The wild boar was hunted into extinction in Ireland back in the C17th, although it seems likely that it was probably not truly ‘wild’ at all, but introduced by man in early prehistoric times. Ireland’s rich forest land  provided a perfect habitat, where it foraged and fed on acorns and nuts, roaming in large herds watched over by semi-nomadic swine-herds, often credited with mysterious magical abilities. Wild boar meat was highly prized, and even today in Ireland, big events such as fairs and festivals feed the crowds with a whole hog roast.

Not surprisingly, the wild boar features significantly in Irish mythology. Although it is a shy, placid creature, in mythology it came to be associated with ferocity, courage and the warrior. Perhaps this is because it defended itself so fiercely when hunted, thus earning so much admiration and its place in legend and song.

This association with battle prowess can be seen in the popular design of the boar’s head on the carnyx, or Celtic war horn. According to Wikipedia,

“The carnyx was a wind instrument of the Iron Age Celts, used between c. 200 BC and c. AD 200. It was a type of bronze trumpet with an elongated S shape, held so that the long straight central portion was vertical and the short mouthpiece end section and the much wider bell were horizontal in opposed directions. The bell was styled in the shape of an open-mouthed boar’s, or other animal’s, head. It was used in warfare, probably to incite troops to battle and intimidate opponents.”

By Johnbod - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697
By Johnbod – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15618697

In Irish mythology, Torc Triath was the King of Boars, an Otherworldly creature who belonged to the Goddess Brigid. It is thought that he could be cognate with the boar of Welsh legend, Twrch Trwyth, the son of Tared Wledig, a prince of Wales, who had been cursed and transformed into a wild boar. He was hunted by King Arthur and his hound, Cabal, and driven into the sea off the Cornish coast, where he perished. Perhaps he swam to Ireland instead, and took refuge with our kindly Brigid! 😁

The motif of men being transformed into wild boars reappears often in mythological tales. The Great Boar of Ben Bulben was once a boy; he was the half-brother of Diarmuid O’Duibhne.

Diarmuid’s father, Donn, never liked the child, as he was the product of his wife’s infidelity with another man. One night, when a fight broke out in his hall between two hounds, in the confusion, Donn seized the boy, crushed him to death, then tossed his body into the melee, hoping everyone would assume he had been killed by the dogs.

The boy’s father, Roc, was not so easily fooled. He quickly realised what had happened, and distraught and angered, he performed a magical rite which brought his son back to life in the form of a boar.

He did this to seek his revenge against Donn; he knew of the prophecy which foretold that Diarmuid would one day be killed by a boar.

After betraying Fionn mac Cumhall by running off with his beautiful young bride, Grainne, Diarmuid settles in Sligo where he and Grainne live a long life together and have four sons and a daughter. When Fionn seeks a reconciliation, Diarmuid jumps at the chance, and recklessly agrees to join the Fianna on a boar hunt.

The mighty Ben Bulben. (c) Conor Walker
The mighty Ben Bulben, dusted with snow. (c) Conor Walker (my lovely husband 😍).

Sure enough, Diarmuid comes face to face with the enchanted boar, his half-brother, on the slopes of Ben Bulben. In a mighty battle, Diarmuid slays the beast, but is himself badly gored in the process by the creatures tusks. By the time the Fianna finds him, he is bleeding to death.

Fionn has the power to heal his old friend by offering him a drink of water from his healing hands. Twice, he lets their enmity come between them, and allows the water to drain from his hands. On the third attempt, he finally finds forgiveness for Diarmuid, but he is too late: Diarmuid is dead.

It is interesting that there are places in Ireland’s landscape which still bear reference to the importance of the wild boar: Kanturk in West Cork comes from the Irish Ceann Toirca, meaning ‘boar’s head’, and Ros Muc in West Connacht comes from the Irish word muc for ‘pig’. Mag Triathairne, on the other hand, is a place legend claims was named after Torc Triath himself, but I’m afraid I have no idea where this is.

The wonderfully intriguing Black Pig’s Dyke, or Claí na Muice Duibhe as it is known in Irish,  is a series of huge earthworks running through counties Leitrim, Longford, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Cavan, where I live. Archaeology has revealed the remains of wooden palisades dating to  390–370 BC upon a bank measuring 9m (30ft wide), with an external ditch and in inner ditch both approximately 6m (20ft) deep. All sorts of theories abound as to the purpose of this structure, such as that it once marked the boundaries of ancient Ulster, or that it was constructed in an attempt to halt cattle raiding. However, no one really knows.

Local folklore claims it was created by the tusks of a HUGE black boar, rooting in the earth for food. The story goes that a wicked schoolmaster was transforming his pupils into animals using a big black book of spells. When challenged by a student’s father, the schoolmaster demonstrated his skills by shapeshifting into the form of a big black pig. The father immediately snatched up the book and tossed it into the fire, and thus without the source of his magic, the schoolmaster was doomed to live the rest of his life as a pig. In a blind rage he rampaged across Ireland, gouging out the ditch and churning up the earth into the rampart we see today with his great snout.

