Sacred Texts  Legends and Sagas  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, by Otto Rank, [1914], at


The widely distributed group of sagas that have been woven around the mythical Knight with the Swan (the old French Chevalier au cigne) can be traced back to very ancient Celtic traditions. The following is the version which has been made familiar by Wagner's dramatization of this theme--the story of Lohengrin, the Knight with the Swan, as transmitted by the medieval German epic (modernized by Junghaus) and briefly rendered by the Grimm brothers under the title "Lohengrin in Brabant." 1

The Duke of Brabant and Limburg died, without leaving other heirs than a young daughter, Els, or Elsa by name; her he recommended on his deathbed to one of his retainers, Friedrich von Telramund. Friedrich, the intrepid warrior, became emboldened to demand the youthful duchess’ hand and lands, under the false claim that she had promised to marry him. She steadfastly refused to do so. Friedrich complained to Emperor Henry I ("the Fowler"), and the verdict was that she must defend herself against him, through some hero, in a so-called divine judgment, in which God would accord the victory to the innocent, and defeat the guilty. As none were ready to take her part, the young duchess prayed ardently to God to save her; and far away in distant Montsalvatsch, in the Council of the Grail, the sound of the bell was heard, showing that there was someone in

p. 60

urgent need of help. The Grail therefore resolved to despatch as a rescuer, Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal. Just as he was about to place his foot in the stirrup a swan came floating down the water drawing a skiff behind him. As soon as Lohengrin set eyes upon the swan, he exclaimed: "Take the steed back to the manger; I shall follow this bird wherever he may lead me." Having faith in God's omnipotence, he took no food with him in the skiff. After they had been afloat five days, the swan dipped his bill in the water, caught a fish, ate one half of it, and gave the other half to the prince to eat. Thus the knight was fed by the swan.

Meanwhile Elsa had summoned her chieftains and retainers to a meeting in Antwerp. Precisely on the day of the assembly, a swan was sighted swimming upstream (river Scheldt) and drawing behind him a skiff, in which Lohengrin lay asleep on his shield. The swan promptly came to land at the shore, and the prince was joyfully welcomed. Hardly had his helmet, shield, and sword been taken from the skiff, when the swan at once swam away again. Lohengrin heard of the wrong which had been done to the duchess and willingly consented to become her champion. Elsa then summoned all her relatives and subjects. A place was prepared in Mainz for Lohengrin and Friedrich to fight in the emperor's presence. The hero of the Grail defeated Friedrich, who confessed having lied to the duchess, and was executed with the axe. Elsa was awarded to Lohengrin, they having long been lovers; but he secretly insisted upon her avoiding all questions as to his ancestry, or whence he had come, saying that otherwise he would have to leave her instantaneously and she would never see him again.

For some time, the couple lived in peace and happiness. Lohengrin was a wise and mighty ruler over his land, and also served his emperor well in his expeditions against the Huns and the heathen. But it came to pass that one day in throwing the javelin he unhorsed the Duke of Cleve, so that the latter broke an arm. The Duchess of Cleve was angry, and spoke

p. 61

out amongst the women, saying, "Lohengrin may be brave enough, and he seems to be a good Christian; what a pity that his nobility is not of much account for no one knows whence he has come floating to this land." These words pierced the heart of the Duchess of Brabant, and she changed color with emotion. At night, when her spouse was holding her in his arms, she wept, and he said, "What is the matter, Elsa, my own?" She made answer, "The Duchess of Cleve has caused me sore pain." Lohengrin was silent and asked no more. The second night, the same came to pass. But in the third night, Elsa could no longer retain herself, and she spoke: "Lord, do not chide me! I wish to know, for our children's sake, whence you were born; for my heart tells me that you are of high rank." When the day broke, Lohengrin declared in public whence he had come, that Parsifal was his father, and God had sent him from the Grail. He then asked for his two children, which the duchess had borne him, kissed them, told them to take good care of his horn and sword, which he would leave behind, and said: "Now, I must be gone." To the duchess he left a little ring which his mother had given him. Then the swan, his friend, carne swimming swiftly, with the skiff behind him; the prince stepped in and crossed the water, back to the service of the Grail. Elsa sank down in a faint. The empress resolved to keep the younger boy Lohengrin, for his father's sake, and to bring him up as her own child. But the widow wept and mourned the rest of her life for her beloved spouse, who never came back to her. 1

On inverting the Lohengrin saga in such a way that the end is placed first--on the basis of the rearrangement, or even transmutation of motifs, not uncommonly found in

p. 62

myths--we find the type of saga with which we have now become familiar: The infant Lohengrin, who is identical with his father of the same name, floats in a vessel upon the sea and is carried ashore by a swan. The empress adopts him as her son, and he becomes a valorous hero. Having married a noble maiden of the land, he forbids her to inquire as to his origin. When the command is broken he is obliged to reveal his miraculous descent and divine mission, after which the swan carries him back in his skiff to the Grail.

