In Ireland, it was believed that swans pulled the bark of the sun across the underworld sea each night. Swans also bore the souls of Celtic chieftains to the afterlife. Swans had magic powers that could make mortals sleep. Swan skins and feathers were used to make the cloaks of Celtic poets. In County Mayo, the souls of virtuous maidens were said to reside in swans. In Scotland, three swans flying together was an omen of national disaster. Celtic swan deities were generally solar and possessed the healing powers of sun and water.
Conductor of Souls
For the ancient Celts swans were the conductors of souls across the Milky Way at birth and again at death. It was a swan, not a stork, who brought babies. In the Hebrides people saw the whooper swans migrating northwards to their breeding grounds in Iceland each spring as carrying the souls of the dead to heaven.
Brigid (Irish Brighid, Scottish Bride, Manx Bree) was a pre-Christian Celtic goddess associated with poetry, fertility, childbirth, healing, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle, sacred wells, serpents (in Scotland), and the arrival of spring. She seems to have been a dawn goddess, accounting for many of her associations. Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 10th century by Christian monks, says she was “the goddess whom poets adored”.
She appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán. For the Britons she was Brigantia, patron goddess of the Brigantes who gave their name to Britain. She was assimilated to the Roman pantheon as Minerva, goddess of wisdom.
According to Robert Graves, one of Brigid’s symbols was the white swan.
Black the town yonder,
Black those that are in it,
I am the White Swan,
Queen of them all.
After the conversion to Christianity she became St. Brigid, called Jesus’ nursemaid. She shares many of the goddess’ attributes and associations. They share a feast day (February 1, Imbolc) that marks the beginning of spring. In the Christian era, 19 nuns at Kildare tended a perpetual flame for the Saint, which was probably a continuation of a pre-Christian practice of women tending a flame in the goddess’ honor.
The Birth of Cúchulainn
Conchobor, the King of Ulster, and his nobles were at Emhain Macha when a flock of swans descended on the plain, eating all of the grass. There were nine score swans, each score flying as a group and divided into couples tied together with a silver chain. The Ulster folk were angry that the swans had eaten everything, so they chased the swans using their chariots. The chase reached Brug on the Boann River, now Newgrange. Night was falling and it was snowing heavily so the the people sought shelter inside Newgrange. Conchobor’s sister Dechtine was visited in her sleep by Lugh, the Celtic god of light. From their union, she conceived Sétanta, who in later life became the great Irish hero Cúchulainn.
The Story of Angus
Angus, a son of the Dagda, fell in love with the swan maiden Caer, who appeared to him in a dream. At the Festival of Samhain, he visited Loch Bel Dracon and saw a flock of swans, each linked with a silver chain. Caer was among them, wearing a golden chain and coronet. Angus called to her, and so became a swan himself. Angus and Caer circled the lake three times, singing a magical song that put everyone in the vicinity to sleep for three days and nights.
The Children of Lir
The four children of Lir — Fionnúala and her brothers Àed, Conn and Fiachra — were changed into swans by their evil stepmother Aoife, who condemned them to spend 900 years in the form of swans, 300 years at each of three places in Ireland. They could only become human when a prince from the north married a princess from the south and a church bell was rung in Ireland (signaling the coming of Christianity). To protect the children, when the Milesian chieftains came to Ireland, they are said to have made it illegal to harm a swan. At last the conditions were fulfilled and Saint Patrick’s bell was rung. The children were restored, but they were 900 years old and immediately died of old age.
Silent, O Moyle, be the roar of thy water;
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose,
While, murmuring mournfully, Lir’s lovely daughter
Tells to the night-star the tale of her woes.
When shall the swan, her death-note singing,
Sleep with wings in darkness furl’d?
When will heaven, its sweet bells ringing,
Call my spirit from this stormy world?
“Sadly, O Moyle, to thy winter-wave weeping,
Fate bids me languish long ages away;
Yet still in her darkness doth Erin lie sleeping,
Still doth the pure light its dawning delay.
When will that day-star, mildly springing,
Warm our isle with peace and love?
Call my spirit to the fields above?
— Tom Moore
In another version of the story there is no term fixed for the breaking of the enchantment, but when the bells of Innis-gloria rang for the mass, four white birds rose from the loch and flew to church, where they occupied daily a bench, sitting side by side and exhibiting the utmost reverence and devotion. Charmed at the piety of the birds, St. Brandan prayed for them, when they were transformed into children, were baptized, and then died. [Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages(1866-1868).]
The Seven Swan Brothers
A king had seven sons and a daughter, all of whom he pampered. His wife was no longer living, so the king remarried. The new queen couldn’t stand her step-children, so she started telling the king how ill-mannered his children were until the king no longer cared for them.
When she was sure her husband wouldn’t inquire too closely, the queen changed her step-sons into seven swans. She told the king that they had refused to come home and had been lost in the woods. The king wasn’t sorry to lose his disobedient sons, but their sister Lisette knew what her step-mother had done. Lisette begged the king to be allowed to look for her brothers, and after a year of Lisette’s tears, the king relented. He allowed her one week to search the wood for her brothers.
Trudging through the woods, Lisette became exhausted. She lay down for a nap, but her sleep was interrupted by the sound of wings. She woke up and saw seven swans with gold crowns. Just as the sun set over the ocean, the seven swans lost their feathers and became Lisette’s brothers. They told her that they lived in a land across the sea, so far away that they could only cross the sea on the longest day of the year. During the day they lived as swans, but at night they regained their human form.
The seven brothers decided to take Lisette back with them across the sea. To carry her, they wove a basket of willows. As they passed over the castle of the Fairy Queen Morgana, that queen visited Lisette in a dream. The queen told Lisette that the only way to release her brothers from their spell was to make them each a shirt woven from yarn made from the kind of stinging nettles that are found only in churchyards. Further, the queen told Lisette that she must not utter a word the whole time, or the spell would fail.
As the children arrived in distant country, the sun was setting. As the brothers turned back into human form, Lisette told them about her dream. Then, she began working on the shirts.
One day the king of that country was out hunting. He came across Lisette at her work and fell in love with her. When Lisette did not object, the king carried her back to his castle and married her. However, the king’s chancellor was jealous of Lisette. He spied on her, saw her gathering nettles in the churchyard at night, and accused her of sorcery. Lisette couldn’t speak in her own defense, and she was condemned to be burned at the stake. As she walked to her execution, she carried the shirts she had made with her. As the executioner led LIsette to the pyre, her swan brothers came flying to her rescue. Lisette threw the shirts over them and they became human once more, all except the youngest brother, who had a swan’s wing in place of one of his arms because Lisette had not had time to finish his shirt.
The spell broken, Lisette was free from her vow of silence. She told her husband the story and he was proud to have such a resourceful and determined wife, as well as seven strong and handsome brothers in law.
The story is similar to the German fairy tale The Six Swans, and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans (1838), in which brothers are turned into swans by an evil stepmother. In the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales, there are dozens of European stories in which a woman saves or is saved by her brothers, who have been turned into various types of birds (type 451).
The Whooper, a swan, was the tutelary spirit of Sennen Bay in Cornwall. Even when the weather was clear, a small blanket of mist would form in the bay, and the the Whooper would cry out. The cry foretold storms and prevented fishermen going into the open sea when storms threatened. The Whooper disappeared when two men, who were determined to go fishing, ignored its warning, and beat their way through the misty cloud with a flail. Neither they nor the spirit were ever seen again.