Folklore Thursday: Swan Stories

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Swans often have a bad reputation, thanks to the idea that they can break someone’s arm. While it’s true that they have been known to break bones, and even kill, they are much more likely to hiss and rear up (known as ‘busking’) than they are to attack, and are generally friendly enough outside nesting season.

Apparently, swans remember people who are kind to them. While I’ve been unable to find scientific evidence of this, they certainly remember who feeds them as they always swim up whenever I approach the canal with a bag of food, long before I take it from my pocket.

A group of swans is known as a bevy, but when they’re in flight they become known as a wedge: an inelegant term for such elegant bird.

In folklore, swans are a symbol of fidelity as they generally mate for life. (Once bonded, swans raise several clutches, learning from each experience to hone their parenting skills.) They are also associated with spring, as that’s when they return to the UK after migration.

Swans were sacred to the druids, who believed they could pass from our world into the ‘otherworld’. Their feathers have been used in magic relating to change; and should apparently be sewn into a partner’s pillow to keep them faithful.

The phrase swan song came from the belief that mute swans sing a beautiful song just before get die. However, science has not verified this claim (perhaps because killing swans was still a treasonable offence in the UK until 1998 – and is still a criminal offence.)

My favourite swan story is the Ugly Duckling. This sweet tale of the bird who felt sad because it was ugly filled me with hope as a gawky child (now I’m an adult, I do question becoming beautiful as the happy ending, as it would be preferable to my mind if the birds rejected looks as a basis for value, but perhaps that’s too much to ask of a children’s story.)

There are many longer stories relating to swans, from Leda and the swan to the Children of Lir (which inspired Swan Lake). So forget about swan horror stories, enjoy reading the myths instead – and maybe see if you can spot some newborn cygnets to help you see how cute swans can be.

If you’re interested in folklore, follow @FolkloreThurs and take part in #FolkloreThursday each week. It’s full of fascinating stories and ancient myths.


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