Ancient Swan Shamanism

From Andrew Collins at Ancient Origins.

“The idea that the human soul might take the form of a swan to journey from this world to the next could be one of the oldest fundamental beliefs of human kind, or so suggests a new discovery from the 420,000-year-old cave site of Qesem near Tel Aviv in Israel.

“In 2006 [Andrew Collins] wrote a book titled The Cygnus Mystery . It proposed that humanity’s belief in the soul transforming into a bird at death has since time immemorial been focused around key animistic forms and a certain area of the night sky. Key to these ideas was the swan , connected not just with shamanism and animism for at least 25,000 years, but also arguably with cosmological beliefs surrounding the stars of the Cygnus constellation , and the Milky Way in its role as a road or river to the afterlife.”

Read More: Wing Bone Indicates Swan Shamanism Could Be 420,000 Years Old!

The Lament of the Swan

The Lament of the Swan
Planctus Cygni
Anon, French, 9th century

Clangam, filii
Ploratione una

Alitis cygni,
Qui transfretavit aequora.
O quam amare
Lamentabatur, aridaSe dereliquisse
Et petisse alta
Ajens: ‘Infelix sum
Heu mihi, quid agam
Misera?Pennis soluta
Lucida non potero
Hic in stilla.
Undis quatior,
Hinc inde nunc allidor

Angor inter arta
Gurgitum cacumina.
Gemens alatizo
Intuens mortifera,
Non conscendens supera.
Cernens copiosa
Piscium legumina,
Non queo in denso
Gurgitum assumere
Alimenta optima.

Ortus, occasus,
Plagae poli,
Lucida sidera.
Nubes occiduas.’

Dum haec cogitarem tacita,
Venit rutila
adminicula aurora.
Oppitulata afflamine
Coepit virium
Recuperare fortia.

Jam agebatur
Inter alta
Et consueta nubium
Ac jucundata,
Nimis facta,
Penetrabatur marium

Dulcimode cantitans
Volitavit ad amoena
Concurrite omnia
Alitum et conclamate

Regi magno
Sit gloria.

O children, I shall sing
a lamentation

of a winged swan
which crossed the great waters.
O how bitterly
it lamented,having relinquished
the dry flowery land
and sought the high
crying: ‘Unhappy
small bird that I am,
alas, what may I do
in my misery?I cannot now
rest on my wings
all brightness dissolves
in the rain.
I am shaken by the waves,
buffet me hither and thither
an exile.

I am narrowly enclosed within
the canyons of the great waves.
Crying, my wings beat,
considering death,
not mounting above it.
I see abundant
good food for the fishes,
But I may not, in the deep
whirlpools, gather
this delicate food.

O East, O West,
O the regions of the poles,
give to me
the brightness of the stars;
demand of
that they flee and be forgotten,
these destroying clouds.’

While the bird fell silent, thinking on these things
Came the first blush of
rescuing dawn.
A whispering breeze assisted,
the bird received strength
and recovered more strongly.

now it was carried
among the high
familiar crowd
of stars.
and joyous
beyond measure,
it passed through the
streams of the seas.

Singing very sweetly
it flew to to the pleasant
dry land.
Join together, all
winged creatures, and sing together
all of you:

To the mighty King
be glory.

Translation by Kate Brown with the help of Isobel Preece

Siberian Lore

The Buriats of Siberia regarded the eagle as their ancestral father and the swan as their ancestral mother.


In a Tatar poem, the hero Kartaga struggled with a swan-woman. The contest went on for years, but Kartaga could not defeat her because her soul was not in her body. Instead, her soul inhabited the body of seven birds, which she kept in a golden casket, which was in a black chest, at the foot of a copper rock that is at the mouth of the nine seas that flow under the earth, where those seas flow together and become one sea. Two horses, one black and one piebald, knew where the swan-woman kept her soul. They traveled to the place and brought back the gold casket. Then, the piebald horse turned himself into a bald man. He opened the casket, cut off the heads of the seven birds, and so killed the swan-woman. (Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough ch. 66)

Katai Khan

Among the Minussinian Tatars swan maidens have lost their grace and beauty. They dwell in the 17th region of the earth in raven-black rocks, and are fierce, raging demons of the air. They scourge themselves into action with a sword, lap the blood of the slain, and fly gorged with blood for 40 years. In number they are 40, and yet they run together into one; so that at one time there is but a single swan-woman, at another the sky is dark with their numerous wings; a description which makes it easy to identify them with clouds. But there are not only evil swan-women, there are also good ones as well.

