A nice swan picture.
Bibliotheque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 155r
Years ago, I lived in an apartment overlooking a small pond. Like many ponds, this one attracted creatures searching for food left by humans. Our rat-like landlord sarcastically referred to certain of the creatures as "wildlife," and forbade the leaving of bread. Of the many "non-wildlife" creatures calling the pond home, my favorite was an elegantly bad tempered swan who promenaded the grounds begging for handouts. He (or she) would loiter near my building's door, stretching its long neck and hissing menacingly if no treats were offered. Myth and folklore tell us
swans have a lovely voice. Though I never heard my swan sing, I'll hold my skepticism in check and take their word for it. What else does myth and folklore say of swans?
Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was symbolized by a swan. Regettably, the swan image was utilized in a not so lovely way by the unstopable seducer Zeus. Following a quick swan transformation, Zeus mated with Queen Leda of Sparta, hatching two children named Helen and Polydeuces. Yes, that's the famously beautiful Helen of Troy, who inadvertently started the Trojan War when kidnaped by Paris. The Greeks told more than one version of Zeus as ardent swan. A second account claims the problematic goddess Nemesis as the mother of Helen. The goddess of retribution morphed into a goose, gambling a hapless bid to fool Zeus. The unfooled Zeus became a swan, and deaf to the poor goddess's objections, shamelessly did as he pleased. The resulting egg, being rejected by Nemesis, was left in a swamp and later found by a passing shepherd. The shepherd gave the egg to Leda, who hatched it and became the mother of Helen anyway in the weird roundabout way of myths and life in general.
Leda and the Swan
Artist: Theodore Gericault
Swans don't merely swim in ponds. There is a constellation in the Milky Way called Cygnus, or The Swan. The Greeks had a number of different myths regarding how Cygnus found it's way to the night sky. One version features two friends named Cygnus and Phaeton. Though very close, the friendship didn't stop Cygnus and Phaeton from constantly attempting to best one another. Their contending reached its zenith on deciding to race around the Sun and back to Earth. In a fit of competitiveness, the friends streaked too close to the Sun and plummeted to Earth, clinging to their charred and disintrgrating chariots. Though Cygnus landed safely, Phaeton was tangled in tree roots at the bottom of the Eridanus River. Cygnus tried mightily to recover Phaeton's body for proper burial, but could not manage to reach it. Desperately, he asked Zeus for help. Zeus, in his usual god-like way, offered to transform Cygnus into a swan, thus enabling him to reach his friend at the bottom of the river. Naturally, there was a catch. Cygnus would need to give up his immortality, remain feathered, and live the short years of the swan. Not hesitating, Cygnus chose to become a swan. Zeus rewarded Cygnus by placing him in the night sky as the constellation Cygnus. There's nothing like a really good friend to make life worth living.
The Swan in German Myth
Phaeton was not alone in taking the form of a swan. The Valkyries, twelve goddesses who attended Odin and oversaw wars, could transform themselves into swans at will. After choosing their favorite warriors, and aiding them to victory, the Valkyries lead the brave fighters to the feasting halls of Valhalla. The Valkyries sometimes shed their feathers and appeared to men as human woman. If a devious man snatched the feathers, the unfortunate Valkyrie was compelled to cater and serve until her feathers were returned.
Valkyies with shed feathers.
The Valkyrie Kara
The Valkyries were perfectly capable of falling in love. The Valkyrie Kara had a human lover named Helgi who she followed into battle. Flying over the pitched struggle in full swan regalia, Kara sang a song so enticing Helgi's opponents laid down their weapons and ceased to fight. Sadly, during another battle, the lovely Kara accidentally came to an abrupt end by the business end of a sword. The truly tragic bit was the ownership of the offending sword. Her husband, Helgi, was never the same after that event.
The Swan in Hinduism
The goddess Saraswati
Is the swan revered with more enthusiasm anywhere other than the Hindu religion? The swans' very grace creates comparisons to spiritual people gaining worldly detachment equaling the birds' water warding feathers. The most spiritual are often called Paramahamsa or the Great Swan, who glide effortlessly between spiritual worlds like a swan in flight.
In Hinduism, the goddess of knowledge is Saraswati. This consort of Brahma represents not only music, literature, and art, but the sciences as well. She's associated with the color white, and is frequently pictured by a river denoting her early history as a river goddess. As you can see in the illustration above, her vehicle, or vahana, is a beautiful white swan. It's said if a swan is offered a mixture of milk and water, it will filter the milk and leave the water. This symbolises the ability to distinguish good from evil.
Saraswati is a favorite of mine due to her association with the written word. One of her four hands holds the sacred book of Vedas. The Hindus feel such respect for books, accidentally touching a book with the foot elicits an apology in the form of a hand gesture called Pranama. The clumsy person touches the offended book (or any written material) with the finger tips, then carrys the finger tips to the forehead or chest. I wonder if such respect now includes the Kindle? I don't see why not!
Celtic Swan Myth
The Children of Lir
Painting by: Shauna Bloomingdale
From India, we now travel across continents to Ireland. One legendary Irish tale is the Children of Lir. It features rivals to a thone, hapless children, swans, and an extremely evil step-mother named Aoife. It all started when the sea god Lir lost his bid for the kingship of Tuatha De Danann to Bodb Derg. To lessen Lir's disappointment, Bodb Derg offered a daughter (Aeb) in marriage to his former contender. The marrage produced four happy and healthy children. In the way of such tales, no one can stay happy for very long. Aeb died, and in her place, Bodb Derg sent another daughter to mother the grieving children. As the children loved one another, and their father, before all else, Aoife soon grew insanely jealous of the family bond that did not include herself. She tried wheedling a servant into killing the children, but the servant would have no part of her nefarious plans. The notion of killing them herself proved a wash, as she had neither the strength, the courage, or the stomach, to murder them personally. She then thought of the perfect solution. Using her special talent for magic, she turned her step-children into swans tethered together by a golden chain. When Lir learned of her actions, he hit the roof and transformed Aeb into an air demon with no hope for redemption.
So what happened to the children? They spent 300 years as swans living on Lough Derrauaregh, 300 years in the Sea of Moyle, and finally 300 more years swimming the Imus Domnann. There's more than one version of their ultimate fate. One version records their returning to land and being blessed by a priest. Once again human and 900 years old, they died quickly, went to heaven, and were reunited with their mother and father. As for Aeb, she's still out there being an air demon. Yikes!
One Last Little Thing!
The Ugly Duckling
The Ugly Duckling
Art by: Fernl
A famous swan story is The Ugly Duckling. It tells of the hideous little duckling who turned into a beautiful swan.
If you'd like to read the story, go HERE.