Birds Of A Feather

By and for Bird-People

The Wild Swan: Swan maiden stories as a therian myth


The swan maiden myth is a tale that is almost as old as human civilisation. Some scholars put the date of this kind of legend, with buffalo maidens, to 30,000-40,000 years ago.[1] The tale is known even by people today and follows a pattern that is almost the same throughout all the versions: a man walks by a place where a group of women is swimming, or undressed in some way, leaving their clothes apart from them. In a supernatural way, he knows that if he takes the clothes (or belt, or necklace) of one of the women, she will be bound to him. He does, and she is forced to marry him and leave behind her sisters, and sometimes has children. Many years pass… but, she never is truly happy, though she can’t leave, knowing the man has her magical item, and without it she can never go back to her true home. One day, perhaps with the help of the children, she finds her missing pieces of clothing. As soon as she puts it on again, she becomes a swan (or other creature), and escapes, never looking back. In some stories, the man will try to follow his wife and get her back, or sometimes she will leave clues for him. But, often, this is the end of the tale.

To exist without changing for so many years, and in so many places all over the world – the swan maiden has been found in places as far apart as Scotland, Africa, Russia, and Korea – this tale must have powerful roots in the nature of people, and speak to a lot of different cultures and social groups. It has been said, and seems likely, that the swan maiden legend is a story about the conflict between men and women, and the different things they want in life – or, the things they are thought to want in life, from a traditional male view.[2] The legend definitely shows a conflict between two types of people, and two worlds: the fairytale world of the swan maiden and the domestic home life where she is taken, the freedom of a magical world and the boredem of being a housewife, the being who struggles against being captured and wants to return home, and the being who wants to take her away from the magical world and keep her in society. Barbara Fass Leary, author of In Search of the Swan Maiden: A narrative on folklore and gender, makes a good case that this is meant to represent stereotypes about men and women, and what they both wish in life: the lazy man wishes for a magical housewife who is bound to him (and, in a lot of swan maiden stories, she is very good at being a housewife, better than a human would be), and the rebel woman wishes to escape society and the work she has to do.

But, it’s maybe possible to say, one of the main things about the swan maiden is that she is alien.

Often in swan maiden stories, there is emphasis about the idea that the woman is lonely and longing for her old world, often looking toward the sea. She doesn’t fit into human society and she doesn’t feel comfortable there: it’s very rare that a story talks about a swan maiden leaving the house and interacting with other people (though, this could also be part of a sexist stereotype, because the story is usually focused on the man, and the writers might not think or care that a woman might want companions outside the house). The romance is an awkward and forced situation, with the two people as opposites who are only kept together by a magical bonding, and as soon as the swan maiden is able to go home, she doesn’t look back. Often, the swan maiden is associated in legends with a fairy or witch, who are often thought to be beings who reject human society (for example, see the idea by Germaine Greer, that a witch was thought to be a woman who “withdrew from ‘normal’ human intercourse to commune with their pets or familiars”, choosing a life where she can survive on her own, without a man, and so is seen as frightening and dangerous[3] – and the idea that fairies and other spirits are frightened of “good Christian” things because they have rejected God, and human society with Him.) And, the story follows the tradition in many stories (and real societies), where an independent woman who chooses to live outside society has to be captured and bound, and put in her place. But, sexism says, “you can never trust a woman”, and she always will be trying to escape back to her home, a wild place that is free of social burdens.

All these things have been said about women. But, though it’s a sexist stereotype when you associate it with women, isn’t it true that all these things, are real experiences that therians often have? The feeling of longing for another world “across the sea” or in some place you can’t get to, another country, or in the sky. Not fitting human society, and feeling sometimes like you would do anything to escape it, to a more simple and wild world. Dreaming often of the place that is really your home, and thinking, if you got a chance to escape, you would not look back, even leaving behind family and friends (the swan maiden often leaves her children). The lifestyle of a witch, not just meaning “practicing magic” (which many therians also do), but also, living in some way a little separate from society, preferring the company of animals, not making getting married into a big life goal. Often, even though we try to spend time doing “normal” things in society and rejecting our therian natures, we know where home is, and we eventually do return to more nonhuman ways of being, that are more comfortable for us.

