In the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the king of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon, is notoriously killed by a boar during a royal trophy hunt. While Game of Thrones clearly draws on medieval imagery, myths, and histories to build its world, there are also many ideas and tropoi drawn from the ancient lore of the classical era. The idea of a deadly boar hunt with dreadful consequences was, in fact, a set piece in ancient literature dating all the way back to the time of Homer. The subject of ancient hunting is one that still fascinates and plays upon our imaginations. The idea of men, armed with little more than spears, their wits, and superior organization, confronting raw nature, armed of tooth and claw, is one that engages our sense of drama and fair play, even if such notions exaggerate the danger and rawness represented by the reality of these situations.
Many such stories can also be difficult for modern readers to access. The social dynamics that underlie such hunts are often invisible, poorly documented, and difficult to relate to, whereas the natural environment in terms of flora, fauna, its ruggedness in general, has been radically transformed by the modern industrial age and uncounted generations of urban living. Such dramatic changes in lifestyle and environment can make understanding the conventions that rule the ancient hunting narrative seem alien and exotic. Add to these obscurations a few thick layers of mythological allusion and technical jargon, and the result is a specialist literature, existing within an already specialized field, that few casual readers will find easy to parse.
Few sports or activities carried the same weight and reputation for nobility as hunting did for the antique mind. Xenophon, in his essay on hunting, the Cynegetica, charges the gods Apollo and Artemis with the invention of the art of hunting as well as with the use of hounds. He goes on to describe how these arts passed from them to the pedagogic centaur, Cheiron, whom he credits with having taught the art of coursing to many numerous and well-named heroes and demigods. In the end, he concludes that hunting is a noble activity worthy of the aristocratic curriculum of noble youths: “Therefore I charge the young not to despise hunting or any other schooling. For these are the means by which men become good in war and in all things out of which must come excellence in thought and deed” (Xenophon, “On Hunting,” Scripta Minora. E. C. Marchant, trans.: I, passim, & 18. ).
Though there is no doubt about the popularity and enthusiasm with which the ancients greeted Olympic games, arena combats, and displays of horsemanship, hunting myths and stories seem to occupy their own special register within the antique canon. Such pastimes are ones to which, perhaps, the lower classes need not have paid much heed. Certainly, the need for the acquisition of specialized equipment like expensive and labor-intensive nets, leather gear, spears and weapons of all sorts, as well as specialized hunting animals such as hounds and even horses, would have put thes grand chases beyond the reach of the typical peasantry, or even the middle-classes of well-heeled land-owners. The kinds of hunting described in Xenophon and Homer was the special province of old-money, the newly rich, and their favored hangers-on.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that the impoverished hoi polloi of antiquity never hunted, only that their game and means of acquiring it were more modest than those detailed in the grand tales of kings, heroes, and their retinues. The more mundane stories didn’t make it past the cutting room floor. Ancient writers and bards knew where their bread was buttered. There was proportionally more at stake for the nobility, as well, at least from the aristocrat’s own point of view. Honor in deeds was clearly far more important in the grand scheme of things than any such vague and unlikely circumstance as starvation.
Glory, timé, was the quarry sought by ancient hunters, not base sustenance. Thus, if some wild animal could be cast as a ferocious monster gleefully frightening children, threatening livestock, and rooting around destructively in precious acreage, then, all the better. Such natural or prodigious disasters constituted a need for action and engendered the necessary endeavor, the hunt—fortuitously a means, as well, to proudly display one’s excellence, one’s areté, in defense of the thankful populace.
The famous episode of the Calydonian Boar hunt is the epitome of just such noblesse obligé in action. Featured in not just one but two of the great epic poems of antiquity, Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the tale relates just such an expedition of the aristocracy defending the land from a monsterous quarry. According to the blind poet, Artemis had sent down an evil upon the city in the form of a “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 …” (Homer, Iliad. 9, 539-542. Lattimore trans.). Ovid’s description of the beast is even more dramatic:
… And the goddessOvid, Metamorphoses. 8, 260-289. Rolf Humphries, trans., 190.
Loosed over Calydon a great avenger,
A boar as big as a bull, with blood-shot eyes,
A high stiff neck, and the bristles rising from it
Like spears along a wall, and hot foam flecking
The shoulders, dripping from the jaws that opened
With terrible grunting sounds; his tusks were long
As an Indian elephant’s, and lightning flashed
Out of his mouth, and his breath would burn the grasses.”
That the creature was destructive of the orchard was a fitting punishment for Oineus’ failure to appease the goddess huntress with a proper offering of his and its first fruits. Appropriately, too, Artemis would send discord to the whole polis, using the spectacle of the hunt itself, her special provenance, as its vector.
Meleager, Oineus’s son and prince of Calydon, is credited with dispatching the beast, but only after setting forth with a hunting party mustered on a military scale. Ovid provides a whole catalog of heroes invited along on the expedition. Homer warns us that the Calydonian boar had killed already: “so huge was he, and had put many men on the sad fire for burning.” (Homer, Iliad. 9, 546). The fire was a funeral pyre.
Even heroes, it seems, are subject to the stab and thrust of ivory tusks. In Ovid’s account of the battle Eupalamus and Pelagaon are knocked down and must be rescued by their companions, Enaesimus suffers worse, being hamstrung by the beast, and Hippasus is gored in the thigh. Ancaeus, ‘a man from Arcas’ is fully gored in the abdomen,”… and the ground was soaked in blood, Smeared with his entrails.”(Ovid, Metamorphoses. 8, 328ff. Rolf Humphries, trans., 192-3).
A wild boar could. in fact, be dangerous, even if the epics exaggerated the risks. Boars have long fierce tusks, and will turn and fight if threatened, more so to defend their young. All the better a vehicle, then, for the pursuit of much desired glory, and a good reason, too, for vaunting and boasting about one’s martial prowess, assuming one has, indeed, brought home the bacon. It was a dispute over honors, over who deserved the hide and head as trophy from the gigantic swine, that led to the war in Calydon, at least this is how the poets spin it. Even though Meleager had killed the beast, the recipient of the prince’s favor in the form of the hide, would be endowed with great renown. Thus, the means to the end of the creature, an assembly of “many hunting men out of numerous cities with their hounds,” also become the source of discord that completed the design of Artemis’ cruel punishment (Homer, Iliad. 9,454-45).
Homer assumed that his readers already knew the story. He reveals few details about why the Aitolians and the Kouretes have taken to “slaughtering one another about the city of Kalydon,” only that the Kouretes are laying siege to the city (cleverly mirroring the Achaean siege of Troy) and that they are warring “over the head of the boar and the bristling boar’s hide…” (Homer, Iliad. 9,530; 548). Ovid gives us more. Meleager, the prince of Calydon, having killed the beast, has given the trophies, head and hide, to the woman huntress, runner, and archer, Atalanta; her having drawn first blood. That such prizes, the very essence of timé, should have been offered to a woman, was more offence than the proud and arrogant Kouretes could bear. The result was a protracted siege lain against the prince and his people.
That a quarrel over a big game trophy could be accused of starting a full fledged war reveals the importance attached to hunting and its prizes among the ancient nobility. As a means of establishing social credibility as leaders, as a demonstration of protection provided and worthy of the allegiance of the people, as a mark for establishing social status among their peers, the hunts provided tangible evidence. Rank was everything, shame unendurable, in the aristocratic world of antiquity. These aristocratic engagements were, as time would show, remarkably stable in function, descending down from ancient times into the middle ages and beyond. In many ways these events became the forbears to the fully ritualized bloodletting of the aristocratic fox hunts, only recently banned in the United Kingdom. It is no surprise then that a boar hunt could turn the world on its head, given the stakes for which it was undertaken – it represented the very rights to rule, authority, and power. And that, readers, is no tame or dim unwary beast.