Today marks the first day of the so-called “halcyon days”—or does it?—a period of 15 days in December first recognized by ancient Mediterranean civilizations for its tranquil weather. During this brief time winds calm and storms typically abate, so that the so-called halcyon birds could supposedly build their nests upon the waters.
Some classical texts indicate that for the first seven days prior to the winter solstice, these birds constructed nests from fish bones, while during the seven days after, they tended to their eggs and hatchlings. Aristotle writes of this process in Book 5, Chapter 8 of his The History of Animals. Several ancient writers reiterate the claim, including Pliny and Plutarch (1). Other sources, as we shall see, appear to dispute the time period, indicating an earlier arrival of the halcyons’ brief mating season.
But are halcyon days something that actually occurs? Aren’t these birds just a mythological concept? Or do they actually have real-life counterparts? Where does the myth end and the truth begin?
When the Winds First became Still
The origin of the halcyon bird goes way back thousands of years. It’s rooted in a mythological love story involving Alcyone and her royal husband Ceyx. The Catalogue of Women (usually attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, possibly a contemporary of Homer) and Metamorphoses by Roman writer Ovid are two popular sources, among others. Despite several variations in the tale, the crux remains the same. Ceyx perishes in a shipwreck and a distraught Alcyone dashes into the sea. The gods react with compassion, reviving her husband by transforming him into a bird. They, too, of course, turn her into a bird so they are both alive and alike again.
Halcyon days apparently resulted so the two feathered lovers could mate without disturbance on the sea. Such calm periods are noted in Halcyon, a short dialogue sometimes dubiously attributed to Lucian of Samosata. According to Ovid’s account (Book 11 of Metamorphoses) Alcyone’s father Aeolus, the demigod and wind keeper of Homer’s Odyssey (Book 10), halts the winds for several days each year for his daughter. Ancient writers such as Aristotle, Simonides, Pliny and others link the period of tranquility for mating halcyons to Sicily (2). Incidentally, while to the south of Sicily lies Malta, to the north are the Aeolian Islands—the namesake of Alcyone’s father.
The Real Halcyon, New Lore
Although we know today that the halcyon is a mythical creature, the bird interestingly has a real-life counterpart. Since the halcyon is described in several texts, such as in Book 9, Chapter 15 of The History of Animals (Aristotle again), as a blue and green bird comparable in size to a sparrow, the creature later became associated with the kingfisher. In fact, some of the scientific taxonomical names for kingfishers are derived from the word “Halcyon”. However, unlike the mythical halcyon, the common kingfisher nests in burrowed holes along lakes, river banks, and seashores (3).
A host of new lore also ended up developing around the kingfisher, due to the bird’s link to the ancient stories. In fact, the conflation of the Alcyone myth (romantic love associations) and halcyon days (wind associations) with the kingfisher has resulted in some peculiar practices during parts of history. For instance, according to ornithologist Peter Tate, “… the Tartars of Eastern Europe and central Asia believed kingfisher feathers could be turned into powerful love talismans. The method was to throw plucked kingfisher feathers into water, collect all those that floated, and then stroke the hapless object of affection with one of them” (4). In the late 19th-century, John Ashton notes an even stranger application: “If a dead Kingfisher were hung up by a cord, it would point its beak to the quarter whence the wind blew” (5). Belief in the dead bird’s wind-detecting ability, as Ashton adds, even found its way in the plays of William Shakespeare (King Lear, Act 2, Scene 2) and Christopher Marlowe (Jew of Malta, Act 1, Scene 1). Several decades later in 17th-century England, Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, criticized such practices as scientifically erroneous (6).
Separating Myth from Reality
Much of the lore surrounding the kingfisher, of course, is clearly without merit. Although the birds are monogamous, they can mate several times throughout the year, usually starting in the spring or summer (7). Also, the idea of halcyon days as a set period of time in December is far from universally accepted in Europe, even in areas near Sicily, where the mating ritual is noted by several ancient sources. In some parts of Europe halcyon days is akin more to what we call Indian summer here in North America, occurring as early as November. For example, when Shakespeare refers to halcyon days in his play The First Part of King Henry VI (Act 1, Scene 2), his Joan of Arc equates it with “St. Martin’s summer”. British folklore scholar Venetia Newell points out, “In France, especially, the kingfisher is associated with St. Martin, whose day (November 11th) often falls within a period of fine weather before the onset of winter” (8). Furthermore, in Malta where kingfishers can reside from August to April, the birds are also associated with St. Martin of Tours rather than the winter solstice (9).
So what are we to make of all this? Have halcyon days passed us by? Perhaps such brief periods are not something actually restricted to a calendar. Perhaps they are simply feelings of serene bliss and beauty, at times contingent upon an experience or setting. They may become available when, as Walt Whitman writes, “all the turbulent passions calm…”, or while, like Ogden Nash states, “… We vegetate, calm, and aesthetic, / On the beach, on the sand, in the sun” (10, 11).
Perhaps in these days of ratcheting pressures involving holiday season preparations, we can still find some respite, no matter who we are or where we live, whether celebrating with others or relaxing in contemplation. With a few deep breaths, our mind—like Alcyone’s mythical nest—occasionally can settle into near stillness upon the oft-turbulent sea of existence. Maybe, in such moments, halcyon days can be found… here and now, again and again.
- Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 21.
- Ingersoll, E.
- “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online. http://www.avibirds.com/html/Kingfisher.html.
- Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition, 2008. p. 70.
- Ashton, J. Curious Creatures in Zoology with 130 Illustrations throughout the Text. London: John C. Nimmo, 1890. p. 200.
- Browne, T. Pseudodoxia Epidemica. 1646; 6th, 1672 (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo310.html).
- “Kingfisher”. Avibirds Bird Guide Online.
- Newell, V. The Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., U.K.: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 39.
- “Kingfisher”. Malta Independent Online. http://www.independent.com.mt/articles/2014-02-07/news/the-kingfisher-3899883521/.
- Whitman, W. “Halcyon Days”. Walt Whitman Archive: http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/poems/per.00093.
- Nash, F.O. “Pretty Halcyon Days”. Best Poems: http://www.best-poems.net/ogden_nash/poem-13465.html.