The swan has an advantage over humans in what really matters, for it knows when the end of its life is imminent. Moreover, in bearing death’s approach with contentment, it has received the fi nest gift that nature can bestow. For it is sure that there is nothing painful or distressing in death. By contrast, humans are afraid of death, about which they know nothing, and they think it a very great evil. The swan is so contented at the ending of its life that it sings a funeral song, as it were, in memory of itself (Aelian On Animals 5.34).
Elsewhere, Aelian says that he has not personally heard a swan singing and that he doubts anyone else has ( Miscellaneous History 1.14). The notion that dying swans sing can be traced back to lines 1444f. of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon , first performed in 458 b.c. Oddly enough, however, the only swan commonly found in Greece is the mute swan ( cygnus olor ), which neither remains mute in its lifetime (it grunts, snorts, and hisses) nor sings as it dies. No type of swan, in fact, can be said to sing at any time.