Varahi, Freyja, Saraswati – The Boar of Battle and the Goddess

Art from the work-in-progress stage of a large SaptaMatrika piece by sivaneskumar0303


It is a well-known fact that within the realms of the Indo-European conceptual syllabary, the Boar has a prominent place as a martial signifier. It stands for a place of honour – of formidable potency upon the field of war. We find particular Gods and mortal heroes indelibly linked to this symbolic shorthand – and considering the nature of the wild boar, particularly once it’s got some speed up along with its aggression, it’s not at all hard to see why. 

What is perhaps *less* well known, however, is that there also appears to be something of a typology around Warrior Goddess(es) having a similar iconographic and conceptual association.

Many have heard of Freyja’s Boar Hildisvíni (even if the major attestation for this is a comparatively late and somewhat curious text dating from the close of the 14th century). Fewer would presumably think instantly of the RigVedic Saraswati as having Boar associations; and I am unsure how many outside of the Hindusphere would have cause to consider Varahi (literally – ‘Female Boar’) at all. 

And yet – what we behold here is an eminently important thread of ‘unity’ … which interlinks a Vedic Goddess-form, an ostensibly post-Vedic (and even Tantrika) Goddess-form first attested well more than a thousand years (perhaps even a millennium and a half or more) later, and a feature for a Nordic/Germanic expression of divinity so relatively recent that it’s often written off as some sort of confused post-Christianization mistaken interpolation. There are also several other Indo-European female deifics with boar associations – the Celtic Arduinna, for instance – although I have not engaged in a serious in-depth review of these to see how much they may adhere to the specific Warrior Goddess typology we have in mind (which also incorporates certain other features of a relational nature to the rest of the Pantheon – and, most especially, the Sky Father Himself). 

Now, part of the reason I have been so eager to discuss the iconograhic saliency here is because it also helps to address another one of those infuriating canards we so frequently find ourselves confronted with when people are getting to grips with the saliency of Hinduism in the modern Indo-European sphere. 

When some people look upon our deifics and our iconography, they seem to feel an incessant compulsion to attack these as being “non-Indo-European” and therefore “corrupt”, “degenerated” or whatever, because some of the stylistic elements are perceived to be ‘alien’. 

So, the multiple arms, the theriocephaly in some cases, or the skin-tones of blue or red or black etc. … these become front-and-center for claims that Hinduism is somehow “not Aryan” [whatever ‘Aryan’ might happen to mean in the mouth of whichever would-be interlocutor it is this time]. Never mind all the literal litanies of descriptions of Gods in the Vedas wherein yes, we find very definitely Indo-European deifics described as having features of animals or colouration which connotes things like the darkness of the storm-sky, etc. Or, for that matter, the directly correlate elements found in other and more westerly IE canons which speak to quite similar features (Demeter Erinyes, for instance, a co-expression of Kali, similarly being ‘Dark’). 

I have therefore chosen to address this via illustration of Varahi. Because upon the face of it, indeed quite literally the Face of the Goddess-form in question, this deific ‘ticks the boxes’ for what various people tend to consider ‘strongly’ “foreign” to the archaic Indo-European realm. Insofar as we have a) the theriocephaly and other iconographic elements ; b) a Goddess (and one significantly salient for the Shakta and Tantrika realms as well) ; c) Whose earliest attestations are to be found in the Puranic era. 

But let us ‘take it back to the old school’ with Saraswati first, so that we can see an archaic expression of the typology in motion. 

RV VI 61 is a justly renowned Hymnal. It hails Saraswati – and we have looked in far greater and grander scope at its depths elsewhere so shall not repeat that analysis here. Suffice to say we here find the Goddess as Warrior – the conceptual metaphors around Her taking in not only the Riverine but also Animalistic. And the areas of association including that prominently frequent Vedic visualization of the mighty, indomitable, literally unstoppable combatant capable of smashing aside even direst opposition with the force of an irresistible torrent of flood-water against an obstruction to the river’s tempestuous flow. Indeed, it is exactly the same framing and phrasing we elsewhere see applied to Lord Indra (inter alia) – viz. the Vritraghni [‘Slayer of Vritra’] hailing in line 7. Alongside this, we also see another ‘style’ of martial application to Her Divine Prowess – that of the Inquisitor or Witch-Hunter, capable of seeking and destroying the vile practitioners of black magic and poisoning men through their demonic bile. 

The particular point of interest for us here is RV VI 61 2 – which, in the Sanskrit, should read:

इयं शुष्मेभिर्बिसखा इवारुजत्सानु गिरीणां तविषेभिरूर्मिभिः ।
पारावतघ्नीमवसे सुवृक्तिभिः सरस्वतीमा विवासेम धीतिभिः ॥

iyaṃ śuṣmebhir bisakhā ivārujat sānu girīṇāṃ taviṣebhir ūrmibhiḥ |
pārāvataghnīm avase suvṛktibhiḥ sarasvatīm ā vivāsema dhītibhiḥ ||

What does this mean ? Well, let’s take a look at three translations. 

Here’s the Horace Hayman Wilson rendition from 1866:

“With impetuous and mighty waves She breaks down the precipices of the mountains, like a digger for the lotus fibres;
we adore for our protection, the praises and with sacred rites, Sarasvatī the underminer of both Her banks.”

And the Griffith (1896):

“She with Her might, like one who digs for lotus-stems, hath burst with Her strong waves the ridges of the hills.
Let us invite with songs and holy hymns for help Sarasvatī Who slayeth the Paravatas.”

And, rather importantly, the Jamison / Brereton 2014 rendering:

“She, like a root-grubbing (boar) with Her snortings, broke the back of
the mountains with Her powerful waves.
Sarasvatī, Who smashes the foreigners, we would entice here for help
with well-plaited (hymns), with visionary thoughts.”

Now the obvious point for our purposes is that incorporation of the word “boar” after “root-grubbing” (or, if you prefer – “digger for lotus-fibres / stems”).

Something which Jamison & Brereton adapted from the work of one Karl Hoffman (1976), who translated the relevant portions of the verse as: “She … broke through the backs of the mountains like a root-digger [boar] (sic) with boisterous, mighty waves.”

Or, phrased another way : the understanding that the relevant Sanskrit word – Bishaka – means ‘Boar’ is an inferential one. Albeit one that I consider to be on very good ground indeed. 

Why so? Because first and foremost, we are dealing with that aforementioned Indo-European martial conceptual syllabry. Whereas one might expect a Bull or a Lion(ess) to be invoked here for a male deific – the former is clearly inappropriate for a Goddess (although we see elsewhere in the Hymnal, Her providing ‘milk’ in the manner of a Cow), whilst the latter .. while it *does* come up elsewhere for Her in the Vedas, is not quite right for the mode of action entailed. The Boar, as we have aforesaid, goes very hard and very fast charging forth – just as the River and River Goddess is spoken of doing here likewise, as well. 

However, it is also that *other* mechanism of action which is particularly salient: that of the ‘grubbing about’ and digging up roots with which to devour. This is something that a Bull does not do – and it is most certainly not the prefered modus operandi for the Lion or Lioness. 

Why it’s relevant, other than the obvious point of association for the Lotus with the Flood (Lotus flowers bloom after floods due to the floods disturbing the seeds encased in sediment of the river’s bed and banks), is because the way black magic is referred to in the Vedas often features the curses and malefic spells in question being referred to as ‘hidden’. Indeed, वलग (‘Valaga’), the major relevant term, is effectively understood as ‘buried’, a ‘pit-trap’ of sorts. So, just as the Boar goes about its business foraging for roots, tubers, truffles, etc. utilizing those impressively sharp Tusks to dig up those things it is going to consume and destroy via its teeth … so, too, does Saraswati here act to ‘dig up’ and destroy the ‘concealed’, ‘buried’ spells of the malefic sorcerer. 

We might also approach the figurative conceptry the other way – and suggest that it is also *treasures*, hidden truths and glinting precious wonderments which She is able to unearth in such a manner … after all, the dominant Indo-European monomytheme of the confrontation against the ‘encircling’ or ‘covering’ demon is one wherein these barriers, these obscurations, these piled up occlusions of earth are rent asunder via mystical might. C.f my previous work on Brihaspati’s cleaving open the side of a mountain through the power of prayer (Vak) to liberate the stolen and secreted Cows (which represented not only Wealth in the general sense – but depending upon the telling of the myth can also often have particular points of vital importance to the Solar cycle, even *be* responsible for the Dawn, etc.); and, for that matter, the Ynglinga Saga’s presentation of the directly cognate ‘refraction’ of this myth wherein Odin utilizes the power of His Galdr to open up the earth and .. well .. you get the idea.  

Indeed, exactly this conceptual element of the Boar digging up that which is valuable is found in the AtharvaVeda. There, a particular herb is spoken of which can grant significant metaphysical empowerment and protection to those facing difficulties from demons and black magic as well as their practitioners and propitiators. Although I should note that whilst the conventional interpretation for ‘Oshadhi’ here is that of the aforementioned ‘herb’ – the term itself can *also* mean ‘medicine’ in a more general sense, a general ‘remedy’ … and has a rather more ‘figurative’ connotation that I should perhaps explore at another point (to briefly gloss over which – the (folk) etymology has it as a thing that has or possesses ‘burning’ or ‘heat’, ‘light’ (and, indeed, may link to a Star), and the figurative use elsewhere in the Vedas (e.g. Shatapatha Brahmana II 2 4 5) similarly seems to present it as a ritual offering, a thing that contains an energy; i.e. something a bit different to how we conventionally think of ‘medicinal herbs’ – as rather than the patient consuming them, in various of these contexts it is the sacral flame which does so in order to secure the hoped-for intervention and thence outcome). 

Interestingly, and bringing these two approaches together, one of these occurs in the context of invocations to protect against such malign magical forces.

To quote from AV V 14 :

1 An eagle found thee: with his snout a wild boar dug thee from the earth.
Harm thou, O Plant, the mischievous, and drive the sorcerer away.
2 Beat thou the Yātudhānas [‘Demon-Worshiper/Feeder’] back, drive thou away the sorcerer;
And chase afar, O Plant, the man who fain would do us injury.

As a point of perhaps further interest, a very similar notion occurs in AV 2 27 – ostensibly an invocation to grant victory in a debate against an opponent :

1 Let not the enemy win the cause! Strong and predominant art thou.
Refute mine adversary’s speech. Render them dull and flat, O Plant.
2 The strong-winged bird discovered thee, the boar unearthed thee with his snout.
Refute mine adversary’s speech. Render them dull and flat, O Plant.

Although it must be emphasized that the mythic resonancy for the hymnal is made quite clear – that of combat against demons, particularly as carried out by certain Gods. And, as we know from various places in the Shatapatha Brahmana .. combat via eloquent speech (quite literally in Saraswati’s domain and theonymic) is a most surefire way indeed to vanquish demonic foes. But let us move forward. 

A further point of rather curious saliency for the Saraswati – Boar linkage (and ‘Female Boar’ in Sanskrit, we should note, is more properly ‘Varahi’) comes to us from the Japanese sphere. There, their ‘refraction’ of Saraswati, ‘Benzaiten’ has particular animalistic associations in the direction of the Snake, but also the Boar. The former, we should expect – there are archaic linkages for the Serpent and the relevant Hindu (in fact, broader Indo-European as well) Goddess complex, as we have detailed at quite considerable length elsewhere. The Boar 

There are some other points some have sought to draw from to ‘firm up’ the identification of the ‘root-grubber’ as a Boar – for example, Jamison and Brereton themselves present ‘शुष्मेभिः’ (Shusmebhih) as meaning ‘Snorting’, and therefore as a sonic resonancy between the noise of the rushing river and the noisy goings-about of the boar. I personally consider this unnecessary – and, further, suspect that it’s missing quite a bit of the sense of the actual Sanskrit root शुष्म (‘Shusma’) to reduce it down to ‘snortings’ .. but more upon that, perhaps, some other time. 

In any case, we should move forward – just as the mighty River does .. that River of Time. 

And, speaking of ‘Time’ in the Female and Protective-Destroyer sense .. well, a certain Sanskrit term should seem most relevant here – but I instead simply refer to the colouration of Varahi as ‘Shyama’ (श्याम – which can also refer to a dark blue, to be sure, or even green). 
It is, you see, the colouration of the Storm Cloud. 

