The wild boar is an animal I work with a lot. He lives in the North Airt (direction) in my shamanic/Celtic spiritual practice. Thousands of years ago Britain was covered in thick primeval woodland and forests. It’s only comparatively recently that those forests have been felled, either for ship masts (which began in King Henry VIII time and onwards), or through the increasing turn to pastoralism by our ancestors. However, there’s no doubt about it, at one time the wild boar was a king among our woodland.
It’s hard to say when the wild boar finally became extinct in Britain but it is thought that the original British wild boar was probably gone from this country by the 13th century, which is pretty early actually. However, over time there were efforts to reintroduce it; during the reign of James 1st and his son, Charles 1st. Unfortunately these attempts were unsuccessful because most people saw wild boar as agricultural pests and killed them.
However, all is not lost. The wild boar is now alive and well and living quite happily in small pockets of wild Britain. In 1998 DEFRA announced two populations living in the wild. So, where had they come from? Apparently these wild boars are thought to be escapees from a couple of wild boar breeders, one on the Kent/Sussex border, and the other in Gloucestershire in the Forest of Dean. The habitat in these places is ideal for the boar to live and flourish because it is fragmented woodland and agricultural land and perfect for the boars’ needs. Not only that because of our mild and wet climate favours the boars natural needs too.
The main threat to the long-term survival of the returned boar appears to be hunting pressure. The fact that the animals are being shot year round and that pregnant/lactating sows are being shot suggests that hunting pressure is affecting population growth. However, whether hunting is actually reducing the population, or only slowing down population growth, is unknown. The tendency of the wild boar to feed on agricultural crops continually puts them in confrontation with the farming and hunting communities.
There are ecological implications also. Some say the constant rooting around of the boars with their snouts, which act like little bull ploughs is detrimental to wild plants etc. not to mention the very unhappy farmer who finds a ‘sounder’ (group of sows) in his fields digging up his root vegetables. On the other side there are those who say that the constant shovelling of the boar’s snout actually helps the woodland and encourages new growth. Despite the for and against, through studies of the UK Wild Boar Survey, the sightings of wild boar are increasing from their initial places and have now been seen as far as field as Dorset, Monmouthshire, Devon, the Home Counties, and even as far up as Lancashire, Northumberland and yes, even Scotland. So it does actually seem that the wild boar has made it back to its ancestral home or one of them anyway.
Of course we all know that the wild boar is a wild pig…yes? Actually it is THE wild ancestor to every pig you can possibly think of, even the pot bellied ones and the weeny miniature ones some people now keep as pets. Yes, the wild boar is THE BIG DADDY of them all. However, a wild boar male will mate with any pig that is an escapee or who has formed feral groups. The offspring although called wild boars themselves are most usually known as wild hogs, wild pigs or razorbacks.
The wild boar has a thick bristly coat but underneath is a softer and thick brownish hair. coat colour can vary from brown, red brown, dark grey, black and even brindled with white or tan tips. Just occasionally one can spot a rare white, known as a white phenotype, and an ever rarer pale coat with black spots. These two types are not albinos but naturally occurring hybrids. The piglets are adorable when born, they have striped coats, which acts as an excellent form of camouflage but these are lost by the time the piglet is 4 months old. The young then take on a reddish colouration until they gain their adult colours at about 1 year.
After 2 years of age male wild boar grow tusks from both the upper and lower canines curving upwards. The top tusks are hollow and act as a permanent whetstone against which the lower tusks are continually sharpened. The lower tusks are indeed extremely sharp. Females do not grow the upper ‘sharpening’ tusks as do the males, and their lower tusks are smaller and they do not protrude from the lip, as they do in males.
Wild boar prefer to live in small social groups referred to as ‘sounders’. Sounders are matriarchal and organised around a core of two or three mature reproductive females with their most recent litters, plus the surviving young and teenagers from previous litters. Group size varies between 6 and 30 animals. Mature males tend to be found in the vicinity of the group only during the breeding season. Outside the breeding season, the mainly solitary males will tolerate the presence of each other but aggression increases in winter with competition for females.
The Wild boar is primarily a nocturnal animal. The daytime is spent sleeping in areas of thick cover in day nests, which are saucer shaped depressions in the ground which may be lined with leaves. Wild boars often have one long rest period in dense cover, during the day, which can last more than 12 hours. A short period of grooming on awakening, followed by four to eight hours of feeding during the night.
