Swans, geese, cranes and other migratory waterfowl have played a role in the minds of peoples all over the world going back into prehistory. Paleolithic peoples made flutes out of swan bones, and painted swans and other birds on rock walls. A cave painting in Lascaux, France around 20,000 years old depicts a bird, possibly some kind of waterfowl, sitting on top of a pole. A number of pendants depicting swans in flight have been found in Central Siberia; they are carved out of mammoth bone and are thought to be between 20,000 - 22,000 years old as well. Since these have been found in the “men’s section” of houses and in male graves, and are phallic in nature, they have been interpreted as both representations of male power and the swan as symbol of life and creation. A Bronze Age figurine uncovered in Serbia, dated to 3500 BCE, depicts a male solar deity in a chariot driven by swans, or similar waterfowl.
In ‘earth diver’ creation myths, which are common throughout Central and Northern Asia and Native North America, a divine being dives into the primordial ocean and brings up mud or earth in order to create the world. The Altaian Tatars described this divine being as a white swan. Egyptian creation myths instead speak of a cosmic goose called Kenkenwer, the ‘Great Cackler’. This goose is associated with the earth god Geb, and although some say that it is called ‘great cackler’ due to the belief that Geb’s laughter causes earthquakes, it is also credited with laying the cosmic egg from which came the world. It was also said that the cosmic goose created the world by breaking the eternal silence of the universe with its call.
Swans (or geese) also feature in Hindu mythology, where they are associated with Brahma and his consort Saraswati and are known as Hamsa. Kalahamsa, the ‘swan/goose of eternity’ is said to have laid the cosmic egg, or otherwise assisted Brahma in creating the cosmos. The swan here is linked to royalty, divinity, purity, knowledge and enlightenment as well as creative power. It is said to be the vehicle of the goddess Saraswati, patroness of wisdom, learning, music and the arts. Some have suggested that Hamsa and Saraswati may be one and the same, making her the divine swan-maiden par excellence. The goddess also personifies the sacred river, Saraswati and also possibly the Milky Way.
Cygnus (‘Swan’) is a large northern constellation also known as the Northern Cross. It lies in the plane of the Milky Way - in fact, the Cygnus constellation marks the beginning of what is known as the Great Rift, Dark Rift or Dark River, a band of dark interstellar dust clouds that appears to split a third of the Milky Way lengthwise in half and which extends from Cygnus through to Sagittarius. In the case where the Milky Way is perceived as the body of a goddess, Cygnus would be roughly where her two legs part - in some sense, perhaps her womb. Where it is the World Tree, it would be situated where its roots begin to split from the trunk. It is interesting to think that in Norse myth, two swans (from which all other swans descend) are depicted as swimming upon the lake or pool - the Well of Origin - at the base of the Tree. Since Cygnus is found beside the constellation Lyra, it was said by the Greeks that Cygnus represented Orpheus who was transformed into a swan following his death at the hands of the Maenads and placed in the sky next to his beloved lyre.
Around 16,000-17,000 years ago the Milky Way would have been seen to flow from Scorpio at its ‘base’ (often conceptualized as a dragon or serpent) up through to Cygnus, the celestial bird. The brightest star of Cygnus, Deneb, would also have occupied the position of Pole Star at about this time period - a Pole Star being the closest star to the axis around which the firmament appears to revolve. Some have suggested - perhaps controversially - that the shamanistic peoples of the Upper Paleolithic period during this time conceived of the image of the World Tree/Axis Mundi, with a reptilian creature circling its roots and an avian figure resting in its upper branches. If so, it is fascinating to think that this imagery survived into the mythologies of much later peoples, spread all over the world.
Some have also suggested that for many early peoples, who orientated temples, great earthworks, megaliths and graves towards the north, their belief was that the realm of the dead lay in the direction of the north. For several cultures, the Milky Way was thought of as a path to the otherworld, a ‘ghost road’ of sorts, which gods, shamans and the spirits of the dead would travel. Considering this, alongside Cygnus as the celestial bird of cosmic creation, resting in the uppermost branches of the World Tree or else swimming upon the Well of Origin, combined with Deneb as the Pole Star and cosmic axis at the time this mythic imagery may have originated, provides us with a powerful analogy. They may have thought that Cygnus or other places in the stars served as gateways to the celestial otherworld.
Swans and geese (and other migratory waterfowl, to a lesser extent) were often thought of as either carrying or embodying the souls of the dead in many cultures. The human soul may take on the form of a bird after death, and likewise souls may be transported both into and out of this world by birds. Since migratory waterfowl such as swans and geese are known for their dramatic coming and going, they are potent symbols of the travel between worlds, particularly upper worlds that require powers of flight to access. Birds of prey since prehistory have been associated with death, the transmigration of the soul and regeneration, vultures in particular, since they played a crucial role in the process of excarnation (defleshing the bodies of the dead), a common funerary practice among early peoples. Mark Brazil states in his paper “Swan Culture” that, “beliefs in the association between the soul, the swan, and death were already established during the Stone Age, and left their echoes down the ages.”
