invasion of Britannia in 43 CE, where it remained until at least the beginning of the 4th century.
The first written evidence of Germanic boar symbolism is a description by Tacitus in Germania, Ch. 45 (1st c. CE). He describes the Suebi, the tribal grouping which included the Anglii.
Turning, therefore, to the right hand shore of the Suebian sea, we find it washing the country of the Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi, but a language more like the British. They worship the Mother of the gods, and wear, as an emblem of this cult, the device of a wild boar, which stands them in stead of armour or human protection and gives the worshipper a sense of security even among his enemies.
Perhaps here are dim echoes of a group of warriors akin to the úlfheðnar and berserkir, wearing boar imagery instead of that of the wolf or bear. There is no direct literary evidence of this from the Eddas or the sagas, but then there have never been wild-boars in Iceland.

Vendel-14 Helmet cap showing boar-tusked warriors

There is, however, a host of archaeological evidence from Sweden and from England (see below). The ‘Boar Warrior’ would typically have been an æþeling; a prince or noble. The Old Norse word jöfurr is usually glossed prince, æþeling but its original meaning was wild boar. Perhaps the warrior on the Vendel XIV helmet-plate is one of these jöfrar; certainly the boar-tusks are a clue. It is interesting to note that the boar is essentially a peaceful creature but deadly if provoked. This defensive philosophy seems to have little resonance with the ‘Viking’ mindset but seems very English.
Boar images were used on battle-banners by the Anglo-Saxons. In the poem Elene there is mention of a eoforcumbol and in Beowulf a eoforhéafodsegn (banner with a boar’s-head design) is mentioned.

The boar image even found its way into Anglo-Saxon music - in the form of an Anglo-Saxon Lyre Tuning Key with Boar terminal, thought to be from the mid 7th-century, from Gayton, Norfolk. 

The Boar-Helmet

The Boar-warrior has already been discussed. If we are not to assume that he donned a boar-skin, it is likely that his helmet bore a boar image. The Old English terms are eoforlíc and swínlíc. The 13th Century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson records several boar-names among the heiti for helmets. These included Hildisvíni - the helmet of Áli that was taken by the Swedish king Adils at the Battle on the Ice of Lake Vänern following Áli's death.

Three types of ‘boar-images’ related to helmets exist. Firstly there are the pressblech cartoon images on the Vendeltíd helms (see above). These clearly show images of warriors wearing helmets equipped with large boar-crests. Such helmets were known to have been popular not only by Germanic folk but were also used by Celts, being shown on the Gundestrup cauldron (right). As luck would have it, in England we have two examples of Boar-Crested helmets : the famous Benty Grange Helm and the Pioneer Helm. We also have an isolated boar helmet-crest found in a female grave at Guilden Morden, Cambridgeshire.

Saxon boar-helmets; Pioneer (left) and Benty Grange (right)
The 7th Century ‘Pioneer Helm’ was found by archaeologists from Northamptonshire Archaeology at a quarry site in 1997. It had a small simple iron boar-crest.

The Benty Grange helmet was excavated in 1848 from an Anglo-Saxon barrow at the Benty Grange Farm in Derbyshire. This boar-crest is a much more impressive beast - 9cm long and standing 5cm high. The hollow body has a dorsal cavity, presumably to allow a crest of boar-bristles to be fitted. The body is decorated with silver studs with gilded heads and oval silver-gilt plates form the hips, shoulders and tail. The legs are iron. The head has gilded tusks and muzzle and the tiny angry-red eyes are garnets set in beaded gold collars.

Finally, there is the famous Sutton-Hoo helmet whose bronze eyebrows end in gilt-bronze boars-heads.
Such boar-guardians are mentioned in Beowulf (303-306) :
“Eofor-līc scionom, ofer hlēor-bergan: gehroden golde, fāh ond fýr-heard, ferh wearde hēold: gūþ-mōd grummon.” 
Boar-shapes shone over the cheek-guards adorned with gold,gleaming and fire-hard; keeping guard of life, raging with warlike spirit.
The other boar-guardian is mentioned in Beowulf (1110-1111) 
“swýn eal-gylden, eofer īren-heard”
swine all-golden, the boar hard as iron.
This line refers to a boar-figure on a helmet crest, as seen on the Benty Grange and Pioneer helmets, mentioned above. Further references occur in lines 1448-1454:
ac sē hwīta helm... since geweorðadbefongen frēawrāsnum, swā hine fyrndagumworthe wæpna smið, wundrum tēode,besette swīn-līcum, þæt hine syðþan nō,brond nē beado-mēcas bītan ne meahton. 
but the shining helmet guarded his head,(the helmet) whose duty it was to stir up the mere depths,to seek the surging water. (It was) adorned with treasurehung about with lordly chains, just as in days of yoreit was wrought by the weapon-smith, wonderfully shapedadorned with boar-images, so that afterwards nobrand nor battle-sword might bite through it.
Line 1326 also contains a reference to boar crests:
…ðonne wē on orlege hafelan weredon, þonne hniton fēþan, eoferas cnysedan....when we struck for our lives when the ranks clashed, when blows rained down on boar-crests.
Line 1286 of Beowulf implies that hewing off the boar crest is likely to lead to the death of the wearer because the boar enbodies the supernatural luck of the warrior.
þonne heoru bunden, hamere geþuren, sweord swāte fāh svīn ofer helme, ecgum dyhttig, andweard scireð.when the savagely-bound, hammer-forged sword, slathered in blood, strong of edge, shears off the boar from the top of the helmet.

