Sunday 13 January 2013

Boars, Bores, and Aristotle

Heroic Sow Teaches Young to Wallow

The flu I suffered in transit to Germany made me delirious. My paracetamol-fuelled dreams featured rampaging wild boars, leading to a bout of feverish e-research in a Cologne hotel. 

The Legion that Beat Up Boudicca
The sus scrofa is everywhere once you emerge from the Eurotunnel:  they snort in forests and glisten in pate and pub signage; they ooze on butchers’ counters. Boars have recently been reintroduced onto UK farms after being extinct in the UK for centuries, and escapees are pioneering wild communities in several counties. But these freedom-fighting bristly porcines now face culling because they outrageously propose to do the things all pigs do (and did for millennia in Britain before the Middle Ages)—root around, turn ground into mud, and defend their piglets from predators.

Daddy, where's my milk?
It is true that Brits have historical reason to fear the boar. The Roman legion that put down Boudicca’s revolt, the XXth, used the boar as its emblem. As a classical scholar I have been signally neglectful of my intellectual responsibilities in not stressing the importance of boars. 

We must dispel the falsehood that boars make good fathers, propounded in the books about the Gruffalo and his child, whose tusked physiognomies are clearly modelled on the sus scrofa.  It is the mothers who are impressive. They are almost unique in the mammalian world because communities of females UNRELATED BY BLOOD but who RESPECT each other come together to build communities. 

Theseus attacks Unarmed Single Mother
We must rewrite the record to acknowledge that most legendary boars were actually heroic females. The fierce, rampaging ones are usually  nursing mothers, which means that the Erymanthian boar slaughtered by Heracles probably left little babies to expire without their milk. So did the Calydonian swine, target of the most famous mythical hunting expedition of all, adding a fresh feminist focus to a tale which already featured the prowess of the athletic heroine Atalanta. But the Calydonian she-boar was herself part of a glorious dynasty, as the daughter of no less a sow than the Crommyonian Sow killed by Theseus.  

The only Greek mythical boar likely to have been male was the one into which the thuggish war-god Ares turned himself when he decided to kill Adonis, who had stolen his girlfriend Aphrodite. This interests me because my first husband was called Ares.

Ares (left) attacks Love-Rival Adonis
And just in case you do ever encounter a bristly sow in a Deep Dark Wood, there is a defensive weapon far more effective than a hunting rifle. It is a copy of Aristotle’s Logic.  A student at Queen’s College, Oxford, was long ago attacked by a boar in a forest east of the town. He rammed the book he happened to be reading—the Logic—into the boar’s gaping jaws, crying ‘Graecum Est’ (to be translated as something like ‘This is the Greek response to you!’). 
Weapon against Boars and Bores

This could work on self-important, aggressive (or boring) humans as well as boars, and indeed suggests a new way of stopping people whose papers go on too long at conferences. Remind me to put a copy in my handbag before the next conference session I chair.


  1. "Life at home for one Florida man got a lot more complicated when he accidentally shot his girlfriend in both legs thinking she was a hog."

  2. In the discussion of Caliban's genetic make-up in Shakespeare's The Tempest, the poet Ted Hughes writes that the boar is also the Goddess of the Underworld as in the Adonis, Attis, Thammuz and similar Celtic myths:

    The Boar's peculiar hermaphroditic nature is almost universally recognized in mythology. This presumably derives from our long and intimate acquaintance with the unique bodily character of this most impressive, dangerous, fascinating and human of the animals that are both domesticated and hunted. Her combination of gross whiskery nakedness and riotous carnality is seized by the mythic imagination, evidently, as a sort of uterus on the loose - upholstered with breasts, not so much many-breasted as a mobile tub entirely made of female sexual parts, a woman-sized, multiple udder on trotters. Most alarming of all is that elephantine, lolling mouth under her great ear-flaps, like a Breughelesque nightmare vagina, baggy with over-production, famous for gobbling her piglets, magnified and shameless, exuberantly omnivorous and insatiable, swamping the senses. This sow has supplanted all other beasts as the elemental mother (even Zeus was born of a sow, even Demeter, mother of Iacchos/Dionysus and Persephone, was a sow.* But she fulfils an ambiguous lunar role. Her variable dark part is sinister, not only because she incorporates more shocking physical familiarity, more radical enterprise, more rapturous appetite, cruder travesties of infantile memory, wilder nostalgias than the cow, but because she is inseparable from the lethal factor of the Boar, who carries the same vaginal grin yet is prodigiously virile - the same swinging, earth-searching, root-ripping mouth but equipped with moon-sickle tusks - and who incarnates the most determined, sudden and murderous temperament. (As a country boy, and the nephew of several farmers, Shakespeare enjoyed a familiarity with pigs that is not irrelevant to his myth. The imagination's symbols are based on subliminal perception. The male, aphrodisiac, pheromone scent spray, sold in modern sex shops, is commonly based on a hormone extract from the wild boar.) This figure of the Boar has assimilated the magical birth-source of the Sow to create a symbol that emerges, in a man's eyes, from everything about female sexuality that is awesome, alien, terrifying and 'beyond' the reaches of his soul. So the Boar becomes the animal form of the Queen of Hell, the Black Witch, the Terrible Mother, bringing the crippling wound in the thigh, wherever he enters man's fantasy. In his role in this myth of the god who dies for and by the Goddess, and who is reborn to destroy her, he appears at the centre of religious mysteries, and Shakespeare could have found him, in the same role, as easily in England (for instance, as the Twrch Trwyth, the terrible Boar King, who is hunted through the Celtic world in the great Welsh myth of Culhwch and Olwen) as in classical mythology.

    * As I remarked earlier, the Boar always has the double role of being both the Goddess, infernalized and enraged, and her infernal consort (Mars in boar form) who supplants Adonis, and who is, therefore, always some 'usurping brother'. This sequence (rejected and infernalized Goddess = Boar = Hot Tyrant overthrows Adonis) is the essential formula in the algebra of the Tragic Equation, as it emerges eventually.

    (Ted Hughes. Shakespeare & the Goddess of Complete Being. Faber & Faber 1992, revised and corrected 1993. 11, 12, 73).

    Hughes specifically chose the cover to his book to be a depiction of the boar in both the hardback and revised paperback editions, the latter being an illustration of Robert de Vere, favourite of Richard III, being savaged by a Boar in a Forest by Christine de Pisan. There is also the famous poem he wrote called 'View of a Pig'.

  3. This is a really wonderful comment--thanks so much. I feel an international conference devotes to boars coming on...

    1. I might have guessed. Marina Warner comments upon this passage in her review (one of the few positive reviewers of the book to whom Hughes wrote to thank). It is collected in her book Signs & Wonders: Essays on Literature & Culture.