The world-wide myth of the Swan-maidens has its place in Scandinavian mythology. The main features of the myth are that the hero of the tale sees birds — swans, geese, or ducks — flying to a lake, where, doffing their feather dresses or wings, they become beautiful maidens, usually of a supernatural kind. Stealing up to their dresses, he takes one of them, and its owner is now in his power and becomes his wife. But long after, because she regains her dress or because her husband breaks a tabu concerning her, she flies away.
The story is sometimes told of a dog, seal, or wolf, or the captured woman has scarce a trace of the animal. There are also stories in which merely part of a woman’s clothing is captured and there is no shape-shifting, and in these there seems to lie the key to the whole group — the idea that for one person to gain possession of an article of clothing, ornament, hair or nail clippings, or even to learn the secret name of another person, brings that person within his power. Any such thing contains the power of its owner, or is so much a part of him that whatever is done to it is done to him. To gain possession of it is to have its owner at one’s mercy. With the weakening of such beliefs, the story would be told of supernatural women only, and it was now influenced by stories of the totemistic Beast Marriage group, in which a wife is both animal and human, and can take human form at will. When the incidents of this last group of tales were attracted into the group which told of a woman captured because a man gained possession of her garment or the like, the totemistic origin of the Beast Marriage stories had been long forgotten. But the animal skin now took the place of the garment.
Two story groups thus coalesced as neatly as do the animal and human natures in the Swan-maiden.1
The widespread occurrence of the swan in these stories may be due to its grace and beauty, but its popularity in Scandinavian story may also be traced to the fact that the wild swan is so well known there.
The deities of the Eddas could assume bird form through donning a feather-dress, fjaþr-hamr, cognates of which word are found in other Teutonic languages.
The Swan-maiden story forms part of Volundarkvitha, the tale of Volund (Weyland the Smith), which reached Scandinavia from Saxon regions. It is told first in a prose Introduction, and then in the poem itself. Volund, Slagfid, and Egil were sons of a king of the Finns. They hunted wild beasts and went on snow-shoes. At Ulfdalir, where was a lake Ulfsjar, they built themselves a house. One morning they found on the shore of the lake three women spinning flax. Near them were their swan-dresses, aptar-hamir, for they were Valkyries. Two of them were daughters of king Hlodver — Hladgud the Swan-white and Hervor the All-wise: the third was Olrun, Kjar’s daughter from Valland. The brothers took them to their dwelling: Egil had Olrun, Slagfid took Swan-white, and Volund took All-wise. For seven winters they dwelt there, and then the women flew off to find battles, and came back no more. Two of the brothers set out to seek them, but Volund remained behind. Nothing is said of the heroes’ gaining possession of the maidens through their swan-dresses, but this must have been part of the original story. Nor do we hear that the maidens recaptured them, but as they flew away, they must have done so.
The poem which now goes on to tell this part of the story is fragmentary and confused. The three sisters are said to fly from the south through Myrkwood, following their fate. They rest by the shore, these southern maids, and spin flax. Then follow their names, and it is said of Swan-white that she wore swan-feathers, swan-fjaþrar. The account of their capture is lost, but
the next lines tell how they threw their arms round the necks of the heroes. In the eighth winter they yearned for Myrkwood. The heroes returned from hunting to find them gone and sought them everywhere.
A German version of this story, whether derived from the original Saxon tale is unknown, occurs in a fourteenth century poem. Wieland (Volund) was searching for Angelburga when he saw three maidens bathing in a fountain, their doves’ feather-dresses lying near. They had flown thither and, on touching the ground, had become maidens. By means of a magic root which made him invisible Wieland was able to gain the dresses. The maidens wept, but he insisted that one should marry him ere he gave them back. This was agreed to and Wieland chose that one of the three who proved to be Angelburga, long loved by him, but never seen till then.2
The theft of swan-dresses forms an incident in Helreid Brynhildar. Brynhild, who moves on her seat “like a swan on the wave,” and her seven companions had hid their swan-dresses beneath an oak. There the king (Agnar?) found them and they were forced to do him service.3
Brynhild and her companions and the Swan-maidens of the Volund story are Valkyries. So also is Kara who appears in the form of a swan. The Swan-maidens of Volundarkvitha long to return to the wood — Myrkwood. Their names Hladgud and Hervor are explained philologically as indicating connexion with armies and war. They fly away to find battles. They thus resemble the Valkyrie Wood-maidens in Saxo’s story, and have obvious Valkyrie traits. The Valkyrie Kara hovered as a swan over her beloved hero Helgi in battle. By magic charms she blunted the weapons of his opponents. In his fight with Hromund, Helgi swung his sword so high in air that it cut off one of her feet. She fell to the ground and was no longer able to protect him, so he was slain by Hromund.4
This curious mingling of Valkyries and Swan-maidens may have arisen from traits which they possessed in common —
flying through the air (though by different methods), knowledge of the future, links with an earthly hero; but in other respects they are quite distinct. While imagination dowered Valkyries with properties of Swan-maidens, the true Swan-maiden was never a Valkyrie.