Irish belief stated that swans were the embodied souls of the dead, and the Slavs thought the same, although for them swans were particularly connected to the souls of women. The Chinese believed the related cranes carried souls to heaven. The Germans considered swans to be symbols of death and the underworld. For the Irish, Slavs and many Siberian tribes, it was considered taboo, or a sin, to harm swans for these and other reasons. That being said, we have plenty of evidence from the Iron Age and beyond that swans were also a common enough source of food despite their sacred associations. Another link between swans and death is the infamous “swan song”, the belief that swans sing before they die, which may have a basis in reality since the whooper swan’s looped trachea produces a sort of flute-like wailing when the last of the air escapes its lungs upon death.
Both the Whooper Swan and Mute Swan are found throughout Europe and Asia, known for mating in the far north and returning south in the winter. For inhabitants of northerly regions, swans, and perhaps geese as well, would have been symbols of summer, whereas for those living further south, from the British Isles to Japan, they symbolized the coming winter. In Western Europe, swans arrived in the fall and left in the spring. When whooper swans and greylag geese migrated northwards from Scotland in the spring, it was said they were carrying the souls of the dead ‘north beyond the north wind’. In the British Isles, the swans would arrive in late autumn, usually around the period known to the Celts as Samhain. Interestingly, these swans often travel at night, and they may have contributed to beliefs about the Wild Hunt and other processions of the dead found throughout Europe. The whooper swan has a musical call that would pierce through the quiet dark, while the mute swan’s wings in flight produce a haunting musical sound. It is no wonder these unearthly sounds may have, for some people, heralded the return of the spirits of the dead.
A Mesolithic era cemetery was discovered in the town of Vedbaek in Denmark, just north of Copenhagen, in 1975. The so-called ‘swan burial’ (mentioned above) included the body of a young woman about eighteen years of age, who presumably died in childbirth, and her premature baby son. It is one of the richest burials in the cemetery. The child was cradled in a whooper swan’s wing and had a flint knife beside him, and his mother possessed various ornaments made from shells and the teeth of animals such as bear, deer, elk and boar. Both bodies had been sprinkled with red ochre, associated with death and the afterlife also. The presence of the swan’s wing may suggest that even at this time, these people believed in the avian psychopomp capable of carrying the soul of the child into the otherworld. Interestingly, it seems that the writer of the above-mentioned comic MeZolith depicted the scene of the swan burial in the greater context of a story about a swan maiden.
A popular medieval romance motif is that of the Swan Knight, the most well-known of these being Helias and Lohengrin. The Swan Knight’s tale is intimately connected with the motif of Swan Children. In the French chansons de gestes we are told of a king who finds a beautiful swan maiden/fairy in the woods, weds her and brings her home to be his queen. She bears seven children, six sons and a daughter. Her evil mother-in-law (or, in other variants, the evil step-mother who marries the king after his first queen dies) seeks a means of killing or exiling the children. Transformed into swans, and wearing golden chains about their necks which allow them to shift back and forth between human and avian forms, they are exiled. The golden chains end up being stolen from the boys’ necks, and the girl must find a way to tell their father and save them from an eternity in swan form. They are rescued, all except one who remains a swan. Versions of this tale exist in fairy tales such as The Six Swans recorded by the Brothers’ Grimm and the Irish legend The Children of Lir. The Swan Knight himself appears in a boat pulled by a swan with a golden chain about its neck, to rescue a lady. The Swan Knight’s name, Helias, and his association with the swan is reminiscent of solar deities such as the Greek Apollo or Norse Freyr.
Most likely having originated somewhere in far northern Eurasia (although the oldest recorded tales are from India), the legend of the Swan Maiden has become one of the most widespread and beloved motifs in all the world. Although there are many variants (and sometimes the bird involved is a crane, or in later Christian-influenced fairy tales, a dove), the core of the story remains the same no matter where we find it: A group of beautiful women is found bathing in a pool or lake by a man who has been out hunting. By the side of the water, the man finds the maidens’ feather robes, and he proceeds to steal one. When the maidens come to shore to don their feather dresses and fly away, one of them is forced to marry the man who has stolen her robe. She becomes his wife, bears children and at some point in the tale she recovers her feather robe and flies away, sometimes taking her children with her.
