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

12 thoughts on “Sinful Sunday: The Children of Lir

  1. Pingback: The Children of Lir: An elegaic poem | Jerusalem Mortimer: Between the Lines

  2. A lovely shot and swans are beautiful creatures. I saw a video today of a swan being reunited with its partner after it was taken away for treatment because it was injured, the amazing dance they did when they got back together was beautiful and sensual to watch


    • Please do! I’ll freely admit I’m shit at pronouncing Celtic-spelling. I did my best, such as it is, but I’d love it if you set me right.

      My heritage is 100% Irish, so I am a Celt. But obviously figuring out Celtic spelling isn’t hereditary. Shame.

      • I never saw this reply – I happened to just click in outta curiosity so my apologies. Next time, gimme a nudge lol 🙂

        Fionnuala = Fin – ooo – la.

        Aoife = Eeefa

        I can do more if you so wish 🙂 x

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