A Great and Terrible…Pig?

It is rare to find pigs playing any great role in the history of great conflicts. Just about the only example I can think of, in fact, is the bloodless border dispute between the United States and the British Empire–called the Pig War–which took place in 1859 on the Pacific Northwestern island of San Juan. This lack of piggy prominence would have come as a surprise, however, to the author(s?) of the mediaeval Welsh tales collectively known as the Mabinogi. These stories, a mix of history, legend, and local idiosyncrasies, present a number of narratives where the pig (and his wild counterpart the boar) take on great historical and symbolic meaning.

12th century French depiction of pig-tending. (Wikimedia Commons)

12th century French depiction of pig-tending. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of these pigs are benign in and of themselves, but become the catalysts for terrible events. The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, for example, tells the legendary tale of a war between North and South Wales, in which the hero-king Pryderi is killed and the northern kingdom of Gwynedd triumphs. And the cause of the war?

‘Small animals whose flesh is better than beef,’ that had been given to Pryderi by the faerie king Arawn and were stolen away by the trickster Gwydion. That is, pigs!

One of the major motivations behind this bizarre story seems to be the explanation of place names in Wales with piggy elements (such as Mochdref and Mochnant). In the story, these are places where Gwydion stops with his stolen pigs on his way back to his own kingdom. The wondrous nature of these pigs, however, is rather unexplained. Their origins in the magical kingdom of Annwfn (the Welsh Otherworld) rather suggest that pigs were perceived as foreign to the primordial landscape of Wales (although written in the Middle Ages, these stories take place in an indeterminate past.)

In other stories, the otherworldly nature of pigs and boars is more explicitly acknowledged. In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, for example, ‘a gleaming-white wild boar’ leads the aforementioned Pryderi into a magical trap. White was typically the colour of anything otherworldly, or even god-touched. In the Life of St Cadog, for example, an angel tells the saint:

‘…thou shalt perceive a white boar, bristly and of great age, leap out, frightened at the sound of they footsteps, and there shalt thou lay the foundation of they temple…’.

From these references, we can see that if the domesticated pig was a tasty novelty, then his wild cousin was something else again–a spiritual guide or magical avatar of great significance.

A boar in the window of a French delicatessen, in the mediaeval town of Olargues

A boar in the window of a French delicatessen, in the mediaeval town of Olargues

The boar becomes something far more fearful, however, in the tale How Culhwch Won Olwen, in which King Arthur seeks a way to kill Ysbaddaden the Giant so that the young hero Culhwch can marry Ysbaddaden’s daughter.

15th century manuscript illustration of pigs menacing elephants in battle, MS BL Royal 20 BXX, folio 57r.

15th century manuscript illustration of pigs menacing elephants in battle, MS BL Royal 20 BXX, folio 57r. (Source)

One of the tasks that they must complete is the snatching of a comb and shears from between the ears of Twrch Trwyth–a massive boar who shakes debilitating poison from his bristles and terrorised the island of Ireland. Accompanied by seven piglets, Twrch Trwyth leaves a path of destruction through Wales to Cornwall, killing Arthur’s soldiers as he goes.

And why all the fuss? Scholars have noted that the ritual of hair-trimming is often associated with kingship in Welsh literature. Here, the battle for the comb and shears may be a symbolic representation of the martial prowess required for rulership. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Twrch Trwyth is no mere beast–as Arthur tells his men, ‘He was a king, and for his sins God changed him into a swine.’  In this story, we may be seeing a representation between the heroic and the atavistic aspects of kingship, and a struggle for succession played out in mythic dimension.

Thus, although pigs may seem downright prosaic to us today, they were highly influential animals in the literature of mediaeval Wales, guiding saints and heroes to otherworldly goals, inciting conflict, and keeping treasures. What other animal can say the same?

Learn More:

Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion, (Oxford, 2007).

Lifris, Vita Cadoci, trans. A.W. Wade-Evans, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Geneologiae, (Cardiff, 1944), pp.24-142.

2 thoughts on “A Great and Terrible…Pig?

  1. The history of food is really interesting, and I wish I could read more literature about it. This article reminds me of a series I read as a child that got me into the fantasy literature genre- the Chronicles of Prydain- which is inspired by Welsh mythology and features a pig-keeper as the main character. Anyhow, I’ve also noticed that pigs have not generally been the most important domestic animals in history; that role is generally seems reserved for cattle and horses. Pigs are also relatively rare in large parts of areas with historical records perhaps because of the Islamic taboo on pork (the pork taboo in the Middle East was common among numerous pre-Islamic cultures as well). It is also extremely rare in India. However, pork is the meat of choice in China and the Pacific islands and some pacific island societies also measured wealth through hogs, so perhaps there was violence over pigs there as well.

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