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The Swan Maiden

The story of the Swan Maiden may be one of the oldest surviving tales in all of human history. It is thought to have its origins in India before the separation of the Proto-Indo-European language, and, due to its presence in diverse and distant traditions (such as northern Eurasia and Native American), there is a possibility that the tale is even older.

Once there was a young man who made his living by hunting birds and animals of the forest. One evening, he went to a lake hidden deep in the woods where he knew there to be many wild ducks that he could catch. As the sun sank to the west, he heard the loud sound of powerful wings and quickly hid in the undergrowth. To his surprise, instead of a flock of ducks, seven beautiful white swans settled on the water. They glided onto a low bank and began to shed their feathery garments, transforming into maidens. Hanging their feather cloaks upon nearby bushes they plunged in the water, laughing and singing.

The hunter was astonished. All the swan maidens were beautiful, but the youngest was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. He was instantly love-struck and determined to have her as his own. While the sisters were bathing and playing in the water, he crept through the brush and stole the feathery robe that belonged to the youngest. As dawn broke, the swan maidens returned to their cloaks to dress, but the youngest cried out that her robe was gone. They all searched; their desperation growing. When the sun lifted from the horizon all the maidens except the youngest transformed into swans and flew off the way they had come. The youngest maiden waved them goodbye, telling them she would follow when and if she could.

Just then, the hunter appeared on the shore. He comforted the distressed girl, gallantly wrapped her in his cloak, and took her to his home. Soon he asked her to marry him. Having few options, she agreed. In time, the maiden grew to love the hunter. They had two children: a boy and a girl, and she lived a contentedly at the edge of the woods.

But then, one day, while waiting for their father’s return from a night of hunting the children were playing hide-and-seek. The little girl found a secret space hidden in the woodwork. There, to her surprise, was a feathery robe. She took it to her mother asking whose it could possibly be. The mother gasped and quickly took it from her. She told her daughter to tell her father that her mother had flown to the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. If he wished, he could follow, but the path would not be easy. She then hugged her children, dawned her robe; and immediately changed into a magnificent white swan. Taking to the sky, she flew off over the forest, turning towards to the land that lies East of the Sun and West of the Moon.


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