The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Ancient Hunters of the Wild Boar

During my visit last year to Delphi, I partook of roasted wild boar and heard about the ages-old hunts with specially trained dogs. Since then, I’ve become fascinated with this dangerous beast who challenged warriors to prove their mettle.

Since long before the days of this Mycenaean fresco (top photo), the ferocious wild boars of the Mediterranean region have been wreaking havoc on farmers’ fields and making themselves the focus of hunts by men (and occasionally women) out to prove their bravery. The wily big males of this region, with their razor-sharp tusks, can range between 200 and 400 pounds and are capable of running up 40 km/hour.

(photo public domain calguns.net)

Hunting them demands boldness and accuracy. A less-than-lethal strike could spell serious injury or death to the hunter, whose weapon in ancient days was the spear, as shown in details of this krater (drinking vessel):

The “pigsticker” spears had short cross-pieces near the business end, since the wounded boars would often continue charging up the length of the embedded spear to slash at the hunter, and the cross piece would block that final charge. And from the start, it appears that hounds were trained to help the hunters. As our host explained to Thor and me over our meal at Delphi, his friends use specially trained hounds in the hunts on the flanks of Mount Parnassos: bay dogs to locate the boar and alert the hunters, and catch dogs to dart in, bite, and cling to the boar’s hind legs or ears. The spear-hunters then close in on the distracted prey, aiming for the heart between tough, protective layers of hide and bristles. Many a slip has resulted in dead or wounded hunters.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, our hero Odysseus finally returns home after many trials, but must return in disguise to outwit hostile suitors trying to claim his wife and kingdom. His aged servant, welcoming this ragged “stranger” to the house, washes his dusty feet and recognizes Odysseus by the old scar on his leg from his first boar hunt as a young man.

The ancient Romans recommended boar-hunting as training for soldiers, and the tradition has continued to modern times. Most hunters today use rifles, but there is a hardcore element that still uses spears to “level the playing field.” This 14th-century European tapestry of a hunt (wikiwand.com public domain) shows the cross-piece on the pigsticker, and the hounds biting the boar as the hunter moves in:

The British army officer Robert Baden-Powell, who fought in the Boer War and founded the Boy Scouts movement, wrote about the hunts that evolved to using horses as well as hounds: “Try it before you judge. See how the horse enjoys it, see how the boar himself, mad with rage, rushes wholeheartedly into the scrap, see how you, with your temper thoroughly roused, enjoy the opportunity of wreaking it to the full. Yes, hog-hunting is a brutal sport—and yet I loved it, as I loved also the fine old fellow I fought against.”

Many artists have similarly glorified and romanticized the hunt, including Peter Paul Rubens:

(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)

The ancient Greek story of the Calydonian Boar assembled many mythic heroes, as well as a heroic Amazon warrior, in an epic hunt for a monstrous beast that the goddess Artemis sent to ravage the lands and terrorize the subjects of King Oeneus after he failed to honor her in his yearly sacrifices. (Again, those Olympian deities demonstrate their wrath against humans who neglect to pay their dues.) Half of the men were outraged that Atalanta, the Amazon warrior, was included in the hunt. She drew the first blood and was thus entitled to the trophy skin. Fighting amongst the warriors broke out, and the king’s son Meleager ended up dead, thus giving Artemis her revenge. This work by Giulio Romano, “Mealeager et Atalanta,” illustrates the tale (image from Wikipedia):

Displayed in the museum at Delphi, this Mycenaean boar-tusk helmet could have been worn by one of the heroes:

Readers of my earlier Greece blog posts may have noticed that my recent visit has stoked my fascination with the Olympian god Dionysos, who ruled Delphi and the slopes of Mount Parnassos as the Winter God during Apollo’s “off season.” If you’d like a review of the ecstatic worship and wild chases over the mountainside by the worshippers of the god on the hunt, here’s the link:

The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece, Part 25: The Two Faces of Dionysos

In my sequel to THE ARIADNE CONNECTION in progress, Peter Mitchell must prove his bravery and allegiance to the Corybantes, the woman warriors who control the Parnassos hillsides and the sacred caverns where they’re sheltering Ariadne. They rouse him from the cavern before dawn to hunt a wild boar that is ruining the farmers’ fields in the high valleys, and he stares groggily down the steep, rocky slopes where the hounds are leading the way:

The warriors give Peter a wad of native herbs to chew, which historical records indicate was a practice that helped induce the ecstatic trances. And he rushes into the wild chase, channeling Dionysos among his maenads.

Here is an excerpt from the scene, a sneak peak of the novel soon to be published at Book View Cafe:

*****

As he plunges down the rocky slope, his legs are possessed of uncanny strength and agility, leaping around stones, plowing through another snowy dip, flying him toward the beast. The ululating cries of the Corybantes swell behind him, around him, and the power of the sacred mountain flushes up through him on another burst of bitter herb juice. He’s no longer Peter, no longer mortal,  but an elemental force of ancient ritual on the hunt.

“Aoww-ooooh! Bromios!” he howls, and he can feel himself swelling, growing, melding with the ancient Winter God of Parnassos that he vaguely remembers hearing Ariadne whisper something about during the night. He is the Winter God, Dionysos, racing down the mountainside with his wild maenads, wild Corybantes on the hunt, ready to tear apart the prey with his bare hands and dance wild worship of the Old Ones. The hounds are baying, howling, the boar’s squealing as Peter flies through the brush, snow flying around his churning legs, and a fierce ecstasy carries him on. He tears through an ivy-covered bush, vines catching around his head in a crazy crown and trailing after him.

He’s racing around stunted trees now. Crashing, commotion up ahead. Into an open brushy space, and the hounds have the boar surrounded, pushing in to nip at its hindquarters. The beast turns and plants himself, piggy eyes fixing on Peter rushing through the brush. Red, he swears those eyes are glowing red rage. And something in Peter answers on another powerful surge of glory in the hunt.

“Ohi! Perimenete! No, wait!” A voice from the side jolts Peter, as one of the women warriors darts in from the right to throw her spear past him at the boar. It strikes the beast in the shoulder, but gets knocked out as the boar veers to attack the Corybant. She leaps to the side as a stream of red splashes down her leg from the boar’s sharp tusk.

“Back, you!” It’s Damiana, pushing past the wounded warrior to jab at the beast.

It squeals in fury and turns toward her, just as she slips in the churned mud.

“Here, you fucker! You’re mine! Bromios!” Peter is beyond thinking, beyond knowing what he’s shouting. The boar veers toward him, breath pluming, eyes glinting, he’s huge, the mythical beast of the mountain, pawing the mud. And launching himself straight toward Peter.

He laughs in maniacal glee and plants himself, spear aimed toward the spot he knows, ancient voices rising in a babble inside him, and they’ve done this before, he knows the heart strike, and he pivots with the beast’s charge. Keeps his spear braced and pointed toward that spot as the boar charges in flung mud and snow and savage rage.

The impact almost knocks Peter off his feet. He stumbles back with the force of the charge, keeping the spear in the boar’s chest as they crash together backwards through the brush. A vague sense of warriors leaping aside and crying out. But Peter is rock, solid, gripping the spear as the furious boar charges upward on the shaft, burying itself deeper, slashing tusks whipping side to side to get at Peter and gore him, but the cross piece catches the beast and they’re locked together in the ultimate deadly dance. With a final thrust, the boar pushes them back again as Peter stumbles, then braces. A last furious squeal. The beast collapses at Peter’s feet.

He blinks. “Hoo, boy.”

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter atwww.sarastamey.com

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The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Ancient Hunters of the Wild Boar — 4 Comments

  1. Seeing prize winning pigs at the State Fair, one thinks, “What’s the big deal about a boar hunt?”

    A few clicks on Google and you find out about the vile temperament of the wild creatures, and just how much BIGGER they are than the domestic kind, even the biggest males do not compare.

    At a local restaurant, Wild Boar Soft Tacos are a favored menu item. Domesticated pigs have gone feral in a lot of places–especially Texas–and multiplied for many centuries and are taking over the ecosystem. They are a real menace to crops, livestock, and people. Serving them on a menu in Oregon seems like the right thing to do.

    • Hi, Phyl,
      yes, I watched some YouTube videos of boar hunts, and they are terrifying beasts! Also, yes, especially where they are introduced species, they are running amok and creating environmental problems. So thinning the populations is definitely a good thing.

  2. I love the boar hunting scene but I will stick to hunting the wily blackberry. Watch out for those thorns!