“As days gradually lengthen and the last vestiges of Winter recede, ice and snow begin to melt and the first buds of Spring appear. In many parts of the world the Swan is a symbol of light and considered the harbinger of Spring, and to me one of the most wonderful sights at this time of year are swans floating serenely on village ponds, in parks and on rivers. With their long serpentine necks and pure white plumage, throughout the ages their grace and beauty have inspired the imaginations of poets, artists and musicians alike.”
Hi, Cairelle here! I love the image that evokes in the mind, don’t you? While doing some research on Swan symbolism, I came across this fabulous article that includes the above, written and compiled by George Knowles of controverscial.com, and felt I needed to share because it’s truly wonderful.
Enjoy, and do click the link above to be taken to the original source, as he’s got a lot of other interesting info on his website as well! Now, on to the rest of George’s article. I’ll have comments (in italics) at the end.
In some cultures the swan is a feminine symbol associated with the Moon, and in others a masculine symbol associated with the Sun. In Greek mythology, swans are associated with Apollo, the God of the Sun, and with Zeus who took on the shape of a swan to get close to Leda with whom he had fallen in love. Greek Goddesses associated with swans include Artemis and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love who travelled in a swan-drawn chariot.
In Celtic mythology the pagan Goddess Brighid celebrated at Imbolc (02nd February) is also associated with swans. Brighid is a triple aspect Goddess ([sometimes] revered as Maiden, Mother and Crone), who as a Maiden ruled over Poetry, Writing, Inspiration and Music; as a Mother over Healing, Midwifery and Herbalism; and as a Crone over Fire and the working arts of the Smithy. So what better this Imbolc, than to consider the attributes and teachings of the Swan?
The swan is one of the largest flying birds in the world and belongs to the duck and geese family Anatidae. There are 7 main species of swans with several subspecies, but not all swans are white. In the Northern Hemisphere most swans are white, but each species has minor distinguishing features and differ in size and behaviour depending on the area they live in. In the Southern Hemisphere there are both black and white swans. The main species of swans include: the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), the Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus bewickii), the Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus), the Tundra (“Whistling”) swan (Cygnus columbianus), the Australian Black Swan (Cygnus atratus), the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) of North American, the Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) of South America, and the Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) also from South America.
Perhaps the most commonly recognised and famous of all the swans is the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), an all white swan distinguished by a black knob at the base of an orange bill. The Mute Swan is found mainly in the Northern Hemisphere where for centuries it was semi-domesticated in Britain and Europe. More recently they have also been established in parts of the United States. It was the Mute Swan that the Russian composer Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) made famous when he immortalized it in his ballet “Swan Lake” (1876).
In Britain, Mute Swans are owned and protected by the Crown, however in the late 15th century some ownership rights were granted to the City of London’s most distinguished Livery Companies, the Dyers and the Vintners, a privilege confirmed by statute in 1483. Since then “swan-herders” have been employed by the Crown and the two Companies to mind and protect them. Today in the last full week of July an annual ceremony is held on the Thames called “Swan Upping”. On a journey upriver from Sunbury Lock to Abingdon Bridge, all new cygnets born during the year are counted. Those owned by the Livery Companies are marked on the bill, and those left unmarked remain the property of the Crown.
The adult male swan is known as a cob, the female as a pen, while young swans are called cygnets. An average swan, with slight variations between species, can grow to a size of over 1.5 m (60 inches) in body length, weigh over 15 kg (33 pounds), and have a wingspan of up to 3 m (10 ft). A swan’s legs are normally dark grey to black with webbed feet, except for the two South American species, which have pink legs. Male and female swans are alike in plumage, but males are generally bigger and heavier than the female. Bill colours can vary from black, orange, red and yellow, with some swans having bills of mixed colours. Swan are generally long living birds that can survive up to 20 years in the wild, while in captivity they have been known to live as long as 50 years.
Swans generally mate for life and remain together throughout the year caring for their young. If one of a pair dies, the survivor will then take on a new mate. Swans usually begin to mate from the age of 3-4 years. Land near water is their preferred habitat, in which the female will build a large nest out of twigs and leaves. During the breeding season the female will lay an average of 5-10 eggs, which take roughly 30 days to incubate. When born, cygnets are a grey colour before turning brownish to white as they mature. After hatching, cygnets are encouraged onto the water within a couple of days and develop to the flying stage after 60-75 days. In the Northern Hemisphere during winter, flocks of up to 20-30 swans can be seen migrating as they fly in V-formation high in the sky.
Swans are normally a fairly placid bird, but during the breeding season females can be very territorial and aggressive to intruders and won’t hesitate to threaten other animals who venture too close to their nests, including humans. There are many accounts of people who have been injured by swans; some have even sustained broken limbs from a powerful blow of its wing or beak. Due to their large size however, swans have few natural predators in the wild. The swan’s main predator has always been man who hunted the swan for its meat and feathers. A single adult swan can have up to 25,000 plumage feathers, which includes a fine insulating coat that provides a much sought after filling material called “swansdown”, once used to make expensive quilted garments and bedding of the aristocracy.