The Hero-Feast in Valhöll

The Norse believed that the chosen heroes feasted every night in the Hall of the Slain, with their God, Óðinn. In addition to an infallible supply of mead, they were supplied with the most prized, succulent meat. A huge boar, called Sæhrímnir, was slain every day but regenerated to be freshly sacrificed the next morning. Although there is no proof, it is possible the Anglo-Saxons had a similar belief.

This is explained in Snorri’s Gylfaginning :

XXXVIII. Then said Gangleri: "Thou sayest that all those men who have fallen in battle from the beginning of the world are now come to Óðinn in Vallhöll. What has he to give them for food? I should think that a very great host must be there." Then Hárr answered: "That which thou sayest is true: a very mighty multitude is there, but many more shall be, notwithstanding which it will seem all too small, in the time when the Wolf shall come. But never is so vast a multitude in Vallhöll that the flesh of that boar shall fail, which is called Sæhrímnir; he is boiled every day and is whole at evening. But this question which thou askest now: I think it likelier that few may be so wise as to be able to report truthfully concerning it. His name who roasts is Andhrímnir, and the kettle is Eldhrímnir; so it is said here:
(quotes from Grímnismál 18)
Andhrímnir lætri í Eldhrímne
Sæhrímne soðinn,
fleska bezt; en þat fáir vito
við hvat einheriar alaz.
In Eldhrimnir Andhrimnir cooks
Sæhrimnir's seething flesh,
The best of swine-flesh, but few men know
On what fare the warriors feast.
It took an inordinate amount of skill and courage to track and kill wild boar. Their native intelligence, speed and nimbleness made for many unsuccessful hunts. When finally cornered, the devastating use of their razor-sharp tusks often left men, dogs, and horses mortally wounded. It is small wonder that a boar's head was a dish fit for kings.

It is thought that the tradition of serving a boar’s head at Yule-Tide was brought to the Island of Great Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. Folklore tells us that the boar sacrifice (called sónarblót, in Old Norse, where the boar was sónargöltr) was carried out to implore the fertility-god Frea Ing to show his favour in the coming year.

In the ancient Norse tradition (of which we have more information), the boar sacrifice to Freyr was called sónarblót, and the boar was caled sónargöltr. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the feast-hall with some ceremony. A faint echo of this can be seen in the words of the “Boar’s Head Carol” :
The boar's head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio.
(However many are at the feast) 
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes domino.
(I bring the boar's head, giving praises to the Lord)
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico
(serve with song)
Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of bliss
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio
(in the Queen's hall).
As part of the ceremony, solemn oaths would be sworn, the oath-taker having his hand on the boar’s bristles; this was known as heitstrenging. This is mentioned in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks :
Ok skyldi þeim gelti blóta at sónarblóti. Jólaaptan skyldi leiða sónargöltinn í höll fyrir konúng; lögðu menn þá hendr yfir burst hans ok strengja heit
And they would sacrifice a boar in the sonarblót. On Yule Eve the sonar-boar was led into the hall before the king; then people laid their hands on its bristles and made vows.
The "Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar" tells that the oaths were sworn while drinking the bragarfull toast:
Freyr-Ing with his boar
“Um kveldit (jólaaftan) óru heitstrengingar. Var fram leiddr sónargöltr. Lögðu menn þar á hendr sínar ok strengðu menn þá heit at bragarfulli”. 
That evening (of Yule Eve) the great vows were taken; the sacred boar was brought in, the men laid their hands thereon, and took their vows at the king's toast.
(The word sónargöltr either means sacricicial boar or champion-boar)

