I love swallows – when I see (and hear!) them flying around, it’s a sure sign that summer has arrived. Here’s some folklore about these lively birds – you can also find it in the evergrowing online encyclopedia.
‘One swallow does not a summer make’ – as they say in the Netherlands.
Still, in Northwest Europe, the swallow is one of the animals that announces the coming of spring and summer. In older times, Germanic folks welcomed the elegant bird gladly for this reason. Even far into the 18th century, tower guards in certain German towns were offered a drink for announcing the first swallow. Afterwards, this happy event was announced officially to the whole town.
Being a seasonal bird, it’s not strange that a lot of weather lore is connected to it. This folklore is often based on observations of natural behavior. Some conclusions are very strange (such as the birds sinking into the water during winter time, when they ‘disappeared’), others more logical. When swallows fly low, rain will come; when they are no more than little dots in the sky, nice weather will follow…this is based on the behavior of the swallows hunting insects, which will indeed fly lower when weather is bad.
The swallow being a bird of spring and summer will also connect it with love and marriage. Some peculiar folklore can be found concerning this subject. In Westphalia, Germany, when a young man saw the first swallow, he would stand still and check if there was a hair under his shoe. If so, the color of this hair would indicate the hair color of his future love. If in Wallonia (French-speaking part of Belgium)a girl would see a swallow skim a water surface, whe would marry before the age of nineteen. And in England, if a man would give a woman a ring that had lain in a swallow’s nest for nine days, she would surely be his love.
In the country, when spring came, families went around on their farms to open the stable doors as it was said to bring protection for a swallow to fly through the stables rooms. This comes from the widespread belief that a swallow building its nest in or near a home will bring luck to the people living there. Some houses even added small boards under the beams to add more opportunity for swallows to settle. The idea behind these nesting birds bringing luck lies mostly in their protecting the house against fire, lightning and bad contructions.
The luck goes both ways: if swallows didn’t return to a house, it would burn down – and when there was discord in a home, the swallows nesting there would leave. In certain areas in the Netherlands, when a nest fell from a house, the inhabitants were advised to leave as soon as possible. Young birds falling from the nest, or the nest being abandoned, were a portent of imminent death. Swallows leaving a whole area meant that something bad such as disease was coming that way. These folk beliefs were widespread in Northwest Europe and might still be found from Scandinavia to far into France.
Having read the above, one can easily imagine that killing or disturbing a swallow or destroying it’s nest would bring bad luck to a person.
A little lucky bird such as this one surely brings about health, too. There’s indeed a lot that can be found on that topic. Here’s the account of a strange ritual to regain eye sight, coming from Normandy (it’s not for the faint of heart): find a nest that contains a young swallow and gouge out its eyes. The mother will immediately go to the beach to find a certain kind of stone. Once she has found it, she will want to hide it so that no one can find it. Meanwhile, when one has taken the time to spread out a scarlet-colored piece of cloth under the nest, the mother bird will think her nest is on fire and she will drop the stone. The account I have found stops here, but the idea is apparently that the stone will give back eyesight.
Another connection about eyesight can be made concerning the greater celandine. This plant is called ‘swaluw cruydt’ (swallow herb) bij Rembert Dodoens in his 1554 Cruydt Boeck, probably following ancient masters such as Dioscorides and Pliny. They declared that the yellow sap of the plant was given by the swallows to their youngs so that they could see. Indeed, in folklore greater celandine is known as a plant that helps against diseases of the eyes.
Then there’s the connection between swallow’s nests and the healing of sore throats. It seems to stem from Albertus Magnus, who already said that a nest cooked with honey, lain on the throat, will ease the pain. Other sources name vinegar or white wine as an alternative to honey.
A last example is the hanging of a swallow’s nest in a child’s cradle to protect it from convulsions, which was done at least in Broek in Waterland (Netherlands, just to the north of Amsterdam).
There’s a lot of lore going around about the swallow and health in general. It’s outside the scope of this website to treat folklore from other areas, but surely worth looking into if you find this sort of thing interesting.
Boussauw, Johan. Vogels in volksgeloof, magie en mythologie. Tirion, 2005.
Laan, K. ter. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Het Spectrum, 2005.