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The Role of the Boar in
Celtic Iconography and Myth

Coming second only to the horse, the boar occupies a prominent position in Celtic iconography, and like the horse, it is on Celtic coins that we most frequently encounter him. Yet beyond a few guesses based upon simple observations, we find little explanation of his pervasiveness.

To start our search, we will take one of the Celtic coins where not only is the boar splendidly portrayed, but we also know of its Classical prototype. This is the earliest silver coin of the Corieltauvi (Coritani) in Britain, and is derived from a Roman Republican coin of Hosidius depicting the slaying of the Calydonian boar.

It is important to realize that the Celts, while non-literate, were nevertheless familiar with Roman and Greek myths, and did discuss their own interpretations of them. The copying of a Roman coin type was not a haphazard incident and would not have been done unless it had some relevance to the Celtic ethos. Let us examine the story of the Calydonian boar:

In this myth, King Oeneus has made offerings to the Gods to thank them for a bountiful harvest, but he has omitted to include an offering for Diana. Angered by this, she has loosed a giant boar on Oeneus' land as a punishment. The boar had a breath that could set fire to leaves. It trampled the first shoots of spring, and destroyed the corn in the ear in Autumn. It attacked the flocks, and sent people scurrying for the safety of the city walls.

Oeneus' son Meleager selects a force of heroes (including many famous characters from Greek myth) to overcome the boar and win fame and glory. The warriors follow the boar's tracks into a virgin forest. The dogs are unleashed and hunting nets spread out upon the forest floor. The boar is first driven out from a marshy hollow; rushing into the midst of its foes like a bolt of lightning, it crashes loudly against the trunks of the trees, pushing some of them over. Dogs are tossed to the side by the beast's tusks, and the warriors return the attack.

Echion throws the first spear, but it misses, and scars the bark of a maple tree; Jason's spear overshoots, then Mopsus cries out a prayer to Apollo and hurls his spear. It hits the boar but fails to wound it, for Diana steals its iron tip as it flies through the air.

The boar is angered even more, blazing as fiercely as the fire of a thunderbolt, sparks flashing from its eyes, it breathes out flames from its chest and charges the band of warriors. Eupalamus and Pelagon are felled, their friends snatching them up from where they lay; Enaesimus, turns to flee, but the boar slashes the sinews behind his knees, and he crumples to the ground; Nestor uses his spear to vault into the branches of a tree, and looks down at the boar from a safe height. The boar then sharpens his tusks on the bark of an oak, before ripping open the thigh of Hippasus.

Castor and Pollux send their javelins in unison towards the boar, but it retreats into dense undergrowth. Telemon follows it eagerly, but in his haste, trips over the roots of a tree. While Peleus is helping him to his feet, Atalanta, the girl warrior from Tegea, fires an arrow at the boar that grazes the top of his back and lodges below its ear, staining the bristles with a trickle of blood. Meleager, pleased at her success, tells her that she will be honoured for her prowess. The men, shamed by this, let fly with their weapons without plan, the spears hit each other, and are ineffective. Then Ancaeus, boasting that his double axe is better than a woman's weapon, rushes for the boar, and standing poised, prepares to let the blade down on the beast. The boar, aiming his tusks at the upper part of Ancaeus' loins, gores him, and his organs slip and trail from his body in a mass of blood that stains the earth. Pirithous rushes toward the brute, but is stopped by a warning from Theseus, who launches his spear at the boar. The spear misses and lodges in an oak tree; Jason throws his javelin, but his aim is bad, and it kills one of the hounds.

Meleager looses two spears at the boar; the first misses and sticks in the ground, but the second lodges in the middle of the beast's back. The boar, writhing in fury and agony, can only wait for the fatal thrust. It slavers foam and blood, and Meleager buries his spear in its shoulder.

Meleager, who has fallen in love with Atalanta, presents her with the boar's hide and its head with the magnificent tusks. His two uncles, saying that he had no right to interfere with their honour, took the spoils from Atalanta, depriving Meleager of his right. Meleager flies into a rage, calling his uncles robbers of another man's glory, he runs his sword through the heart of the first, and then swiftly kills the second.

Meleager's mother, Althaea, had been told of her son's victory and she was on her way to the temple with offerings, when she saw the bodies of her two brothers being carried back. The sound of her grief filled the city, but when she discovered that it was Meleager that had killed her brothers, her grief turned to rage, and she plotted her revenge.

When Meleager was born, the Three Fates appeared to Althaea. Clotho said that he would have a noble spirit, Lachesis, that he would be a hero, and Atropos, that he would live as long as the log burning in the fire was not consumed by it. Althaea quickly threw water over the log and hid it away.

Now Althaea brought out the log, ordering a fire to be built. Four times she tried to throw the log on the fire, but each time she stopped herself. Her mood changed from fury to compassion and back again. Finally, her feelings for her brothers became greater than those for her son, and after a long prayer to the Furies, she cast the log into the flames. Meleager, who was not present, felt the heat of the flames and as the log was consumed by the fire, Meleager, bearing his agony with courage, regretting that his end was so inglorious, breathed his last into the thin air as the white ashes settled over the glowing embers.

There is something of a Celtic flavour to the story of Meleager: the boar is the enemy, we feel more animosity to it than we do to Diana who conjures it up. Once it has been created, it takes on a purpose of its own. Diana is easily forgotten, as if she were nothing more than an explanation that would fit the story.

To find the relevant Celtic content, we must look to the Irish myths that were part of an oral tradition reaching back into antiquity from the medieval period in which they were finally penned. In particular that of Diarmait and the Boar of Benn Gulbain:

Diarmait was reared at Brugh-na-Boyne, as foster son to Aengus, the great magician of the Tuatha de Danaan.

Diarmait's mother had another son by a different father, and this man was Aengus' steward. It had been decreed that this boy would be a play-friend and foster-brother to Diarmait. Diarmait's father was Donn, and one day he visited Aengus with a few others of the Fianna.

At the feast that evening, a fight broke out between Finn Mac Cool's hounds. In the ensuing panic, the steward's son ran between Donn's legs for protection. In a moment of hatred for the boy, who had been borne by his own wife, Donn brought his legs together and crushed the boy to death. He threw the body among the hounds, so that everyone might think that they had killed him.

Finn told the steward to check his son's injuries, and when the father saw that his son had been crushed, and guessed who was responsible, the steward insisted that he should be allowed to kill Diarmait in the same way as fitting retribution. Aengus forbad this, and the steward fetched a magic wand and struck the body of his son, and it was transformed into a cropped black boar. Before the boar rushed out, the steward laid a spell on the boar that its life span should be that of Diarmait's and that they should slay each other. To avoid this, Aengus laid a geise upon Diarmait that he should never hunt boar.

Many years passed and Diarmait grew strong and handsome. He had many adventures and became one of Finn Mac Cool's trusted heroes.

Cormac Mac Airt was the king of Erin, and his daughter Grainne was the fairest maiden in the land. After the death of his second wife, Finn Mac Cool had been persuaded to ask for Grainne's hand in marriage. Although she had never laid eyes on Finn she consented, and two weeks later, Finn and his company of chiefs and heroes journeyed to Tara to collect the bride.

At the feast at Tara, Finn Mac Cool saw that indeed, Grainne was the fairest of maidens, and he gave many glances her way. She did not return the glances because she had become enamoured with one of Finn's heroes. Asking who he was, she was told that his name was Diarmait of the Love Spot, and that all women that looked his way were likely to fall in love with him.

Rather than averting her eyes, she continued to gaze at Diarmait. After a while she called for one of her handmaids and had her bring a drinking horn from her chambers. No one noticed that there was a small amount of red liquid in the bottom of the horn. Grainne filled the horn with wine and had the drink passed to all that sat at the feast, that is, all except Diarmait, and the few friends that sat near him, including Finn's son Oisín.

When the rest of the party was asleep from drinking the drugged wine, Grainne walked over to Diarmait and sat next to him. She declared her love for him and he admitted that he had fallen in love with her as well, but he could not go away with her and violate his duty to Finn.

Grainne was not to be deterred and she laid a geise upon Diarmait that no hero could break his honour and then be saved unless he took her out of Tara before his companions awoke. He asked Oisín what he should do and Oisín replied that no man should break the bonds of a geise, but that Diarmait should beware of his father's vengeance. The rest of the party agreed, but one of them prophesied that to go with Grainne would mean death for Diarmait, and yet if he did not go he would not be worthy to have lived at all. All those that heard this prophesy, at once knew its truth.

When Finn and the others awoke in the morning, Diarmait and Grainne had gone. Finn was enraged and tried to follow, but by the cleverness and magic of Aengus, the couple always managed to escape his wrath. After numerous conflicts, an uneasy peace was negotiated by Aengus, and the couple lived happily for many years.

This is not the end of the story, Grainne and her daughter arranged a feast for Finn Mac Cool. They hoped that by inviting Finn to stay under their roof, the original friendship between Finn and Diarmait might be rekindled.