Swans in Mythology and Folklore
In the Northern Hemisphere as Winter ends and days begin to lengthen, as snows begin to melt and the first buds of Spring appear, swans can be seen returning from their Winter migrations. Flying high in the sky out of the path of the rising Sun, they gently float down to resume their places on lands surrounded by water. To our ancestors, swans were thought not only to accompany Spring, but also to usher it in. Therefore, throughout the ages swans have symbolized aspects of the divine, and were often viewed as Gods in disguise or else pulling the vehicles of Gods and Goddesses.
In Greek Mythology the Swan is the symbol of the Muses who provided inspiration for poets and artists. When Zeus fell in love with the mortal Leda, he transformed himself into a swan in his efforts to seduce her. From their union she gave birth to Helen of Troy and the twins Castor and Pollux. When Apollo, a son of Zeus and God of the Sun was born, it is said that his birth was marked by a flight of circling swans. Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, is said to have travelled in a swan-drawn chariot.
In Germanic myths the Valkyries had the power to transform into swans. They were the 12 maiden attendants of Odin, Goddesses who presided over wars allowing victory to one side and defeat to the other. After a war was over they would select the most valiant of warriors to die in battle and escorted them to an afterlife of feasting in the halls of Valhalla. In another myth they would sometimes take off their swan-plumage and appear to men in human form, but if a man then stole their plumage they would be bound to do his bidding until it was returned. They could also react with a man through love. The Valkyrie Kara is said to have accompanied her lover Helgi to war, where flying over the battlefield in her swan’s plumage she sang a song so sweet and soothing that the enemy lost the will to fight.
In Norse mythology, two swans drank from the sacred Well of Urd situated in the realm of Asgard, home of the Gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well was so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including the original pair of swans and all others descended from them.
In a Japanese folk tale about the Ainu, the swan was a divine bird that lived in heaven. When a feudal war broke out amongst differing Ainu tribes, all were killed but for one small boy. A swan descended from heaven and transformed itself into a woman, and reared the small boy to manhood. She later married him to preserve the Ainu race.
Perhaps one of the most enduring tales about swans is that of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. In it he portrays a young cygnet that gets lost from his mother. While swimming around a lake frantically searching for her, he joins a group of other young birds and ducks. Sadly however, because of his grey-brownish colour they consider him ugly and refuse to play with him. Being rejected and then seeing his own reflection on the water’s surface, he can’t but help to agree with them and feel shame for his appearance. Eventually his mother finds him and reassures him, he is still young and this is merely a transitional phase, he will later grow into the most beautiful of all birds – a beautiful snow white swan like herself. Sure enough as time passes, he does.
In Celtic mythology having mastered life on land, air and water, swans are also associated with healing, growth and fertility. Among the Druids, the swan represents the soul and is thought to aid travelling in the Otherworld. Swans are also sacred to the Bards, and their feathers were used to make the tugen, the ceremonial Bardic Cloak. In Ireland today, there is still the belief that to kill a swan will bring misfortune or death on the perpetrator, and in County Mayo, the souls of virtuous maidens are said to dwell in swans.
Swan as a Totem
There is much to be learned from the attributes, characteristics and symbolism of the Swan. As a totem animal, if the swan enters our life it can teach us all about inner-beauty, grace, purity, fidelity, love, music, poetry and transformation. As a bird of the air, land and water, they make excellent guides to the therapeutic powers of the same elements. Swan teaches us that there is beauty in all things, for as they begin life as “ugly duckings”; they emerge full-grown into beauty personified. Its message is quite clear, things are not always as they appear outwardly, and teaches that we should look inside for our own inner beauty.
Swans are graceful, strong and live long lives, often with the same partner. Could a swan showing up in your life indicate that the person you are with, or someone you are about to meet is a long time soul mate?
The swan totem is all about change and transformation, and if swan enters your life, you will be given the ability to handle such changes with grace and dignity. A white swans entering your dreams is symbolic of the need to cleanse and purify yourself and your life, while a black swan would indicate deep mysteries longing to be set free to express themselves – perhaps as the Goddess Brighid would have us do in poetry or music, for it is the mysteries of song and poetry that touch the child and the beauty within.
Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library Copyright (c) 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd, Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved., Animal-Wise: The Spirit Language and Signs of Nature – by Ted Andrews, Man, Myth and Magic – Edited by Richard Cavendish, Plus too many websites to mention.
Cairelle again… and that’s all from George. I do want to share that here in the Sanctuary of Brigid, we view Brigid as a triplicity of sisters, not as maiden, mother, crone. In another post, I’ll go into the reasons why Laura and I chose the Swan as the main representation of the Sanctuary of Brigid. Meanwhile, you’ll notice near the bottom of this page, and all across the site, that we’ve listed some general symbolism for the Swan. Is Swan a spirit animal for you? Have you noticed Swan in your dreams? Perhaps something about Swan will resonate with you.