Sinful Sunday: Elsa and the Swan 2

God! That swan wants a cigarette, doesn’t he? 

Anyway, we were telling the story of Elsa of Brabant, in February of the year 932. 


I mentioned that the King of Frankreich, Henry the Fowler, was in Brabant to persuade their cavalry to support him in the Battle of Merseburg: Frankreich (defending), versus the Magyars. That’s how we know when the story is set. The battle was in March 932, and it’d take an army, even with horses, about three weeks to get from Brabant to Merseburg.   

Elsa was accused of her brother’s murder, but was proclaimed innocent after a stranger arrived and won her case, in a trial by combat. He then offered to marry Elsa, and, starstruck, she accepted. 

Now read on.

Elsa’s story

The trouble is, this man that she’s called here, or created, insists that she not ask his name, or where he comes from. So she’s in love, and so is he, but he’s carrying on like a married man on Fetlife. 

Eventually, on their wedding night, Elsa can’t stand it any more. He tries to stop her, but she directly asks him who he is, and who are his forebears.

He is distraught. Once he is asked that, he’s not allowed to stay. He’s a bit like a creature from Faerie, immensely strong and powerful, but if you so much as nick their finger – or make any puncture – they collapse.

Elsa hears the call of the Swan that drew his boat. It’s coming to take her lover, her husband, away.

At the river, the knightly stranger explains that he is a knight of the Holy Grail, which is in the mountains of northern Spain. His name is Lohengrin, and he is the son of Parzifal, the ruler of the Grail kingdom.

Lohengrin is distraught as well. If she’d managed to hold on for a year, he’d have been able not only to stay but to tell her who he is. And she would have got her brother back.

Maybe I can do one thing, he says. He kneels down by the river and prays. The Swan transforms, losing its swan form, and turning back into her missing brother Gottfried!

He had been turned into a swan by the wife of Telramund, the knight who’d accused Elsa of murdering her brother. He was rescued by the Grail: if he spend a year serving the Grail, he’d have been able to return, in human form. But Lohengrin has used the last of his earthly powers to bring Gottfried back early. 

He, Lohengrin, was going to lead the cavalry into battle, but he can no longer do that. But, he says, Gottfried can.

But even though Elsa got her brother back, the Grail is forcing Lohengrin to return. He can’t stay. He steps into his boat, which speeds off, even without a swan to pull it. 

Elsa watches her lover, rescuer and husband disappear, and she cries out in agony. Then she faints, or dies, of her grief

What’s this story about?

In an odd way, it’s about adultery, or at least it exists because of adultery. Elsa and Gottfried’s family are real, and in 100 years or so Gottfried’s descendent, another Gottfried, would lead Christian forces in the First Crusade, and took back Jerusalem. 

But about this time there was an embarrassing break in the family line. They explained it by coming up with this story about swans. 

So Lohengrin, a figure out of myth, steps briefly into the real, historical world. And Gottfried, a figure out of history, steps briefly into the world of myth. 

Each, as they must, ultimately returns to the world, or realm of reality, that they came from. 

It’s also, in a way, about the weakness of the supernatural. It can seem strong and powerful, but it always shrivels and disappears if you look at it too closely. 

Fucking swans

That’s the end of the swan series. There’s much more to say (sexual customs involving humans fucking swans up the cloaca, for example) and many more stories, but all good series have to come to a


Sinful Sunday: Lohengrin, Elsa and the Swan

Probably the most famous swan-human transformation of all is set out at the end of Wulfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzifal. The most famous version of the story is Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Wagner is good at using his sources accurately, while condensing the number of incidents and characters to the minimum he can get away with for dramatic purposes, so we’ll use his version, mostly. 

Wagner tells the story from the woman’s point of view. Lohengrin arrives in silver armour (Wagner’s version is the origin of the phrase “knight in shining armour”) comes to “save” Elsa, but does he really exist, or is he a sort of psychic projection of Elsa’s? Anyway, here’s Elsa’s story. 

