As one of the more important texts in the study of Welsh mythology, Culhwch and Olwen contains elements drawn from the ancient body of oral lore that the Welsh inherited from their Celtic ancestors. One such element is Arthur’s hunting of the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth.
As early as the ninth century, this hunt was part of popular folklore, having found its way into the Mirabilia, the list of British wonders that was attached to the Historia Brittonum. The tale itself is very similar to others found in the Welsh and Irish traditions, another sign of its ancient roots. All of these variations involve magical boars or pigs and their journey through a landscape, usually being hunted or followed.
The Twrch Trwyth himself is a man transformed into the shape of a giant boar, a version of another common motif. Some of the better known transformations of humans into animals (and vice versa) are found in Irish myth, such as the transformations of Conaire’s bird-kin in Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, and the hunting of Diarmaid’s foster brother in the form of a boar in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinn. In Welsh myth we have the many animal transformations of the Fourth Branch, including Lleu’s transmigration when he becomes an eagle at the moment of death; in this branch we also find the animal transformations that were punishments for Gwydion, Gilfaethwy and Blodeuwedd. The transformations of Taliesin are another prominent example.
Common to many of these transformations is the theme of the journey of the soul. In the Fourth Branch, we could interpret the eagle as a symbol for Lleu’s soul; the young nobleman was found in this form atop an otherworldly oak tree by his uncle, Gwydion. This discovery is achieved after Gwydion follows a sow through the countryside to the in-between-place where Lleu is perched. This episode echoes the hunting of Twrch Trwyth in several ways, and they could be different symbolic interpretations of the same concept.
To draw out the symbolic connotations of both events, we first need to understand what’s going on in both tales. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes how Ysbaddaden the Chief of Giants, requires the young hero Culhwch to complete a series of impossible tasks before he can marry Ysbaddaden’s beautiful daughter, Olwen. Many of these tasks involve cutting and washing Ysbaddaden’s hair and beard; so tangled and matted is he that many strange and magical items are required to prepare the chief giant for his daughter’s wedding.
We can compare this with the very beginning of the tale, when Culhwch complains of his curse to his father:
‘My stepmother has sworn that I may never have a wife until I get Olwen daughter of Ysbaddaden Bencawr.’
‘It is easy for you to get that son,’ said his father to him. ‘Arthur is your cousin. Go to Arthur to have your hair trimmed, and ask him for that as your gift.’
After reaching Arthur’s court and accepting his cousin’s welcome, Culhwch makes his request:
‘I want to have my hair trimmed.’
‘You shall have that.’
Arthur took a golden comb, and shears with loops of silver, and combed his hair, and asked who he was.
Arthur said, ‘My heart warms towards you. I know you are of my blood. Tell me who you are.’
As Sioned Davies explains in her edition of the Mabinogion “the cutting of hair was a symbolic act by means of which a blood-relationship was recognised and accepted.” (note to p.180). It is in these terms that we should consider Ysbaddaden’s request to have his own hair and beard combed and cut.
The significance of this kind of kinship ritual may best be understood as an expression of matrilineality and the early concept of sovereignty. As well as Culhwch’s destiny that he may marry none but Olwen, according to the tale Ysbaddaden is also destined to die should his daughter ever be wed. One explanation for both these destinies is that the tale preserves an echo of an ancient practice where political power and wealth were transferred through the wedding dowry of a chieftain’s daughter. Such practices were known in many cultures across the ancient world, and are found in many mythologies including the Greek (see the above link to the Wikipedia article on matrilineality).
This is connected to another ancient idea that a land’s sovereignty, its inherent rights as an independent territory, is embodied in the figure of a woman, a goddess figure, and that her marriage confers those sovereign rights upon her new husband making him the sovereign chieftain. This also means that the new husband effectively takes the place of his bride’s father, the old chieftain, stripping him of those same rights. As the embodiment of the old male power, Ysbaddaden must necessarily die before Culhwch can take his place, claiming Ysbaddaden’s rights as the new chieftain. No wonder Ysbaddaden continuously refers to Culhwch as his ‘cursed, savage son-in-law’.
