October 26, 2020
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The Place of the Swan in the Animal Kingdom

swanSwans are birds of the family Anatidae within the genus Cygnus. The swans’ close relatives include the geese and ducks. Swans are grouped with the closely related geese in the subfamily Anserinae where they form the tribe Cygnini. The word swan is derived from Old English swan, akin to the German Schwan and Dutch zwaan and Swedish svan, in turn derived from Indo-European root *swen (to sound, to sing). Young swans are known as swanlings or as cygnets, from Greek κύκνος, kýknos and from the Latin word cygnus (“swan”) and the Old French suffix –et (“little”).  An adult male is a cob, from Middle English cobbe (leader of a group); an adult female is a pen.  The swans are the largest members of the waterfowl family Anatidae, and are among the largest flying birds. The largest species, including the mute swan, trumpeter swan, and whooper swan, can reach a length of over 1.5 m (60 inches) and weigh over 15 kg (33 pounds). The sexes are alike in plumage, but males are generally bigger and heavier than females. The swans are generally found in temperate environments, rarely occurring in the tropics. A group of swans is called a bevy or a wedge in flight. Four (or five) species occur in the Northern Hemisphere, one species is found in Australia and New Zealand and one species is distributed in southern South America. They are absent from tropical Asia, Central America, northern South America and the entirety of Africa. One species, the mute swan, has been introduced to North America, Australia and New Zealand.  Swans feed in the water and on land. They are almost entirely herbivorous, although they may eat small amounts of aquatic animals. In the water food is obtained by up-ending or dabbling, and their diet is composed of the roots, tubers, stems and leaves of aquatic and submerged plants. [5]

The Symbolism of the Swan in Mythology and Culture

From Ancient Greece to Siberia, via Asia Minor, as well as among Slav and Germanic peoples, a great mass of myth, traditions and poetry has been produced in praise of swans.   Swans are waterfowl, closely connected with water, even nesting near the water. Water is symbolic of concepts such as Fluidity, Intuition, Dreaming, Emotions, Creativity. In this respect, it is said that we can intuit the swan’s appearance in our lives as an arrow pointing to our dreamier depths and feelings. The swan is a totem of beauty and grace. As in the story of the Ugly Duckling, it connotes inner beauty as well. It is said that if Swan is your totem animal, you are emotionally sensitive, and empathic towards the feelings of others, and you draw people to you. Furthermore, we get the sense of balance from swan meaning as it lives harmoniously amongst three of the four Aristotelian elements. Grounding itself on earth, lofting to great heights in the air, and winding through waters with magnificent elegance. In mythology, as a general rule,  the swan is the embodiment of male, solar, fecundating light.  Even in Siberia, although that belief was not widely current, it left its traces. Thus Uno harva observed that Buryat women made a curtsy and adressed a prayer to the firt swan they saw in the Spring. [6] It was, however, in the pure light of Ancient Greece that the beauty of male swan, inseparable companions of Apollo, received it largest mesure of praise. The mute swan is  one of the sacred birds of Apollo, whose associations stem both from the nature of the bird as a symbol of light. It is common knowledge that Apollo, the god of poetry and prophecy, was born on Delos on a seventh day. On that day sacred swans flew seven times round the island and then Zeus presented the young god with a chariot drawn by white horses, as well as his lyre. [7]  This causes Victor Magnien to write that the swan symbolizes “the powers of poetry and of the poet himself.” [8]  The swan might as well be the image of the divinely inspired poet, of the sacred priesthood, of the white robed druids, of the Norse skald and so on.  Socrates wrote that the swan sung it’s most beautiful song just before it died, leaving us with the phrase “swan song”.   In Greek mythology, the swan also has erotic connotations.  For example the story of Leda and the Swan recounts that Helen of Troy was conceived in a union of Zeus disguised as a swan and Leda, Queen of Sparta.  Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, had a swan-drawn chariot.  In Greek tradition, the Swan is also the symbol of the Muses.   Other references in classical literature include the belief that upon death the otherwise-silent mute swan would sing beautifully—hence the phrase swan song; as well as Juvenal’s sarcastic reference to a good woman being a “rare bird, as rare on earth as a black swan”, from which we get the Latin phrase rara avis, rare bird. The constellation Cygnus, depicts a swan sailing down the Milky Way. According to Jamie Sams and David Carson, who collected Native American tales from elders in the Choctaw, Lakota, Seneca, Aztec, Yaqui, Cheyenne, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Mayan traditions, Swans represented “Grace”.  In the Far East, too, the swan is symbol of gracefulness, nobility and valour. This is why, Li Tzu reports, the Mongols made the Chou Emperor, Mu, drink swan’s blood.  It is also the symbol of music and of song, while wild goose, from its well known wariness, is symbol of prudence, which the I Ching employs to indicate the stages in cautious advance, physical and spiritual advance.  It is hard to separate the two birds in Hindu iconography; Brahma’s swan (Hansa) used as its steed has the appearance of a wild goose.  As de Mallmann says, the etymological kindship between hansa and anser (Latin for ‘goose’) hits one between the eye.”  The Hamsa which was Varuna’s steed was a water-fowl; Brahma’s steed was the symbol of elevation of the unformed towards the Heaven of Knowledge.  There is pretty much the same meaning in those Cambodian writtings that identifies Shiva with the hamsa which dwells in the bindu (term refering to the original “point” or “dot”), hamsa meaning both anser and atman or self, Narayana, one of the titles of the Creator-God, and the soul in the universe personified.

According to Ted Andrews, in his book Animal-Speak, “The swan is one of the most powerful and ancient of totems. It is one of the oldest names in the English language and has come down unchanged since Anglo Saxon times.”[9] The pure white swan is a solar symbol, whereas the Australian Black Swan is a nocturnal symbol. The swan, with its long neck, acts as a bridge between the worlds, making it an oracular bird. Being a cool weather bird, its direction is North. Swans are excellent totems for children, those connected to the Fairy Realm, poets, bards, mystics, and dreamers.[10]  In Norse mythology, there are two swans that drink from the sacred Well of Urd [11] in the realm of Asgard, home of the gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well is so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including this original pair of swans and all others descended from them. The poem Volundarkvida, or the Lay of Volund, part of the Poetic Edda, also features swan maidens. The Norse Valkyries often take the shape of swans and they fly, singing, through the air.  In the Finnish epic Kalevala, [12] a swan lives in the Tuoni river located in Tuonela, the underworld realm of the dead. According to the story, whoever killed a swan would perish as well. Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed the Lemminkäinen Suite based on Kalevala, with the second piece entitled Swan of Tuonela (Tuonelan joutsen). Today, five flying swans are the symbol of the Nordic Countries and the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) is the national bird of Finland.  Many of the cultural aspects refer to the mute swan of Europe. Perhaps the best known story about a swan is “The Ugly Duckling” fairytale. [13] Swans are often a symbol of love or fidelity because of their long-lasting, apparently monogamous relationships. See the famous swan-related operas Lohengrin and Parsifal.  Another anecdote about the swan that fit especially well in the attribution of this animal to the Sephira of Kether which is dubed “the Crown” concern the status they have in England.  As a matter of fact, in Britain, Mute Swans are the property of the Crown. The Crown may grant “royalties” or ownership rights to companies or individuals, where they mark their swan’s bills during the ceremony of “swan-upping”. Boat builders used swans as figureheads to bring good luck.  Swan meat was regarded as a luxury food in England in the reign of Elizabeth I.  The Irish legend of the Children of Lir is about a stepmother transforming her children into swans for 900 years. In the legend The Wooing of Etain, the king of the Sidhe (subterranean-dwelling, supernatural beings) transforms himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Etain, into swans to escape from the king of Ireland and Ireland’s armies. The swan has recently been depicted on an Irish commemorative coin.   Swans are also present in Irish literature in the poetry of W.B. Yeats. “The Wild Swans at Coole” has a heavy focus on the mesmerising characteristics of the swan. Yeats also recounts the myth of Leda and the Swan in the poem of the same name.  In Celtic litterature, most of the inhabitants of the Otherworld who, for one reason or another, wish to enter the terrestrial world, take a swan’s shape and generally travel in pair linked by a gold or silver chain.  Many Celtic works of art depict a pair of swans, one on either side of the Sun-boat which they steer on its voyage across the celestial ocean. Since they came and returned to the north, they symbolized higher and angelic states of being in the course ofliberation and return to the Almighty Principle.  Continental as well as insular Celts often confused the swan with the crane, which explains why Ceasar states that there was a taboo upon the Breton eating it.  The swan is also part of the alchemical symbolism. Alchemists have always regarded it as an emblem of mercury, being of the same colour and as mobile. Its volatility, too, is displayed by its wings.  It is an expression of the marriage of the opposites [Fire and Water] in which its archetypal property of hermaphrodism may be discerned.  On a more casual and humoristic note, we can remind ouserves that French satirist François Rabelais wrote in Gargantua and Pantagruel that a swan’s neck was the best toilet paper he had encountered. Maybe this is where we get this association between toilet paper and Swans like the one we find in hygienic paper compagnies’ names like “White Swan.”

