The Swan

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE SWAN


In the beginning, when the Infinitude was without form, and chaos, or the outer space, was still void, Darkness (Kalahansa Parabrahm) alone was.

Kalahansa, the Great Swan whose arched wing hovers over the illusion of manifestation – hovers and shifts and becomes the world-swan, the swan maiden, the swan song of life and death. Into this world there came the swan of heaven; forefather of all swans, mother of all races, cherished emblem of many peoples. There is hardly a race on earth that does not have tales of swan beings or rituals in recognition of their sacredness. Few there are who have not heard the variously told stories about the changeling powers of this great aerial creature. As a symbol, the swan transcends all levels of understanding and yet reminds the smallest child to have faith in growth and fruition. It is an extremely complex symbol of transcendence, of spirit in the world, of cycles and creations.

 The swan symbol has very old roots. In the caves at Lascaux there is a shaman depicted lying in a trance, wearing a bird mask. Beside him on a staff is the figure of a large bird. To this day the Siberian shaman wears such bird costumes and many are held to have been conceived by their mothers from the descent of a great swan. But if male swans thus descend, female swans do so even more frequently. The Greeks believed that the swan was sacred to Venus and because of this was often depicted in the image of a naked woman. They thought the whiteness and smoothness of the swan symbolized chaste nudity and immaculate purity. Actually, the swan can be seen as hermaphroditic; its neck and movement are masculine while its rounded, silky body is feminine. Perhaps more metaphysical aspects of the swan symbol are demonstrated in the androgynous interpretations, but as male or female the symbol continues to retain its transcendent nature.

 The traditions of swan knights are mostly Germanic in origin. In some versions a barque drawn by a swan is seen on the River Rhine. From it a knight leaps ashore just as the barque and swan disappear. The knight is often identified with Lohengrin, who is, in reality, a denizen of the Other World. The knight marries a mortal woman and begets many children but disappears with the swan when his wife probes into his origins. Zeus actually took on the guise of a swan when he seduced Leda, which seems to reverse the process of metamorphosis suggested in the swan knight example. Of course there is no justification for assuming that the true form of Zeus was human, and there seems to be more than mere metamorphosis suggested in the significant fact that his seduction of Leda was only successful when he assumed the swan shape. Indeed, the swan is often shown as an attribute of Eros, depicting the erotic impulse toward creative union so frequently described in Greek mythology. Leda attempted to evade Zeus but could not. In another version of the allegory, Nemesis, a winged goddess, flew over land and sea to escape the amorous attention of Zeus. Though she could transform herself into any form at will, when she assumed that of a swan, Zeus, in swan guise, seduced her.

 Perhaps it is Eros that is somehow reflected in the idea that the swan's song signifies the complete satisfaction of a desire which ultimately brings about its own death. Thus the dying swan makes its mystical journey to the Other World having sacrificed itself to its art. There is martyrdom and passionate melancholy in the sweet note which evidently inspired the Greeks who dedicated the swan to Apollo, god of music and guide to the heavenly world. The song in all its transcendent sadness was spellbinding to those of earthly intent. It is said in Icelandic tradition that the swan maiden Kara accompanied her hero-lover Helgi into war where, flying above the battlefield, she would sing a song of such sweetness and unearthly charm that the enemy would lose ambition to defend himself.

 Swan maiden stories are found in various forms all over the world. The Celts spoke of them in terms of 'shape-shifting.' Caer and her maidens took the form of swans every second year at Loch Bil Draccon. In Eddie tradition there are many examples of deities who could assume swan form through donning a feather dress of fjapr-hamr, cognates of which word are found in other Teutonic languages. It is the loss of these swan garments that enables earthly beings to render the swan maidens powerless to escape back to their heavenly home. The Volundarkvitha, which reached Scandinavia from Saxon lands, tells of three such maidens who reposed beside a lake bereft of their swan dresses. They were discovered by three sons of a Finnish king who took the helpless maidens as wives for seven years. Similarly in Helreid Brynhilder, Brynhild, "who moves on her seat like a swan on the wave," and her seven companions were brought under the power of King Agnar. A medieval German romance tells of a knight who hid the swan dress of a bathing maiden, causing her to become his wife and bear him seven sons. An old Swedish legend tells the same story and describes how the wife, discovering the hiding place of her swan dress, regained her power by putting it on and flew away. The discovery of the swan garments is usually precipitated by the husband's curiosity about the origins of his swan wife.

