Here’s a riddle – what connects Saint Bride’s church in Fleet Street with a happy arrival some time after the wedding? The answer is perhaps not what you think. The answer is….swans.
First, let’s travel to the south-west of Britain, to a megalithic stone circle in Wiltshire. No, not THAT stone circle, I’m thinking of Avebury. In my mind it’s just as interesting as its more famous neighbour. It’s twenty-five miles or so from Stonehenge, and is a wonderful site to visit. But not just for the henge itself, also for the archaeology of the surrounding countryside. Because it tells you how important this area was to the people who lived on this island at that time.
(Bob Trubshaw has written a marvellous book which explores the archaeology around Avebury, and which is an easy and interesting read. Details below).
You might have read elsewhere about how the stones at Stonehenge are aligned with the sun. And particularly, that on the summer solstice the sun rises exactly in line with the Heel stone, if you are viewing from a strategic spot within the henge.
There is a similar alignment at Avebury. However, the key alignment of the site isn’t with the sun – it’s with Deneb – the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. (Or rather it was 4,500 or so years ago, when the henge was built – the position of our solar system has shifted slightly in relation with the constellation).
Did the constellation Cygnus hold the same swan-meaning to those early folk as it does to us? Well, the alignment of its brightest stars certainly suggest a simple bird shape. Mind you, I have always had trouble recognising shapes in constellations. No imagination.
However, there are a few other clues from archaeology that suggest the importance of the swan in the belief systems of the early people of Europe. (Europe you ask? Remember that the island of Britain was connected to continental Europe at that time. The Dogger Bank was still above water, and so there was easy migration between the vast areas of the continent).
Swan bones are found in megalithic burial sites. In one site in Scandinavia the body of a young chid was found resting on a swan’s wing. Flutes carved from swan bones have been found at sacred sites. And even earlier, figures of swans carved from mammoth bones were excavated in Siberia.
So, all we can do is speculate from the scarce evidence available after such a vast expanse of time. But it does seem to me that the stones at Avebury pointing for over four thousand years to Deneb is almost a message from those people to us – ” we are telling you that THIS is important to us!”
Carrier of souls
Move forward a couple of thousand years to the Celts in Europe. Swans carried away the souls of the dead in Irish and other Celtic folklore. And not only for Celtic peoples – similar beliefs are found in Slavic, early Indian and Chinese mythology, although sometime the bird species changes to a crane, a stork or other water fowl.
Academics speculate that this is an echo of the mesolithic belief that the souls of the departed were contained in the bones deposited in sacred sites such as Avebury, and transported northwards by birds.
Also very prevalent in both Celtic and Norse mythology is the folk-lore of the “swan maiden” . Typically, a swan maiden and her girlfriends are bathing and leave their feathers by the side of a pool. A young man steals them, and the swan maiden is forced to marry the man. In all variations of the story, she later dons her feathers and transforms back into a swan. Here we have the common folk-lore theme of shamanism : shape-shifting between human and animal forms. (It strikes me that you can find the same theme in the tales of mermaids marrying fishermen).
If you want to see how this mythology has prevailed, read “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, or “The Six Swan Maidens” by the Brothers Grimm. There is shape-shifting from swan to maiden to swan a-plenty in these tales.
These swan themes – the carrying of souls and shape-shifting – are wide-spread in the earliest mythologies of Ancient European and Asian societies. They show their great antiquity, and I think help explain the importance of the swan to the megalithic people who built the sacred site at Avebury.
The Irish Celts incorporated the cult of the swan swan into their pantheon of gods and goddesses as worship of the goddess Brig, or Bree in Manx. Her feast day was 1st February, the pagan festival of Imbolc, representing the beginning of spring.
With the Christianisation of the Celts, a bit of cultural appropriation occurred – Bree or Brig was transformed into….. Saint Bridget, whose saints day was……1st February ! How often did this happen. ( I do smile at those who bemoan the paganisation of Christmas – a festival appropriated from the pagan ceremony of Yuletide).
And so we come to Saint Bride. The name of course, is an English derivation of the Irish Bridget. We have a celtic swan goddess in the heart of Fleet Street.
For the stork has bought a son and daughter…..
to mister and missus Mickey Mouse – as all you fans of the great Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band will know. We have storks as carriers of new souls to the world. And swans as carriers of old souls from the world. The power of folk memory.
Hiding in plain sight
So there you have the connection between Saint Bride and the delivery of a new infant by the stork. It’s the tenuous folk memory, the ghost that we can barely see, that nevertheless is there to see if we care to glance up at the stars, and see what those early Avebury folk saw. What a connection. What ghosts.