Cover art by Walter Crane
“Thou art the door of the chief of hospitality, Thou art the surpassing star of guidance, Thou art the step of the deer of the hill, Thou art the step of the steed of the plain, Thou art the grace of the swan of swimming, Thou art the loveliness of all lovely desires.”Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1900
The swan was and is a symbol of the soul, healing waters, magic, transformation, love and loyalty. Swans were often thought of as mostly fairie women but also men in disguise or whom were under an enchantment. At certain liminal times of the year, they were able to turn themselves back into their human or animal form such as at Bealtaine or Samhain.
In many folkloric references, swan maidens can cast off their swan forms similarly to selkies, losing their seal skin and having it stolen to then be trapped and linked in marriage bonds with a mortal man. The swan is especially related to liminality and the otherworld just in the fact they were animals of all three realms of land, sea and sky. The phenomenon of the banshee was occasionally referenced as taking the form of a swan. (1) Sometimes young girls in Scotland were called “eala dhonn,” brown swan signifying they were not yet an adult woman and thereby, a white swan. (2)
The Milky Way is often affectionately called, “The Swan Road” with links to the constellation of Cygnus (Latinized Greek word for swan) which plays a heavy part in many myths all around the world, especially pertaining to crossing over into the spirit realm once we pass on.
Swans were a relatively common animal that was shapeshifted into by poets and seers in general and their feathers were commonly used as pen quills all the way through the modern era. They were representative of love and oaths possibly because of their mating for life and remaining loyal to one another. In Irish myth and folklore, shapeshifted swan characters were often joined with a golden chain also signifying the character’s magical bond and spiritual entanglement.
It was old belief in both Ireland and Scotland that it was highly unlucky to kill a swan and misfortune would fall on those that did. (3) This belief was common for other mythical animals as well such as the rabbit or any white animal that would have been interpreted as a possible shapeshifted fairie woman or man. In fact, even interference with the mere dead body of a swan was taboo which was illustrated up into recent folklore…
”Interference with the body of a dead swan was something to be avoided: One time there lived an old man near Killorglin. His wafe was dead. He had a lot of money and did not know where to hide it. One day he was walking along the bank of the river Laune and he saw a swan dead, as he thought. He picked her up and saw an empty space inside in her. He thought he would put his treasure into her and bury her in the garden. He did so and after one day the swan rose out of the earth and flew away with his money. The old man got so angry that he died. Ever since the swan comes to visit the place where she was buried in the garden.”Patrick O’Sullivan, Irish Superstitions and Legends of Animals and Birds, 1991
This could also be tied to the fact that it was considered a good omen to see one. In Scotland, to see seven swans together meant good luck for seven years. (4) It was said by classical writers that the Ligurians (speculatively a Gaulish tribe near Spain), reportedly held a swan, famous for it’s beautiful song that was thought to be a shapeshifted king.
Of course, it nearly goes without saying that swans commonly appear on Celtic and Pre-Celtic archaeological ornamentally decorated artifacts. They can easily be recognized by their prominent long necks, although, these could of course also be depictions of cranes as well which feature equally as readily in Irish and other European myths. The main difference in the portrayal of these two birds in myth is that the swan is more associated with love and sweetness whereas the crane is also often ‘feminine’ but more in line with harshness and discernment.
In one of the most famous Irish mythical love stories regarding Óengus or Angus mac Og, he fell in love through his dreamscape with a beautiful woman named Caer who was trapped under an enchantment. Every alternate Samhain she would turn to human form for one day, which began at sunset, and after that, she would revert into being a swan, in which form she would remain for a year before becoming human again the following Samhain.
He employed his parents the Dagda and Boann as well as King Bodb Derg to help him search and find his mysterious woman, to which they were successful. He broke her free from her enchantment by guessing who she was out of 150 other women also in swan form. He threw off her chains and turning into a swan himself, they flew away together as swans. Their song was said to be so beautiful that they lulled anyone to sleep for three days that heard it.
In the Tochmarc Étaine, The Wooing of Étaine that spanned millennia and numerous lives, Midir (Angus’s fosterage father but also brother/the son of the Dagda) and Étaín, upon being reunited in union, turned into a pair of swans and flew away to Midir’s home in the sidhe mounds.
Cú Chulainn was repeatedly linked with swans as well. They appear at his birth as well as throughout his life, also being connected with the festival of Samhain. In one example, he fastened them to his chariot on Samhain so that he might pull his chariot after he became stuck in a marsh. Cú Chulainn was put under an enchantment himself in another tale by a betwitched pair of fairie women that resided on the plain of Louth. While they were flying above in swan form, he attempted to strike them with a stone and spear. He failed to strike them and Cú Chulainn in great frustration fell into a deep ‘druidic’ sleep. While he was asleep, the enchanted women visited him and touched him with rods that immobilized him, sapping all of his strength. Cú Chulainn was laid up in bed for a year healing, recovering from their wrath, “…For a year with mortal men is but a day in fairy-land.” (5)
One of the most famous Irish mythical tales regarding swans and my favorite story as a young child is Oidheadh Chlainne Lir, The Children of Lir. The sea god Lir or Ler (Likely Manannan mac Lir’s father although still speculative) had four children that were turned into swans by their jealous step mother Aoife. Lir’s first wife Aoibh was a very beautiful, kind and wonderful woman and mother. She died giving birth to the twins and her children missed her dearly. Lir married Aoife (her sister) hoping to cheer his children up but Aoife was jealous of their love for one another and the time they spent with their father.
She wanted all of his attention and in her anger cursed them and turned them into swans. When her father King Bodb (son of The Dagda) heard of her betrayal, he turned her into an air demon for eternity. The children flew to various locations in 300 year increments. All in total, 900 years later, when they heard the bells of St. Patrick they were changed back to humans and immediately appeared as three withered old men and an old woman. The cleric Mochaemóg baptized them and they died peacefully in one another’s arms. They were buried and ascended to heaven, Conn on the right side of Fionnguala and Fiachra on her left, and Aed in front. (6)
The trees are in their autumn beauty,William Butler Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
In another swan reference related to a Druid type character, a prophet in Irish mythical literature, a man named Finichair is reminiscing on his death bed about his younger years throwing stones in the Metrical Dindsenchas on the Plain of Two Swans. He described “…two tender (swan) maidens, Luchdelb and Lecco Donn whom visited him here.”
Other wonderful well known folkloric legends related to the swan where shapeshifting occurs…
The Wild Swans (Fairy Tales Told for Children) by Hans Christian Andersen, 1838
The House in the Lake (Irish Fairy Tales) by Edmund Leamy, 1890
The Three Daughters of the King of the East, and the Son of a King in Erin (Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland) by Jeremiah Curtin, 1890 or The Nine-Legged Steed (West Irish Folktales and Romances) by William Larminie, 1893
As we can interpret through much old folk legends and references, the swan indeed was associated with again, love as well as magic and the Otherworld. The swan may have in some instances represented the soul itself and is surely an incredibly powerful and majestic animal that continues to endlessly inspire.
- Wise, Thomas. History of Paganism in Caledonia. London, 1884. Pg. 246.
- Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg 7.
- Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ireland. Longman’s Green and Co, 1903. Pg. 529.
- Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg. 194.
- Hull, Eleanor. Cuchulain, the Hound of Ulster. Pg. 178.
- O’Duffy, Richard. Oide ċloinne Lir, The fate of the children of Lir. Dublin, 1883.