Lead photo – Image by Sunsetoned from Pexels
What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Halcyon Days?” I’ve long associated Halcyon Days with summertime because I’ve understood it to mean a peaceful, idyllic time, often filtered through the hued lens of nostalgia—days spent swimming, warm summer nights catching fireflies, not having to be up early for school. In all actuality, it is probably more accurate to think of Halcyon Days as the calm in the eye of the storm, a temporary reprieve in the midst of adversity—maybe even just as a lucky break—rather than memories of tranquility. To have the most accurate understanding of Halcyon Days, though, we need to go back to ancient Greece.
I just want to go to Greece, tbh. Look at that view!
Once upon a time, there was a couple whose love was so true, it made even the gods jealous. Alcyone—daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds—and Ceyx—son of Eosphorus, the morning star—were blissfully married until Zeus struck down Ceyx’s ship as he was en route to the Oracle at Delphi. As Ceyx drowned, he pled with Poseidon to return him to his wife’s arms. When Alcyone saw her husband’s body on the shore, she threw herself into the sea. The gods, moved by their devotion to one another, turned them both into birds so that they could be together once more.
Image from Wellcome Images – Zeus and Hera are their names in Greek mythology; Jupiter and Juno are their names in Roman mythology.
That’s the broad-strokes setup for the story behind Halcyon Days. In some versions, Zeus struck Ceyx down because he and Alcyone committed the blasphemy of comparing their relationship to Zeus and Hera’s—which, man, I hope not: Zeus and Hera’s marriage was wildly unhealthy, in no small part because Zeus couldn’t keep it in his robes. In some versions, Ceyx was actually a mortal king, not the son of the morning star. In at least one version I came across, Zeus opted to turn Ceyx into a vulture rather than sinking his ship in a nasty storm… because reasons? The key elements that remain the same are that Alcyone and Ceyx were in love, were separated by Zeus (because Zeus; new liver, same eagles, am I right?), and the gods took pity on Alcyone and turned her into a bird, often described as bright blue and green and about the size of a swallow.
Alcyone finds Ceyx’s body.
From there the story goes that Alcyone was to nest and care for her eggs along the shore in the wintertime—sometimes this is attributed to Zeus being extra dickish and commanding that she lay her eggs at the spot where she found Ceyx’s body. After Alcyone cried and begged, Zeus’ heart softened and he commanded her father, Aeolus, to restrain the wind for fourteen days so that she could lay her eggs and teach her chicks to fly. These fourteen days became known as the Halcyon Days.
As with all mythology and lore, there are going to be inconsistencies like those above relating to Ceyx’s death. In the case of Halcyon Days, there is additional inconstancy around when they are. Depending on the source, Halcyon Days straddle winter solstice—one week before for Alcyone’s nesting and laying eggs and one week after for raising the chicks and teaching them to fly—or they occur in the middle of winter, which would be mid- to late-January. Some throw in with a third timeframe, seeing Halcyon Days and in alignment with St. Martin’s summer, a period of unusually warm weather in late fall around November 11th which is St. Martin’s feast day. It is also often noted that, regardless of the timeframe, the actual meteorological event almost never lasts a neat and tidy fortnight; the Halcyon Days are usually somewhere between seven and ten days.
Image by Sunsetoned from Pexels
Aristotle’s description of the mythical birds Ceyx and Alcyone were morphed into by the gods—bright blue and green and approximately the size of a swallow—beget a real-world counterparts: kingfishers. In fact, an entire subfamily of kingfishers actually bear Alcyone’s name: Halcyoninae, within which is the genus Halcyon. Unlike the myth, kingfishers or Halcyon birds do not nest on the sea or along shore; rather they nest tunnels dug out along river banks and in crevices along cliffsides. The kingfishers that live most of the year in the more northern latitudes of Eurasia often migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter. This migration also happens to coincide with the appearance of the constellation Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters—the brightest of the Sisters is Alcyone—which, in the northern hemisphere, hits its apex around the time of Halcyon Days, if you place them in November, around St. Martin’s summer (again, depending on the source, the mythology around the star Alcyone differs from the kingfisher Alcyone).
Image by lightclad – The Seven Sisters appear to be nestled in a reflection nebula.
Regardless of the timeframe in which we place them, the idea of Halcyon Days—a respite in the midst of chaos—is exactly what we need this time of year. As we navigate a whole host of holidays, the idea of a fortnight of tranquility and peacefulness sounds like exactly what the doctor ordered, especially this year: 2020 has been a never-ending shitshow and even just the thought of Halcyon Days in the midst of it brings a smile to my face. Think about it: two weeks of slowing down, resting, and caring for yourself—two weeks of calm—in the midst of a year of pain, chaos, trauma, and loss… it sounds wonderful. And necessary. So, let’s observe Halcyon Days for these two weeks by giving ourselves permission to quiet our minds and restore our bodies; find the time and space to let Aeolus calm the winds and seas that surround us, even if for a few minutes each day.
Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay
And as always, wash your hands and wear a mask—and, please, don’t take any unnecessary risks with your health and the health of others: that is also a way to make the seas of 2020 calmer.