In Norse myth, swans were born out of Ginnungagap (”seeming emptiness”) when the fire of Múspellsheimr (”flame-land”) in the south met the cold of Niflheimr (”mist-land”) in the north. Fire and frost were the primary elements of Norse mythology. The frost drops melted and the water poured into the vast chasm of Ginnungagap, out of which the universe was born.
The Norse associated swans with the Valkyries, the swan maidens who transported men slain in battle to Óðinn’s Valhöll (Valhalla). Valkyries discard their plumage when they adopt human shape. Any man who can steal their plumage is able to command them.
White cirrus clouds were said to be swans flying around the chariot of the god Freyr.
According to tradition, a swan’s eggs will only hatch during a thunderstorm, and then only when lightning strikes the shell. If a swan stretches its head and neck over its wings, a thunderstorm is brewing. In Iceland, the music of a swan is said to presage a thaw.
For good luck, swans were used as figureheads on ships because swans do not plunge themselves beneath the waves.
Fly along, o’er the verdant ground,
Glimmering swans to the ripping sound;
Sweetly swans are singing
In the summer time.
There a swan as silver white,
In the summer time,
Lay upon my bosom light.
Sweetly swans are singing!
Brunhild, who was won by Sigurd, and who died for him, is said to “move on her seat as a swan rocking on a wave;” and the three sea-maids from whom Hagne stole a dress, which is simply described as “wonderful” in the Nibelungenlied, are said to “swim as birds before him on the flood. In the Gudrun-Lied, an angel approaches like a swimming wild-bird.
Volund the Smith
The King of the Finns had three sons, Slagfid, Egil and Volund (the original of Wayland the Smith). They went on snow-shoes and hunted wild beasts. They came to Ulfdal, and there made themselves a house at a water called the Wolfiake. Early one morning they found, on the border of the lake, three maidens sitting and spinning flax. Near them lay their swan plumages: they were Valkyries. Two of them, Hladgud (Swan-white) and Hervor (All-white), were daughters of King Hlodver; the third was Olrun, a daughter of Kiar of Valland. The brothers took these women home to their dwelling. Egil had Olrun, Slagfid had Hladgud, and Volund had Hervor. They lived there seven years, and then the women flew away seeking conflicts, and did not return. Egil then went on snow-shoes in search of Olrun, and Slagfld in search of Hladgud, but Volund remained in Wolfdale. (Edda of Soemund)
In the German story of Weiland this incident has disappeared; but the Wilkina Saga, a 14th century composition, says the hero wandered in search of his beloved Angelburga. By chance he arrived at a fountain, in which were bathing three maidens, with their dresses, consisting of doves’ feathers, lying at the side. Wieland, armed with a root that made him invisible, approached the bank and stole the clothes. The maidens, on discovering their loss, uttered cries of distress. Wieland appeared, and promised to return their bird-skins if one of them would consent to be his wife. They agreed to the terms, leaving the choice to Wieland, who selected Angelburga, whom he had long loved without having seen.
Kára and Helgi
A mortal hero fell in love with a Valkyrie and the two lovers repeated their doomed love over the course of three lifetimes. They were successively reborn as Helgi Hjörvarðsson and Sváva, then as Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrún, then as Helgi Hröngvið’s brother and Kára. She would hover in the air above Helgi and enchant his enemies with her song. In her third incarnation, a battle was being fought on the ice of Lake Vener, between two Swedish kings, supported by Kára’s lover Helgi, on one side, and King Olaf of Norway, supported by Hromund Greipssonduring, the betrothed of the king’s sister, on the other side. Kára floated above the battle in the form of a swan. By her incantations, she blunted the weapons of King Olaf’s men, so that they began to give way before the Swedes. But Helgi, in raising his sword, accidentally struck off the leg of the swan, mortally wounding his mistress. From that moment the tide of battle turned, and the Norwegians were victorious. (”Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar,” “Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and II,” and “Hrómundar saga Gripssonar”)