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Source: British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 41v



Latin name: Olor

Other names: Cigne, Cignus, Cygne, Cygnus, Signe

The swan sings most sweetly just before it dies


General Attributes

The swan has a harmonious voice, with which it pours out a sweet song. In the Hyperborean regions swans are attracted by the sound of a zither or harp and sing along when one is played. The long neck of the swan makes its song more pleasant. The song it sings before it dies is the sweetest of all. Sailors consider the sighting of a swan to be auspicious.

Sources (chronological order)

Aesop's Fables [6th century BCE] (Aesop: The Complete Fables (London, 1998) Temple 173): A man kept a swan for its voice and a goose for the table. Wanting to eat the goose, the man went out in the dark to get it, but caught the swan by mistake. The swan, thinking it was about to die, began to sing, and was recognized by its voice. (Temple 174): A man bought a swan because it was reputed to have a fine voice. One day, to provide entertainment at a feast, he urged the swan to sing, but it would not. Later, relizing it was about to die, the swan began to sing. His owner said "It was foolish of me to ask you to sing; I should have prepared to kill you, and then you would have sung!"

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 32): Some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this (says Pliny) is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals, and eat one another's flesh.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:18-19): There are two kinds of swan: one has all white feathers and is called olor the other is black and is called cygnus, though this one is not mentioned by the ancients. The cygnus is named from its singing (canendo) because it pours out song with modulated sounds. Its singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck and its voice, in struggling to get out through the winding way, necessarily emits various notes. Some say that many swans gather and join in with song when the cithra is played in the Hyperborean regions. Sailors say that the swan is a good omen.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): The swan feigneth sweetness of sweet songs with accord of voice, and he singeth sweetly for he hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes. And it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans' birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily. Shipmen trow that it tokeneth good if they meet swans in peril of shipwreck. Always the swan is the most merriest bird in divinations. Shipmen desire this bird for he dippeth not down in the waves. When the swan is in love he seeketh the female, and pleaseth her with beclipping of the neck, and draweth her to him-ward; and he joineth his neck to the female's neck, as it were binding the necks together. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

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