During the Dark Ages much of northern Europe was covered in Wildwood; a primal, fearful place inhabited by strange and terrifying monsters. One malevolent resident of this ‘other’ realm was a beast held in high esteem by many early cultures - the Wild Boar!
It took skill to track and kill this relative of the pig, their ferocity, and strength making them a worthy adversary. When cornered their razor-sharp tusks could leave men, dogs, and even horses mortally wounded; in fact Boar spears of the age were modified with metal ‘wings’ to stop an impaled animal running up the shaft to gore the hunter. Nevertheless, in many of the warrior cultures of the north it was often considered a rite of passage to take part in a Boar hunt and to kill the quarry was a high honour.
In most European pre-Christian traditions, the Wild Boar was connected with male solar deities owing to the nature of death and rebirth accorded to the animals association to the earth; while in Saxon and Viking mythology they were associated with the fertility gods, or Vanir.
- Frey rode a red Gold Boar named Gullinbursti (‘golden-mane’) also known as Slíðrugtanni (‘terrible teeth’), he could run through the air and over water so fast that darkness could not overtake him. Made by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri from pigskin and thousands of pieces of gold wire, Gullinbursti was symbolic of the sun (his golden bristles characterized its rays), and it was said he made the plants grow.
- Freya the northern goddess of love and the greenwood, in her guise as Valfreyja (Mistress of the Slain) she led the Valkyries as they rode over the battlefield to select the souls of the heroic dead, riding her Boar of solid gold Hildsvin (‘battle swine’), whose hide glowed with its own magical light.
Moreover, it was said the Boar first taught mankind the arts of agriculture, how to plough the Earth before "sowing" seeds by rooting up the ground with his tusks.
In the Norse poem Hyndluljóð, we are told that Freya disguised her husband (or perhaps protégé) Ottar as her Boar Hildsvin,
In legend, Woden’s heroes, the Einheriar (‘lone fighters’), feasted every night in Valhalla on the sacred Boar Sæhrímnir (‘sooty sea-beast’). Slain each day, every morning the Boar was restored back to life, ready to provide sustenance at that evening’s revelry.
The central dish of the mid-winter festival of Yule was a Boar’s head, (sónarblót) upon which warriors would make vows for the coming year (heitstrenging), and from this came our custom of New Year resolutions.
The Svinfylking were a Viking warrior cult dedicated to the Boar; like the Berserkers (‘bear warriors’) and the Ulfhednar (‘wolf warriors’), this elite band drew spiritual strength from their totemic animal. To break a shield wall its members fought in a wedge-shaped formation fronted by two champions, the Rani (‘snout’), and the Old English word eofor (‘Boar’) was used figuratively for a ‘persistent and determined lone warrior’
During the Dark~Age period boar images abound in both ‘art’ and literature; it was thought that a Boar on a helmet would guard the life of the warrior wearing it. There is a description in Beowulf, of an ornamented helm.
Such lines echo the artefacts found in 1939 during the Sutton Hoo ship burial excavation, here stylised boars feature prominently on the grave treasures of Rædwald, King of the East Angles, who died circa 625; with Boar head terminals on the helmets gilded ‘eyebrows’ and entwined Boars on the enamelled shoulder clasps.
Helmets topped with boars have been found throughout Scandinavia, Germany and England; such battle helms were heirlooms, kept and passed down from generation to generation. A magnificent example of such a helmet is that discovered in 1848 at Benty Grange, Derbyshire; made of iron, it’s surmounted by a bronze Boar inlaid with silver studs and eyes of garnet.
Even after Christianity had finally been accepted, Boar symbolism and imagery continued to flourish;
And a tale tells how the C8th Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (the King of the Franks), dreamed that he had been saved by the intervention of a 3 year old infant from being gored by a Wild Boar; the child promised to save the Emperor if he would give him garments to cover his nakedness. The Bishop of nearby Nevers (Dijon) interpreted the dream as meaning that Saint Cyricus wanted Charlemagne to repair the roof of the cathedral of Nevers, which was dedicated to C4th child martyr of Tarsus. Because of this legend, Saint Cyricus is depicted as a naked child riding on a Wild Boar. There are a few churches in England dedicated to St. Cyricus including Newton-St-Cyres, Devon.
The Boar, though missing from the countryside until relatively recently, has never-the-less left its mark on the land hidden within a plethora of place names. The old Gaelic name for Orkney was "Insi Orc “ meaning the "Islands of the Wild Boar", Everton means “the farmstead where Boars are seen”, while the Angles name for Jorvik was Eoforwic, which came from the Old English eofor meaning Boar and wic denotation village, from this (via the Norse) comes our modern name for York.