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Ask a lot of folks what the most beautiful bird is, and they're very likely to say "swan." And really, why wouldn't other answers come up as often? Maybe it's because of their pure white plumage, their graceful movements, the legendary song they're said to make when they die, or the fact that their wings can break human bone.
Yes, you heard me right - their wings can break human bone.
A lot of portrayals of swans in the media paint them as beautiful, peaceful birds, which isn't surprising considering that they're nigh exclusively herbivorous. That said, however, peaceful they ain't - thanks to media depictions of them as almost angelic in behavior, only a select few people know that a pissed-off swan will MESS YOU UP. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped folklore from portraying them as symbols of purity, because their imagery is very similar to that of angels, and that includes the white feathers.
On a side note, expect all swans you see in pop culture to be white. Please quietly ignore the fact that black swans CAN and DO exist. Of course, they're only native to Australia, which may explain why Western countries never even heard of them until around the 18th century or so. There is a concept based on black swans and their existence being a fluke, but can be explained.
Swans are the largest members of the duck family, Anatidae. For more info about some of their... er... less angelic cousins, see Morally-Ambiguous Ducktorate.
Since this is an incomplete article, it needs more examples, preferably for the Live-Action TV, Film, and Western Animation sections.
Anime and Manga
- In Gatchaman, Jun from the Five-Man Band has a uniform based on a swan.
- In Saint Seiya, Cygnus Hyoga is wearing swan-themed armor.
- In The Six Swans, the brothers are turned to swans.
- In The Swan Maiden, the hunter's wife is one of the swan maidens.
- In the Lithuanian tale of The Swan Queen, the swan woman is treated very badly by all and sundry.
- The Swan Princess is based on the Swan Lake ballet. It also has two sequels, The Swan Princess II: Escape from Castle Mountain and The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Kingdom.
- In Hot Fuzz, Nick Angel makes it his personal mission to track down a rogue swan and bring it to justice. During the climax of the film, It attacks Frank Butterman, stopping him single-wingedly.
- Not swans per se, but the Pegasi from the "Pastoral Symphony" in Fantasia evoke their imagery when they land on a lake and glide along its surface.
- Peter Pan briefly landed on a pair of swans and riding on them as if they were waterskis while taking the Darling children to Neverland during the song "You Can Fly!"
- Even if you can fly, don't try that one at home, kids.
- Ingrid, the Swan, is a character from Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour.
- E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan is a weird Magic Realism story about a swan who wants to play a literal trumpet.
- The Black Swan never misses an opportunity to mention how lovely the poor maidens are when swimming as swans.
- There is a running gag in Shades of Grey involving swans of various sizes being very dangerous.
- In Kamen Rider Ryuki and Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, the one female Rider (Femme and Siren, respectively) is a swan-themed Distaff Counterpart of The Lancer (who himself has a bat theme).
- Sieg, one of several heroic Imagin, who gives Kamen Rider Den-O the ability to transform into the powerful Wing Form. In-series, he's actually based on Swan Lake.
- And Kamen Rider Fourze has the Cygnus (the swan) Zodiarts, an enemy based on that constellation (for more info on that constellation, go to the link in Real Life). Though it initially fights for good. Then it secretly beats people up who questions it.
- In Choujin Sentai Jetman, Kaori Rokumeikan is White Swan.
- Similarly, DekaSwan from Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger.
Music and Theatre
- On the seventh day of The Twelve Days Of Christmas, my true love gave to me the Trope Namer, along with many, many other presents.
- In Pyotr Tchaikovsky's famous ballet Swan Lake, the protagonist Odette is turned into a swan. Prince Siegfried, her lover, has to find a way to turn her back to normal again so they can have their Babies Ever After ending together.
- Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Tsar Saltan (the opera "Flight Of The Bumblebee" comes from) is based on a traditional story about a prince who saves the life of a swan princess.
- For all their rarity in the rest of pop culture, black swans are surprisingly popular in the music industry.
- Gian Carlo Menotti in his opera The Medium named one of his most famous arias "The Black Swan", which is a "dark lullaby" sung by the character Monica.
- Perth rock group The Triffids released an album called The Black Swan in 1989.
- The American thrash metal band Megadeth released a song entitled "Black Swan" as a bonus track on their 2007 album United Abominations.
- Singer/songwriter Tori Amos released a song entitled "Black Swan" as a bonus track on her 1994 UK CD single Pretty Good Year.
- Singer Thom Yorke of the band Radiohead released a song entitled "Black Swan" on the soundtrack of the 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, and three days later on his debut solo album The Eraser.
- The American alternative rock band Chiodos released a song entitled "Lexington" which references black swans in the lyric, " All the water in the ocean couldn't turn this swan's legs from black to white".
- The American avant-garde band The Blood Brothers released a song entitled "Giant swan" in which a giant swan is used as a metaphor for society and war, until it is renamed in the lyric, "It's gonna sting like a raw sunrise when the Black Swan's gone."
- Finnish power metal band Sonata Arctica included a song titled "Fly With the Black Swan" on their 2007 album Unia.
- American band Story of the Year released an album entitled The Black Swan in 2008.
- The American ambient band Amber Asylum released a song entitled "Black Swan" on their 2000 album The Supernatural Parlour Collection.
- The German death metal/gothic rock band Lacrimas Profundere released a song entitled "Black Swans" on their 1999 album Memorandum.
- The Japanese noise artist Merzbow titled the eighth volume of his 2009-2010 box set 13 Japanese Birds Black Swan.
Mythology, Folklore, and Religion
- In Finnish Mythology, the swan is associated with Tuonela, the Underworld. Pretty much the only way swans represent Dark Is Not Evil.
- In the same mythology it's also forbidden to kill a swan. The Anti-Hero Lemminkäinen in The Kalevala dies after killing a swan. (He gets better, though)
- Swans (or occasionally other waterfowl) are traditionally viewed as holy in many other Finno-Ugric/Uralic cultures as well which might be a remnant of an ancient religion.
- Zeus, the king of the Greek Gods, seduced Leda, Queen of Sparta, in the form of a swan.
- Apollo is sometimes depicted riding a chariot pulled by swans.
- Swans also appear in Irish mythology. For example, the Irish legend of the Children of Lir is about a stepmother transforming her children into swans for 900 years. In another instance, in the legend The Wooing of Etain, the king of the Sidhe, transforms himself and the most beautiful woman in Ireland, Etain, into swans to escape from the king of Ireland and Ireland's armies.
- Aengus Og fell in love with Caer Ibormeith, who was cursed to become a swan every other year. Her father said if Aengus could pick her out of 150 swans, the curse would break. Being the god of love, Aengus chose correctly--at which they both turned into swans and flew off to his castle to get married, singing such beautiful music that everyone fell asleep for three days.
- In Norse Mythology, there are two swans that drink from the sacred Well of Urd in the realm of Asgard, home of the gods.
- Swans are revered in Hinduism, and are compared to saintly persons whose chief characteristic is to be in the world without getting attached to it, just as a swan's feather does not get wet although it is in water.
- Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Wild Swans" is similar to the "Children of Lir" story. The king has eleven sons and one daughter, named Elisa. The evil stepmother turns the eleven brothers into swans and banishes Elisa, an interesting exception to the tradition of swan maidens.
- The fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Christian Andersen tells the story of a cygnet ostracised by his fellow barnyard fowl because of his perceived homeliness. To his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a graceful swan, the most beautiful bird of all.
- Lohengrin, one of the Knights of the Round Table, was known as the Knight of the Swan and is often shown in a boat pulled by swans.
- Pokémon Black and White gives us Swanna, the White Bird Pokemon. Sure, it's beautiful and it dances at dusk, but the creators also kept its Killer Rabbit/Feathered Fiend status in mind. Of course, it should be kept in mind that Swanna's White dex entry claims that it attacks with its beak, despite the fact that the only move involving a beak it can learn is Pluck by TM. However, it CAN learn a fair few wing-based attacks, so it would have been more accurate if the dex entry had said that it administers punishing blows with its WINGS instead, as swans often do in Real Life.
- In Loom, Weavers turn one another (or occasionally themselves) into swans, usually as a precursor to exile.
- The second skit of the Warner Brothers Merrie Melodies production "A Corny Concerto" features a sequence involving swans and an ugly duckling to the music of Johann Strauss' The Blue Danube.
- Princess Bubblegum has a swan that she rides around on, that can shoot laser beams out of its eyes. She pulls a Big Damn Heroes moment and puts in a Terminator Shout-Out along with it.
- The swan (specifically, the whooper swan) is the national bird of Finland.
- During the icea ages, Malta was dominated by giant swans. Taller than the native elephants (although, to be fair said elephants were pony sized).
- Canadian royalty gives us the Royal Swans. Notably, the flock consists of both Mute and Black Swans.
- Swan Upping is an annual ceremonial and practical activity in Britain in which mute swans on the River Thames are rounded up, caught, marked, and then released.
- The Sydney Swans are an Australian Rules Football team based in Sydney, Australia.
- Cygnus. That is all.