Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Swan, an Ancient Indo-European Solar Symbol



One of the most beautiful and ethereal of Richard Wagner`s operas or music dramas to use the correct term, is Lohengrin, first performed in 1850 in Weimar. It is particularly remembered by people for its Bridal Chorus in Act 3, marking the marriage between the hero Lohengrin and Elsa, the sister of Gottfried, Duke of Brabant.
Lohengrin is the son of Parsifal, another Wagnerian hero. He is the Swan Knight who comes from Hyperborea to rescue the wrongly accused Elsa who is being tried for the alleged murder of her brother. Lohengrin has appeared in Elsa`s dreams and she knows that these dreams have a prophetic quality. He thus arrives by a boat drawn by a swan. The swan is recognised by scholars as being an ancient pre-xtian Indo-European symbol, associated with the sun.

"Its manifestly prominent role in the solar cults of Bronze Age Europe, for example, doubtless helped to establish its permament position in the mythology and in the literary legends of later Europe."[Pagan Celtic Britain, 1967, Anne Ross].

In Germanic mythology we may recall the stories of swan maidens such as in the legend of Wayland the Smith. It would appear to be an inheritance that is common to both the Germanic and Celtic peoples and thus probably signifies a joint inheritance from Aryan[Proto-Indo-European] times.

"The impressive weight of evidence for the perpetuation of the motif of the chain-bearing, music making, boat-or chariot-pulling swans of Urnfield and Hallstatt Europe in verbal form in some of the stories current in mediaeval Ireland and in Germanic literature, is one of the most satisfactory illustrations of the extraordinary longevity of cult legends which had their origin in pre-Celtic Europe.The persistence and frequency with which motifs, clearly derived from earlier cult practice, are found in the literatures of the early Celtic world is noteworthy. The Germanic `Swan Knight` legends, having obvious affinities with the Celtic material, probably stem independently from the same cult source, although in all probability reinforced and given a fresh stimulus by contact with the Irish Church during its missions to Europe."[Ross]

The swan solar motif is not confined to the Celto-Germanic cultural area but can be found in other lands settled by Aryans such as India:

"The Irish gods and the Celestial Rishis of India take the form of swans, like the swan-maidens when they visit mankind."[Indian Myth and Legend, 1913, Donald A. Mackenzie]

There is no doubt that the motif of the swan as a sun symbol is extremely ancient and predates both the Celtic and Germanic peoples. How far back this concept goes is difficult to say but it certainly predates the Iron Age. Evidence from the Bronze Age in the form of bronze swan heads with rings for chains under their beaks have been found in central Europe.

Lohengrin is referred to in Wolfram von Eschenbach`s Parzival as being the son of Parzival and Condwiramurs. Wagner presents Lohengrin as a much more of a Hyperborean hero than his father Parsifal.
He mysteriously makes his entrance into the earthly plane of existence via a swan pulled boat and as we have established the swan is an ancient Indo-European solar motif. He forbids his wife Elsa to enquire of his name or land of origin. The penalty for doing so is that he would have to return to his land and leave her behind which in fact does happen. One is reminded of a similar condition from Greek mythology where Cupid forbids Psyche to enquire of his identity.

Some scholars seek the origins of Lohengrin in the Anglo-Saxon myth of Skeaf, the culture-bringing hero of the Anglo-Saxons.

"Scholars are now universally agreed that the origin of the Swan-Knight story is to be found in the myth of Skeaf, the reputed ancestor of the Anglo-Saxons. This legend relates how to the shores of these, our own ancestors, there drifted a rudderless boat, in which, cradled on a sheaf of corn, and surrounded by arms and treasure, there lay a sleeping child. To the child the Angles gave the name of Skeaf, from the sheaf of corn on which he lay. Grown to manhood he became their king, and from him they learned the arts of peace and of war. At length the king died, and obedient to his will they bare the body to the seashore, laid it again in the ship which had brought him hither, and the vessel and its burden drifted away into the unknown distance. From Skeaf sprang a mighty race of kings, and the folk were fain to believe that this mysterious ancestor of their rulers had been in truth a god."[Legends of the Wagner Drama, 1900, Jessie L. Weston]
 The God Hoenir was also connected to the swan myth via folk songs and folk lore surviving from the Faroe Islands and considered to a spring or light God.[See Weston, 1900]. Lug the principal Celtic Light God announces the birth of His son, the Irish hero Cuchulainn via a flight of unnamed birds which some conjecture to be swans. It would seem therefore that the appearance of the swan with the introduction of the hero is a way of announcing and indicating the arrival of a solar hero, a Sonnenmensch, a God-man.

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