The Swan Maiden is a mythical creature who shapeshifts from human form to swan form. Despite the name, males are found in a small number of legends. The key to the transformation is usually a swan skin, or a garment with swan feathers attached. It is AaTh number 402.
The folktales usually adhere to the following basic plot. A young, unmarried man steals a magic robe made of swan feathers from a swan maiden so that she will not fly away, and marries her. Usually she bears his children. When the children are older they sing a song about where their father has hidden their mother's robe, or one asks why the mother always weeps, and finds the cloak for her, or they otherwise betray the secret. The swan maiden immediately gets her robe and disappears to where she came from. Although the children may grieve her, she does not take them with her.
If the husband is able to find her again, it is an arduous quest, and often the impossibility is clear enough so that he does not even try.
Animal wife motif
This is a common motif in folk tales across the world, though the animals vary. The Italian fairy tale "The Dove Girl" features a dove. There are the Orcadian and Shetlandic selkies, that alternate between seal and human shape. A Croatian tale features a she-wolf. In Africa, the same motif is shown through buffalo maidens. In East Asia, it is also known featuring maidens who transform into various bird species. In Russian fairy-tales there are also several characters, connected with the Swan-maiden. In the Japanese legend of Hagoromo, it is a heavenly spirit, or Tennin, whose robe is stolen.
Another related tale is the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and Weaver Girl, in which one of seven fairy sisters is taken as a wife by a cowherd who hid the seven sisters' robes; she becomes his wife because he sees her naked, and not so much due to his taking her robe.
One notably similar Japanese story, "The crane wife", is about a man who marries a woman who is in fact a crane (Tsuru no Ongaeshi) disguised as a human. To make money the crane-woman plucks her own feathers to weave silk brocade which the man sells, but she become increasingly ill as she does so. When the man discovers his wife's true identity and the nature of her illness, she leaves him. There are also a number of Japanese stories about men who married kitsune, or fox spirits in human form (as women in these cases), though in these tales the wife's true identity is a secret even from her husband. She stays willingly until her husband discovers the truth, at which point she abandons him.
According to Julien d'Huy, such a motif would also have existed in European prehistory and would have a buffalo maiden as a heroine. Indeed, this author finds the motif with four-legged animals in North America and Europe, in an area coinciding with the area of haplogroup X. 
The swan maiden has appeared in numerous items of fiction, starting with the ballet Swan Lake, in which a young princess, Odette and her maidens are under the spell of an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, transforming them into swans by day. By night, they regain their human forms and can only be rescued if a young man swears eternal love and faithfulness to the Princess. When Prince Siegfried swears his love for Odette, the spell can be broken, but Siegfried is tricked into declaring his love for Von Rothbart's daughter, Odile, disguised by magic as Odette, and all seems lost. But the spell is finally broken when Siegfried and Odette drown themselves in a lake of tears, uniting them in death for all eternity. A series of animated movies based on the ballet, including The Swan Princess and Barbie of Swan Lake keep this same spell on the lead heroines and both are eventually rescued by their Princes.
Other appearances include modern novels of the fantasy genre such as Three Hearts and Three Lions and television such as Astroboy Episode 5. A notable recent appearance is of the swan-men in the Anita Blake series, including Kaspar Gunderson. They are also called swan mays or swanmays in fantasy fiction and Dungeons and Dragons. The race could, in particular exclusivity, become Rangers and Druids in 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though in 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons Swanmays were a prestige class. Either way, they had a predilection and affinity for nature. As they could already change their shape, Druids was still a common class for the race in 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragon's. Noted in the Monster Manual as well as in the Complete Book of Humanoids: Player's Handbook Rules Supplement, the latter being a supplement for non-traditional player races, listing preconceptions for many of the races listed to fit within the campaign setting of GreyHawk. Whereas in 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, Swanmays could be of any class, but had to have certain prerequisites to become them as a Prestige Class. And, if they already had an existing spellcasting class as part of their Character Level makeup, they could gain Caster Level (CL) increases starting @2nd level. Which would give them the benefit of casting more spells without having to sacrifice levels in Swanmay to focus on their magic casting class, in this particular scenario usually Druid or a nature-based Cleric, Shugenja, Divine Soul and/or Spirit Shaman.
- "Literary Sources of D&D". Archived from the original on 2007-07-21. Retrieved 2007-02-23.
- "The Swan Maiden". Retrieved 2007-02-23.
- Julien d'Huy (2011). « Le motif de la femme-bison. Essai d'interprétation d'un mythe préhistorique (1ère partie) », Mythologie française, 242, pp. 44-55; et Julien d'Huy (2011). « Le motif de la femme-bison. Essai d'interprétation d'un mythe préhistorique (2ème partie) » Mythologie française, 243, pp. 23-41.
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