by Susa Morgan Black
Swan of beauty, swan of grace
A queen among her ancient race
She glides across the mirrored lake
No ripple does the surface break
Scots Gaelic: Eala
Old Celtic: Alargh
Anglo Saxon: Swan
Species: Whooper, Trumpeter, Tundra, Mute, Black-necked, Black, Berwick, and Coscoroba
A male swan is a cob; a female is a pen, and the young are called cygnets.
Swans are the largest of the aquatic birds, closely related to the Goose. They are known for their grace and beauty and have long been considered ‘ornamental birds’ which float on ponds in zoos, parks, and botanical gardens. Swans are long necked and web-footed. The most common swan, the Mute Swan, is a large, all white bird with a pink bill that ends in a black knob. The bill of a swan is so sensitive that it serves as an underwater feeler.
Swans have the longest neck of any bird, with 23-25 neck vertebrae. Swans have as many as 25,000 feathers. They are long-lived birds, and can live up to twenty years in the wild, even fifty years in captivity!
Swans prefer wetlands and land surrounded by water, where they build their nests on mounds. The Tundra swan builds its nest in the tundra wetlands, where they maintain a territory of one square mile and defend it from other swans. Swans prefer cooler environments and avoid extreme heat. The Tundra and Whooper nest all across northern America, the Arctic Islands and Northern Russia. The Black-necked and Coscoroba are found from Brazil southward. The Black Swan lives in Australia and New Zealand. The Mute Swan resides in Europe.
Diet and Feeding Habits
In the wild, swans feed on the starchy roots and tubers of aquatic plants. Their scissor- like bills have cutting edges that can tear at the underwater grasses. They can submerge from ten to twenty seconds at a time, and the Bewick Swans for up to thirty seconds. Due to the length of their long, sinewy necks, the birds can dip their heads by curving their necks into the water, and lay their chins flat on the bottom, continuously swallowing. For deeper waters, the swan will up-end itself to reach the bottom. Swans can also eat grains on the land, but must jerk its head backwards to shake foot into its gullet. Most species of swan are vegetarian, but the Mute Swan has been known to eat fish.
Swans have a gland just above their eyes that enables them to drink salt water. The gland removes salt from the water and concentrates it into a solution that is excreted from the nostrils, which the bird can shake its head to clear. In captivity, swans are fed wheat, barley, maize, lettuce, watercress, endive, cabbage, grass, and even biscuits and brown bread.
Swans will both display before mating, then mate for life. They are devoted to each other, and remain together throughout the year. They keep their young with them until they nest again, some staying through a second clutch. If one of a pair of swans dies, the survivor usually takes a new mate, and they form a dedicated pair.
Swans usually mature in two to three years, and breed at around 3-4 years of age. The northern birds do not breed until their fifth or sixth year. Birds kept in captivity take much longer to establish a breeding pair.
In their bulky nests, females do most of the egg incubation. The average clutch is about five eggs, but may be as many as ten. Incubation lasts about 30 days. Cygnets first learn to float in the water, then start to fly in about 60-75 days. Swans molt in July and August, when their cygnets are too young to fly.
Swans are powerful birds, they bite, and their beating wings can break a man’s arm. Swans display aggression by lowering their neck, hissing, and rushing forward. They protect their territories from strangers and other swans, although they will tolerate ducks and smaller fowl.
Swans migrate in winter, in flocks of twenty to forty birds. The cygnets travel in their parent’s flock for at least a year, in order to learn the route, where to feed, rest, etc. They have been clocked between 35-50 mph in the air, and prefer to fly at night. They can fly at heights of 28,000 feet, and travel over 2,000 miles, often over sea.
Around half of the young birds who nest in the far North perish on their migration south because they are forced to leave before they are strong enough. Swans are also susceptible to fungal diseases, particularly aspergillosis, parasites, and viruses.
The Swan Maidens a traditional tale collected by Joseph Jacobs:
There was once a hunter who spent his nights stalking deer, setting traps for game, and shooting birds with his bow and arrow. One day, near the lake he heard the whirring of wings in the sky, and took up his bow and arrow, ready to shoot what he thought were ducks.
To his amazement, he saw seven stunning maidens, all clad in white feather robes. They alighted on the banks of the lake, took off their robes, and waded into the lake to bathe. The youngest and smallest of the maidens caught his eye – she was the most beautiful of them all. The hunter crept to the bushes where they’d left their swan robes, and stole the smallest bundle, and hid among the gnarled roots of an old tree.
After the maidens had sported in the lake to their heart’s delight, they came ashore to find their robes and be on their way. Alas, there were only six bundles, the smallest one was missing. They searched the lakeshore, the bushes, the woods, but found nothing. At last, near dawn, the elder sisters said with dismay, ‘We must away. It is almost dawn! You must meet your fate, whatever it may be’. Sadly the elder sisters donned their robes and flew away leaving their youngest sister behind, before the sun cracked over the horizon.
