by Tracy Boyd

© 1978 & 2011


I am the White Swan, Queen of them all.”

Bride (1)



At all of the changes of time and season, the Queen of Fortune is present.  She is the light on the darkest night of winter, the flame that marks the passage of time.  She haunts the memories of another world when all that was of importance was in some way holy.  Whether it be on the threshold of twilight, at summer’s end, at a ceremony of marriage, the birth of a child, or at the moment when the soul drifts slowly away into sleep, and finally, death, this goddess of the sun weaves on wings of white silken down, the fortunes of the world.

These times of transformation, when things are suspended between worlds, are perilous moments.  One can never be sure of what is to come.  In the ancient world, these questions were often answered by birds who, as representatives of the spirit, were harbingers of things to come.  To this end, their cries and movements were cautiously observed for the purposes of mantic divination.  The omens thus obtained, whether auspicious or inauspicious, were, by definition, ‘ominous’ oracles by their very association with birds.  As we know from Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that “all birds were ominous and the word 'bird' itself was synonymous with omen." (2)

It is no small wonder, then, that the unchangeable resoluteness of destiny was a province that fell under the auspices of the avian realm.  The art of augury (‘the divining of omens’), the reading of the auspices (‘omens derived from the observation of birds’), (3) or, as at Dodona, the delivery of the prophecy by the birds themselves, (4) were employed to determine the will of the gods; to divine, if you will, a future that was already predestined.

Understandably, the mythology of the bird as a whole is permeated with an eerie, otherworldly quality.  The swan is no exception.  What emerges as her dominant symbolic mode is a sometimes dark and foreboding image which manages, despite the gloom, to retain that ineffable magical aura that always surrounds the swan. 

The magical belief in the swan as a supernatural bearer of fate is chillingly dramatized in the telling of Manadh nan Eala, the ‘Omen of the Swans’ in the Scots-Gaelic Carmina Gadelica.

         I heard the sweet voice of the swans at the parting of day and

        night, gurgling on journeying wings putting forth their strength

        on high. I immediately stood still, I made no movement, I looked

        to see who was guiding in front, the queen of fortune, the white

        swan. That was on the Friday evening. . . . I lost my possessions

        and my own people a year from that Friday, for ever. (5)

There is no direct mention in this fateful telling that the white swan is an epiphany of the goddess.  It is quite understood that that is who she is.  She speaks through the symbolic imagery of the lines.  As mistress of the three realms of earth, air, and water, the swan is a creature who knows no boundaries and therefore represents that perilous journey between two worlds.  Twilight symbolizes suspension between worlds and is hence fraught with danger.  The presence of the white “queen of fortune” at twilight, when the sun is on the decrease, indicates by means of sympathetic or imitative magic, disastrous misfortune; her sighting at the rising of the sun, or in the early part of the day, its opposite.  We are assured by the same teller that:

         If you should see a swan on a Friday, early in the glad, joyous

        morning, increase will be on your possessions and your kinsfolk,

        your stock will not constantly die. (6)


The specific reference to Friday as either a fateful time of loss or a day of good fortune is most significant.  Despite the Christian usurpation of this day as unlucky because Christ was crucified on “Good” Friday, as it is called, the day was originally a most fortunate day, sacred to Venus, Goddess of Love. (7)  Frigga, “in her earlier Germanic form Frija, . . . gave her name to Friday, the day of Venus, throughout the Germanic world.” (8) Coincidentally, it was a day that “was long considered in Germany to be a lucky one for marriages.” (9)  The Anglo-Saxon Frigedaeg, which is Freitag in modern German, literally means ‘day of the goddess Frig’.  By the same logic, the French Vendredi means ‘Venus’s day’, from the Latin dies Veneris, ‘day of Venus’. (10)    

Frigga, with her seemingly indistinguishable sister goddess, Freyja, who, it is thought, enjoyed a shared beginning in a single goddess, (11) were jointly invoked by women in childbirth. (12) But Frigga, being the penultimate goddess of the family, was more intimately connected with the “begetting of children and a group of super-natural women who were long remembered in north-western Europe for their power to determine the destiny of the new-born child.” (13)  These were the originally Roman Goddesses of Fate, the Parcae, who were sometimes known in Old Norse literature as the Norns (14) (‘to twine’). (15)  The Norns are invariably imaged on the shores of a lake spinning the threads of life under the shade of the Tree of Life, the ash, Yggdrasil, while a pair of white swans swim prominently in the foreground. (16)

The swan was especially sacred to Venus whose sacred day of Friday had always been a cause for celebration.  The first ominous associations with the day can be traced back to the original Eastern Mediterranean calendar adopted by the Christian Celts, (17) a calendar in which Friday was assigned a feminine, and therefore sinister, character.  Hence, the very day that was dedicated to the goddess who ruled over love became known as “hangman’s day” in Europe – Friday having become the customary day for the hanging of criminals. (18)  