There are other stories of wild boars in Irish myth, too. The Tale of Mac Da Thó’s Pig forms part of the saga of the Tain bó Cuailnge, and centres on disputes which arise over the champion’s share of meat, known as curadmír, a matter of great honour amongst warriors.

Also part of the Tain bó Cuailnge, is the Quarrel of the Two Swineherds: Friuch (who is named rather amusingly after a boar’s bristle) and Rucht (who is named after a boar’s grunt) are two swineherds minding their masters’ herds, when they begin to quarrel. A fight breaks out, in which they assume many animal forms in order to gain mastery of each other, finally becoming two worms. These are promptly swallowed by two cows grazing nearby, which then give birth to the two bulls Finnbhennach and Donn Cúailnge.

Also, the Dagda, who was a much-loved and well-respected High King of the Tuatha de Danann, was said to have possessed two magical pigs,  one of which was always growing whilst the other was always roasting.

Sounds like a metaphor for typical Irish hospitality, if you ask me…


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43 thoughts on “The Wild Boar in Irish Mythology

  1. Éilis! Where have you been? Hope all is well! Haha! Ailbhe and her wild boar and chocolate! Yeah, the ‘wild boar’ we have today is really hybrid with pigs, and they’re farmed and fed on grain, so nothing like what would have been around then. Still tasty though! Lol! I’ve just completed the first week of my new semester… Can’t believe how fast it is going by. What have you been up to lately?

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  2. Ali!!! I swear I commented on this post a few days ago! Somehow between writing it and submitting it, it disappeared into the comment twilight zone. Perhaps Ailbhe was so eager to let you know that wild boar is one of her most absolutely favorite food/subjects in the world, and tried sending it directly which meant it would have been deleted… or somewhat more likely, my computer was just acting strange. Anyway, Ailbhe did want to say how excited she was when I shared this post with her and that the times she ate wild boar with her nine were some of her happiest times. She thinks it still even tops chocolate, though not by much. 🙂 A year and a half ago I shared some wild boar with her that we got at a restaurant — the boar was once one of the wild pigs running around California, presumably. It was excellent, but I’ve been told the “really” wild boar from the third century is better. I loved reading all the stories in your post, too. Whenever I have some time for blogging, yours is the first I stop by. 🙂 I hope you are having a great new start to the semester!

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  3. So much shape shifting in Irish mythology – I do wonder about those mythological connections and what it all really means – lots of human bodied – bird headed people in Egyptian myth too. Also – DAMN Conor that is an amazing photo! Wow.

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  4. there was a programme on telly about wild pigs and goats in NZ escaped from original settlers I think and how one side want to eradicate them as invasive and the other keep them as their own wild mammals. I think I’m on the side of eradication but honestly I’m open minded (I think)

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    1. Gosh I was just reading about that, and how a new theory has emerged of illnesses being spread among local indigenous populations, wiping them out, spread not by the arrival of white people, but by the pigs they brought with them which escaped into the wild.

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      1. According to the ThePigSite.com, boar taint is “a perspiration/urine and faecal like odour/flavour in pork from entire male pigs. The major compounds responsible for boar tainted pork are androstenone and skatole, and both compounds are accumulated in fat.”

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  5. Boars figure prominently in Greek myth as well. Adonis was killed by a wild boar. The Erymanthian Boar is part of the 4th Labor of Hercules. The hunt for the Calydonian Boar features in the tale of Meleager and Atalanta. I incorporated both of those last myths in my series The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head.

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  6. How many boar are truly wild is a moot point. We get them wandering into the town centre occasionally, more often into the big parks and surprisingly into the shopping centres. And they do swim. Apparently swimming across the Garonne is how they get from the park on the right bank to the shops on the left bank. Your photo of Ben Bulben is superb! It always makes me think of Ayers Rock which has another name now that I forget.

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    1. Oh yeah its something like Uhulu, can’t quite remember. I love Ben Bulben, its so enigmatic in the landscape, its hardly surprising it features in mythology and folklore. I WILL get to climb it one of these days… although Conor says its just an unpleasant bogland on the top! Did you read before I added in the Black Pig’s Dyke… was so tired I forgot to write it in last night, and its my fave part of the blog! 😁 I’d forget my head..

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    1. Yum! I’ve never eaten wild boar… it’s meant to be delicious! I know lots of wild boar have been illegally returned to the wild for hunting, which turned out to be genetically 90% domesticated pig! Lol! But I would love to see the return of a native wild species.

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  7. Great post again Ali. Whilst the Erse word for boar/pig is muc, the Welsh word is mochen. Again such kinship in the language.I also note your Torc Triath is our Twrch Trwyth which shows the common root.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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