Katai Khan lived on the coast of the White Sea, at the foot of gloomy mountains. He had two daughters, Kara Kuruptju (black thimble) and Kesel Djibak (red silk) ; the elder evil disposed and in league with the powers of darkness, a friend of the raging swan-woman; the younger beautiful and good.

Kesel Djibak often riseth,
In a dress of snowy swan,
To the realm where reign the Kudai.
There the Kudai’s daughters seven
Fly on wings of snowy swan;
With them sporteth Kesel Djibhk,
Swimming on the golden lake

The seven Kudai, or gods of the Tatars, are the planets. Kara Kuruptju is the evening twilight, Kesel Djibak the morning dawn which ascends to the heavens, and there lingers among the floating feathery clouds. But Kara Kuruptju descends to the gloomy realm of the evil-hearted swan-women, where she marries their son Djidar Mds (bronzen), the thunder-cloud. These gnmly swanlike damsels of the Tatars irresistibly remind us of the Phorcydae. (Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868))

A Samoyed Story

A Samoyed man went on a journey, another remained at home. The traveler reached an old woman chopping birch-trees. He cut down the trees for her, and drew them to her tent. This gratified the old woman, and she bade him hide, and see what would happen. He concealed himself; and shortly after saw seven maidens approach. They asked the old woman whether she had cut the wood herself, and then whether she was quite alone. To both questions she replied in the affirmative; then they went away. The old woman then drew the Samoyed from his hiding-place, and bade him follow the traces of the damsels, and steal the dress of one of them. He obeyed. Emerging from a wood of gloomy pines, he came upon a beautiful lake, in which swam the seven maidens. Then the man took away the dress that lay nearest to him. The seven swam to the shore and sought their clothes. Those of one were gone. She cried bitterly, and exclaimed, “I will be the wife of him who has stolen my dress, if he will restore it me.” He replied, “No, I will not give you back your feather dress, or you will spread your wings, and fly away from me.”

“Give me my clothes, I am freezing!”

“Not far from here are seven Samoyeds, who range the neighborhood by day, and at night hang their hearts on the tent-pegs. Procure for me these hearts, and I will give you the clothes.”

“In five days I will bring them to you.”

Then he gave her the clothes, and returned to his companion.

One day the maiden came to him out of the sky, and asked him to accompany her to the brothers, whose hearts he had set her to procure. They came to the tent, and the man secreted himself, but the damsel became invisible. At night the seven Samoyeds returned, ate their supper, and then hitched up their hearts to the tent-pegs. The swan-maiden stole them, and brought them to her lover. He dashed all but one upon the ground, and as they fell, the brothers expired. But the heart of the eldest he did not kill. Then the man without a heart awoke, and entreated to have it returned to him.

“Once upon a time you killed my mother,” said the Samoyed; “restore her to life, and you shall have your heart.”

Then the man without the heart said to his wife, “Go to the place where the dead lie, there you will find a purse, in that purse is her soul; shake the purse over the dead woman’s bones, and she will come to life.” The woman did as she was ordered, and the mother of the Samoyed revived. Then he dashed the heart to the ground, and the last of the seven brothers died.

But the swan-maiden took her own heart and that of her husband, and threw them into the air. The mother of the Samoyed saw that they were without hearts, so she went to the lake where swam the six maidens; she stole one dress, and would not restore it till the maiden had promised to recover the hearts which were in the air. This she succeeded in doing, and her dress was restored. (Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866-1868))

Symbolism of Swans

In the ancient world, it was widely believed that swans sing only once in their lifetimes, just before they die. Socrates and Plato both mentioned this belief. Geoffrey Chaucer alluded to it about 1374. Hence, the phrase swan song, meaning a person’s final labor. This belief led to an association between swans and prophecy, because swans were thought to predict their own deaths.

The swan is associated with poetry (because the bard Orpheus is said to have become a swan), and with music (because swans were sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of music). The poet Greek Homer (fl. 950 BCE) was called the Swan of Meander. The Roman poet Vergil (70-29 BCE) was called the Swan of Mantua. The English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was called The Swan of Avon. The Swan of Cambray was Fenelon (1651-1715), Archbishop of Cambray and author of Telemachus. The Swan of Padua was Count Francesco Algarotti (1712-1764).

The swan is also associated with philosophy. On the night before Plato became his student, Socrates dreamt that a swan flew into his bosom (Pausanius, Description of Greece 1.30.1).

Swans symbolize power, because of their size and high flight. Because they are associated with water, they have become associated with fertility. They combine the attributes of water and air, so they have come to be birds of life, representing both the dawn and solar powers.

Swans are also linked with thunder gods. According to tradition, a swan’s eggs will only hatch during a thunder storm, and then only when lightening strikes the shell. If a swan stretches its head and neck over its wings, a thunderstorm is brewing.

These attributes point to an identification of the swan as the symbol of “the powers of poetry and of the poet himself.” The swan, therefore, is the image of the divinely inspired poet, of the sacred priesthood, of the white-robed druid, of the Norse skald and of every type of poetically inspired priest.

In European folklore, swans were often messengers from the world of faerie, who appeared to mortals as swan knights and swan maidens. Mortal kings, princes, princesses, knights and ladies are often turned into swans. Faeries and mortals in the form of swans can always be recognized by the chains around their necks. The chains might be symbol of their link to the great mother goddess. Such chains were the badge of office of Celtic bards, who rattled the chains to command silence.

Until comparatively recently, there was a widespread story that babies were born of earth and water, and brought by swans. In contemporary Europe and America, the swans have been changed to storks.


Swans, both genera Cygnus and Olor, belong to the family Anatidae, which includes geese and ducks. They mate for life, although couples sometimes separate following a nesting failure. Young swans are known as cygnets from the Old French cygne, from the Latin cygnus, from the Greek kuknōs (swan). An adult male is a “cob.” An adult female is a “pen.”

Oriental Lore

In the Orient, swans represent gracefulness, nobility and valor. They are also symbolize music. Stories from Siam and Malaysia mention swan maidens.

Li Tzu reported that the Mongols made the Chou Emperor Mu drink swan’s blood.

A Chinese idiom refers to someone who demands an undeserved reward: “You are a scoundrel who wants to eat swan meat.”

American Indian Lore

Indian corn

The Mandans and Minnitarees looked to an Old Woman Who Never Dies as the force behind growing crops. She lived in the south and sent migratory birds as her emissaries. Each type of bird represented a particular crop — the swan for gourds, the goose for maize, and the duck for beans. When each type of bird arrived in the spring, it was time to plant that crop. (Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough ch. 46 § 3)

Among the Chippewa, one of the many taboos applied to menstruating women required that they drink out of a swan bone. (Frazer, ch. 60 § 4)

Astrological Lore

Astrological Swan

In astrology, a prominence of Cygnus is said to give a contemplative, dreamy, cultured and adaptable nature, with ill-regulated and unsteady affections. Talents are said to develop late. There is some love of water and swimming and the arts. Manilus, writing in the 1st century CE analyzed the influence of Cygnus as follows:

“Its down and glittering wings figured by stars. Accordingly he who at its rising leaves his mother’s womb and beholds the light of day shall make the denizens of the air and the race of birds that is dedicated to heaven the source of his pleasure and profit.

“From this constellation shall flow a thousand human skills: its child will declare war on heaven and catch a bird in mid-flight, or he will rob it of its nestling, or draw nets up and over a bird whilst it is perched on a branch or feeds on the ground (swans have a reputation for being hostile to other birds). And the object of these skills is to satisfy our high living. Today we go farther afield for the stomach than we used to go for war: we are fed from the shores of Numidia and the groves of Phasis; our markets are stocked from the land whence over a new-discovered sea was carried off the Golden Fleece. Nay more, such a man will impart to the birds of the air the language of men and what words mean; he will introduce them to a new kind of intercourse, teaching them the speech denied them by nature’s law.

“In its own person the Swan hides a god (as being in the disguise of Jupiter) and the voice belonging to it; it is more than a bird and mutters to itself within. Fail not to mark the men who delight to feed the birds of Venus in pens on a rooftop, releasing them to their native skies or recalling them by special signs; or those who carry in cages throughout the city birds taught to obey words of command, men whose total wealth consists of a little sparrow (for such performing birds).”

(Manilus, Astronomica, Book 5).