KYKNOS (Cycnus) was a bandit prince who seized control of the sacred grove of Apollon at Itonos in southern Thessalia (Thessaly) where he murdered pilgrims and stole offerings intended for the god. When Herakles was passing through the region, Kyknos challenged him to a duel but was felled by the hero despite the support he received from his war-god father. Ares then stepped forth to do battle but Zeus separated the pair with the cast of a thunderbolt. Kyknos was afterwards transformed into a swan (Greek kyknos)--and perhaps also set amongst the stars as the constellation Cygnus.
Kyknos was one of three or four children of Ares to do battle with Herakles, the others being Diomedes of Thrake and the Amazon Queen Hippolyte. Some writers locate Kyknos on the river Ekhedoros (Echedorus) in Makedonia or the Peneios (Peneus) in central Thessalia. The Makedonian version of Kyknos was described as a brother of Thrakian Diomedes, while the Thessalian bandit was a son-in-law of King Keyx (Ceyx) of Trakhis, sponsor of Herakles' northern campaigns.
There were several other characters in myth named Kyknos, all associated with their namesake swan. One was a champion of Troy slain by Akhilleus and another a friend of Phaethon transformed into the first Hyperborean swan.
FAMILY OF CYCNUS
[1.1] ? (by Themistinoe) (Hesiod Shield of Heracles 349)
CYCNUS (Kyknos). 1. A son of Ares and Pelopia, challenged Heracles to single combat at Itone, and was killed in the contest. (Apollod. ii. 7. § 7; Hesiod. Scut. Herc. 345, where Cycnus is a son-in-law of Ceyx, to whom Heracles is going.) 2. A son of Ares and Pyrene, was likewise killed by Heracles in single combat. (Apollod. ii. 5. § 11; Schol. ad Pind. Ol. xi. 19.) At his death he was changed by his father Ares into a swan. (Eustath. ad Hom. p. 254.) The last two personages are often confounded with each other, on account of the resemblance existing between the stories about them. (Schol. ad Pind. Ol. ii. 147, ad Aristoph. Ran. 963; Hygin. Fab. 31; Athen. ix. p. 393.)
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
Hesiod, Shield of Heracles 57 & 314 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"And he [Herakles (Heracles)] slew Kyknos (Cycnus), the gallant son of Ares. For he found him in the close of far-shooting Apollon, him and his father Ares, never sated with war. Their armour shone like a flame of blazing fire as they two stood in their car : their swift horses struck the earth and pawed it with their hoofs, and the dust rose like smoke about them, pounded by the chariot wheels and the horses' hoofs, while the well-made chariot and its rails rattled around them as the horses plunged. And blameless Kyknos was glad, for he looked to slay [Herakles] the warlike son of Zeus and his charioteer [Iolaos] with the sword, and to strip off their splendid armour.
But Phoibos Apollon would not listen to his vaunts, for he himself had stirred up mighty Herakles against him. And all the grove and altar of Apollon Pagasaios (Pagasaeus) flamed because of the dread god and because of his arms; for his eyes flashed as with fire. What mortal men would have dared to meet him face to face save Herakles and glorious Iolaos (Iolaus)? For great was their strength and unconquerable were the arms which grew from their shoulders on their strong limbs.
Then Herakles spake to his charioteer strong Iolaos : ‘. . . Come, friend, quickly take the red-dyed reins of the swift horses and raise high courage in your heart and guide the swift chariot and strong fleet-footed horses straight on. Have no secret fear at the noise of man-slaying Ares who now rages shouting about the holy grove of Phoibos Apollon, the lord who shoots form afar. Surely, strong though he be, he shall have enough of war.’
And blameless Iolaos answered him again : ‘Good friend, truly the father of men and gods greatly honours your head and the bull-like Earth-Shaker [Poseidon] also, who keeps Thebes' veil of walls and guards the city,--so great and strong is this fellow they bring into your hands that you may win great glory. But come, put on your arms of war that with all speed we may bring the car of Ares and our own together and fight; for he shall not frighten the dauntless son of Zeus, nor yet the son of Iphiklos (Iphiclus) : rather, I think he will flee before the two sons of blameless Alkides (Alcides) who are near him and eager to raise the war cry for battle; for this they love better than a feast.’
So he said. And mighty Herakles was glad in heart and smiled, for the other's words pleased him well, and he answered him with winged words : ‘O hero Iolaos, heaven-sprung, now is rough battle hard at hand. But, as you have shown your skill at other-times, so now also wheel the great black-maned horse Arion about every way, and help me as you may be able.’
So he said, and put upon his legs greaves of shining bronze, the splendid gift of Hephaistos (Hephaestus). Next he fastened about his breast a fine golden breast-plate, curiously wrought, which Pallas Athene the daughter of Zeus had given him when first he was about to set out upon his grievous labours. Over his shoulders the fierce warrior put the steel that saves men from doom, and across his breast he slung behind him a hollow quiver. Within it were many chilling arrows, dealers of death which makes speech forgotten: in front they had death, and trickled with tears; their shafts were smooth and very long; and their butts were covered with feathers of a brown eagle. And he took his strong spear, pointed with shining bronze, and on his valiant head set a well-made helm of adamant, cunningly wrought, which fitted closely on the temples; and that guarded the head of god-like Herakles. In his hands he took his shield, all glittering: no one ever broke it with a blow or crushed it. And a wonder it was to see . . . [an elaborate description of the shield follows] and round the rim Okeanos (Oceanus) was flowing, with a full stream as it seemed, and enclosed all the cunning work of the shield. Over it swans (kyknoi) were soaring and calling loudly, and many others were swimming upon the surface of the water; and near them were shoals of fish. A wonderful thing the great strong shield was to see--even for Zeus the loud-thunderer, by whose will Hephaistos made it and fitted it with his hands. This shield the valiant son of Zeus wielded masterly, and leaped upon his horse-chariot like the lightning of his father Zeus who holds the aegis, moving lithely. And his charioteer, strong Iolaos, standing upon the car, guided the curved chariot.
Then the goddess grey-eyed Athene came near them and spoke winged words, encouraging them : ‘Hail, offspring of far-famed Lynkeus (Lynceus)! Even now Zeus who reigns over the blessed gods gives you power to slay Kyknos and to strip off his splendid armour. Yet I will tell you something besides, mightiest of the people. When you have robbed Kyknos of sweet life, then leave him there and his armour also, and you yourself watch man-slaying Ares narrowly as he attacks, and wherever you shall see him uncovered below his cunningly-wrought shield, there wound him with your sharp spear. Then draw back; for it is not ordained that you should take his horses or his splendid armour.’
So said the bright-eyed goddess and swiftly got up into the car with victory and renown in her hands. Then heaven-nurtured Iolaos called terribly to the horses, and at his cry they swiftly whirled the fleet chariot along, raising dust from the plain; for the goddess bright-eyed Athene put mettle into them by shaking her aegis. And the earth groaned all round them. And they, horse-taming Kyknos and Ares, insatiable in war, came on together like fire or whirlwind. Then their horses neighed shrilly, face to face; and the echo was shivered all round them.
And mighty Herakles spoke first and said to that other : ‘Kyknos, good sir! Why, pray, do you set your swift horses at us, men who are tried in labour and pain? Nay, guide your fleet car aside and yield and go out of the path. It is to Trakhis (Trachis) I am driving on, to Keyx (Ceyx) the king, who is the first in Trakhis for power and for honour, and that you yourself know well, for you have his daughter dark-eyed Themistinoe to wife. Fool! For Ares shall not deliver you from the end of death, if we two meet together in battle. Another time ere this I declare he has made trial of my spear, when he defended sandy Pylos and stood against me, fiercely longing for fight. Thrice was he stricken by my spear and dashed to earth, and his shield was pierced; but the fourth time I struck his thigh, laying on with all my strength, and tare deep into his flesh. And he fell headlong in the dust upon the ground through the force of my spear-thrust; then truly he would have been disgraced among the deathless gods, if by my hands he had left behind his bloody spoils.’
So said he. But Kyknos the stout spearman cared not to obey him and to pull up the horses that drew his chariot. Then it was that from their well-woven cars they both leaped straight to the ground, the son of Zeus and the son of Enyalios (the Lord of War). The charioteers drove near by their horses with beautiful manes, and the wide earth rang with the beat of their hoofs as they rushed along. As when rocks leap forth from the high peak of a great mountain, and fall on one another, and many towering oaks and pines and long-rooted poplars are broken by them as they whirl swiftly down until they reach the plain; so did they fall on one another with a great shout : and all the town of the Myrmidones, and famous Iolkos, and Arne, and Helike, and grassy Antheia echoed loudly at the voice of the two. With an awful cry they closed : and wise Zeus thundered loudly and rained down drops of blood, giving the signal for battle to his dauntless son.
As a tusked boar, that is fearful for a man to see before him in the glens of a mountain, resolves to fight with the huntsmen and white tusks, turning sideways, while foam flows all round his mouth as he gnashes, and his eyes are like glowing fire, and he bristles the hair on his mane and around his neck--like him the son of Zeus leaped from his horse-chariot. And when the dark-winged whirring grasshopper, perched on a green shoot, begins to sing of summer to men--his food and drink is the dainty dew--and all day long from dawn pours forth his voice in the deadliest heat, when Seirios (Sirius) [the Dog Star] scorches the flesh (then the beard grows upon the millet which men sow in summer), when the crude grapes which Dionysos gave to men--a joy and a sorrow both--begin to colour, in that season they fought and loud rose the clamour.
As two lions on either side of a slain deer spring at one another in fury, and there is a fearful snarling and a clashing also of teeth--like vultures with crooked talons and hooked beak that fight and scream aloud on a high rock over a mountain goat or fat wild-deer which some active man has shot with an arrow from the string, and himself has wandered away elsewhere, not knowing the place; but they quickly mark it and vehemently do keen battle about it--like these they two rushed upon one another with a shout.
Then Kyknos, eager to kill the son of almighty Zeus, struck upon his shield with a brazen spear, but did not break the bronze; and the gift of the god saved his foe. But the son of Amphitryon, mighty Herakles, with his long spear struck Kyknos violently in the neck beneath the chin, where it was unguarded between helm and shield. And the deadly spear cut through the two sinews; for the hero's full strength lighted on his foe. And Kyknos fell as an oak falls or a lofty pine that is stricken by the lurid thunderbolt of Zeus; even so he fell, and his armour adorned with bronze clashed about him.
Then the stout hearted son of Zeus let him be, and himself watched for the onset of manslaying Ares : fiercely he stared, like a lion who has come upon a body and full eagerly rips the hide with his strong claws and takes away the sweet life with all speed: his dark heart is filled with rage and his eyes glare fiercely, while he tears up the earth with his paws and lashes his flanks and shoulders with his tail so that no one dares to face him and go near to give battle. Even so, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of battle, stood eagerly face to face with Ares, nursing courage in his heart. And Ares drew near him with grief in his heart; and they both sprang at one another with a cry. As it is when a rock shoots out from a great cliff and whirls down with long bounds, careering eagerly with a roar, and a high crag clashes with it and keeps it there where they strike together; with no less clamour did deadly Ares, the chariot-borne, rush shouting at Herakles. And he quickly received the attack.
But Athene the daughter of aigis-bearing Zeus came to meet Ares, wearing the dark aigis, and she looked at him with an angry frown and spoke winged words to him. ‘Ares, check your fierce anger and matchless hands; for it is not ordained that you should kill Herakles, the bold-hearted son of Zeus, and strip off his rich armour. Come, then, cease fighting and do not withstand me.’
So said she, but did not move the courageous spirit of Ares. But he uttered a great shout and waving his spears like fire, he rushed headlong at strong Herakles, longing to kill him, and hurled a brazen spear upon the great shield, for he was furiously angry because of his dead son; but bright-eyed Athene reached out from the car and turned aside the force of the spear. Then bitter grief seized Ares and he drew his keen sword and leaped upon bold-hearted Herakles. But as he came on, the son of Amphitryon, unsated of fierce battle, shrewdly wounded his thigh where it was exposed under his richly-wrought shield, and tare deep into his flesh with the spear-thrust and cast him flat upon the ground. And Phobos (Panic) and Deimos (Dread) quickly drove his smooth-wheeled chariot and horses near him and lifted him from the wide-pathed earth into his richly-wrought car, and then straight lashed the horses and came to high Olympos.
But the son of Alkmena (Alcmena) and glorious Iolaus stripped the fine armour off Kyknos' shoulders and went, and their swift horses carried them straight to the city of Trakhis. And bright-eyed Athene went thence to great Olympos and her father's house.
As for Kyknos, Keyx (Ceyx) buried him and the countless people who lived near the city of the glorious king, in Anthe and the city of the Myrmidones, and famous Iolkos (Iolcus), and Arne, and Helike (Helice) : and much people were gathered doing honour to Keyx, the friend of the blessed gods. But Anauros, swelled by a rain-storm, blotted out the grave and memorial of Kyknos; for so Apollon, Leto's son, commanded him, because he used to watch for and violently despoil the rich hecatombs that any might bring to Pytho."
Pindar, Olympian Ode 10. 15 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"For in Lokroi (Locri) of the West, integrity has honour. In music's art and in brazen Ares (War) their pride is high. To Kyknos (Cycnus) yielded the day even mighty Herakles."
Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian Ode 2. 82 & 10. 15 (Greek scholia) :
According to the Scholiast on Pindar, Kyknos (Cycnus) cut off the heads of passing strangers as trophies for the building of a temple to his father Ares. (N.B. A similar story was told of Oinomaos, king of Pisa, and Antaios of Libya, another opponent of Herakles.) The scholiast also reports that Stesichorus, a lyric poet of the C7th and 6th B.C., wrote a poem entitled Kyknos about the man.
Euripides, Alcestis 499 ff (trans. Kovacs) (Greek tragedy C5th B.C.) :
"Herakles : ‘Like the others this labor you name befits my destiny which is always hard and steep) since I am fated to do battle with all the sons of Ares : first Lykaon (Lycaon), then Kyknos (Cycnus), and now this is the third contest I enter, going off to fight horses and master alike [i.e. Diomedes and his man-eating mares]. But no one shall ever see Alkmene's (Alcmena's) son quake at the hand of an enemy.’"
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 5. 11 (trans. Frazer) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Eurystheus ordered Herakles (Heracles), as an eleventh labour, to fetch golden apples from the Hesperides . . . These apples were not, as some have said, in Libya, but on Atlas among the Hyperboreans . . . So journeying he came to the river Ekhedoros (Echedorus). And Kyknos (Cycnus), son of Ares and Pyrene, challenged him to single combat. Ares championed the cause of Kyknos and marshalled the combat, but a thunderbolt was hurled between the two and parted the combatants."
Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 7. 7 :
"When he [Herakles] came to Keyx (Ceyx) at Trakhis (Trachis) he was received by him and conquered the Dryopes. And afterwards setting out from there, he fought as an ally of Aigimios (Aegimius), king of the Dorians. For the Lapithai (Lapiths), commanded by Koronos (Coronus), made war on him in a dispute about the boundaries of the country; and being besieged he called in the help of Herakles, offering him a share of the country. So Herakles came to his help and slew Koronos and others, and handed the whole country over to Aigimios free. He slew also Laogoras, king of the Dryopes, with his children, as he was banqueting in a precinct of Apollon; for the king was a wanton fellow and an ally of the Lapithai.
And as he passed by Itonos (Itonus) he was challenged to single combat by Kyknos (Cycnus) a son of Ares and Pelopeia; and closing with him Herakles slew him also. But when he was come to Ormenion (Ormenium), king Amyntor took arms and forbade him to march through; but when he would have hindered his passage, Herakles slew him also."