Finn accepted the invitation, and one night that he was there Diarmait heard a hound baying. He would have got up to find the dog, but it was the last night of the year, and his wife told him that it was the sound of the Tuatha de Danaan busying themselves. He heard it again, but heeded his wife's advice. At daylight he was woken again by the sound of the baying, and this time he set out, lightly armed, and with his own favourite hound. He walked until he reached the summit of Benn Gulbain.

There he came across Finn Mac Cool, and he asked him if Finn was hunting the hound as well. Finn told Diarmait that he was not, and that he and his party had followed the tracks of a wild boar. It was the Boar of Ben Gulbain, and the beast had killed fifty of his men.

The boar then came up the hill toward them, the huntsmen fleeing before it. Finn said it would be advisable for them to flee the hill, but Diarmait would not go. Finn told him of the geise that Aengus had laid upon him, and of its cause, as Diarmait was only nine months old at the time, and thus did not remember that fateful day. Diarmait refused again, saying that Finn had made this hunt and if it was here that he was fated to die, then he had no power over that.

Finn left, and Diarmait faced the boar alone. in the ensuing fight, both Diarmait and the Boar of Ben Gulbain perished.

In another version of the ending, Diarmait kills the boar, and after skinning it, Finn asks him to step on the hide and measure it out. After doing this once with no ill effect, Finn tells him to do it again. This time he is pricked by one of the boar's poisonous bristles, and near death, begs Finn to get some spring water that will cure him if he drinks it from Finn's cupped hands.

Finn avoids doing this twice by letting the water drain between his fingers, as his revenge on Diarmait, but the Fenians become furious with Finn and he acquiesces, only this time, Diarmait dies as Finn approaches him with the water.

Aengus claims Diarmait's body, saying that while he could not bring him back to life, he will take the body to Brugh-na-Boyne, and there give it a soul, so that he might converse with it daily.

Diarmait and the boar, born of the same mother, represent the forces of light and darkness. We have a clue of this with Meleager as well, in the prayer to Apollo made by Mopsus before he hurls his spear.

To return to the Corieltauvian coins in question, many varieties are known. Note that the design soon developed into one where the spear was omitted, and in its place, a wide variety of sun-symbols were substituted. The association of sun symbols and the spear on these coins is significant. The Celts adopting the Roman coin design did not do so merely because the image of a boar coincided with their own ethos, but they were also familiar with either the myth of Meleager and the Calydonian boar, or they found, in this design, a reference to a similar myth of their own. We are likely seeing here, an archetype myth of both the Celts and the Greeks and Romans.

The important difference between the stories of Meleager and Diarmait is that Meleager's life is measured by the life of a log, whereas Diarmait's life is the same as that of the boar. Although the Roman story is earlier in its written form, the Irish story has the earlier structure. The connections between the Calydonian boar and Meleager are weaker than the connections between the Boar of Benn Gulbain and Diarmait, who are half-brothers.

In abstract, we can say that the Creator makes both light and dark in equal measure. The year is thus divided into two: the dark time when the night is longer than the day, and the light time, when this is reversed.

Diarmait hears the hound baying on the last night of the year, and kills the boar on the first day of the new year. The association of boars with Samhain has lasted until recent times, but the boar has been transformed to a sow. Consider the following verse from the vale of the Dee:

A cutty black sow
On every stile,
Spinning and carding
Each November-eve.

The parallel between the sow in this verse, and the boar in the story of Diarmait is obvious. In each case, the pig is cropped and black. The stile, with its cross shape has served as an equivalent to crossroads in folk stories. Meeting a cutty black sow on a stile on this night is an earlier version of meeting the devil at the crossroads on the same night.

This argument is strengthened by looking at the evidence that the coins provide: On what Van Arsdell gives as the earliest of the Corieltauvian examples, the shaft of the spear that pierces the boar's back passes through a circle. Within the circle, and either side of the spear are two pellets. This gives the effect of a cross within a circle. This interpretation is supported by one of the fractions where, in a simplified design, a cross within a circle (or a wheel of four spokes) appears as the only element above the boar.

In the boar type of the Iceni, the Corieltauvi's neighbours to the south, the "spear" intersects with the boar's snout, and is surmounted by a pellet-within-a-circle sun symbol. The overall effect of this is like a Chi-Rho monogram with the left half of the X missing, or being suggested by the shape of the front of the boar's head.

An interesting association of a cross with a boar is provided by a coin of the Aulerci Eburovices, here, a wreath, or ear of grain pattern is intersected by a line terminating in a crescent. This pattern is seen on many Celtic coins, and may be most familiar on the Gallo-Belgic gold staters and their British derivatives. On this coin, however, the crescent is surmounted by a boar, its hind legs standing on a second crescent. At the intersection of both crescents and the boar's legs, there is a circle.

Nowhere is the association between the cross and the boar more clear than in an unattributed Armorican coin, on this coin, the figure of the boar forms the bar of a cross. We return again to Meleager's spear piercing the boar's back. If the boar is impaled thus, a cross is formed, and each limb is a season.

The cross is a universal symbol. Meanings of this symbol contain "fourness": the four seasons; winds; elements, and the cardinal points, and also by extension: the centre; the omphalos; wholeness; continuation; addition, and resurrection. It may have a variety of forms including a plus sign, an "X" or a swastika.

Being associated with the boar by its position on these coins, we can say that the cross indicates the portal between this world and the underworld, or the yearly cycles of the sun. From the myths given here, the two meanings are really the same.

The lightning and sparks of the Calydonian boar are both archetypical of dark forces. Particularly telling, is the damage that the boar does to the crops. All farmers are familiar with the "killing frost" that destroys the new shoots in the spring, and frost, as well as an early snowfall, heavy rain or hail can do the same to the crops before the harvest. If the boar is here symbolising the "dark" part of the year, unseasonable weather would be a fitting result of his inauspicious arrival.

The boar's arrival in the spring and autumn is not entirely unseasonable, but does demand a response. In the spring, the sun warms the cold ground and life begins anew, while in the autumn, the approaching cold triggers the renewal processes of the plants that go to seed or bear fruit. The forces of light and dark are not always separate, but pass their influences back and forth.

On some coins of the Coriosolites, and other Armorican tribes, we encounter a boar that has a base line that truncates the lower part of a sun-symbol. The sun symbol in this case is the very common and ancient pellet within a circle. This boar symbol has long been misinterpreted as a military standard. While such objects were undoubtedly carried into battle, we should read them more as totems. They can be viewed as a representation of the point where the sun rises to conquer the darkness. Depending on the context, the Celts could have interpreted this as a sign of the forces of light (themselves) overcoming the forces of darkness (the enemy), or as a symbol of dawn of the day or of the year. In earlier times, this would have been the winter solstice, but the symbology transversed the change of the new year to Samhain.

In the Irish story, the single creator of the boar and Diarmait is female. This suggests a pre-Iron Age origin of the myth, although most of the other instrumental characters in Diarmait's fate are male, and of definite Celtic flavour. There is Aengus and the steward, both of whom have magical powers.

In the Roman story, the creators of Meleager and the boar, while being female, are separate, the only one with magical powers is Diana. In the later classical period, she was the goddess of the hunt, entirely fitting for one who would create the boar, but her earliest form is that of the great mother goddess. The Fates, a female trinity, determine the relative life span of Meleager, and his mother determines the exact moment of his death. She offers a prayer to the Furies, another female trinity, at this time.

Other elements in the stories such as the love between Meleager and Atalanta; between Diarmait and Grainne; the jealousies of Meleager's uncles toward him, and that of Finn toward Diarmait, are typical of many ancient myths, and might have no special relevance.

The strangest parallels are between the Boar of Benn Gulbain, and the log that measures Meleager's life. The life of each being the same as that of the solar-hero in each case. The log is, of course, the Yule log of the European custom. As Sir James Frazer points out, the custom of lighting fires at the summer and winter solstices reflected the importance of the waxing and waning sun. In England, France, and Germany, the customs of the Yule log vary somewhat, but are united by certain elements. The log might be large and dense enough to smoulder for a year, in which case, if any of it remained after that period, it was ground and scattered with the ashes over the fields to promote the growth of the next season's crops. Frazer tells of the custom in one part of Germany to build the Yule log, in this case, a heavy block of oak, into the base of the hearth, where it will char, but not be consumed in the following year. In another part of Germany, he says that the log was charred and then removed from the fire and kept in the house (very close to the Roman myth). When a thunderstorm occurred, the log was placed on the fire again, to protect the house from lightning.

Frazer also lists a number of Scandinavian customs concerning the Yule boar, which has connections to cereal crops, and is often in the form of a cake of boar shape. In one example a man is dressed to symbolize a boar, and a woman pretends to sacrifice him with a knife. Frazer believes this may signify an ancient custom of boar sacrifice, and also of human sacrifice. While the former is likely, it may also be a reference to a boar versus solar-hero myth. The idea of a human sacrifice is not well-proved by this example, but there are numerous other examples of the ritual killing of kings at the end of their pre-ordained term, and this brings us yet again to the calendrical significance of the myths we have been following.

