Every Summer, amid much pomp and ceremony, all resident Swans on the River Thames between London and Abingdon are rounded up, weighed, and counted. The custom dates back some nine hundred years to a time when the Crown claimed ownership of all Mute Swans in England as a source of meat for feasts and banquets. On the Thames this privilege has been shared with the Vintners and Dyers Companies since at least the fifteenth century, perhaps as long as ‘legal memory’ which apparently goes back to the accession of Richard I in 1189. These ancient livery companies or guilds still conduct the Upping.
The Queen’s ‘Swan Marker’ wears a red jacket with a swan’s feather in his cap. At a lock close to Windsor Castle, a royal residence, the flotilla halts and everyone toasts Her majesty as ‘Seigneur of Swans’. Andrew Collins, who has written a panoramic account of Swan mythology, suggests that the Vintner’s ‘mystery’, as the company was once called, developed from a Saxon Guild, and has possible antecedents in an Isis cult in Roman London. The Vintner’s Hall has a Swan room where their Swan banner is kept, and a stuffed Swan prominently displayed. Because this is paraded at a banquet held at Martinmas (11th November, related to Samhain/The Day of the Dead/All Souls) when Geese were eaten in the saint’s honour across Europe, Collins suggests there may be an unbroken line of symbolism extending across centuries, even millennia, from a time when Swans were venerated as psychopomps.*
Although Andrew Collins‘ meta-narrative about the cosmological primacy of the star Cygnus (the Swan) is a bit too all-encompassing for my taste, I like the fact that Swan Upping coincides with the yearly maximum display of the Alpha Cygnid meteor shower, and was pleased to read that during a trip to witness the custom he was blessed with a feather from one of the Swans, and later saw a propitiously timed Alpha Cygnid meteor.
Nowadays Swan Upping is about the conservation of legally protected birds, but you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to sense that this ceremony, perhaps all ceremony, enacts a formal display of power relations. The Vintner’s company is, after all, one of the twelve great Livery Companies of the City of London, one of the great vortices of global capitalism. The Swan Marker’s red coat, proclaiming the authority of the monarch, recalls the scarlet coats worn by the British army in the days of empire, and now reserved for their own ceremonial purposes. From this perspective our quaint annual pageant on the Thames begins to look less like archaic swan shamanism than a piece of greenwash for something altogether less innocent.
Other species have their own ceremonies, of course. Geese and Swans perform what ethologists call a triumph ceremony, a relatively simple but effective sequence of posturing and trumpeting. Individuals, couples, or family groups of swans do this after successful territorial skirmishes. Sadly, the elaborateness of human triumph ceremonies doesn’t make them ethically superior! The Romans, for example, held lavish ‘Triumphs’ (victory parades-come-thanks-offerings to Jupiter Optimus Maximus) in which defeated enemies, captives, the spoils of war, and sacrificial animals, were put on public display in a choreographed celebration of imperial power.
We humans are perhaps closer to other species when it comes to the intimate ceremonial of courtship, though commentators often prefer to emphasise our uniqueness. In New Guinea, for example, men use the feathers of Birds of Paradise in their head-dresses, whilst Bowerbirds take shiny human artefacts to decorate their love nests. Geoffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy found that accounts of these ostensibly similar customs tended to explain human action in spiritual or aesthetic terms, whilst birds were said to be acting mechanistically or to be motivated by competition. Many other-than-human species preen, dance, and present gifts during courtship, much as humans do. The Great Crested Grebes’ remarkable ‘weed dance’ springs to mind. Although this is not a public event bringing a community together, some other-then-human-people do undoubtedly conduct public ceremonies. At the time of writing, the dawn chorus, arguably a collective celebration of unparalleled beauty (not just a cacophony of territorial claims), is getting under way.
Mark Bekoff has collated examples of other-than-human funeral ceremonies. On one occasion he witnessed four Magpies standing round the dead body of a mature Magpie. They gently pecked the corpse with their beaks, then stepped back in turn. One bird flew off and returned with a beakful of grass, which was laid on the body. Then another bird brought some more grass and added it. Finally all the birds seemed to bow their heads slightly before flying away. Since publishing his account he has received many similar reports of funerals involving Magpies, Ravens, Crows, and in one case Starlings.
Lawrence Anthony was a remarkable South African conservationist who, at some personal risk, rescued a group of nine traumatised Elephants. When he died, the Elephants, who had not been near his home for a very long time, made a twelve hour journey and kept silent vigil outside the house for two days.
As a boy I remember being amazed by the sudden appearance, one day in high summer, of thousands of flying ants. Suddenly the neat gardens of London’s Kentish suburbs would be transformed into a wild place, the air thick with winged Black Garden Ants, Lasius Niger. Although no-one was able to tell me at the time, these were young queens setting out on nuptial flights, accompanied by vast numbers of males who only live for a couple of days after the mating flight is over. The much larger queens, by contrast, can live for up to ten years. I remember sensing that these insects were engrossed in their own benign business. Must we interpret their impressive communal celebrations in mechanical terms? After all, these tiny ants are capable of farming aphids.
During seasonal ceremonies humans often wear animal costumes, or adorn themselves with flowers. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, for example, involves a hobby horse, ‘Maid Marion’, and six deer-men. The latter carry reindeer antlers that have been dated to the 12th century, but are thought to have been imported some time between the 11th and 17th centuries since reindeer were extinct in England, and we have no evidence of domesticated herds being kept. Although the custom may have originated as a parish fund raising event in Tudor times, it attracts an enthusiastic following amongst those who feel it evokes sympathetic hunting magic. Andy Letcher argues that the history of the dance needn’t detract from its efficacy. For him it clearly works, not least by ritually weaving a community together.
Sometimes such rites make my hair stand on end, sometimes they don’t. I’m uneasy, for example, when horns, sticks, or ‘weapons’, are deployed in a way that reinforces normative assumptions about ‘hard wired’ masculinity (“that’s how we’ve evolved, you can’t expect us to change”). Much depends on the tone. If its warm, joyful, inclusive, democratic, subversive -or indeed respectful of the spirit of an animal, the land, or the non-human world- I’m likely to enjoy it. A ceremony can, of course, only be understood in relation to its cultural context, and there will always be differing perspectives on its merits!
Occasionally the intimate life-rites of other-than-human beings’ coincide with important seasonal moments in the human calendar. Early in the morning on the 19th of December 2008 we looked out of the window and saw five Roe Deer in the field. There was some gentle head butting going on. A buck was standing on the slope of the hill with his head raised proudly, while a doe raced, as fast as she could, round a fallen conifer, immediately beneath him. Each time she hurtled round the tree, winding up the tension, she almost brushed his upraised head. He stood perfectly still, muscles tensed, charged up.
In retrospect I’m puzzled by this since Roe Deer courtship normally occurs in July and August? (see my next post) Anyway, for us, the doe’s circling round a Tree of Life felt like a joyful ‘showing’ for the Solstice, which was less than forty eight hours away. There was a sad aftermath however. Some time during the late spring/early summer of 2009 we stopped seeing the deer in a nearby wood. Then we heard that discarded deer parts had been found in a field. ‘Our’ deer family had evidently been shot. A few months later, in October of that year, a woman friend who was staying with us, and hadn’t heard the story, dreamed that a young deer came out of a wood and climbed on to her lap. In the dream a hind and buck stood at the edge of the trees. She placed the fawn at their feet and walked away.
Then, of course, there are those magical times when other-than-human-beings appear to bless human rites with their presence. Some years ago my journey through a very complicated bereavement and its intractable aftermath was illuminated by many such appearances. For example:
Having finally managed to sell my mother’s house, I went down to London (in April 1995) to say goodbye to the place where I grew up, dispose of some furniture, and salvage various mementos. Because of the intensity of what had happened there this was a wrenching moment, a rite of passage. I decided to mark the transformation with a small fire in the back garden, and made a ‘nest’ of dry grass and magnolia leaves for the purpose. At the precise moment when I finished the rite, the air was filled with a loud screeching call that I didn’t recognise. I looked up just in time to see five Ring Necked Parakeets take off from a bough near the top of a huge Oak tree overlooking the house, and fly away in linear formation. These exuberant lime green birds were newcomers in the neighbourhood. I’d never seen them before, anywhere. At the time I was more than happy just to receive the affirmation, but with hindsight I see those birds as a vivid symbol of change, and evidence, yet again, that (what I now call) an animist is never alone!
Other animists’ takes on ‘Ceremony and Community’, the theme for this month’s ‘issue’ of the Animist Blog Carnival, can be found via: http://postpagan.com/
* Note: Psychopomps guide the souls of the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.
On Swan Upping:
Andrew Collins, The Cygnus Mystery, Unlocking the Ancient Secret of Life’s Origins in the Cosmos, Watkins Publishing, 2008.
Mary Beard The Roman Truimph, Harvard University Press, 2007.
Geoffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy, When Elephants Weep, the Emotional Lives of Animals, Jonathan Cape, 1994.
Marc Bekoff Grieving Animals Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family, Psychology Today (July 2012) accessed online at:
and on Lawrence Anthony, The Elephant Whisperer:
Andy Letcher on the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance:
and Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996.