From Japan to Ireland, stories are told of the Swan Maiden. The details might differ, but the general picture remains. Vulnerable without her protective ‘cloak’, she is found/captured by a prince. They marry, she gives him a variable number of fine daughters and sons. Until the day she finds her ‘clothes’ . . . then she ups, out of a hole in his roof, and flies away.
I see in this two references. One is to the shamanic practice of flying to the Otherworld, courtesy of hallucinogens and a ‘magical feathered cloak’—exit from the tent is achieved via its sky-hole. (In the shamanic culture of Manchuria and Siberia the Tungus even carved wooden swans atop their sky poles.) The other is a reference to the swan’s vulnerability during the moult (July-August). Without her flight feathers, the swan (Swan Maiden) cannot escape the hunter.
We don’t know how old this story. That it’s so widespread throughout Eurasia doesn’t automatically date it to a time when the peoples shared common tongue, common land or common ancestry. There are no boundaries to a good story, and a good story is one that resonates deep, as does the Swan Maiden.
However, we can track our ancestors’ interest in the swan, and perhaps infer their beliefs.
During a 1975 excavation in Denmark—at Vedbæk, for a new school—a most interesting find was made. Not only was a cemetery discovered, dating to 5,000 BCE (Mesolithic). But one of the graves yielded the bodies of a young woman who had died in childbirth, and her newborn baby. The baby had been prematurely born. It was placed in the grave, cradled in the wing of a swan.
But long before that—at least by 35,000 years ago (the Palaeolithic)—people made flutes from swan bones.
Around 20,000 years ago, in Central Siberia, our ancestors were carving swan pendants from mammoth bone. While at around the same time, others were depicting swans on the rock walls. One in particular sits atop a pole—where, later, the sun-wheel would sit. So not surprising, by the Bronze Age, ca. 3500 BCE, we find in Serbia, a figurine of male solar deity in a chariot driven by swans.
Amongst the later-known creation myths is that of the ‘earth diver’, common throughout Central and Northern Asia and Native North America. Here a divine being dives into the primordial ocean and brings up mud or earth in order to create the world. The Altaian Tatars described this divine being as a white swan.
In Hindu mythology, it’s a swan, Kalahamsa, that laid the cosmic egg (though in later versions she only ‘assisted’ Brahma in creating the cosmos). It’s probably safe to identify Kalahamsa with Saraswati, the goddess consort of Brahma and personification of the sacred river Saraswati—which, like the Nile, was deemed an earthly reflection of the Milky Way.
Which brings us neatly to the Cygnus Constellation. Cygnus, i.e. the Swan, alias the Northern Cross, marks the start of a dark band of interstellar dust cloud (the Great Rift) that splits the Milky Way in half for about a third of its length—resembling legs if conceived of as the body of a goddess—or the roots where they split from its trunk if conceived of as the World Tree. Which allows me another neat segue.
In Norse myth, two swans swim upon the ‘Well of Origin’, situated at the base of the World Tree.
Coincidence? But then factor in this: Ca. 17,000 to 6,000 years ago the Milky Way could be seen to stretch from Scorpio—which is also imagined as a dragon or serpent—to Cygnus: the swan that sits upon a pole. And? The World Tree also has a serpent encircling its base, and a bird perching in its uppermost branches. Moreover, that pole upon which the swan (Cygnus) sat would have been Deneb, brightest star in its constellation—which at that time acted as the Pole Star.
Still with the Norse . . . the valkyries, who were known also as swan maidens, were undeniably psychopomps—conveyors of souls. They gathered the souls of the slain from the battle field and brought them safely to Valhalla.
Oddly—or not—it’s amongst the Norse traditions that we find the oldest recorded Western version of the Swan Maiden tale, in the Eddic poem Völundarkvida. Here, Völundr—better known in England as Wayland the Smith—and his brothers come upon three swan maidens (valkyries) bathing in a lake, their feather cloaks left unattended. The usual plot device follows (the brothers hide the cloaks) and each marries one of the stranded swan maidens. It’s not till nine years later that the valkyries find their cloaks and soon are gone.
I could pull in many more examples. But why? It’s plain to see that the swan has always been more than a graceful white bird, at home as much in water as in the air. A liminal creature that snaggles our memories and sparks our imagination.