Wild boars are omnivorous and will consume a large variety of food items. Typically, plant material accounts for 90% of their diet and animal matter the remaining 10%. Plant matter consists of roots, bulbs and tubers (unearthed by rooting with their long snouts) and fruit and berries. Animal matter can consist of mice, birds’ eggs, snakes, lizards, worms, beetles and centipedes and carrion. The diet changes to accommodate seasonally available items and forest fruits (for example, acorns, beech mast, chestnuts, olives) are particularly important in the autumn as these protein rich foods enable the sows to be in peak breeding condition. In times of shortage, agricultural crops may be raided, particularly fields of maize, turnips and potatoes.
So why am I so attracted to the wild boar, and why does he represent for me the Northern airt. Of course, for my ancestors the boar was a very important food source. In fact, In Scotland there are places that still bear the boar’s name (muic is Gaelic for pig) – Allt na Muic, meaning ‘stream of the pig’ in Glen Moriston, Sron na Muic – the ‘nose of the pig’ in Glen Affric. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon helmets bearing boar-head crests have been found in a number of places; the crests were supposed to give protection to the warrior. Beowulf, in the Anglo-Saxon epic bearing his name, went into battle with a boar-head standard which was symbolic of his power as a leader.
In Celtic myths and legends there are many tales about great boars. One well known one is the story of Culhwch and Olwen from the Mabinogion. To cut a lovely story short, Culhwch wants to marry Olwen, his beloved. So Olwen’s father who is the giant Ysbaddaden, sets some seemingly impossible tasks for Culhwch to perform before he can marry her. The final of these is to cut Ysbaddaden’s hair and beard but the only thing sharp enough is the tusk belonging to Ysgithyrwn, the wildest boar in the land. Fortunately for Culhwch he manages this with a little help from his friend and cousin King Arthur. Then to deal with the beard he has to get the only scissors and comb in the land, and they reside in an impossible place, again between the ears of a huge and vicious boar named Twrch Trwth. In actual fact Twrch Trwth is an Irish king who had been transformed into the boar with poisonous bristles. Again Culhwch proves himself the man for the task and once the scissors and the comb have been obtained, the boar gets driven over a cliff.
The Norse fertility god Freyr had a wild boar called Gullinbursti meaning ‘Golden mane’. Its bristles glowed in the dark, illuminating his path. Freyr’s sister, Freya rode her boar Hildesvini ‘Battle Swine) into battle.
There is a goddess called Mala Liath (Scottish lore) who is also viewed as the Cailleach in south-western Scotland. She tended a herd of wild pigs all sired from the famous wild boar of Glen Glass. This goddess is also sometimes equated with Cerridwen. In fact Cerridwen is interesting, not only because she is a patroness of mine but because her name has been linked with the boar. In some interpretations she is known as the ‘White Sow Henwen’ – obviously not a domesticated white pig but perhaps one of the rare hybrids boars mentioned above. White is a symbol of the Otherworld in Celtic, especially Irish mythology, and many animals are seen as white to denote their links with this realm. However, this interpretation may not be strictly true because in earlier texts that first mentioned Cerridwen, her name can be translated as ‘Cyrridven’ or crooked woman. However, Cerridwen is a shape shifter and I like to keep this in mind when I work with her. She can manifest into any form she wishes. It is true that the white sow/female boar is an animal she is associated with.
In Celtic spirituality the wild boar (torc/muic) is always associated with the hunt, the search, nourishment and the fight. Wild boars are actually quite peaceable animals until they feel threatened, or are defending their young. For me I see the boar as symbolic of both male and female traits. Mothers are excellent nurturers and caregivers to their young but will turn aggressive if their young are threatened. Even the males won’t be out rightly aggressive unless confronted. However, they do have a wild and powerful spirit. Nothing stops them on their search for food. They are the hunters, the searchers of hidden gems. In some part of France even today, farmers will take a pig into the woods to search out ‘black gold’ or the truffles that are so sought after by restaurants the world over. It is an animal not to be trifled with, it has raw power that can be very destructive and that needs to be channelled. On the flip side it is nurturing and provides nourishment.
The boar in the North Airt guards the way to the cold internal world of the shadow, which must be integrated. Using the power of the boar, along with its nurturing aspects the shadow can be faced. The boar searches and guides, it won’t stop until it has found what it’s after. It faces its foes with bravery and ferocity. The shadow needs to be faced in this way sometimes. However, the mothering side is gentle and nurtures the self, allowing for healing.
Photo credits ~ Chris Grady, David Slater