News for December
Griffin In Flight
Wings of Wonder
Wings of WonderMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Choosing my topic for December, my last column for EMG-Zine after three years of cooperation, has not been easy. I considered writing about Pegasus, to make a pair with my previous 'Unicorn' column. I then thought about Angels, but I really cannot think of them as a fantasy subject and I'm definitely not going into comparative theology in here.
Then it dawned on me: there are some beautiful wings that appear, more or less fleetingly, in myths and fairy tales the world over; the wings of a bird that has by turn been considered the disguise of a god, an otherworldly mystical creature, the face of some nature spirits or a shape imposed on the victims of a curse... and isn't the swan song a byname for the end, the last performance or the last piece sung, composed, painted or written? Swan it had to be.
The different subspecies of swan are a frequent sight in water and sky from Siberia to the Americas, from the Mediterranean to Australia and New Zealand. Often in Eurasian myths divine swan-maidens became the wives of hunters who hid or stole their feather-cloaks.
In the Buryat myth, the swan-wife stays with her human husband for years, giving him eleven sons and six daughters, before taking back her feather robe and telling him 'You are Earth-beings and must stay on Earth, but I come from the sky and must go back. Every year in spring when you'll see us fly towards the North, and in the fall, when we'll come down towards the South you shall celebrate our passage with ceremonies'. (1)
Similar myths can be found in the whole of the Altai -- sometimes with the wild geese in place of the swan. In all cases, this immaculate, brightly beautiful bird is the celestial virgin, the heavenly ancestor of humankind (2).
In ancient Greece the swan was one of the symbols of Aphrodite, goddess of love; but its strongest links were with a different deity, the radiant Apollo. According to one version of the myth, when the god was born on Delos, sacred swans flew around the island seven times. Then Zeus gave to the young god a lyre and a chariot pulled by swans. The swans first brought Apollo to 'their land, on the Ocean shore, beyond the homeland of the North Winds, to the Hyperboreans who live under an ever-clear sky.' (3)
Zeus himself changed into a swan to pursue Leda, queen of Sparta. Leda then laid two eggs, from each of which two children hatched: one immortal child of Zeus and one mortal child of her husband Tyndareus; Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra (the wife of Agamemnon) from one egg, Castor and Pollux from the other.
To the Greeks we also owe the expression 'swan song'. The main species of European swan, Cygnus Olor, is commonly known as the mute swan. Although far from mute it doesn't sing. It was a belief of the ancient that the swan would sing beautifully only once in its life, just before its death.
In Celtic tales, otherworldy beings often enter Earth in the guise of swans, ornated or linked in pair with gold or silver chains. In Celtic art two swans often fly besides the sun-boat.
To the Celts we also owe the swan-curse. Its best-known occurrence is in the tale of the Children of Lir (4), in which the children of a king are turned into swans by their step-mother and wander Ireland for 900 years before the curse is broken by the blessing of a monk.
Variants of the tale are found throught Europe. In Andersen's 'The Wild Swans' the swan-princes' sister has to fashion tunics out of stinging nettles and must keep silent until the work is finished to be able to break the spell. She marries a king but keeps to her work. When the people of the kingdom come to know that their mute queen wanders the graveyard at night gathering stinging nettles, she is believed to be a witch and sentenced to death but she keeps spinning and weaving even on the cart that brings her to the stake. At the very last moment the swans arrive and she is able to throw on them the finished tunics, so that, the curse broken, the truth could be revealed.
In another Andersen story, 'The Traveling Companion', a black swan appears as antithetical symbol. In the tale a young man recently orphaned set out on a journey. One night he gives the last of his scant money to repay the debts of a dead man so that the latter's body would not be thrown out of a church by his creditors.
The day after, young John meets another traveler and the two decide to go on together. They arrive in a kingdom where the king's daughter challenges her suitors to a game of riddles. Those who cannot answer are hanged. With the help of his friend, John answers the riddles and wins the princess's hand but discovers that she is under a curse. To break it, according to the companion, she has to be immersed in water in which are mixed three swan feathers and a few drops of a potion (alternatively swan blood) that he gives to John.
The first time the princess resurfaces as a black swan with fiery eyes, the second time as a white swan with a ring of black feathers on her neck, the third as herself, cleansed by the evil taint of the curse.
Having repaid his debt, the old traveller is revealed as the spirit of the dead man John took pity of, and disappears.
With this, I leave the ranks of the columnists of EMG-Zine and join those of the readers and occasional contributors. I hope that my pieces in the last three years have given you a measure of enjoyment and maybe excited your curiosity.
Allow me to wish you the very best for the season's festivities with the old Latin wish: Cupio quae vultis 'I wish to you what you would wish for yourself'.
(1) Quoted in Chevalier; Gheerbrant Dizionario dei simboli BUR 1986 p.268
(2) In the Yenissei region it was a long held belief that swans had menses, just like human women.
(3) Ibidem, p.269
(4) Not to be mistaken with the children of Llyr whose stories are narrated in the Mabinogion, in the Irish Clann Lir 'Lir' is the genitive of 'Lear'.
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