In the story of Venus and Adonis, Adonis is gored in the groin by a boar and he dies from this injury. The grief-stricken Venus decrees that each year the scene of her love's death will be staged anew. While the boar does not die at the same time as Adonis, the cycle of the year is demonstrated by Venus' decree. That Adonis is gored in the groin is significant. The boar's curved tusk is the sickle that Cronos (Father Time) used to castrate his father Uranus. Cronos is banished to the underworld by Zeus for this crime, but he will be born again to repeat the act each year and to this day in the form of the new born baby replacing Father Time and his sickle (now grown into a scythe).

Robert Graves points out the parallel of the Druidic custom of the cutting of the sacred mistletoe with a golden sickle to the castration of Uranus by Cronos. The white semen-filled berries of the mistletoe having the obvious connection, and the solar aspect being provided by the colour of the sickle. We also note that the Druid wore white robes for this ceremony, and Father Time is similarly attired.

While Father Time returns as the baby, he also returns with his scythe, but now dressed in black, as Death at the end of people's lives. While the sun returns as the same, people do not, and thus we have the human element of Diarmait that cannot be brought back to life, although his spirit, or the solar meaning of the tale will be restored by Aengus at Newgrange.

We should also remember that Odysseus bore the scar of a boar's tusk in his leg, and it was from this that he was first recognized upon his return to Ithaca. We will recall that at this time it was revealed that he had 360 boars left in his herd. Each boar thus representing one day of the year (more or less, depending on whether we are using the solar, or lunar year).

We can also go further afield and compare mythologies from other parts of the world, places that could have had no contact with Mediterranean or northern peoples. Joseph Campbell tells of the Malekulans in Melanesia, where boars are sacrificed at Megalithic shrines as a payment enabling one to enter the Otherworld at death. The association of pigs, and especially boars, with the underworld, night, and death is almost universal. As animals that root in the ground, that are often dark in colour, that have tusks shaped like the crescent moon, and that are ferocious, it would be odd for them to have any other meaning.

I have used here only those symbols that are to be found in conjunction with boars on Celtic coins. It is not a complete study, but I have tried to keep to the most dominant motifs. I have not attempted to deal with cases where other symbols are substituted for boars. Although these have the same meanings, the mythological path they take is different from that of the boar symbol, and do not relate well to the elements found in the two myths we have studied here.

It is most likely that the Roman and the Celtic myths of the boar share a mutual ancestor in Neolithic Europe. We are unlikely to ever hear the story in its original form, but we can at least understand its meaning. Top

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A Celt, in a discussion with Lucian, explained how the Celtic Ogmios, personifying the power of speech was represented by Heracles rather than Hermes. This Celt made various references to Greek myths in the course of the conversation. - John Rhys, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom, London 1898.

Condensed from The Metamorphoses of Ovid, transl. Mary M Innes, Harmondsworth, 1955.

Like Aillen, and many other-world creatures in Irish myth.

An interesting hint here about the origin and age of this myth. We might assume that, if the arrowhead was made of bronze, then Dianaa would not have been able to do anything about it. Compare this with northern European lore that says that magic does not work when iron is present. Both of these are to show that the earlier Bronze age traditions had greater magic and power. Diana herself is most likely evolved from a Bronze Age goddess.

John Rhys, op. cit. "Benn Gulbain" is Benbulbin, County Sligo.


The people who, in Irish Myth, are identified with those that eventually occupied Newgrange and other Megalithic sites.

Sometimes given as Corc.

Rhys, op. cit.

R. D. Van Arsdell, Celtic Coinage of Britain, London, 1989, (VA) 855-3 to 867-1; The H. R. Mossop Collection, Glendining's, 6 November, 1991, lots 137 - 161.

Rhys, op. cit.

VA 855-3, Mossop, op. cit., 144

VA 862-1, Mossop, 152.

VA 659-1

Henri De La Tour (DLT), Atlas de Monnaies Gauloises, Paris, 1892: 7032.

DLT 6918.

Classes VI, I, and III

The Golden Bough London, 1922.

The White Goddess, London, 1961.

This colour coding extends to Celtic coinage: virtually all coins that have a boar as the main device are silver or base metal. If the boar appears on a gold coin, it is only as a subsidiary symbol. The only exception to this are the enigmatic scyphate coins(?) of the Corieltauvi. Jeffrey May, The earliest gold coinages of the Corieltauvi? in Melinda Mays (ed.) Celtic Coinage: Britain and Beyond BAR British Series 222, 1992. Also see Mossop, op. cit.

On one of the first Coriosolite coins, one of the horse's thighs is combined with part of the boar's head so that the tusk seems to pierce the leg. While this might be dismissed at a die cutter's error, this would be the only error in all of this coinage.

Primitive Mythology, New York, 1959.