About a week ago, someone mentioned stars and their stories and — for whatever reason — I suddenly remembered an essay I’d written 15 years ago as a post-paper several weeks after taking the course “Introduction to Indigenous Mind” with Dr. Apela Colorado (Oneida) at the University of Creation Spirituality in California.
Have you ever encountered something you’ve written or made or done — but not thought about for a long, long time — and said “How could I have been so wise?!” That happened to me when I read this paper (followed, unfortunately, by the question “And how can I have forgotten so much?”). In fact, in a number of ways, it felt like my paper had been written to address some of my current questionings & pondering about place, story, and the rootlessness stemming from histories of colonization and modern industrial culture.
There is so much I would like to share with you from this paper I entitled “A Circle of Swans: Story as Healing, Story as Wings,” but it’s too long — a full essay + 2 photos and, as an appendix, a story I’ll share with you another time. So I’ll content myself (and, I hope, not bore you too much) with several lengthy excerpts.
After an introductory page describing my intentions as I started the class and my actual arrival for the 1st class on a misty morning when the neighboring Lake Merritt was alive with geese and ducks & a flotilla of majestic pelicans suddenly swooped down out of the fog, I wrote:
“Given my intentions, I was not surprised to find that our Indigenous Mind gathering was to be held as ceremony rather than seminar. Still, I was not prepared for the forceful bodily shock of recognition I received that first morning when [something I could barely catch] was said linking “Swan” and “European ancestors.” It was as if my heart had been torn open. Of the experience, I wrote in my journal: “If I came here for no other reason than that, it is enough.”
And I immediately remembered several other “swan messages” in my life: the small antique felted swan handed down through my mother’s German family, my three or four encounters during recent months with a profound swan poem by Rilke, […] my life-long identification with the first part of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Ugly Duckling Tale”….
That same afternoon, in Kaleo Ching’s mask-making class, we worked with partners, learning to feel each others energy. My partner asked to share the image that she had felt leaping from my heart. “First,” she said, ” I heard a loud trumpet sound, and then I saw a golden trumpet. Then from out of the trumpet flew a white bird, followed by a golden sunburst opening and expanding.” I was stunned. I am a quiet sort, not a “trumpet-person” I think. What could it mean?
It was not until the next day that I began to put the emerging white bird together with the compelling Swan of my ancestors. Then, on Wednesday, Apela blew the auroch’s horn for the calling of the ancestors — and again, I was stunned, opened to and for something powerful and unknown. Only now, after having learned of Swan’s [liminal nature and] associations with Sun and music, am I beginning to glimpse ever fuller meanings and further responsibilities. [In her comments here, Apela notes that “SZAN (Sanskrit) is the mythological transference of pure light into sound.”]
[Swan symbolism abounds in stories and art going back to prehistoric times and is found in many lands. Swans are associated with transformation in its many forms, including rebirth. After looking at swan-symbolism & story through the ages, the paper then focuses on one type of tale: the Swan Maiden stories.]
Seemingly sprung from more ancient roots than the Swan-Knight stories and found throughout northern lands, the Swan-Maiden story appears in many guises. Among some northern peoples (Inuit and western Scots, for instance), the central figure [of such stories] is a Seal-maiden [Selkie] rather than a swan, but the Swan-maiden is most common.
In the simplest telling of the Swan-maiden, a hunter spies on several beautiful swans who have flown down and removed their Swan-skins to bathe as beautiful women. Being lonely, the hunter hides one of the Swan-skins, thereby trapping the creature in human form, and takes her as his wife. After living with her husband for many years and bearing his children, the Swan is fading and failing until at last she finds her hidden Swan-skin — or one of her children does. She dons the skin, renewed, and flies away.
[There are many different versions, with different endings depending on the time and culture in which they were told. Later versions often include endings in which the hunter “rescues” his “enchanted” bride], demonizing the animal form and glorifying the male hero-quest, speaking volumes about the kind of changes occurring European cultures during the last millenium….
