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The name Svanevit and the Swans

The name Svanevit (Swan-white) is one that has caught the imagination through the ages. It appears widely in different sources, from the Old Norse poem The Lay of Völund to the works of Swedish writer August Strindberg.

The Lay of Völund (Vǫlundarkviða) is one of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the Nordic region’s oldest collection of verse. Written in Iceland in around 1270, the collection is built on a much older oral tradition dating back to pre-Viking times. In the poem, the blacksmith Völund and his brothers, Slagfith and Egil, meet three young women who are spinning flax by the shore of a lake. Lying beside them are three swan-skins – feathered outfits they put on to fly like birds. These women are Valkyries, female beings who in Norse mythology chose who on the battlefield would live or die, before transporting the slain to Valhalla, ruled by the god Odin. Named Hervor the All-Wise, Hlathguth the Swan-White and Olrun, they follow the brothers home and live with them for seven years, until their desire to leave grows too strong and, to the brothers’ despair, they fly away. Slagfith and Egil set off to look for them but Völund stays behind and, in his grief, forges the most beautiful jewelry. Indeed it is so fine that a king imprisons him on an island where he is forced to make treasures for the king and his wife. Völund gets his revenge by killing their two sons and using the body parts to fashion precious objects for them. Having also made their daughter pregnant, he sends word to the royal couple of what he has done before escaping with the help of wings he made in his smithy.

 

The Island of Bliss (Lycksalighetens ö) is by Swedish romantic poet Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom. Published in the 1820s, it is the story of Astolf, a northern king who decides to pursue a more enlightened way of life in the south. He ends up on the Island of Bliss, where he lives happily with the island’s queen, Felicia, for three hundred years. Astolf has been promised eternal youth in exchange for pledging Felicia his eternal love. The queen is a symbol for the carnal imagination, which he must abandon to gain enlightenment. However, Astolf chooses to stay, neglecting his responsibly as king and the wellbeing of his folk. He also forsakes Svanevit, the abandoned woman who faithfully waits for his return.

August Strindberg wrote the play Svanevit as a wedding gift to his third wife, Harriet Bosse, in 1901. A fairy story about how young, pure love can conquer all, the play is inspired by the chivalric themes of medieval knights’ tales and old folk songs. The 15-year-old princess Svanevit lives in a fairy-tale castle and is betrothed to a wicked, much older king. However, she falls in love with the young prince who acts as the king’s messenger. Despite having an evil witch for a stepmother, Svanevit finally gets to marry her prince. Having its premiere at the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki in 1908, the play was put on in Stockholm a year later at Strindberg’s own Intima Theatre, becoming one of its biggest successes. The lead role was played by Strindberg’s last love, Fanny Falkner.

At the suggestion of Harriet Bosse, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius wrote the incidental music to Strindberg’s play Svanevit. The first instrument heard in the piece is the horn, which Princess Svanevit blows to call for help. Sibelius himself conducted the theatre orchestra at the Helsinki premiere in 1908.  

Why Erik Åkerlund chose to christen his largest sailing boat Princess Svanevit isn’t known. He opted for the more internationally recognised “Princess” over the Swedish “Prinsessan” since he had her built to put Sweden on the world map, both as a yacht racing nation and one capable of the finest craftmanship. Åkerlund was a publisher and well versed in contemporary Swedish literature. Although Åhlén & Åkerlund published just a single book by August Strindberg, a reprint of Black Banners: Genre Scenes from the Turn of the Century, from 1910, Strindberg had written for the publisher’s magazine Julstämning (“Spirit of Christmas”). At the same time, his play Svanevit appeared at the Intima Theatre in Stockholm. Åkerlund also got to know Jean Sibelius, who became a welcome guest at the Åkerlund’s family summer residence, Lyngsåsa in Dalarö, where the composer played on the house’s grand piano. Unfortunately the story that Åkerlund thought his playing so beautiful that no-one ever again should play on the piano, and so had it thrown in the sea, is just that, a myth. In reality it would become the heirloom of the youngest son of the family.

In 1907 Erik Åkerlund’s publishing house started its annual fairy-tale book series Bland Tomtar och Troll (“Among Gnomes and Trolls”). The 1908 edition included Helena Nyblom’s story Svanhamnen (“The Swan Skin”), with illustrations by the artist John Bauer, who was to become one of Åkerlund’s closest friends. The previous year, Bauer’s work Ut i vida världen (Out in the Wide World”), which shows three swans flying south, appeared in another of Åhlén & Åkerlund’s many Christmas magazines, Julbocken (“The Yule Goat”).

Helena Nyblom’s Svanhamnen was clearly influenced by The Lay of Völund from the Poetic Edda, although the swan maiden of her story is named Isis, not Svanevit. Just before midsummer, three unearthly princesses land in their swan outfits by Tyresöfjärden near Stockholm to take a swim. They leave their feathered outfits on the shore, only for one of them to be discovered by an old peasant woman who takes it home with her. When it’s time for the princesses to fly off, the youngest and most beautiful of the three is forced to remain. Isis becomes a weaver at nearby Tyresö Castle, learns the language and marries the young lord of castle, Olof, who she loves. She has a good life, but always feels sad and anxious when migrating swans are passing. After seven years Isis is reunited with her lost swan skin, after the old woman washed it and put it out to dry, and off she flies, never to return.

John Bauer’s swans became a recurring motif which Erik Åkerlund used to decorate everything from cufflinks to sheets and tablecloths. Drinking glasses were etched with the motif, always with a crown on the head and the Royal Swedish Yacht Club's (Kungliga Svenska Segelsällskapet) emblem, and often the name of the boat from Åkerlund’s fleet to which the tableware belonged. Since the swan motif is also found above the open fireplaces at both Villa Åkerlund in Stockholm – the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence since 1942 – and Lyngsåsa, it obviously meant a lot to him. 

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