Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations


the Swan

Urania's Mirror 1825

In Greek mythology there are four characters known as Cycnus or Cygnus, listed on this Wikipedia webpage.

The words Cygnus and cygnet, a young swan, are from Latin cygnus, 'swan', Greek kuknos.

The English word swan comes from the Indo-European root *swen- 'To sound'. Derivatives: swan¹ (from Old English swan), sone (a subjective unit of loudness, as perceived by a person with normal hearing), resonate, sonic, sonnet, sound¹, unison, (these words from Latin sonus), sonar, sonant (voiced, as a speech sound), sonata, sonorous, assonance, consonant, dissonant, resound, (these words from Latin sonare, to sound). [Pokorny swen- 1046. Watkins]. The trumpeter swan's call has been likened to the sonorous notes of a French horn.

“But in some cases, with incorrect usage and improperly, a sound is called a 'voice,' as for example "the voice of the trumpet bellowed," and (Vergil, Aen. 3-556):  ... and voices broken on the shore. For the word proper to rocks on the shore is 'sound' (sonare). Also, (Vergil, Aen. 9.503):  But the trumpet far off (made) a terrible sound with its sonorous brass.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.96.]

Swans spend a lot of their time swimming on lakes, where they do their courting. The word sound, from Latin sonare, is sound4. The words sound3 (a long wide body of water, the air bladder of a fish), and sound4 (to measure the depth of water, to dive swiftly downwards) are related to the the word swim [Pokorny swem- 1046. Watkins]. To dive swiftly downwards is sound4.

In the myth concerning Cycnus the friend of Phaeton, it was said;

"after Phaeton died, Cycnus dove repeatedly into the river Eridanos attempting to retrieve Phaeton's body. The gods turned him into a swan".

In reality swans seldom dive but they plunge their head and neck below the surface with tail tipped up to feed on roots or pondweeds. This habit of the swan sailing around in a pensive manner and thrusting its head in the water was seen as having another purpose as explained by the author of The Glorious Constellations;

"this story (of Cycnus searching for Phaeton) explains why swans wander over water seemingly in search of something and deep in thought and occasionally plunge their heads below the surface".

Ovid in Metamorphosis thus describes:

His voice was lessened as he tried to speak,
And issued through a long extended neck:
His hair transforms to down ; his fingers meet
In skinny films, and shape his oary feet:
From both his sides the wings and feathers break,
And from his mouth proceeds a blunted beak:
All Cycnus now into a swan was turned. [1]

Swans are known for their swan-song, it was believed that swans sing only once in their lifetimes, just before they die. A swan-song has the meaning of a person's last piece of creative work, or performance, especially in literature, music, or art.

"To be swanlike is to greet one's death with a song of exceptional beauty, as in a famous passage of Plato (Phaedo 84D—85B), where Socrates hopes his own prophecy will match that of swans, "who, though they also sing in earlier times, sing especially well when on the point of death, because they are about to go off to the god whose servant they are." Their god, of course, is Apollo, famous for his associations with singing swans and their distant northern retreat in the land of the Hyperboreans" [p.31-34]. "Indeed, after Phaethon's death, his friend, Cygnus, is metamorphosed into a swan—whose lamenting death song is of proverbial beauty (2.376—80) [p.176-177]."  [Metaformations, Frederick Ahl].

In mythology Zeus transformed himself into a swan in order to seduce Leda. Zeus in the disguise of a swan behaved in the manner of a swain, meaning a lover or wooer. This union produced an egg from which Pollux and Helen of Troy were born. Later that same night, Leda lay with her husband Tyndareus which produced another egg from which Castor and Clytemnestra were born. Castor and Pollux became heroes, the Dioscuri, and are represented in the Zodiac as the Twins of Gemini.

"Men marching and singing are like swans". The Similes of the Aeneid http://boston.k12.ma.us/BLA/studentprojects/APlatin/outline.html

Arion is one of the alternative titles for the star Alpha Cygnus, Deneb Adige: "This star also was Aridif, from Al Ridf, the 'Hindmost'; variations were Arrioph, and Arion" [Allen, Star Names]. Both Arion and Orpheus were famous lyre-players turned into swans at death. Arion2, who lived in Corinth was the best citharist or lyre-player of his time. On his return from an artistic tour in Italy he was robbed by the crew of his ship and forced to cast himself into the sea. Against all odds, however, he landed on shore in Greece, riding on the back of a dolphin.

