Halcyon

alt: Kingfisher, Alcyone

origin: Greek

“The halcyon days are here. Let us be glad. There is nothing to fear.”

There is a bird, loved by sailors, who warns of the coming storm and grants peace in times of great turbulence. These birds are granted a special grace so that, for 14 days in winter when the sea is most agitated, they can calm the elements completely. During the calm they create, the birds lay their eggs and raise them on the surface of the ocean itself. Their nest is so strong it cannot be destroyed by mortal man.

This beloved bird is known as the Halycon. Lucian describes it:

“It is a bird the size of an ordinary sparrow whose plumage is blue and green with a bit of red; its beak is small, long, and greenish. It lives along the coast of Sicily. It lays just five eggs and builds its nest with the spines and bones of fish interwoven like threads of cloth; it is so solid that man cannot destroy it. The female lays her eggs in winter; she spends seven days building her nest and another seven days incubating her young. The time of her egg-laying is sacred; it usually occurs when Pleiades is low in the sky.”

The origin of the Halcyon dates back to classical antiquity. You can see the evidence in the etymology of the word: Halycon derives from Alcyon (after the goddess Alcyone). Alcyon derives from Ales Oceana, meaning "oceanic bird". The tragic but inspiring story of the goddess Alcyone is summarized perfectly in The Grand Medieval Bestiary so I will repeat it here in full:

“The myth of Alcyone is recounted by, among others, Homer and Ovid. She was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the wind, and married Ceyx, son of the morning star. Their union was so blissful that it provoked the jealousy of Zeus and Hera, who transformed them into birds. […] the ship on which Ceyx was traveling to consult an oracle was wrecked by a storm raised by Zeus. When informed of her husband's death in a dream, Alcyone rushed to the beach, where she discovered her beloved's lifeless body. In despair, she threw herself into the sea, where she was transformed into a halcyon, whose plaintive cry communicates the sadness of her loss. Ultimately the gods magnanimously transformed Ceyx into a halcyon as well, and Aeolus resolved to calm the winds for fourteen days every winter solstice so that the lovers could procreate without fear.”

The story highlights the cruelity and carelessness of the gods. It is so, so hard to come to terms with the fact that the things you love most can be taken from you by nature in an instant. When you think of the moment that innocent Alcyone discovers her dead husband, you share her grief even if you have never been married. But halcyons remain a symbol of courage in the face of such adversity. Alcyone's transformation brings hope. The strength of their marriage grants solace to others for the rest of time. This painful, beautiful moment of transformation deserves elaboration; I will conclude with this excerpt from Emma M. Firth:

“She went to the seashore, to the spot where she had bidden him farewell. "I shall see him no more," she cried, weeping bitterly. She gazed across the water; and far out, the dimpling, happy waves were bearing a gleaming object toward the shore. It came nearer and nearer, until Alcyone saw that it was the form of Ceyx, which the waves were bringing to her feet. She raised her arms and sprang toward it, no longer the beautiful Alcyone, but a graceful bird, uttering strange cries. She sought to lift him on her wings. Then two birds arose from the water, and flew away together. So Alcyone and Ceyx were united at last, and ever since then the halcyon birds have warned sailors of the coming storm. In the placid days of winter they brood on their floating nests, and skim the surface of the waves.”

“Then the sailors say, "The halcyon days are here. Let us be glad. There is nothing to fear.”

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