A.T. Hatto, in his paper “The Swan Maiden - A Folk-Tale of North Eurasian Origin” states that the Swan Maiden story is found among the Chinese, Scandinavian, East Cheremiss, Persian, Japanese, Korean, Buryat, Chukchi, Eskimo, Tlingit, Tatar, Yakut and many other tribes and cultures. He goes on further to explain that some of the reasons for the compelling, enduring nature of the tale are its animal and human elements. The animal perspective was easily observable for those who encountered swans and other migratory aquatic birds in daily life. A notable characteristic of swans and geese is their devotion to each other - they mate for life, both male and female of the species watch the nest and care for offspring, and they often remain in family groups for a long period. The human side of the tale brings to light the difficulties experienced by a girl who marries a man from another tribe, and who may feel trapped and unhappy.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Swan Maiden tales, and the oldest recorded Western version, is that found in the Norse Eddic poem Völundarkvida. In it, the prince Völundr (Wayland the Smith) is with his brothers when they find three swan maidens/valkyries bathing in a lake, their feather robes left to the side. They each marry one, but after nine years the valkyries abandon them. Since valkyries are also considered psychopomps, collecting the souls of dead warriors to bring them to the afterlife, we see the Norse may have understood the swans to be soul-carriers as well.
Several Siberian tribes, such as the Buryat, Tungus, and Yakut, considered the Swan to be their ancestress and/or their totem. One Buryat myth tells of a swan maiden, coerced into marrying a hunter in the usual way, who goes on to bear him eleven sons and six daughters. After many years, she finds her old dress, puts it on and flies up and out of the smoke-hole of the family tent. She advises her husband and children to perform ceremonies, in her honour, for the swans every spring, when they fly north, and every autumn when they return. The Buryats thus greeted migrating swans with drink offerings of milk and tea.
The concept, and physical representation, of a bird perched atop the World Tree or the cosmic axis is common in Eurasian shamanistic cultures. For example, the Tungus of Manchuria and Siberia erected sky poles with carved wooden swans on top. These were placed outdoors and shamans would ascend this pole in ecstatic trance in order to reach the sky world. Mircea Eliade noted that “the Goldi, the Dolgan, and the Tungus say that, before birth, the souls of children perch like little birds on the branches of the Cosmic Tree and the shamans go there to find them.”
Hatto’s paper discusses the bird-costumes of Eurasian shamans, and he notes that it is predominantly a thing of Arctic or North Central Siberian societies. However, there are some possible parallels in other cultures. Celtic bards may have worn feathered cloaks known as tuigen, which may have included the skin, feathers and necks of swans. The Norse goddesses Freyja and Frigga are said to possess feathered cloaks that allow them to shapeshift into birds. Shamanic bird-costumes may heave included feathers, claws, bones and sometimes symbolic bird items fashioned out of leather. It has been noted that among shamanistic cultures, the species of bird is important as to its function in a shamanic context, and that not all bird symbolism was used simply to imply flight. Hatto explains that owl-costumes, for example, may have been used to frighten away evil spirits more than anything else. Gulls were used by the Yakut to act as spirit guides - Hatto states that the Yakut placed a dead gull “on the tip of a birch tree with its raised bill pointing south so that it could fly ahead of the shaman.”
Hatto also suggests that eagles may have been appropriate to male shamans, while swans and geese were particularly associated with female shamans This may have contributed to the origins of the Swan Maiden myth. It is true that several Bird Maiden stories depict the woman flying out of the roof-vent, just as the shaman’s own spirit may do. Hatto reminds us of the common conception of ‘foreign women’ often being suspected of sorcery. And, also importantly, we must not forget the concept of the shaman’s spirit lover which does indeed strike us as similar to Swan Maiden tales. Indeed, the first Swan Maidens may have been female shamans whose souls took on the form of swans and other birds.
Throughout mythologies there have been many other divinities associated with swans - far too many to list here, even in brief. In Greek myth, one of the most well-known examples is the tale of Zeus transforming into a swan and seducing Leda, the Queen of Sparta. By this union, Leda gives birth to two sets of twins, one pair the divine children of Zeus and the other pair the children of her husband King Tyndareus. The children are said to have hatched from eggs. These include the famous Helen of Sparta and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Castor and Pollux.
The swan/goose is also sacred to Apollo, Dionysos, Hermes, and Eros. Several characters named Cycnus (Greek Kyknos, ‘swan’) appear in the Greek myths. Apollo is said to have swans drawing his chariot, or to ride upon the backs of swans (such as in one legend which depicts him riding upon the back to of a swan to the land of the Hyperboreans). The island upon which the divine twins Artemis and Apollo were born was reputedly surrounded by swans before the birth. There is imagery connecting Artemis with swans as well, where she stands winged in her pose as Mistress of the Animals, flanked by two swans. The Norse god Freyr was also said to have a chariot drawn by swans (or white clouds in the shape of swans). Edward Armstrong in his article “The Symbolism of the Swan and the Goose”, explains that “the original and primary symbolical function of the goose [and perhaps also the swan] was as an emblem or representation of the sun and the male principle”. However, swans and geese were often also connected to goddesses as well.
