BOAR OF EIRE VS BOAR OF CORNWALL: AN AMPHIBIOUS CAMPAIGN IN IRELAND & BRITAIN DURING THE AGE OF ARTHUR


alan lee culhwch & olwen the boar hunt for twrch trwyth
Was the story of the  hunt for Twrch Trwyth in the Mabinogion really an account of an amphibious campaign conducted in the late 5th century? Artwork by Alan Lee

 

In my ongoing research into Brittonic Sea-power during the Age of Arthur, a number of hitherto understudied naval operations have come to light relating to the Age of Arthur.

One of these is an amphibious operation which began in eastern Ireland and continued to the southern shores of modern Wales, ending along the north coast of Cornwall. Hitherto not studied as naval history, for want of a better name we shall refer to it as the Twrch Trwyth Campaign.

In general, while one can never be absolutely sure about any events which transpired in the fifth and early sixth centuries in Britain and its surrounding seas, where our analysis of traditional sources seems to reveal incidents which may be genuine historical events, it behooves us to at least present the evidence for them. Virtually all the materials relating to the period in question are traditional in one sense or another. They exist as chronicles and annals, homilies and hagiography, poetry and prose, or simply disjointed snippets of legend and myth, and almost all were committed to paper only centuries after the events in question. 

It is currently the fashion in academia for many esteemed scholars to reject such sources out of hand without proper evaluation—what Professor Koch characterizes as the “guilty until proven innocent” school of historiography. The present writer does not subscribe to this school of historiography and would prefer to subject the, admittedly unreliable, sources to critical analysis on a case by case basis.

Scholars of this Minimalist school are entitled to their opinions with regard to such sources, but we must also recognize that condemnation for what it is—opinion only and not objective fact. Conversely, older reconstructions of Post-Roman events in Britain—such as the nationalistic idea of an “Anglo-Saxon Invasion”—which have come to be regarded as proven fact and accepted as dogma and continue to color even modern archaeological research on the subject, need to be subjected to the light of critical analysis as well, especially where modern research has undermined their basic tenets.

Given the many lacunae in the evidence, the most one can do is provide plausible reconstructions based on all the evidence available and attempt to place it within the context of the wider cultural and political circumstances of the period which are better documented. It is perhaps not an ideal model for dealing with the sources for the Brittonic Period, but I would aver that it is the most one can hope for and one which may occasionally be supported by solid archaeological data.

     Before analyzing the Hunting of Twrch Trwyth narrative from the aspect of history, we must first deal with it as myth and legend. The fullest account of the story is found in Culwich and Olwen, one of the four “branches” of the Mabinogion, and there is no denying that the story as it is presented to us there is rife with fantastic motifs and imagery. On this ground alone, there are those in academia who would reject it as valueless to history and put it in a strictly delimited literary ghetto, with folklorists and the mytho-poeticists as its wardens.

Certainly, the motif in the story which revolves around the cutting of hair or of shaving, has echoes of the Biblical account of Samson and also seems to relate to ancient notions about sacral kingship. There also seem to be matrilineal customs implied in the story which definitely point to a prehistoric, pre-Christian stratum to the tale. The whole pursuit of the monster boar, moreover, could itself be framed in terms of the Wild Hunt, an archetype common to many early Indo-European cultures, not just British and Irish literature relating to the fifth century. All of this argues against attempts to extract historical data from the story that may be specific to post Roman Britain.

     While the mythic components to Culwch & Olwen are undeniable, we would aver that does not necessarily mean that everything in the story is fictional or that some aspects of it may reflect historical reality. It is in the nature of all Celtic cultures to merge history with myth, where actual events are subsumed within a pre-existing cultural matrix.

