(Excerpted from Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, 1866-1868, Chapter 21)
Chapter XXI: The Swan-Maidens
I remember a long scramble in Iceland, over the ruins of tuff rock in a narrow gorge. My little pony had toiled sturdily up a dusty slope leading apparently to nothing, when, all at once, the ravine terminated in an abrupt scarp, whence was obtained a sudden peep of entrancing beauty. Far away in front gleamed a snowy dome of silver, doubly refined and burnished, resting upon a basement of gentian blue.
To the left started sheer precipices of ink-black rock to icy pinnacles, from which fell a continuous powder of white water into a lake, here black as the rocks above it, yonder bluer than the overarching heavens. Not a sound of animated life broke the stillness, which would have been oppressive, but for the patter of the falling streams. The only living objects visible were two white swans rippling proudly through the clear water.
I have never since felt surprise at superstition attaching itself to these glorious birds, haunting lone tarns, pure as new-fallen snow. The first night I slept under my tent in the same island, I was wakened with a start by a wild triumphant strain as of clarions pealing from the sky. I crept from under canvas to look up, and saw a flight of the Hooper swans on their way to the lakes of the interior, high up, lit by the sun, like flakes of gold-leaf against the green sky of an arctic night.
Its solitary habits, the purity of its feathers, its wondrous song, have given to the wild swan a charm which has endeared it to poets, and ensured its introduction into mythology.
The ancient Indians, looking up at the sky over which coursed the white cirrus clouds, fabled of a heavenly lake in which bathed the swan-like Apsaras, impersonifications of these delicate light cloud-flakes. What these white vapours were, the ancient Aryans could not understand; therefore, because they bore a more or less remote resemblance to swans floating on blue waters, they supposed them to be divine beings partaking of the nature and appearance of these beautiful birds.
The name Apsaras signifies those who go in the water, from ap, water, and saras, from sr, to go. Those who bear the name skim as swans over the lotus-pond of heaven, or, laying aside their feather-dresses, bathe, as beautiful females, in the limpid flood. These swan-maidens are the houris of the Vedic heaven; receiving to their arms the souls of the heroes. Sometimes they descend to earth, and become the wives of mortals; but soon their celestial nature re-asserts itself, and they expand their luminous wings, and soar away into the heavenly deeps of tranquil azure. I have elsewhere referred to the story of Urvaci, the Apsaras, and her lover Puravaras. And Somadeva relates the adventures of a certain Nicayadatta, who caught one of these celestial maidens, and then lost her, but, full of love, pursued her to the golden city above. He tells also of Sridatta, who beheld one bathing in the Ganges, and, plunging after her, found himself in a wondrous land beneath the water, in the company of the beloved.
In the Kalmuk collection of tales called Siddhi-Kur, which is a translation from the Sanskrit, is a story of a woman who had three daughters. The girls took it in turn to keep the cattle. An ox was lost, and the eldest, in search of it, entered a cave, where she found an extensive lake of rippling blue water, on which swam a stainless swan. She asked for her ox, and the bird replied that she should have it if she would become his wife. She refused, and returned to her mother. Next day the second sister lost an ox, traced it to the cave, pursued it into the land of mysteries, and saw the blue lake surrounded by flowery banks, on which floated a silver swan. She refused to become his wife, as did her sister. Next day the same incidents were repeated with the third sister, who, however, proved more compliant to the wishes of the swan.
The Samojeds have a wild tale about swan-maidens. Two Samojeds lived in a desolate moor, where they caught foxes, sables, and bears. One went on a journey, the other remained at home. He who travelled, reached an old woman chopping birch-trees. He cut down the trees for her, and drew them to her tent. This gratified tbe old woman, and she bade him hide, and see what would take place. He concealed himself; and shortly after beheld seven maidens approach. They asked the old woman whether she had cut the wood herself, and then whether she was quite alone. To both questions she replied in the affirmative; then they went away. The old woman then drew the Samojed from his hiding-place, and bade him follow the traces of the damsels, and steal the dress of one of them. He obeyed. Emerging from a wood of gloomy pines, he came upon a beautiful lake, in which swam the seven maidens. Then the man took away the dress which lay nearest to him. The seven swam to the shore and sought their clothes. Those of one were gone. She cried bitterly, and exclaimed, "I will be the wife of him who has stolen my dress, if he will restore it me." He replied, "No, I will not give you back your feather dress, or you will spread your wings, and fly away from me.
