The swan was a recurring motif in Greek and Roman mythology, generally as a bird associated with the sun. Each Greek tribe had its own favorite myths, and additional stories were being constantly imported into religion from foreign sources.
The swan was the bird of the Muses. It was sacred to Apollo and Aphrodite. Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, mentioned swan maidens. The Greek word for swan is κυκνωσ (kuknōs). The Latin word is cygnus.
The swan was sacred to Hyperborean Apollo. Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, who took the form of quail when she conceived him. He was born on the island of Delos on a seventh day, the Sun’s day. On the day of his birth, swans came from the golden stream of Pactolus, and flew seven times around Delos, uttering songs of joy:
Zeus presented the infant Apollo with a lyre and a chariot drawn by white horses. The horses carried Apollo to “first to their home on the shores of the ocean beyond the home of the North Wind, where the Hyperboreans lived under a sky which was always clear.”
Another version says that Apollo was born in Hyperborea rather than at Delos. The Classical World identified the Hyperborean paradise with the British Isles, although it must originally have been located in Siberia. Apollo was the god of music, and his lyre was carved with a swan’s neck, head, feet, and feathers. Greek art depicts him riding on the back of a swan or in a chariot drawn by swans when he returned to visit the country of his birth. (Robert Graves, The Greek Myths § 161.4). Swans also bear the souls of sacrificial kings to Hyperborea. (Graves, § 161.4). One legend says that the soul of Apollo passed into a swan. Hence, the Pythagoreans believed that the souls of all good poets and musicians passed into the bodies of swans. (Brewer’s Book of Myth and Legend).
Swans were kept and fed as sacred birds on the Eurotas River. They were revered in Sparta as emblems of Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), goddess of love, whose chariot was drawn by swans. The swan acquired sexual connotations by its association with Aphrodite. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10:15). Some writers suggest that the association arose from a parallel between sexual release and the myth of swans singing a final song before death. In this view, the swan’s song is the passionate outpouring of a lover before release or death.
Zeus, the king of the gods, took the form of a swan when he seduced Leda, the daughter of Thestius, King of Aetolia, and wife of the Tyndareus, King of Sparta. One evening, as Leda was bathing in a pool, Zeus saw her and became enamored. He changed himself into a swan, a bird sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. He flew down from Olympus to be with Leda. Leda saw only a magnificent swan of iridescent whiteness. Not knowing the swan was Zeus, she was initially receptive. When she realized who he was, she changed herself into a goose to escape him, but was ultimately seduced. Later that same night, Leda lay with her husband Tyndareus. She became the mother of Pollux and Helen by Zeus, and the mother of Castor and Clytemnestra by her husband. Castor and Pollux became heroes, the Dioscuri, and are represented in the Zodiac as the Twins of Gemini. Helen became Helen of Troy, whose abduction led to the Trojan War.
Some authorities see Leda’s husband Tyndareus as an aspect of Zeus in his role as Thunderer, Leda herself as earth mother, the Dioscuri as the morning and evening stars, and the beautiful Helen as an incarnation of Selene, the moon, “which swims at night as a silver swan upon the deep dark sky-sea.” (Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868)).
In the Cypriot version, Nemesis, goddess of retribution, flying in pursuit of Zeus, took the form of a swan, and dropped an egg, from which Helen hatched.
A late story says Helen united with Achilles on a spirit-isle in northern Pontus, where they were served by flights of white birds. (Baring-Gould).
Cygnus, King of the Ligurians
A musician named Cygnus became King of the Ligurians. On his death, he was changed into a swan by Apollo. (Pausanius, Description of Greece 1.30.1).
Cycnus, Son of Poseidon
Cycnus (in Latin, Cionus), King of Colonae, was son of Poseidon and Calyce (or Harpale or Thyna). He was born in secret and exposed on the seashore to die. However, a swan took pity on the baby and flew down to comfort for him. Some fishermen saw the swan and rescued him. As an adult, he became King of Colonae, a city north of Troy. He married first, Procleia, a daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. They had a son Tenes and a daughter Hemithea (however, Tenes claimed Apollo as his father). After his wife’s death, he married Phylonome, daughter of Tragasus. His new wife fell in love her stepson. When she failed to seduce him, she accused him of having tried to violate her. As punishment, Cycnus locked his two children in a chest and set them adrift. They came ashore at Tenedos, where Tene became king. When Cycnus discovered the truth, he had his wife buried alive, then sailed to Tenedos to be reconciled with his children. Tenes angrily refused his father’s overtures and cut the cables of his father’s ship with an ax — hence the expression, “He cut him with an ax from Tenedos.”
Eventually, Tenes was reconciled to his father, who then settled on Tenedos. However, during the Trojan War, Tenes provoked Achilles by hurling a huge rock at the Greek ships from a cliff. Achilles landed and ravaged Tenedos, killing both Cycnus and Tenes. Achilles killed Tenes with a thrust through the heart, and thereby sealed his own eventual doom for killing a son of Apollo. Cycnus he killed with a blow to the head; as Cycnus died, his father Poseidon turned him into a swan. Achilles pursued Hemitha, and would have captured and violated her, but the earth opened and swallowed her. (Pausanius, Description of Greece 10.14.1-3; Apollodorus, Library and Epitome E.3.23-26; Ovid, Metamorphoses 12:3; Graves, The Greek Myths § 161.f – 161.h).
