Of the swan. The swan, olor, is the bird which the Greeks call cygnus. It is called olor because its plumage is wholly white; no-one can recall seeing a black swan. In Greek olos means ‘entire’. The swan is called cignus, from its singing; it pours forth the sweetness of song in a melodious voice. They say that the swan sings so sweetly because it has a long, curved neck; inevitably, a voice forcing its way through a long, flexible passage produces a variety of tones. They say, moreover, that in the far north, when bards are singing to their lyres, large numbers of swans are summoned by the sound and sing in harmony with them. The Latin name for the swan, I repeat, is olor; the Greeks call it cignus. Sailors say that seeing a swan is a good omen for them; Emilianus said: ‘When you are observing birds for omens, the swan is always the most favorable bird to see; sailors set great store by it because it does not plunge beneath the waves’.
The swan has snow-white plumage and dark flesh. In a moral sense, the white colour of its plumage signifies the effect of deception, whereby the dark flesh is hidden, in the same way that a sin of the flesh is concealed by pretence. When the swan swims in a river, it holds its neck and head high, as a proud man is led astray by transitory things and even glories at the time in his temporary possessions. They say that in the far north, when bards are singing to their lyres, large numbers of swans fly there and sing in harmony with them. In the same way those who long for sensuous pleasure with all their hearts, like the swans flying north, harmonise with other pleasure-seekers. But when, at the very end, the swan dies, it is said to sing very sweetly as it is dying.
Likewise, when the proud man departs this life, he still delights in the sweetness of this present world and, dying, remembers the evil he has done. When the swan is plucked of its white plumage, it is set on the spit and roasted at the fire. Likewise, when a rich, proud man is stripped at death of his worldly glory, he will descend to the fires of hell where he will be tormented; he who used to seek food in the lowest places, descending into the abyss, is fed into the fire.