Weland, the Swan Children and The Knight of the Swan

Emerging from the mythic and symbolic courtly story traditions of  12th century Europe, a popular and mysterious set of tales were told of children transformed into swans one of whom grows up to become the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’, or ‘Knight of the Swan’ – a questing knight who is conveyed in a boat drawn by a mysterious Swan which feeds him and guides him to his unknown destinations.

The earliest written  rescension of  the origin tale of the knight and his swan-kin comes from the late 12thC text ‘Dolopathos sive de Rege et Septem Sapientibus‘, by the monk Jean de Hauteseille. This was a latin version of a popular eastern story tradition known as ‘The Seven Wise Masters’, possibly acquired through contact with the Muslim empires. The birth of the swan children and the ‘Chevalier au Cygne’ tales merged with the Chansons de Geste traditions dealing with Godfrey de Bouillon, first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and popular icon of the First Crusade. These portrayed Godfrey as an ancestor of the Swan Knight, Elias, who had originally gained the Duchy of Bouillon after a swan arrived with a boat which conveyed him from his island home to protect the beleaguered Duchess of Bouillon, who then offered he hand in marriage. Further life was given to the legend in Wolfram Von Eschenbach‘s 13thC Arthurian epic, Parzifal, and versions of the story were retold into the 16thC (for example, Robert Copland’s English translation of the French versions in 1512).

Story of the Swan Children:

The essence of the Dolopathos account of the genesis of the swan-children is this: A knight wanders into a mysterious forest while hunting a white stag, where he discovers a mysterious woman by natural spring (an otherworld woman). They fall for each other and make love, and the knight takes her back to his castle where she eventually gives birth to seven children with gold chains around their necks. The knight’s mother is jealous and orders the children to be swapped in the birthing chamber for a litter of puppies, and has a servant take the children to the forest to kill them, where he decides to simply abandon them. The knight is angry that his wife gave birth to puppies and condemns her to buried up to the neck in the earth for seven years. However, the knight then finds that the children are alive and living in the forest and sends a servant to retrieve them. The servant finds the seven children – six boys and one girl – at a lake in the forest. The boys have taken off their gold chains and are swimming on the lake in the form of swans, while their sister – still in human form (wearing her chain) guards their chains. The servant decides to steal the chains and makes off with his loot to have them melted down by a goldsmith. The girl goes back to the castle to seek bread with which to feed her brothers who are now trapped in swan form, and eventually meets her father who has her tell the tale of what happened. The knight retrieves the chains and the boys can regain their human forms, except for one whose chain was broken by the goldsmith. He goes on to serve (or becomes – the source is unclear) the mysterious hero, the Knight of the Swan.

The story of the swan children is a curious bit of imagery, resonating strongly with the pagan mythical story traditions of Ireland (The Children of Lir, The Sickbed of Cuchullain). These feature birds (explicitly swans in the case of Lir’s children) who are bound with chains. However, the motif occurs in not just Irish and French legendary traditions – in the Norse Icelandic Völundarkviða (Poetic Edda), Völundr (Weland) and his two brothers meet and make love to swan-maidens (Valkyries) bathing  in a lake in the forest while hunting. The implication in the genesis story of the Swan Knight is that the ‘Lady of the Fountain’ is herself of an avian aspect, much like Manannan’s wife, Fand, in the Serglige Con Culainn, in which she briefly becomes Cuchullain’s lover and tormentor. The Norse goddess Freyja was attributed with a ‘feather cape’ in the Eddas, and as receiver of ‘half of the slain’ she may herself have been a or the Valkyrie. The greatest similarity with the Knight of the Swan entrée, however, is the Irish tale Clann Lir (‘Children of Lir’): It shares many features with minor differences – in the Irish tale, there are four children (three boys, one girl). Their mother dies and their stepmother is jealous of them and orders a servant to kill them. However, the servant refuses and the stepmother transforms the children into swans by magic. The swans are connected to each other by silver chains. They wander the earth for 900 years until (depending on the version) their deaths are caused when their chains are broken off by a marauder causing them to immediately age and die, or when they hear the tolling of a church bell or are blessed by a priest.

The tale of children turned into birds is actually a widespread folktale motif (Grimm collected a ‘Six Swans’ tale from Germany) and therefore has an Aarne-Thompson classification of type 451. However, the theme of the chains is not so frequent. Obviously, these stories are widely divergent, but what is the underlying significance?

About the Swan Knight himself:

The Knight of the Swan is named variously as Helias or Helyas in the French traditions, and as Loherangrin in Wolfram’s Parzifal. ‘Helias’ sounds a bit like the Greek name for the sun – Helios. Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s character Loherangrin has  the -angrin suffix, somewhat redolent of the Irish words an grian – the sun! As Wolfram was borrowing from Celtic story traditions, this interpretation is theoretically possible. However, there is another perhaps more likely explanation for Helyas/Helias, this being that it derives from a Celtic word for swan, which in Irish is eala. Nevertheless, the links between Weland and the Celtic solar god, Belenos, that I have discussed elsewhere may add weight to the identity of Helias with Helios.

In the Romance of Godfrey de Bouillon, Helias is born to King Oriant of Illefort (‘Strong Isle’), the introductory part of the tale being a rescension of the Swan Children tale. As the Knight of the Swan he is conveyed overseas on his quest by a swan which tows him in a small boat. The swan looks after the knight, who trusts it to take him where his bravery is needed, and where he might find his fortune, a wife and good honour in combat. This applies to both Helias and Loherengrin. The knight is under a tabu or geas that he must not reveal his name to those he meets, and when he breaks it, the swan carries him off. Other Arthurian heroes trot around on horses, but the Chevalier au Cygne stands aside as a water-bourne character. The ‘magic isle’ motif was common to the Celtic tales of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard – for instance, the Breton ‘Isle of Lok’ comes to mind. Perhaps this is the origin of the ‘Loher-‘ prefic of Loherangrin?

The stories are full of themes of captivity – a feature all too familiar to men of the crusader age, whose favoured saint became the chain-loosening St Leonard. The captivity of form in the case of the children, the captivity of knightly obligation, and the captivity of the geas or tabu. The swan – a white bird – is also an otherworldly creature with a propensity for migration and sitting on water, itself one of the gateways to the otherworld. The chains of the swan-children are like an unbreakable link with the otherworld and simultaneously evocative of the art of smithcraft, itself often equated with magic, itself a form of ‘binding’ of unseen powers. This brings us back to the question – already touched on – of the legendary (sometime captive) smith, Weland, known in Ireland as Cuillean…

Link to Weland and Cuillean:

The Poetic Edda’s ‘Lay of Weland’ (Völundarkviða) starts with Völundr (Weland – a prince of elves) and his brothers coming across three swan-maidens bathing in a lake, who they take as lovers. Swans being migratory, the girls eventually take off and Völundr’s brothers go with them leaving him alone. Like Manawydan in the Mabinogion, he takes up the life of a craftsman, which causes him to be kidnapped by King Niðhad who wishes to exploit his metalworking skills and has his hamstrings cut so he cannot run away. He extracts a terrible revenge by killing the king’s sons and making their bones into jewels which he gives the unwitting king and his queen, raping their daughter causing her to become pregnant with his child – presumably the inheritor of  Niðhad’s kingdom. Völundr then flees by flying away through the air. This brutal tale is in itself a warning not to abuse the help on offer from the otherworld’s denizens, and as such contains the same themes as the Arthurian legends and fairy romances of continental Europe during the same period.

Weland’s Wilkinasaga tradition (occurring in the Romance of Dietrich von Bern/Thidrekksaga) depicts him as the son of a character called Wade – a giant who fathers him with a mermaid (haffru). It is essentially the same tale of enslavement by the king and description of Volund’s terrible revenge and escape using wings to fly away. His Gaelic equivalent/counterpart, Cuillean, is – as has been previously suggested – identified with the sea-god, Manannan. This would make Wade and Lir coterminous, and it is evident from the continental traditions of the Knight of the Swan (Helias) that his father was the ruler of an Island and that the knight’s father – like Wade – conceived him with a fairy woman linked to water. The 12thC hagiography of St Patrick by Jocelyn of Furness has him visit the Isle of Man and defeat a flying wizard called Melinus, who I have suggested sounds like Manannan and Merlin compounded. Given the link between Manannan, Cuillean and therefore Weland, this flying aspect adds another level of intrigue.

The depiction of Weland/Volundr in the saga and German romances of Dietrich von Bern of him escaping by flying on wings seems somehow to evoke the swan children. His ability to propel himself over water in a hollowed out tree is another theme from the Dietrich saga which evokes the Knight of the Swan’s self-propelling boat, and also brings to mind the legend of Sceaf and Scylding alluded to in Anglo-Saxon mythic texts and poems.

The word ‘water’ has a linguistic link to the name of Weland’s father – ‘Wade’. This can be seen in the Polish word for water, which is wody and the Russian is the same – voda, from which ‘vodka’ is derived. ‘Wading’ is walking through water and it is even possible that ‘Wotan’ could be linked to water. The Welsh name for Manannan, ‘Manawydan’, might also by the same reckoning contain linguistic connotations of Wade. Even the eponymous relater of the Anglo-Saxon Widsith (Exeter Book ca.10thC CE) might have a relation – being so far-travelled and apparently present (Taliesin-like) at different points in history not possible for a mortal human.

Water was definitely the route by which souls and life in general was believed to transit from the Otherworld. The general belief appears to have been that souls left this world in an aerial form – as birds. It is therefore no surprise that migratory water birds such as swans would come to represent the Otherworld’s intermediary animals par-excellence.

Footnote: The Greeks – Even the ancient Greeks had a myth of the ‘Swan Maidens’ coded into the pre-Olympian mythology of their own traditions. These were the three Graeae daughters of the primal sea-god Phorcys, who appear in the myth of Perseus. They live on an island at the reaches of the world-ocean, Okeanos, (figuratively) in the ‘realm of Kronos’ on the far shores of time, close to the Otherworld itself. Far from being bathing beauties in the Perseus myth, they are aged crones who share one eye between them. They are sisters to the Gorgons, who are also counted among the Phorcydes – monstrous children of the sea, whose numbers include Scylla and Charybdis, Ladon and the Hyda among othersI suppose they were more than capable of transforming themselves into ravishing beauties, as most of the Atlantic ‘woman by the water’ deity archetypes seem to have this ability…

 

 

 

Belenos and St Michael the Archangel?

One curiosity of Atlantic European Christianity is the existence in its collegium of venerated ‘saints’ of a figure with no earthly beginnings whatsoever: St. Michael the Archangel.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

Saint Michael the Satan-slayer, as depicted by Raphael.

As the Taxiarch of the heavenly battle host, he occurs firstly in the Darnel-induced visions of the Hebrew Book of Daniel (Daniel 10, to be precise, where he reassures the Hebrews that they as a nation will be protected from the depredations of their Persian captors):

“…Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude…” (KJV)

Michael appears again in the equally hallucinogenic Christian Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos, and leads the War in Heaven.

“…And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…”

It is obvious that in the late -classical period such a character would have had a certain appeal to Central and Northern Europe’s newly Christianised warrior-cultures who venerated their departed heroes religiously, and had complex story traditions recounting their deeds. If you believe St Patrick, the Irish worshipped ‘Idola’ – visions or images – and from the designs of Celtic coins, it is quite possible that Celtic religion was something of a visionary cult.

The idea of a winged, victorious warrior is by no means an invention of the Hebrews, however. The older Egyptian and Babylonian Empires were responsible for this cultural iconography which entered the western Mediterranean sphere during the Hellenistic period, from where it eventually spread into the ‘barbarian’ world of Europe’s Celts.

During the period of Roman expansion into the lands of the Danubian and Rhineland Celts, and thereafter into Gaul and Britannia, the coins of the Celtic kings began to pick up on the iconography of the ‘winged’ human or animal form. In particular, this can be seen in those produced by the Belgic cultures – in particular the Atrebates, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni of eastern Britain during the 1stC BCE and 1stC CE who played such a major role in the Romanisation of Britain and northern Gaul. Of particular note are the coins of Commius, Cassivellaunus, Addedomarus, Tincomarus, Tasciovanus and his son Cunobelinus, which all show signs of Roman acculturation through their use of visual motifs such as the use of imagery of Pegasus,  the winged Victoria, and the Eleusinian head of Corn. In so doing, they were copying the iconography that their sons had become accustomed to while in fosterage/hostagery in the Roman curia.

Winged icons of shining deities would find their true Renaissance in the coming Christian era, when angels as warriors of light would replace the icon of the mercurial shining warrior god so beloved of the Celts.

The appearance of places named after ‘Michael’ was already well under way by the early middle ages: In Ireland, the early southern monastic island settlement of Skellig Michael was a key place in this process. St Michaels’ Mount in Cornwall and Mont St Michel in Brittany were another two significant places with religious importance. Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the 1stC CE referred to the metal-mining and smelting heartland of Cornwall by the name Belerion, suggesting a theophoric name based on Belen(os):

“…The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilised in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like astralgi and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis…”

Ictis is believed to refer to St Michael’s Mount near Marazion.