What’s the time?

It’s odd when magical tales have specific dates and places, but this story happens in February in the year 932. Many knights have collected in Brabant, because Henry the Fowler, king of Frankreich, wants to assemble a multi-national force to fight the Magyars, who invaded Europe with a lot of fire and pillage, rape and killing. Now they collect annual tribute from their conquered lands, and from their neighbours who don’t want to be invaded.

Henry comes to Brabant, in what is now Belgium, because there are a lot of mounted knights there, and he hopes to use their cavalry in the coming battle with the Magyars. That’s the background.

What’s Elsa up to?

Elsa is the daughter of the leading noble in Brabant. A month earlier, she was out in the forest with her younger brother Gottfried. Something weird happens and she drops asleep. When she wakes up her brother has disappeared. 

A knight, Telramund, backed by his wife Ortrud, accuses her of murdering her brother, to secure the throne of Brabant for herself. 

The king decides to hold a trial by combat, to test the truth of this accusation. Obviously Elsa can’t go up against the biggest and best swordsman in Brabant herself, so she has to appoint a champion to fight for her. 

Unfortunately, all the other knights know that Telramund is the most fearsome fighter in Brabant, and challenging him, even on Elsa’s behalf, is a suicide mission. 

So Elsa goes into a trance. She imagines a knight coming to save her, a knight from a far-away land, clad in silver armour. 

And then: amazement! (to everyone else: not to her) the very knight she describes turns up! 

He comes by river, standing, his silver armour blinding in the sun, resting on his sword, in a small boat pulled by a swan. 

He arrives and thanks the swan extremely politely. He comes ashore, and immediately agrees to fight Telramund, who he defeats quickly and easily, but spares his life. Then he offers his hand in marriage to Elsa. 

Elsa is a lonely girl. No one local was prepared to fight for her. She accepts. 

So Elsa is found innocent in the trial, and the wedding is announced.

Happy Ending! 

Well, not quite. But we’ll have the rest of the story next week.

An observation about fear

I mentioned that it’s not clear whether the knight exists, or whether he’s a sort of psychic projection created by Elsa. 

It’s interesting that Elsa isn’t afraid while she’s being accused of murder, and it seems almost impossible for her to find a champion. If she didn’t find a champion, she’d be found guilty of murder and possibly witchcraft, and she’d die a very horrible death. That doesn’t scare her. But once her champion is there, she seems to be very afraid.

But we’ll continue this story next week! No peeking! 


In the photo, the swan comes to an abrupt halt on the river Scheidt. (Which runs through Brabant.) And knocks over my champion, who is clad in … nothing. But she shines, she shines. 

Sinful Sunday: Swans rule!

Swan/human, caught in mid-transformation

In Greek myth Cyncnus, King of the Ligurians, was in love with Phaeton. Phaeton was the annoying young man who asked his father, the sun-god Helios (but it’s Apollo in some versions), for proof that he was his father’s spon and that his father loved him.

So Helios agreed to give his son anything he asked. Phaeton asked to drive the chariot iof the sun. Helios warned him that he wasn’t strong enough to control the team of wild horses that lead the sun through the sky. But Phaeton insisted, and Helios could not go back on his promise. 

Of course Helios was right. Phaeton lost control of the horses, and the sun followed the chariot so close to earth that it burned crops, birds, animals and people. Eventually Zeus had to put an end to the disaster by knocking the chariot out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaeton was immediately killed.

But his lover, Cyncnus, was inconsolable. He sat by the lake near his palace, day after day, staring into the water, thinking of the young man he’d loved and lost.

Eventually Apollo took pity on Cyncnus and turned him into a swan. Not an intelligent, speaking swan like the children of Lir, but one who had forgotten all human concerns and loves, and who was aware of no future and no past, and lived only in the moment.  



Sinful Sunday: The Children of Lir

Flying united! No silver bondage here! (Ok, I explain the bondage reference below.)