"Now Arion2, not wishing to die in a meaningless way, decided to take for his shroud the sophisticated attire he used to wear at competitions, and with it on sing a final song to life, as swans generously do". http://www.maicar.com/GML/Arion2.html

Allen in Star Names says "it [Cygnus] was considered to be Orpheus, placed after death in the heavens, near to his favorite Lyre" [Lyra].

"Several etymologies for the name Orpheus have been proposed. A probable suggestion is that it is derived from a hypothetical PIE verb *orbhao-, 'to be deprived', from PIE *orbh-, 'to put asunder, separate' [Orpheus was torn asunder by the Maenads]. Cognates would include Greek orphe, 'darkness', and Greek orphanos, 'fatherless, orphan', from which comes English 'orphan' by way of Latin. Orpheus would therefore be semantically close to goao, 'to lament, sing wildly, cast a spell', uniting his seemingly disparate roles as disappointed lover, transgressive musician and mystery-priest into a single lexical whole. The word 'orphic' is defined as mystic, fascinating and entrancing, and, probably, because of the oracle of Orpheus, 'orphic' can also signify 'oracular'" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orpheus

The word orphan comes from the Indo-European root *orbh- 'To change allegiance or status'. Derivatives: orphan (from Greek orphanos), robot (from Czech robota, compulsory labor, drudgery, servitude, from rab, slave), Gastarbeiter (a guest worker, especially one in Germany, from Old High German arabeit(i), labor, from Germanic *arbaithi-). [Pokorny orbho- 781. Watkins] Latin Orbona was goddess of orphans; the sense of which seems to be 'thing that changes allegiance' (in the case of the slave, from himself to his master).

Orphism, Orphic Mysteries was a religion of ancient Greece, prominent in the 6th century B.C. According to legend Orpheus founded these mysteries and was the author of the sacred poems from which the Orphic doctrines were drawn [1]. In Greek mythology Orpheus was a poet and musician who went to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife Eurydice. He succeeded in charming Hades with his lyre (adjacent Lyra), and he was allowed to lead his wife out of the underworld on the condition that he not look back at her until they reached the surface. Just before they arrived at the surface his love for her overcame his will and he glanced back at her, causing her to be drawn back to Hades [2].

“The swan is the bird that the Greeks call olos. It is called 'swan' (olor) because it is 'entirely' white in its plumage; for no one mentions a black swan; in Greek 'entire' is called kuknos. The cycnus (i.e. cygnus, another word for swan, borrowed, in fact, from the Greek kuknos just cited) is named for singing (canere) because it pours out a sweetness of song with its modulated voice. It is thought to sing sweetly because it has a long curved neck, and a voice forcing its way by a long and winding path necessarily renders varied modulations. People say that in the Hyperborean regions, when musicians are singing to citharas, swans come flocking in large numbers, and sing with them quite harmoniously. Olor is the Latin name, for in Greek they are called kuknos. Sailors say that this bird makes a good omen for them, just as Aemilius (Macer) says (fr. 4): The swan is always the most fortunate bird in omens. Sailors prefer this one, because it does not immerse itself in the waves." [Note by translator: Isidore's source for Macer's lines, Servius's commentary on Aen. 1.393, originally read "is never immersed" for "does not immerse itself." Because swans are never overwhelmed by waves, they are an omen of good weather. ] [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.264-265.]

Latin olor is related to auk, a diving sea birds of the family Alcidae, "from Old Norse alka, which probably derives from the Indo-European imitative base *el-, *ol-, 'to shout, cry', whence also Latin olor (for *elor), 'swan', Middle Irish ela, 'swan', and possibly also Greek elea, 'a marsh bird', elorios, 'a water bird'" [Klein]. Alcedinidae are a family of birds comprising the kingfishers, from Latin alcedo, 'kingfisher', which is Latinized from Greek alkhuon, Latin halcyon. The kingfisher (of the family Alcedinidae), that was said to nest on the sea and was believed to be able to calm the waves for fourteen days centered on the winter solstice (i.e., seven days before and seven days after).

