Swans in Culture
(Wikipedia Source Role in Culture) Swan meat has been regarded as a luxury food in England since at least the reign of Elizabeth I. A recipe for baked swan survives from that time. “To bake a Swan Scald it and take out the bones, and parboil it, then season it very well with Pepper, Salt and Ginger, then lard it, and put it in a deep Coffin of Rye Paste with store of Butter, close it and bake it very well, and when it is baked, fill up the Vent-hole with melted Butter, and so keep it; serve it in as you do the Beef-Pie.”
Many of the cultural aspects refer to the Mute Swan of Europe. Perhaps the best known story about a swan is The Ugly Duckling fable. The story centres around a duckling that is mistreated until it becomes evident he is a swan and is accepted into the habitat. He was mistreated because real ducklings are, according to many, more attractive than a cygnet, yet cygnets become swans, which are very attractive creatures. Swans are often a symbol of love or fidelity because of their long-lasting, apparently monogamous relationships. See the famous swan-related operas Lohengrin and Parsifal.
Swans feature strongly in mythology. In Greek mythology, the story of Leda and the Swan recounts that Helen of Troy was conceived in a union of Zeus disguised as a swan and Leda, Queen of Sparta. Other references in classical literature include the belief that upon death the otherwise silent Mute Swan would sing beautifully – hence the phrase swan song; as well as Juvenal‘s sarcastic reference to a good woman being a “rare bird, as rare on earth as a black swan”, from which we get the Latin phrase rara avis, rare bird.
The Irish legend of the Children of Lir is about a stepmother transforming her children into swans for 900 years. In the legend The Wooing of Etain, the king of the Sidhe (subterranean-dwelling, supernatural beings) transforms himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Etain, into swans to escape from the king of Ireland and Ireland’s armies. The swan has recently been depicted on an Irish commemorative coin.
In Norse mythology, there are two swans that drink from the sacred Well of Urd in the realm of Asgard, home of the gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well is so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including this original pair of swans and all others descended from them. The poem Volundarkvida, or the Lay of Volund, part of the Poetic Edda, also features swan maidens.
In the Finnish epic Kalevala, a swan lives in the Tuoni river located in Tuonela, the underworld realm of the dead. According to the story, whoever killed a swan would perish as well. Jean Sibelius composed the Lemminkäinen Suite based on Kalevala, with the second piece entitled Swan of Tuonela (Tuonelan joutsen). Today, five flying swans are the symbol of the Nordic Countries and the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) is the national bird of Finland.
A swan is one of the attributes of St Hugh of Lincoln based on the story of a swan who was devoted to him. In Latin American literature, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916) consecrated the swan as a symbol of artistic inspiration by drawing attention to the constancy of swan imagery in Western culture, beginning with the rape of Leda and ending with Wagner‘s Lohengrin. Darío’s most famous poem in this regard is Blasón – “Coat of Arms” (1896), and his use of the swan made it a symbol for the Modernismo poetic movement that dominated Spanish language poetry from the 1880s until the First World War. Such was the dominance of Modernismo in Spanish language poetry that the Mexican poetEnrique González Martínez attempted to announce the end of Modernismo with a sonnet provocatively entitled, Tuércele el cuello al cisne – “Wring the Swan’s Neck” (1910).
Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and it is the vehicle of many deities like the goddessSaraswati. It is mentioned several times in the Vedic literature, and persons who have attained great spiritual capabilities are sometimes called Paramahamsa (“Great Swan”) on account of their spiritual grace and ability to travel between various spiritual worlds. In the Vedas, swans are said to reside in the summer on Lake Manasarovar and migrate to Indian lakes for the winter. They’re believed to possess some powers such as the ability to eat pearls. They are also believed to be able to drink up the milk and leave the water from a saucer of milk adulterated with water. This is taken as a great quality, as shown by thisSanskrit verse:
Hamsah shwetah, bakah shwetah, kah bhedah hamsa bakayo?
Neeraksheera viveketu, Hamsah hamsah, bakah bakah!
(The swan is white, the duck is white, so how to differentiate between both of them?
With the milk-water test, the swan is proven swan, the duck is proven duck!)
Hindu iconography typically shows the Mute Swan. It is wrongly supposed by many historians that the word hamsa only refers to a goose, since today swans are no longer found in India, not even in most zoos. However, ornithological checklists clearly classify several species of swans as vagrant birds in India.
The ballet Swan Lake by Pyotr Tchaikovsky is considered among both the most important works of this composer and among the often-performed classics of ballet. It is partially based on an ancient German legend, which tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse–to which were added similar elements from Russian folk tales. Some major elements (girls turned to swans and living in a lake, and a hero falling in love with one of them) are also shared by the Irish mythology story of Caer Ibormeith.
The 1994 American animated film The Swan Princess is also derived from the same ancient sources, featuring an evil sorcerer who kidnaps a princess named Odette and curses her so that she is a swan by day and a woman by night, until the prince comes to rescue her.
Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Wild Swans” is similar to the “Children of Lir” story. The king has eleven sons and one daughter, named Elisa. The evil stepmother turns the eleven brothers into swans and banishes Elisa, an interesting exception to the tradition of swan maidens.
Carl Orff‘s cantata, Carmina Burana (and presumably also the collection of poetry upon which it is based) includes a text describing the roasting (and serving) of a swan as described from the swan’s point of view.
In England there is a popular belief that all swans are the property of the reigning Monarch. This belief arises from the Act of Swans passed by the English Parliament in 1482. In fact the right to ownership of swans was restricted by that Act to landowners who had freehold valued at 5 marks (£3-13-4) and who thus had the right to mark swans on their land. Unrestricted and unmarked Mute Swans on open water were preserved to the King. Today this right is exercised only on certain stretches of the River Thames and some of its tributaries between Windsor and Abingdon. Contrary to popular belief this Act has never applied to Scotland or Ireland.
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