The young hunter had hid himself well, and watched as the swan maidens searched, never finding his hiding place among the roots of an old tree. When the six swans flew away, he emerged from his hiding place and approached the beautiful young swan maiden. He had the feather robe held tightly against his chest. Seeing him, the woman begged him to return her property, for she was cold and alone. He handed her his cloak instead, but kept the feather robe, knowing she would fly away and be lost to him if he returned it. He told her that he loved her, and would marry her, and she finally agreed, and he led her home. He hid away the feather robe behind the wainscoting, where his new wife would never find it.
The years went by happily enough, and the lovely Swan Maiden produced two extraordinarily beautiful children, a boy and a girl. Their mother loved them with all her heart, but still longed for her sisters, and her freedom.
One day, the children were playing hide and seek, and the girl found a new hiding place – behind the wainscoting. There, she discovered a beautiful white robe made of feathers, and forgetting the game, took it to show her mother.
The Swan Maiden gazed at the robe in utter joy, laughing out loud, slipped it over her shoulders, and raised her glorious feathered arms to fly away back to her beloved sisters. But then she looked at her daughter’s puzzled face, and remembered her new family.
‘Tell father that if he wishes to see me again he must find me in the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, and raised her arms, and in a dazzling flash of brilliant white, she leapt to the sky and flew away.
When the hunter returned from his night’s work the next day, his children told him what had happened, and her last words to her daughter. The forlorn hunter left them to search for their mother, seeking the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
In his travels, he came across an old man who had fallen helpless to the ground. Helping him regain his seat, he tended the elderly man until he felt better. The hunter told man the story of his wife, the Swan Maiden, and asked him if he’d heard of the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
The man said, ‘No, but I will ask’, and gave a shrill whistle. Soon, all the beasts of the forest had assembled before them, for he was the King of Beasts. The old man inquired if they knew the whereabouts of the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
The animals looked at each other in puzzlement, for none had heard of this magical land. So the King of Beasts told the hunter, ‘You must seek my brother, the King of Birds. Surely he will know’, and told him where to find his brother.
The hunter found the King of Birds, who called for his avian subjects to gather, and asked them the same question, ‘Do you know of the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon?’ None knew, and the Kings of Birds gave the hunter directions to yet another brother, the King of the Fishes. For surely he must know!
At the seashore, the hunter found the King of the Fishes, and asked him if he knew the whereabouts of the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. The King of Fishes did not know, but obligingly called out over the sea for his subjects to gather, and put the question to them.
None could answer the question, and the forlorn hunter was about to move on, when a dolphin called out from the sea that he knew.
The hunter waded into the breakers and met with the dolphin who had swum in as close as he dared. ‘Though I have never seen it, I have heard tale of a Crystal Mountain near the Wild Forest. On top of that mountain in a place called the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon’.
Overjoyed, the hunter thanked the Dolphin, and the King of the Fishes, who directed him toward the Wild Forest.
Just outside the forest, the hunter found two brothers quarrelling. Spotting him, the hunters approached him and asked him for a favour.
‘What is it?’ inquired the hunter.
‘Can you settle the dispute between us, so that our quarrel does not come to conflict?’ One brother asked.
‘Of course.’ Agreed the hunter.
‘Our father just died,’ explained the other brother, ‘ and left us two treasures. This cap, which renders the wearer invisible, and these shoes, which will carry you immediately to your destination, no matter how far away.’
He displayed the two items, a golden cap, and a pair of sturdy shoes.
‘As the elder son, I should have the first right of choice.’ One brother declared,
‘No, as the younger, I have the right to my father’s shoes!’ insisted the other.
‘Can you settle our dispute?’ the elder pleaded.
The hunter puzzled for a moment, then an idea dawned on him. ‘There is only one way to settle the dispute.’ He pointed to a tree, off in the distance. ‘Race, both of you, to that great oak yonder. Whoever first returns to me, shall have first choice, and I will hand him his prize.’ And the hunter took up the cap and the shoes in his hands.
Both brothers were pleased to agree and anxious to begin the race. ‘GO!’ cried the hunter, and they were off.
As soon as their backs were turned, however, the clever hunter placed the cap upon his own head, and the shoes up his feet.
He whispered to the shoes, ‘Take me to the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.’ And off he flew, over seven bends, over seven glens, and over seven mountain moors, until he came at last to the Crystal Mountain. The shoes transported him to the top of the mountain, and he found himself in the Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
Taking off his magic apparel, he found someone who ruled this land, and was told, ‘There is a king with seven daughters, swan maidens, who could fly wherever they wish.’ He pointed his way to the castle, and the hunter, knowing this was the land of his wife’s origin, strode to the castle and entered the Great Hall.
