Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why swans?

We went to see the botanical collages created by Mrs. Delany in the 18th century. (The twice-widowed Mrs. Delany was, I think, a stealth artist. By this I mean that she camouflaged her artistic projects as womanly pursuits. But there is nothing uxorial about her collages. They are sublime.) Her favorite flower, by far, was the lily-of the valley, Convallaria majalis, mentioned in these cyber pages not so many days ago. And I am sure she knew the leaves are poisonous.
But what I came home with was a notebook page full of Swan Marks.

Upstairs from Mrs. Delany’s flora we found Horace Walpole’s random collections, including a book containing over 900 representations of ‘swan marks’. It seems that while the British crown has traditionally owned all the swans on the Thames (good to eat) certain favored individuals can also own swans, and these swans are so designated by these marks cut into the beak.

My delightful daughter once glued fake diamonds and jewels onto the carapace of a box turtle she found in the woods, but it had never before occurred to me to mark a bird’s beak. Do beaks have nerve endings? Did this marking of the swan hurt? More or less than branding a cow? Than circumcising a boy? Than getting a tattoo?
Swans interest me for a variety of reasons.
CSB’s middle name is Swan, but it is not the Swan side whose genealogy is diligently traced back far enough to grant membership to the DAR for the females of the family.

And my granddaughter is named for the Greek heroine who was raped by Zeus. (Have I commented on this? When have I not?) In the shape of a swan, Zeus pretended to be pursued by an eagle and so fell into kindhearted Leda’s arms and proceeded to have his way with her. For obvious reasons, painters love to portray this scene.
As it happens that very same night Leda also had sex with her husband Tyndarus, and so became pregnant with two eggs. One egg produced Helen (Launched a thousand ships) and Clytemnestra (killed her husband Agamemnon because he killed their daughter Iphigenia); the other produced Castor and Pollux, best known as the Gemini constellation.
(The woman giving birth to eggs has always troubled me, but not much.)

And just last week at the parental home, each morning my father pointed out the lone swan on the pond just outside their kitchen window. Where was his mate? He wondered every morning. Where indeed? And how did we know the lone swan was a male?

As distinct from toes and toe fungus, swans do have a patron saint. Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

There is much of interest in the life of Saint Hugh, even for those of you (all of you?) who skip the hagiographic bits in this blog. For one thing, unlike many of the saints mentioned on account of their bizarre characteristics and gruesome deaths, Hugh, by all accounts, was a genuinely good and amusing person, untroubled by gifts such as bilocation, levitation, hallucination or defenestration. Instead, he favored puns, children, lepers, and defending the persecuted Jews. He is generally pictured with a large white swan (with no visible markings on the beak) because there was a swan with which Hugh was very friendly and this swan guarded him while he slept.

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