Sacred to the god Freyr, these ferocious and cunning beasts were held in utmost esteem by the early Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Even after most Anglo-Saxons accepted Christianity, boar symbolism and imagery figured strongly in both art and literature. The Welsh monk Asser, biographer of King Ælfred during his lifetime, writes of the battle of Æscedune (Ashdown) in early 871:
The king (Ælfred’s older brother Æthelred, soon to die) remained long in prayer, and the pagans (Danes) came up quickly, ready to fight. Then Ælfred, second in command, could bear the attacks of the enemy no longer. He must either retreat, or begin the battle without waiting for his brother. At last he led his forces like a wild boar against the enemy, without waiting for his brother’s arrival…Alfred the Great, P.H. Helm
The narrow end of the pear-shaped Ælfred Jewel is the head of a boar worked in gold; its open , threaded mouth probably was intended to hold a wand, and the completed jewel used a pointer to aid in reading the king’s translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care which he sent to his bishops.
The unknown scop who created the masterwork Beowulf refers to a helmet embellished with protective boar images:
wonderfully formed, beset with swine-forms so that it
then no blade nor battle-swords to bite were able….literal translation from the Old English by John Porter, lines 1452-1454
Depictions of boars feature prominently in the fabulous treasure from the Sutton Hoo burial, grave of Rædwald, king of the East Angles, who died c 625.
The Danes too employed the power of boar imagery in warfare. The Viking warrior cult of the Svinfylking was dedicated to the boar, and its elite warriors fought in a wedge-shaped formation, fronted by two especial fighters who formed the Rani, or snout.
It took an inordinate amount of skill and courage to track and kill wild boar. Their native intelligence, speed and nimbleness made for many unsuccessful forays. When finally cornered, the devastating use of their razor-sharp tusks often left men, dogs, and horses mortally wounded. It is small wonder that a boar’s head was a dish fit for kings.