"Give me my clothes, I am freezing!"
"Not far from here are seven Samojeds, who range the neighbourhood by day, and at night hang their hearts on the tent-pegs. Procure for me these hearts, and I will give you the clothes."
"In five days I will bring them to you."
Then he gave her the clothes, and returned to his companion.
One day the maiden came to him out of the sky, and asked him to accompany her to the brothers, whose hearts he had set her to procure. They came to the tent, and the man secreted himself, but the damsel became invisible. At night the seven Samojeds returned, ate their supper, and then hitched up their hearts to the tent-pegs. The swan-maiden stole them, and brought them to her lover. He dashed all but one upon the ground, and as they fell, the brothers expired. But the heart of the eldest he did not kill. Then the man without a heart awoke, and entreated to have it returned to him.
"Once upon a time you killed my mother," said the Samojed; "restore her to life, and you shall have your heart."
Then the man without the heart said to his wife, "Go to the place where the dead lie, there you will find a purse, in that purse is her soul; shake the purse over the dead woman's bones, and she will come to life." The woman did as she was ordered, and the mother of the Samojed revived. Then he dashed the heart to the ground, and the last of the seven brothers died.
But the swan-maiden took her own heart and that of her husband, and threw them into the air. The mother of the Samojed saw that they were without hearts, so she went to the lake where swam the six maidens; she stole one dress, and would not restore it till the maiden had promised to recover the hearts which were in the air. This she succeeded in doing, and her dress was restored.
Among the Minussinian Tatars these mysterious ladies have lost their grace and beauty. They dwell in the seventeenth region of the earth in raven-black rocks, and are fierce, raging demons of the air. They scourge themselves into action with a sword, lap the blood of the slain, and fly gorged with blood for forty years. In number they are forty, and yet they run together into one; so that at one time there is but a single swan-woman, at another the sky is dark with their numerous wings; a description which makes it easy to identify them with clouds. But there are not only evil swan-women, there are also good ones as well.
Katai Khan lived on the coast of the White Sea, at the foot of gloomy mountains. He had two daughters, Kara Kuruptju (black thimble) andKesel Djibak (red silk) ; the elder evil disposed and in league with the powers of darkness, a friend of the raging swan-woman; the younger beautiful and good.
The seven Kudai, or gods of the Tatars, are the planets. Kara Kuruptju is the evening twilight, Kesel Djibak the morning dawn which ascends to the heavens, and there lingers among the floating feathery clouds. But Kara Kuruptju descends to the gloomy realm of the evil-hearted swan-women, where she marries their son Djidar Mds (bronzen), the thunder-cloud. These gnmly swanlike damsels of the Tatars irresistibly remind us of the Phorcydae.
The classic swan myths must be considered in greater detail. They are numerous, for each Greek tribe had its own favourite myths, and additional fables were being constantly imported into religion from foreign sources. The swan was with the Greeks the bird of the Muses, and therefore also of Apollo. When the golden-haired deity was born, swans came from the golden stream of Pactolus, and seven times wheeled about Delos, uttering songs of joy.
