Why a Swan?

Swan - (Site copyright Ralph Middenway)

There's a famous exchange in Duck Soup, Paramount Productions Inc., 1933, between Groucho and Chico Marx that goes like this:

[Chico speaks with an Italian fruiterer accent.]

G: Here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

C: Why a duck?

G: I'm all right. How are you? I say here is a little peninsula, and here's a viaduct …

C: All-a right. Why a duck? Why a – why a duck? Why-a-no-chicken?

G: I don't know why-a-no-chicken. I'm a stranger here myself.


But our question here is not 'Why a duck?' or 'Why not a chicken?' or 'Why not a budgerigar?' – it's 'Why a swan?'

In search of an answer, I turn cautiously to the Internet, more wholeheartedly to my library (and thence to Robert Graves, W.B. Yeats and the Brothers Grimm), and to that of the Perth-based Jungian analyst Sally Kester (and thence to various more up-to-date mythological encyclopædias). But this is not an academic paper, and in the interests of readability, many sources are not specifically acknowledged.


William Butler Yeats, paragon of poets, had one answer.

In 1919, he wrote The Wild Swans at Coole.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
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.

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.

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.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;

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?

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.

All's changed since I, bearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.








Zoologists have a different perspective - bear with me...


Birds belong to the Class Aves (avis, Latin for bird - aves the plural).

Screamers, ducks, geese and swans belong to the Order Anseriformes (anser, Latin for goose)
Anseriformes means simply birds like geese.

Ducks, geese and swans belong to the Family Anatidæ (anas, Latin for duck - anates the plural)
Anatidæ means birds like ducks.

(There's that duck again…)

In the Family there are three Sub-families - the swan belongs to the Sub-family Anseratinæ,
another way of saying
birds like geese.

In short, the scientific description so far says:
A swan is a bird rather like a goose, a bit like a duck, and not unlike all the other birds we call screamers, ducks, geese and swans.


To most people, the classification so far will probably come in the ho-hum category.
For us, the interesting bit is still to come.

All swans belong to the Genus Cygnus [pron. sign'ss]. Cycnus or cygnus, [kookn'ss - rhymes with book m'ss] Latin for swan, comes directly from the Greek kuknoz.

Homer would have called a swan something like [kooknoss].

The Roman Virgil would have called it that or [koogn'ss] rather than [sign'ss] as we do.

In the Latin of two thousand years ago it was [koogn'ss], a thousand years later in Vulgar Latin [kikin'ss].

This gradually softened to [chichin'ss], and thence to Italian cigno [chinyo] and French cygne [seeny'].

And in English a cygnet [signet] is a swan chick.


Within the Genus Cygnus there are seven species of swan.

The relatively small Australian black swan is labelled Cygnus atratus
- that is, the sort ofswan that is clothed in black for mourning.

But the zoologists went all misty-eyed in the case of the Mute Swan of Eurasia, Cygnus olor, the one the fuss is about – olor is another Latin name for swan – but a poetical name this time, used to emphasize its legendary, almost silvery whiteness.

We find Pliny writing, olorum morte narratur fiebilis cantus.
This idea is best expressed in English in Orlando Gibbons's heart-melting madrigal:

The silver swan, which, living, had no note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sung her first and last and sung no more:

Farewell all joys! O death, come close mine eyes!
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.


Pliny was wrong - olor does vocalise – an occasional quiet warning hiss, grunt or snort or, rarely, a trumpeting call.

But we think of the bird in down-to-earth Anglo-Saxon - as a swan rather than some derivative of olor or cygnus.

The word swan, (German Schwan) appears to derive from the Sanskrit svanati, meaning 'to sound'.

The etymologist Eric Partridge wondered if this might relate to the popular myth Pliny wrote about, that of the swan-song.

I believe a more likely explanation is that when this great bird flies, its wings make a most remarkable sound, like singing, but pulsating. One might describe it as rather like that of a bullroarer...


And why did the Greeks call it kuknoz?

The word is plausibly a parallel to the Sanskrit sakunas, that is, large bird, or perhaps large white bird, because of another apparent parallel with a second Sanskrit word suggesting shining, brilliant white. So, plausibly, a kuknoz is a large, shining, white bird.


Maybe we should look at the swan with fresh eyes.

Imagine you're seeing it for the first time.

It's a most impressive animal. It's very large: it's much bigger than a black swan, noticeably bigger than a wedge-tailed eagle, and almost as big as a pelican; on land it stands tall, its head reaching to my chest, and it weighs about as much as a cocker spaniel or a small kelpie; its wingspan is a lot wider than my arms at full stretch. Its plumage is a brilliant white. Its gait is awkward but powerful. If annoyed, it can seriously injure a child.

It is easily distinguished from the other large white swans by its orange bill and noticeable black fleshy knob running from the base of the bill to the forehead. It's also more aggressive.

It moves through the water as if by magic, for its powerful feet work well below the surface and it leaves only a smooth wake. It typically holds its neck in an S-curve with the bill pointed downward, rather like a snake about to strike.


It's normally silent, uncannily so, until it flies. It takes off by lifting itself half out of the water and then running on the surface for several seconds, without apparent effort, until it reaches take-off speed - and a very impressive speed too.

Although unsociable when breeding, they sometimes gather in flocks of up to a hundred or so – and when a flock takes off all together and flies low overhead, the sound they make is truly awe-inspiring. One bullroarer is impressive – nine and fifty is out of this world.


If we think of bullroarers at all, in this age of CDs and Muzak and fire sirens and car horns, we think of them as quaint devices once used by old men among our black landlords to keep the superstitious young in their place. Real Ozzie boys should make at least one bullroarer out of a ruler and a piece of string before they move on to computer games.

But in Crete, 3500 years ago, the Crete of Minos and Ariadne, it seems a bullroarer had something the same significance as a muezzin's call to prayer does today in Mecca, or the sound of the bell as the priest lifts the monstrance during mass. The bullroarer is said to have been sacred to the Cretan Triple Goddess, the Earth Mother – as was the swan, and the snake.


And what has any of this to do with Wagner?

When we discuss the religion of the Indo-Europeans, and of their immediate Pelasgian predecessors in Europe, we are faced with a central dilemma.

In the few centuries after 2000 BC, the Æolians and Ionians, the vanguard of the Hellenes – that is, the first of the Indo-Europeans – gradually moved into the Mediterranean. The long-established culture they found, in Crete in particular, was stronger in many respects than their own. The climate in Crete was delightful, the soil fertile, the fishing marvellous – and the Cretans had time on their hands, time enough to develop their own system of writing. By 1500 BC, the remaining written evidence – mainly in the form of inscriptions, plus a variety of frescoes, pottery fragments and tessellated pavements etc. – shows an interesting amalgam of new Indo-European and old Pelasgian pantheons in a state of dynamic equilibrium.


But that equilibrium was to be shattered within a few decades by the cataclysmic eruption of Thera (a.k.a. Santorini), an island in the Cyclades, north of Crete, and close enough to be seen from the high ground near Knossos [with a K].

The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, near Java, was loud enough to be heard in Alice Springs. The Thera explosion was much bigger. It may well have been heard in Britain.

That was the end of Minoan Crete, and of Atlantis.
Atlantis is a metaphor for Cretan civilisation, rather than bad history by Solon and Plato – but that's another story.

We know about the culture, and thus the religion, of Minoan Crete because of the written record, the frescoes, the pottery fragments, the tessellated pavements and so on. The Cretans wrote using a syllabary that is identifiably Mycenæan Greek – the language of the Ionians.


In those crucial 500 years, the Æolians and the Ionians came in contact with a settled people in a richly fertile part of the world, with time on their hands to develop all sorts of elaborate skills, including early forms of writing, and so their language, previously purely a spoken language, came to be written down. Those other early Hellenes, the Achæans and the later Dorians, also settled down and started writing down their views on things.


But further north, a thousand to fifteen hundred years later (that is, around two thousand years ago), the Celtic and Germanic tribes, also Indo-Europeans, moved into the forests of northern and north-western Europe. By comparison with the climate of Crete, that of northern Europe is truly sordid (these days the Germans head south by the million every July and August), with the result that there were no biggish pre-existing settlements, no long-established political centre with specialists to learn from – and no writing as we know it. The first time any of the Germans came to grips with writing was through men serving as auxiliaries in the Roman Legions (like the post-war Gastarbeiter, guest workers, in reverse), but this was at a distance, and in any case they were too busy earning a living in a new land to fool about. And if stories aren't written down, they keep changing.


Two thousand years ago, the golden age of Greece was already over. Rome was coming into its own, as populous as Adelaide or Perth but compact, with highly sophisticated ruling and commercial classes, many of them well-travelled, and with a very high degree of literacy.

