The swan is one of the most represented animals in the Celtic culture, portrayed on different objects and protagonist of numerous mythological tales. An ancient song in Irish Gaelic just speaks of a girl-swan and echoes fairy tales and beliefs about this mythical creature-
Attributed sometimes to Seán Bán Mac Grianna (1095-1979, brother of the writers Seosamh Mac Grianna and Séamas Ó Grianna see) the song is instead dated back to 1700 having been translated into English by Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886) in his “Poems by Samuel Ferguson ” recorded as an eighteenth century irish song by the anonymous ” The fair-haired girl ”
The shapeshifter swan
In fairy tales, as for the selkie, the swan-maden is a shape-shifter that becomes a docile wife of the man who hides her feathered mantle; the man, often a hunter, who spies a group of girls to the river, steals one of the cloaks left on the shore and marries the woman. In the fairy tale there is a significant gesture made by man: while the girl begs him to give her back the magic cloak to be able to fly away with his sisters, he covers her with his mantle: it is an act of possession, the passage under the protection and control of the mantle owner, a gesture becomed ritual in medieval marriage.
The mantle is never destroyed, but only hidden and when the swan-maiden finds it (usually after many years and after having generated a child) does not hesitate to resume the form of a bird to fly away, abandoning her husband and children.(see more)
In the song the protagonist looks at her as she flies away among the other swans: the man is hopelessly in love with the fairy woman, but she, who lives between the earth and the sky, can not live under the dominion of man.
“No matter how compliant a swan maiden may appear as a wife, there remains an unspoken anxiety and tension beneath the surface of her marriage. Her husband can never be certain of her affection, for it has been held hostage by her stolen skin. He offers her his cloak, but it is an exchange of unequal goods. Her feathered robe is the sign of her wild nature, of her freedom, and of her power, while his cloak becomes the instrument of her domestication, of her submission in human society. He steals her identity, the very thing that attracted him, and then turns her into his most precious prize, a pale version of the original creature of magic.” Midori Snyder (from here)
This psychological analysis of myth does not however capture the charm of poetry, steeped in pain for the loss of the beloved woman and for regret.
|THE FAIR-HAIR’D GIRL
Samuel Ferguson translation (from here)
The sun has set, the stars are still
The tide has left the brown beach bare
The birds(1) have fled the upper air;
Upon her branch, the lone cuckoo
Is chanting still her sad adieu;
And you, my fair-haired girl, must go
Across the salt sea under woe!(2)
I through love have learned three things,
Sorrow, sin(3) and death it brings
Yet day by day, my heart within
Dares shame and sorrow, death and sin.
Maiden, you have aimed the dart
Ranking in my ruined heart:
Maiden, may the God above
Grant you grace to grant me love!
Sweeter than the viol’s string,
And the notes that blackbirds sing:
Brighter than the dewdrops rare
Is the maiden wondrous fair:
Like the silver swans at play
Is her neck, as bright as day!
Woe is me, that e’er my sight
Dwelt on charms so deadly bright!
1) these birds are the swans with which the swan-girl has rejoined after having found her feathered mantle
2) for the poet the swan-maiden is saddened to have to fly far, as if her condition were a curse
3) is the man guilty of having hidden the mantle? Does he regret having forced her to stay with him or not to have left her a choice?