 One version of this theme from Java describes how one day the captive wife went to the river to wash clothes. She left her husband to mind the kettle in which the rice was cooking, warning him on no account to take off the cover of the pot to look within. Unable to contain his curiosity, his inquisitiveness being especially keen since she had always been able to provide abundant meals with just a small measure of rice, he raised the lid and saw within only one single grain of rice. In doing this, he destroyed her magical power to multiply the rice and henceforth she was forced to deplete the store of rice in the bin in order to provide meals in the usual manner. Coming to the bottom of the store of rice, she discovered her swan garment which she donned at once and flew away heavenward.

 The Buriats of Siberia have a legend that tells of a hunter who similarly forced a swan maiden to become his wife. She bore him several children, and after many years enquired about her swan garment. Being certain she would stay, the hunter gave it to her, whereupon she flew up through the smoke hole. As she departed she called out, "Ye are earthly beings and remain on earth. I am from heaven and fly back to my home." And she added, "Each spring and autumn, when the swans fly northward and return, ye must carry out certain ceremonies in my honour." And so the Buriats of the Khangin clan address the swan as their household and clan spirit. They never molest these birds, for they are sacred and protective mediators between the people and the totemic swan soul – mother of their race. So it is also among the Yakuts and Yenesie Ostiaks who say that the swan was originally a woman and mother of the swan clans whose members include a shaman gifted with magical powers.

 Another significant feature of the swan maidens is their relation to fate. In old Norse traditions the Three Morns are goddesses who decide the destinies of men. They reside at the Spring of Fate and are either closely associated with swans or themselves depicted as swans. In Germanic legends swans were often the heralds of fate, their appearance intimating the outcomes of great battles and heroic deeds. Very often the mortal hero in the tale strove to obtain power over the swan maidens to compel them to prophesy. The significance of the element of fate must be considered together with other common elements such as the swan shift, the androgynous as well as male and female aspects, the lakes and ponds, the capture in swan or human guise, the production of swan children, the prominence of the number seven, the separation and ascent to heaven. All are meaningful ingredients of a complex theme made more complete with one or two additions.

 In widespread parts of Oceania there are richly embellished accounts of how the bereaved husband attempts to pursue his swan wife into the Other World. He does so by shooting one hundred arrows upward into heaven, each point imbedding itself into the butt of the one before it until the arrows form a chain reaching the earth and enabling the husband to mount to heaven. He ascends but never succeeds in bringing back his wife to earth, and in each of the variously told tales he must return alone and care for the swan children. This would seem to indicate that mortal man cannot bring heaven to earth, whereas in some Norse versions the emphasis is on the power that the mortal captor wields over the swan maiden. Brynhild was compelled by her captor to help vanquish his enemy, which angered Odin who entertained other plans. Her opposition to Odin caused him to bar her from Valhalla and cast her into a sleep surrounded by flames from which only a hero could rescue her. In this tradition it is only an earthly hero who can free her. The emphasis is upon release, not capture.

