Hunting And Wild Animals

There is a strong hint in the vernacular literature of a close correlation between hunter/hunted and the divine world. Hunted animals were sometimes perceived as messengers of the Otherworld powers, the means of bringing living humans, either directly or indirectly, to the underworld. The hunted creature itself may be enchanted or possess magical qualities: it may be a transformed human or a god in zoomorphic form.

Tales of the hunt involve, above all, the wild pig or boar and the stag. In Insular tradition, the hero Finn and his war-band, the Fianna, repeatedly pursue magic stags or boars in the hunt. These beasts lead the hunters to secluded places where they encounter supernatural beings, and undergo strange, sometimes perilous, experiences.4 There is a great deal of hunting mythology in Welsh literature: in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, a hunted stag is the means by which the hero Pwyll, lord of Arberth, encounters Arawn, ruler of the underworld Annwn. The stag itself is not of supernatural origin but it forms the link between the worlds of humans and the gods. Pwyll goes hunting with his pack of hounds; he encounters another pack of strange dogs which are killing a stag. Pwyll sets his own dogs at the stag and claims it as his own kill. Unknown to him, the other dogs belong to Arawn and the two hunters meet in anger. It is clear from the description of Arawn's dogs that they are Otherworld creatures, for they are shining white with red ears. Animals coloured like this are always from the underworld and we encounter similar creatures in the Insular tradition. Although Pwyll and Arawn meet in inauspicious circumstances, the encounter is important and possibly predetermined, since Arawn needs a mortal hero to fight for him against Hafgan, a rival Otherworld king.5

Figure 7.2 Late Iron Age bronze boar from a chieftain's grave at Lexden, Colchester, Essex. Miranda Green.

Hunting mythology recurs elsewhere in the Mabinogi: the Third Branch tells the story of the enchantment of Dyfed, over which a spell has been cast by an unknown agency, causing the disappearance of nearly every living being in the land. The two heroes of the tale are Manawydan, brother of the great Bendigeidfran and probably himself a divinity, and Pryderi, the son of Pwyll and lord of Dyfed. After the enchantment of their land, the two heroes make their living by hunting; their dogs disturb a boar, which is clearly of supernatural origin, for it is enormous and shining white. This boar lures the dogs into a deserted fort in which there is a magic golden bowl. Pryderi follows the dogs, touches the bowl and is stuck fast to it; when his wife Rhiannon goes in search of him, the same fate befalls her.6 So once again, the animal is the means by which the supernatural powers make themselves known to humans.

The whole of the early Welsh story, the 'Tale of Culhwch and Olwen', is constructed around a great hunt, part of a complicated quest story in which Culhwch is given a series of Herculean labours to perform by the giant Ysbaddaden before he can win the hand of Olwen, the daughter of the giant. The quarry of this great hunt is one Twrch Trwyth, an enchanted boar who was once a king. To help in the task of obtaining the shears, comb and razor from between Twrch Trwyth's ears, Culhwch enlists the aid of Arthur and of the divine hunter Mabon, son of Modron. Twrch Trwyth and his followers (all similarly enchanted pigs) lead the heroes all over South Wales, Ireland and Cornwall before he is finally brought to ground.

The hunt as a way of life is strongly emphasized in these tales. Thus in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, Manawydan says that since he has lost his hunting-dogs (lured away by the magic boar) he can win no livelihood. In another early Welsh tale, the 'Dream of Rhonabwy', we are introduced to a board game played by Arthur and Owein ap Urien. The game is called gwyddbwyll, which closely o resembles chess but in it the pieces consist of a king pursued by huntsmen. In the 'Lady of the Fountain', Owein witnesses a battle between a snake and a white lion: he kills the serpent but takes the lion with him as a hunting companion.9 The implication of all the stories is that hunting is closely associated with the supernatural world and not simply a profane, secular activity. Hunting may have been largely restricted to heroes or the aristocracy, and could well have been subject to strict rules and taboos. If hunting was 'special' in some way - and this is implied by literary references to it - then this may account for the negative evidence of the archaeological record (see chapter 3), in which the scarcity of wild animal bones on Iron Age sites suggests that hunted wild animals were not a significant factor among food animals, even though hunting undoubtedly took place for reasons other than the provision of food.

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