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Of Swans and Songs I sing

Are swans considered a symbol of masculinity? Is there any tradition of it, particularly in classical or medieval times?

Today, along with a few other people, I read a poem by Horace in which he describes himself as a swan, conquering envy by becoming a white-plumed swan which flies to all corners of Europe and Persia, and is known throughout. His fame will endure.

Upon further thought, most of the older swan stories I know involve very male swans. Leda was seduced by Jove in the form of a swan, a subject near and dear to Renaissance artists. In the Carmina Burana, the song of a dying song is a male solo number (well, at least the way Carl Orff set it to music). I know it's refered to as the "Ballad of the Roasted Swan", but still, it's in a male voice. Even The Ugly Duckling was male.

I realize that Swan Lake is all about a group of women transformed into swans, but the story is quite late compared to Leda, Horace, and the Carmina Burana, as least to the best of my limited knowledge on the subject. My earliest association with swans was when I was three years old - at my nursery school, my belongings were represented by a swan on a light pink background. An extremely bit of superficial research on the subject tells me that the swan represents both male and female, and thus potentially hermaphroditism. This analysis, however, is not historically grounded.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 17th, 2004 07:02 pm (UTC)
I think the Horace thing may be because of this: "One Greek legend has it that the soul of Apollo, the god of music passed into a swan, hence the Pythagorean fable that the souls of all good poets passed into swans." (Brewers Book of Myth and Legend). Apollo's chariot was drawn by swans, so it seems a particularly poet-y sort of bird :)
Mar. 17th, 2004 07:25 pm (UTC)
That's good to know - it might also in part explain the swan in The Trumpet of the Swan - or maybe not. I bet I'll see a great many more Apollo-appropriate swans now that I know to look for them. Still, I don't think Leda was thinking "Oh look! A poet!" when Jove paid her a visit.
Mar. 17th, 2004 07:34 pm (UTC)
Well, it's also associated with sex, being the bird of Venus. However, the original Cygnus (the one who became the constellation) was definitely male. Except there is also the story that Orpheus became that constellation - being next to Lyra and all, there's another poet/artist link. I found a pretty good page here with a bunch of the legends compiled in one place.
Mar. 17th, 2004 07:53 pm (UTC)
That's a very useful site! Apparently they're also good luck for sailors, says Isidore:

Etymologies, Book 12, De animalibus, Chapter 7, De avibus.
(copy/pasted from the Patrologia Latina website - subscription only, U of T has one, of course.)
18. Olor, avis est quam Graeci κύκνον appellant. [c 1Kb] Olor autem dictus, quod sit totus plumis albus; nullus
[Col. 0461B] enim meminit cygnum nigrum; ὅλον enim Graece totum dicitur.

[d 1Kb] Cygnus autem a canendo est appellatus, eo quod carminis dulcedinem modulatis vocibus fundit. Ideo autem suaviter eum canere (dicunt), quia collum longum et inflexum habet, et necesse est eluctantem vocem per longum et flexuosum iter varias reddere modulationes.

19. Ferunt in Hyperboreis partibus, praecinentibus cytharoedis, olores plurimos advolare, apteque admodum concinere. [e 1Kb] Olores autem Latinum nomen est; nam Graece cygni dicuntur. [f 1Kb] Nautae vero sibi hunc bonam prognosin facere dicunt, sicut ait [g 1Kb] Aemilius:

Cygnus in auspiciis semper laetissimus ales.
Hunc optant nautae, quia se non mergit in undas.
Mar. 17th, 2004 08:12 pm (UTC)
I found a reference to confirm the association of swans with hermaphroditism:

Frederick Ahl, "Amber, Avallon, and Apollo's Singing Swan", The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 103, No. 4. (Winter, 1982), pp. 373-411.

Part of the claim seems to be that in the transformation of Orpheus, the swan (kyknos), grammatically masculine, is seen as cognate and punned with gyne. I'm not sure whether I'm convinced, but there you have it.
Mar. 18th, 2004 05:00 am (UTC)
Off-topic anecdote
In practice, swans are very bad luck for sailors. You wouldn't think a swan could beat the stuffing out of a machine-gun-toting submariner standing watch on the deck of the sub, but in fact it can.
Mar. 18th, 2004 08:04 am (UTC)
Horace's imagery , I think, comes from a combination of things -- Apollo's connection with swans; the Greek legend that swans were mute all their lives but sang once, beautifully, just before they died (hence our "swan-song"); the connection between swans and Venus, appropriate for the poet of the Odes (lyric songs about love); and the pure white, shining colour of swans -- they were a byword for purity and whiteness, and Horace continually uses images of whiteness and gleaming in his Odes as positive, philosophically appropriate and erotically charged symbols.