The Jews of the Middle Ages were equally guilty of defaming Friday, citing the Talmud as the authority for their particular fear of demons who were reputed to hoard the semen of the pious on that night.  Although other explanations are given, the Talmud ordains Friday night to be set aside for the “performance” of the marital act as a preventative measure against such theft. (19)  Curiously, there is a strange ambiguity surrounding this day in Jewish tradition, for in Jewish lore, in contradistinction to Jewish law, Friday was always favored for weddings due to its association with Venus, the Goddess of Love. (20)

Other traditions similarly designate Friday as propitious for marriages, and in many parts of the world the marriage rite was acknowledged by the gift of a swan as an emblem of love.  Sometimes geese, who, like swans, were known for their faithfulness to each other, were given in place of swans, and this is the probable rationale behind the keeping of sacred geese in the Temple of Juno, (21) the Roman Goddess of Marriage.  Generally speaking, Juno and Venus represent extreme opposite poles in their views concerning love and marriage.  Whereas Juno is a staunch defender of monogamous marriage, Venus rules over the passions of desire regardless of one’s married state. 

In typical patriarchal fashion, Venus’s Greek counterpart, Aphrodite, has been described in negative ways, as an “alluring and seductive figure of fatal enchant-ment [who] rules over desire and over the seduction that leads to sin and destruc-tion.” (22)  Love and death are thus united as complementary aspects of this goddess known for her extraordinary beauty.  Based upon the images that depict her enthroned on the swan, as for example, a terracotta from 6th century B.C.E. Greece, (23) we can infer that the seemingly contradictory aspects of love and death attach equally to the symbolic constellations of both swan and goddess.


Throughout the mythology and folklore of Europe, the swan is a bird of sleep and death.  The so-called Mute Swan (‘Cygnus olor’), “whose voice is by no means mute,” (24) is fabled to have foreknowledge of its own approaching death,

announcing the dying moment with melodious cries.  As is often the case in the naming of bird species, the word swan appears to be derived from this cry, its Indo-European root swen, meaning ‘to sound’, ‘to sing’. (25) The bird’s song is thus the voice of death.  The famed ‘swan songs’, the last works of poets and composers so often imbued with a particularly touching pathos, are thus named after the dying swan’s song. 

A remembrance of that song is offered in the anonymous words set to music by Orlando Gibbons in his early 17th century madrigal The Silver Swan:


        The silver swan, who, living, had no note,

        When Death approached, unlocked her silent throat;

        Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,

        Thus sung her first and last, and sang no more:

        "Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!

        More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise. (26)

Despite the fact that this lovely sentiment is but a myth, hundreds of examples of such mournful images have been cited in Classical literature, (27) beginning with Aeschylus in his Agamemnon, in which a defiant and avenging Clytaemnestra stood over the dead bodies of Cassandra and Agamemnon and spat out the line: “she as a dying swan/Sang her last dirge.(28)  Surely it was no coincidence that it was Clytaemnestra from whose angry lips such a sentiment was first issued. How much more chilling does Aeschylus’s line become for an audience who knows all about the swans in the background of Cassandra’s history – this spoil of war who was her husband’s mistress?  After all, Cassandra was said by some to have been fathered by a swan.  And despite her considerable abilities as a seer, no one listened to her ravings, those seemingly mad prophetic mutterings, because she was cursed by the Delphic Apollo, to whom the swan was sacred, for refusing to sleep with him. (29)

About the swan’s “mystical relationship with Apollo,” (30) god of light and prophecy and healing and song, we are told that “clouds of swans beyond counting” (31) “travelled to and from the north,” (32) “beyond the north wind,” far above the lands known as Thrace, (33) to “the fabled land of the Hyperboreans, whom Apollo was said to visit during his three months’ annual absence from Delphi. They were said to visit his temple there and sing in his honour as Aelian described.” (34)

        They circle the temple as though they were purifying it by their flight,

        then they descend into the temple precinct, which is of vast extent and        

        outstanding beauty. Now when the choir hymn the god with their music

        . . . , the swans join in the chanting never singing a false note or out of

        tune . . . . Then when the hymn is ended the aforementioned, so to term

        them, winged chorus, . . . take their departure. (35)

The onomatopoeic naming of the swan as a “singer” has been attributed by some ornithologists to the fact that “the flight of the Mute Swan is remarkable for its singing, metallic throb which, in favourable conditions, is audible a good mile off and more.” (36) Others make mention of the fact that “the swan’s song was ascribed by some [ancient writers] to the wind whistling through its feathers.” (37)  This observation is made by Homer with specific reference to Apollo in his very brief Hymn to Apollo (XXI), “Phoebus, of you even the swan sings with clear voice to the beating of his wings . . . .” (38)

In Hellenic myth, “swans were sacred to the goddess because of their white plumage, also because the V-formation of their flight was a female symbol, and because, at mid-summer, they flew north to unknown breeding grounds, suppos-edly taking the dead king’s soul with them.” (39)  The annual carrying off of the king’s soul was a later aspect that became attached to the earlier mythology of the matriarchal/matrilineal practice of the periodic killing of the king, to bring it into line with the “seasonal transformations” of the solar year. (40)  The notion that the sun is wheeled across the sky in a chariot drawn by swans, or that the swan escorts the sun to its place of rest, or place of death, is a very ancient idea.  The mysterious place to the north, that amorphous land “beyond the north wind” where the sun always shines, (41) would have been the quintessential final resting place for the souls of kings.

There is something very quieting about the image of traversing the sea of death on the white wings of the supernatural swan.  It is the same feeling of peace that one has in their presence.  It is no wonder that the swan is an archetypal symbol of the Soul.  Birds of many varieties are imaged as carrying off the soul of the deceased, both in mythology and in the everyday imagination, and the compelling notion of the soul flying to the heavens in bird-form is equally as common. (42)  But it seems a natural sort of job for a winged creature with soft, downy white wings, whether it be angel or swan.  As Jane Ellen Harrison observed with regard to the bird-maiden Siren and her role in the ancient Greek rites of the dead, she is “a soul sent to fetch a soul.” (43)  Like the swan, the Siren was a “sweet-singer – a soul who sings to souls.” (44)

The belief in the swan’s power to bring a transformative rest or final sleep was one shared by the Celts in whose many tales of swan transformation the enchanted swan-maidens possess the gift of sleep-music which lulls the listener into a death-like sleep.  At the end of the very early Old Irish swan tale Aislinge Oenguso, or The Dream of Oengus, the sun god Aengus and his swan-bride Caer alight from the water as a pair of swans and fly to Bruig na Boinne (‘fairy-mound of the Boyne’), Aengus’s palace at New Grange, where they sing “chanting sleep music,” (45) lulling to sleep for three days and three nights, all who hear the melodious sounds. (46)  


This beautifully moving 8th century Irish saga that inextricably links the swan with the solar cycle, tells the story of the mortal Caer who undergoes a metamor-phosis into swan shape at the coming of the festival of Samhain (‘Summer’s end’), which is more familiarly known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowmas.  This fourth great fire festival of the Celtic year, which marks the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, that turning point in the year when the diminishing light of the sun begins its journey into darkness until it reaches its lowest point at the Winter Solstice, is both a feast of the dead and the celebration of the New Year.  This end of summer and start of the bleak winter months of the dark half of the year are acknowledged by the rekindling of all the fires in the land and the divining of fortunes for the coming year.  It is a very precarious time when nothing is as it seems; a timeless time between two worlds when things are “neither this nor that” and all the boundaries are blurred and the future uncertain. (47)

It is on this very eve of the dying sun that Caer, the white-plumed heroine of The Dream of Oengus, flies away to lead the circle of one-hundred-fifty swan-women who yearly encircle the sun to guide it gently to a place of rest at summer’s end.  The shape-shifting maidens in these stories, who are often bound together with chains of gold or silver worn about their necks, are under a powerful and unbreakable enchantment.  They experience a spontaneous change of form without benefit of a swan-cloak, and their transformations occur only at certain regulated intervals.  Such tales of swan metamorphosis that have to do with escorting the sun to its winter resting place are unique to Ireland and they date to the very earliest appearances of a written tradition there.  Aislinge Oenguso, ‘The Dream of Oengus’, so rich in the details of its telling, was the first of its kind. (48)

Faintly distant echoes of these unique Irish sagas seem to be audible in the 11th and 12th century Medieval French chansons de geste and Old French Romances, in the German Arthurian Grail cycles of the Swan Knight and, much later still, in the fairy-tales which take up the theme of enchantment in swan-form, and whose characters are even occasionally enchained with golden rings. (49)  In all of these later settings, however, not only do the spellbound captives invariably tend to be male, but the original function of the swan as bearer of the sun has been long-since forgotten. 

A bizarre example is interwoven into Wolfram von Eschenbach’s masterpiece, Parzival, written between 1198 and 1212, (50) in which the chivalrous Swan Knight appears in the person of Parzival’s son, Loherangrin (who was to become Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin). (51)   He is a Knight of the Grail who is not himself a swan, but who rides in a boat pulled by a swan to rescue a Lady in need.  When “he whom the swan brought,” (52) as he is so undazzlingly described, lands on the Lady’s shores, his first act is to inform her of the irreversible taboo that has been imposed upon him – to warn her that she must “Never ask who I am; then I shall be able to remain with you. But if I am subjected to your question you will lose my love.” (53)  The curse itself presents an interesting generational quandary, for whereas the young Parzival had failed to ask the appropriate question to free the Grail King from his agony, this Knight is not permitted to answer the question of who he is.

A different goal is sought in the usual form of the swan-maiden tales that are told in many places around the world, and which incorporate the idea of supernatural human female figures who have the magical power to transform themselves into bird-form at will.  Their shape-shifting abilities derive from the possession of a feathered garment, such as a coat, robe, or veil which, when worn, creates the ornithomorphic transformation in an instant.  The change back into human form is accomplished simply by laying aside the veil of feathers.  While in bird form, the swan-maiden is always under a rather vaguely defined but clearly apparent taboo, which is symbolized by the wearing of the swan-cloak veil.  Sometimes she is hopelessly trapped in her swan transformation.  The most famous of all such tales, is that of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic ballet, Swan Lake, whose central theme of “evil” enchantment was partially based on the German swan-story, Der geraubte Schleier (‘The Stolen Veil’). (54)

The maiden is sometimes “rescued” from her swan phase by a male figure who steals the garment of feathers that she has left on the shore while she bathes.  In nearly all of the Asiatic and European versions of the world-wide motif, “the swan maiden marries the youth who finds and steals her swan garb on the shore.” (55)  But even after the “hero” has succeeded in his task, “the swan brides will always tend to resume their feather garment and fly away. . . .” (56)  The elusive action of the swan bride stems from the problem of her eternal condition of being suspended between two worlds, always on the threshold of change. 

We see a perverse example of the flighty, and hence, ingeniously deceptive,

qualities of the bride in the behavior of Penelope in the Odyssey of Homer. 

Her name which, according to some scholars, literally means ‘with a web over

her face’, (57) has also been interpreted as meaning ‘wild goose’. (58)  And a “wild goose chase” was precisely what the faithful Penelope arranged for the many suitors who pursued her in Odysseus’s long absence.  Thinking her husband dead, but hoping against hope that he was not, she had promised to choose another when her weaving was done.  But her weaving was never done.  By secretly unravelling in the darkness of night, the weaving she had done by day, Penelope was able to ward off the impending day of fate.  The mysterious garment that she created by the light of day and then destroyed at the setting of the sun, was her wedding veil. 

Under entirely different mythological circumstances, we have the story of another “love-chase myth,” (59) that of the Greek nymph Leda who, like so many other pre-Hellenic goddesses, transformed herself at will through the changing seasons of the solar year. (60)  And although she is always depicted in human form – naked and entirely welcoming of her pursuer and swan-lover, Zeus, – under another of her lesser-known names, that of Nemesis, (61) it is said that “she took to the air as a wild goose” to avoid his advances. (62)  It is also said that this goddess of the changing year was “the goddess of the Peloponnesian swan cult” (63) who laid the eggs from which hatched her famous children, among them “Helen, the cause of the Trojan War.” (64)  We find William Butler Yeats’s neat summarization of the event in his powerfully descriptive poem of Leda and the Swan:

         A shudder in the loins engenders there

        The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

        And Agamemnon dead. (65)

Leda’s other children, whose birth stories have, themselves, engendered numer-ous disputes regarding their paternity, are Agamemnon’s wife and murderer, Clytaemnestra, “hatched, with Helen, from a second egg,” (66) and the inseparable Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), (67) the identical twins who were so devoted to each other that when one died, the other asked to go with him and so were trans-formed into the brilliant “double stars” (68) of the heavenly constellation of Gemini. 


The association of the goose, and sometimes the swan, with the archetype of the witch is so ancient and so prevalent that a bit of 17th century folklore wisdom tries to assures us that the goose is not really a witch, but merely a diviner of rain: “She is no witch, or astrologer, to divine by the starres, but yet hath a shrewd guesse of rainie weather, being as good as an almanack to some that beleeve her.” (69)  However well-intentioned this attempt may be, we are assured from long experience that she is indeed a witch, or at the very least, the familiar of a witch. 

The matter-of-factness of a scholarly statement to the effect that “in mediaeval times, the goose . . . was associated with witches who frequently used these birds as vehicles to carry them to the Sabbat,” speaks for itself! (70)  And a rhyme about Mother Goose, which was derived from pantomime sketches performed on the stage of the Royal Theatre at Covent Garden in the early 1800s, where she was first “portrayed as an old crone with a witch’s tall hat and a hooked nose and chin,” (71) cemented for all time, the witch’s association with the goose as familiar and provided the inspiration for the depictions in printed form of the much beloved Mother Goose as a witch.  The rhyme said, simply:

         Old Mother Goose,

        When she wanted to wander,

        Would ride through the air

        On a very fine gander. (72)

Mother Goose’s origins are mysteriously vague.  Although the name Mère l'Oye (‘Mother Goose’) was far older, Charles Perrault first used the title, Contes de ma Mère l’Oye, (‘Tales of My Mother

Goose’), in 1697. (73)  He would have

known of her from the centuries-old

French legends of La Reine Pédauque,

‘Queen Bertha the Goose-footed’, the

revered spinner of tales who was believed

to be Charlemagne’s mother. (74)  This

weaver of tales is described as being

encircled by spellbound children caught

up in the unravelling of her tales and the

spinning of her wool. (75)  Her name is a

symbolic clew to the magical knowledge

she possesses, for the name Bertha

literally means ‘bright one’.  This much

beloved wise-woman has many illustri-

ous counterparts, among whom may be

counted Sarasvati, the Brahmanic god-

dess of wisdom and learning who also

rides upon a goose.

The darker side of the goose-witch archetype is far more prevalent than that of the story-telling mother-crone.  In the folklore of Wales, for example, we find evidence of a most ominous association in the belief that if geese were seen on the waters at night, most particularly on “the first Thursday night of the lunar month,” they were assumed to be witches.  The occurrence of such a sight portended evil. (76)  The Welsh belief closely parallels the Irish superstition expressed in the Manadh nan Eala, the ‘Omen of the Swans’.

In the enchanted world of the fairy-tale, where we find the conjunction of the sacred and the demonic as a constant theme, it is the swan who is imbued with an explicitly demonic character.  The pre-eminent interpreter of the fairy-tale, the Jungian Marie-Louise von Franz, tells us – with her always wonderful humor – what to look for:

        If wandering alone in the woods, you meet something queer and are not

        sure whether it is hallucination or a real human being, mythology says

        look at the feet; for demonic beings have swan’s feet . . . . (77)

Such demonic qualities are attributed to the goose in Greek art where the long-necked bird is shown in the company of the Gorgon, whose name means literally, ‘terrible’, or ‘fierce’, but whose hideously beautiful face is emblazoned in nu- merous places as a protection against evil.  In Greek mythology the three Graiai (‘Grey Ones’), ‘the Old Ones’, are the older sisters, or crone aspect, of the triple Gorgon.  They are aged swan-maidens, white-haired crones who share but one eye and one tooth, which they pass between them as they stand guard over their younger sisters, the triple Gorgons.  The Graiai were born old, which is to say that they were white-haired, or “grey from their birth.” (78)  The grey hair with which they were born hints at the dark plumage of the new-born cygnet.  Curiously, all the words for cygnet, which is the diminutive of cygne, or ‘swan’, derive from the Greek word kyknos, meaning originally, ‘the white one’.

Ancient etymologies connect the names of the two Graiai, who first appear in Hesiod as Pemphredo and Enuo, with “ashen-coloured” clouds. (79)  Although we know the third sister as Deino, she is not named by Hesiod out of fear and respect for her extreme sanctity.  Her name means, “the terrible, fearful, or awful one, whom one cannot or will not name.” (80)  Perhaps that 17th century writer who assured us that the goose was not a witch, but simply a diviner of rain, had a point.  Apparently, these ancient swan-women are weather deities, for it is believed that

        swans . . . symbolize clouds; and the epithets of Hesiod suggest that the

        Graiai may represent the bright clouds of fine weather and especially the

        sunset, while their sisters the Gorgons personify the dark clouds of storm

        and rain. . . . [Some scholars] see in the transferable eye and tooth of the

        Graiai, and still more in the baleful glance of the Gorgons, the flash of the

        lightning and its apparent passage from cloud to cloud. (81)


It is indeed worthy of note, that those who viewed the goose or the swan as the embodiment of evil also swore by the birds and regarded them as prophylactics against the Evil Eye. (82)  The widespread Medieval practice of taking an oath by the swan is an indication of its earlier sacred character.  We are told in the Irish saga of The Foray of Queen Maeve, that the swan was formerly a totem of the sons of Erin, and that because the children of Lir had been “turned into swans by enchantment,” a decree was sent forth throughout all of Ireland that “the man who slays a swan shall die.” (83)  In Donegal, however, goose was eaten on Fridays in the same way that fish was eaten on this day as a remembrance of the ichthy-morphic Christ. (84)  Similar dietary taboos were observed by the Christianized Britons who ate goose only at their sacred festivals, although Julius Caesar had observed centuries earlier, that “the British tribes thought wild geese and swans ‘unlawful’ to eat or kill.” (85)

The practice of Swan Upping on the River Thames, which dates to the 12th century, when the first Royal Swan Keeper was appointed, (86) was originally conducted for the purpose of counting all of the mute swans in the open waters that surrounded the kingdom.  From that time forward, the Monarch reserved the right to own all of the mute swans in those waters, as a result of which, any who were captured were reserved for the King’s table alone. (87)  Despite the fact that some say that “the idea [that] the queen owns all the swans is a myth,” (88) the reigning Queen, H. M. Elizabeth II, is still known as “Seigneur of the Swans”, Seigneur, meaning ‘Lord’.  The unspoken sanctity of the swan is proven by the fact that the bird remains under the protection of the British crown to this day. (89)   

In European Jewish tradition the goose was taboo only at certain times of the year.  The belief that death would come to anyone who killed the bird during the months of the Winter Solstice, that is “from about the middle of December to the middle of February,” was little understood, but strictly adhered to. (90)  This practice is a clear indication that the goose represented the sun, and that the slaying of the goose was equated with the killing of the light in the darkest days of the year.  A  semi-Christianized adaptation of this belief makes its survival known at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City when Santa Claus arrives in an antique sleigh in the form of a “winter snow goose” (91) who embraces Santa in its enormous wings.  The timing is perfect, for at this moment of the year, the sun is moving towards the Winter Solstice of December 21st or thereabouts, which marks the precise point at which the sun begins to offer the hope of longer days.


