Why Swans, Anyway?
In about 2003, as best I recall, the HP of the first coven I led, K.C., posed a challenge to the members: come up with an image to represent the coven, something suitable to use on a banner or similar group identifier. Some discussion led nowhere, and the banner never materialized. We did have a public logo made from our public name, Woodhart, which always satisfied me.
During circle meditation related to that challenge, however, I emerged from trance with a vivid vision of huge swans flying overhead, the words feathered dragon echoing in my being. My imagery rang no bells with any of the coven at that time, and I tucked the concept away in my personal magical lore. That is the kernel of the inspiration. Began teaching again a few years on, and a few years after that…a new coven, Swangrove. But there’s a lot more to the name than the inspiration.
Basic schooling taught me that birds were the modern descendants of the dinosaurs, and paleological discoveries of the past 50 years have added and expanded that understanding. Fossil records taught us that ancient Archeopteryx was feathered. Mythologies of aboriginal Australia, Mesoamerica, and Eurasia all feature giant serpents (or dragons): Rainbow Serpent of the Dreamtime, the Feathered Serpent best known as Quetzalcoatl, the Ouroboros of Europe, or the World Serpent of the Norse. Tribal memory or creative minds, who knows? But this gnostic phrase, feathered dragon, kept following me. So…I looked it up!
Prehistoric giant swans existed on the Mediterranean islands of Malta & Sicily about half a million years ago, after the last Ice Age. Fossil evidence shows those swans to have been about six and a half feet from beak to tail-tip, with wingspans of 13 feet. Extinct dwarf elephants co-existed on these islands at the time (around half a million years ago), as depicted in the illustration shown here, with human:elephant silhouettes to provide visual scale that points up the enormity of these swans!
While isolated species located on islands or subcontinents often evolve dwarf or giant characteristics, I have an unfounded sense that these giant swans may well have been pushed southward by glaciation, having once been known across greater Europe. Given that all extant swan species live in subarctic or northern temperate habitats, I speculate that my sense has some basis in reality. Perhaps.
About the birds…
A great many folks have little knowledge of swans beyond the ballet Swan Lake or Disney’s animated Swan Princess. To begin with, swans are big. Beak to tail-tip, mature swans grow to five feet plus, with wingspans of double that. Trumpeter swans, the species native to northern North America from the Great Lakes to Alaska, were hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century—a scant 70 individuals—when they were first protected by law. A previously unknown additional population was discovered in the 1950s in Alaska’s Copper River region; today the trumpeter population is estimated at less than 20,000, with three-fourths of that in Alaska.
Swans are the heaviest flying waterfowl; an adult trumpeter may weigh thirty pounds. Whooper swans are of similar size, living in subarctic Eurasia’s boreal forest. The mute swan is another Eurasian species, about 10% smaller; brought into the U.S.A in the 18th century for æsthetic reasons —mute swans swim with their necks in an S-curve, while most other swan species swim with necks vertical — the mute swan has become an invasive species in North America. Tundra swans are native to Arctic and sub-Arctic latitudes around the globe, and unlike other swan species, are migratory birds. Six U.S. states allow very limited hunting of tundra swans in late autumn in their overwinter grounds. Black swans are native to Australia and have been naturalized in New Zealand, where a related N.Z. black swan was hunted to extinction before European settlement; they are similar is size to mute swans. The black-necked swan is native to South America and the smallest of the swan species. Swans live as long as 25 years; they fledge late in their first year of life, grow white plumage (instead of grey) at about two years, when they may also pond with their mate, but do not begin nesting until aged four to seven years.
Swans take several years to mature fully, although they fledge late in their first year, but will pair-bond as early as two years, and usually mate for life, although nest failures may lead to “divorce” in about 5%. Male swans share nest-building, incubation, and chick feeding duties with their mates, with families of cob, pen, & cygnets remaining together most of a year.
If any of my readers have encountered geese kept as guard animals—I have—then you know just how territorial, how protective, how fierce they can be. Swans are just as protective of their nests & mates & offspring—and swans, remember, are larger than geese: taller, wider, stronger, heavier.
About the myths…
Norse valkyries are swan maidens; one of the thousand-year-old Eddas describes seeing the valkyries as women with their swan’s garb lying on the grass beside them. If this sounds familiar, that’s not surprising. Folk tales of swan youths and swan maidens permeate Arctic cultures across Eurasia—Russian, Norse, European, and more. The Wagnerian operas known as the Ring cycle draw on this Northern mythological heritage.
Russian folktales provided the tragic outline of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet. Germanic tales describe the Six Wild Swans who were cursed from human form into swans, and whose sister-princess then worked mutely for years to make the nettle shirts to remove the curse. (Two details give this tale interesting substance: the historically accurate use of nettle as a textile fiber, and the youngest prince’s left arm that was a “wing”—a reasonable description of many arm birth defects). In Greek mythology, swans draw Aphrodite’s chariot, are sacred to Apollo, and act as mounts to both of them. Most famously, Zeus disguised himself as a swan when seducing the mortal queen Leda. The Hindu deity Brahma uses a chariot drawn by swans.
Classical & medieval depictions of swans with Aphrodite & Apollo,, and of Zeus as a swan.
The initiates-only name of my coven is in Gaelic. The coven into which I was first brought in had a Gaelic name honoring the sidhe—the folk also called Tuatha de Danaan. Most of the covens that hived from that parent coven have also chosen Gaelic names. The first coven I founded was Fiodh Sidhe, which lived almost a decade before choosing to disband: its name means approximately Forest of the Fey—Woodhart being an easy-to-pronounce name for Fiodh Sidhe’s outer court and to the publicly offered classes.
When I explored Gaelic names for my second coven, I came across the Scots Gaelic soma, with its meaning being “a flock of swans.” In particular, I was struck by the fact that a northern land and language had its own collective noun for a flock of swans. And I knew instantly that here was our private name, Soma Sidhe. Which only left the question of an easier name for the broader world to know us by…and some old readings boiled up from my memory about archeological and written evidence of the past two thousand years and more, that sacred groves (of trees) were ancient sites of worship…and in an instant…Swangrove.
Footnote: Swangrove has closed.