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 others. I 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…