On this day, in 1877, the ballet Swan Lake premiered in Moscow. In honor of such an illustrious event :), I've decided to devote this week to swans: swans in literature, swans in poetry, swans in mythology...you get the idea.
Today's post is going to be a bit on the brief side, in part because I'm swamped with grading. But I want to offer a few thoughts on the appearance of swans in language and culture.
In linguistic terms, the word swan comes directly to modern English from the Old English swan -- a big difference, you see. This word is believed to have its origin in the Indo-European root swen, which meant "to sing." I should note that linguists don't actually know for sure if this word existed. They've simply projected its existence based on extant information about Indo-European root words.
Some may be familiar with the word cygnet, which indicates a young swan. (In the ballet Swan Lake, the dance of the "little swans" is sometimes referred to as the dance of the cygnets.) The word cygnet comes to us from the Latin cygnus (or "swan"), which in turn came from the Greek word κύκνος. What do you mean you don't read Greek? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Translated for the non-Greek reader, this simply reads kýknos. This also means "swan." I know that comes as a great shock to everyone.
Swans make an appearance in fairy tales, as well as several different mythologies. (Don't make the mistake of confusing the two genres, by the way.) Most have, at least once in their lifetime, heard or read Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling." In Greek mythology, the great beauty Helen of Troy was conceived when Zeus disguised himself as a swan to seduce the queen of Sparta, Leda. (This story is typically filed under "Who came up with this stuff?") In Irish mythology, the beautiful maiden Etain was turned into a swan to enable her to flee from the king of Ireland. In the Finnish poem Kalevala, swans are sacred, and anyone who kills a swan is sent to Tuonela, or the Underworld.
So where did the story for the ballet Swan Lake come from? You know, it's hard to say for sure. Unlike some ballets (Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty), Swan Lake did not derive from a familiar tale or love story. Russians consider it a very "Russian" story, but then they would. In all fairness, they might be correct about it. The motifs within the story might have become so familiar that it's difficult to extract them from our own culture and identify the source of them in Slavic tales. Some historians see elements of Swan Lake in the Russian folktale "The White Duck" and suggest that the story has at least part of its origins in that. I read the summary here. There are certainly features of Swan Lake in it, particularly in the way that people are turned into swans. In case you're not familiar with the story of Swan Lake, try here. I'd try my hand at summarizing, but I'm not sure my summary would be any shorter than the one at the link. Honestly, ballet plots are seldom simple.
Since my blog is essentially subtitled "Any Day Is a Good Day to Post Ballet," I'll go ahead and post some ballet.
From the modern-day Mariinsky, Uliana Lopatkina and Danila Korsuntsev:
And from the Kirov (now the Mariinsky), circa 1989, the Dance of the Cygnets: