The English word ‘swan’ has the same root as the Dutch zwaan or the Frisian swaen and derives from the Indo-European root swen, meaning ‘to sound,’ ‘to sing.’
Swan song is called zwanenzang in Dutch. In ancient Greek, the term for swan song was κύκνειον ᾆσμα and in Latin, carmen cygni. Metaphorically, a swan song refers to a final gesture, a performance or effort given right before any type of retirement—or death. It was believed in ancient times that, after a lifetime of silence or at least a lack of musical inclination, swans sang jubilantly just before dying. By the third century B.C., this legend had become proverbial in ancient Greece, and it lived on ever since in poetry and art in the West. In Aesop’s fable ‘The Swan and the Goose,’ by mistake a swan is caught instead of a goose, but the swan’s life is saved because it is recognized by its song. In his Hecatomythium, Laurentius Abstemius tells the story of a swan who is asked by a stork why it greets death so ecstatically while most other beings are afraid to die. The swan answers that it is glad to let go of life’s miseries. Around AD 77, in his Natural History (book 10, chapter 32), Pliny the Elder was one of the first to question this story of swan song. He wrote matter-of-factly: “Observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false.”
Ealse’s swan was a mute swan or Cygnus olor, the most common swan in Northern Europe: strapping and white with reddish or faded orange bill and black webbed feet. The mute swan is not actually mute but also not known for musical outbursts at the moment of dying. It can honk, hiss, and grunt, but it does not bugle or sing. The whooper, trumpeter, and tundra swans do bugle, which sounds a bit musical. Due to an additional tracheal loop within their sternum, these swans all voice a series of drawn-out notes when their lungs collapse. Naturalist Peter Pallas proposed that this fact was the basis for the legend.
In literature and myth, the swan symbolizes light, purity, transformation, intuition, grace. In Ancient Greece the swan stood for the soul and was linked to Apollo, the god of the Sun, whereas in other religions, the swan became a feminine symbol of the moon. In Celtic myth, a pair of swans steered the Sun boat across the heavens. In alchemy, the swan was neither feminine or masculine, marrying the opposites of fire and water. In Hinduism, the swan could bridge sky and water, heavenly and earthly energies. In Shamanism, swans had the unusual ability of being able to travel to the Otherworld.
Not long ago, I dreamed that I was in Tytsjerk, the town in Friesland where the story of the swan took place. There was going to be an unveiling of a monument in honor of Ealse Wadman. It was a sun-drenched day and the location was packed with people eager to see the monument. Someone pulled away a black cloth, revealing a sculpture that stood on a simple granite foundation: a swan flying above a man, both made of stainless steel sparkling in sunlight.
The sculpture of my dream reminded me of work by my friend Jeroen Stok, a Dutch sculptor, who specializes in fine art as well as memorial sculptures. You can check out his website for fine art here and his website for memorial sculptures, ‘Memorabel,’ here. These photos are of his recently completed sculpture of a swan.