Orpheus (with whom this constellation is identified) could also calm or quite the seas;

"enchanted all animals through his playing of the lyre and even succeeded in calming a storm-tossed ocean". http://www.lyricalworks.com/home/commentary.htm

On The Shield of Heracles translated by Evelyn-White:

(ll. 413-423) Then Cycnus, eager to kill the son of almighty Zeus [Hercules], struck upon his shield with a brazen spear, but did not break the bronze; and the gift of the god saved his foe. But the son of Amphitryon, mighty Heracles, with his long spear struck Cycnus violently in the neck beneath the chin, where it was unguarded between helm and shield. And the deadly spear cut through the two sinews [the two vocal cords? two bands of sinew that produce sound]; for the hero's full strength lighted on his foe. And Cycnus fell as an oak falls or a lofty pine that is stricken by the lurid thunderbolt of Zeus; even so he fell, and his armor adorned with bronze clashed about him. ...(ll. 467-471). But the son of Alemena [Hercules] and glorious Iolaus [Hercules' charioteer] stripped the fine armour off Cycnus' shoulders and went, and their swift horses carried them straight to the city of Trachis. ...(ll. 472-480) ... But Anaurus, swelled by a rainstorm, blotted out the grave and memorial of Cycnus; for so Apollo, Leto's son, commanded him, because he used to watch for and violently despoil the rich hecatombs that any might bring to Pytho [3].

Etruscan word for swan is Tusna "Perhaps from *Turansna, 'of Turan.' The swan of Turan" [4].

Etymologically, consonants 'sound together' with vowels, while vowels are 'vocal', being pronounced with the vocal cords. Consonant derives from Latin consonans, formed from com- 'together' and sonare 'to sound'. Vowels might relate to Delphinus, the Dolphin. Arion, associated with this constellation rides a dolphin

The astrological influences of the constellation given by Manilius:

"Hard by is the place allotted to the Swan: as a reward for the shape with which he [Jupiter or Zeus] snared the admiring Leda, when, a god changed into a snow-white swan, he came down and offered his feathered form to the unsuspecting woman. Now too with outspread wings it flies among the stars" [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 1, p.31.]

"Its down and glittering wings figured by stars. Accordingly he who at its rising leaves his mother's womb and beholds the light of day shall make the denizens of the air and the race of birds that is dedicated to heaven the source of his pleasure and profit.

"From this constellation shall flow a thousand human skills (artes): its child will declare war on heaven and catch a bird in mid-flight, or he will rob it of its nestling, or draw nets up and over a bird whilst it is perched on a branch or feeds on the ground (swans have a reputation for being hostile to other birds). And the object of these skills is to satisfy our high living. Today we go farther afield for the stomach than we used to go for war: we are fed from the shores of Numidia and the groves of Phasis; our markets are stocked from the land whence over a new-discovered sea was carried off the Golden Fleece. Nay more, such a man will impart to the birds of the air the language of men and what words mean; he will introduce them to a new kind of intercourse, teaching them the speech denied them by nature's law.

"In its own person the Swan hides a god (as being in the disguise of Jupiter) and the voice belonging to it; it is more than a bird and mutters to itself within. Fail not to mark the men who delight to feed the birds of Venus in pens on a rooftop, releasing them to their native skies or recalling them by special signs; or those who carry in cages throughout the city birds taught to obey words of command, men whose total wealth consists of a little sparrow (for such performing birds)." [Manilius, Astronomica, 1st century AD, book 5, p.331].

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Cygnus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 1950 Lat Mag Sp
Albireo beta 29CAP52 01AQU15 292 10 33 +27 51 12 +48 58 22 3.24 K1
chi 08AQU30 09AQU53 297 09 37 +32 47 12 +52 36 00 var S7
eta 11AQU33 12AQU56 298 36 25 +34 56 58 +54 16 45 4.03 K0
delta 14AQU53 16AQU16 295 51 09 +45 00 28 +64 25 04 2.97 A0
Sador gamma 23AQU27 24AQU50 305 06 29 +40 05 44 +57 07 40 2.32 F8
Gienah Cyg epsilon 26AQU21 27AQU45 311 02 48 +33 46 55 +49 25 23 2.64 K0
zeta 01PIS40 03PIS03 317 42 06 +30 01 15 +43 41 52 3.40 G8
Deneb Adige alpha 03PIS57 05PIS20 309 55 53 +45 06 03 +59 54 30 1.25 A2
Azelfafage pi 26PIS54 28PIS17 325 04 45 +50 57 39 +58 52 32 4.78 B3
Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

Those deathless odalisques of heaven's hareem,

The Stars, unveil; a lonely cloud is rolled

Past by the wind, as bears an azure stream

A sleeping swan's white plumage fringed with gold.

  —  Adam Mickiewicz' Polish Evening Hymn,

Cygnus, the Swan that modern criticism says should be Cycnus, lies between Draco and Pegasus. The French know it as Cygne; the Italians as Cigno; the Spaniards as Cisne; and the Germans as Schwan. It was Kuknos with Eratosthenes, but usually Ornis; with other Greeks, by which was simply intended a Bird of some kind, more particularly a Hen; although the aiolos of Aratos may indicate that he had in view the "quickly flying swan"; but, as this Greek adjective also signifies "varied," it is possible that reference was here made to the Bird's position in the Milky Way, in the light and shade of that great circle. With this idea, Brown renders it "spangled." Aratos also described it as eroeis, "dark," especially as to its wings, an error which Hipparchos corrected.

When the Romans adopted the title that we now have, our constellation became the mythical swan identified with Cycnus, the son of Mars, or of the Ligurian Sthenelus; or the brother of Phaethon, transformed at the river {Page 193} Padus (Eridanus) and transported to the sky. [Allen notes: While Cygnus was thus prominent in myth and the sky, the swan was especially so in ancient ornithology, and the subject of many fables, where its "hostility" to other birds and to beasts was made much of; but in these Thompson sees astronomical symbolism, as already has been alluded to under Aquila.] Associated, too, with Leda, the friend of Jupiter and mother of Castor, Pollux, and Helena, it was classed among the Argonautic constellations, and Helenae Genitor, with other names derived from the well-known legend, was applied to it.

Popularly the constellation was Ales, Avis, and Volucris, a Bird, — Alea Jovis, Ales Ledaeus, and Avis Veneris, while Olor, another word for the Swan, both ornithological and stellar, has been current even to modern times. Phoebi Assessor is cited by La Lande, the bird being sacred to that deity; and Vultur cadens is found for it, but this was properly Lyra's title. As the bird of Venus it also has been known as Myrtilus, from the myrtle sacred to that goddess; and it was considered to be Orpheus, placed after death in the heavens, near to his favorite Lyre (Lyra).

Our Cygnus may have originated on the Euphrates, for the tablets show a stellar bird of some kind, perhaps Urakhga, the original of the Arabs' Rukh, the Roc, that Sindbad the Sailor knew. At all events, its present figuring did not originate with the Greeks, for the history of the constellation had been entirely lost to them, as had that of the mysterious Engonasin (Hercules), — an evident proof that they were not the inventors of at least some of the star-groups attributed to them.

In Arabia, although occasionally known as Al Tair al Arduf, the Flying Eagle, Chilmead's Altayr, or as Al Radif, it usually was Al Dajajah, the Hen, and appears as such even with the Egyptian priest Manetho, about 300 B.C., this degenerating into the Adige, Adigege, Aldigaga, Addigagato, Degige, Edegiagith, Eldigiagich, etc., of early lists, some of these even now applied to its brightest star.

Scaliger's Al Ridhadh, for the constellation, which degenerated to El Rided, perhaps is the origin of our Arided for the lucida (Alpha star, Deneb Adige), but its signification is uncertain, although the word is said to have been found in an old Latin-Spanish-Arabic dictionary for some sweet-scented flower.

Hyde gives Katha for it, the Arabic Al Katat, a bird in form and size like a pigeon; indeed, Al Sufi's translator, Schjellerup, defined the latter's title for it, Al Tair, as Ie pigeon de poste; but Al Katat is now the Arabs' word for a common gallinaceous game-bird of the desert, perhaps the mottled partridge.

