Walking across the land, trying to optimize my wind exposure in such a way that my home stretch is driven by tailwind. My paths lead along ditches that criss cross the fields. Although the fields are not always hospitable to the birds, I get acquainted with a specific set, the waterfowl. The ducks fly up in tandem when they sense my approach. Always a female and male mallard, always just two of them. They are not monogamous, something I thought seeing them in this way, they are serial monogamists, each year they form a new couple. That is different for other couples, swan couples. They are not as abundant as the ducks, but wherever I look there seem to be a swan couple somewhere in the field. My daily morning runs provide me with some wonderful sightings, unfortunately I don’t carry my camera all the time while doing short runs. Swans are partners for life, and their persistent presence in the fields make me wonder if they have some special meaning in this cultural landscape. 

There are some other indications that this may be the case and I don’t have look far. From my bedroom window I see the top of my neighbors house carrying two stylized swans. Uilenbord in Dutch, ûleboerd in Frisian, is something that I cannot translate in English, but ‘uil’ means owl. So what has an owl to do with swans. 

The uilenbord, is an architectural element, a triangular wooden cover on the side/top of a gabled roof. The board functions as ventilation while protecting it against water entering the interior. The hole also allows owls to fly in and out. The presence of an owl on the farm is considered a good omen and the owl is also a welcome guest who eats mice. The top part of the board, the stick called ‘makelaar’ and the swans are stylized elements.

View from my current window and roof elements

I remember seeing similar elements in Germany, north of Hamburg, where I lived before coming to Friesland. Here however, it was not swans but horses that adorned the roofs. Time to break down borders. Friesland, where I live now, has long been a part of the Netherlands, but historically it is much more connected to the regions along the coast, covering present day northern Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark. And even though the presence of these boards may date back only to the 16th century, the symbolism of swans and horses is likely more ancient, going back to old Nordic mythology. At least that is what some people argue and it makes sense to me. For those of you who read Dutch the article by Boppo Grimsma tells an interesting story (see link below). 

Around my previous home north of Hamburg

The Frisians, a germanic people who came to present day Friesland via northern Germany, migrated back to Germany in the 12th century, especially the region north of Hamburg, das Alte Land, the region where I just moved from, the region with the horse symbols. 

There is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the swan and horse symbolism, but there seems to be some general consensus that swans are companions of the sun, specifically, they take the sun in the fall and bring the sun in spring. They are in this way related to the seasons. In old nordic mythology a similar role is suggested for both horses (earlier) and swans (later), accompanying the sun during the day along the living world and during the night around the world of the dead. The change of seasons, day and night, the living and the dead. Interesting stuff. I am happy to see the swans in the fields. 

http://www.stellingwerven.dds.nl/folklore/Oeleborden/uleboerd.pdf 

https://nds-nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oelebred

Schild-dak image: Arend041, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons