Monday, 2 December 2013

Frey and the Boar's Head Feast

What will you eat on Christmas day? Turkey? Goose? How about Boar's head? That was the traditional dish in England. Its roots go back to Anglo-Saxon paganism.There is a carol about this tradition called "the boar's head carol" and the most popular version is based on a version published in 1521 in Wynkyn de Worde's Christmasse Carolles. Folklore holds that the custom comes from a pagan ceremony invoking the god of fertility, Frey.

"initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times....[In ancient Norse tradition] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring Freyr to show favor to the new year. The boar's head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels." Spears, James E. Folklore, Vol. 85, No. 3. (Autumn, 1974.)

Frey was associated with boars because he actually rode on a golden boar called Gullinbursti.

"to Freyr he gave the boar, saying that it could run through air and water better than any horse, and it could never become so dark with night or gloom of the Murky Regions that there should not be sufficient light where he went, such was the glow from its mane and bristles." - Icelandic pagan text Skáldskaparmál from the Prose Edda.

These days there are loads of universities and colleges in England and the USA that still hold the Boar's Head Feast. The most notable of these is The Queen's College, Oxford, where they have their own local myth to explain the origins of the custom.

"Where an amusing tradition formerly current in Oxford concerning the boar's head custom, which represented that usage as a commemoration of an act of valour performed by a student of the college, who, while walking in the neighbouring forest of Shotover and reading Aristotle, was suddenly attacked by a wild boar. The furious beast came open-mouthed upon the youth, who, however, very courageously, and with a happy presence of mind, thrust the volume he was reading down the boar's throat, crying, "Græcum est," and fairly choked the savage with the sage" Husk, William Henry. Songs of the Nativity Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern. London: John Camden Hotten, 1868.

You can listen to a rendition of the boar's head carol below. Good Yule!

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