Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Swan Maiden's Story

The following is the story of Angus Og, the Celtic god of love, and Caer Ibormeith, the Celtic goddess of dreams. This myth caught my attention the very first time I read it, and ever since I find my mind drifting back to it often at unexpected times. Each time I remember the tale, it seems to shift and reveal new meanings and layers of symbolism. As I've mentioned before in this blog, I am interested in the process by which Pagans, Witches and Druids "meet" and choose (or are chosen by) their patron deities. Perhaps this fascination with this god and goddess (in particular the goddess, Caer, who always seems to me to be the most beautiful epitome of strength, freedom, purity and openness to love) is the beginning of my own journey into a deeper relationship with the Celtic family of deities...

The story I've shared here is one I wrote in a letter to a friend. I'd wanted to mention only the briefest outline of the story, but as I began to write, it took a shape and form--a whole life of its own. Some of the details that I've included and expanded upon are not in the original myth, and some are downright inaccurate or in contradiction to the original tale. For me, retelling a myth is an exercise in creative engagement--an imaginative process of entering once again into a familiar story and allowing the events to play out again. Sometimes, with each new telling, variations arise. I think, for the most part, I'm okay with that. But if anyone's interested in reading a more historically accurate version of the story, it is available online here, as well as in Rolleston's Celtic Myths & Legends (which is where I first read it).

Artwork by Mahud

The Story of Angus Og and Caer Ibormeith

Once there was a young man named Angus Og (all the Celts have weird names) who was surpassingly handsome, and so he was light-hearted and carefree when it came to "wooing" all the girls. He had many titillating romantic affairs, since he was completely confident that he deserved the prettiest girls and that they were just lucky to be with him. One night, though, he has a dream in which he sees the most beautiful woman imaginable. He wakes up stunned, and suddenly all the local girls seem dull and dim-witted in comparison. The next night, he dreams of the beautiful maiden again, and she sings to him a song of such sweetness that it could lull whole kingdoms to sleep. He sees that her wild, feathery hair is silvery-white, and she wears tiny golden chains adorned with bells all about her, draped around her waist and wrists and throat. He awakes the next morning having fallen completely in love with this dream-maiden, and yet he is intimidated by her beauty and wary of the golden chains. For the first time in his life, he finds himself full of doubt. He falls very ill, and for a year and a day, he lays weak and feverish in bed, refusing to see anyone or seek any help, out of embarrassment for his lovesickness. Every night, he dreams of the beautiful maiden, and she sings to him until his fever subsides.

Finally, Angus Og's mother convinces him to speak to his father, the Dagda. The Dagda advises his son to go and seek this dream-maiden, to see if she is real and if he can win her affections. (The story doesn't say this, but I think the Dagda just wanted to get Angus Og out of bed and moving around--fresh air does wonders for a bruised ego. The Dagda probably figured that after a little while of tracking down beautiful girls who fit the dream-maiden's description, Angus Og would forget his dreams completely and be back to his old self again.) Angus Og decides to take his father's advice. For another year and a day, he goes off searching the far corners of the world (by which they probably mean, Ireland) to find his dream-maiden and to prove his love for her. When all seemed hopeless--and Angus Og's obsession had not abated in the least--his brother, Bodb the Red, finally finds a woman who fits the description. Bodb brings Angus Og to the side of a lake called The Dragon's Mouth (catchy name, eh?) to see the maiden. And there she is, just as beautiful and strange as Angus Og first dreamed, bathing on the shore of the lake among one hundred and fifty other girls who are her servants and handmaids. For it turns out, she is Caer Ibormeith, the daughter of a Faerry King.

As is always the custom in polite fairy tales, Angus Og goes to her father, the Faery King, to ask his permission to woo Caer. The King responds, in short, "Good luck, man! She is willful and wild, more powerful than I am. I cannot bid her to do or not do anything she has not already decided for herself. You're welcome to try your luck... But one thing," the King says, "Caer has this little quirk about her--don't ask me why... Every autumn, she transforms herself into a swan, along with her one hundred and fifty handmaids, and they all fly off somewhere for the winter. The only chance you'll have of wooing Caer is if you go to the shore of The Dragon's Mouth on the morning of her transformation, and call to her by name."

Angus Og, mystified but still overwhelmed with love, is willing to try anything. And so, when that autumn day finally arrives, he goes alone to the shore of the lake at dawn. This time, instead of the many girls bathing on the shore, he sees one hundred and fifty swans gliding serenely across the glassy surface. While still in the form of a maiden, Caer was by far the most beautiful and easily stood out in a crowd, not least because of the golden bells she wore--but now, as swans, all the girls look almost exactly alike. For a moment, Angus Og panics, sure that he'll never be able to tell which of the swans is Caer, that he'll never be able to call to her by name and so win her love. Trembling with uncertainty, he closes his eyes and tries to remember the dreams in which he first saw the lovely swan-maiden, listening for the song she sang to him as he slept. For a moment, he imagines that he hears that same song drifting across the lake, and in a burst of eager self-forgetfulness, he calls out, "Caer! Caer!" When he opens his eyes, he sees a swan gliding slowly towards him from among the others, and as it reaches the shore, its form melts away to reveal Caer in all her beauty, still wrapped in a cloak of white swan feathers.

Caer smiles at Angus Og and asks him why he took so long to answer her call, why almost three years had passed since she first sang to him in dream. He admits that he, who had always been so casual and indifferent about pretty girls, had been embarrassed by the sudden sincerity of his love, and that it took a long time to overcome his doubts and seek her earnestly in the place where she dwelt in waking life. For so long, he had been content to dream.

The story ends with Caer agreeing to be his wife and lover, but only if he will transform himself into a swan and fly away with her. He agrees whole-heartedly, and together they unfurl their long, white wings and take flight across the lake, singing a song so sweet and wild and beautiful that the whole kingdom fell into a peaceful sleep for three days and three nights (during which, I'd imagine, they had their own fun). After this feathery honeymoon, according to Celtic mythology, they both transform back into human form and live "happily ever after" as the handsome god of love, and the beautiful goddess of purity and dream.


  1. Lovely post! I have the same experience with the retelling of myths as "creative engagement" as you call it. Nice to have a way to put that...

    I've gone ahead and added this post to MetaPagan for the week. Hopefully, others will also get the chance to read it and enjoy.

  2. Ilchi Lee has a fantastic reputation due to what he teaches and how he uses his mind. Ilchi Lee was driven at youth to ask deep inner questions about his existence, which is a question that we all bring up sometimes. Ilchi Lee is also a master of Teak Kwon Do and spent 21 days alone meditating. Meditate is to reflect deeply on a subject. Meditate to think to intently and at length as for spiritual purposes. This is similar to what many of us do. How many times have you been sitting around bored, just staring into nothing. You are meditating. Ilchi Lee also traveled across the USA and stumbled across a city to start teaching his ideas. This wonderful and beautiful city was Sedona, Arizona. Finally, Ilchi Lee

    Book of Joshua: Isaac went out to meditate in the field.
    Hebrew word; talk to himself. To devise, imagine.
    Greek word; what people do to make sure they can teach


  3. Hi, Ali. Just letting you know that I finished the image for a The Swan Maiden's Story. :)