Alternate spellings – Κύκνος, Kyknos, Cygnus
Etymology – Swan
When researching this name, I’ve found that the name Cycnus can refer to at least four different people from Greek Mythology. Though there are several others who have minor importance when compared to the primary four.
1) The Friend Of Phaethon
The first Cycnus is the son of Shtenelus, the king of Liguria. After the death of his close friend or lover Phaeton, Cycnus went down to the river Eridanos where his friend perished to mourn. Cycnus was in such a deep level of grief over the loss that the gods, in some instances this is specifically the god Apollo who took pity on Cycnus and turned him into a Swan. Even as a swan, Cycnus still remembered Phaethon and would avoid the heat of the sun.
According to Ovid, Cycnus was a distant relative of Phaethon on his mother’s side. According to Virgil, Cycnus grieved the loss of his friend into old age that his graying hair turned into feathers and he was transformed then into a swan at that point.
A couple of different Greeks such as Pausanias and Servius wrote of Cycnus’ musical skill. It is Servius who wrote that after Apollo changed Cycnus into a swan, he was placed up into the heavens as the constellation Cygnus. Servius also mentions that Cycnus had a son by the name of Cupavo. According to Hyginus, Cycnus’ story is the origin of the phrase “swan song” referring to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement.
2) King Of Kolonai
The name of the second Cycnus is the son of Poseidon and Calcyce, the daughter of Hecaton. This Cycnus ruled the city of Kolonai in southern Troad, a region of Anatolia.
Cycnus married Procleia, the daughter of King Laomedon of Troy. Sometimes Procleia is listed as the daughter of Clytius who is the son of previously mentioned Laomedon. In either event, Cycnus and Procleia had two children Tenes and Hemithea.
When Procleia died, Cycnus married again, this time to a Philonome, the daughter of Tragasus, also known as Polyboea or Scamandria. Philonome fell in love with her stepson Tene and when he rejected her advances, she tried to tell Cycnus that his son tried to rape her.
Angry or despairing, Cycnus ordered that his two children be put in a chest and thrown out to sea. Cycnus soon learned the truth and instead had Philonome buried alive and he was able to discover his children were still alive on the island of Tenedos. He tried to go there to reconcile with his children, but Tenes hearing none of it, cut the anchor rope to Cycnus’ ship, preventing him from being able to dock.
After all this, Cycnus went on to support the Trojans in the Trojan War against the Greeks. He was killed on the first day of war by the hero Achilles and was also changed into a swan. In the Ovid, he is said to have fought valiantly, killing a thousand foes. With Cycnus’ death, the Greeks headed towards Kolonai, seizing it after Cycnus’ surviving children Cobis, Corianus and Glauce be handed over to them.
It should be noted that this Cycnus’ story doesn’t appear in the Iliad but does appear in the Cypria. He’s mentioned twice by Pindar which some historians use to suggest this story had merit by the 5th century B.C.E. In the mid-first century B.C.E., the historian Diodorus Siculus attributes this story of Cycnus to the people of the island Tenedos, whose name is derived from Cycnus’ son Tenes.
Twelfth century Byzantine poet John Tzetzes makes mention of a Scamandrodice who was Cycnus’ mother. She had abandoned Cycnus by the sea shore and he was rescued by some fishermen who named him Cycnus after seeing a swan fly by over head.
Another account says that Cycnus got his name of Swan due to his feminine features of white skin and fair hair.
3) The Son Of Apollo
The son of Apollo and Hyrie (or Thyrie) the daughter of Amphinomus, this Cycnus lived in the country between Pleuron and Calydon. He was considered a rather good looking and handsome though arrogant and often disrespectful especially those youths who admired his great skill at hunting.
Cycnus’ attitude and arrogance eventually drove everyone away except for Phylius. Even Phylius’ deep devotion and admiration wasn’t enough to get through to Cycnus. Wanting to be rid of Phylius, Cycnus challenged to what he thought would be three impossible tasks.
The first task given to Phylius is that he was to kill a lion threatening their town without the aid or use of any weapons. Phylius’ tactic to win this task was to consume so much food and wine as to vomit it up in the spot where he knew the lion would show up. When it did so, the lion ate up all the refuse, becoming drunk on the wine. Phylius was able to come in and used his own clothing to strangle the beast, killing it.
The second task given to Phylius was to catch two man-eating vultures of immense size who were also threatening their town, again without the use of any weapons. As he contemplated how to peform this task, Phylius saw an eagle drop a dead hare to the ground. Having an idea, Phylius took the hare’s blood and covered himself with it, then lay down in order to pretend to be dead. Eventually the two vultures dropped down to where he lay and Phylius was able to catch both of them by their feet and brought them to where Cycnus awaited his return.
