Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault.
Reverence and rage do not often accompany each other, but to Hozier the two are notes on the same staff. Hozier is perhaps most well-known for the venerational tone he takes in his songs about women, but his latest single redefines the parameters of song and shapes music as a tool for political change.
“Swan Upon Leda” frames the struggle for reproductive and women’s rights happening around the globe through allusions to Greek and Irish mythology. Leda, the song’s titular character, is a prominent figure in Greek mythology. On her wedding night to Tyndareus, the king of Lacedaemon, Zeus, who has adopted the form of a swan, rapes her; she later gives birth to Pollux and Helen of Troy.
The song begins by mentioning a “crying child pushing a child into the night.” Perhaps a reference to the lack of choice granted to children—forced to carry fetuses to full-term due to constrictive abortion laws, especially after the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that has led to near-total abortion bans in 13 states—Hozier frames Leda as the child. “She was told he would come this time/Without leaving so much as a feather behind,” Hozier sings.
The tale of Leda and the swan has been romanticized and warped beyond the horror of the truth. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Paul Cézanne are just a handful of artists who have twisted the violence against Leda—artistic scenes of Leda and Zeus are often sensual or erotic. The power dynamics, brutal violation, and lack of autonomy present in the original myth are not lost on Hozier, however. He pairs his critique of healthcare and systems of control with his classic, folksy-meets-blues music. In true Hozier style, his pairing of religious and mythic lyrics with symphony, synth, rock, and bass create a feeling of smallness in the reader, almost as if the powerful music might sweep them away if they listened long enough.
Reproductive issues are the world’s “oldest form of colonization,” according to Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist and author whom Hozier referenced in his Twitter post about the release on Oct. 7. “We were tracking [‘Swan Upon Leda’] in studio when the news came through of Roe v. Wade being overturned. I felt there was an opportunity to offer some show of solidarity,” Hozier wrote.
The song is an early release of Hozier’s upcoming album Unreal Unearth, which he says will be released by the end of this year “come hell or high water.”
The release fell on the same day as news broke of another teenage girl’s death by Iranian police, according to reports from Amnesty International. Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old Iranian, posted about women’s rights and her rejection of the mandatory hijab law—in one video that has now gone viral, she also filmed a video singing Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.”
The song intertwines admiration for women and their resilience in the face of brutality, violence, and a lack of autonomy with fury against men and those who seek to restrict individuals’ right to self-autonomy and control. “Swan Upon Leda” is an ode defending an individual’s right to choose; Hozier frames the battle for reproductive and women’s rights, however, through a lens of occupation—he compares occupation of the body via abortion restrictions and reproductive rights to occupation of territory and land. He pairs the political with mythological narratives to paint a story of the brutality faced by individuals across the globe as their reproductive rights hang in the balance.
But it is still an ode—he carries on his reverent tone of admiration for the women in his songs that was a hallmark of his first album, Hozier (2014). The orchestral accompaniment and synth work together to create an otherworldly sense, even as Hozier describes the trauma of forced childbirth, colonization, and sexual assault.
“But the gateway to the world/Was still outside the reach of him,” the song explains, “Would never belong to angels/Had never belonged to man.”
The women in “Swan Upon Leda” are survivors, not victims. Through the gateway—perhaps a reference to birth or life—Hozier makes the claim that neither Zeus nor men have the authority to control reproduction or women’s rights. Hozier references grandmothers smuggling medication, potentially a reference to contraceptives—survival methods adopted to overcome the lack of choice they face. He sings of women’s agency and choice, of the myth’s other half that history has neglected.
Hozier also explicitly referenced the recent protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, tying it into a larger statement against occupation. “The recent pushbacks against civil liberties and human rights respect no boundaries or border, and like all acts of control, violence and indeed all forms of occupation, their legacies can be immeasurable in both the personal and political spheres,” he wrote.
He ties the language about reproductive rights to a larger struggle for occupation. The swan is an “occupier upon ancient land,” on a woman’s body. Hozier also highlights Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine—”an empire in Jerusalem”—drawing parallels between occupation of land and of the body, as both neglect individuals’ right to freedom and control of the self.
The Irish singer-songwriter also connects the Irish fight for independence under British rule to the global protests. The song mentions Cuchulain, a Hercules-esque Irish warrior, but says the fearsome and powerful fighter “stood dead.” A potential reference to chapter 20 of “Cuchulain of Muirthemne” by Lady Augusta Gregory, Cuchulain ties himself to a stone pillar before his death so that he might die standing. The song seems to climb and soar with each chorus, the symphony playing a crescendo until the message of protest almost echoes, that the world will not accept these changes on its knees.
As only Hozier can do, the song is soft and gentle while conveying the power and sadness of brutality, with graceful bass notes and synth tying the words together. The almost reverent tone Hozier adopts would not be out of place in a house of worship, but instead it is a rage against the gods, a rage against those who would control others.