Themes of Swan Maiden Lore

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Birds are symbols of freedom and elusiveness, sensuality and romance, even tragic love. All these characteristics and more are prevalent in one of the most widespread of fictional narratives, the so-called swan maiden tales.

Though variations exist, these stories frequently feature beautiful women who present as swans or other avifauna1 until they disrobe to bathe or swim. Conflict ensues when a male interloper sweeps away one of the maidens to be his bride. Voyeurism, coercion, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal, and third-party meddling are common plot elements, so tales like these tend to explore a range of power dynamics. Storylines often address whether true love can develop between the maiden and her captor/rescuer.

Trials of Love

For the protagonists’ relationship to survive—and it doesn’t always—the two usually must transform psychologically (especially to nurture or rebuild trust), and in some cases, physically (so that either are both human or both avian). As an example of the latter, in an ancient Irish text, the Celtic deity Óengus turns himself into a swan so he can join his swan princess Caer Ibormeith.2, 3 In a Swedish story with a different scenario and outcome, a hunter years later returns his wife’s confiscated feathered cloak. By doing so, however, he unwittingly reveals his culpability in the garment’s theft, destroying the relationship. The wife instantly morphs back into a swan and flies away, never to return.4, 5 “Happily ever after” is not a given, but in those tales where the woman resumes form as a bird and departs, reunion is possible if the husband can prove his love by completing a difficult trek to successfully locate her.6

Different versions of swan maiden tales exist throughout the world, with the Asian continent an important source of several. A couple (“The Story of Janshah” and “Hassan of Bassora and the King’s Daughter of Jinn”) are included in the One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights).7 Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, however, is probably the most well-known example. In the nineteenth-century Russian composer’s ballet masterpiece, Odette and Prince Siegfried are tested by a scheming sorcerer and his daughter. The two lovers die tragically but are reunited happily together as spirits.8 Though Swan Lake is arguably the most famous of such tales, the oldest likely originates from ancient India in the account of King Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī, two lovers tricked into violating a vow that results in their separation.9, 10

Narratives like these clearly transcend time and cultures, probably because romantic relationships and their dynamics are of universal interest. Part of such lore’s appeal may also lie with birds in general, a subject that has long fascinated the imaginations of poets, storytellers, and artists. Swans are significant due to their associations with grace, beauty, and the otherworldly, all aspects desirable to humans. The swan maiden stories acknowledge both the affinities and differences between our world and those represented by birds. Many of these tales offer us hope that humans are capable of great change and love.

Sources:

  1. For one of the earliest studies of this subject, please refer to the two chapters devoted to swan maidens in ES Hartland’s The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. London, UK: Walter Scott, 1891. pp. 255–332. Hartland notes that swans are not the only birds found in such stories, citing instances including doves, vultures, and other waterfowl. In some cases, the maidens do not appear as birds at all. As for men, they—rather than women—appear occasionally in avian form (e.g., the Brothers Grimm’s “Six Swans” and Wagner’s opera Lohengrin). On a related note, in the myth-inspired poems and paintings depicting the rape of Leda by the Greek god Zeus, a masculine deity is the one who morphs into a swan. This myth, however, is not considered part of swan maiden lore.
  2. Sax, B. The Serpent and the Swan: The Animal Bride in Folklore and Literature. Blacksburg, VA: McDonald & Woodward, 1998. p.64.
  3. Gantz, J. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1982. pp. 108–112.
  4. Yolen, J. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. 303–304.
  5. Booss, C. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland & Iceland. New York: Crown, 1984. pp. 248–250.
  6. DL Ashliman, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Pittsburgh, includes several of these stories among his online collection of featured swan maiden tales: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/swan.html.
  7. Campbell, JJ. The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology (Volume 1). London, UK: Alfred van der Marck, Summerfield Press, 1983. p. 186.
  8. Sax, B. pp. 161–162.
  9. Sax, B. p. 63.
  10. Leavy, BF. In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. New York: New York University Press, 1993. pp. 33–63.

Tweet Dreams and Flights of the Imagination

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What do you see when you gaze up at a bird? Just a small flapping bundle of bones, tissue, and feathers? Maybe a winged life-form in search of a mate or on the lookout for its next meal? Perhaps a colorful songster if it’s trilling a pretty tune?

But is that all? Chances are that there’s also something calling forth to deeper dimensions of your being, beyond the surface of empirical and intellectual analysis, to those undercurrents where myth, poetry, folklore, music, and the visual arts live. To the world of dreams and the imagination, the place where deep-seated and powerful emotions play with a language all their own. And if we look closely, our feathered friends take flight from there as well.

When a Bird is not just a Bird

As Freud and other psychologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began exploring the human subconscious, they soon noticed the appearance of birds in their patients’ dreams. This is not surprising. “Dreams about birds are very common and extremely various,” Julia Turner remarked in her 1924 book Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream (1).

Anybody remotely aware of Freud’s research knows that he frequently ascribed sexual implications to his patients’ dreams. The subject of birds was no different. “The intimate connection between flying and the idea of a bird makes it comprehensible that the dream of flying in the case of men usually has a significance of coarse sensuality,” he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, adding that similar content revealed by female patients also indicated “longing.” (2)

The Austrian psychoanalyst’s assessments did not go unchallenged. In particular, Freud’s former protégé Carl Jung saw a greater range of dynamics at work, often extending well beyond sexuality. These aspects typically related to archetypes found in world religions and mythology. Joseph L. Henderson, one of Jung’s followers, indicated that avian creatures often symbolize spiritual release and transcendence (3). Such ideas also correspond in part to those of Julia Turner, who connected birds to a person’s “higher self,” seeing feathered animals as longstanding symbols of the soul (4). A previous post here delves more into the bird-as-spirit cultural element.

On a sidenote, the very nature of dreaming may be responsible for the long-held and widespread association of birds with the soul. In other words, the dreaming state conceivably fostered notions in early societies of a spirit separate from and capable of venturing outside the body. Stanislas Dehaene, a professor of experimental cognitive psychology at the Collége de France, touches on this idea in his 2014 book Consciousness and the Brain. “And the bird,” he adds, “seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.” (5) Dehaene briefly notes in his book several historical instances of related bird symbolism.

“Therapeutic” Meanings

Birds probably fascinated humans long before the invention of language, which may account for the many ways our winged neighbors continue to entice us. Like the pioneers of modern psychology, British ornithologist Edward A. Armstrong respected the pull that symbols can have on the mind. After all, he devoted several books to bird folklore. Though he embraced science, he also valued so-called “dream thinking” and “folk thinking.” “Probably both types of thinking are therapeutic,” he stated, “because in them the lightly buried, partly repudiated, past finds expression.” (6)

As for the various interpretations of such expressions, ideas advanced by Freudians, Jungians, and others are all probably correct—depending on the individual, his or her culture, and the circumstances. In a sense then how people decipher the avian content of the subconscious mind may be debatable. That birds still rouse feelings of hope and desire, wonder and excitement, continuing to give flight to the imagination, fortunately is not.

Sources:

  1. Turner, J. Human Psychology as Seen Through the Dream. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2000 (reprint – first published in 1924 by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.). p. 163
  2. Freud, S. The Interpretation of Dreams. Third Edition (Translator: Brill, AA). New York: Macmillan, 1923. p. 239.
  3. Henderson, JL. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man”. Jung CG, et al. Man and His Symbols. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968. pp. 147-156.
  4. Turner, J. pp. 162-163.
  5. Dehaene, S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. New York: Viking Penguin. 2014. p. 1.
  6. Armstrong, EA. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Collins, 1958. p. 84.