There sat the king on his wooden throne. The hunter boldly approached the king and said, ‘Greetings, O King. I have come to seek my wife.’
The king asked, ‘Who is she?’
The hunter said, ‘Your youngest daughter.’ And proceeded to tell him how he had discovered her, fallen in love, and won her as his bride.
Unconvinced, the king laughed, and declared, ‘If you can tell your bride from her six sisters, then I shall believe you.’
The king summoned his seven daughters. When they arrived, they were all dressed alike in their white feathered robes, looking like a bevy of beautiful swans.
The hunter looked at them in dismay, but then remembered something, and a gleam came into his eye.
‘May I take each of them by the hand for a moment, for surely then I will know my wife.’
‘I see no harm in it.’ Agreed the King.
Taking the hand of each lovely maiden, whose beautiful face was hidden in the folds of the downy white hoods, at last he felt one that he knew to be his wife. She had sewn the clothing of her children, and his own shirts and trousers for all the years they were together, and the forefinger of her right hand was calloused from the needle.
Astonished, the king examined his daughter’s hand. ‘It’s true! And I am a man of my word.’ Whereupon the king sent them off with many a treasure and sent them home.
When they arrived home the happy hunter allowed his wife to keep her snowy feather robes to visit her father and sisters, as long as she promised to always return to him. And so lived happily together ever afterwards. (European Folk and Fairy Tales, no. 12, pp. 98-104)
The Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen. An awkward young cygnet, is called an ugly duckling by the other young waterfowl in the lake. Seeing his reflection in the watery surface, he can’t help but agree, and hangs his young head in shame. The other birds refuse to play with the pathetic creature, and he is left to himself. At last his mother finds him, and assures him that this phase will pass, and he will grow into the most beautiful bird of all – a magnificent snowy white swan. And as time passes, so he does.
This is a familiar tale for every child, reassuring them that beauty is from within, and not a matter of outward appearance. This healing tale has been told for over a century, to children who feel isolated, or that they don’t fit in, teaching them to look within to find their own inner beauty and radiate it. When their time comes, they will be transformed, and have the grace, beauty and eloquence of a majestic white swan.
In Navajo tradition, the Great White Swan can call up the Four Winds. The Great Spirit will use swans to work its will.
The aborigines saw the Black Swans as the wives of their All Father.
In Ainu folk tales, the swan was an angelic bird who lived in heaven. When the Ainu fought amongst themselves killing all but one boy, the Swan descended from heaven, transformed into a woman, and reared the boy to manhood. She then married him to preserve the Ainu race.
It was the swan that lay the Cosmic Egg on the waters, from which Brahma sprang. The Swan was the vehicle of Brahma’s wife, Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom, Education, and Music. In Hindu tradition, swans represent the perfect union, and the spirit of Brahma.
In Greek tradition, the Swan is the symbol of the Muses. The swan also has erotic connotations – Zeus seduced Leda in the form of a swan, and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, had a swan-drawn chariot.
The swan, as a symbol of music, is also dedicated to Apollo, who was said to transform into a swan.
Socrates wrote that the swan sung it’s most beautiful song just before it died, leaving us with the phrase ‘swan song’.
The constellation Cygnus, depicts a swan sailing down the Milky Way.
The Vila, Serbian nymphs, take the shape of swans and serpents.
The Norse Valkyries often take the shape of swans and they fly, singing, through the air.
Swan Maidens were the subject of the Russian composer, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake.
According to Ted Andrews, in Animal-Speak, ‘The swan is one of the most powerful and ancient of totems. It is one of the oldest names in the English language and has come down unchanged since Anglo Saxon times.’ (page 195) In Britain, Mute Swans are the property of the Crown. The Crown may grant ‘royalties’ or ownership rights to companies or individuals, where they mark their swan’s bills during the ceremony of ‘swan-upping’.
Boat builders used swans as figureheads to bring good luck.
In Celtic tradition the Swan is associated with deities of healing waters and the sun. They are associated with music, love, purity and the soul. They are shape-shifters, can take human form, and have mastered the elements of water, earth and air. They can always be recognized by the gold or silver chain that hangs around their neck.
Among Druids, the Swan represents the soul, and is associated with the Festival of Samhain. The swan aids us in traveling to the Otherworld. Swans are also sacred to Bards, and their skin and feathers were used to make the tugen, the ceremonial Bardic Cloak.
Swans appear throughout Irish folklore. An Otherworldly bird, they are often the disguise of Fairy Women. At certain times of year, a swan maiden can transform herself back into a human, such as Summer Solstice, Beltaine or Samhain, when the veils between the worlds are thin.
The White Swans of the Wilderness were children of the Tuatha de Danaan, who settled Ireland, and became the sidhe after the invasion of the Milesians.
The night Cuchulainn was born, a pair of swans wearing Otherworldly silver chains attacked Emain Macha. In a later tale, the Princess Derbforgaill fell in love with Cuchulainn, and transformed herself and her maidens into swans to be near him. A hunter by nature, he threw a stone at one, none other than Derbforgaill herself, and brought her down. She transformed back into a woman, and lay bleeding at his feet. Cuchulainn restored her, sucking some of her blood, which rendered him unable to take her as his bride. She subsequently married his son.
In The Dream of Angus Og, the young God fell in love with a woman he saw in his dream, named Caer. So great is his longing for her, that he grew ill. He set out to search for her, and discovered that she is no dream, but a mortal woman under enchantment. She and her sisters are transformed into swans at Samhain, and must remain so for six months, until Beltain. Angus found her at Loch Gel Dracon, where the transformation took place. When he arrived, there were 150 swans, all with Otherworldly silver chains around their necks, and he could not distinguish Caer from the others. Cuchulainn then called out to her, changing into a swan himself. In that shape, he recognized his beloved, and they flew off together, chanting such ethereal music that all who heard it fell into unconsciousness for three days and nights. He brought her home to Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange).
The Children of Lir is the most marvelous swan tale of all. An Irish princess’s four brothers were condemned to live as swans for eternity by their jealous step mother, Aoifa, the wife of King Lir. The princess’s only hope is to remain mute for seven years while she wove four shirts of flax for her brothers, which will break the enchantment. There are several variations of this tale. In another variation, they were swans for 900 years, and when they were transformed back to humans, upon being baptized by St. Kernoc, the priest of the new religion, and they fell to the earth dead (but their souls were saved).
Native American Tradition
According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, who collected Native American tales from elders in the Choctaw, Lakota, Seneca, Aztec, Yaqui, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mayan traditions, Swans represented ‘Grace’.
Swan tells Dragonfly in legend, ‘I learned to surrender my body to the power of Spirit and was taken to where the future lives. I saw many wonders high on Sacred Mountains and because of my faith and my acceptance I have been changed. I have learned to accept the state of grace.’ Swan is the bird who may enter the Dreamtime and bring back knowledge and healing to the tribe. Swan medicine ‘teaches us to be at one with all planes of consciousness, and to trust in Great Spirit’s protection.’ (Medicine Cards, pages 192-195)
The swan is a totem of beauty and grace. As in the story of the Ugly Duckling, it connotes inner beauty as well. If Swan is your totem animal, you are emotionally sensitive, and empathic towards the feelings of others, and you draw people to you. The pure white swan is a solar symbol, whereas the Australian Black Swan is a nocturnal symbol. The swan, with its long neck, acts as a bridge between the worlds, making it an oracular bird. Being a cool weather bird, its direction is North. Swans are excellent totems for children, those connected to the Fairy Realm, poets, bards, mystics, and dreamers. (Animal Speak, page 196)
The swan is master of the elements Earth, Air and Water, and is an excellent guide to the therapeutic powers of these elements. Many healers use a swan feather in smudging and healing ceremonies. A swan feather tied to an instrument such as a harp would be a powerful adjunct to music therapy.
Pulling the Swan card tells you to ‘accept your ability to know what lies ahead, pay attention to your hunches, gut knowledge, and female intuitive side.’ (Medicine Cards, page 194) Reversed, the Swan card means you are not grounded, not paying attention to your intuition, or the Unseen. The authors suggest that you ‘notice your surroundings, and touch the Earth; be still and focus on one reality or the other – the Dreamtime or the mundane world; stop the clutter in your mind and listen; or focus on a physical activity that will ground you.’(Medicine Cards, page 195)
In Celtic lore, pulling the swan card can mean poetic inspiration from the Otherworld. It can also mean an enduring love is entering into your life. Many swan tales have to do with sad partings, separation, and suffering loss with grace. Swan can be a symbol of transformation. Swan often indicates a soul level experience about to commence.
Celtic Totem Animals, by John Matthews, Red Wheel Press, Boston, MA, 2002
Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams and David Carson, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999
The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, A Fireside Book, London, 1994
Animal-Speak, the Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, by Ted Andrews, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, 1994
Sevenwaters Trilogy, (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy) by Juliet Marillier, Tor Fantasy, New York, 2000 (a fiction based on The Children of Lir)
European Folk and Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916, no. 12, pp. 98-104.
Symbolic and Mythical Animals, by J. C. Cooper, Aquarian/Thorsons, London, 1992