Aphrodite, and her Roman counterpart Venus, were linked to swans as symbols of sexuality, love and devotion (swans mate for life, and both males and females play a role in caring for their offspring). The Egyptian goddess Isis, like her father Geb, was also associated with geese, and possibly swans as well. Geese were a common sacrifice to the Egyptian gods, as symbols of both the earth and world creation.
The swan is a totem of the ancient Celtic goddess Brigid as well. She has been venerated in various guises for more than two thousand years. Her worship continues to this day, not only among contemporary pagans, but in honour of her incarnation as Saint Brigid also. Brigid is commonly thought of as the patroness of smithing, healing, and poetry. She is also intimately associated with sacred wells, sovereignty, spring, fertility and light in all its forms, ranging from the fire of the forge and hearth to the divine illumination of wisdom. She may be a survival of the Indo-European dawn goddess, and/or she may have replaced and taken on the qualities of an earlier divinity going back to the Neolithic period. One of her symbols is Brigid’s Cross, which resembles a sun-wheel but may also bring to mind the Northern Cross, or Cygnus constellation, as well. She is also associated with cows (it is said she had been nourished by a red-eared white cow) and thus perhaps has ties to the Milky Way also. The Scots called her ‘Mary of the Gaels’; she was believed to have been Jesus’ wet-nurse, and the star of Bethlehem has also been called rionnag Brideog ‘the star of little Bride’.
The Swan Cult of Saveock
In 2003, archaeologists discovered a ritual pit lined with a swan’s pelt in the village of Saveock in southwest Cornwall. Thus far, dozens more ritual deposits have been found containing a variety of different materials ranging from feathers and swan pelts, stones, quartz pebbles, hair, fingernails, eggs, whole birds, etc. Stones taken from a location called Swan Pool beach (15 miles away from Saveock and famous for its swans) were deposited on the swan pelt in the first pit. Another deposit was found lined witha swan pelt, its feathers facing inward, and two dead magpies flanking 55 eggs, some of which contained chicks ready to hatch. Some of the pits show evidence that they were dug up and their contents removed, while others remained intact. The earliest deposit has been dated to the 1640’s, while the latest has been dated to the 1970’s - an astonishing length of time for this mysterious practice to continue in secrecy.
A stone-lined votive spring was discovered only fifteen feet away from the first ritual pit. This well contained offerings of textile fragments, leather strips, pins, human hair, and stones. It has been suggested that the Saveock ritual pits are evidence of a cult dedicated to the goddess Brigid, due to traditional offerings to the goddess being found, such as eggs, as well as the swan being her emblem and her connection to healing wells. It is also believed that a secretive coven of witches has existed there since the 17th century, and that these pits were part of fertility rituals to help local women become pregnant. Perhaps, just as the Siberian shaman was believed to collect the souls of children perched in the World Tree, the swan, as an avian psychopomp, could also be enticed to bring new souls into the world, just as it carried those of the newly dead into the celestial otherworld ‘north beyond the north wind’.
References and Further Reading:
Armstrong, E.A. (1944). The Symbolism of the Swan and the Goose. Folklore 55(2), 54-58.
Brazil, M. (2003). Swan Culture. J. Rakuno Gakuen Univ 28(1), 65-83.
Collins, A. (1999). The Cygnus mystery: unlocking the ancient secret of life’s origins in the cosmos. Watkins Publishing. [Although it comes to rather controversial conclusions, to put it mildly, the book does bring together some thought-provoking bits of swan lore from all over the world.]
Cygnus (constellation). (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 6, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cygnus_(constellation).
Grimm, J. & Grimm, W. (1993). The complete Grimms’ fairy tales. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Hatto, A.T. (1961). The Swan Maiden: a Folk-Tale of North Eurasian Origin? Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 24(2), pp. 326–352. doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00091461.
Knight of the Swan. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved December 6, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight_of_the_Swan.
Larrington, C. (1996). The Poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leavy, B.F. (1995). In search of the swan maiden: a narrative on folklore and gender. New York and London: New York University Press.
Robinson, M. (2014, December 29). Who were the modern-day witches of Saveock? Spinster sisters under suspicion after archaeologists find ancient Cornish ‘witch pits’ were STILL being used until at least the 1970s. MailOnline. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2889879/Archaeologists-reveal-Cornish-spinsters-using-witch-pits-recently-1970s-claim-practice-alive-today-discovering-scores-lined-swan-feathers-eggs.html.
Saveock Water Archaeology Website: http://www.archaeologyonline.org/
Young, E. (1910). The Children of Lir. In Celtic Wonder Tales. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cwt/cwt12.htm.