Swan Symbolism in Sand Therapy

June Atherton
President of IJSTA

As so many of you know, my pleasurable association with the State University of St.Petersburg began about 10 years ago. What started with a few lectures in Jungian Psychology and Sand Therapy evolved into a joint certification programme of the Sand Therapy Institute of Ireland and the State University of St.Petersburg.

The cross pollination of the two cultures has done much to enrich Sand Therapy in both Ireland and Russia. With Russia, I also include Estonia where Russian culture permeates much of psyche and consciousness of both the ethnic Russian community and also the native Estonian population, that absorbed much of it during the years of Soviet rule.

One of the most interesting aspects for me has been to observe the profound effect and impact that history, literature, music, art, dance, fairy tale and myth has on the psyche of the students whom I have been privileged to teach.

In the sand trays of students in both Ireland and Russia, swans will often appear, both black and white. In Ireland, during amplification by the  tray’s creator, many things can surface: the swan’s  grace, ferocity, fidelity and almost always, there is an allusion to our legend, “The Children of Lir”. I have heard many variants. Sometimes the legend is alluded to as a sense of foreboding or a fear of someone forcing their will on them; sometimes a fear of something out of their control, or something or someone changing them against their will. One person said he felt “he had already served his 300 years in Purgatory”.

The black swan is often used in Ireland as a metaphor extension of the Ugly Duckling fairy-tale. “No one has seen what is special in me; I knew that I can be a swan!” How often this idea has been articulated by clients and students!

In Russian trays, using swans, the same descriptions of grace, maternal/paternal ferocity are often expressed. But what is fascinating to me is the fact that, so often, feelings are tied to their magnificent ballet “Swan Lake”, where the innocent, beautiful and proud white swans try to protect one of their number. She has been bewitched by a sorcerer, a black swan, and she can only be released by the absolute, faithful devotion of a lover.

Black swans, in Russian trays have been spoken of as, “My life has many evil omens” or someone else said “Who will love me enough to get rid of all the evil around me?” Even once, a student said, “When anything bad happens to me, someone or something always makes it all right!”

Both Russian and Irish psyches are profoundly influenced by their writers and poets. As always, I plead with all IJSTA Therapists toIearn as much about their own and their client’s culture as possible. Even today, in what was formerly insular Ireland, but now is EU Ireland, we have become a multi-cultural country and, after my experiences in multi-cultural Russia, I am delighted  for all my IJSTA colleagues. Good luck with your multi-myths, legends and symbols!

I.J.S.T.A. International Jungian Sand Therapy Association. June 2000. Vol. 2.