The Swan-maidens of universal folk-story are usually of supernatural character, and perhaps they represent most closely Water-spirits, who would take the form of birds floating on the water. Such seems to be the nature of the three “wise Waterwomen,” weisen Meerweiber, of the Nibelungenlied, whose garments Hagene took, thus getting them into his power and compelling them to prophesy. One said he would have great honour, thus inducing him to return their garments. Another then said that the first had deceived him. The poem does not say that their dresses were of feathers, but they are described as “wonderful,” and the women are said to swim “as birds upon the flood.”5 In this episode there is no love motif nor does it occur in a story told by Saxo. Fridleif, king of Denmark, heard an unusual sound in the air and saw three swans flying and calling above him. They told how Hythin was rowing on the sea, while his serf drank out of gold. Better than Hythin’s was the state of the serf. They then dropped a belt on which was writing by which their song was interpreted. Hythin, or rather his son (the text is confused), had been captured by a giant — the serf, and forced to row his boat. Fridleif must rescue him, and now he sets out to do this. These birds are Swan-maidens, urging Fridleif to an heroic deed.6
In German medieval romance and in tales current from Iceland to South Germany, the Swan-maiden appears. A medieval tale with many variants tells of a knight who saw a maiden bathing in a forest lake. He took a gold chain which she had laid aside and now she could not fly away. Because of the chain or necklace such women were called Wünschelwybere. She became his wife and bore him seven sons, each with a necklace by which they could become swans.7 An old Swedish tale relates
that a knight captured the swan-garment of a maiden and married her. Many years after she regained it and flew away, though she had borne him several children.8 A more recent Swedish story has a hunter for hero. He saw three swans flying to a lake where, doffing their swan-dresses, they became beautiful girls. Their robes appeared like linen. Advised by his foster-mother, he took the dress of the youngest and most beautiful and so gained her as wife. Seven years later he showed her the dress and told her the story. She took it, and that instant became a swan and flew away.9 The seven years recall the same period in the Volund story: it occurs often in fairy-tales, especially in those where a mortal is in the power of elfins and escapes at the end of that time.
The swan is often a prophetic bird in Germanic and other folk-belief, just as the Swan-maidens also sometimes foretell the future. In Eddic cosmogony two swans are fed in Urd’s well, the well of the Norns, and from them comes the race of swans.10 Whether this has any connexion with the Swan-maiden myth or with Norns as Swan-maidens is unknown.
The story of the Knight of the Swan had many variants, mainly Germanic. Vincent of Beauvais gives an early version in which a skiff drawn by a swan attached to it by a silver chain was seen on the Rhine at Cologne. From it a knight leaped ashore, and then swan and skiff disappeared. Long after, when the knight had married and had many children, the swan returned with the boat. The knight leaped into it and was seen no more. His descendants were living in Vincent’s day.11
In other versions the knight is ancestor of Godfrey of Bouillon or of other noble persons, and is also identified with Lohengrin, son of Percival, the tale being thus linked to Arthurian romance.12 The Swan-knight who comes and goes so mysteriously is a denizen of the Other World, and his disappearance was the result of his wife’s asking his name or whence he had come. Grimm tried to connect this romance, of which still earlier forms must have existed, with the Danish hero-ancestor
Sceaf or his father Scyld, who, as a child, was conveyed in a boat to the land which he was to aid and rule, sleeping on a sheaf of corn (hence the name Sceaf), with weapons and treasure. At his death, his body was put in the boat which then disappeared as it had come.13 There is, however, no swan in the legend of this culture-hero.
The origin of the Knight of the Swan is explained in later forms of the romance by connecting him with the story of the swan-children. Seven children were born at a birth to the wife of a king, each with a silver chain round its neck. Through the enmity of the king’s mother they were exposed, but a hermit saved them. She then sent men to slay them, but they contented themselves with taking the chains, and now the children became swans. One of them, Helyas, was absent, and became protector of the swans, eventually regaining their chains, when they reassumed human form. One of them, however, had to remain a swan, for his chain had been melted to form a goblet. This swan later drew the skiff of Helyas, the Knight of the Swan.
This story existed separately before it was joined to the Swan-knight tale in the twelfth century, and in some versions of it the sister, not one of the brothers, is guardian of the others. One of the earliest versions is told by the monk Johannes in his Dolopathos, c. 1190 A.D. Here the mother of the swan-children is called a nympha, and was probably a Water-elfin.14