Svala, swalwe, swalowe

“Swallow, swallow, take my freckles, and give me rosy cheeks.”

From Birds and Nature, vol 9, no 4 (April 1901):

During the fierce cannonading in one of the battles of the Civil War, a small bird came and perched upon the shoulder of an artilleryman � the man designated, we believe, as “No. 1,” whose duty it is to force down the charge after the ammunition is put in the gun. The piece was a “Napoleon,” which makes a very loud report, and the exact scene of this occurrence was at a place called “Nickajack.” The bird perched itself upon this mans shoulder and could not be driven from its position by the violent motions of the gunner. When the piece was discharged, the poor little thing would run its beak and head up under the mans hair at the back of the neck, and when the report died away would resume its place upon his shoulder. Captain Babbitt took the bird in his hand, but when released it immediately resumed its place on the shoulder of the smoke-begrimed gunner. The singular and touching scene was witnessed by a large number of officers and men. It may be a subject of curious inquiry, what instinct led this bird to thus place itself. Possibly, frightened at the violent commotion caused by the battle, and not knowing how to escape or where to go, some instinct led it to throw itself upon the gunner as a protector. But, whatever the cause, the incident was a most beautiful and pleasing one to all who witnessed it.

Unfortunately Babbitt leaves us to guess which species is involved, but this does sound remarkably like the popular swallow-saviour motif. Here, from the same publication, is one of the oldest examples:

There is a Scandinavian tradition that the swallow hovered over the cross of our Lord crying “Svala! Svala!” (Console, console). Hence comes its name, “svalow” – the bird of consolation.

A Catalan version is to be found in the 13th century Llibre dels Feits, attributed to King James of Aragon. A swallow nests on top of Jaume’s tent while he is besieging Moorish Valencia. It and its brood makes themselves so useful by devouring the flies and mosquitoes that are stopping everyone from sleeping at night that, when it’s time to go, Jaime takes pity on the swallow and stops his men from taking down the tent. (Here’s an illustrated version by some Valencian schoolchildren.)

I assume, certainly wrongly, that this all originates with Isis. Isis finds the coffin of the murdered Osiris and decides to immortalise a prince for whom she has been caring as a kind of substitute. She sets fire to the coffin, places the boy in the fire, and whirls round it in swallow form. The mother of the prince wakes and disturbs Isis, who once more takes her human shape and announces that the prince will now never become immortal.

Aristotle seems to reference this theme in his doctrine of the hibernatory swallow – to which Gilbert White and other authors up till the end of the C19th subscribed. Aristotle’s swallow awoke (or changed shape, depending on who you believed) every spring, making it easy for the Christians to associate it with the resurrection.

Frazer includes a couple of sin-transference anecdotes, one from the Bataks and these two:

In antiquity Greek women seem to have done the same with swallows which they caught in the house: they poured oil on them and let them fly away, apparently for the purpose of removing ill-luck from the household. The Huzuls of the Carpathians imagine that they can transfer freckles to the first swallow they see in spring by washing their face in flowing water and saying, “Swallow, swallow, take my freckles, and give me rosy cheeks.”

From there it’s only a step to the popular belief that a house without a swallow (or martin) in attendance is unlucky. It certainly applies in my case: not a hirundine in sight, and the pigeons have eaten all my bloody geraniums. Confucius must have said something on this subject, since

The totem of the Shang dynasty was the swallow and the style name of the dynastic founder was Yan Zi, which sounds the same in ancient Chinese as the words for heavenly swallow. The Shang Tang name of the member of the Yan Zi court was Zi and the name of their first ancestor was Chi. Legend has it that the reason the Zi Yi mother gave birth to [Confucius] was because she ate a swallows egg, the he character Zi- and the character Yi together Knog that is Confucius Zi name in Chinese.

Fortunately for you I haven’t got all evening.

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