Mar. 17th, 2004 07:04 pm (UTC)
The swan in the book, Trumpet of the Swan was a male... and he played a mean jazz tune.

Mar. 17th, 2004 07:59 pm (UTC)
I haven't read that book in ages!
Mar. 17th, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)
me neither, but I remember it being one of my favorites in grammar school.
Mar. 17th, 2004 07:38 pm (UTC)
There are the varieties of fairy tales describing brothers turned into swans (Grimm's Six Swans and H.C. Andersen's The Wild Swans were what initially came to mind for me) - a bunch of them can be found here.
Mar. 17th, 2004 09:03 pm (UTC)
Good point.

Mercedes Lackey did a variant on the women-into-swans called The Black Swan.

Also, of course, there's the highly symbolic connection between swans and Kalamazoo. Or at least, that's one of the few swans I regularly see in a year.
Mar. 18th, 2004 01:02 am (UTC)
There are, IIRC, various myths linking or styling the valkyries as swan-maidens. I can't remember the exact story ATM, but there is an irish/celtic story of a group of siblings who are cursed to become swans, returning year on year to the same spot. If I remember when I'm back home, I'll rummage through my collection of mythology stuff and try to bring out some references.

In lieu of that, a recent novel, Daughter of the Forest, by Julliett Marillier (sp) is a retelling/recasting of the celtic cursed swans story.
Mar. 18th, 2004 05:14 am (UTC)
The phrase I was looking for before was "Swanmane"

Unfortunately, doing a google for "Swanmane" seems to only resolve into Anita Blake related websites :-/

I also managed to find this article by Sabine Baring Gould -- yet another of his rambling essays, but it does seem to be a pretty good synopsis of the various swan related myths, ranging from Indian, Celtic, Greek, Norse... I think there's a Russian one in there as well.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 18th, 2004 09:12 am (UTC)
Re: Children of Lir
Yep, spot on :-) They're mentioned in he SBG essay I posted a link to. They're referred to explicitly in the _Daughter of the Forest_ novel I mentioned -- the siblings of the protagonist are given the same curse, but the protagonist is given a chance to redeem them.
Mar. 18th, 2004 06:26 am (UTC)
Border territory
I haven't any references to cite here, but I'll start a-diggin'. Here's a bit of the art historian's mumbo jumbo that I can pass along, though:

1.) birds of all sorts are often considered phallic symbols (Hitchcock thought the ancient bird-as-phallic-symbol idea was an absolute hoot and made goofy references to it in a few of his movies-- Psycho and The Birds most notably). The bird-to-phallus tie is not one I'm mega familiar with, but as I said, I'll dig.

2.) birds were often thought to be particularly appropriate symbols of Christ-- they were creatures of the earth and of heaven, as Christ was both divine and human. The bird we medievalists see representing Jesus most often, I think, is the peacock, because beside its earth-and-air connections, it was also believed to have incorruptible flesh, flesh that would not spoil regardless of the bird's culinary preparation. I personally think that peacock must have tasted really good, and there was never any peacock left over, so no one would have any memories of food poisoning from rotten peacock : )

Swans might be a great extension of the bird-as-Christ-reference: they are creature of heaven, earth, and the waters of baptism. They also have feathers that make absolutely incredible quills (better than goose quills!), which might appeal to someone interested in referring to The Word (though I'll grant this is a stretch).

Of I go to look through some iconography reference books in Cornell's Fine Arts Library!

I don't know if this is at all helpful to you, but it's a fun little thing for me to look up : ) Thank you!
Mar. 18th, 2004 06:57 am (UTC)
Re: Border territory
It is helpful, and one of the websites I found before did draw out the swanny (is there a better adjective?) parallels between Christ and the Swan, but with few citations. (http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/swan.htm)

None of this is for work, only my curiousity and any one else's, so pursue it only insofar as you are curious yourself. Still, if you do, I'd love to know what you find!
Mar. 18th, 2004 06:53 am (UTC)
A book that might be useful
The Beastiary of Christ (Parabola Books, reprint 1991) talks about a lot of the birds that are used as Christ symbols, including the swan. Page 25? 29? Somthing like that?

Good luck!
Mar. 18th, 2004 06:58 am (UTC)
Re: A book that might be useful
That sounds fun! It would be a good idea in general if I were better familiar with the birds of Christ, and this sounds like a good way to do that. You know, just good in that general, it's useful to know what symbols mean kind of way.
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )