There were many strange beliefs about the swan in former times. People believed that they ate fish, that some of them were actually bewitched young maidens, and of course there’s that old chestnut about a swan breaking a man’s arm with one blow. It was said that swans lived an extraordinarily long time too: 17th century ornithologist, Francis Willughby, noted that they could live for up to 300 years.
However, surely the most amusing notion of them all is that swans had particularly fine singing voices: but very few humans were ever privileged to hear them. The mute swan is so-called because it is said to utter no sound. Yet, in ancient times it was believed that the swan could foretell its own death and when imminent the bird would sing a most beautiful song, almost as a reward for a lifetime of silence. This curious conviction is the origin of the idiom ‘swan song’, often used to describe a last great performance by someone who is bowing out. Aristotle noted the swan’s singing behaviour in his History of Animals (350 BC):
They are musical, and sing chiefly at the approach of death. At this time, they fly out to sea, and men when sailing past the coast of Libya have fallen in with many of them out at sea singing in mournful strains, and have actually seen some of them dying.
Belief in this great singing ability was such, that the swan was associated with the two greatest musicians of the Greco-Roman world: it was dubbed the ‘bird of Orpheus’ or the ‘bird of Apollo’. Even though some writers as far back as Pliny questioned the authenticity of the tale, this bizarre belief about the singing swan was widely held to be true throughout medieval Europe. Chaucer refers to it, for example. Strange as it may seem, it was also widely believed that in the far north of Europe, men played lyres to attract the swans, who came to join in the performance in great numbers and sang along to the music.
The 16th century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus sought proof of the swan’s singing ability, and took testimony from an apparently trustworthy Englishman called George Braun. George was clearly a bit of a rascal. He assured the Italian scientist that nothing was more common in England than to hear swans sing; that they bred in great numbers in the sea near London; and that every English fleet of ships that returned from distant voyages was met by swans that came out joyfully to welcome their return with a loud and cheerful singing! The gullible Aldrovandus clearly believed every word, because he published it.
Shakespeare refers to the song of the dying swan on several occasions. In Othello, for example, Emilia says: ‘I will play the swan. And die in music’. However, perhaps the last words on this subject are best left to a poet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had obviously endured a number of dreadful human singers in his time, and could not resist penning the following mischievous lines:
Swans sing before they die – ‘t were no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.