The philosopher Plato recorded the last words of his mentor, Socrates, in a dialogue called the Phaedo. According to him, Socrates tried to console his followers by contrasting the nightingale and the swan. In myth the nightingale sang for sorrow, while swans only sang once, at their death. Socrates argued that swans sang because, as Apollo’s birds, they could foresee the joys of the afterworld. He, too, would not mourn the end of his life:
Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are… (Jowett’s trans.)
Hemlock is a notoriously slow-acting poison, so no doubt Socrates had lots of time to think of inspiring things to tell his followers. The link between the swan and Apollo was long-established, however, and all he had to do was put his own spin on it.
Cycnus: Death and the Youth
A number of young men in Greek myth had the name Cycnus, or Swan. One was the son of Apollo by Hyrie (or Thyrie). He seems a most unpleasant youth – he spent all his time hunting and although handsome, he drove away his admirers with his arrogance. Only a young man called Phyllus remained, and Cycnus set him all sorts of tasks in an effort to drive him away.
Finally, he had to drag a bull to Zeus’ altar, which Cycnus was sure he couldn’t do. Phyllus prayed to Hercules, who helped him, and then helped him a little more by breaking Phyllus’ infatuation. When Cycnus learned of this, he felt disgraced and drowned himself in a nearby lake. His mother did the same. Apollo changed them both into swans, and the lake was renamed the Cycnean (Swan) Lake.
Another Cycnus was a more pleasant sort, the lover or friend of Phaethon. When his friend was destroyed by Zeus’ thunderbolt, he went out and gathered all the pieces of his friend’s shattered body from the river Eridanus. For this piety, and his continual mourning, the gods turned him into a swan. In memory of his friend, he still avoided the sun’s rays and the warmth of day. There may be a deeper significance to this – the sun-god Helios rode back to the East each night in a boat or chariot drawn by swans. (This is common to European sun-deities, including the Baltic Saule and Slavic Solntse.)
Yet anther Cycnus was an accomplished musician who Apollo turned into a swan on his death, and later placed among the stars as the constellation of the Swan, Cygnus. (While it would be neat if the constellation Cygnus were near Eridanus, it isn’t. However, it is located on the Milky Way, and it moves down in the sky as fall moves into winter, suggesting migrating birds.)
Swans and Delos
Callimachus, in his Hymn to Delos, says that swans flew seven times around the island of Delos while Apollo was being born, to distract vengeful Hera from Leto’s birth-pangs. Seven was a perfect number; and Apollo was born on the seventh day, which became one of his titles, hebdomagenes (seventh-born).
Leto had to go to Delos because Hera had cursed her that she would not give birth on land anywhere. In some versions of this myth Leto’s sister Asteria, who had become an island to escape the attentions of Poseidon, volunteered herself. To add to this sisterly picture, Artemis was said to have been born ahead of her twin, so that as birth-goddess she could assist her mother.
A beautiful young man, he was accompanied by an equally beautiful male swan and the bird came to represent the powers of poetry and the divinely inspired poet himself. (37)
According to Pythagorean lore, Apollo’s soul passed into a swan on his death, and so the souls of all good poets went to swans on their deaths.
Swans and Hyperborea
Hyperborea was a paradise to the far north, beyond the land of winter. (Glaesisvellir?) Boreas was the North Wind, and he lived in the land just south of Hyperborea itself. Its people lived without conflict, toil, or old age and disease.
It was mostly landlocked, behind impassable mountains, but the great world-encircling Ocean bounded it, and the sacred river Eridanus. (Phaethon’s lightning-struck body fell into the Eridanus, and there his weeping sisters were turned into amber-shedding poplars.)
Another myth of Phaethon’s death said that on his death his friend Cycnus leapt into the Eridanus, where the flaming body had turned it to a bitumen lake. The gods turned him into a swan for his faithfulness. After that Hyperboreans would leap into the lake at death’s approach, and be turned into swans as well.
Apollo supposedly went to Hyperborea for a year after his birth, returning to Greece amid scenes of great celebration. He may have been returning a visit; the Hyperboreans were associated with the shrines at Delos and Delphi. In fact, one version of his birth has Leto leaving the north to give birth at Delos. (Accompanied by wolves, interestingly.)
After this the Hyperboreans would send five maidens with offerings to Delos, but after they were attacked and raped or killed they began sending the offerings through neighbouring tribes. At Delphi, they built the second temple to Apollo, of beeswax and feathers (swan’s?).
It seems a long voyage from the consolations of philosophy to mythical northerners with exotic building materials, but that is why Apollo is an interesting god; he is a distinct, clear-cut personality but contains a lot of different aspects. The Hyperborean angle is perhaps appropriate, considering that the Gaulish and Germanic Celts considered Apollo the equivalent of their bardic and beautiful gods like Grannos and Belenos. They, too, were depicted naked and with a lyre.
Ahl, Frederick M. 1982: “Amber, Avallon, and Apollo’s Singing Swan,” The American Journal of Philology 103: 4 (Winter 1982): 373-411. (JSTOR)
Eratosthenes, C. Julius Hyginus, trans. Condos, Theony 1997: Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook, Phanes Press.
Graf, Fritz 2008: Apollo, Routledge.
Green, Miranda J. 1997: Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Thames and Hudson.
Harris, J. Rendel 1925: “Apollo’s Birds,” The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 9: 372-416. (pdf here)
McGrath, Sheena 1997: The Sun Goddess: Myth, Legend and History, Blandford Press.
Plato, The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions by B. Jowett, M.A. in Five Volumes. 3rd edition revised and corrected (Oxford University Press, 1892). 4/22/2015.
Young, Peter 2008: Swan, Reaktion Books (Animal Series)