Swan, The Sacred Bird

(In Finnish Mythology)

In archaeological excavations done in Karelia, a child was found and its body was laying upon a wing of a swan. In Finnish mythology and folklore, the swan was the divine messenger between the living and the dead. The Finnish name for the swan joutsen comes from the word jousi meaning an arrow. This is because the neck of the swan is shaped like an arrow. Swan is a graceful, beautiful bird and a sacred bird in many cultures from Finland to Baltic countries, from Siberia to China and Japan. In many of these cultures, the swan was believed to be a divine ancestor and an important totem animal. When a swan dropped its head below the surface, people of old times believed that it was communicating to the spirit world. The constellation of the swan in the star sky was believed to tell the swans and all the other birds which way to fly when they flew from north to south each autumn.

The Swan of Tuonela

Swan of Tuonela is one of the most intriguing animals mentioned in Kalevala, though it only appears briefly in the story. The last task that Louhi gives for Lemminkäinen is to kill the swan of Tuonela and bring it to her. He can only use one arrow and he only gets a one-shot. But Lemminkäinen dies in the journey before he gets that far. At the end of the 19th-century swan of Tuonela became a common subject for the Finnish artists during the time of romanticism. Akseli Galen-Kallela painted the swan of Tuonela to his piece the passing of Lemminkäinen. Eino Leino wrote his famous poem about the swan song and Jean Sibelius composed a piece about the swan of Tuonela. The story is beautiful, dark and grim and I suppose it captures Finnish melancholic nature. For the Finno-Ugric tribes, the stories about the swans date back before written and spoken words. They can be found in cave paintings and decorations from the comb ceramic era. Killing the swan was taboo because it was a totem animal and a divine ancestor. In the mythology of the Siberian Burjat tribe, their ancestral father was an eagle and swan their mother. In the springtime when swans return Burjats leave tea and milk for them.

It was believed that a soul of a human was captured inside a swan because the voice of the swan sounds like a crying human. These stories were also told in Finland. Once there was a man walking in the forest and arrived at the shore of a quiet pond. Suddenly seven snow-white swans landed in the water and the man hid behind the trees. Swans took of their feathers and they turned out to be beautiful young maidens. A man sneaked to the shore and took one of the feather cloaks. After bathing, six of the ladies put on their cloaks and flew back to the skies but one of the girls stayed behind alone and scared. The man took her to his home, married her and they had children together. One day children came to her and asked ”mother why are you crying?” and the mother told them about her sister who fly free in the skies. Children brought her cloak to her and as soon as she put it on she was gone flying in the wind. Similar stories are told all the way from Siberia to Ireland.

In Finnish folklore, it was believed that when a person passed away their soul would leave the body as a butterfly or as a small bird and that after their passing a person could re-carnate as a bird. Killing swans was a terrible crime because it was as bad as murdering a human. Punishments for killing swans were severe, the usual penalty was death. Swan song often symbolizes an artist´s last performance but for a long time all across the world all the way to the 17th century it was believed that swans only sang when they died. In Finnish folklore, there is a myth explaining this.

When God created birds he gave the gift of singing for the swan as well but the swan was always jealous of the nightingale for the god had given it the most beautiful voice. Once during the long migrant, the swan lured the nightingale to rode on its back. It told that they would take it all across the sea to the other shore. Nightingale agreed but the swan was tricky and dived underwater and the nightingale drowned. God saw what happened and said to the swan that from now on they can only sing in the time of their passing. At the begging of the 20th-century whooper swans were nearly extinct in Finland and there were only 15 couples left. For centuries swans had been hunted nearly all over the country for food and their nests were robbed. Only in Lapland in the area of the Koltta Saami and in Karelia swans remained as sacred holy birds. Thanks to the conservation there are currently 7000 whooper swans in Finland. Whooper swan (laulujoutsen) is Finland´s national bird.

Heart of Mielikki, online course about Finnish mythology and folklore

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Illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Likes cats, tea and period dramas. Currently writing a book about Finnish mythology. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

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Niina's Fairychamber

Niina's Fairychamber

Illustrator, writer and a folklorist. Likes cats, tea and period dramas. Currently writing a book about Finnish mythology. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

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