The Hunting of Twrch Trwyth, Part 2

The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is a tale within a tale, a floating narrative that came to rest in the written version of Culhwch and Olwen. It’s quite likely that it was often told alone as well as being used as part of larger narratives. The boar hunt was deemed an important part of Culhwch’s story, and as we shall see, it sits well with the other mythological elements of the tale.

Some of the themes of the boar hunt are related to the kinship ritual of dressing and cutting hair described in the first part of this series. One such theme is that of nobility: the Twrch Trwyth is a prince of noble birth incarnated as a magical boar; it’s his special scissors and comb that are ultimately used to carry out a ritual of ennoblement that also marks Ysbaddaden’s death, in turn the event of Culhwch’s ascension to sovereign power. The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is an essential step in Culhwch’s growth in nobility.

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There is another aspect to the boar’s relationship to the young hero. Twrch Trwyth is a young nobleman incarnated as wild swine, and he is hunted for the benefit of another young nobleman whose incarnation is also deeply entwined with swine:

And from the hour [Culhwch’s mother] became pregnant she went mad, and did not go near any dwelling. When her time came, her senses returned to her. This happened in a place where a swineherd was tending a herd of pigs. And out of fear of the pigs the queen gave birth. And the swineherd took the boy until he came to court. And the boy was baptised, and was named Culhwch because he was found in a pig-run.

Culhwch’s name commemorates this association with swine, roughly translating as ‘pig-run’. Twrch Trwyth and Culhwch could be considered kindred spirits, young noblemen who’s natures are entwined with similar mythological animals. Yet there isn’t a perfect symmetry between the two either: boars and pigs are different kinds of swine. One is portrayed as wild and destructive whilst the other is domesticated and civil. Twrch Trwyth was the beast that laid waste to southern Ireland, while Culhwch is all nobility in pursuit of love.

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A Celtic carnyx, the boar headed war-trumpet.

But we shouldn’t automatically assign a negative value to the Twrch, particularly as aggression and violence weren’t frowned upon in medieval Welsh culture. Far from it, they were celebrated as the defining features of great and worthy heroes. The warrior ideology that’s personified in figures such as Arthur, Urien, Owain and others is one of the hall marks of aristocratic praise poetry. At times, the Welsh bards compared their warrior patrons with boars, and sometimes even the Twrch Trwyth himself was used as a praise-worthy comparison. In light of this it may be better to see both swine-heroes as complementary, rather than antagonistic. The Twrch, suffering the fate of hunted beasts and warriors alike, faces violence for the further the ennoblement of his more civil brother.

It’s wiser to consider Culhwch and the Twrch Trwyth as representative of the same aristocratic values, with the former embodying the values of civility, love and sovereignty, and the latter war, martial prowess and wild violence. All of these values were ancient aspects of Welsh nobility, and in combination both Culhwch and the Twrch illustrate all of them through their actions. It’s also fitting in many ways that violence itself is finally sacrificed for the benefit of civility, the hunted animal nourishing the nobility that pursues it.

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Illustration by Alan Lee

The early Arthurian myth of the Welsh, of which Culhwch and Olwen is one of the main examples, is preoccupied with the ideals of violence, civility and nobility, those very elements of Celtic culture that informed the later medieval concepts of chivalry. Culhwch’s quest in literal terms is to marry the woman he was destined to love, but in mythological terms it also describes his ritualised initiation into nobility. Conflating an initiation into nobility with the pursuit of love is clearly a winning strategy if the intention is to sell such high-minded ideals to your young people, particularly the boys. Coupled with this idea of nobility as love is the idea of the new replacing the old, and that the nobility of the past (whether that be personified in a brutish giant or a magic boar) can be reclaimed by new generations, especially in their pursuit of love as a road to sovereignty.

In the next post I’ll take a look at how this symbolic sequence corresponds to Lleu’s transformation as an eagle in the Fourth Branch.

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3 thoughts on “The Hunting of Twrch Trwyth, Part 2

  1. I hadn’t quite ‘got’ the subtle differences between Culhwch – pig – civility, love and sovereignty, Twrch Trwyth – wild boar – war, martial prowess and wild violence, and the notion that Culhwch replacing the Twrch is the new replacing the old so thanks for bringing this out. Lots to think about.

  2. The marriage of the king to the land, to the Goddess- I had missed that. Hugely important. I also wondered about his seven piglets. Brynach was told to build his church at Nevern where the sow with the seven piglets lay.. Could the seven piglets be laers of conciousnes.. gradually stripped away?The sow there being ?Ceridwen who holds that space between the living world and the other world?.. A twilight zone between day and night, past and future. I suppose in those days it was just to avenge the death of your eldest son which seems to have been the cause of his rage.. Hadn’t Culwch originally killed that son in his stealing of the the cauldron belonging to TT.?
    If you get a chance to look at the HAMSA.. I wondered if that was what was related to the comb and scissors between TT’s ears.. It was the most powerful talisman for protection in the Ancient East. It could be interpreted as comb and scissors at a later date..
    The other interesting thing is that at the battle of Foel Cwm Cerwyn, where Arthur’s eldest son was killed as well as the decreasing number of TT’s sons,,they have discovered a whole array of Bronze Age graves – someone called it a version of the Valley of the Kings! So many mysteries. From this wonderful ritual landscape of North Pembrokeshire where I live, greetings and many thanks for your story telling and unfolding, Vanya

    • “Could the seven piglets be laers of consciousness…gradually stripped away?The sow there being?” There is never a correct answer to interpretation, and if you find your interpretation teaches you something, then I suppose that’s as good as the right answer. Sorry to be so relativistic, but I think that’s just how it goes! On another note, in the Welsh myths swine are often found where life crosses into death and vice versa.

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