     Compare, if you will, Classical Greek and Roman renderings of the human face and form with Medieval Celtic renderings in the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels.  Classical portraiture is notable for its realism, Roman portraiture especially, to the point at times of representing their subjects in an unflattering manner. Each portrait so rendered is easily identifiable as an individual. In contrast, in Celtic art the human form is reduced to an abstraction, even when portraying a known historic figure: torsos become triangles and faces are rendered as a collection of geometric designs to the point where one human figure is virtually interchangeable with another. Similarly, in Celtic literature, actual historical events over time may be stripped of their individuality to the point where they may be easily mistaken for a restatement of a general cultural archetype. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, a scholar of both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature, was a leading exponent of the view that ancient British myth and legend were ultimately derived from real events, once writing that “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of truth.” Over time the historical elements in them fade, or as he expressed it in Lord of the Rings: “History became legend. Legend became myth.”[1]


der wilde jager by johan cordes 1856
Der Wilde Jager, an artist’s conception of the mythic “Wild Hunt,” which was as much a Germanic folk-belief as it was a Celtic one. Painting by Johan Cordes, 1856

     Boar hunting has been a popular sport enjoyed by the nobility in many cultures , not only in Medieval Wales. It was a sport which closely mimicked warfare: they hunted the wild boar from horseback and this activity was fraught with danger, factors which made it all the more suitable as an activity for a young warrior to perform in order to prove his worthiness or for a mature one to reaffirm it. The boar hunt plays a large role in Arthurian literature and more broadly in Medieval Welsh tradition.[2] However, we get a hint that the hunt in Culhwch & Olwen is something more than a sport or heroic quest from the fact that the boar which Arthur and his cousin Culhwch seek, Twrch Trwyth, is an Irish king’s son magically transformed into a wild boar for his transgressions.

     As the story unfolds, Arthur assembles a massive army and, with his flagship Prydwen (“Fair Form”) leading the fleet, invades Ireland. As a preliminary, Arthur’s men pillage the household of Diwrnach Wyddel, an Irish sub-king, murder him and carry away his gold-wealth in his cauldron, which he had refused to loan them for the hunt. 

arthur and his men loading the cauldron & gold taken from the irish king culhwch & olwen margaret jones aattt.org.uk
Arthur’s men make off with the Irish king’s cauldron–and his gold.

Next, after sending a spy to scout out the “boar” and his entourage, who had already ravaged a large swath of Hibernia, Arthur’s initial encounter with Twrch Trwyth results in the death of one of the giant boar’s seven offspring.

The boar, behaving more like a grieving human father than a wild animal, vows revenge against Arthur and his folk. The murder of one of his sons provokes the boar-king to cross the Irish sea with his remaining sons and ravage southern Wales.

 

 

roman warships image virgilius romanus ca 5th cent
A fleet of Liburniae, a type of late Roman warship, ca 5th century AD. The Arthurian navy was probably a mix of Celtic, Roman and Germanic style warships. After the Virgilius Romanus MS.

     Twrch Trwyth and his entourage make landfall near Porth Cleis—a small sheltered inlet close to St. David’s monastery—although some would argue that the nearby broad beaches of Whitesands Bay would have been a more likely landing spot, especially if the “boars” and their followers came ashore in a large armada of curraghs.

 

irish_curragh__4th_6th_centuryad_by_popius deviant art
One of his sons murdered by Arthur’s men, Twrch Trwyth, the “Boar King,” was filled with wrath and assembled an armada of war curraghs to have his revenge on the British. Image by Popian via Deviant Art.

It is at this point in the romance, as prehistorian Dewi Bowen observes, “where it gets interesting, because it gets very topographically detailed.”[3] Field archaeologist Bowen spent a number of years traversing the Welsh countryside inspecting the sites mentioned in the story and has concluded that the list is not random. Esteemed Welsh folklorist John Rhys had previously studied the places named at some length, although his interest was linguistic not archaeological.[4]  In contrast, field archaeologist Bowen has spent several years traversing the routes on foot and notes that most of the sites mentioned in the tale are also marked by ancient megalithic monuments. He concludes that the route is of very ancient date, perhaps as early as the Mesolithic Era.

     As Bowen reconstructs the origin of the trail, some time after the glacial ice sheets receded from the region, a primeval forest sprang up on what are now barren hills and dales, initially impenetrable to human beings. The first paths in this virgin wilderness were likely begun as animal trails cut by large mammals traversing dense forests, grazing and seeking springs or salt licks. The herds were followed by Mesolithic hunters in pursuit of big game, and the constant use made the sylvan paths wider and more distinct. Later, Neolithic farmers came, following these same woodland trails but now practicing slash and burn agriculture, which cleared large tracts and which in turn led to the creation of areas of open pasturage. Based on Bowen’s and others observations, the trails are certainly of pre-Roman and at the least date to the Early Bronze Age—probably far earlier.[5] However, this does not preclude their continued use well into the Post Roman—Brittonic—era in a region only lightly touched by Roman occupation.

     After pursuing the giant boar and his kinfolk across Wales, with heavy losses sustained on both sides, the campaign culminates in a bitter series of fights at the mouth of the Severn. Suffering losses, the Boar King crosses the sea to continue his rampage on the northern coast of Cornwall. After several more skirmishes which result in heavy loss of life and much carnage, and with the comb, scissors and razor finally seized from the boar, Twrch, all his children (or subordinate chieftains) killed in combat against the British, escapes by sea from Cornwall, never to be heard of or seen again. And God bless the Devil if that isn’t the absolute truth.

     Bowen, after many years investigating the places mentioned in the story, concluded that these locales were not mentioned arbitrarily, that they were all linked to sites which had megalithic monuments or stone circles, and which have celestial alignments. The story, he feels, is an encapsulation of ancient rituals which go back to the very dawn of human occupation in South Wales and that they also have a specific spatial relationship to sacred mountains and other holy sites in the region.[6] Rhys, in contrast, felt that the place-names were selected from a much broader range of locales in South Wales and more or less randomly cobbled together by the original redactor in order to explain the origins of the place names.[7] In either case, the Twrch Trwyth hunt, which is the central feature of Culhwch & Olwen, antedates the Medieval story by many centuries and was obviously adapted from far older traditions handed down orally.[8]

     The process of transformation of the original historical narrative into a fantastic hunting tale patterned after the archetypal The Wild Hunt is lost to us, having proceeded orally over a long period of time, but Cormac’s Glossary gives us some hint as to how a fifth century Irish king might have become confused with a monstrous mythic boar, for in it the Medieval Irish lexicographer defines triath as both “king” and “boar,” and this word is a cognate for the Welsh word trwyth.[9] In the same vein, it should be remembered that King Arthur himself was referred to as “The Boar of Cornwall” by the Welsh.[10] The boar’s innate ferociousness, his bravery in battle and his reputation for being notoriously difficult to kill, all recommended it as a metaphor for a victorious Celtic warlord or king. Similarly, Arthur’ epithet Pendragon, which identies him with the mythic Celtic dragon, was influenced by that creature’s fearsome reputation for laying waste to enemy lands by means of “scorched earth” tactics.

     If our hypothesis—that the mythic Twrch Trwyth stood for a real Irish sub-king who engaged in a revenge raid against the British during Arthur’s reign—does have merit, how then are we to interpret the narrative of it as encapsulated in the Mabinogion?  We must first recognize that the story as presented within Culhwch and Olwen has evolved orally over many centuries.  Consequently, it garnered a thick patina of magical and folkloric beliefs and practices which were extraneous to the original narrative. It has also been subjected to the whims of a writer (or writers) with literary aspirations. Some scenes may have been included for dramatic effect or rhetorical flourish. Moreover, at times, the story also exhibits a distinct taste for whimsy and even slapstick. Bromwich and Evans, as well as others, have noted a penchant for word-play in the texts. Moreover, even a non-linguist can recognize elements in the story which smack of the absurd: for example, Penpingion, one of the porters at Arthur’s court, “goes about on his head to spare his feet.”[11] The lengthy list of notables at Arthur’s court also goes on to an absurd length and includes the names of persons that smack of incongruity which a Medieval audience had to have known to be anachronistic.[12] At present, we cannot know how many of the places in Wales named in the hunt were included simply because they were part of the ancient route through the Welsh highlands, vesus than how many were the site of actual skirmishes between the enraged Irish buccaneer and his pursuers.