It is true that the Dorians misunderstood or misrepresented a lot of the religious beliefs of their other Hellenic (and thus Indo-European) predecessors, to say nothing of the Pelasgians who had largely faded from the scene centuries earlier. That aside, it is also true that we have a comprehensive, if not always unambiguous view of the analogous religions of Greece and Rome.

We need a word of caution, however. Around 100 AD, there were, in effect, five Roman religions, although only the last three concern us here. These five celebrated respectively:


1. The traditional Roman pantheon, a variant of the Olympic pantheon, headed by Juppiter [yoopiter - oo as in book].
(This was a dialectal variant of
Zeus Pater - Zeus being Greek, obviously, and pater Latin for father. One referred to him as Juppiter but addressed him as Jove [yovay]).

2. The usual pantheon plus dead Emperors – typically an Emperor deified his predecessor;

3. Mithras, with an emphasis on blood and bulls, suggesting simultaneously the bull-dance of Minoan Crete, the bull-fight of Spain, and the more masochistic wing of Catholicism;

4. Isis, with her consort Osiris (killed, notionally every year, by Set) and son Horus (who grows up to kill Set and become the new Osiris to his virgin mother Isis) – a religion of the seasons.

5. Mary, with her consort Jahweh (the immortal) and son Jesus (killed at the Spring Equinox – his body and blood central in ritual – and brought back to life to be identified with Jahweh).


The first was fading into insignificance, as Rome was becoming more cosmopolitan and its ruling class more degenerate. The second was more like the Stockman's Hall of Fame than a religion. It was something of a toss-up which of the other three would come out on top, one originally Græco-Egyptian, one originally Græco-Jewish, the third originally Græco-Persian. Many would say they all did, under the name of Christianity.

In this context, it's interesting to remember that the Greek Hagia Sophia is feminine, unlike the Latin Spiritus Sanctus.

Leaving aside for the moment the contentious issue of what, exactly, Christianity is, the fact remains that at the beginning of the Christian era, the complex networks of belief and ritual that we think of (rather simple-mindedly) as Greek and Roman religion were very well documented, and illustrated by way of paintings and sculpture.


By contrast, the complex networks of belief and ritual we think of as Celtic, Germanic and Norse religion were hardly documented at all.

One obvious implication is that we can get inside the Greek and Roman religion of the time of Alexander, say, by reading the views of true believers and interested contemporary observers. We can get some idea of the pre-Hellenic religion of the Pelasgians from the archæological record and by analysing the spin the later Hellenes put on the stories as they wrote them down. But we cannot get inside Celtic, Germanic and Norse religion so well, because it was documented, by and large, either by agnostic Roman chroniclers from a pantheistic background, or by fervent Christian believers anxious to push a monotheistic world-view.

(There is a problem though, for their Christian god consisted of three entities, which, at least on the surface, looks more like revised pantheism than pure monotheism).


The point is that we can only really make much sense of Celtic, Germanic and Norse religion by considering it in the light of what we know about other Indo-European religions.

Why am I making the point? Because the swan is not just an impressive bird, but a common icon in Indo-European religion – a centrally important one at that, with symbolic significance far beyond what our prosaic modern minds can easily accommodate.


A swan can be seen as a metaphor for an angel – the way I see it, angels generally have swans' wings.

In Minoan Crete, the swan was sacred to the Mother Goddess.

The swan's neck is like a snake poised to strike.

The snake was sacred to the Mother Goddess.

Flying swans make a sound not unlike bullroarers.

The bullroarer was sacred to the Mother Goddess.

The swan's neck is also ithyphallic - and thus masculine.

Its body, on the other hand, is rounded and feminine.

In some cultures, the swan is seen as quintessentially hermaphrodite or androgynous. One can look at it whichever way one likes, hence it can be sacred to either the patriarchal Apollo or the matriarchal Artemis, or to both of them.


Apollo's chariot was drawn by either a horse or a swan, depending on the season, or the time of day.

In some places large, rounded, white cumulus clouds are seen as the chariot that Apollo or Freyr rides in across the sky.

Zeus was the mythical swan that ravished Leda. Leda laid an egg, from which hatched Helen and Clytemnestra. Leda, Leta or Latona is the archetypal beautiful, fertile woman.


Helen was a metaphor for Aphrodite. Swans pulled the golden chariot or boat that carried Aphrodite.

Aphrodite was one of the aspects of the Triple Goddess.

