The Swan in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 9, 2020
Swans are seen as a symbol of love and fidelity around the world because of their custom of mating for life. In Irish mythology, swans are usually depicted as shape-shifters, capable of transforming into human and bird form at will.
At over 1.5 metres in length, weighing over 15 kilos, and with a wingspan of up to 3 metres, the swan is considered one of our largest flying birds. There are seven species of swans around the world, but in Ireland we are graced by the presence of the Mute Swan, which can be identified by its characteristic orange bill with its ‘bump’ at the base, and its striking black facial markings.
Did you know that an adult male is called a ‘cob’, a female is called a ‘pen’, and the young are called ‘cygnets’? A group of swans is known as a ‘bevy’, but when in flight, they are called a ‘wedge’. The Irish call them Eala (pronounced ellah). Did you know also that they can live up to twenty years of age in the wild, much much longer in captivity?
Swans beaks have serrated edges that enable them to tear at the aquatic plants and algae they love to eat, but they will occasionally also consume molluscs, small fish, frogs and worms.
Rather strangely, swans are able to drink salt water. An unusual gland located beneath the skin near their eyes extracts salt from their bloodstream, concentrates it into a liquid, and removes it from the body by expelling it from the nares, the holes in the bill.
Swan meat was considered a great delicacy in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, reserved for the wealthy and the noble. Today, the British Monarch still retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, a tradition which is thought to go back as far as the twelfth century, and which was formalised with the Royal Charter of Edward IV, passed in 1482.
Swans are seen as a symbol of love and fidelity around the world because of their custom of mating for life. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to find that in many cultures and mythologies, the swan is associated with music, love, purity and the soul.
They are also seen as a symbol of light, often because of associations with sun deities, but in Ireland it is because they return from their migrations at the very beginning of Spring, just as the days are lengthening, and the sun is regaining its strength. In this way, the swan is connected with Imbolc, the first day of Spring, and thus also with the Goddess Brigid.
Interestingly, the Swan was sacred not only to the Druids, who saw it as representing the soul, and thought it able to travel between the mortal realm and the Otherworld, but also to the Bards. In ancient Ireland, the bards were very highly esteemed in society, and as a mark of their privileged position, they would wear a special ceremonial cloak. It was called a tuigen, and was made of songbird feathers, but the neck, or cowl, would be composed of the skin and feathers of a swan.
In Irish mythology, swans are usually depicted as shape-shifters, capable of transforming into human and bird form at will. They could be distinguished from normal swans by the gold or silver chain which hung about their necks.
This can be seen in the Tochmarc Étaíne, also known as the ‘Wooing of Étaín’, an early text of the Irish Mythological Cycle. Midir of the Tuatha de Danann falls in love with beautiful Étaín, daughter of Ailill, mortal king of the Ulaid. They are married, but his jealous first wife, Fúamnach, casts a spell on her, turning her into a purple butterfly. After many years of aimless wandering, poor Étaín falls into a glass of wine, where she is swallowed by the wife of Étar, a warrior of the Ulaid, and is reborn.
In time, Étaín is married to the High King Eochu Airem, but Midir hears of this and wants her back. He challenges the king to a game of fidcheal, losing every game and having to complete forfeits. Finally, they agree to play for an kiss from Étaín, and this time, Midir wins. As the two embrace, they are transformed into swans, and so make their escape.
P.W. Joyce relates the myth of the Swan-Woman of the Boyne in his book ‘The Wonders of Ireland’ (1911). In it, he tells how the tenth century poet Erard Mac Cossi threw a stone at a swan which fell to earth and transformed into a woman. She claimed to have been stolen by demons as she lay on her deathbed, and that they also travelled in the shape of swans. Clearly, the word ‘demons’ refers to the magical folk, who came to be regarded with fear and suspicion in Christian times.
This image caught my attention the moment I saw it and reminded me of the Children of Lir.
‘The Children of Lir’ is a very popular and well-known Irish legend from the Mythological Cycle. When Lir’s wife, Aoibh, dies leaving four young children, the family is distraught. Lir remarries, but new wife Aoife is jealous of the children, and plots to get rid of them. She turns them into swans, and banishes them for 900 years. Only the sound of the new God’s bell can restore them, and there is just time to baptise them before they die. (this story has been heavily altered to suit later Christian beliefs… can you tell?)
In another story, Óengus, the God of Love, falls in love with a girl he has seen in his dreams. It took three years of searching the length and breadth of the land before the girl of his dreams was found. Her name was Caer Ibormeith. Every second Samhain, she and 149 other girls, chained in pairs, were magically transformed into swans for a year.
Aengus was told he could marry her if he could identify her in her swan form. Aengus turned himself into a swan and recognised her at once. They flew away together, singing beautiful music that put all listeners asleep for three days and nights.
There is another reference to the singing of swans in classical literature; the ‘swan song’ is an ancient Greek metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death, based on the belief that the silent Mute swan sings a beautiful song in the moment just before death.
With that beautiful, sad and romantic notion in mind, I leave you with this…