The Alfonsine Tables, in the recent Madrid edition, supposed to be a reproduction of the original, illustrate their Qalina by a forlorn Hen instead (Page 194} of a Swan, with the bungled Arabic title altayr aldigeya, although elsewhere they say Olor: Hyparcus Cygnum vocat; the Arabo-Latin Alwagest of 1515 had Eurisim: et est volans; et jam vocatur gallina. et dicitur eurisim quasi redolens ut liliuin ab ireo; the Alfonsine Tables of 1521 have Hyresym; et dicitur quasi reddens ut lilium: et est volans: et jam vocatur gallina; Bayer wrote of it, quasi Rosa redolens Lilium: Riccioli, quasi Galli rosa; and contemporaries of this last author wrote Hirezym and Hierizim. Ideler's comments on all this well show the roundabout process by which some of our star-names have originated, and are worthy quotation entire:

They have, moreover, made use of the translated Greek Ornos, as is shown by the Borgian Globe, on which is written Lurnis, or Urnis (for the first letter is not connected with the second, so that we have both readings). It is most probable that from this Urnis originated the Eurisim in the foregoing rare title. Probably the translator found in the Arabic original the, to him, foreign word Urnis. He naturally surmised that it was Greek, only he did not know its proper signification. On the other hand, the plant Erusimon (Erysimum officinale, Linn.) [now seems to be known as Sisymbrium officinale, this plant was at one time known as the 'singer's plant' because of its use in treating loss of the voice] occurred to him, which the Romans called Ireo (see Pliny, Hist. Nat. xviii, 10, xxii, 25), and this recalled the richly scented Iris or Sword Lily (Iris florentina, Linn.), and so, as it seems to me, he traced the thought through a perfectly natural association of ideas to his beautiful Eurisim, quasi redolens ut lilium ab ireo. At the same time I believe I have here struck the trail of the title Albireo, which has never yet been satisfactorily explained. This is given to the star on the beak, —  beta, — by Bayer and in our charts. It seems to me to be nothing more than the above abireo, which came to be turned into an Arabic star-name by means of an interpolated.

The early Gallina continued in use by astronomers even to the last century.

Cygnus usually is shown in full flight down the Milky Way, the Stream of Heaven, "uppoised on gleaming wings "; but old drawings have it apparently just springing from the ground.

Caesius thought that the constellation represented the Swan in the Authorized Version of Leviticus xi, 18, the Timshemath of the Hebrews; but this is a Horned Owl in the Revision, or may have been an Ibis. Other Christians of his time saw here the Cross of Calvary, Christi Crux, as Schickard had it, Schiller's Crux cum S. Helena; these descending to our day as the Northern Cross, well known to all [the Southern Cross is Crux], and to beginners in stellar observations probably better than by the stars' true title. Lowell was familiar with it, and thus brings it into his New Year's Eve, 1844:

Orion kneeling in his starry niche,

The Lyre whose strings give music audible

To holy ears, and countless splendors more,

Crowned by the blazing Cross high-hung o'er all;

and Smith, in Come Learn of the Stars:

{Page 195} Yonder goes Cygnus, the Swan, flying southward, —

Sign of the Cross and of Christ unto me.

This Cross is formed by alpha, gamma, eta, and beta, marking the upright along the Galaxy, more than 20° in length, zeta, epsilon, gamma, and delta being the transverse.

These last also were an Arab asterism, Al Fawaris, the Riders; alpha and kappa sometimes being added to the group.

The Chinese story of the Herdsman, or Shepherd, generally told for our Aquila, and of his love for the skilful Spinster, our Lyra, occasionally includes stars in Cygnus.

While interesting in many respects, it is especially so in possessing an unusual number of deeply colored stars, Birmingham writing of this:

A space of the heavens including the Milky Way, between Aquila, Lyra, and Cygnus, seems so peculiarly favored by red and orange stars that it might not inaptly be called the Red Region, or the Red Region of Cygnus.

Argelander locates 146 naked-eye members of the constellation, and Heis 197, its situation in the Galaxy accounting for this density. Of these stars Espin gives a list of one hundred that are double, triple, or multiple. The Lace-work Nebula, N. G. C. 6960, also lies within its borders.

We find among classical authors Iktinos, Miluus, Milvus, and Mylvius, taken from the Parapegmata, and, even to modern days, supposed to be titles for our Cygnus, Aquila, or some unidentified sky figure; but Ideler showed that by these words reference probably was made to the Kite, the predaceous bird of passage annually appearing in spring, and not to any stellar object.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]