Daily Archives: October 15, 2009

halcyon /’hælsɪən/

If I haven’t mentioned it before, I will now: If you are only going to read one piece of classical literature in your life, then make sure it’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Sure, Homer’s Odyssey is a blast, but I’d put him second on the list. And the reason for recommending Ovid is that the stories he tells cover as much Greek and Roman mythology as you can squeeze into one book. Well, apart from the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which certainly contains all information but is hardly a “good read.”

One of the tales from the Metamophoses is that of Ceyx (/’si:ɪks) and Alcyone (/ælˈsaɪˌni/). It’s a tragic love story between a king and the daughter of a god. Ceyx was the king of Trachis on central Greece and Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. The couple so loved each other that they would play around by calling each other Zeus and Hera. Alas, although most of the gods adored the couple, Zeus took the huff and decided – as he was wont to do often – make life a little difficult for the harmless pair.

Following the death of Ceyx’s brother, he decided to consult the oracle of Apollo in Ionia because he was worried that the death was a bad sign. To get the the oracle, he had to sail across the Mediterranean, which his wife, Alcyone, felt was a bad idea.

And as wives usual are, she was. After leaving the shores, Zeus tossed a few thunderbolts towards his ship and everyone was drowned. Like most gods, having hissy fits is par for the course.

Richard Wilson's Ceyx and Alcyone

Richard Wilson's Ceyx and Alcyone

Hera, as wives usual are, was much more sensitive to lovers and felt that Zeus had been somewhat over-zealous in his treatment of Ceyx. So she arranged for Morpheus, the god of sleep, to break the news to Alcyone of Ceyx’s demise, which he did by creating a ghost of the husband who visited her in a dream to tell her of his death.

Alcyone, in her pain and anguish, ran to the shore and threw herself in sea to drown. With both of them dead, the rest of the gods felt that this tragedy should never have occurred, so they persuaded Zeus to give them a second chance. Rather than restore them to their original forms, he turned them into kingfishers.

As a final twist, every year, in January, Aeolus would calm the winter seas for two weeks so that Alcyone could safely lay eggs by the shores. These calm days became know as Halcyon Days – periods of calm on the sea.

Kingfisher (Halycon)

Kingfisher (Halycon)

The Greek word for “kingfisher” was ὰλκυών with a hard /k/sound. However, as it was Latinized, the /k/ gave way to the softer /s/ and appears in the 4th century CE as alceon and alicion. In 1398, John de Trevisa wrote in his Bartholomeus De proprietatibus;

In the cliffe of a ponde of Occean,
Alicion, a see foule, in wynter maketh her neste
And layeth egges in vii dayes and sitteth on brood…seuen dayes

Here the notion of the two weeks of calm is made explicit with one week of laying and aweek of brooding.

In the 16th century, we see the phrase Halcyon days making an appearance. For example, George Joye wrote “I remembered the halcyons dayes” in his 1545 pot-boiler, The exposicion of Daniel the prophete.”

Thomas Shadwell (1642-1692), an English poet and playwright, penned the verse;

Halcyon days, now wars are ending.
You shall find where-e’er you sail
Tritons all the while attending
With a kind and gentle gale.

Much later, the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote the poem entitled Halcyon Days, which includes the wonderful lines;

As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish’d and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

After reading this, I hope you’re now curious enough to spend a few of your own halcyon days reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. If you only ever read one piece of classical literature…


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