Friday 28 April 2017

The Mute Swan - Cynus olor

British Birds :  The Mute Swan Cynus olor

Mute swans, the commonest swan native to Northern Europe, are easily identified by the black knob atop their orange beaks.  Swans pair for life and return to the same nest every year which they defend by hissing aggressively and chasing away intruders, otherwise except for the odd grunt and hoarse whistle, they are mute as the name suggests, .  I always imagined Swan was a homophone of watery words like Swim, Swiss and Splash, but I was wrong.  Swan is derived from an Old Saxon word swan or suan, (Danish svane, Dutch zwaan, German schwan, Icelandic svanr and Swedish svan) which has its root Indo-European *swen or *swon (to sound, to sing).   Thus "Mute Swan" encapsulates an image of the bird as mute singer.

Aesop, 6th century BCE, has two fables mentioning mute swans that would only sing under duress, especially after they had been threatened with death, and then they sang beautifully. Hence the phrase Swan Song meaning something we do at the end of our careers before we retire or die.  It seems that these ancient stories about reluctant (mute) singing swans are very old.  Looking on Google it seems to me that there is compelling evidence to suggest that ancient cultures mentally matched the necks of swans with the shape of their bronze age trumpets called lures (lurs).  

Danish Bronze-Age Lur; 13th-5th Century B.C. (Wikipedia)

These lurs appear on Scandinavian rock carving from 1000 BCE.  

 Norse rock carvings with swan necked lures  

The Celts, who appear a few hundred years later, used to carry lur like trumpets with animal heads into battle.

Celtic Lur

Although Celtic lurs with swan heads have not been found there is one Celtic helmet that looks like a lur with swan's head.

An Gallic Iron Age helmet in the shape of a swan (wikipedia)

Is this the song of the Swan?

In Roman times, after the Celts had been defeated, Pliny seems quite angry about the stories of singing swans, in his Natural Historie he tells us  "some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals,and eat one another's flesh."

But Pliny's words fell on deaf ears, 500 years later Isidore of Serville is still telling stories that swans "singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck".  Another 500 years later Bartholomaeus Angelicus is again mentioning that swans "hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes" and adding news about a fabulous country where "it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily"

A millennium later the meme connecting swans, death and beauty (this time dancing for salvation rather than singing) was still being promoted by classical ballet; most famously in the solo piece “The Dying Swan” and again in the final act of Swan Lake where a swan maiden dies to release herself from the curse of the evil Von Rothbart.
On a more optimistic note swans are symbols of flourishing beauty, most famously in the tale of the ugly duckling that unknowingly grows into a beautiful swan.  A particularly lovely idea can be found in Indian Mythology where swans are symbols of unworldly, untouchable beauty because when you put their feathers into water they remain dry and do not absorb water.  


Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 


Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] ( Temple 173): A man kept a swan for its voice and a goose for the table. Wanting to eat the goose, the man went out in the dark to get it, but caught the swan by mistake. The swan, thinking it was about to die, began to sing, and was recognized by its voice. (Temple 174): A man bought a swan because it was reputed to have a fine voice. One day, to provide entertainment at a feast, he urged the swan to sing, but it would not. Later, relizing it was about to die, the swan began to sing. His owner said "It was foolish of me to ask you to sing; I should have prepared to kill you, and then you would have sung!"
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 32): Some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this (says Pliny) is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals, and eat one another's flesh.
Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:18-19): There are two kinds of swan: one has all white feathers and is called olor the other is black and is called cygnus, though this one is not mentioned by the ancients. The cygnus is named from its singing (canendo) because it pours out song with modulated sounds. Its singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck and its voice, in struggling to get out through the winding way, necessarily emits various notes. Some say that many swans gather and join in with song when the cithra is played in the Hyperborean regions. Sailors say that the swan is a good omen.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The swan feigneth sweetness of sweet songs with accord of voice, and he singeth sweetly for he hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes. And it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily. Shipmen trow that it tokeneth good if they meet swans in peril of shipwreck. Always the swan is the most merriest bird in divinations. Shipmen desire this bird for he dippeth not down in the waves. When the swan is in love he seeketh the female, and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and draweth her to him-ward; and he joineth his neck to the female's neck, as it were binding the necks together. ( Steele edition of 1905) 

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