When it comes to Varahi, we find a Goddess-form Who is hailed not only as a formidable Warrior in Her Own Rite – but also as a Commander, a General of the Divine War-Hosts. And, yes, most definitely invoked for the specific purpose of countering malefic magic and its practitioners and their demonic allies, instruments, associates, and masters. 

In other words, it is the two ‘sides’ to the Boar concept that we find in the RigVeda’s extolling of Sarasvati Devi. Both are present. As, indeed, quite iconically is the ‘Boar’ symbolism. 

Except where with Saraswati it is implicit and a mythic metaphor to describe how She is asked to assist the devotee … with Varahi, the perception has become more reified. Hence, She is presented with a literal Boar visage and frightening tusks with which to carry out Her probing and rending of the foe and his dark designs. 

Now, of course, at this point it is important to observe that whenever we are speaking about the iconography of the divine – it is *all* symbolic. And symbolic should not be confused with ‘false’. It merely means a ‘different kind of true’ – one where, for instance, having a big argument over whether Shiva is Blue, ‘Ruddy’ or ‘Tawny’, or ‘Camphor White’ is fundamentally missing the point. Because the true answer is ‘Yes’ – and that the essential qualities communicated *via* these skin-tones are what is really important. 

So, Saraswati being described in figurative terms as carrying out acts that are resonant with the symbolism of the Boar … is not necessarily all that different in practical terms to Varahi carrying this typology several steps further and literally being hailed in Her major Theonym as ‘Female Boar’ and having a Boar’s head with razor-tusks in Her prominent iconography. 

I emphasize this point due to the aforementioned semi-frequently encountered circumstance of persons insisting that theriocephaly or other ‘not-quite-human’ iconographic features is somehow a disqualifier for being Indo-European. Apparently unaware of Úlfhéðnar as ‘Wolf-Hooded’ and the associated well-attested visual and totemic conceptry going on *there*, to take but one example. 

We quite frequently encounter very definite Indo-European Gods and Goddesses being spoken of and sung about as appearing in Animal form. In the Vedas, there is the aforementioned strong association for Vak with the Lion(ess); there is a pervasive Serpentine Form for the Mother Goddess in Indo-European mythology (as demonstrated via the strong coherency of the relevant mythology between the archaic Vedic and Hellenic spheres on this point); and likewise for the Sky Father appearing as a Bull or an Eagle / Hawk / Falcon etc. – or, for that matter in His Own Serpentine Form. 

So, if it’s very much a pervasive concept within the Indo-European sphere to represent deifics as assuming animal shape – then it should seem rather peculiar to insist that it somehow becomes indelibly *non* Indo-European when it is only a ‘part’ of the animal form that is adopted. Perhaps the decidedly avian Wings of Nike might similarly be declared ‘out of bounds’ and possessing of no place within the Indo-European sphere upon a similar basis. Yet let us move on and forward.

To Freyja – and Her Hildisvini (Boar of Battle). 

Now part of the reason that I have chosen to end with Freyja and Hildisvini is because what we see here really does help to ‘complete’ our typological exegesis. Why? 

Consider this. The association of the (general, broad Indo-European) Goddess with particular animals is expressed in multiple mechanisms. In some cases, as aforementioned, we have Her either taking on directly an animal form correlate with a certain relevant quality – and somewhat coterminous with this, we may also encounter mythic texts talking about the Goddess *as if She were* in such an animal form precisely to draw out the typological characteristics required to elucidate the fundamental meaning of  the Myth in question. That situation featuring Saraswati in RV VI 61 is an example of the latter. It could be argued that the Boar Visage of Varahi is more toward the former (although, again, the fact of ‘symbolism’ means that it’s a ‘spectrum’ and non-exclusivity between the two rather than anything like a ‘hard divide’). 

