Friday, 14 December 2012

14th December - The Herald of Winter

It's revolting weather today.  I have a day off, and the dog and I scurried around the park in the driving rain, while my trousers slowly stuck to me, sodden with freezing water.  I couldn't wipe the water off my face quick enough and the dog looked less than impressed by it all when we finally got back to the car.  She is now wrapped in a blanket and we have a hot water bottle between us.  This isn't how winter should be!  Winter should be bright and cold and dignified, like this...

The Herald of Winter (1894) Thomas Millie Dow
Yes, that's more like it!  Full of giant swans and graceful swathes of Grecian drapery, as you toot in Winter with your, what's that?  Is it a flageolet?  Is it a extra-long trumpet-y thing?  I'm going with 'tooty horn', although that doesn't quite have the dignified ring I was aiming for.  Anyhow, here we have a lovely woman, heralding in the coming of Winter, in the form of a white sweep of swans.  I never really considered the swan as the bird of Winter, I think I would have gone with a goose, but they seem to crop up regularly.  I wonder why...?

Not only do you have George Dunlop Leslie's Frozen Out ( as we saw here) but there are also Seven Swans A-Swimming in the 12 Days of Christmas.  The size and undoubted deliciousness of Swans probably made them a desirable Christmas dinner, so even when they fell off the menu they probably still represent the bounty and indulgence of a Winter feast.

I would hazard to suggest that possibly the colours of the swans, the black and the white, represent the darkness and the snow of the season, and they seem to have a less commonplace dignity not afforded to geese.  There is something special about swans, something romantic and decidedly feminine...

Before you ask, I don't know...
Is it because of Swan Lake, or maybe Leda and the Swan, that women and swans seem to have an affinity? In pictures you see the swan necks bent together to make the heart shape, as right, and it is well-reported  that swans remain together for ever, like lobsters and earwigs.  Maybe not earwigs.  In fairytales, swans are often girls who have been enchanted in order to escape, or cursed, although why the form of a swan is meant to be a punishment is beyond me.  I'd much rather be a swan than a dung beetle or a slug.  Even descriptions such as 'swan-like' or 'swan-necked' are feminine ideals of beauty, even though they can break a man's arm, as we have discussed previously.  Mind you, that's not a bad female attribute either, if it comes to it.  Back to the picture...

Maybe the lady trumpets the coming of Winter with swans because the meaning of the word 'swan' is 'to sing'.  Although of all singing birds, swans are not the first that spring to mind.  Their name is from the notion that they trumpet their song, to the point where one of the species of swan is called 'Mute' because they don't sing as much.  The phrase 'swan song' comes from the idea that male swans sing before dying.  Possibly that is also a clue to the picture.  If the swan's song is synonymous with ending, maybe the swan's affinity with winter is because it is the 'death' of the year.  The woman plays a long, swan-necked trumpet, singing in the end of the year as the swans, possibly her sisters that she will join, fly away.  The year is ending in a flurry of white, their wings filling the sky like snow, and the song heralds the death of the old year.  There is also a hint of transformation in the figure of a swan, from the girls in fairytales to the ugly duckling, so possibly in their 'death', and the death of the year, will come the birth of a new year, the hatching of swanlings (I prefer that to cygnet as it sounds sweeter) will announce the Spring and the renewal of life.

Well, I'm off to blow my extra long trumpet on a cliff to see if any swans come by (I think we all know the answer to that), and I'll see you tomorrow...


  1. I do enjoy these Kirsty. The Swan was / is an ancient solar symbol and 'the swan song' is associated with its teaching poetry. Swans were sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. They were depicted pulling the chariot of Apollo. Zeus took the shape of a swan to make love to Ledo, a mortal - reflecting the ability of a swan to link different worlds and dimensions.

  2. Also remember that quite a few species of swan migrate, so they might be associated wth winter because they turn up from across the seas when winter is arriving.

  3. Indeed, I wish I saw black swans as often as white. One of my favourite pubs in Devizes (my home town) was The Black Swan because it had the nicest sign. Yes, I am that shallow.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx