I have always loved a good fairytale that involved swans. This could be chalked up to the fact that I was born in the month of the swan in the Celtic zodiac. Swans are an animal deeply associated with Faery (and the faerie folk) which makes me love them all the more! My deep love of Tchaikovsky and his ballets contribute to the love of swan tales. Finally there are the pop culture usages of swan fairytales that endear them to me. For example there is the 1994 Swan Princess movie (and it’s sequels) and Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time!
The tale of the swan maidens holds many markers of traditional fairytales. There is the capturing of an otherworldly bride by taking from her the thing that allows her to be among her own people. In the case of the swan maidens a feather robe that allows the maiden to return to her swan form is taken and she is left behind. Her husband keeps the feather robe in his possession to prevent her from leaving him. There is also the premise of beauty and beast, in this case a female who can transform into an animal, and a good looking human hunter. The marriage of a human and a faery being is found across many tales and cultures.
Of course this premise is highly popular in Celtic countries. The swan maiden tale is a very British and very Celtic fairy story. The presence of swans reminds the readers of swans being a faerie animal (as most white animals are associated with the land of Faerie) and this alludes to the cultural association of Celtic countries. The usage of water animals in fairytales is a common theme to be combined with the otherworldly bride premise. The tales of selkies also feature beautiful young women who can transform into water animals (seals in the case of selkies) and if a man has their seal skin they can force their seal bride to stay with him.
Both swan maidens and selkies have the common theme of marrying men who steal their skins (feather robes for swans and seal skins for seals). Another commonality is that if she finds her skin she can leave her husband and return to her own kind, and that is what she does in most every tale.
Brides who are part animal in fairytales could be rooted in the fact that women have been historically seen as closer to nature. As women our menstrual cycle aligns with the phases of the moon, and the moon also pulls the tides of the oceans. This makes women innately connected to nature is special ways. Half human and half animal brides therefore embody the natural aspect within all women.
The swan maiden story is an example of a human hunter taking a member of the faire folk as his wife. Being that swan maidens (as well as the selkies mentioned previously) can magically transform with their skins they are obviously counted among members of the fay. It is quite common among Celtic countries to have fairytales that include intermarriage between members of the faery folk and humans. This theme is also very common among Celtic mythology. Likely this is part of why belief in faeries and in getting taken away to the Otherworld was so strong into the early nineteenth century!
It is not to be underestimated the appeal of a tale like the swan maiden’s story. It is a tale that involves sacrifice and going against your nature to please others. We can all learn from the swan maidens and selkies that leave their husbands (and sometimes children, although there are stories of the brides taking their children to their land with them) in order to return to the place they belong. It is at the core a tale telling us to remember to be true to ourselves, and to be careful who we trust. These lessons matter today just as they did when these stories began being told ages ago.
In the case of the swan maiden she gives a husband she loves a chance to earn her love by escaping when her child finds her robe. She leaves a message with her child that if he wished to find her he must go to the land “east of the sun and west of the moon.” He finds her as a swan princess and convinces her father he is her husband, and they get blessing to be together by her father! In this case the faery bride has a husband who proves himself worthy of her love, and he is willing to make compromises. This is in some ways turns into a modern union, both parties making sacrifices for those they love. In the end they both get to be true to themselves, and this turns it into a tale that involves true love. In many ways the fact that this tale ends happily shows the evolution from darker fairy stories to lighter ones that have a “happily ever after.”
In the times past of myth, legend, and fairytale knowing who could and could not be trusted was truly a matter of life or death most of the time. If taken hostage and forced to marry a nobleman or royal against your will you would have no choice but to oblige and hope for the best (unless you were lucky enough to escape or be rescued). Although today that may seem something we only see in fairytales and legends, it did happen occasionally long ago. This would certainly be true of a queen forced to marry another king after he stormed the castle of her husband (who was likely dead after a battle of incapacitated in some way). In many ways tales of faery brides (whether swans, selkies, or other fay women) being forced into marriage until they escape is much the same as a queen forced into marrying a usurper.
I hope that this blog entry has helped to peak your interest in fairytale lore as something deeper than tales told to children! After all much of what we consider to be fairytales began as entertaining tales for adults and only became sanitized for children when intellectual adults grew tired of them.
Below is a list of books that will help readers better understand swan fairytales and Celtic lore.
- Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World edited by Maria Tatar
- The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
- Celtic Mythology: Nature and Influence of Celtic Myth- from Druidism to Arthurian Legend by Ward Rutherford
- The Irish Fairy Book by Alfred Perceval Graves
- Celtic Fairy Tales collected, annotated, and introduced by Joseph Jacobs