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…

 

 

 

Terror and Beauty from the far shores…

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the north?

The stylised Gorgon from the pediment of the 6thC BCE Temple of Artemis, Corfu. Was she the Greek version of the 'loathly lady' myths of the European north?

To the ancient peoples of Europe, the realm of the dead and of heaven lay deep in the west on the path of the setting sun. This exceeded the bounds of the known world of the Mediterranean and was presumed to lie beyond the extent of the Titanic Atlantic Ocean, believed to represent the extent of the 'world river', Okeanos. Plato (Athens, 4thC BCE) describes the mysterious point where earth and heaven meet in his 'last words of Socrates' dialogue known as Phaedo (trans. Benjamin Jowett) :

“…Also I believe that the earth is very vast, and that we who dwell inthe region extending from the river Phasis to the Pillars of Heracles,along the borders of the sea, are just like ants or frogs about amarsh-pool, and inhabit a small portion only, and that many others dwell inmany like places. For I should say that in all parts of the earththere are hollows of various forms and sizes, into which the water andthe mist and the air collect; and that the true earth is pure and inthe pure heaven, in which also are the stars-that is the heavenwhich is commonly spoken of as the ether, of which this is but thesediment collecting in the hollows of the earth…”

His description of the 'frogs' and the pond is an echo of contemporary Athenian playwright Aristophanes' famous Dionysiac play of the c.405 BCE known as 'The Frogs' when the god Dionysus crosses the river Styx to visit Hades, and rather than being regaled by the shades of the departed from within the water, he is annoyed by a chorus of frogs. The connection between water, and the seemingly grotesques yet miraculous aspects of both death and rebirth was not lost in the ancient European worldview, of which the Greeks were to create the earliest written sophistication:

One of our oldest written sources on ancient Greek mythology, Hesiod ('Theogony'), says that the most archetypal race of Greek monsters, the Gorgons, lived on an island at the furthest extent of the western ocean, supposedly near the island of the Hesperides. This puts them in the realm of Cronos (Saturn) at the far shores of the world-river Okeanos, near Homer's famous island of Ogygia from the Oddyssey. Ogygia in Homer was domicile of the titan Atlas (also called Atlantis) and his daughter Calypso, whose charms almost took Oddyseus away from the land of the living. The name Ogygia (Hy Gyges?) is based upon the greek word gygas, meaning 'born of Ge (Gaia/Ge – the Earth)', often interpreted as 'Giants' (Gigantes) and possibly linked with the name Gorgós (dreadful)…

Accordingly, the Titans of greek myth were viewed as primordial, earth-born giant in stature and monstrously alien. They were supposedly banished in a succession war with their children, the Olympian gods, and the various Greek theogonies suggest these marginal realms were at the farthest reaches of the 'time before memory' of oral-culture mythology – on the shores of the world river Okeanos at the edge of the heavens.

The relation ship between the chthonic underworld of Hades and Tartarus is based upon the fact that the oceans are the deepest places, and the Atlantic far more so that the Mediterranean. The beings of this realm partook of the primal, cthonic 'elements' of Water and Earth. Even the Hebrew Book of Genesis (first compiled 5thC BCE) borrowed this conception…

The children of the Titans were often monstrous, for example: Python, Scylla, Medusa, Charybdis, Cereberus, Ekhidna, the Hydra, Chimera, Geryon, Cetus and the Graeae. Sometimes they were beautiful too, like the titaness Calypso, and Pegasus and Krysaor who were the children born of the neck of Medusa. The mysterious realm of the oceans, has always delivered both beauty and terror to mankind!

Although encountered in Greek mythology in various parts of the Mediterranean, it was not, however, it was not from this comparatively mild 'frogpond' that these creatures and Old Gods derived, but the mighty Atlantic, beyond the 'Pillars of Heracles' or the Straights of Gilbraltar, at the extremes of Okeanos in the Atlantic west. During the era of the Roman expansion into northern Europe, the misty, cold and terrifying reaches of the British Isles, Ireland and the North Sea might well have been at the very brink of this terrifying alien realm… to the ancient world, if you wished to get to Ogygyia and the Hesperides, you went to the furthest navigable islands (Britain and Ireland), and then just went a little further!

In mythology, the monstrous is often depicted as a trial to be overcome by a hero (or 'initiate'). In northern Europe, the aquatic 'loathly lady' traditions of the Melusine, the tale of how Conn Cétchathach gained the High Kingship of Ireland, and Chaucer's 15thC 'Wife of Bath's Tale' are examples of such a tradition. In Greek myth, the story of Perseus and Medusa might be seen as a version of the same principle:

Gorgons:

The most famous monsters of the Greek and Roman world were arguably the three snake-haired Gorgons, who were said to be the daughters of Phorcys (a hypostasis subordinate to Poseidon). These were also the sisters of another divine female triad of Greek myth, the Graeae – the grey, aged and withered, one-eyed Cailleach-like Okeanid nymphs said in some myths to guard the approaches to the Hesperides, Ogygia etc and (redolent of the Norse Valkyries and the Irish Children of Lir) to have part of the form of swans. In the myth of Perseus, the hero is dispatched on an apparent suicide mission by evil King Polydectes to kill and gain the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze turned men to stone. Polydectes fully expected the young hero to die in the task, so that he might marry Perseus' mother, but he survives his 'initiation' and triumphs from it. The Gods Athena, Hades, Zeus and Hermes donate magical weapons and aids for the task, setting Perseus on a perilous course to success. He tricks the Graeae at the approaches, and enters the grey and misty realms to stalk his prey… Upon decapitating Medusa, the magical horse Pegasus is born from her neck – a bizarre conception, fit only for these distant and magical realms of the Titans. Perseus rides the flying horse, saves the maiden Andromeda from being devoured by the sea monster Cetus and rides off into the sunset with the girl.

The characters of the Perseus-Medusa mythology all occupy a portion of the heavens as a group of related constellations named after the characters: Pegasus, Cetus, Perseus, Andromeda, in close proximity to the other 'aquatic' constellations of the zodiac – Pisces, Aquarius and curious Capricorn. This group contains two particular stars which express the curious behaviour of having a cyclical variable intensity, namely the 'blinking' eye of Medusa: Algol (period repeats every 2 days) – seen in the constellation of Perseus, and the longer-period Mira Ceti on the neck of Cetus, whose period is 11 months. Both these stars appear to 'come and go', a feature which must have had particular implications to ancient peoples who believed a star was a perfected heavenly soul. Mythology was sometimes designed to record information about the skies!

By 'killing' Medusa on the far western shores of Okeanos, Perseus immediately helps her 'give birth' to his conveyor back from the Otherworld (Pegasus – whose feet create springs of water on land), and mysterious Chrysaor – the 'golden blade' suggesting agriculture: both aspects of continuity in a culture which believed in reincarnation. By 'kissing' the 'loathly lady', the beauty of regeneration might occur…

Chrysaor, Kallirhoe and Geryon:

Two miraculous children were born at the moment of Medusa's beheading: The winged horse Pegasus ('Creator of Pegai (springs)'?), and the golden boy Chrysaor ('Golden Blade'). Pegasus became the companion and steed of the warrior-hero Perseus, but the mysterious Chrysaor was credited only (so far as we know) with the paternity of another monstrous being: the giant three-bodied cowherd Geryon on whom the legendary strongman-warrior Heracles/Hercules was supposed to have conducted his Tain or cattle-raid. Pegasus and Chrysaor have distinct echoes of the Atlantic Europe's 'fairy helpers' – the 'fairy horse' and the 'brownie'.

Geryon was supposedly born to his father of the Okeanid nymph Kallirhoe who occupied the island of Erytheia, and was said by some later classical authors (Diodorus) have also lived on the mountainous slopes of Atlantic Iberia. Like the tripliform Celtic deities, he was supposed to have been a giant with three bodies.

