In the ancient world, it was widely believed that swans sing only once in their lifetimes, just before they die. Socrates and Plato both mentioned this belief. Geoffrey Chaucer alluded to it about 1374. Hence, the phrase swan song, meaning a person’s final labor. This belief led to an association between swans and prophecy, because swans were thought to predict their own deaths.
The swan is associated with poetry (because the bard Orpheus is said to have become a swan), and with music (because swans were sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of music). The poet Greek Homer (fl. 950 BCE) was called the Swan of Meander. The Roman poet Vergil (70-29 BCE) was called the Swan of Mantua. The English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was called The Swan of Avon. The Swan of Cambray was Fenelon (1651-1715), Archbishop of Cambray and author of Telemachus. The Swan of Padua was Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764).
The swan is also associated with philosophy. On the night before Plato became his student, Socrates dreamt that a swan flew into his bosom (Pausanius, Description of Greece 1.30.1).
Swans symbolize power, because of their size and high flight. Because they are associated with water, they have become associated with fertility. They combine the attributes of water and air, so they have come to be birds of life, representing both the dawn and solar powers.
Swans are also linked with thunder gods. According to tradition, a swan’s eggs will only hatch during a thunder storm, and then only when lightening strikes the shell. If a swan stretches its head and neck over its wings, a thunderstorm is brewing.
These attributes point to an identification of the swan as the symbol of “the powers of poetry and of the poet himself.” The swan, therefore, is the image of the divinely inspired poet, of the sacred priesthood, of the white-robed druid, of the Norse skald and of every type of poetically inspired priest.
In European folklore, swans were often messengers from the world of faerie, who appeared to mortals as swan knights and swan maidens. Mortal kings, princes, princesses, knights and ladies are often turned into swans. Faeries and mortals in the form of swans can always be recognized by the chains around their necks. The chains might be symbol of their link to the great mother goddess. Such chains were the badge of office of Celtic bards, who rattled the chains to command silence.
Until comparatively recently, there was a widespread story that babies were born of earth and water, and brought by swans. In contemporary Europe and America, the swans have been changed to storks.