The Norse god known as Freyr was known in Eastern Scandinavia as Yng and in England as Frea Ing (Lord Ing). He was the divine progenitor of the Yngling dynasty of Swedish kings. According to Norse mythology, Freyr possessed a magical boar.
The story of Gullinbursti's creation is related in the Skáldskaparmál section of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda. It came about because when Loki had hd Sif's hair, Freyr's ship Skíðblaðnir and Odin's spear Gungnir fashioned by the Sons of Ivaldi, he had bet his own head with the dwarf Brokkr that his brother Eitri (Sindri) would not be to match the quality of those gifts.
Þá lagði Sindri svínskinn í aflinn ok bað blása Brokk ok létta eigi fyrr en hann tæki þat ór aflinum, er hann hafði í lagt. En þegar er hann var genginn ór smiðjunni, en hinn blés, þá settist fluga ein á hönd honum ok kroppaði, en hann blés sem áðr, þar til er smiðrinn tók ór aflinum, ok var þat göltr, ok var burstin ór gulli. ... Þá bar fram Brokkr sína gripi ... En Frey gaf hann göltinn ok sagði, at hann mátti renna loft ok lög nótt ok dag meira en hverr hestr ok aldri varð svá myrkt af nótt eða í myrkheimum, at eigi væri ærit ljós, þar er hann fór; svá lýsti af burstinni.” - Skáldskaparmál ch. 44 
"Sindri laid a pigskin in the hearth and bade Brokkr work the bellows, and not to cease work until he took out of the hearth that which he had laid therein. But when he went out of the smithy, while the other dwarf was blowing, straightway a gadfly settled upon his hand and stung: yet he pumped on as before, until the smith took the work out of the hearth; and it was a boar, with mane and bristles of gold. ... Then Brokkr brought forward his gifts: ... to Freyr he gave the boar, saying that it could run through air and water better than any horse, and it could never become so dark with night or gloom of Mirkheim that there should not be sufficient light where he went, such was the glow from its mane and bristles."
Here, the boar is also known as Slíðrugtanni (with terrible teeth).

Freyja’s Boar

The Norse sex-goddess, Freyja, sister of Freyr, also had a boar which she rode when she was not using her chariot. This boar was called Hildisvíni (“battle swine”). We are not told how comfortable this was or if the goddess used a saddle, for a boars’s back is uncomfortably bristly. However, sometimes it is clear that Hildisvíni was left at home while a shape-changed lover took his place. This was why Loki consistently accused her of being "wanton" by riding her lover in public.

In Hyndluljóð we read :
Nú taktu ulf þinn einn af stalli,lát hann renna með runa mínum."Hyndla kvað:"Seinn er göltr þinn goðveg troða,vilk-at ek mar minn mætan hlæða.
Flá ertu, Freyja, er þú freistar mín,vísar þú augum á oss þannig,er þú hefir ver þinn í valsinniÓttar unga Innsteins bur." 
"From the stall now one of thy wolves lead forth,And along with my boar shalt thou let him run;For slow my boar goes on the road of the gods,And I would not weary my worthy steed."
Hyndla spake:"Falsely thou askest me, Freyja, to go,For so in the glance of thine eyes I see;On the way of the slain thy lover goes with thee.Ottar the young, the son of Instein."

The ‘Svínfylking’ : the Swine-Snout Battle Wedge

The ‘Swine Array’ was a wedge-shaped battle-formation designed to break through a shield wall. The Danes believed that it had been invented by Óðinn. In fact it is of ancient origin, known as έμβολον, embolon in Greek; cuneus in Latin, colloquially also caput porcinum, "boar's head"). The formation consisted of well-armed first-class hand-to-hand warriors plus less-armoured bow-men grouped in a triangle, with the point (called the rani or snout) facing the enemy. The warriors on the front lines protected the archers in the centre and rear. The Svínfylking bristled with spears, so was resistant to cavalry attacks but its main purpose was to penetrate the shield wall through shock. Its weakness was that it had to succeed : if it did not break through, the men at the point of the wedge were doomed. 

Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum described the Swine Array as being 10 men deep with the first rank being composed of 2 men, each rank composed of 2 more. Thus, each wedge was composed of 110 men, 10 deep, 2 men on its tip, and 20 on its base.


With the end of paganism, the role of the boar in religion ended. Boars were no longer sacrificed to promote a good harvest and fertile flocks, they were simply hunted for sport and killed for their delicious meat. They were no longer semi-divine but were still symbolic of desperate courage. The boar, as Germanic warriors knew, was most dangerous in its last stand when surrounded by enemies. It does not try to escape when attacked but fights to its last breath, even working its spear-impaled body up to its attacker in order to gore. For this reason, special boar-spears were developed with a cross-bar behind the blade to prevent this.

Long sacred to the god Frea Ing, these ferocious and cunning beasts were held in utmost esteem by the Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Even after most English-Folk accepted Christianity, boar symbolism and imagery continued to figure strongly in both art and literature. Even that most rabidly Christian monach Ælfred was compared to a Wild Boar by his biographer, the Welsh monk Asser, Concerning the battle of Æscedune (Ashdown) in early 871he wrote :
“The king (Ælfred's older brother Æthelred, soon to die) remained long in prayer, and the pagans (Danes) came up quickly, ready to fight. Then Ælfred, second in command, could bear the attacks of the enemy no longer. He must either retreat, or begin the battle without waiting for his brother. At last he led his forces like a wild boar against the enemy, without waiting for his brother's arrival...”
Aelfred Jewel; the narrow end is a boar's head, worked in gold.