Swan Maiden Picture

The official title of this piece is actually "Twilight Song of the Swan Maiden." Like so many other of my pieces, this began as a humble, spontaneous dance of pencil on paper. As with the "Deer Woman" image, it was not created initially with the expectation of being a full-blown, completed depiction but ended up asserting itself in that manner regardless. Her profile and basic facial features emerged first, followed by the delicate swirling patterns that became a strong visual indication of her nature. From there, everything else in the composition seemed to come of itself.

In many ways, I have found this image to speak of a convergence of the Old World and the New. Very early on in the process, it was clear to me that this figure was somehow meant to be a Swan Maiden, a Faery creature I strongly associate with European lore. Yet I found myself placing aquatic plants of American origin, namely the White or Water Arum (Calla palustris L.) and broad-Leaved Arrowhead (Sagitta latifolia Willd.) in her hair, and I felt as if a Native American flute belonged in her hands. The landscape itself is a surreal location inspired by the lake by my home and my own mythic imaginings of the British Isles. And strangely, this particular Swan Maiden shares her affinity not with the quintessential Swan archetype embodied by the aristocratic tight S-curve of the neck and raised secondary wing feathers of the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), which hails from the Old World, but by the sleeker, less conspicuous, Tundra (Cygnus columbianus) and Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator), which naturally inhabit this continent. It is these species which are represented throughout: as the large zoomorphic knot in her hair, as the fetish on her flute, and even present in the background.

Essentially, this image depicts what might be this Swan Maiden's final "swan song." She looks thoughtfully into the distance, and whether she has just played her tune or is at the moment preceding her melody, I do not know. There is but one other swan within her sight , and it is poised by the entrance to a hollow hill - perhaps an indication of an imminent transition. Storm clouds can be seen rolling over the horizon.


Visually, I drew heavily upon Celtic tradition in this piece. It includes a few examples of Celtic-style knotwork, and her very skin is etched with swirls inspired by examples of Celtic spirals. Celtic myth also features extensive references to swans and Swan Maidens, some of which I kept in mind when working on this image. In the tale The Dream of Oenghus, Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) and 150 other maidens are transformed every other year at Samhain/Samhuinn, the Celtic New Year which somewhat corresponds to our modern Halloween, into swans. In both swan and human form, Yewberry wears a gold chain around her neck while the others wear silver chains. The Celtic God of love, Oenghus, becomes quite taken with Yewberry, but Yewberry's father does not approve of the relationship. So, in order to court her, he transforms himself into a swan as well. It is in that form that they circle three times around the lake by which Yewberry and her family reside, their song enchanting everyone below into a sleep that last for three days and three nights, thus allowing Yewberry and Oenghus to escape together to Oenghus' home, Brugh na Boine - now known as Newgrange.

In another well known myth, Lir's four children are transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother, Aoifa. They are cursed to spend 900 years in that form, 300 years at each of three locations in Ireland and Scotland. This curse can only be broken after they hear the tolling of a bell and news of a marriage between a prince of the south and a princess of the north. The bell that released them was that of St.Kernoc's chapel (in the 900 years that had past, Ireland had converted to Christianity) and the marriage was that of a princess of Munster to King Largen of Connacht. Once these events occurred, they became human, and being 900 years old, immediately died of old age. In general, swans in the Celtic mythos were believed to represent the human soul in the Otherworld and were connected with poets; the skin and feathers of a swan were used to create a ritual robe, called a tugen, for a bard.

Although the myth of Oenghus and Yewberry illustrates the power of the swan's voice in Celtic myth, it is from the Greeks and Romans that we find the legends of the "Swan Song." Socrates, Plato, and Ovid maintained that swans would be silent all their lives except for a beautiful song they would sing at the moment of their death. This gave swans strong ties to both prophecy and music in Greco-Roman thought. The bird was associated with the God Apollo, and swans were said to draw the chariot of Aphrodite/Venus. There is also the account of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus rapes the mortal Leda while in the form of a swan. The product of their union was two eggs which contained Castor, Pollux, (the twins which comprise the constellation of Gemini) Clytemnestra, and Helena.

In Norse and Germanic mythology, the Valkyries were said to take the form of swans. If one was able to obtain their plumage while they were human, it would enable them to command these powerful, female warriors. The Hindu Goddess of wisdom, literature, and music, Sarasvati, was said to ride a swan. In addition, the term "swan" was often applied to describe great poets, including Pindar, Virgil, Zeno (the "learned swan"), and Shakespeare (the "Swan of Avon").






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