Other versions of the saga of the Knight with the Swan have retained this original arrangement of the motifs, although they appear commingled with elements of fairy tales. The saga of the Knight with the Swan, as related in the Flemish People's Book1 contains in the beginning the history of the birth of seven children, 2 borne by Beatrix, the wife of King Oriant of Flanders. Matabruna, the wicked mother of the absent king, orders that the children be killed and the queen be given seven puppy dogs in their stead. But the servant contents himself with the exposure of the children, who are found by a hermit named Helias, and are nourished by a goat until they are grown. Beatrix is thrown into a dungeon. Later on, Matabruna learns that the children have been saved; her repeated command to kill them causes her hunter to bring her as a sign of apparent obedience the silver neck chains which the children already wore at the time of their birth. One of the boys--named Helias, after his foster father--alone keeps his chain, and is thereby saved from the fate of his brothers, who are transformed into swans as soon as their chains are removed. Matabruna volunteers to prove the relations of the queen with the dog, and upon her instigation, Beatrix

p. 63

is to be killed, unless a champion arises to defend her. In her need, she prays to God, who sends her son Helias as a rescuer. The brothers are also saved by means of the other chains, except one, whose chain has already been melted down. King Oriant now transfers the rulership to his son Helias, who causes the wicked Matabruna to be burned. One day, Helias sees his brother, the swan, drawing a skiff on the lake surrounding the castle. This he regards as a heavenly sign; he arms himself and mounts the skiff. The swan takes him through rivers and lakes to the place where God has ordained him to go. Next follows the liberation of an innocently accused duchess, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga; and his marriage to her daughter Clarissa, who is forbidden to ask about her husband's ancestry. In the seventh year of their marriage she disobeys and puts the question, after which Helias returns home in the swan's skiff. Finally, his lost brother swan is likewise released.

The characteristic features of the Lohengrin saga--the disappearance of the divine hero in the same mysterious fashion in which he has arrived; the transference of mythical motifs from the life of the older hero to a younger one bearing the same name (a universal process in myth formation)--are likewise embodied in the Anglo-Lombard saga of Sceaf, who reappears in the Prelude to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, the oldest Teutonic epic. Here, he is called Scyld the Scefung (meaning "son of Sceaf") and his origin as a foundling is referred to. The older legend tells that he received his name because as a very young boy he was cast ashore, as a stranger, asleep in a boat on a sheaf of grain (Anglo-Saxon: sceaf) . The waves of the sea carried him to the coast of the country he was destined to defend. The inhabitants welcomed his arrival as a miracle, raised him, and later on made him their king, considering him a divine emissary. 1 What was told of the father now is

p. 64

transferred in the Beowulf epic to his son, also called Scyld. 1 His body is exposed, as he had ordered before his death, surrounded by kingly splendor, upon a ship without a crew, which is sent out into the sea. Thus he vanished in the same mysterious manner in which his father arrived ashore, this trait being accounted for, in analogy with the Lohengrin saga, by the mythical identity of father and son.


59:1 Junghaus: Lohengrin (Reclam edition); Grimm brothers, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 306.

61:1 The Grimm brothers (op. cit., Vol. II., pp. 306 ff.) quote six further versions of the saga of the Knight with the Swan. Certain fairy tales of the Grimm brothers--such as "The Six Swans" (No. 49), "The Twelve Brothers" (No. 9), and the "Seven Ravens" (No. 25), with their parallels and variations, mentioned in the third volume of Kinder- and Hausmärchen--also belong to the same mythological cycle. Further material from this cycle may be found in H. Leo: Beowulf (Halle, 1839), and in Görre: Introduction to Lohengrin (Heidelberg, 1813).

62:1 Grimm: Deutsche Sagen, Vol. I., p. 29.

62:2 The ancient Lombard tale of the exposure of King Lamissio, related by Paulus Diaconus (L, 15), gives a similar incident. A public woman had thrown her seven newborn infants into a fishpond. King Agelmund passed by and looked curiously at the children, turning them around with his spear. But when one of the children took hold of the spear, the king considered this as a good augury; he ordered this boy to be taken out of the pond, and to be given to a wet nurse. As he had taken him from the pond, which in his language is called lama, he named the boy Lamissio. He grew up into a stalwart champion, and after Agelmund's death, became king of the Lombards.

63:1 Compare Grimm: Deutsche Sagen, Vol. I, p. 306; Vol. III, p. 391; and Leo, op. cit., p. 24.

64:1 Scaf is the High German Schaffing ("barrel"), which leads Leo (op cit.) to assume, in connection with Scyld's being called Scefing, that he had no father Sceaf or Schaf at all, but was himself the boy cast ashore by the waves, and was named the "son of the barrel" (Schaffing). The name Beowulf itself, explained by Grimm as Bienen-Wolf ("bee-wolf"), seems to mean originally, according to H. von Wolzogen (translator into German of the Reclam edition of Beowulf), Bärwelf, namely Jungbär ("bear cub" or "bear whelp"), which is suggestive of the saga of the origin of the Guelphs (Grimm: Deutsche Sagen, Vol. II, p. 233), where the boys are to be thrown into the water as "whelps."

Next: III. The Interpretation of the Myths