The Stories Of the Stars – Cygnus, The Swan

One thing I really love about being out at night is looking up!! Looking up and seeing little tiny pin pricks of light and seeing a whole new world. For those of us have learned the stories of the stars this transforms the night sky from something that we take for granted and not pay much attention to, into a whole mind-boggling,  gigantic canvas where thrilling, edge of your seat action adventures, comedies and histories are painted and have remained for thousands of years. Through the eons each culture has adapted and changed the stories to suite their own  beliefs and one star or constellation may have hundreds if not thousands of stories which turns the night sky into a living, eternal history board.

In this series of blogs I will hope to introduce you to some of my favourite myths and legends that have been documented about the stars and the people they represent.

Here is my telling of the Cygnus constellation.


The story starts with two friends Phaeton and Cygnus and simple a bet. Boasting openly and loudly one day Phaeton had been made the bold statement that he alone was the best of all charioteers in the heavens and that none could best him of endurance and speed. Being nearby and hearing the boast Cygnus laughed quietly to himself as he knew that an unfortunate habit of his friend was to make ridiculous claims of which all were so ludicrous that no one dared oppose him. Thinking to teach Phaeton a lesson once and for all for his boasts Cygnus challenged Phaeton to a race across the sky. Quite simply the highest and fastest chariot across the sky wins. So they set off and for all of Cygnus’s confidence that Phaeton’s boasts had no grounding and that he was simply showing off, Cygnus could not best him. Neck and neck they road all day. Faster and faster. Higher and higher. Until mid-day when the height of the sun’s heat and glare was upon them and the rays shinning down caused them to slow with fatigue and their steeds to foam at the mouths. It was at this moment that Cygnus realized that he could use the sun to win the race and the bet, finally teaching Phaeton a lesson.  Driving his chariot harder and coaxing every last mite of energy from him and his steed he turned sharply and directed his chariot straight at the sun. Phaeton realised what Cygnus intended to do and matched his pace determined not to be proven a liar and a lesser man by his own friend. Closer and closer to the sun they road until all in a moment their chariots exploded in to flames and both Phaeton and Cygnus where thrown to earth.

After regaining consciousness, Cygnus set about searching for his friend. He searched for many days for sign of Phaeton until one day he came to edge of a great chasm through which a deep river ran and there lying trapped in the deepest part of the river was Phaetons dead body. Remorse and grief came over Cygnus and he fell to his knees and wept for his dead friend and the part he had played in his death. Once his grief had subsided he thought only to rescue his dead companion’s body and provide him with a proper burial so that his soul could travel to the afterlife, for if his body remained unburied his soul would become a demon and walk the world hating all living things and thriving on the fear and desperation of living creatures in the darkest recesses of the world.

With a new determination and mission, Cygnus set to work thinking of how he could retrieve his friend. However long he thought and whatever he tried he couldn’t retrieve Phaeton’s body. The river was just too deep, the water too wild.

It was then that Zeus appeared. He had been watching from the heavens and now appeared to Cygnus and asked him why he cried. It was then that Cygnus told the story of the ridiculous boast of his friend and the turn of fate that led to his friends death and how now his struggle to retrieve his friend’s body would result in Phaeton not receiving a proper burial. Hearing this and knowing the depths of Cygnus’s remorse for the part he had played in his friend’s death Zeus wished to help Cygnus but he could not ignore the great wrong that Cygnus had played in his friend’s death. In compromise Zeus offered to turn Cygnus in to swan to enable to him to swim to the bottom of the deep river to retrieve his friend’s body. However once transformed to a swan, Cygnus would have to live the rest of his life as a swan and would only live the normal number of years for swan.

So overcome remorse and guilt, Cygnus sombrely agreed and was instantly transformed in to a beautiful swan with a large powerful wings and a long slender neck. Looking down Cygnus saw that his feet had become the webbed feet of a swan, perfect for swimming to unimaginable depths.

Thanking Zeus, Cygnus immediately dived to the bottom of the river and gently retrieved Phaeton’s body and returned it to his home in the sky where his friends and family where gathered for the burial.  So impressed with the sacrifice that Cygnus had made and the loyalty that he had shown his friend, Zeus decided to honour him with a place in the stars and there he remains to this day with wings spread wide majestic and immortal.

Joe Philbin

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