“From Medusa, daughter of Gorgon, and Neptunus [Poseidon], were born Chrysaor and horse Pegasus; from Chrysaor and Callirhoe, three-formed Geryon.”Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 151 (2ndC CE) – Trans. Grant.

His home was the far-west 'red island' of Erytheia in the mystical Hesperides (equivalent by name and association with the 'Arthurian' Avalon, and Irish Emain Abhlach), no doubt the reason his cattle also had coats the colour of the setting sun – the predominant colour of the flowers in Atlantic Europe after the Summer Equinox and also, notably, the colour of the running blood of the dead… He was once allegedly defeated by Hercules, who stole his cows. The constellations Orion (the 'stick-waver') and Boötes (the 'cowherd') might even be considered cosmic aspects of the legend behind Geryon, on account of the location of his myth – at the boundary of the Otherworld… the heavens near to that great nourishing sky-river, the Milky Way. The 'cattle' of Geryon are a motif for the spirits of the dead, like Aristophanes 'Frogs' and 'Birds' and Hercules taking of them is an expression of the role of the psychopompic gods: Manannan, Dionysus, Hermes/Mercury etc.

The Hesperides:

The mythical garden of the Hesperides lay somewhere in the mythological west – either beyond the Atlas mountains and Libya (home of the setting winter sun) or further out beyond the Atlantic ocean at 'Okeanos' far shore' (summer sunset), depending on the accounts. It was the site of goddess Hera's magical apple tree, whose golden fruit imparted divine knowledge (or chaos and warfare when placed in the hands of Eris!), and the three nymphs known as the 'Hesperides' were its guardians. It features in the myths of Perseus (the nymphs tell him where to find Medusa) and of Heracles (who steals the apples). These nymphs were supposed by some sources to be the daughters of Hesperus – personification of the 'evening star' (Venus) known as 'Hesperus' to the Greeks ('Vesper' to the Romans). Venus, being close to the sun, and relatively close to Earth often appears in the sun's train ('evening star') or vanguard ('morning star') as it traverses the ecliptic path. The Greeks, of course, named the planet Venus after Plato's muse Aphrodite.

Not trusting the Hesperides with her precious apples, Hera (a notoriously jealous sort of person) is supposed to have set the dragon Ladon to guard it, and he coils around the base of the apple tree's trunk. This is somewhat redolent of the Norse myth of the Midgard serpent coiled around the world tree, and the constellation Draco was said by Hyginus ancient account of the constellations to represent Ladon.

The exact 'identity' of the 'Island of the Hesperides' itself is somewhat mysterious – is it Ogygia or Erytheia? Or somewhere else, even? Erytheia is sometimes given as the name of one of the Hesperides, so this may link to Geryon and his herd of red cows. Conceptually, of course, this does not matter – the 'island' has no corporal existence, but an important spiritual one. The apples were a bridal gift of Gaia (the Earth) to Hera. The Irish and British also had a legend of an 'Isle of Apples' – Avalon and Emain Abhlach.

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?...

Hercules eyes up Hera's 'bridal gift' - perhaps the Hesperides are a tripliform expression of Zeus' wife?... The imagery is somewhat phallic!

The location of the Titans and their monstrous offspring at the far reach of Okeanos in ancient European mythology made them occupy the liminal 'crossing place' between the mundane world and the heavens. It is a place simultaneously distant in both space and time, ruled over by its Titan king, Cronus, whose 'star' (the planet Saturn) takes so long to traverse its ponderous path (as if an old Boddagh of a man) when compared to our nearer planets. If this 'crossing place' seemed distant and somehow unobtainable except through an extreme journey and a trial of nerve, the spiritual realm of the heavens on the other side was paradoxically immanent and of the 'here and now'. The meaning of this 'crossing over' point and a belief that the traffic here was bidirectional became a feature of the ancient initiatory mystery cults of Eleusis and the 'Orphic' mysteries and was a key part of the mythology of the barbarians of Atlantic Europe, preserved in their own rich traditions…