To oversimplify, Troy followed matriarchy and the old religion. The Greek city-states of the time (roughly 1100 BC) followed patriarchy and the new religion. The mythical Helen was identified as the cause of the destruction of Troy. It was actually a war for the control of trade through the Hellespont, a trade war carried to its awful logical conclusion. But whatever the root cause, the patriarchal Greeks from the mainland and nearby islands destroyed the most significant remaining matriarchal settlement in the region.

Leda hatched out not only Helen and Clytemnestra, but Castor and Pollux. Leto hatched out Apollo and Artemis, and the swan is sacred to both of them, as well as to Aphrodite.


The Norns, another version of the Triple Goddess, sometimes turn themselves into swans.

So do elves.

So do the Valkyries.

Swans fly north at midsummer to the Land at the Back of the North Wind, taking dead heroes with them.

There must be a Land at the Back of the North Wind, for you can see its lights in the northern sky – unless it's Walhalla burning.


A regularly recurring Hellenic story is that of a hero, often called Cycnus, who leaps off a cliff, becomes a swan and flies off. The swan has a wide association with avoiding or transcending death, a central feature of most religion.

The swan, mute until the hour of its death and then profoundly musical, is also associated with the ultimate musician Orpheus, one of the heroes who, like Herakles, like Asklepios, like Osiris, like Jesus, both suffer and transcend death.


The philologists Grimm link the 13th century stories of Helias, Gerhart and Loherangrin to the well-known story of the twelve swan-brothers. But they also link them to elements of the 6th century Beowulf, and to the 7th and 8th century Scôf or Scoup. Typically in these earlier stories a swan conducts a sleeping youth to an afflicted land to perform great deeds: this swan-knight is pictured approaching out of paradise, or from the grave. The swan, once again, is associated with transcending death.

It is useful to remember that 'German' culture is an Indo-European hybrid like English - mediæval 'German' society was part-German, part-Celtic, part-Roman.


Fertility or sun-heroes often fall in love with swan-maidens in spring, and their problem in autumn is to stop their brides changing back again – but they always do, and fly off, in the same way that the sun flies off in winter. Swan-maidens get their white feathers back at the time of the first winter snows.

In Irish mythology, a mixture of Celtic and pre-Celtic, and perhaps Pelasgian, the sun-hero and the swan-maiden are Angus and Caer [kyre]. Angus solved the problem by turning himself into a swan for half of every year.

Irish lovers who died might be changed into a pair of swans. (There is a spine-tingling poem by W.B. Yeats along these lines.)


In early Celtic mythology, the equivalent to the Cretan Triple Goddess was called Brigit. The swan was sacred to Brigit. On the arrival of Christianity (Celtic Christianity developing and remaining somewhat apart from that of Rome for many centuries), the sometime Goddess Brigit reappeared as Saint Brigit or Saint Brigidine. Later she came to be identified by many with the Virgin Mary, the swan being part of the baggage.

The swan has also been a Christian symbol of dignified retirement from worldly things, perhaps by association with the dignity attributed to the Virgin Mary.


Finally let me remind you of the Schwanenritter, that religious order of knights set up around 1150 near Schwansee (Swan Lake – and yes there is a Chaikovsky connection) – Schwansee in Oberbayern, where stood the castle of Schwangau.

It was rebuilt by King Ludwig II's father as Schloß Hohneschwangau, that is, High Swan County Castle, where Wagner used to stay, and just below the crag where Ludwig built Schloß Neuschwanstein, New Swan Stone Castle. Live swans - and sculptural or painted ones - are everywhere around these castles, a constantly recurring motif. I surmise that Wolfram von Eschenbach was very likely one of the Schwanenritter, which would explain why, around 1200, he wrote his Parzifal epic, using material from the bardic tradition of the Celtic twilight. It wouldn't surprise me if the whole Lohengrin/Parzifal sequence originated there – although I daresay it could never be proven.


Christianity at that time was profoundly Mariolatrous, none more so than the Bavarian church - and it still is. This Mariolatry was one of the aspects of Christianity that so offended the patriarchal Arabs at the time of Mahomet, and why he was so insistent that there was no god but Allah – rather than the de facto Holy Trinity of Father, Mother and Son.

The grail itself was a royal, sacred, essentially female symbol associated with fertility. The swan was a royal, sacred, originally female symbol associated with the Mother, the ultimate manifestation of fertility, and her later surrogates. What could have been more natural than for the Knights of the Swan to have become the German model for the retelling of the pre-Christian Celtic stories that became the Lohengrin/Parzifal cycle?



This is an edited version of a 2002 talk to the
Richard Wagner Society of South Australia Inc.

© Ralph Middenway 2002, 2003