The same intent is expressed in Celtic belief which extols the swan rather than the goose as an emblem of solar light in the figure of Brigid (“the Exalted One”). (92)  Imbolc, the festival of this beloved fire-goddess, falls exactly midway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.  Her day is celebrated on the eve of February 1st, the first day of Spring in the Celtic year, (93) by the lighting of huge bonfires on the hillsides throughout the land.  This celebration of light was retained by the Church in the transparently disguised Feast of Candlemas (‘Candle Mass’), otherwise known as the day of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, on which the sacred candles that are used throughout the ecclesiastical year are anointed and blessed.  By some strange etymological fate, the word ‘candle’ itself (from the Latin candere) means ‘to shine with whiteness’.  Even when the goddess Brigid was transformed into a revered Christian saint who, by no small coincidence, was named Brigit, a perpetually burning fire was maintained in the new saint’s honor by her devotees at the monastery of Kildare until the reign of Henry VIII. (94)

With the Christian framework obscuring the view of the natural calendar of the Celtic year, it was no longer possible to see that Aengus, the god of Winter who rules over the dark half of the year and whose sacred day of Samain falls on the eve of November 1st, stands on the exact opposite side of the Winter Solstice across from his sister Brigid whose sacred day of Imbolc on the eve of February 1st brings a dramatic return of the light and the first hopeful sign of life.  Or that their father, Dagda (‘the good god’), chief of the illustrious tribe of faerie known as the Tuatha Da Danaan (‘Tribes of the goddess Danu’), was a solar deity so powerful that he was said to have made the sun stand still.  Or that their mother, Boand, or Boann, defied patriarchal domination with a Druid spell and in so doing, made one of the most sacred wells in all of Ireland flow over to form the River Boyne.  Or that the famed Aengus plunged into the chilly waters of Loch Bel Dracon, transforming himself into a beautiful white swan to rescue his belovèd swan-maiden, Caer Ibormeith (‘Yew Berry’). (95)

Before the church usurped her worship, Brigid was one of the most important goddesses in all of Ireland, and certainly the most beloved.  This fiery goddess who was looked upon as a deity of healing and poetry and smiths, was known as the ‘Bride of the Golden Hair’ in Gaelic Scotland where she was remembered as a white swan. (96)  In a prototypical bardic exchange of “I Am” speeches as re-corded in the Carmina Gadelica between Bride and a male speaker who imag-ines himself as a deer, the goddess speaks to us in a most unequivocal manner about her shimmering whiteness and about her power, setting the record straight for once and for all.

       Black the town yonder,

        Black those that are in it;

        I am the White Swan,

        Queen of them all.” (97)  




  1. 1. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, 7th Printing of Amended and Enlarged Edition of 1966), p. 412, quot. Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica. Graves does not annotate his source, but this quotation from Bride is very similar in tone to a selection of “curses” listed in Vol. III of the Carmina Gadelica in the section entitled Ora nam Buadh, (‘Invocation of the Graces’). See: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, op. cit., in the Preface by John MacInnes, p. 15, and the invocation on pp.36-37.

  2. 2. John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 116, quot. Aristophanes, The Birds, 719.

  3. 3. See: Tracy Boyd, “Teiresias, The Androgynous Seer: A Question of Balance”, especially under the headings: “Amazing Grace” and “The Art of Augury”, at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  4. 4. See: Tracy Boyd, “The Oracular Oak at Dodona” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  5. 5. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 331, (whose translation this is), quot. Carmichael in Benbecula. The story was told by a person living in Benbecula in the outer Hebrides of Scotland, to Alexander Carmichael who collected and recorded some six volumes of Scots-Gaelic material in his 19th century Carmina Gadelica. Available in a much-condensed English version: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1992; Revised 1997), in which a very slightly different translation appears as No. 205 on pp. 177-78.

  6. 6. Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., p. 331.

  7. 7. Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols. Two Volumes. (New York: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1962.), “Friday”, Vol. 1, p. 611.

  8. 8. H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1964-1975), p. 111. Hilda Davidson is a well-worth reading authority on all things having to do with the religions of northern Europe, including the participation of women in ritual, etc.

  9. 9. Ibid., p. 112.

  10. 10.  Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. College Edition. (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1959), “Friday”, p. 580.

  11. 11.  The details are spelled out in an excellent, rather complicated article worth a serious read at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frija-Frigg>.

  12. 12.  H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, op. cit., p. 111.

  13. 13.  Ibid., p. 112,

  14. 14.  See: Tracy Boyd, “The Keepers of the Flame: Vesta and Her Brides”, under the heading “The Dawning of the Summer Solstice” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  15. 15.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norns>.

  16. 16.  Ibid.

  17. 17.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. Two Volumes. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1960), Vol. I, “The Pelasgian Creation Myth” 1.3, p. 29.

  18. 18.  See: Gertrude Jobes, Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols, op. cit., “Friday”, Vol. 1, p. 611.

  19. 19.  See: Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess. (Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1967), pp. 195-97.

  20. 20.  Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. (New York: Atheneum, 1975), p. 253.

  21. 21.  See: Maria Leach, Editor.  Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Two Volumes. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1949), “goose”, Vol. I, p. 460.

  22. 22.  Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Ralph Manheim, Trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XLVII, 1970), p. 172.

  23. 23.  See: Buffie Johnson, Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), Fig. 91, p. 78.

  24. 24.  Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, Swans of the World. (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1979), p. 46. This is the book on swans, a kind of “everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask” compilation.

  25. 25.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan>.

  26. 26.  I am indebted to Fiona Saint of Devon, England, for making me aware of this plaintiff madrigal and for sending me the words. Orlando Gibbons, The Silver Swan, first published in his First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 Parts in 1612. (Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. J. A. Fuller Maitland, Editor. Five Volumes. (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Company, 1926), “Orlando Gibbons”, Vol. II, p. 166.

  27. 27.  Classicist and ornithologist extraordinaire, D’Arcy W. Thompson, in his voluminous A Glossary of Greek Birds, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936, reprinted Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1966), sites almost three and a half pages in tiny print of Greek and Latin examples under the “Kyknos” sub-heading “The Swan’s Song”, pp. 180-183.

  28. 28.  Aeschylus, Agamemnon. E. D. A. Morshead, Translator. The Complete Greek Drama. Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr., Editors. Two Volumes. (New York: Random House, 1938), lines 1444-45, p. 216.

  29. 29.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. Two Volumes. (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1959), Vol. II, “The Foundation of Troy”, 158.q., pp. 263-64.

  30. 30.  John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 145.

  31. 31.  Ibid., quot. Aelian, De Natura Animalium, XI, I.

  32. 32.  John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth, op. cit., p. 145.

  33. 33.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperboreans>.

  34. 34.  John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth, op. cit., p. 145.

  35. 35.  Ibid., quot. Aelian, De Natura Animalium, XI, I.

  36. 36.  W. B. Lockwood, The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), “swan”, p. 150.

  37. 37.  D’Arcy W. Thompson, A Glossary of Greek Birds, op. cit., “The Swan’s Song”, p. 183.

  38. 38.  Cited in John Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth, op. cit., p. 145. But this translation is from another source: Homer, XXI Hymn to Apollo, 1., in Hesiod The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. The Loeb Classical Library, 1954), pp. 446-47.

  39. 39.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. op. cit., Vol. I, p. 126, citing Euripides, Iphigeneia Among the Taurians 1095 ff.; Homer, Iliad ii. 783; Hesiod, Theogony 295 ff.; Apollodorus : ii. I.2.

  40. 40.  See: Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. op. cit., Vol. I, p. 126.

  41. 41.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperboreans>.

  42. 42.  For a thorough discussion of these ideas as they pertain to the Greek Sirens and the Egyptian Ba, see: Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. (New York: Meridian Books, 1955. Originally published in 1903, then 1908, and again in 1922), p. 201; and for further in-depth discussion, see: Tracy Boyd, “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” at www.sacredthreads.net>.

  43. 43.  Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, op. cit., p. 201.

  44. 44.  Ibid., pp. 204-05.

  45. 45.  Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., p. 307.

  46. 46.  For the full story and further discussion, see: Tracy Boyd, “The Mythic Ground of the Longing for Wisdom and Love in William Butler Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  47. 47.  See: Ibid.

  48. 48.  Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. op. cit., pp. 305-06. Ross discusses both the literary traditions and the archaeological evidence and was the first to make the distinction between the Irish swan-maidens and those of other cultures. See, especially, her chapter, “Sacred and Magic Birds”, pp. 302-311.

  49. 49.  Some of the details of these stories are offered in the informative article by an anonymous author at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knight_of_the_Swan >.

  50. 50.  Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages. Translated and with an Introduction by Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and Random House, Inc., Vintage Books Edition, 1961), Intro., p. xii.

  51. 51.  See: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lohengrin>.

  52. 52.  Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages, op. cit., Book XVI, lines 824ff., p. 429.

  53. 53.  Ibid.

  54. 54.  The author was Johann Karl August Musäus <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Odette_(Swan_Lake)>.

  55. 55.  Maria Leach, ed., Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. op. cit., “swan maiden”, Vol. II, p. 1091.

  56. 56.  Marie-Louise von Franz, The Feminine in Fairytales. (New York: Spring Publications, 1972), p. 122; and pp.114-128 passim re Grimms’s The Six Swans and The Seven Ravens.

  57. 57.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, op. cit., Index: “Penelope”, Vol. II, p. 404.

  58. 58.  A. B. Cook, “The Cretan Axe-Cult Outside Crete”, in Transactions of the 3rd International Congress for the History of Religions. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, MCMVIII), Vol. II, p. 194.

  59. 59.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, op. cit., Vol. I, “Leda” p. 207.

