THE HUNTING OF TWRCH TRWYTH
The hunting of Twrch Trwyth is a tale within a tale, a floating narrative that came to rest in the written version of Culhwch & 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, & 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 & cutting hair'. 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.
There is another aspect to the boar’s relationship to the young hero. Twrch Trwyth is a young nobleman incarnated as wild swine, & 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 & 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 & pigs are different kinds of swine. One is portrayed as wild & destructive whilst the other is domesticated & civil. A reference to the two natures of man - his lower-self (animal-self) & his Higher Self (spiritual-soul - a spark of divinity).Twrch Trwyth was the beast that laid waste to southern Ireland, while Culhwch is all nobility in pursuit of love.
We shouldn’t automatically assign a negative value to the Twrch, particularly as aggression & violence weren’t frowned upon in medieval Welsh culture. Far from it, they were celebrated as the defining features of great & worthy heroes. The warrior ideology that’s personified in figures such as Arthur, Urien, Owain & others is one of the hall marks of aristocratic praise poetry. At times, the Welsh bards compared their warrior patrons with boars, & 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 & warriors alike, faces 'integration - sacrifice' for the further ennoblement of his more civil brother.
It’s wiser to consider Culhwch & the Twrch Trwyth as representative of the same aristocratic values, with the former embodying the values of civility, love & sovereignty (the higher values & aspects of an enlightened being), & the latter war, martial prowess & wild violence (matters of the material world in which we live & have to find the 'third point' of balance & harmony). All of these values were ancient aspects of Welsh nobility, & in combination both Culhwch & 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.
Culhwch & Olwen is one of the main examples, of the spiritual transformation taking place in those times, it is preoccupied with the ideals of violence, civility & 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, & 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.