The Muses were originally nymphs, and are the representatives of the Indian Apsaras; and it is on this account that the swans are their symbols. Beyond the Eridanus, in the land of the Lygii ( i.e. the clear-ringing), lived once a songful king. Him Apollo transformed into a swan. "Cycnus having left his kingdom, accompanied by his sisters, was filling the verdant bank, and the river Eridanus, and the forest, with his complaints; when the human voice becomes shrill, and grey feathers conceal his hair. A long neck, too, extends from his breast, and a membrane joins his reddening toes; plumage clothes his sides, and his mouth becomes a pointless bill. Cycnus becomes a new bird; but he trusts himself neither to heavens nor the air. He frequents the pools and wide meers, and abhorring fires, choses the streams. This Cycnus was a son of Sthenelus; he is the same as the son of Pelopea by Ares, and the son of Thyna by Poseidon. The son of Ares lived in southern Thessaly, where he slew pilgrims till Apollo cut off his head, and gave the skull to the temple of Ares. According to another version of the story, he was the son of Ares by Pyrene. When Herakies had slain him, the father was so enraged that he fought with the hero of many labours.
Cycnus, a son of Poseidon, was matched against Achilles, who, stripping him of his armour, suddenly beheld him transformed into a swan; or he is the son of Hyrie, who springs from a rock and becomes the bird from which he derives his name, whilst his mother dissolving into tears is transformed into a lake whereon the stately bird can glide.
In the fable of Leda, Zeus, the heaven above, clothed in swan's shape,--that is, enveloped in white mist--embraces the fair Leda, who is probably the earth-mother and by her becomes the father of the Dioscuri, the morning and evening twilights, and, according to some, of beautiful Helen, that is, Selene, the moon. The husband of Leda was Tyndareos, a name which identifies him with the thunderer, and he is therefore the same as Zeus.
According to the Cyprian legend, Nemesis, flying the pursuit of Zeus, took the form of a swan, and dropped an egg, from which issued Helen. Nemesis is a Norn, who, with Shame, "having abandoned men, depart, when they have clad their fair skin in white raiment to the tribe of the immortals."
Swans were kept and fed as sacred birds on the Eurotas, and were reverenced in Sparta as emblems of Aphrodite: this is not surprising, as Aphrodite is identical with Helen, the moon, which swims at night as a silver swan upon the deep dark sky-sea. A late fable relates how that Achilles and Helen were united on a spirit-isle in Northern Pontus, where they were served by flights of white birds ,
In the North, however, is the home of the swan, and there we find the fables about the mystic bird in great profusion. There, as a Faroese ballad says--
or, as an Icelandic song has it-
The venerable Edda of Soemund relates how that there were once three brothers, sons of a king of the Finns; one was called Slagfid, the second Egil, the third Volund, the original of our Wayland smith, They went on snow-shoes and hunted wild beasts. They came to Ulfdal, and there made themselves a house, where there is a water called the Wolfiake. Early one morning they found, on the border of the lake, three maidens sitting and spinning flax. Near them lay their swan plumages: they were Valkyries. Two of them, Hladgud, the Swan-white, and Hervor, the All-white, were daughters of King Hlodver; the third was Olrun, a daughter of Kiar of Valland. They took them home with them to their dwelling : Egil had Olrun, Slagfid had Swan-white, and Volund All-white. They lived there seven years, and then they flew away, seeking conflicts, and did not return. Egil then went on snow-shoes in search of Olrun, and Slagfld in search of Swan-white, but Volund remained in Wolfdale. In the German story of the mighty smith, as preserved in the Wilkina Saga, this incident has disappeared; but that the myth was Teutonic as well as Scandinavian, appears from the poem on Frederick of Suabia, a composition of the fourteenth century, wherein is related how the hero wanders in search of his beloved Angelburga. By chance he arrives at a fountain, in which are bathing three maidens, with their dresses, consisting of doves' feathers, lying at the side. Wieland, armed with a root which renders him invisible, approaches the bank and steals the clothes. The maidens, on discovering their loss, utter cries of distress. Wieland appears, and promises to return their bird-skins if one of them will consent to be his wife. They agree to the terms, leaving the choice to Wieland, who selects Angelburga, whom he had long loved without having seen. Brunhild, who was won by Sigurd, and who died for him, is said to "move on her seat as a swan rocking on a wave;" and the three sea-maids from whom Hagne stole a dress, which is simply described as "wonderful" in the Nibelungenlied, are said to"swim as birds before him on the flood."
An old German story tells of a nobleman who was hunting in a forest, when he emerged upon a lake in which bathed an exquisitely beautiful maiden. He stole up to her, and took from her the gold necklace she wore; then she lost her power to fly, and she became his wife. At one birth she bore seven sons, who had all of them gold chains round their necks, and had the power, which their mother had possessed, of transforming themselves into swans at pleasure. In the ancient Gudrun-Lied, an angel approaches like a swimming wild-bird.
A Hessian forester once saw a beautiful swan floating on a lonely lake. Charmed with its beauty, he prepared to shoot it, when it exclaimed, "Shoot not, or it will cost you your life!" As he persisted in taking aim, the swan was suddenly transformed into a lovely girl, who swam towards him, and told him that she was bewitched, but could be freed if he would say an "Our Father" every Sunday for her during a twelvemonth, and not allude to what he had seen in conversation with his friends. He promised, but failed to keep silence, and lost her.
A hunter in Southern Germany lost his wife, and was in deep affliction. He went to a hermit and asked his advice; the aged man advised him to seek a lonely pool, and wait there till he saw three swans alight and despoil themselves of their feathers, then he was to steal one of the dresses, and never return it, but take the maiden whose was the vesture of plumes to be his wife. This the huntsman did, and he lived happily with the beautiful damsel for fifteen years. But one day he forgot to lock the cupboard in which he kept the feather-dress; the wife discovered it, put it on, spread her wings, and never returned. In some household tales a wicked step-mother throws white skirts over her step-children, and they are at once transformed into swans. A similar story is that of Hasan of Basra in the Arabian Nights.
The old fables of Valkyries were misunderstood, when Christianity had cast these damsels from heaven, and the stories were modified to account for the transformation. The sweet maidens no more swam of their own free will in the crystal waves, but swam thus through the force of an enchantment they were unable to break. Thus, in the Irish legend of Fionmala, the daughter of King Lir, on the death of the mother of Fingula (Fionmala) and her brothers, their father marries the wicked Aoife, who, through spite, transforms the children of Lir into swans, which must float on the waters for centuries, till the first mass-bell tingles. Who does not remember Tom Moore's verses on this legend ?
In another version of the story there is no term fixed for the breaking of the enchantment; but when the bells of Innis-gloria rang for the mass, four white birds rose from the loch and flew to church, where they occupied daily a bench, sitting side by side and exhibiting the utmost reverence and devotion. Charmed at the piety of the birds, S. Brandan prayed for them, when they were transformed into children, were baptized, and then died.
In a Sclavonian legend, a youth was reposing in a forest. The wind sighed through the trees, filling him with a tender melancholy which could find no expression in words. Presently there fluttered through the branches a snowy swan, which alighted on his breast. The youth clasped the beautiful bird to his heart, and resisted all its struggles to escape. Then the swan changed into a beautiful girl, who forthwith accompanied him to church, where they were united.
A weird Icelandic saga tells of a battle fought on the ice of Lake Vener, between two Swedish kings, assisted by the chief Helgi and King Olaf of Nonvay, supported by Hromund Greipsson, the betrothed of the king's sister Swan-white. Above the heads of the combatants flew a great swan; this was Kara, the mistress of Helgi, who had transformed herself into a bird. She, by her incantations, blunted the weapons of King Olaf's men, so that they began to give way before the Swedes. But accidentally Helgi, in raising his sword, smote off the leg of the swan which floated on expanded wings above his head. From that moment the tide of battle turned, and the Norwegians were victorious
It is a fair subject for inquiry, whether the popular iconography of the angel-hosts is not indebted to the heathen myth for its most striking features. Our delineations of angels in flowing white robes, with large pinions, are derived from the later Greek and Roman representations of victory; but were not these figures-half bird, half woman-derived from the Apsaras of the Vedas, who were but the fleecy clouds, supposed in the ages of man's simplicity to be celestial swans?
Baring-Gould, Sabine. Curious Myths of the Middle
Ages: The Sangreal, Pope Joan, The Wandering Jew, and Others. London:
Rivingtons, 1866-1868. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1867