The Swan Maiden – review

Review of In Search of the Swan Maiden: a Narrative on Folklore and Gender, by Barbara Fass Leavy.

Although this book is called The Swan Maiden, its subject could be described as: “a story about a fairy captured by a mortal man and forced into a tedious domestic existence and, obversely, about a mortal woman courted by a demon lover who offers her escape from that same mundane world.” (Loc. 347)

Fass Leavy’s title tells us that the swan maiden is going to be the focus of this book, whereas most investigations of this tale-type tend to focus on the man that she leaves behind. She finds this focus ironic, since:

according to the tale type Index wives search for their lost spouses, whereas husbands who have lost fairy wives embark on quests — a particular irony, given that the searching women characteristically win back their spouses, and the questing men characteristically do not. (Loc 5066)

As the quote at the beginning suggests, she is interested in both women’s rebellion and subjection, and the ways that women (and men) win and lose in the swan maiden myth and its variants.

Urvashi and Puruavas. Painting by Raja Ravi Varma, Wkipedia

Urvashi and the swan maidens

Fass Leavy starts with the story of the Hindu demigoddess Urvashi, which could be called the ur-version of the swan-maiden tale. Urvashi descended from heaven and fell in love with a mortal king, Puruavas. She agreed to stay with him as long as he observed her conditions. When he breached the taboos, she fled back to heaven. He went mad from grief, but later managed to find their son, and later still became a demi-god himself, and he and Urvashi were reunited.

There is a tension in the Urvashi myth which turns up in many other such stories: the wife is (mostly) willing to be with the man she loves, but is also drawn back to her own life, and her supernatural role.

Universal tale

Versions of this tale crop up all over the world, from the Japanese and Inuit fox maidens to the seal wife of the Scots, to the various Native American ones (including a deer wife). In these stories, the man often steals her animal skin (or feathered cloak, in the swan version) and she has to get it back before she can return to her own kind.

Often, too, she bears a child, who either returns with her or becomes a great hunter or shaman, due to his half-supernatural heritage.

Fass Leavy is interested in these stories insofar as they illuminate the lives and worldviews of their tellers. As well as mythology, she delves into literature, the movies, and popular culture, to show just how common this story is.

Swan maidens bathing – from the Eddic poem Volundarkvida. Painting by Jenny Nysrtrom, Wikimedia.

Variations on the Theme

She also explores varying attitudes towards the swan maiden, as well as variants on the type, in three later chapters of the book.

The first looks at the swan maiden and incubus. The supernatural lover can sometimes be seen as destructive, and the swan maiden’s readiness to leave her children and flee from her human husband has been read that way.

Fass Leavy compares such women to other “demonic” characters like Lillith, who seduces mortal men and devours children, and Medea, a foreigner who murders her children and who in folklore variants is often a swan maiden. The nightmare, who “rides” men in their sleep is like a mirror image of the usually timid swan maiden.

The second deals with the animal bride story, all the way from versions with a hunter who inadvertently kills his animal bride, through to swan maidens who thoughtfully leave directions as to where their husbands can find them. Why exactly supernatural women find human men and human life so appealing in the first place is one of the questions raised in this chapter.

Another is why, since many of these stories are so clearly structured around a man’s need for a companion and helpmeet, are the men in these stories so careless of their good fortune? The animal wives tend to be good housekeepers and well-behaved, but it’s always a matter of time until cruelty or a violated taboo drive her away. (The Irish tale of Macha is a good example: her husband causes her death when he violates her request never to boast of her.)

The third variation is one in which the swan maiden has to choose between mortal and immortal spouses. The Greek Alcmene, Indian Damayanti, and Irish Etain all face versions of this problem, and resolve it in different ways. (Interestingly, while Etain’s husband cannot pick her out from other women who magically resemble her, Damayanti spots her husband immediately.)

Movie Poster for Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete.

The Demon Lover and Animal Groom

If the typical swan maiden tale tell us how a man found a woman, lost her and regained her, you would think that the animal groom and demon lover stories would reverse this.

And it is true that the animal groom heroine must search for her lover, which makes her an active character. But, and this is true from the Psyche myth onward, she is also a penitent wife who must undo whatever failure caused her husband to leave her.

The demon lover can be a more positive version of an incubus, a supernatural lover who charms exceed that of any mortal.1 However, he can also be a ghost or revenant who returns to claim the living woman who mourns him. And, in the ballad The Demon Lover, he turns out to be the devil himself, tempting a woman to her death.

Fass Leavy points out that although the ballad blames the woman for leaving with her lover, it’s signficant that, just like many swan maidens, she views her first lover as the legitimate one, and her later marriage as the act of infidelity.

Orpheus and the Beastess: reversals

She devotes a chapter to studying the Orpheus myth, since like the swan maiden’s husband he loses his wife and sets to get her back. Like many of them, he does not succeed. Sometimes this story is crossed with the demon lover narrative, so that he has to win her back from an otherworldly king or lover.

Another chapter, on animal brides, shows how when the human is a male, the story changes. (One nifty section head, “Handsome and the Beastess: a Neglected Story Pattern” gives you an idea of what she’s up to.) Like the Orpheus tales, these stories often reveal male weakness, as they are less powerful than their animal wives, and sometimes even afraid of them. (Conversely, they are also often brutal in disenchanting them, which may flow from this fear.)

While Marlene Dietrich may have mourned the loss of her Beast at the end of Cocteau’s film, it is mainly the animal bride who mourns her lost status.

This is a rich and subtle book, with plenty for anyone interested in folklore, women’s history, or the animal/human divide. As with many academic books, the preface and first chapter are heavy going, but once Fass Leavy gets the theoretical stuff out of the way, she stays close to the stories, and the humans conflicts that inspired them.

1. Incidentally, Fass Leavy observes that the incubus story can be read as a debased version of the Cupid and Psyche myth. (Loc. 3311)

For the source of the swan feathers image at the top, click here.

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