Classical mythology on an Iron Age boar coin

The finely crafted artefacts of Ancient Rome were often a source of inspiration for peoples beyond their empire to the north.

A particularly striking example is the early boar coinage of the Corieltauvi tribe based on the south side of the Humber Estuary in England, dating from the the middle of the first century BCE. The example shown below is the earliest version in a series. An elegant "celticised" horse beneath a sun symbol is depicted on one side. On the other side is a bold representation of a boar, with a spear in his back together with associated enigmatic symbols. The boar is depicted with erect bristles along his spine, a curly tail and even details the backward-pointing dewclaws, an exceptional feature in this example. This particular silver unit was found four years ago at Burgh le Marsh in Lincolnshire.





Here is my drawing of the boar design.




Was this an original work of art? Well, the design is distinctively stylised, though less abstract than many examples, including the later instances of this series. But, there was a clear inspiration in the form of a Roman silver denarius dating to about 68 BCE, an example of which is shown below. 




On the reverse, a large wounded boar is shown being harried by a hunting dog, with G HOSIDI G F (for Gaius Hosidius Gaius Filius, or Gaius Hosidius, son of Gaius) written beneath the image.   

This is not any old boar, but the famous Boar of Calydon.

Here's Homer (Iliad 9. 543, 8th C BCE, Lattimore translation) with the story:


"The Kouretes and the steadfast Aitolians were fighting and slaughtering one another about the city of Kalydon . . . For Artemis, she of the golden chair, had driven this evil upon them, angered that Oineus had not given the pride of the orchards to her, first fruits; the rest of the gods were given due sacrifice, but alone to this daughter of great Zeus he had given nothing. He had forgotten, or had not thought, in his hard delusion, and in wrath at his whole mighty line the Lady of Arrows sent upon them the fierce wild Boar with the shining teeth, who after the way of his kind did much evil to the orchards of Oineus. For he ripped up whole tall trees from the ground and scattered them headlong roots and all, even to the very flowers of the orchard. The son of Oineus killed this boar, Meleagros, assembling together many hunting men out of numerous cities with their hounds; since the Boar might not have been killed by a few men, so huge was he, and had put many men on the sad fire for burning. But the goddess again made a great stir of anger and crying battle, over the head of the Boar and the bristling boar's hide, between Kouretes and the high-hearted Aitolians."

Other versions fill out further aspects of the story. Ovid (Metamorphoses 8. 269, Melville translation, 1st century BCE/CE) lists the heroes involved in the hunt:

"The people fled; they felt no safety save within a city's walls till Meleager and his heroes came, a chosen band, all fired by hopes of fame. There were the twins, the Tyndaridae (sons of Tyndareus), one famed for boxing [Kastor (Castor)], one for horsemanship [Polydeukes (Polydeuces)]; Jason who fashioned the first ship; Theseus came with Pirithous, blest pair of friends, and the Thestiadae [sons of Thestios], and swift Idas, Idas with Lynceus, son of Aphareus; Caeneus, no woman then, and fierce Leucippus; Acastus famed for his javelin; Hippothous and Dryas; Phoenix too, Amyntor's son; Phyleus whom Elis sent, and the Actorides [the Molionides]. There too was Telamon and great Achilles' father [Peleus]; Pheretiades [Admetos son of Pheres]; Hyantian Iolaus, and Echion that peerless sprinter, with Eurytion untiring; Panopeus, Lelex Narycius, fierce Hippasus and Hyleus; Nestor too, still in his prime; and those Hippocoon had sent from old Amyclae; and Ancaeus from Parrhasius; and Penelope's father in law [Laertes], and Ampycides [Mopsos son of Ampykos (Ampycus)] so wise, and Oeclides [Amphiaraus son of Oikles (Oecles)] as yet unruined by his wicked wife; and with them from Lycaeus' highland race Tegeaea [Atalanta], the green glades' pride and grace."

There's a version of the original story in which Meleager (son of Oeneus, the king who annoyed Artemis by forgetting to sacrifice to her) killed the boar, but offered the prize to Atalanta, the sole woman among the heroes - she had wounded it first. The men objected and there was a fight during which Meleager killed his uncles. Meleager's mum was not pleased and remembered the prophecy of the fates given when he was 7 days old - two said he would be noble and brave, but one of the three (Atropos) was disgruntled and said he would die as soon as a log on the fire burnt through. Meleager's mum doused the log and hid it, but now she brought it out and put it back on the fire, and that was the end of Meleager. I enjoyed the recent retelling of this story by Jennifer Saint.

It's interesting to see glimpses of how such ancient tales change through time, with the several variants recorded in the Classical literature, and later an echo in the Norse Nornagests þáttr, an episode of the Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason. In this story, the Norn who feels slighted says the baby Nornagest will live only as long as a lit candle by the cradle will burn. His mother puts out the candle and hides it. After a long life (during which he took over custody of the candle), fighting battles and spending time with Harald Fairhair and Björn Ironside and his brothers, he met King Olaf Tryggvason who was on a conversion crusade. Nornagest agreed to be baptised, then lit the candle and died. And then of course, there are the fairies in Sleeping Beauty. It's fascinating when stories from more than three millennia ago morph and echo down the ages!

In the Corieltauvi version of the design, the hunting dog has been reduced to a reverse sigmoid shape beneath the body of the boar. The boar itself has taken on a more rigid upright stance with stylised feet, hairs, ears and tusks. A ring and dot symbol suggests the sun. The four-spoked and bat-shaped objects are more enigmatic. 
 
While the image on the coin was adopted and adapted by the Corieltauvi, I wonder if the mythological story of the hunt also reached them and how they might have shaped it to their own context.

I can think of another few stories involving monstrous boars and sows - Gaiman's beast of London in Neverwhere and Nago in Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. Then there was the Crommyonian Sow and the Erymanthian boar (fourth labour of Heracles), and the Norse Gullinbursti. They have clearly provided a potent image throughout history.


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