With these caveats in mind, we would reconstruct the Twrch Trwyth Campaign as follows: a piratical raid by one of Arthur’s subordinate fleet commanders against a local Irish chieftain in southeastern Hibernia is successful, garnering booty in the form of gold, slaves and a cauldron (symbolic of both royal authority and abundance) but also results in the death of one of the sub-king’s sons who was the target of the raid. From Patrick’s famed “Letter to Coroticus,” we know that such raids by Brittonic leaders against Irish chieftains on the other side of the Irish Sea did take place during the fifth century.[13]  Arthur’s border captain having incurred the wrath of this Scotti sea-lord, the Irish chief, wrathful as an enraged boar and equally as dangerous, musters a large and powerful army. While the boar-king’s main motive is revenge, he probably succeeds in recruiting a number of neighboring sub-kings eager for gold, glory and a good fight.

The punitive expedition’s first landfall is Mynyw, (Menevia) on the southwestern coast of Wales. Porth Cleis is the designated landing place, although as noted before, the broad sandy beaches nearby would have been more suitable to beach a large fleet of war-curraghs than the small inlet. Although the monastery of St. David’s was supposedly not established until sometime in the late sixth century, there was probably already some sort of Christian shrine established there and, in any case, seems to have been a traditional holy place dating back far into pagan times, it being one of the “Three Tribal Thrones” of Britain. We know that, previously, Menevia/St. David’s was selected as a landing place for Pascent’s army during his uprising against Ameradaur Ambrosius in AD 451.[14] There was also an Irish incursion, sometime in the sixth century, against the nearby stronghold of a certain Boia, a Visigothic garrison commander stationed there under Brittonic rule to keep an eye on the region, which was located only a mile from St. David’s monastery. During the Viking Age it was likewise a prime target for a number of Viking raids. While generally thought of as an isolated backwater of little value except to Medieval pilgrims visiting the shrine to St. David, in the second half of the first millennium it seems to have been a primary military and political target for Dark Age armies.

     From here, the account in Culhwch & Olwen traces the campaign overland across the ancient landscape of Wales, at times backtracking, as the map of locations based on the story shows. How many of these places were the sites of actual clashes between the Irish raiders and the Arthurian forces called out to defend their homes is problematical. No doubt some were the sites of skirmishes from the original early narrative, but we must also allow that the Medieval composer and his copyists included some places because they lay along the sacred way (as Bowen believes) and others whose etymologies fit in with the story’s plotline (as Rhys believed). Bowen is a field archaeologist who engages in observational, shovel-free archaeology; a dirt archaeologist willing to do follow-up sondages, combined with a closer look at local traditions regarding these battle-sites, might elucidate which of the places in the story were more likely to be part of the actual campaign than others. For example Clegyr Boia, mentioned above, has been revealed by excavations to have suffered burning and fire-damage, especially around its gates; while this is probably due to the mid-sixth Irish raid as related in the stories about Boia versus St. David, an earlier Arthurian period attack by Irish raiders can’t be ruled out. Other sites may yield similar indications of conflict.

 

map twrch_trwyth route in south wales
Map of the route of Twrch Trywth’s campaign in South Wales. The route follows ancient trails dotted with Megalithic monuments.

     It may be that the boorish Irish chieftain remembered as Twrch Trwyth engaged in a series of coastal raids rather than an extended overland campaign in the mountainous hinterland, where his army would have been exposed to continual attacks by local frontier forces (limitanei) mustered to defend hearth and home. That would limit the likely sites to those vulnerable to attack by sea along the southern coast of Wales, a much smaller number of places. We can be fairly confident, however, that the major engagement of the campaign occurred at the mouth of the Severn Estuary; in the story, the Boar of Ireland is cornered and falls into the Severn where a bitter struggle ensues with the pugnacious porc finally extricating himself and racing overland to Cornwall where the last battle occurs and, having lost the shears, comb and razor from his forehead, plunges into the sea and disappears from both legend and history.

     A more plausible scenario would be that the Irish invaders made a major landing somewhere up the Severn, were intercepted by Arthur’s main comitatenses field army (and navy) and that a series of bitter amphibious engagements were fought in and about the mouth of the River. The Boar of Ireland retreated by sea and attempted one more landing along the north coast of Cornwall but the Boar of Cornwall, in hot pursuit, beat him back with heavy losses, whereupon the Irish warlord, his army battered and much reduced in size, and having lost whatever booty acquired in the previous engagements of the campaign, retreated back across the Irish Sea, never again to challenge the might of Arthur and the Brittonic state.

     When did this campaign take place? One would hope that the Irish leaders mentioned in Culhwch & Olwen would be of help in narrowing down the time-frame of the campaign, since Irish records are somewhat more reliable than British for this period. We have, for example, the names of the Irish king’s son, Odgar and his royal steward, the sub-king Diwrnach Wyddel. Insofar as Odgar is concerned, one scholar thought it a name borrowed from the French rather than the Irish, but Bromwich cited Welsh reference to individuals with similar names which are Celtic. The steward and keeper of the cauldron, Diwrnach “the Irishman,” has a name similar to the British giant who was also owner to a magic cauldron, one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. In both cases, however, scholars have been unable to correlate them with known historical figures.[15] In the case of King Aed, their overlord, the problem is not lack of any known historic individual by that name, but a superabundance of them. There were several individuals with the same or similar name during the fifth and sixth century; some were indeed rulers, others abbots or “saints.”—who in the Dark Ages often exercised political and military authority—but they were not only Irish, but also Brittonic and even Dalriada Scot.  Aed (or Aedd) was a popular name in the Dark Ages, as was its diminutive, Aedan.[16]

     Therefore, trying to define the time-frame within which the campaign occurred based on known historical figures is problematical. In the story itself, it is implied to have taken place after Arthur’s major wars were over and the Saxons vanquished. Yet such a major invasion of Britain as this would more likely have occurred before the onset of the Pax Artorius, when the Brittonic Overking was still struggling to defeat his barbarian enemies on all sides: Saxon, Pict and Hibernian. Moreover, we cannot eliminate the possibility that this narrative, in its original form, may have taken place after the passing of Arthur and the unified Brittonic state, when the western marches had once more become vulnerable to raids and counter-raids. It is thus possible that the sheer magnitude of the campaign caused it to be appended by later bards to the exploits of the great Arthur, just as other persons and incidents later in date were.

     Such is the general outline of the Twrch Trwyth Campaign as we reconstruct it. Further field research in the vicinity of the probable battle sites in south Wales might yield corroborative evidence, as well as clarify the chronology of the story, although trying to correlate archaeological evidence with the literary narrative as related in the Mabinogion will always be circumstantial rather than definitive in nature.

One thing seems clear from the evidence, even through the shrouded mists of time; Arthur and his armies and war-fleets were indeed victorious. Based on our analysis of the historical truth buried beneath the literary fiction, however,we are safe in concluding that Arthur’s success in the Twrch Trwyth Campaign was ultimately a Pyrrhic Victory.

 

age of arthur battle by behnkestudio-d5nerlo jason behnke artist
Arthur’s warriors battle the Irish “Boar-King” and his fianna. (via Deviant Art) 

For another, interactive, map of the Twrch Trwyth Campaign in south Wales see: http://www.aattt.org.uk/map_a.php?lang=1


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien; quote by Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings.

[2] See the discussion of the boar in Arthurian Literature by Kara L. McShane, “Boar”, The Camelot Project https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/creator/kara-l-mcshane.

[3] Dewi Bowen, “The Wild Boar/Twrch Trwyth” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avE9KYiqm7c&feature=share.

[4] John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Vol. II, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), 509-53.

[5] Dewi Bowen, “Possible Solar Alignments in South Wales,” Time and Mind, Vol.9, No.3 (2016), 267.

[6] Bowen, Solar Alignments, 267-272; also see Dewi Bowen, Ancient Siluria: Its Stones and Ceremonial Sites, (Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset: Llanarch Press, 1992).

[7]Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 522.

[8] Rhys cites a reference to the Hunt of Twrch Trwyth in “The Gorchan Cynfelyn,” an obscure poem in the Book of Aneurin (a 13th cent MS, but the poem itself probably dates to the 7th century), and, more importantly, a “miracle” related to the story in the Mirabilia of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum cap.73 (8th century), see Celtic Folklore, 537-538.

[9] John O’Donovan, Translator; Whitley Stokes, Ed., Cormac’s Glossary, (Sanas Chormaic) (Calcutta: Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society, 1868), 156.

[10] “For the Boar of Cornwall shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet,” Geoffrey of Monmouth, “Prophetia Merlini,” Historia Regum Britanniae, VII.3. Scholars are generally agreed that the passage referencing the Boar of Cornwall refers to Arthur, whether or not they believe in his existence.

[11] Lady Charlotte Guest, The Mabinogion (    ), 220; Rachel Bromwich & D. S. Evans (Eds.) Culhwch and Olwen : an Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale, (Cardiff: Univ of Wales Press, 1992), line 86, n.1121. For a more recent translation, see Will Parker, Culhwch and Olwen, http://www.culhwch.info/index.html.

[12]  Morris Collins, “Farce and Satire in the Court List” The Arthurian Court List in Culhwch and Olwen, The Camelot Project, 2004, https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/collins-arthurian-court-list-in-culhwch-and-olwen

[13] Cf. R. P. C. Hanson, [tr.], “English translation of the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus of Saint Patrick”, Nottingham Medieval Studies 15 (1971): 3–26

[14] See the discussion of Pascent’s Rebellion in Chapter VIII, “The Pendragon Navy,” and also the Appendix, “Brittonic Ports & Harbors” of Britain’s Best Bulwark, Brittonic Sea-power in the Age of Arthur (forthcoming).

[15] See Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, notes l.635- l.636, 127-128.

[16] Bromwich and Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, ibid. Lewis Morris and, more recently, P. C. Bartram, enumerated several sovereigns named Aed, Aedd or Aeddan:  Lewis Morris, Celtic Remains, (London: Cambrian Archaeological Assn, 1878), 8; Peter Clement Bartram, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000, (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1993, rev. 2009), 1-3. Maeddog(g) (Maidoc) is yet another variant of the same name; a disciple of St. David’s by that name allegedly arbitrated a dispute between St. Cadog and Arthur; while the legend is probably anachronistic, it does connect Maedog with Menevia; another Maeddog is alleged to have been a “brother” of Arthur’s: cf. Bartram ibid, 496-98.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: Christopher Kiernan Coleman

I am a freelance author, speaker, film producer, historian and observor of events past, present and future. I received my bachelors degree at St. Anselm College and pursued my graduate work at the University of Chicago. I currently have six books in print, including a bio of Abraham Lincoln. My latest book in print is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press. I have also published numerous articles in the popular press, as well as scholarly journals. My prior work as film &a tv producer garnered a number of film & tv festival awards, including the Gabriel Award. I have several new book projects in progress, including one which looks at the origins of mechanized desert warfare & the roots of fundamentalist Islamic politics, as well as non-fiction and fiction dealing with Dark Age history and the Age of Arthur. I am also shopping a MS dealing with the history of American Socialism leading up to the Civil War. Like it or not, Socialism is as American as apple pie and Thanksgiving; actually it was some early Communists who held the "First Thanksgiving."

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