Tree of Life Attributions

Another correspondence in the animal kingdom for the Sephira of Kether is the swan. [0] Once again it does not figure in Crowley’s table where we only find the word “God” but it does figure in the explanation of the column of the correspondence table deeper in his Qabalistic exegesis, 777.  So by this attribution Crowley mean “the Swan as representing Aum.” [1]  Unfortunately no other useful information is provided there, the reader being redirected to Liber LXV and to the Book of Lies for further details.  In the Book of Lies we find this about the Swan:

“There is a Swan whose name is Ecstasy: it wingeth from the Deserts of the North; it wingeth through the blue; it wingeth over the fields of rice; at its coming they push forth the green.  In all the Universe this Swan alone is motionless: it seem to move, as the Sun seems to move; such is the weakness of our sight. O fools! criest thou? Amen. Motion is relative: there is nNothing that is still.  Against this Swan I shot an arrowl the white breast pour forth blood.  men smote me; then, perceiving that I was but a Pure Fool, they let me pass. Thus and not other wise I came to the Temple of the Graal.” [2]

Even if we are not quite sure whether or not we can penetrate all the subtilities in this citation, suffice to say that the commentary that follows is a discussion between the symbolism of the swan and the notion of stillnes and impermanence in realtion with the hindu mantra Aum. Hindus believe that as creation began, the divine, all-encompassing consciousness took the form of the first and original vibration manifesting as sound “OM.”  This paragraph from the Book of Lies is supposed to be read in connection with Wagner’s Parsifal. Crowley goes on to explain:

The Swan is Aum.  In paragraph 3 and 4 it is, however, recognized that even Aum is impermanent. There is no meaning in the word, stillness, so long as motion exists. In a boundless universe, one can always take any one point, however mobile, and postulate it as a point at rest, calculating the motions of all other points relatively to it.  The penultimate paragraph shows the relation of the Adept to mankind. Their hate and contempt are necessary steps to his acquisition of sovereignty over them. To the story of the Gospel, and that of Parsifal, will occur the mind. [3]

 In a less cryptic fashion, Israel Regardie, in his book A Garden of Pomegrenates, explains the Swan attribution in the following manner: “For various reasons, too, the ancients made the swan a correspondence of this digit. In the legends of all peoples, the swan is the symbol of Spirit and ecstasy. The Hindu legends narrate that the swan (Hansa) when given milk mixed with water for its food, separated the two, drinking the milk and leaving the water – this being supposed to show its transcendent wisdom.”  [4]   Even if neither Crowley or Regardie specifies it, there are good chances that one of the main reason why the swan is an attribution to Kether is because of the Hindu Deity Correspondence, which is Brahma.  As we know, the swan is the symbol of grace and discernment. Brahmā uses the swan as his vāhana, or his carrier or vehicle.  Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan’s feather does not get wet although it is in water. The Sanskrit word for swan is hamsa or hansa, and the “Raja Hansa” or the Royal Swan is the vehicle of Goddess Saraswati, and symbolises the “Sattwa Guna” or purity par excellence. The swan if offered a mixture of milk and water, is said to be able to drink the milk alone. Therefore Goddess Saraswati the goddess of knowledge is seen riding the swan because the swan thus symbolizes “Viveka” i.e. prudence and discrimination between the good and the bad or between the eternal and the transient.

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[0] Aleister Crowley, 777 and Other Qabalistic Writtings of Aleister Crowley, p. 10.
[1] Aleister Crowley, 777 and Other Qabalistic Writtings of Aleister Crowley, p. 89. See also Liber LXV, Cap. II, 17-25.  See also Book of Lies, Cap. XVII.
[2] Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies, p. 17
[3] Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies, p. 18
[4] Israel Regardie, A Garden of Pomegrenates, p. 40.
[5] See Kear, Janet, ed. (2005). Ducks, Geese and Swans. Bird Families of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[6] Harva, Uno Les Représentations Religieuses des Peuples Altaïques, Paris 1959, p. 321
[7] Pierre Grimal. Dictionnaire de la Mythologie Grecque et Romaine, 3i ed, Paris, 1963, p. 41
[8] Magnien, Victor, Les Mystères d’Eleusis (leur origine, le rituel de leurs initiations), Paris, 1950, p. 135.
[9] Ted Andrews, Animal-Speak, p.195
[10] Ted Andrews, Animal Speak, p. 196
[11] Urðarbrunnr (Old Norse “Well of Urðr”) is a well in Norse mythology. Urðarbrunnr is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources,the well lies beneath the world tree Yggdrasil, and is associated with a trio of norns (Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld). In the Prose Edda, Urðarbrunnr is cited as one of three wells existing beneath three roots of Yggdrasil that reach into three distant, different lands; the other two wells being Hvergelmir, located beneath a root in Niflheim, and Mímisbrunnr, located beneath a root near the home of the frost jötnar.
[12] The Kalevala (IPA: [ˈkɑle̞ʋɑlɑ]) is a 19th-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology.It is regarded as the national epic of Karelia and Finland and is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. The Kalevala played an instrumental role in the development of the Finnish national identity.
[13] “The Ugly Duckling” (Danish: Den grimme ælling) is a literary fairy tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). The story tells of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who suffers abuse from the others around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a beautiful swan, the most beautiful bird of all.

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