 In addition to the richly suggestive elements in myth and legend, the physical qualities of the swan provide clues to understanding its symbolism. The swan is a creature of the air but obtains its sustenance on water and land. The two sexes have similar plumage, unlike almost all other birds, and they mate for life, living up to thirty years and tending to move about in small family groups unless they are migrating. Their eggs incubate for thirty-five days and their precocial offspring are often brooded for several weeks. They can obtain a length of five feet, rendering their strong sense of territoriality more formidable. Obtaining such great potential size, their windpipes are also large and unusually elongated, relative to other birds, which enables them to modify and amplify their call to an outstanding degree. Their bodies are covered with a layer of plumaceons, unhooked barb feathers next to the skin, while normal vane feathers extend out and form the smooth surface coverage. These two layers trap a large amount of air, thus encircling the swan with an aerial sphere.

 This airy sphere undoubtedly facilitates buoyancy on water and in air, lending significance to the symbolism in the swan not only coming from an ethereal realm but rising up to return to it. The mortal spouse falls back to earth while the swan regains the sky. There is a necessary separation between the milk-white curds of creation and the water of manifested life. The white plumage of the swan bespeaks the milk of spirit and though brought to earth, the swan can discriminate between it and the water upon which it floats. For it is said that the hansa is Divine Wisdom, Wisdom in darkness beyond the reach of man, and when given milk mixed with water, the immortal swan can separate the two, only drinking the milk. As though still touched by this ancient symbolic wisdom, Siberian people, to this day, throw milk into the air each time a swan flies over their village. Before the world took form, the cosmic ocean was a sea of milk, but in manifestation the ocean became water, the lake and the pond. Pre-cosmic matter became matter. So too, the swans of prophecy in the ever-flowing spring of Fate are a reflection of the karmic register in the Akasic depths containing the world-swan.

 Thus we have two aspects of the swan: the dark swan whose wings appear at the head of the caduceus and the swan which becomes white when light is created. It is written that Kalahansa, the Eternal Swan, is a name for Brahm the Uncreate as well as Brahma the Creator. The first is Hansa-Vahana or 'He who uses the swan as His vehicle.' It is Darkness itself, the Unknowable. The second is Kalahansa, the vehicle of the One Ray, "the vehicle in which Darkness manifests itself to human comprehension as Light, and this universe." Hansa or Hamsa was mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana in the archaic period as a name meaning 'the One Caste,' which is related to the idea of 'One Veda, one Deity, One Caste.' It was also the name of a mountain range north of Mount Meru connected in literature with mysteries and initiations. The word A-ham-sa means 'I am He,' indicating the 'four-faced Brahma,' the chatur mukha or the perfect cube forming itself within and from the infinite circle. The numbers symbolizing this are 1, 3, 5 and twice 7, which describe 31415, the equivalent of pi, which is the esoteric hierarchy of the Dhyan Chohans. 'A-han,' as in Ahankara or 'I-am-ness,' derives from this and indicates a transition from pure to passionate to rudimentary being. In its highest sense it is related to the second hierarchy of Dhyan Chohans. Describing this divine animated geometry, the Vishnu Purana teaches that the world-swan as Mahat, forms an egg within which Brahma abides. Mahat is Divine Mind in active operation and the Dhyan Chohans are its collective aggregate. Brahma, the Creative Logos, manifests the Dhyani-Energies of Manu-Swayambhuva, and thus the world-swan of Darkness becomes the swan guiding the barque which brings the swan knight who, like Manu, crosses the waters to earth whereon he plants the seed of the future race.

The Voice of the Silence teaches that there are seven spiritual lokas or worlds within the body of Kalahansa, "the Swan out of Time and Space, convertible into the swan in Time." This corresponds with the seven prakritis spoken of in the Vishnu Purana which emanate from Mahat and may be referred to as Maha-Buddhi. The Secret Doctrine indicates that prakritic or discrete creation is begun by Buddhi which is neither discrete nor indiscrete but partakes of the nature of both. Just so does the swan partake of heaven and earth, eternity and time, symbolically portraying the androgynous nature of Buddhi. Cosmically, Mulaprakriti, or what the Buddhists call Svabhavat, is the androgynous 'something' which is both undifferentiated and differentiated and in man corresponds to Buddhi. In relating Maha-Buddhi to Mahat, one may consider Vijnanamaya Kosha, the 'sheath of intellection,' as corresponding to the higher faculties of the mind and even more to the 'root nature' providing the sheath. Both are aspects of the seven lokas of Kalahansa, the ever invisible mystery bird that dropped an egg into chaos, followed by the white swan from the starry vault who dropped the egg of the future race, "the man-swan (Hamsa) of the Later Third."

