Germanic swan myths, preserved in fairy tales, are similar to those of the Norse and Celtic. In many stories women who take the shape of swans can be prevented from doing so if their plumage is taken. In other household tales a wicked step-mother throws white skirts over her step-children, and they are at once transformed into swans.
A German Nobleman
A nobleman was hunting in a forest, when he emerged upon a lake in which bathed an exquisitely beautiful maiden. He stole up to her, and took from her the gold necklace she wore; then she lost her power to fly, and she became his wife. At one birth she bore seven sons, who had all of them gold chains round their necks, and had the power, which their mother had possessed, of transforming themselves into swans at pleasure. [Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868).]
A Hessian Forester
A Hessian forester saw a beautiful swan floating on a lonely lake. Charmed with its beauty, he prepared to shoot it, when it exclaimed, “Shoot not, or it will cost you your life!” As he persisted in taking aim, the swan was suddenly transformed into a lovely girl, who swam towards him, and told him that she was bewitched, but could be freed if he would say an “Our Father” every Sunday for her during a twelvemonth, and not allude to what he had seen in conversation with his friends. He promised, but failed to keep silence, and lost her. [Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868).]
A hunter in Southern Germany lost his wife, and was in deep affliction. He went to a hermit and asked his advice; the aged man advised him to seek a lonely pool, and wait there till he saw three swans alight and despoil themselves of their feathers, then he was to steal one of the dresses, and never return it, but take the maiden whose was the vesture of plumes to be his wife. This the huntsman did, and he lived happily with the beautiful damsel for 15 years. But one day he forgot to lock the cupboard in which he kept the feather-dress; the wife discovered it, put it on, spread her wings, and never returned. [Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868).]
The Woodcutter and the Swan Maiden
There was a woodcutter who lived in the heart of the Black Forest, in what is now Germany. He was lonely, so he decided to consult a witch. He took many presents to the witch — a golden bracelet carved with ancient runes, silver necklaces, and jars of the finest mead — but the only gift she would accept was the figure of a swan he had carved from a piece of ivory.
The witch prepared her spell, then told the Woodcutter to go to a certain pond, where he would find a woman preparing to bathe there. The Woodcutter would see a swan land near the pond. The swan would take off her cloak of feathers and become a beautiful woman. The Woodcutter should then take the cloak and keep it. If the Woodcutter did this, the woman would stay with him for the rest of his life. But, if he let the woman have her cloak back, she would put it on, become a swan, and fly away and never return.
The Woodcutter did what the witch told him to do. The woman followed the Woodcutter home and became his wife. They lived happily together for ten years, until one day the Woodcutter forgot to lock the chest where he kept the cloak. He returned home to find the chest empty and his wife gone.
The Magic Swan
A boy was abused by his two older brothers. He was advised by an old woman to run away. She told him he should go to a certain pear tree at sunset, where he would find a man asleep and a swan tied to a tree by a red cord. He should take the swan without waking the man. Everyone he met would fall in love with the swan’s plumage. When they touched it, he could say “Swan, hold fast” and they would be stuck to the swan until he touched them with a stick she would give him. The old woman predicted he would come to a town with a princess who had never laughed. If he could make the princess laugh, his fortune would be made.
The boy did as the woman advised. He successively captured a youth working in a building yard, a girl washing clothes in a stream, a chimney sweep, a clown from a traveling circus, a Mayor and the Mayor’s wife, As the old woman predicted, the boy and his procession came to a princess, who saw them and laughed. The delighted king offered the boy his choice of 1,000 crowns of gold or a piece of land. The boy chose the land, then released his captives. The Princess, attracted by the swan’s plumage, reached to touch it, and the boy captured her as well. He married her, but the swan flew away. The boy became a duke, and the old woman became his housekeeper. For the full story, see Andrew Lang, Green Fairy Book (1892).
The Six Swans
Six brothers are turned into swans by their evil stepmother. They can only take their human forms for 15 minutes every evening. In order to free them, their sister must make six shirts out of starwort, and neither speak nor laugh for six years. A king found her doing this, was taken by her beauty and married her. The Queen gave birth to a child, but the King’s wicked mother stole the child and accused the Queen of killing it. The same thing happened with the Queen’s second and third children. The third time, the King no longer believed his wife to be innocent. He sentenced her to be burned at the stake as a witch. On the day of her execution, the Queen was almost finished making the shirts for her brothers; the last shirt was missing the left arm. When she was brought to the stake, she took the shirts with her. As she was about to be burned, six swans came flying through the air. She threw the shirts over them, and they became her brothers in human form, except the youngest, who was left with a swan’s wing instead of a left arm. (In some versions the Queen did not finish the sixth shirt in time, and her youngest brother was left as a swan.) The Queen, now free to speak, defended herself against the accusations, and the evil mother-in-law was burned at the stake instead. For the full story, see Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm, Household Tales, No. 49. Andrew Lang, Yellow Fairy Book (1894) gives a variation. This German story is similar to the Irish story of the Seven Swan Brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans. In the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales, there are dozens of European stories in which a woman saves or is saved by her brothers, who have been turned into various types of birds (type 451).
Updated May 20, 2020 to repair broken link.