But there’s something about swans. They have a habit of turning into people, and people have a habit of turning into swans. And people have a habit of falling in love/lust with swans, and swans have a habit of falling in love/lust with humans. And their identity is often confused: is that person who looks like a human really a swan in disguise? Is that swan really a person? 

Many of the swan-human stories are erotic. The reason (maybe) is in the fact that swans combine both male and female characteristics in one body. The white body (or black) symbolises the purity of women, and its rounded contours are female. However, the long neck is male-phallic: reminiscent of the penis. And, of course, male swans actually do have a penis.  

If we move from the classical story of Leda and the Swan, and look at Celtic sources, one of the earliest surviving tales of human-swan beings is of the Children of Lir.

The Children of Lir

King Lir is the same guy as Shakespeare’s King Lear, though Shakespeare’s version leaves out the swans and the magical transformations. In fact Lir’s correct name is Lear, but in English he’s usually called Lir to distinguish him from from the Shakespeare version.

Anyway, Lir marries Aoibh, which is the Celtic spelling for Eve. Celtic spelling was invented by foreign monks, and is utterly stupid. I say this as a Celt. From here I’m going to call her Eve.

Lir and Eve have four children: Fionnuala (Fenella), and the boys Aodh (pronounced Eh, and probably a version of the name Hugh), Fiacra and Conn. But Eve, beautiful and universally loved, dies.

So Lir marries Aoife (more like Eva), and she’s jealous of the memory of Eve, still so widely loved. So she turned Lir and Eve’s children into swans.

They spend 900 years in swan form, able to speak and sing beautifully, but stuck in swan form. Finally, they are freed to return to human form by the prophesied marriage of two people who we won’t worry about here. However, because they’re 900 years old, they die.

There are various Christian versions of the story, with them being freed by a monk, or by the tolling of a church bell, but those bits were added later to save the story from being excised entirely, by the new Christian overloads. 

One significant thing about this story is that the four of them were bound together by silver chains, for that 900 years. It was the breaking of the chains at that wedding that allowed them to transform back.

But 900 years is a long time to spend in bondage, and all the safety manuals advise against it.

For a really good poem about The Children of Lir, conveying something of the sadness and isolation of those four swan-children, children even at 900-0dd years old, and about to die, clickmy earlier post, here.

I chose a poem a poem by a friend of WB Yeats, Katharine Tynan. It was one of his favourite of her poems. You can find it that post, which I’ve linked to here

The Children of Lir: An elegaic poem

There are many poems based on the Children of Lir legend, which I discuss here.

There’s one by Yeats’s friend “AE”, but it followed a later version of the story, and I’m not going to use it. 

This is from Twenty-One Poems by Katharione Tynan, selected by WB Yeats. So it’s not Yeats, but there is a Yeats connection. It’s an image of their last days as swans, shortly before they transform back to human form and die. 


Out upon the sand-dunes thrive the coarse long grasses;
Herons standing knee-deep in the brackish pool;
Overhead the sunset fire and flame amasses
And the moon to eastward rises pale and cool.
Rose and green around her, silver-gray and pearly,

Chequered with the black rooks flying home to bed;
For, to wake at daybreak, birds must couch them early:
And the day’s a long one since the dawn was red.

The children transforming into swans

On the chilly lakelet, in that pleasant gloaming,
See the sad swans sailing: they shall have no rest:
Never a voice to greet them save the bittern’s booming
Where the ghostly sallows sway against the West.
‘Sister,’ saith the gray swan, ‘Sister, I am weary,’
Turning to the white swan wet, despairing eyes;
‘O’ she saith, ‘my young one! O’ she saith, ‘my dearie !’
Casts her wings about him with a storm of cries.

Woe for Lir’s sweet children whom their vile stepmother
Glamoured with her witch-spells for a thousand years;
Died their father raving, on his throne another,
Blind before the end came from the burning tears.
Long the swans have wandered over lake and river;
Gone is all the glory of the race of Lir:
Gone and long forgotten like a dream of fever:
But the swans remember the sweet days that were.

Hugh, the black and white swan with the beauteous feathers,
Fiachra, the black swan with the emerald breast,
Conn, the youngest, dearest, sheltered in all weathers,
Him his snow-white sister loves the tenderest.
These her mother gave her as she lay a-dying;

To her faithful keeping; faithful hath she been,
With her wings spread o’er them when the tempest’s crying,
And her songs so hopeful when the sky’s serene.

The silver chain that binds them

Other swans have nests made ‘mid the reeds and rushes,
Lined with downy feathers where the cygnets sleep
Dreaming, if a bird dreams, till the daylight blushes,
Then they sail out swiftly on the current deep.
With the proud swan-father, tall, and strong, and stately,
And the mild swan-mother, grave with household cares,
All well-born and comely, all rejoicing greatly:
Full of honest pleasure is a life like theirs.

But alas ! for my swans with the human nature,
Sick with human longings, starved for human ties,
With their hearts all human cramped to a bird’s stature.
And the human weeping in the bird’s soft eyes.
Never shall my swans build nests in some green river,
Never fly to Southward in the autumn gray,
Rear no tender children, love no mates for ever;
Robbed alike of bird’s joys and of man’s are they.

From 1901: half woman, half swan

Babbles Conn the youngest, ‘Sister, I remember
At my father’s palace how I went in silk,
Ate the juicy deer-flesh roasted from the ember,
Drank from golden goblets my child’s draught of milk.

Once I rode a-hunting, laughed to see the hurry,
Shouted at the ball-play, on the lake did row;
You had for your beauty gauds that shone so rarely.’
‘Peace’ saith Fionnuala, ‘that was long ago.’

‘Sister,’ saith Fiachra, ‘well do I remember
How the flaming torches lit the banquet-hall,
And the fire leapt skyward in the mid-December,
And among the rushes slept our staghounds tall.
By our father’s right hand you sat shyly gazing,
Smiling half and sighing, with your eyes a-glow,
As the bards sang loudly all your beauty praising. ‘
‘Peace,’ saith Fionnuala, ‘that was long ago.’

‘Sister,’ then saith Hugh ‘most do I remember
One I called my brother, one, earth’s goodliest man,
Strong as forest oaks are where the wild vines clamber,
First at feast or hunting, in the battle’s van.
Angus, you were handsome, wise, and true, and tender,
Loved by every comrade, feared by every foe:
Low, low, lies your beauty, all forgot your splendour.’
‘Peace,’ saith Fionnuala, ‘that was long ago.’

The children suddenly ageing, back in human form

Dews are in the clear air and the roselight paling;
Over sands and sedges shines the evening   star;

And the moon’s disc lonely high in heaven is sailing;
Silvered all the spear-heads of the rushes are.
Housed warm are all things as the night grows colder,
Water-fowl and sky-fowl dreamless in the nest;
But the swans go drifting, drooping wing and shoulder
Cleaving the still water where the fishes rest.

Sinful Sunday: Women and swans

This is going to be a series, about the weird sexual mythology surrounding swans and humans. There’s the swans in Swan Lake, who finally take on human female form. 

But the most famous shape-shifting swans are male. They include Zeus, with Leda, and Gottfried, brother of Elsa von Brabant, who in swan form carries Lohengrin, knight of the Grail, from Montsalvat in Northern Spain to one of the rivers that passes through Brabant in what is now Belgium. (Frankreich, back then.) That’s an epic journey for a river-based creature, and someone should write an opera about it. 

One interesting thing about swans is that they have penises, unlike most birds.

Anyway, with the help of my lovely model, and Amazing Special Effects, my Sinful Sundays are going to be taken up for a while with stories and poems about the whole human-swan connection.


Take it away, Mr Yeats!

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?