However, in other occurrences what we instead see is a different mechanism via which such conceptual association may be demonstrated and ‘encoded’. Namely, where the Goddess’s Vahana (Steed / Mount / Vehicle) or an associated creature in another capacity is invoked or referenced. A grand exemplar for this is the ‘feline’ association for this aforementioned Goddess – where we see Mother Durga (Whose Day it is Today as I compose this – Masik Durgashtami, hence in large measure my purpose in writing ..) mounted upon a Lion and/or Tiger (often named as ‘Dawon’ – Bravery; although I am given to understand this is a Himalayan perception viz the naming). Meanwhile, we likewise have Cybele / Magna Mater seated in a chariot drawn by Lions (some depictions do have Her riding a lion singly) – and more usually we encounter Freyja similarly appointed, with a chariot pulled by cats. Although, of course, these aren’t ordinary housecats – but rather Scandinavian forest cats, somewhat more akin to lynxes and of similar sizing. 

The incipient logic for this Goddess having such creature(s) either as steed or as pulling Her vehicle is pretty straightforward. Lions are Regality, They possess a most powerful – indeed Thunderous – Roar; and, as I have often noted, it’s one of those species wherein if one happens to observe them it becomes rather rapidly apparent that the *women* of the pride are actually doing a lot of the real work around the place … quite comfortably carrying out the ‘heavy lifting’ of applied lethality (to the prey). Of course, the actual import for the emblem is a little broader than that – and in the more archaic end of things that I have aforementioned, the Vedic understanding for Vak (attested in both the Yajurveda & accompanying Shatapatha Brahmana) as having such an expression *as* a Lioness is also to do with Her being an unstoppable and unquenchable irresistible force. One which can only be appeased by treating Her as Royalty. 

In any case, the effective point is quite a simple one: the choice of animal for a Goddess’s vehicle can function in much the similar manner to the choice to describe figuratively a Goddess in certain ‘animalistic’ terms – or to portray iconographically with certain animalistic features the Goddess Herself. 

However, there is another dimension to the potential associations of both the Goddess in animal association and Her Vahana in consequence. And that is bestowed by the frequent pattern we find in the Indo-European theology for the Wife of the Sky Father to be a close correlate to Her Husband in key respects. You see this quite frequently with the theonymics – Rudra & Rudrani, Shiva & Shivaa, MahaKaal & MahaKali, but then I repeat myself thrice over. Another example is the ‘Ju-‘ of both ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Juno’, and there are numerous further attestations we could draw from elsewhere. 

A similar saliency may be sought when it comes to these animalistic associations. So, for instance, we often have the Mother Goddess hailed as a Cow – and, correspondingly, we have the Sky Father spoken of as a Bull. Or, elsewhere in the mythologies, a Serpentine Form of the Mother Goddess is met with a Serpentine Form of the Sky Father. Or, for that matter, both Deifics appearing in Horse form. You get the idea. 

Also, because this does bear notation – some might query why I am speaking of Sarasvati and Varahi when I begin to talk about the Wife of the Sky Father. The situation of Saraswati is often distinguished between the Vedic figure and the Puranic-prominent figure – with the former, correlate with Vak and Aditi, being indeed the Consort-Counterpart (and, indeed, essential empowerer of) the Sky Father. Varahi is a significantly more … complicated figure in this regard, to say the least. This is partially due to the nature of Her theology – which entails expressing that She is simultaneously an emanation of Devi, and in various cases a ‘drawing out’ of a ‘power’ imparted to a particular God. In some cases, that is linked to Vishnu (specifically, for reasons that ought be obviously apparent, the Varaha form thereof – although some texts directly present Varahi as the *Mother* of Vishnu as Varaha); however an array of materials directly identify Varahi with Shiva’s Wife, in various senses, and so it is to that perspective which we shall defer. 

Now where I am going with all of this is, perhaps surprisingly, the situation of Freyja. Where we had always intended to end up – eventually, at any rate.

As many are aware, there is a bit of a ‘controversy’ surrounding Freyja and where She fits in to the Nordic / Germanic Pantheonic perspective. I personally believe Freyja and Frigg to be one and the same – perhaps different ‘Aspects’ or regionalized ‘Refractions’, but we can quite handily demonstrate the fundamental concordancy of Freyja with the Wife of the Sky Father Indo-European deific complex … and I have put a certain amount of effort into doing so elsewhere, so shall not seek to repeat all of that here. 

However, it is necessary to acknowledge that there is a certain other view – which instead holds Freyja to be a separate deific and with a separate husband. Who just happens to have a *suspiciously* similar name (Óðr … rather than Odin), and Who also happens to be a frequent Wanderer. Although this is somewhat immaterial here, as the situation of the Hyndluljóð features yet another suspiciously similarly named gentleman as the alleged lover of Freyja – one Óttar (a name which, whilst it *sounds* like Óðr / Odin – i.e. from PIE *Weht and referring to ‘Furor’ … is actually a term derived from ‘ótti’ – Fear, and an ‘-arr’ that is likely from the same *Harjaz which gives us Odin’s various ‘Her-‘ theonymics, as it means ‘Warrior’, ‘War-Leader’; and another proposition has the second particle as meaning ‘Spear’, in the manner of ‘Geir’; although I did also ponder whether ‘árr’ (‘messenger’, like ‘errand’), from Proto-Germanic *airuz, might be involved. In essence, Óttar should seem to be a pretty ‘Odinic’ sounding name in terms of its meaning, even despite its different ultimate roots). And, in any case, the Hyndluljóð is well-known to be a very late addition to the Nordic corpus, well post-dating Christianization, and with considerable discussion as to just which of its ‘curious’ or otherwise ‘unexpected’ elements are the result of serious and sustained confusion on the part of its authors. But again we digress.

The point is, in the Hyndluljóð, it becomes apparent that the Boar of Battle being ridden by Freyja … is in fact this male lover of Hers. Ostensibly a human man, a devoted worshiper of Her and perhaps something of a priest – which should track rather interestingly with certain Vedic conceptual elements we may elaborate upon at another point. However the proffered identification of Ottar in the text may potentially be a bit of a confusion or semi-euhemerization. We shall never likely know for certain. In some ways, for our conceptual exegesis, it almost doesn’t matter.

Because here’s the thing. We DO have a Vedic attested understanding for the Sky Father appearing in Boar form. 

Take a look at RV I 114 5:

दिवो वराहमरुषं कपर्दिनं त्वेषं रूपं नमसा नि ह्वयामहे ।
हस्ते बिभ्रद्भेषजा वार्याणि शर्म वर्म च्छर्दिरस्मभ्यं यंसत् ॥

divo varāham aruṣaṃ kapardinaṃ tveṣaṃ rūpaṃ namasā ni hvayāmahe |
haste bibhrad bheṣajā vāryāṇi śarma varma cchardir asmabhyaṃ yaṃsat ||

‘Divo Varaham’, indeed – as Griffith renders it .. the Red (Arusa) “Wild-Boar of the Sky”.

And just Who is this Heavenly Boar? Why, it is the One with the Braided Hair, the ‘Tvesa’ appearance, and Who comes bearing medicines when invoked with due reference. 

That is to say … this is Rudra. 

Another intriguing instance is to be found in AV XII 1, a hymnal to Prithvi – i.e. the Earth, the Mother Goddess as Earth.

In line 48, we find the following – 

“Varahena Prthivi Samvidana Sukaraya Vi Jihite Mrgaya”

Or, phrased another way – the Boar the Earth ‘in concord’ / ‘joined with’ (I rather like ‘conversing’ for Samvidana here) , opens Herself to the Wild [Boar]. 

So, does this conclusively prove Freyja to be Frigg and this Ottar to be Othinn ? Of course not – as applies the latter, at least. However, it does add somewhat to the potential evidentiary basis upon which one might seek to sketch out just such a case. 

And, more importantly, when taken in concert, the above-aforementioned constellation of comparative theology in any case shows us that the association of Freyja with a ‘Boar of Battle’ ( Hildisvíni ) is something that may not represent a curious post-Christianization confusion nor interpolation – but rather, something archaic and anciently Indo-European carried forward which had somehow ‘jumped’ the previous preceding Nordic corpus of texts, fragmentary as it often seems to be. 

Something eminently appropriate, this Boar linkage (especially if the male boar is, indeed, Her Husband), for the Goddess also known as Sýr – ‘The Sow’. 

Or, perhaps, to phrase it in Sanskrit … Varahi. The Female Boar. 

One thought on “Varahi, Freyja, Saraswati – The Boar of Battle and the Goddess

  1. Pingback: Varahi, Freyja, Saraswati – The Boar of Battle and the Goddess – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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