Further to the northwest, another important metal-producing place was the Isle of Man (called Manavia Insula by Ptolemy in the 2ndC CE). Here the concept of the  ‘Angel Michael’ was – as elsewhere – introduced into the popular imagination by Christian monks and priests. To the Manx, the name was converted to ‘Vaayl’. The ‘v’ sound could represent a transition from a name starting with ‘b’ or ‘m’ in the Celtic languages. This makes us consider if the original name was in fact ‘Mel’ or ‘Bel’… The name of this Island’s prime saint, ‘Maughold’, is a version of ‘Mayl’ (referred to as ‘Mel’ in the Brigitine hagiographies). The 12thC hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness told a legend of St Patrick defeating a flying wizard called ‘Melinus’ on the Isle of Man. ‘Melyn’ is the Welsh word for ‘yellow’, and sounds something like the Latin word ‘Malin’, referring to the tide. ‘Creg Malin’ in the Isle of Man overlooks St Patrick’s Isle where Jocelyn probably portrayed his imaginary showdown between christianity and the crusty Simon-Magus imitating wizard. This legend of Melinus actually equates directly to the Manx traditions of Manannan, who they claimed was the original ruler overtunrned by Patrick.  The 18thC English writer George Waldron commented that he had been told that ‘Merlin’ was said to be the legendary wizard-ruler, echoing Jocelyn, albeit with an extra ‘r’ and it is to be noted that ‘Merlin’ and ‘Mercury’ are not too dissimilar as names... the plot thickens!

So, Merlin, ‘Melin’ and ‘Belin’ are linguistically not too far from each other. Also, the tendency of Celtic languages to switch the P/B (‘P-Celtic’) sound with the C/K/Q (‘Q-Celtic’) sound make an association of ‘Belen(us)’ with the legendary ‘Cuillean’ a distinct possibility.

‘Cuillean’ was a legendary Irish/Manx smith and metal-smelter who occurs in the legends and placename-lore of Ireland, Mann and Scotland. If we are to link this character to ‘Belenus’ then it is worth noticing the names ‘Cunobelenus’ and ‘Cuchullain’ are exactly equivalent. Also the ‘germanic’ name of the legendary smith-figure ‘Weland’, with the addition of a Gaelic ‘k’ guttural becomes ‘kWeland’ so is actually an equivalent of ‘Chuillean’, or in the Welsh – ‘Gwyllion’. Slieve Gullion in Armagh, Ireland, and Slieu Whallian and Ard Whallan in the Isle of Man are name after him – possibly also ‘Schiehallion’ in Scotland. All of these places have interesting legends attached to them. Ireland also has its share of ‘giant’ or saint-stories with the name ‘Mal’ or ‘Mel’ attached – Mal Bay in County Clare being an example that comes to mind.

So… Belenus is the same ‘person’ as the smith/wright/craftsman Cuillean/Wayland?   The association of Belenus with Mercury, Mars and Apollo in the Romano-Celtic world has a direct relationship with his identity as a craftsman. Like his various hypostases – Lugus among the continental Celts, and Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Manawydan fab Lir in the Mabinogion, he is a maker of things (shoes – like the Irish Leprachaun) – a forger with the fire of the sun and spiritual ‘fire’ of the Otherworld…

Going back to those famous Belgic rulers of ancient Britain in the 1st centuries BC and CE, an appraisal of their names (as well as their numismatic iconography) shows a deep attraction to the god Belenus. Firstly, and most obviously there is Cunobelenus – the ‘Hound/Wolf of Belenus’. Next the tribe of the Catuvellauni – ‘Seat of Belenus’ and their leader Cassivellaunus (‘Stronghold of Belenus’ – defeated by Caesar in his first invasion). The name of the tribal King Tasciovanus (1stC BCE) also had distinct connections to the name of Celtic ancestor gods that Tacitus cites in his book Germania: Tuisto/Tuisco and Mannus (hence, possibly, ‘Tuisco-Vannus’). All of these are probably related to ‘Beli’ – the bristling, bellicose Sun God of the Celts whose icon was sometimes portrayed as a Boar, the horse with its hair streaming or as the combative rutting ‘Stag-Warrior’: Cernunnos.… In fact, etymologically the word for ‘hair’ in the Indo-European languages has similarity to the word for ‘war’ and ‘beauty’. To use Latin as our example, we have Pillus, Bellum, and Bellus: When considering the imagery of Bellenus as ‘Apollo Grannus’, this relationship becomes quite clear – especially in the context of the aesthetics of a proudly adorned warrior race such as the Celts…. It is no wonder they appropriated the horned image of Alexander as ‘Amon-Ra-Apollo’ which he began to use after liberating Egypt from Persian rule while in his youthful prime.

St Michael the Archangel served as a ‘placeholder’ for the ‘folk-memory’ of this important religious figure of the Celts.

A 'solar warrior'

A ‘solar warrior’