On 2, February 2015, while walking back I came across a beautiful sight on the River Cam: a huge, brown swan, gently gliding over the calm waters of the river, all alone and at peace with its environs. This was just as surreal a sight as seeing the black swan in St. James’s Park was during the Christmas vacation. Stately and least concerned about the tourists plonking up the steep bridge or taking photos in every conceivable manner. It was while wandering through St. James’s Park with Babu Da that I had come across some magnificent specimina of black swans. I am not sure if you find black swans in India, but given that Babu Da has stayed fairly close to nature both in Delhi and Guwahati in the past, and he is fairly knowledgeable about flora and fauna, his being equally intrigued by this bird made it all the more mysterious and appealing.
Swans have for long been part of literature and folklore. In the United Kingdom, Druids were often associated with swans, as these were taken as symbols in the composition of Celtic astrology. Julius Caesar once said, “The Druids were possessed of “… much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy…”. The Druids were Celtic priests who inhabited much of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland until they were supplanted by the Roman government and, later, by the arrival of Christianity. Interestingly, some people have found parallels between Vedic and Celtic traditions! But that’s probably for a later post. Now, back to swans.
In Celtic tradition, the swan or the Eala represents the soul, love and beauty. In Celtic mythology the pagan Goddess Brighid is associated with swans. Brighid is a triple aspect Goddess, revered as Maiden, Mother and Crone, who as a Maiden rules over writing, inspiration and music; as a Mother over healing, midwifery and herbalism; and as a Crone over fire and the working arts of the smithy. Each of these symbolizes both a separate stage in the female life cycle and a phase of the moon, and often rules one of the realms of earth, underworld, and the heavens, as per the traditional description of these aspects.
In Greek mythology, swans are associated with Apollo, the God of the Sun, and with Zeus who took on the shape of a swan to get close to Leda with whom he had fallen in love. Greek Goddesses associated with swans include Artemis and Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love who travelled in a swan-drawn chariot. In Germanic myths the Valkyries had the power to transform into swans. They were the 12 maiden attendants of Odin, who presided over wars allowing victory to one side and defeat to the other. After a war was over they would select the most valiant of warriors to die in battle and escorted them to an afterlife of feasting in the halls of Valhalla. In another myth they would sometimes take off their swan-plumage and appear to men in human form, but if a man then stole their plumage they would be bound to do his bidding until it was returned. Fairly interesting!
In Norse mythology, as the story goes, two swans drank from the sacred Well of Urd situated in the realm of Asgard, home of the Gods. According to the Prose Edda, the water of this well was so pure and holy that all things that touch it turn white, including the original pair of swans and all others descended from them. Hence, one has the origin of the white color of the swans explained in Norse mythology.
In modern times, the perhaps one of the most enduring tales about swans is that of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. The story revolves around a young cygnet that gets lost from his mother. While swimming around a lake frantically searching for her, he joins a group of other young birds and ducks. Sadly however, because of his grey-brownish colour they consider him ugly and refuse to play with him. Being rejected and then seeing his own reflection on the water’s surface, he can’t but help to agree with them and feel ashamed of his appearance. Eventually his mother finds him and reassures him, making him realize that he is still young and this is merely a transitional phase; he will later grow into the most beautiful of all birds – a beautiful snow white swan like herself. A tale probably many of us have heard as children.
The Black Swan is widely referenced in Australian culture. The Black Swan is of spiritual significance in the traditional histories of many Aboriginal peoples across southern Australia. Metaphoric references to black swans have appeared in European culture since long before the actual discovery of the black swan in Australia in the 18th century.
The Black Swan is the official state emblem of Western Australia and is depicted on the flag of Western Australia (the one above). It is also depicted on the Western Australian coat-of-arms, besides being used in other emblems, coins, logos, mascots and even in the names of sports teams!
The first reference to the black swan in European myth, literature and folklore was probably by the Roman satirist Juvenal, who wrote in 82 AD of rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno, translated as “a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan”, signifying the rarity of the black swan. This phrase passed into various European languages as a popular proverb. For around a sesqui-millenium, the black swan existed in the European imagination as a metaphor for that which could not exist.
The Dutch explorer de Vlamingh made the first European record of sighting a Black Swan in 1697, when he sailed into what he named as the Swan River on the western coast of New Holland. The sighting was significant in Europe, where “all swans are white” had long been used as a standard example of a well-known truth, and shook the very basis of the popular proverbs associated with the apparent non-existence of a black swan. In 1726, two birds were captured near Dirk Hartog Island and taken to Jakarta (Indonesia) as proof of their existence!
When black swans were taken to Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they were soon associated with another aspect of European mythology: the attribution of ‘sinister relationships’ between the devil and black-coloured animals! Black Swans were considered to be diabolic and often chased away or killed by superstitious folk. This may be one of the reasons why the black swans have never established a significant presence as feral beings in Europe and North America. It again raises the question of perception and the oft-flawed rationale of humans, which makes man associate the darker shade with the sinister and the abhorrent. Apartheid and racism are prime examples of how this rationale applies in our society. Ironically, the black swan is associated with some qualities which are worth emulating.
Just as the white swan symbolizes pure beauty, its black counterpart stands for mysteries within us that are longing to be set free to express themselves creatively – perhaps just as the Goddess Bridgid would have us do, in poetry or music. The black swan is the harbinger of ‘things’ and/or events that will have monumental ‘culture changing’ potential! It’s the answer to the notion that ‘something’s got to give’. Or, ‘that something big is bound to happen.’ The black swan theory is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the event has occurred with the benefit of hindsight.
Black swan events were introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book Fooled By Randomness, which concerned financial events. Taleb says
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme ‘impact’, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Fascinating creatures! Black swans also represent the healing powers of love, as per certain traditions. In popular culture, the movie Black Swan has a dark and sensual ‘Black Swan’ in Mila Kunis. Personally, I find this nervous, pioneering spirit in a black swan, which is kind of unstable and yet powerful and elegant.
If Jean Anouilh was correct in saying ““Beauty is one of the rare things which does not lead to doubt of God”, then the Black Swan may surely be a symbol of the Cosmic Force!