Kalahansa, the initiator of cycles, the Swan of Eternity, lays the Golden Egg at the beginning of each manvantara. The Swan, spanning the elements of air, water and earth, ignites the fire of a new beginning and a proliferation of being. For it is written:

 WHEN THE RACE BECAME OLD, THE OLD WATER MIXED WITH THE FRESHER WATERS. WHEN ITS DROPS BECAME TURBID, THEY VANISHED AND DISAPPEARED IN THE NEW STREAM, IN THE HOT STREAM OF LIFE. THE OUTER OF THE FIRST BECAME THE INNER OF THE SECOND. THE OLD WING BECAME THE NEW SHADOW, AND THE SHADOW OF THE WING.

 Perhaps the fact that the egg of the physical swan incubates for thirty-five days reflects a greater cycle. Thirty-five as the multiple of 7 and 5 could represent the fusion of the seven prakritis and the fivefold nature of man in manifestation. The 5 and 7 indicate cycles of races and rounds involving various manifestations of cosmic and human principles, Kalahansa is the sacred word fusing initiation, incarnation and regeneration. "The syllable A is considered to be its right wing, U, its left, M, its tail, and the Ardha-matra (half-metre) is said to be its head." Ardha means half and matra means cycle, which seems to suggest the varying modulation of the triple aspects at the beginning and ending of manifestations. Thus are the three made one in Kalahansa.

 The aerial vehicle of the One Ray out of the 'primordial waters of the deep,' reflected in the swan sliding on the waters like the Spirit, issues from those waters to give birth to beings. The Spirit hovers upon the water as the Logos which contains within itself the seven procreative rays, the seven swans upon Lake Manasasarova. Each of these holy archetypal swans represents a Dhyan Chohan reflected in that lake which is the home of the Vedas, the Word made manifest. The Logoi become the self-analyzing reflection as Spirit mirrors itself in the waters of space, producing the first flutter of differentiation. Thus the Word that commences the first cycle mirrors itself in the blast of the trumpet swan and the sound of the mute swan which is heard only as it dies.

Svasamvedana, or self-analyzing reflection, at the highest Logoic level is again reflected in the visual memory of the physical swan. For the swan, like other birds, has better vision than man. Man sees an object clearly only by looking straight at it, whereas the swan can discriminate visually over the entire surface of the retina, thus eliminating spherical aberrations. This greatly affects the visual memory of the swan which it possesses to a remarkable degree. Its undistorted vision becomes symbolically significant when linked with the pure concept of reflection. But it is in the man-swan that this becomes self-analyzing, lit up by the pure bright essence of Alaya, the True Self, the Watcher and Silent Thinker. In order to realize this, the man-swan must consciously mirror the world-swan.

 To reach the knowledge of that SELF, thou hast first to give up Self to Non-Self, Being to Non-Being, and then thou canst repose between the wings of the Great Bird.

 The Hero must discover and release the swan that it may soar to its source. He must become like the soaring wings himself. Just as the angle between the plane of the wing and the direction of motion will determine the degree of lift, so the Hero must discover the proper mental attitude and hold fast to his direction. He must take advantage of every updraft of air produced by a stirring of heat on earth or by obstacles which must be surmounted. He must expand the airy sphere within and around his being to counter the gravity of personal consciousness and create his own 'arrow chain' to that realm wherein "sweet is rest between the wings of that which is not born, nor dies, but is the Aum throughout eternal ages."