Irish and Scandinavian Mythology

Swans: The Children of Lir and The Lay of Volund

pre-12th century, Medieval, Old Irish | Old Norse, folklore.

Three maidens are found spinning linen by a shore, and beside them are discarded swans’ garments.

'Can you imagine a little child in the Iron Age,' said Quintin, 'just having been told a story very similar to the Irish tale of the Children of Lir and believing every word of it. Rather like a child coming out of Sunday School and really believing that Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. And then he goes down to a lake and he sees a flock of swans gliding about in the water and he looks at one of them and it looks back at him and begins to glide over and he sees...'

'Or she,' said Miranda.

' intelligent creature peering at her. And she remembers the story of the children of Lir and wonders if this swan was once human as well. And if one of them, then why not all of them?'

Quintin threw another piece of bread over to where the swans were dipping their heads lazily into the water. Two of them glided over towards the patch of river where the bread lay, and then one deferred to the other as though some secret communication had passed between them. 'Maybe that was the whole point of the story?'

'Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian mythology had swans that were also people,' replied Miranda, throwing a piece of bread to another swan that was rapidly approaching the others. 'Swan maidens. In the Lay of Volund from the Poetic Edda there are three maidens who are found spinning linen by a shore, and beside them are discarded swans’ garments. One is called Swanwhite, she wore swan feathers.

'Voland was Welland in Anglo-Saxon,' said Quintin. 'An old Neolithic long barrow in England with some large entrance stones is called Welland's Smithy.'

'Swans have something sacred about them even now, on an English river,' mused Miranda, emptying the crumbs from her bag into the water. 'Is it still illegal to kill one?'

Story of the children of Lir recounted from: Gregory, Lady A., 1904. Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, Arranged and put into English by Lady Gregory. John Murray, London. Reprinted, 1998. Irish Myths and Legends. Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia, USA. Part One: The Gods. Book V: The Fate of the Children of Lir, pp 145–60.

Swan maidens: Larrington, Carolyne, 1996. The Poetic Edda: a new translation by Carolyne Larrington. Oxford University Press. The Lay of Volund, pp 102–08.

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Poetic Edda (Elder Edda) – Wikipedia

Elder Edda and Younger Edda – Project Gutenberg; free out-of-copyright editions, ebooks

The Eddas – translated into English :

The Lay of Völand – translated by Benjamin Thorpe, transcribed by Ari Odhinnsen, with thanks to William Reaves :

Tuatha de Danaan - Wikipedia

The Children of Lir – Wikipedia

Gods and Fighting Men – ancient tales of Ireland put into English by Lady Augusta Gregory. 1904. Project Gutenberg.