Wings for Eternity

The motorway into London is my constant companion right now. I dice with city-bound traffic, getting bolder and bolder, jostling with London taxis with cocky familiarity.

But as I flew up the M4 on Friday the most extraordinary sight met my eyes.

I was on the section which passes over the River Thames at Windsor, when I looked up. I am used to seeing all manner of aircraft: geekily I adore each sighting; but what I saw was no motorised bird.

No: it was ten real ones. But they were far too large to be geese. And as I adjusted my focus I realised that I was seeing swans.

Their span is so different from other birds: a great white accent in the sky, a flash of something with such regal grace, so rare, that I could scarcely take it in. There were ten of these beautiful creatures.

I was awe-struck. Mesmerised. And instantaneously, the wild mystery of all those swannish fairy tales and all the lore and history and prehistory rushed in and clamoured in my mind for attention.

For these creatures have been here longer than we have.

Cygnus Falconeri – the giant swan – was a lot bigger than today’s swans, back in the Middle Pleistocene period before man had appeared on the scene. Fossilised remains show a bill-to-tail length of more than two metres. And the giant swan stood tall, too: taller than the dwarf elephants of the time.

Maybe we hold some residual awe for the length of time these creatures have held their own on this globe. Their stay dwarfs ours. And they haunt our existence; a royal bird here in England, the Greeks had their God Zeus transform into one. The Fins have a swan who lives in the river which flows through their underworld, and whoever kills it would certainly die.

Swans are revered in Hinduism and a wise spiritual person is called a ‘Great Swan’. And St Hugh of Lincoln’s saintliness was accentuated by the swan who appeared utterly devoted to him.

Once a swan has found a partner they remain with them for life. If their partner dies naturalists have documented swans going into periods of mourning; if they stay in the same place they will remain single for the rest of their lives.

Extraordinary birds inspire extraordinary tales.

Swan tales are some of the most haunting in the realm of folklore: and none more than a tale which nods in the direction of the aeons the creature has occupied this earth.

It is an Irish tale called The Children Of Lir.

And it does not have a happy ending.

It concerns a strange race of people who haunt Ireland’s prehistory called the Tuatha Dé Danann. They appear as mortals in all the tales, yet there is evidence that once, like the Greeks, these were tales of the Gods and their whims.

So once, there was a selection for King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Lir was most anxious to be chosen. But it was not to be: the people chose Bodb Derg instead.

There is a way to heal the rifts caused by political disappointment, to forge political links without conceding one’s own position: and that way is through judicious marriage.

Bodb Derg offered one of his daughters to Lin, and Lin was much taken with this gentle beauty. They married and were very happy: and had four children, a daughter and three sons.

But fairy tales are wont to kill off beautiful mothers and replace them with harridans. The beautiful Aoibh died, leaving children and father bereft; and her sister, Aoife, moved in as second wife.

She was jealous, of course, and wanted the children dead. She tried paying someone to do it but they refused; tried herself but she was too cowardly; and so, an enchantress of the stature of Morgan Le Fay, she turned them into swans.

The poor children. They were cursed to spend 300 years on each of three waters, almost a thousand years in total. And this they did, lonely and listless.

A monk’s blessing was the antidote, and during their sojurn Ireland became Christian. They found a monk – MacCaomhog – who gave them sanctuary.

But a nearby King’s wife wanted them for her own. She ordered the monastery attacked and the swans captured. The silver chains which had always bound the children together were broken, and the enchantment with them: but the siblings must pay the price of 900 years of living. The emerged old, withered people, at the end of a long and desolate life.

Barren and uncompromising, this and most swan stories.

Maybe its spinners sensed the ancient provenance of this strangest spirit of the skies.


52 thoughts on “Wings for Eternity

  1. A most interesting history on the folklore surrounding the swan, Kate. Your tale reminded me of the solitary goose that honked furiously at the pup and me on our Sunday stroll. I could only figure that it was upset to be alone and asking after its mate…. Your swan is lovely; these silly geese need to fly North…their mess is everywhere! ~

    1. Oh, for someone to invent a patent goose mess vaccum, Angela. It is the vilest stuff. And trust a goose to pick a fight with the poor pup…

      Macaulay has tried altercations with swans, but the very thought worries me. Swans are strong birds, aggressive when riled.

  2. They are indeed birds with a PRESENCE.

    Last year I met a few on a friends farm where they have huge runs and breed – a pair to a run with a pond, and the males are extremely territorial, enough to really scare me (I’m a bit of a scaredy cat)

    Imagining stories about them is very easy indeed.

    1. I know what you mean about scary, Sidey. You can feed the ducks at Windsor but the swans get very pushy indeed. We gave up that particular tourist activity years ago!

  3. Our opposite number, the black swan, is a significant totem here on the Swan River in Perth, WA. Indeed it is our state emblem and figures prominently in aboriginal lore on both sides of this big island. I just googled some dreamtime stories about the swan, and likewise – “barren and uncompromising.” The swan must be an archetype!

  4. I lived in a house, backing onto the Thames, as a child and had a boat of my own before I was allowed a bicycle! I remember being cautioned of the power of swans and was always careful to give them and their young a wide berth. Beautiful creatures.

    1. They are, Roger. Fancy being able to row before you could cycle. What a wonderful experience for a child. And you quickly learnt who to approach and who to leave be!

  5. Beautiful creatures, but stay well clear. The tale of the Children of Lir always gives me the creeps- I’ll take Snow White any day 🙂

    1. All the swan tales are creepy, don’t you think, Fiona? People who transform into swans…both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen could not resist…

  6. Yes to the archetype–and I think it’s about identity. Maybe that Irish story is about being imprisoned and disguised by externally-defined and supplied beauty. (I think of little girls and so-called beauty pageants in which they are aged obscenely into sexual maturity.) For those of us who are suckers for a happy ending, though, I’ll offer up the antithetical Ugly Duckling story, in which a real swan discovers his own beauty, and true nature, by growing up. (Speaking of which, I remember it was not that long ago that you wrote about being terrified by the same drive that you now negotiate with “cocky familiarity”–way to go!)

    1. I love that interpretation, Barbara. It rings true. And trust Hans Christian Andersen to find a happy ending to a swan tale 🙂

      Ah, yes: London has become very familiar, very fast…

  7. What a treat this post was on this gray morning in NY. 🙂
    I have always been fascinated by these creatures. I had the good fortune to live close by a pond where a small flock would frequent…there was one black swan, the one and only I have ever seen, and it was intriguing beyond measure to watch. Such elegance.

  8. What a fantastic sight Kate, I dont think I’ve ever seen them on the wing – my only memory is of them (usually in pairs) sailing calmy down some water way like a ship in full sail. Most excellent tale 🙂

    1. Thanks, Linda: It is the second time this year we have seen one on the wing. Today’s feature picture comes from a moment when we stood outside Hampton Court ready to go in, and this bird just hove into view. I was fumbling with my camera, thought I wouldn’t be able to catch it but I got it in the end. A little blurry, but bang overhead. Magic.

  9. I’ve never seen a swan in flight, though we have a wonderful pair who live in the duck pond on Boston Common (Romeo & Juliet), and a small family in a local reservoir. I wonder if it’s from stories like Lir that the term a “lamentation” of swans comes?

    Of note, the pair on Boston Common was quite famous a few years back for unsuccessfully nesting. It was discovered that this pair are both female, and quite devoted.

    And now, I have the theme from Swan Lake in my head—another tale of transformation and regret…

    1. I love that collective noun thought, Cameron. Impossibly beautiful but so very distant, a set of creatures locked within their own culture. Fabulous.

      And two loyal females, too. To me, that is just magical. Thanks 🙂

  10. A swan tale from my childhood that I had forgotten, but which has a happier ending is, “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, about a princess who rescues her eleven brothers from a spell cast by an evil queen.

    We have some swans here in northern Indiana and occasionally see a few from my sister’s windows overlooking the river and lake, or on a local pond. However, the best swan sighting I’ve had was 16 or 17 years ago when I still lived in WA. There were literally hundreds, both in the fields and in the air, and it was awesome, to say the least!! See: I had not thought of them for many years until reading this post, Kate. Thanks for jogging loose another memory for me. 🙂

    1. HI Smidge 🙂 Thanks for popping in and leaving a comment! Me too: the thought of four beautiful kids condemned to wander the Irish lakes for a millennium: just desolate.

      Think I might cheer myself by comfort-eating a round of Mabel June’s oat cakes…

  11. What a sight to behold those dozen swans in flight must have been, Kate. Gives me goose bumps to think about them and reminds me of A. A. Milne’s “The Trumpet of the Swan”, which I have, sad to say, never read. It sits, languishing, on a shelf. I must remedy that.

    I did not know this Irish folk tale. Thank you.

  12. Canadian Geese, yes but no, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a flying swan. Turkey Vultures? often circling about a rabbit or javalina that met it’s fate on the road. I wonder if there are old Native American tales about such things and if they have happier endings.

    1. Now, there you go, Tammy, sending me off down a track to investigate 😀 I can’t resist the idea that turkey vultures might have a wealth of story attached to them! Thanks!

  13. I love the way you weave in swan stories. They are incredibly magnificent, and I’ve had little contact outside of zoos and Disneyland at Sleeping beauty’s Castle. I can’t imagine how glorious to look up and see them in flight! I lwonder if your trips to London are for visiting your Mum…and swans also symbolize love. Seems like a lovely connection:-) Debra

    1. Debra, that is a beautiful connection. Thank you. Yes, the trips are all to see Mum in hospital. Life sends us curveballs sometimes; but it also sends small moments of wonder like this one 🙂

  14. Such a beautiful sight Kate! I often go to Windermere and watch the swans. I was sat on a bank and one planted itself beside me; I dared not move. It soon returned to the water: I must have been far too boring for its liking.

    1. I wonder how one entertains a swan who comes to stay, Helen? I would have held my breath and wished for it to remain, but wild things do what wild things do. It reminds me of CS Lewis: “Joy is a stab of longing..”

  15. Oh, Great Swan . . . you are wise and mesmerize us with your carefully tailored tales! 😀

    I hope that your time on the London motorway comes to an end soon.

  16. Did you take that photo while you were driving, Kate?! 😉 I have seen many swans – black and white – but never the spectacle of them in flight. Fantastic

  17. So glad I came back and caught up. Swans remind me of England. When we were there on our Rotary trip in 2010, a tour of Ely was one of the things we did. Swans were everywhere on that river, and they told us (is this true? you tell me) that all swans are considered the domain of Her Majesty the Queen, and killing them is a crime. (Living in a tourist place, I know how the guides make things up, so I’ve always wondered if this was true.) The lake was littered with white swans. With Ely Cathedral in the background, a black one lit on the water. It was one of those mystical, godlike moments that have only happened to me sporadically in life.

  18. If you want to know the power of a swan, watch them take off!
    Or listen to the whistle of the wind in wing feathers
    Keep well clear, for those wings can break your leg
    Heed their hisses, it is a dire warning

    Love Dad

  19. How lovely, what a dark tale though. I did recently discover that swans seem to quite like carrot cake 🙂

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