“The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig.”
Few animals, save the baby harp seal and the extinct passenger pigeon, have as much justification for a grudge against humanity as the pig, which to some degree is either their own tasty fault or yet another cruel injustice perpetrated by the universe in making them so delicious, for as magician Penn Jillette observed, “Bacon is so good by itself that to put it in any other food is an admission of failure. You’re basically saying I can’t make this other food taste good, so I’ll throw in bacon.” The common pig is content to garner the last laugh, as our blocked arteries explode and with our dying breaths we wonder if we should have been a vegan, but there is a cross-cultural, folkloric tradition of a rebel strain of swine that rages against the dying of the light, and throughout history has taken the fight to us. I speak, of course, of the Battleswine and their brothers the Aeotolian Boar, Beigad, the Boar of Beann-Gulbain, Buata, Cafre, the Erymanthean Boar, Twrch Trwyth, and Ysgithyrwyn, and woe unto you who thinks your pulled pork sandwich does not come with a mythological price. Fear your ham hocks, mortal, for death rides a pale pig.
As you would expect, the aptly named “Battleswine” are Teutonic in origin, and actually refers to two exceedingly wild boars, Hildisvini and Sachrimnir, of Norse mythology, and I kid you not when I say these pigs like to party. Freyja, the Scandinavian warrior goddess, associated with handpicking slain Vikings for Valhalla, generally rode around on a chariot pulled by cats, which is a divine feat in and of itself. When not using a feline-powered mode of transport, she rode on the back of a fearsome wild boar named Hildisvini, “a hog named Gullinbursti (Golden Bristles), or Hildisvini (the swine of war), which the dwarfs Dain and Nabbi made for her, and whose golden bristles illumine the thickest darkness” (Thorpe, 1851, p33), who may or may not have also been her human lover Otta in disguise. Hildisvini is literally Old Norse for “battle swine”, and one assumes that it is unwise to tangle with such a large and aggressive boar, particularly one that pals around with Viking gods. Norse mythology also reminds us that there is pork of the living dead in the form of Sachrimnir, a zombie pig that is served up to the dead warriors in Valhalla each night after an entertaining day of slaughtering each other, and each night regenerates into another delicious set of pork chops. No doubt a deliciously angry set of pork chops.
Those only whose blood had been shed in battle might aspire to the pleasures which Odin prepared for them in Valhalla. The pleasures which they expected after death show us plainly enough what they relished during -life. The heroes, says the Edda, who are received into the palace of Odin, have every day the pleasure of arming themselves, of passing in review, of ranging themselves in order of battle, and of cutting one another in pieces; but, as soon as the hour of repast approaches, they return on horseback, all safe and sound, to the hall of Odin, and fall to eating and drinking. Though the number of them cannot be counted, the flesh of the boar Sachrimnir is sufficient for them all: every day it is served up at table, and every day it is renewed again entire (Headley, 1874, p22).
Irish mythology makes note of the fierce Boar of Beann Gulbain, a resurrected human corpse transformed into a wild boar that ravaged the countryside. The story goes that a gentleman named Agnus, had an adopted son Diarmad, who killed the biological son of Agnus, and didn’t feel especially guilty about it. Agnus brought back his son as a wild boar that then proceeded to wreak havoc across hill and dale. Diarmad set out to deal with the brutish pig, that seemed to be able to fend off dozens of men simultaneously, not heeding the warning that he was under a curse that said he would only live as long as the Boar of Boar of Beann-Gulbain. The boar maimed him and commenced gorging on his flesh, but Diarmad managed to get in a last shot, resulting in the death of both man and pig. This is in keeping with the traditional Irish hero who gives the most brilliant speech of his life at the gallows. But who mourns the pig? The Boar of Beann Gulbain didn’t ask to be killed when he was a human (maybe he was a jerk, who knows), didn’t ask to be resurrected, and no doubt wouldn’t have wanted to come back as a gigantic, flesh-eating monster pig. The most even-tempered among us might act out a little bit in those circumstances.
Then Diarmuid went forth from Rati. Ghrainne, and made no halt nor stopping until he reached to the summit of Beann Gulbain, and he found Fionn before hire there without any one by him or in his company. Diarmuid gave him no greeting, but asked him whether it was he that was holding that chase. Fionn said that it was not he, but that a company had risen out after midnight, ” and one of our hounds came across the track of a wild pig, being loose by our side, so that they have not hitherto been able to retake him. Now it is the wild boar of Beann Gulbain that the hound has met, and the Fenians do but idly in following him; for oftentimes ere now he has escaped them, and thirty warriors of the Fenians were slain by him this morning. He is even now [coming] up against the mountain towards us, with the Fenians fleeing before him, and let us leave this tulach to him.” Diarmuid said that he would not leave the tulach through fear of him (Tóruiġeaċt Ḋiarmuda Agus Ġráinne, 1880, p39-40).
In a Welsh variation dating to the 9th Century A.D., Twrch Trwyth, son of Prince Tared, is cursed into a wild boar with poisonous bristles, and puzzlingly carries a pair of scissors, comb, and razor between his ears. Another of Prince Tared’s sons, a certain Culhwch, wants to date a giant, and is given a few tasks to prove his worthiness by her father Ysbaddaden Pencawr, including stealing the comb and scissors from the head of Twrch Trwyth. Now here you are, cursed to be a pig, and some crazy Welshman is still trying to steal your stuff because a hair-obsessed giant told him to. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. And it gets worse. Its no simple matter to track down a mutant boar like Twrch Trwyth, and apparently the hound for the job is none other than a similarly monstrous hunting dog named Drudwyn (or possibly Cafall, sources are unclear), who is too strong to have his leash held by the average man. Culhwch calls up his cousin Arthur for the job. That would be King Arthur Pendragon. Round Tables and Knights. Rumored 6th Century defender of Britain against Saxon invasion and Guinevere’s boy toy. Arthur tags along with a bunch of men, who Twrch Trwyth dispatches to meet their maker with great efficiency, but the unfortunate, embattled swine (who actually has a bunch of piglets hanging out with him) is eventually forced to surrender and summarily driven off a Cornwall cliff into the sea where he drowns, since clearly the Geneva Convention is not thought to apply to food groups.
All was at last ready for the final achievement—the hunting of Twrch Trwyth, who was now, with his seven young pigs, in Ireland. Before he was roused, it was thought wise to send the wizard Menw to find out by ocular inspection whether the comb, the scissors, and the razor were still between his ears. Menw took the form of a bird, and settled upon the Boar’s head. He saw the coveted treasures, and tried to take one of them, but Twrch Trwyth shook himself so violently that some of the venom from his bristles spurted over Menw, who was never quite well again from that day. Then the hunt was up, the men surrounded him, and the dogs were loosed at him from every side. On the first day, the Irish attacked him. On the second day, Arthur’s household encountered him and were worsted. Then Arthur himself fought with him for nine days and nine nights without even killing one of the little pigs (Squire, 1905, p347).
King Arthur apparently liked him some bacon, since he is also associated with the folklore surrounding Ysgithyrwyn (Welsh. “White-tusk chief of Boars”). In another task assigned to Culhwch, he is sent to extract the tusk from Ysgithyrwyn while the poor pig is still alive, so he rounds up Arthur’s dog and horse, charges out and slices open Ysgithyrwyn’s head with a battleaxe. It seems that the life expectancy for Welsh boars was pretty low, especially if your hunters have a family relationship with King Arthur. Lest you think the Celts are cornering the market on pig-poking, when the Greek gods throw a tantrum over inadequate sacrificial offerings, they tended to call in a wild boar for some wanton destruction. The Aetolian Boar (sometimes called the Calydonian Boar) was unleashed on Aetolia by Artemis, as they were not properly propitiating her as befit her goddess status, and set about ravaging the countryside. Apparently Artemis was a bit of a vindictive diva as “She also sends the Calydonian boar as a requital for some affront which had been passed on her; and for the same reason she insists on the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the daughter of Agamemnon” (Cox, 1867, p56). Not that the other Greek gods were any less vain and touchy. A version of the Aetolian Boar called the Erymanthian Boar also figures in as the Fourth labor of Hercules (Aphrodite tagging in for Artemis in this case).
