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As we have seen, birds often symbolize the divine.  They are often viewed as gods in disguise, or else they are the vehicles of gods and goddesses.

While the peacock is a symbol of material manifestation, the swan stands for the ethereal.  It represents the presence of divine inspiration in our world. 

The association of the swan with wisdom and creativity appears also among the Greeks who considered that bird related to the nine Muses.  It is said that when Apollo was born at Delos, the event was marked with flights of circling swans.

It is in the form of a swan that Zeus assaults Leda and in so doing, engenders the twins -- the Gemini -- Castor and Pollux, who hatched from eggs and also their sisters, the tormented Clytemnestra and the fatefully beautiful Helen, whose elopement with Paris is cause for the Trojan War.


Despite the fact that the swan is generally judged the most beautiful of the large water birds, we can see in its long, graceful, serpentine neck, a kinship to the snake.  Therefore, in Indian mythology, the swan (Skt. hamsa) embodies the union of Garuda and Naga, and since those two are enemies, it also stands for the highest wisdom teachings concerning the union of opposites.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa [superior or, perfected hamsa] was the name of the guru of the Bengali author of Autobiography of a Yogi, Swami Paramhansa Yogananda.  Through their influence, people of the United States and Europe learned that the teachings of ancient India could also benefit non-Indians.   You too could aspire to be a yogin or yogini.

The spiritual association is further emphasized by the swan's seeming to move almost as if suspended above the water's surface, which evokes the detachment that is the result of  meditative practice.  Its regal posture and smooth, graceful gliding movement through the water, along with its general reputation as a silent bird, enhances its prestige. 

Natural Science

The most common species is the white swan (Cygnus olor) also known as the mute swan.  This is the variety that has a black knob at the base of its orange bill.  It can grow to about fifty inches tall (at the crown of its erect head.)  A male swan is known as a cob, a female is a pen, and the young are called cygnets.   A pen can weigh around 9 kg, cobs around 11 kg, although weights as high as 15 kg are not unknown. 

Its disposition is not as mild and gracious as its appearance suggests.  In the breeding season cobs can be territorial and aggressive to intruders, and they have been known to fight to the death.  They do not hesitate to threaten other animals including humans who venture too close to their nests, extending their long necks to issue a warning hiss, which again reminds us of the snake.  There are many accounts of people who have been injured in encounters with a swan.  Some have had an arm or leg broken by the powerful blow of wing or beak, but contrary to popular belief they do not bite. 

Six of the seven swan varieties are white, although they pass through an immature stage in which they are brown.  The only exception is the red-eyed, coral-billed, black Australian variety (Cygnus atratus.)  One lesser swan has a black neck and is almost goose-like in appearance. According to Wildlife Conservation magazine, a swan can have 25,000 feathers.  Its plumage includes the fine, light, insulating coat that provides the remarkable filling material known as swansdown, once reserved exclusively for the quilted garments and bedding of the aristocracy.  


The Hindu goddess, Saraswati, whose name is that of an ancient river that once flowed some thousands of years ago in northern India, and whose bed can be seen to this day although only by satellite, has a swan as her vehicle.   Her name means something like "the flow of true existence."   Depending on the philosophical tradition, she is depicted in association with two different birds.  The swan is one; the other is the peacock.  When both are shown, the reference is to "two forms of knowledge" -- mundane and transcendent, or material and spiritual.

In one Indian cosmogony, dark blue sleeping Vishnu has a lotus growing from the lake that is in his navel, and when it blooms, Brahma and his consort, Saraswati are revealed. Brahma wonders at his origins and so he attempts to follow the stem of the blossom to its source, but he is eventually discouraged.  Then Sarasvati tells him that she is endowed with Mantra, and that if he chants this mantra along with the accompanying meditation practice, then ultimate truth will be revealed to him.  

This divine swan-maiden, Saraswati, is depicted as young, fair and beautiful, with four arms, and all dressed in white.  Seated on her swan, or accompanied by it, she holds the neck of a lute (veena) that lies across her lap, but besides plucking its strings, she also holds her rosary (mala) and a book that stand for vak or recitation.  These associations are maintained in her Buddhist context -- in Tibetan she is called Pema Karpo

In the Indian myth of her origins, she sprang from the forehead of her father, Brahma, and immediately he desired her despite the fact that she was his daughter.  Therefore Saraswati kept dodging his attentions but no matter which way she moved, Brahma grew a head in that direction, the better to keep her in his sights.  That chase explains Brahma's four faces, and some say there is a fifth head on top so that she could not elude him even by moving above. 

Brahma finally manages to unite with her but the offspring of that union were of a special nature: The four Vedas, scriptures that are the foundation of the wisdom of ancient India.  Brahma could not subdue this Wisdom Goddess, and though she, as his lawful wife ought to have taken her place at his left side for the Yajna or  fire-sacrifice, she purposely delayed so as to miss the auspicious hour.  Therefore she was deposed and replaced by the daughter of a sage (rishi), called Gayatri, the goddess who is the essential ritual-mantra of Brahminic Hinduism. 

A disinherited daughter/estranged wife, Saraswati embodies the freedom of inquiry, and independence of spirit that is characteristic of truth-seeking and creativity.

Shape-shifting Maidens

The myth of a magnificent bird who turns into a young woman is known as the motif of the Swan-Maiden, and it appears in both eastern and western cultures.  Women who turn into birds and vice versa are popular themes in folklore and literature, too. 

Tales of the Thousand and One Nights includes the story of Hasan of Basra, who visits the  place of the bird-maidens.  When they take off their feather garments, they become  beautiful women.  Hassan hides the clothes of one of them in order to keep her as his wife, but she manages to regain her feathers and flies away.  Hassan sets out on a quest to regain her, and after many adventures finally succeeds.

Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover is a Slav tale that begins as Mikhail is about to shoot a swan that warns him "Shoot not, else ill-fortune will doom thee for evermore!"  When the swan lands, she turns into a beautiful maiden but when Mikhail tries to kiss her she warns him that she is an infidel.  However, if he takes her to the holy city of Kiev so that she might be received into the Church, he will then be able to marry her. 

In a similar South German folk tale, a swan again speaks to a forester who is about to kill her.  In this instance, she says that if he can keep the secret of her existence for one whole year, she will be his but of course, he fails.

In the Celtic myth of King Lear (or Lir,) the good king's wife dies, and to provide his children with a mother, he marries Arife.  However, she is a wickedly jealous woman who manages to turns them all into wild swans.

There is also the Hans Andersen tale of The Wild Swans who are the brothers of the accomplished Elise who must make them all shirts out of stinging nettles within one year's time to keep them with her in human form.  She ALMOST accomplishes the task ... .

Swan Lake 

Tchaikovsky wrote a score for the ballet Lebedinoe Ozero (Swan Lake) in May 1875.  The scenario contains many elements from all the above-mentioned tales, but in the ballet, both Odette and the black swan, Odile, are in the sway of the magician, Rothbart.

Other possible sources of inspiration could have been Johann Karl August Musäus’ Der geraubte Schleier, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans and Alexandre Pushkin’s Tzar Sultan, the story of a prince who saves the life of a wounded swan who later reappears as a woman to marry him.  There are also elements of the story that are traditional in many ballets.  One cannot discount the influence, at least on Tchaikovsky, of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the story of an heroic Swan Prince, a man with a mysterious past who arrives on a magical swan-boat.  ~ Metropolitan Ballet, a history of the swan ballet.

No contemporary amusement park Tunnel of Love or carousel ride is complete without at least one swan-boat.  However, the boat of Lohengrin (son of the Grail-seeker, Parsifal,) is not in swan form but rather described as being drawn by swans all the way to Antwerp, where he is to serve Elsa of Brabant.


nettles:  Tibetan yogi, the poet-saint Milarepa's sole fare at times was nettles, so that he is often depicted as having greenish skin. 

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