The third and final task was for Phylius to bring a bull to Zeus’ alter with his own bare hands. At a loss on how to perform this last task, Phylius pray to Heracles for aid. Finished with his prayer, Phylius saw two bulls fighting over a cow. He waited until the bulls’ fight was over and one of the bulls fell to the ground. At this, Phylius was able to go over and grab one of the bulls by its legs and drag the bull to Zeus’ alter.
Having performed the tasks set before him, Heracles intervened once more so that Phylius would cease taking orders from Cycnus. Seeing this and feeling disgraced, Cycnus committed suicide by throwing himself into a lake known as Conope. His mother Thyrie also did like and at their deaths, the god Apollo changed both mother and son into swans. The lake became known as Swan Lake and when Phylius eventually died, he was buried near its shores.
The story was recorded by Antoninus Liberalis. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he has Phylius (or Phyllius) perform the three tasks but at the end, refuse to bring the bull to Cycnus. Feeling scorned, Cycnus jumps off a cliff and is changed into a swan instead of falling to his death. His mother Hyrie, unaware of Cycnus’ transformation and believing her son to be dead, dissolves away in a flood of tears forming the lake Hyrie.
It should be noted too that in both Antoninus and Ovid’s tellings of the stories, that Cycnus and Phylius were lovers and that theirs is the story of love spurned.
4) The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both named Cycnus and they often get confused together as to who’s who, their specific stories behind them and how similar those stories are. Pseudo-Apollodorus writes of the two Cycnus’ as distinct, separate persons.
Cycnus is one of three children of Ares to have fought the hero Heracles. Four when you remember that there are two sons of the same name. The other children of Ares to have fought against Heracles are Diomedes from Thrake and the Amazon Hippolyte. The Cycnus from Macedonia is often described as being a brother to Diomedes while the Thessalian Cycnus is the son-in-law of King Ceyx who sponsored the hero Heracles’ northern campaigns.
The first son of Ares has Pelopia for his mother. He had set himself up as a bandit prince near the sacred grove of Apollon at Pagasia Itonos along the Thessalian coast. This Cycnus was also the son-in-law of King Ceyx of Trakhis. Cycnus would rob the offerings being sent to the Delphios up north. When Heracles was passing through this region on his way back from his campaign against the Lapithai to visit King Ceyx, Cycnus challenged the hero to a duel.
Heracles quickly killed his challenger and Ares changed his son into a swan at his death. When Ares then went to avenge his son’s death, Zeus prevented the two from fighting by throwing a thunderbolt between them.
The second son of Ares has Pyrene for his mother. This Cycnus was from either Pagasae, Thessaly or by the river Echedorus in Macedonia. He was a giant who was so murderous and blood thirsty that he was building a temple out of bones and skulls from travelers to dedicate to his father Ares. One of the men said to have been murdered by Cycnus is Lycus of Thrace.
When the hero Heracles encountered this Cycnus, they engaged in battle where Heracles killed him. Enraged at the death of his son, Ares sought revenge for this son but was again stopped by a bolt of lightning thrown by the god Zeus. Like so many of the other Cycnus’ he too was also changed into a swan at his death.
According to the ancient Greek writer, Euripides, Heracles shot Cycnus with arrows and that this event takes place near the river Anaurus.
Shield of Heracles
In this poem, both Heracles and Iolaus encounter Cycnus and Ares on their way to Trachis. The goddess Athena appears telling Heracles that Zeus has given power to him to kill Cycnus and how to do the deed. The hero is not to touch Cycnus’ body, not to claim any armor as trophies and that finally he’s to hit Ares using a spear on an unarmored part of his body should the god attack.
Cycnus and Heracles go on about their duel and the hero kills Cycnus. Enraged, Ares is about to get revenge only to have Athena intervene saying that it is not yet Heracles’ time to die. As he’s been attacked, Heracles does attack Ares and the gods’ sons Phobos and Deimos come rescue him, taking Ares back to Olympus. Cycnus was then buried but his tomb later destroyed in a flood sent by Apollo.
Others Named Cycnus
There are a few others in Greek legend, stories and history who also have the same name of Cycnus. Some of them are:
• One of the suitors of Penelope.
• The son of King Eredion of Achaea. In one version he seduced Leda, causing her to become the mother of the triplets the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) and Helen. In other versions, these children are fathered by Zeus who approached her in the shape of swan.
• A blunder for Guneus in Hyginus’ Fab manuscript, which is a list of the Achaean leaders who were against the city of Troy. This may be a different Cycnus than the King of Kolonai who also participated in the Trojan War.