It’s possible to see the swan maiden myth as a therian tale, in a few different ways.

One way is to say that the swan maiden’s story, is a story of leaving a world that we believe to be our home (for example, the past life that many therians believe in, or the place in the before-life when we were supposed to have been put in a body of our own species, but something went wrong – notice that the swan maidens are usually swimming in a pool at the start of the story, which can represent the water of the womb and being before birth, and so, a place of possibility where fate is not yet decided), and being bound to a world where we are out of place and not comfortable. We might, or might not, believe that there is a way out – many of the swan maidens seem to forget about their magical cloak or necklace, and though they are sad, they don’t understand why, like a therian who knows something is strange about them but has not discovered yet the reason. But, we often dream of the idea that someone or something will set us free – like the children in the swan maiden tale who eventually find the woman’s clothes, and give her a way back to the otherworld. This seems exactly similar to the dream that many therians and otherkin have had at some time in our lives, where a portal will open or some magic will happen, and we can finally have our true forms, which have been hidden from us.

(Often, this dream is something that people laugh at, particularly as they get older, as a sign of escapism and the idea that therians are “not in touch with reality”. But, the fact is that we do have it – in the same way that anyone who feels uncomfortable with their body, is likely to dream sometimes of a magic way out – and though it is unrealistic, it is something we must accept as part of the experience of being therian. Seeing this dream reflected in the swan maiden myth can be comforting to a therian, who often feels that they are alone in having the dream, and maybe help to provide security as they begin to deal with it. The importance of security and comfort stories should not be pushed away as a childish thing. Remember that almost all traditional myths and tales, and a lot of modern stories, are a way for people to find comfort, by replaying a situation “the way it should be”, or making something that is wrong into something right through a hero’s journey. All beings need comfort, and therians are not an exception.)

Another way to look at this tale, is to see the swan maiden and the man as archetypes representing the different worlds. The swan maiden represents a world of magic, a world of true nature, a wild world where people can be swans and many things are possible. The man represents a world of mundane things and human social rules: the swan maiden can’t wander around naked any more, but she must wear a dress, and look respectable, and do normal things. (Sometimes, it is shown in the story that the swan maiden has trouble with this, or she doesn’t talk much.) The whole story represents how human society will like to capture and bind things that seems to be “out of place”, or keep them like a trophy because they are “interesting”, but, in the end, wants to own them and restrain the things they can do. But, the swan maiden is made for the wild nature, and can’t be happy in that role. It’s pointless to try and trap a being that is wild: in the end, they know what their true nature is, and they look for a way to leave.

There is a sad example in one story, of how this desire to leave can happen in this world. In this world, we don’t have magical cloaks or belts to let us escape into our true forms – but people have thought of other ways to escape. One selkie myth, which is strongly related to the swan maiden tale and is an example of it (they are both myth number 400 in the Aarne-Thompson classification system, and are called “swan maiden” myths as a group, the same as all myths that have this structure), tells that selkies are women who wished to escape the struggle of the human world, and drowned their selves in the sea. In the next life, they become seals. It’s a sadly tempting thought for many of us who feel stuck in the wrong body, and this story reminds us that we are not alone in that feeling.

So, I believe the swan maiden can be a powerful therian myth: about the struggles of the therian in the human world, and about a hero/ine of the story who does not conform to the normal reality, but knows that she belongs to it, and eventually manages to escape. Though, to see it this way, you have to look at it as the swan maiden’s story. It’s probably not a coincidence that the swan maiden tale is usually told from the POV of the human. How many times do we see the nonhuman’s POV, in a story about the conflict between the two? There’s probably also a reason why some versions of the tale don’t end with the swan maiden’s escape, but instead, the man begins a quest to get her back. The human world just can’t be satisfied with something that won’t stay inside its boundaries. So, the human will always want it to be a story about the swan maiden’s return. But, as for us… we still have the many stories that tell about the dream of escape, and flight.

[1] Le motif de la femme-bison – Essai d’interprétation d’un mythe préhistorique (première partie, 1/2). – Mythologie française, 242, 2011: 44-55. By Julien d’Huy.
[2] In Search of the Swan Maiden: A narrative on folklore and gender. By Barbara Fass Leary.
[3] As above.

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