Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Creature Feature: Black Swan.

Ah, swans. Is there anything more romantic, pure, and graceful than a swan? Sure, it's a lot like a large goose with white feathers and is really aggressive as hell, but swans have been a symbol of love ever since the ancient Greeks.

A black swan was thought to be impossible to find for millennia. All European swans were white; it was considered an avis rara, a rare bird, by the ancient Romans. Since nature had selected swans to be white for whatever reason, there was no way a black one could exist, right?


Oh, wait. The laws of nature fall flat on their face in Australia. Not only do black swans exist down under, they are plentiful.

Black swans (Cygnus atrata) are native to New Zealand and Australia.  They have black feathered bodies with some white on the wings. Their beaks and eyes are both bright red. They have a wingspan around 6 feet (2 meters) and have a longer neck than most swans. They are also strictly monogamous; like emus, both parents take turns raising the young.

When the Europeans brought back a few black swans, the reception was less than stellar. Like many black animals, the black swan was deemed a possible familiar and thus messenger of Satan. Gee, I wonder why? Could the red beak have something to do with that, too?

But does it breathe hellfire? HRM.

Most of us know of the black swan from Tchaikovsky's famous ballet, Swan Lake. In Swan Lake, the princess Odette is turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Rothbart. The spell can only be broken by eternal love. Naturally, it's love at first sight when Prince Siegfried's swan hunt is interrupted by the sudden transformation of Odette. Rothbart thought that the curse would be enough to keep Odette from ever loving, but after dancing in the dark with Odette, he invites her to a royal ball.

Rothbart turns to plan B: He makes his daughter Odile look exactly like Odette. They go to the ball together. The prince thinks nothing of Odile's black clothing and falls in love with her instead of Odette. Odette warns him in swan form, or, depending on the version, Rothbart himself shows Siegfried where the real Odette is. After realizing his mistake (because, hey, a swan pecking at the window is bound to get someone's attention), Siegfried and Odette commit suicide together, saving Odette's harem friends from their own swan curse. (Nice plot hole, Tchaikovsky: why were they all cursed to begin with, again?)


If anything plays off of Swan Lake, the black swan usually shows up as well. Since Odette the Swan Queen and Odile are played by the same dancer, Odile is often dubbed the "black swan."This is a step above being Satan's (!truly monogamous) wife, but nonetheless appealing to goths.


Australia has its own use for the black swan. It features prominently in several Aboriginal legends, including one explaining the red on its beak as a battle wound. In Western Australia, the black swan is on everything - coat of arms, flag, you name it. They use it as a symbol of Australian individuality. Why not? The black swan is, after all, a European bird that proved distinctly and uniquely Australian.

Tomorrow: Ever wonder what Scolipede is based off of? The answer will do more than stun you.

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