  60. 60.  See: Ibid., Vol. I, “Tyche and Nemesis”, 1., 2., pp. 125-26.

  61. 61.  Ibid., Vol. I, p. 126.

  62. 62.  Ibid., Vol. I, “Leda” p. 206.

  63. 63.  Ibid., Vol. I, p. 208.

  64. 64.  Ibid., Vol. I, “Tyche and Nemesis”, p. 125. For further discussions of the egg(s), see: Vol. I, “Leda” p. 206-07.

  65. 65.  William Butler Yeats, Leda and the Swan, from The Tower, 1928. Public Domain.

  66. 66.  Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, op. cit., Vol. I, “Leda” p. 207.

  67. 67.  Ibid.

  68. 68.  See: Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1963 Unabridged and corrected republication of G. E. Stechert’s Star-Names and Their Meanings, 1899), “Gemini”, p. 232.

  69. 69.  W. Hazlitt Carew, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles. Two Volumes. (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965 reprint of 1905 Edition), “Goose”, Vol. I, p. 284, quoting Strange Metamorphosis of Man, 1634.

  70. 70.  Northcote W. Thomas, “Animals: Goose” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1912), Vol. 1, p. 518.

  71. 71.  Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Pritchard, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), “Mother Goose”, pp. 362-63.

  72. 72.  Ibid., p. 363.

  73. 73.  William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes Old and New, Arranged and Explained. With Introduction and Notes by the Baring-Goulds. (New York: Bramhall House, a Division of Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1962), p. 17.

  74. 74.  Ibid., pp. 16-17. The formal name of this Frankish queen, who was born sometime between 710 and 727 and died in 783, was Bertrada of Laon. She was also known as Bertha Broadfoot, or ‘the queen with the goose-foot’. Charlemagne honored her by burying her at the magisterial Abbey of Saint-Denis founded by Dagobert I. See: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertrada_of_Laon>.

  75. 75.  William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes Old and New, Arranged and Explained, op. cit.,  p. 17.

  76. 76.  Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition. op. cit., p. 343, quot. John Rhys, who quotes from an essay on Welsh folklore by E. Lloyd-Jones, 1880.

  77. 77.  Marie-Louise von Franz, The Feminine in Fairytales, op. cit., p. 122

  78. 78.  Hesiod, Theogony, 270-76, in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Trans., op. cit., pp. 98-99.

  79. 79.  H. E. D. Blakiston, “Graiai”, in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. James Hastings, Editor. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, n.d. [1912]), Vol. VI, p. 385.

  80. 80.  A Greek-English Lexicon. Compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 9th Ed., with a 1968 Supplement, 1983) “Deino”, p. 374.

  81. 81.  H. E. D. Blakiston, “Graiai”, in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 385. For further discussions of the Graiai and their other triadic sisters, see: Tracy Boyd, “The Oracular Oak at Dodona” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  82. 82.  See: Tracy Boyd, “The Eye Goddess and the Evil Eye” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  83. 83.  Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: The Origins and Practices of Superstition. (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1958), p. 89, and Note 133.

  84. 84.  Maria Leach, ed., Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, op. cit., ‘goose’, Vol. I, p. 460. It was the Barnacle Goose that was eaten in Donegal.

  85. 85.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mute_Swan>.

  86. 86.  See Fact. No. 78 at: <http://www.fashion-era.com/royalty/80_facts_queen_elizabeth_2.htm>.

  87. 87.  <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Upping>, which also notes that the current practice is restricted to the waters of the Thames only.

  88. 88.  <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23301577/ns/world_news-wonderful_world/t/queen-elizabeth-sorry-swan-bite/#.TkvjTxy4ZeU>.

  89. 89.  For the minute details, see: Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, Swans of the World, op. cit., pp. 69-72, and 74-75.

  90. 90.  Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, op. cit., p. 258.

  91. 91.  Amazingly, “winter snow goose” was the exact phrase used by the announcer!

  92. 92.  The translation of her name is by Miranda J. Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992), “Brigit”, p. 50.

  93. 93.  Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1983), “Brigit, Saint”, p. 118.

  94. 94.  Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., p. 143.

  95. 95.  Translation of her name is from Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, op. cit., p. 305. For a very detailed discussion of this family, see: Tracy Boyd, “The Mythic Ground of the Longing for Wisdom and Love in William Butler Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.

  96. 96.  Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, op. cit., p. 394.

  97. 97.  Ibid., p. 412, quot. Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica. Graves does not annotate his source, but this quotation from Bride is very similar in tone to a selection of “curses” listed in Vol. III of the Carmina Gadelica in the section entitled Ora nam Buadh, (‘Invocation of the Graces’). See: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, op. cit., in the Preface by John MacInnes, p. 15, and the invocation on pp.36-37. For a very detailed discussion of Brigid, see: Tracy Boyd: “The Keepers of the Flame: Vesta and Her Brides”, under the heading “Brigit’s Birth-Fires” at <www.sacredthreads.net>.