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Swan Upon Leda

Written By Catherine Hill, with musical analysis from Amelia Hill

Swan Upon Leda is one of those songs that shakes you awake when you weren’t aware that you were sleeping. The melody and lyrics enchant listeners— and yet the message is subtle.

Here’s an interpretation of the conversation and mythological references within Hozier’s Swan Upon Leda:

The swan upon Leda,

Occupier upon ancient land,

The gateway to the world,

Was still outside the reach of him

The first lyric of the chorus, “the swan upon Leda,” refers to the ancient Greek mythological tale of Zues, the Swan, and Leda, Queen of Sparta. Although interpretations of the tale vary, the key phrase “upon” reveals how Hozier interprets the myth. The line,“swan upon Leda,” is the point of contextualization for a conversation regarding women’s rights and abortion.

According to Hozier, the lyric “occupier upon ancient land,” refers to “global systems that control and endanger women as the ‘world’s oldest form of occupation,’” a lyric inspired after hearing Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy speak in Dublin.

“The gateway to the world,” refers to the womb, while “was still outside the reach of him,” references Hozier’s pro-choice stance.

What never belonged to angels

Had never belonged to men

The swan upon Leda

Empire upon Jerusalem

“What never belonged to angels,” and “had never belonged to men,” complement to comment on the struggle of control for women’s reproductive care. Although “men” is used literally, “angels” is used symbolically. One could infer that “angels,” refers to the institution of the church, as both “men,” and “angels,” outline laws regarding women’s reproductive care.

Within the choir structure, there are the voices that soar above the others, oftentimes always meant to follow the male lead singer’s voice both in key and melody, which is interpreted by Hozier as the soar soprano. Often women are encouraged to let their voices sing to the point of vocal strain. The role of women as angels within the choir is somewhat dismissive: they are holy–until their high-pitch sounds needy. Yet the system of the choir cannot be balanced without their presence. Hozier reflects that his choir is an attempt to possess angelic voices, mimicking the greater societal dynamic in place. However, his choir allows the soprano-ic voices to sing over the lower chords.

As the chorus goes on to sing for Swan upon Leda, the voice of the orchestra is similar to that of a woman's cry. Yet the next stanza focuses its energy slowly back to the male perspective and the voices of the choir deepen, seemingly back to who is discussing this tale. I became distracted as a listener by the sounds of the orchestra soaring above Hozier and was grateful for the retrieval and focus on the male voice, one that was more digestible in a musical sense. But that's just the thing: Hozier, like the male poets before him, frames the tale of Leda through his perspective.

A grandmother smuggling meds

Past where the god child-soldier Setanta stood dead

Our graceful turner of heads

Weaves through the checkpoints like a needle and thread

Someone's frightened boy waves her on

She offers a mother's smile, and soon she's gone

One Twitter user, Cathal, argues that Hozier is “pandering to American audiences.” Cathal critiques Hoizer’s commentary regarding the Supreme Court overturning of Roe V. Wade by referring to inconsistencies for abortion access in present-day Ireland.

However, the Irish singer nods to this very struggle by referencing “Setanta.” Referencing “Setanta” recontextualizes these specific stanzas. The old myth of “the god child-soldier Setanta,” is an Irish myth, which sets these specific stanzas in Ireland. “A grandmother smuggling meds,” as she “weaves through the checkpoints like a needle and thread,” refers to The Abortion Trail, from Ireland to the United Kingdom.

She offers a mother’s smile, and soon she’s gone.”

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