As I read the Swan-maiden tales, I found myself growing sadder and sadder — gripped by the flat “either/or” choices of the story’s frame. Either wildness or domesticity, either freedom or love, either soaring flight or stable family, either spirit or society…. These stories portray a fatal splitting of the soul, of reality itself — as if such dualism is inevitable, as if there can be no bridge between worlds and ways of being, no way that the paradox can be sustained.
There are many ways to hear an ancient story. We can focus on classifying it according to folkloric “type.” We can analyze its “structure.” We can hold it at scientific arm’s length and try to view it through an anthropological or literary lens. Or we can embrace the story, and — more important — let it embrace us.
The Jungian analyst Barry Williams says that we do not need to solve the puzzle of our dreams; rather, the dreams come to “solve us.” Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has suggested that myth and sacred text are the dreams of a culture and should be approached as such. And so I ask myself, how are these Swan-maiden stories coming now to “solve” — to heal — some hurt in my heart, some wound in my culture? I sit with the small felted figure of a mute swan in my hand and think of my mother — a woman who, in many ways, laid aside her Swan-garment and ceased to fly. I think of myself and the ways in which my own life has been lived or unlived. I consider how — in an amazing Art-As-Meditation class three and a half years ago — when Luisah Teish asked us to find a new name for ourselves and to “tell the story of how we were given that name,” I told (without knowing what it was or what it meant) a sort of Swan-maiden story — a story of the recovery of my wings.
And then I opened a book and read one more Swan-maiden story.
Now, to offer a mere summary of a story is to commit a kind of murder, but once again, for the sake of this paper and its limits, I present the bare bones, knowing that, with a teller’s sweet breath, they can rise dancing and cloaked again in beautiful living flesh. This one is the Irish Celtic myth of Aonghus (Angus) Og, the god of dreams and love, of beauty and poetry — a god of delight who is followed everywhere by birds circling his head like kisses and sweet laughter:
Night after night Aonghus is visited in his dreams by a beautiful woman but, though he falls ill with longing, she refuses to stay with him into the day. Lovesick, Aonghus will not eat and — hoping to prevent his death — those who love him set out to find the strange woman. After long searching and many setbacks, the lovely Caer Imbormeith is discovered at last — one of a flock of swans who spend alternate years in human form.
And does Aonghus steal Caer’s swan-skin to trap her in human form? Does he catch her and force her to make a choice? Of course not! Aonghus himself takes the form of a swan and flies off with Caer to consummate their love as swans.
And so it is that Aongus and Caer dwell together alternating years — Samhain to Samhain — as swans and as human in their home, Bru Na Boinne. And their singing is so sweet that those who hear it are blessed with three days and three nights of enchanted sleep.
Swans still swim near Bru Na Boinne — now known as Newgrange, built more than 5000 years ago — on the Boyne River, named for Aonghus’s mother Boann. … [A shaft of light stills enters the dark interior of Newgrange on the Winter Solstice and] researchers Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore have also linked the orientation and construction of Newgrange’s passages to the stars in the swan constellation Cygnus.
[Here I briefly discuss some of the] deliciously long and tangled threads of connection [this story has with other symbols and myths, but go on to say that] For now I want to rest with Aonghus and Caer in their home at Newgrange, basking in the possibilities they open for our world. When I first saw Aonghus turn swan to join Caer, rising on great silver wings, something old and heavy unclenched in my soul, as if a fist had relaxed into an open and generous hand. Not either/or but both/and! Not “masculine vs. feminine,’ but wholly human. Not “man against nature,” but “humans as an integral part of Earth.” Not “freedom vs. affiliation” or “individuality vs. community,” but compassion, …compassion, …compassion….“
Several days after returning home from that class, I went — on pure impulse — to a small lake near my home. I had seen geese and ducks there on previous visits. But this time, there was something different: a single swam floating in the center of the lake.