To accomplish the destruction of the terrific animal which Artemis in her wrath had sent forth, Meleager assembled not merely the choice youth among the Kuretes and Aetolians (as we fine in the Iliad), but an illustrious troop, including Kastor and Pollux, Idas and Lynke’us, Peleus and Telamon, Theseus and Peirithous, Ankasus and Kepheus, Jason, Amphiaraus, Admetus, Eurytion and others. Nestor and Phoenix, who appear as old men before the walls of Troy, exhibited their early prowess as auxiliaries to the suffering Kalydonians. Conspicuous amidst them all stood the virgin Atalanta, daughter of the Arcadian Schoeneus ; beautiful and matchless for swiftness of foot, but living in the forest as a huntress and unacceptable to Aphrodite. Several of the heroes were slain by the boar, others escaped by various stratagems; at length Atalanta first shot him in the back, next Amphiaraus in the eye, and, lastly, Meleager killed him (Grote, 1857, p145-146).
Although Icelanders definitely got their traditional Norse on, their particular monstrous boar named Beigad fared a little better than the Celtic and Teutonic counterparts. That is, he is not slaughtered, simply dies of exhaustion.
Thororm dwelt at Thorormstongue. Ingimund lost ten swine which were found the following harvest-tide in Swinedale, where were a hundred swine; the boar was named Beigad, he leaped into Swinewater or Swine-pool and swam about until his kloofs came off, and he died from the over exertion at Beigad’s-knoll (Ari Þorgilsson , 1898, p117).
Fear not that this obsession with aggressive and embittered pork is a purely Western phenomena, for in the Pacific there are tales of the bush spirits Buata and the Cafre. Papua New Guinea and New Britain’s Buata is a gigantic talking boar with a taste for human flesh, along with his close cousin in the Philippines, Cafre. In both instances, the angry boars like to talk with their victims, giving new meaning to playing with food, and as most people have never seen a massive bipedal boar strike up a conversation, an encounter can be mesmerizing to say the least. The advice offered in avoiding impalment on the tusks of the Cafre or Buata, is to pretend to be deeply interested in whatever the topic said swine has chosen to elaborate upon, and run away while it is distracted. It may be rude, but you will live to see another day.
Buata. This is the name of a semisupernatural monster in the traditions and folklore of the peoples of New Britain. Described as a creature with enormous tusks, it is said to resemble a wild boar, but is vastly bigger and stronger. The Buata has the ability to speak and understand the human beings it hunts as prey, but like most ogre-beings of folklore it has little intelligence and may be tricked into losing its victim (Rose, 2000, p59).
We need not raise an alarm about the potential for swine-perpetrated ideological revolution as described in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Everyone knows that pigs are poor organizers. It is the rogue hogs who feel enough is enough, and are preparing for battle that should keep you up at night. Next time you wake to the savory aroma of a loved one frying up the bacon for breakfast, regard the prescient observation of Winston Churchill, when he said, “Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals”, for somewhere there is a fearsome wild boar waking up with the same mouth-watering thoughts about you.
Ari Þorgilsson, fróði, 1067-1148. The Book of the Settlement of Iceland. Kendal: T. Wilson, 1898.
Cox, George W. 1827-1902. A Manual of Mythology In the Form of Question And Answer. 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green & co., 1867.
Grote, George, 1794-1871. History of Greece. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857.
Headley, P. C. 1819-1903. The Island of Fire: Or, A Thousand Years of the Old Northmen’s Home. 874-1874. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1874.
Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2000.
Squire, Charles. The Mythology of the British Islands: an Introduction to Celtic Myth, Legend, Poetry, And Romance. New York: Scribner , 1905.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870. Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions And Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, And the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley, 1851.
Tóruiġeaċt Ḋiarmuda Agus Ġráinne = The Pursuit of Diarmuid And Grainne. Dublin: M.H. Gill, 1880.