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 36. 5 - 37. 4 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.) :
"[Herakles] came to Keÿx (Ceyx), the king of Trakhis (Trachis), and made his dwelling with him having with him the Arkadians who always accompanied him on his campaigns . . . After the removal of the Dryopes from their land a war arose between the Dorieis who inhabit the land called Hestiaeotis, whose king was Aigimios (Aegimius), and the Lapithai (Lapiths) dwelling about Mount Olympos, whose king was Koronos (Coronus), the son of Kaineus (Caineus) . . . Herakles had with him the Arkadians who accompanied him on his campaigns, and mastering the Lapithai with their aid he slew king Koronos himself, and massacring most of the rest he compelled them to withdraw form the land which was in dispute . . .
He now returned to Trakhis, and upon being challenged to combat by Kyknos (Cycnus), the son of Ares, he slew the man; and as he was leaving the territory of Itonos (Itonus) and was making his way through Pelasgiotis he fell in with Ormenios (Ormenius) the king and asked him the hand of his daughter Astydameia. When Ormenios refused him because he already had for lawful wife Deïaneira, the daughter of Oineus (Oeneus), Heracles took the field against him, captured his city, and slew the king who would not obey him."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 27. 6 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[On the Akropolis of Athens :] There are also old figures of . . . Kyknos (Cycnus) fighting with Herakles. This Kyknos is said to have killed, among others, Lykos (Lycus) a Thrakian, a prize having been proposed for the winner of the duel, but near the river Peneios (Peneus) he was himself killed by Herakles." [N.B. Kyknos "the swan" kills Lykos "the wolf."]
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 18. 10 :
"[Amongst the scenes depicted on the throne of Apollon at Amyklai (Amyclae) near Sparta :] There are also reliefs of Atlas, the single combat of Herakles and Kyknos (Cycnus), and the battle of the Kentauroi (Centaurs) at the cave of Pholos."
Plutarch, Life of Theseus 11. 1 (trans. Perrin) (Greek historian C1st to C2nd A.D.) :
"Herakles. That hero punished those who offered him violence in the manner in which they had plotted to serve him, and therefore sacrificed Bousiris (Busiris), wrestled Antaios (Antaeus) to death, slew Kyknos (Cycnus) in single combat, and killed Termeros by dashing in his skull."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 31 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Incidental Labors of the Same Hercules [Heracles] . . . He killed Cygnus, son of Mars [Ares], conquering him by force of arms. When Mars came there, and wanted to contend with him in arms because of his son, Jove [Zeus] hurled a thunderbolt between them."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 159 :
"Sons of Mars [Ares] . . . Diomedes, the Thracian . . . Cycnus. Dryas."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 269 :
"Those who were most famous . . . Cygnus (Cycnus), son of Mars [Ares], whom the same Hercules killed."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 273 :
"Those who first conducted Games . . . Twelfth, those which Acastus, son of Pelias, conducted for the Argives. In these Games . . . [attended by the Argonauts and other heroes,] Cygnus (Cycnus), son of Mars, with weapons killed Pilus, son of Diodotus."
Seneca, Hercules Furens 480 (trans. Miller) (Roman tragedy C1st A.D.) :
"[Amphitryon warns King Lykos (Lycus) of Thebes :] Thou knowest not all [of the conquests of Herakles]; his own work it is that Eryx was crushed by his own gauntlets and that Libyan Antaeus shared Eryx' fate; that the altars which dripped the blood of strangers drank, and justly, too, Busiris' blood; his own work is Cycnus, though proof against wound and sword, forced to suffer death untouched by wounds; and threefold Geryon by one hand overcome." [N.B. Seneca confounds the Thessalian Kyknos (Cycnus) who fought Herakles with the Trojan Kyknos who was invulnerable to weapons.]
ANCIENT GREEK ART
- Hesiod, The Shield of Heracles - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Euripides, Alcestis - Greek Tragedy C5th B.C.
- Apollodorus, The Library - Greek Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History - Greek History C1st B.C.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Plutarch, Lives - Greek Historian C1st - 2nd A.D.
Other references not currently quoted here: Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian 2.82 & 10.14, Tzetzes, Childiades 2.467, Athenaeus 9.393.