In another version, he was the son of Poseidon by Hyrie. He sprang from a rock and became the bird from which he derives his name. His mother, dissolving into tears, was transformed into a lake whereon the swan now glides. (Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868)).
Cygnus, son of Sthenele
Another Cygnus was son of Sthenele and a close friend of Phaëthon. Phaëthon was a mortal son of Helios the Sun, who attempted to drive his father’s chariot across the sky. Phaëthon lost control of the chariot, which veered too close to earth. Zeus, the king of the gods, struck down Phaëthon, who plummeted to earth into the river Eridanus. Cygnus was overcome with grief at the death of his friend. The Greeks believed that human remains needed to have a proper resting place, or the spirit would wander the upper world as a ghost and never find peace in the underworld. So, Cygnus dived into the river again and again until he had collected all the bones of his friend. Impressed with Cygnus’ devotion to Phaëthon, Zeus turned him into a swan: “As (Cygnus) mourned, his voice became thin and shrill, and white feathers hid his hair. His neck grew long, stretching out from his breast, his fingers reddened and a membrane joined them together. Wings clothed his sides, and a blunt beak fastened on his mouth. Cygnus became a new kind of bird: but he put no trust in the skies, nor in Zeus, for he remembered how that god had unjustly hurled his flaming bolt. Instead, Cygnus made for marshes and broad lakes, and in his hatred of flames chose to inhabit the rivers, which are the very antithesis of fire.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 2:374-382).
Cycnus, Son of Ares
Another Cycnus was son of Ares, god of war, by Pelopea (or Pyrene). He lived in southern Thessaly, where he slew pilgrims till Apollo cut off his head, and gave the skull to the temple of Ares. According to another version, he was slain by the hero Herakles. His father Ares was so enraged that he fought with the hero.
The swan was the bird of the Muses, the nine patron goddesses of the arts. By Classical times, they were regarded as the daughters Zeus, king of the gods, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. (Hesiod, Theogony). The Muses were originally nymphs. They were the Greek version of the Indian Apsaras; which is why the swan is their symbol. Apollo was the patron of the Muses. Their connection with swans might have given rise to his.
A swan was the pet of the Queen Cassiopeia, the wife of Cepheus, King of Ethiopia. Cassiopeia boasted that her daughter Andomeda was more beautiful than than the Nereids, and even more beautiful than Hera herself. The goddesses complained to Poseidon, who sent a sea monster to ravage the coast of Ethiopia. To appease Poseidon, an oracle ordered the sacrifice of Andromeda. However, the hero Perseus killed the monster and saved the girl.
The swan is the symbol of Orpheus, the greatest poet and musician of the Greeks, as well as the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He was the son of Calliope by either the mortal Oeagrus or the god Apollo. It was said that his music could charm wild beasts and coax rocks and trees into movement. He was one of the Argonauts, traveling in the company of Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece. When they had to pass the Sirens, Orpheus’ music saved the crew from being lured to destruction. Disconsolate by the death of his wife, he traveled to the underworld to beg for her return. Hades agreed to release her on condition that Orpheus conduct her to the surface without looking back. However, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus did look back, and his wife returned to the underworld. Again distraught, Orpheus shunned the company of humans. A group of Ciconian Maenads, devotees of Dionysus, found him one day. They attacked him with rocks and branches, but his music turned away every object they threw. Finally, the Maenads attacked him with their bare hands and tore him to pieces. His head floated down the river, still singing, and came to rest at the island of Lesbos. Zeus, the king of the gods, placed him in the heavens as the constellation Cygnus, to spend eternity by his harp, Lyra.
Socrates, in his Phaedo, wrote that swans sing just before their deaths, but do so from joy because they are about to approach the gods:
“They sing before this as well. But when they sense that they are about to die they sing quite frequently and most beautifully. They rejoice because they are about to approach the Gods whose servants they are. Men, however, in their fear of death relate false tales about swans. They say that it is in pain and mourning that swans sing about their deaths. They do not consider that birds do not sing when they are hungry or cold or suffering from some other misery, not even the nightingale or swallow or hoopoe. But they say that the birds sing to bemoan their sadness. But I do not believe that they sing in pain, nor do I believe the lies about the swans. They are Apollo’s birds; they see the future and know therefore all the good which awaits us in death, so they sense on that day a blissfulness greater than ever before. And I consider myself like the swans to be in the service of the same master. I, too, am the holy property of God.”
Apollonius of Tyana
Apollonius of Tyana was a neo-Pythagorean philosopher-sage, physician and wonder-worker in the 1st century CE. He was born into a wealthy family at Tyana, in what is now Turkey. According to legend, his mother was sleeping in a meadow when wild swans landed near her. They woke her with their cries and the beating of their wings. She then gave birth immediately and prematurely to Apollonius. Apollonius traveled widely in Italy, Greece, Spain, Africa, Asia Minor, Persia and India. He wrote numerous philosophical books. He was accused of treason by the Emperors Nero and Domitian, but was greatly admired by the later Emperors Hadrian, Severus and Marcus Aurelius. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius). He has been generally condemned by Christians because of the similarities of his life to that of Christ. Some historians have speculated that he might have been identical with the Apostle Paul.