In light of this, Ysbaddaden’s request that his hair and beard be ritually combed and cut takes on a particular symbolic meaning. Arthur is the king of Britain, overlord of all regional chiefs, and Culhwch is formally acknowledged as a member of his family and court through the ritual combing and cutting of his hair. Should Culhwch and Olwen wed, as father of the bride Ysbaddaden would also become a member of this extended family and absorbed into the hierarchy of Arthur’s court. In these terms, when Ysbaddaden joins the same family through marriage he may well have to go through the same ritual of having his hair and beard combed and cut; this will also be the event of his death as the old chieftain.
Another basic theme that’s bound up with this 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.
Here we find another aspect of 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.
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 representing 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.
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.
Pigs are connected to the theme of generational change and death elsewhere in Welsh myth, such as in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi where Gwydion follows a wandering sow to discover the transmigrated soul of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. In both tales, swine of some kind is pursued, and both pursuits focus on the transmigrated souls of noblemen. Lleu, having been struck by Gronw’s cursed spear, turns into an eagle at the moment of his death and flees. Twrch Trwyth was originally a prince turned into the giant boar as punishment by God. This Christian explanation on the Twrch’s fate suggests there is an older pagan belief behind the tale, one that medieval Christian culture found distasteful. There are plenty of other examples in Celtic myth of humans changing into animals and vice versa, suggesting it was a widespread belief before it was challenged by the Church.
Other elements of Culhwch and Olwen have clearly been Christianised in a similar way, for example the description of Gwyn ap Nudd, one of the heroes needed to hunt the Twrch:
The Twrch Trwyth cannot be hunted without Gwyn ap Nudd within whom God placed the nature of Annwfn’s demons so as not to bring the present world to ruin.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, this is at odds with how Annwfn is described in other Welsh medieval texts. In later folk tradition Gwyn is another variation of the pan-European Wild Huntsman, responsible for hunting the souls of the dead at Halloween. His role as a Welsh psychopomp and guide to the Celtic paradise would have made him an obvious target of Church censorship.
Regardless, the Twrch is in many ways another soul pursued by Gwyn ap Nudd, and this gives us a few clues as to the symbolic undercurrents of the tale. The Twrch was once a human prince, and although not dead in the normal sense, he is certainly a creature of the otherworld. In many ways, both the Twrch and Lleu are in Annwfn at crucial points of their journey. As Gwydion sings Lleu (in eagle form) down through the tree, the englynion of his bardic enchantment suggest the tree is in the otherworld. In the case of the Twrch Trwyth, Welsh myth often associates Ireland with the otherworld and crossing the Irish Sea as passage to and from that magical place (see the Second Branch and Preiddeu Annwfn for comparison); in this sense, the Twrch symbolically emerges from Annwfn as he comes to shore at Porth Clais and returns to it as he escapes off the tip of Cornwall.
But what does this all mean? On a purely symbolic level, both Lleu and the Twrch are noblemen who have been transformed not only into animals, but into symbols of the warrior elite. In medieval Welsh bardic poetry, both boars and eagles are metaphors for brave and noble warriors. Also, transforming mortal men into such eternal symbols was one of the main functions of Welsh bardic poetry. In that respect, one possible interpretation is that these symbolic animals represent a heroic ideal that transcends the death of the individual. Countless generations of violent noblemen may die, but the essence of their nobility is preserved in the symbols of Welsh myth and poetry.
On the level of religious belief, both tales may well preserve pre-Christian ideas about reincarnation. In a simple sense it’s natural to see in boars, eagles, wolves and bulls those very qualities that have been so highly praised amongst warrior elites the world over. If an aggressive fighter was to reincarnate after his death, then why not as a fierce boar, his nature perpetuated in the next life? If the oak tree upon which Lleu is found is a symbolic conduit for the transmigration of the soul from human to animal and back again, then there may also be a suggestion that souls could survive death by incarnating as special animals. With the right magic, they could be coaxed back into human form, reincarnated once more just as Gwydion sings the eagle of Lleu’s soul down the different cosmic levels of the otherworldly oak tree.
On the symbolic level and on the level of belief, ensuring the continuity of a particular kind of ethos appears to be the most important thing. Nobility and martial skill is preserved for the future in both interpretations. This ties the tales all the closer to the Welsh court bards; it was their task to ensure the continuation of noble values beyond their own lifetimes and those of their aristocratic patrons.