Halcyon maze – An Irishman’s Diary about the kingfisher, real and mythical
Halcyon means “kingfisher” in Greek, and the phrase is founded on a charming myth, involving the marriage of Alcyone – daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds – and Ceyx, son of the morning star
In case you missed it on Wednesday, we have now entered the Halcyon Days of 2016. No, not in the usual figurative sense of that term.
You’d search the news headlines in vain this week for the happiness and prosperity that “Halcyon Days” normally imply; although, of their nature, such periods are usually referred to in past tense, as if to prove the old saying that happiness is never experienced, only remembered.
But the original Halcyon Days were a well-defined chronological entity. There were 14 of them, spread evenly on either side of the winter solstice. And among the ancient Greeks, this was noted as a period of unseasonal calm in the Mediterranean, when the wind didn’t blow and waves were unruffled.
Halcyon means “kingfisher” in Greek, and the phrase is founded on a charming myth, involving the marriage of Alcyone – daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds – and Ceyx, son of the morning star.
They were happy for a time, until they made the mistake of renaming themselves “Zeus” and “Hera”, whereupon the original Zeus, who had a bad temper, sank Ceyx’s ship with a thunderbolt, causing Alcyone to drown herself.
That’s not the charming bit.
Other gods, more sympathetic, had the pair reincarnated as kingfishers, a bird the ancient Sicilians believed laid its eggs on the surface of the sea around this time. Hence the legend that the bird was the former Alcyone, brooding on her chicks in mid-December, while her father kept the winds in check.
Alas for romance, it has been noted in the intervening centuries that kingfishers do not lay eggs at sea, but rather along riverbanks. Also, there is no correlation between their breeding habits and the winter solstice. Hence the alternative theory for the phrase’s origins, in the sky rather than on water.
My Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable illustrates the term Halcyon Days with a poetic reference to, of all people, Oliver Cromwell.
Mind you, he was dead at the time the lines were written, by John Dryden. But Dryden clearly had a high opinion, suggesting that the peace then descended was Cromwell’s deserved tribute: “And wars have that respect for his repose/As winds for halcyons when they breed at sea.”
In broadly similar vein, Shakespeare has Joan of Arc evoking the halcyon myth in Henry VI Part I when she arrives at Orleans, to be greeted by a sceptical French dauphin. Unusually, the image is in the future tense. “Expect St Martin’s Summer, halcyon days, since I have entered into these wars,” she assures the dauphin.
And she was right, more or less. The lifting of the English siege has been called a “watershed” in the One Hundred Years War: there was only another quarter of a century or so to go.
A veteran of a more recent conflict, Ambrose Bierce, could reflect 50 years after it on the “halcyon days” of 1861, when the American Civil War was already raging. But his particular context was a campaign in West Virginia, where, as he noted, the actual halcyon was ubiquitous: “chattering above every creek, as he is all over the world”.
Two decades later again, a popular English writer EF Benson recalled halcyon days in more ways than one. In his 1921 novel Dodo Wonders, set in the shires, he describes the idyllic adventures a young character who, after seeing the bird emerge from a river bank, wades across the water greedily, losing a sock in the process, because “there was a firm legend that the British Museum would give you a thousand pounds for an intact Kingfisher’s nest”.
In the event, he has to settle for a thrush’s nest. But in the very next paragraph, the novel makes casual mention of “War Office news about Verdun and Kut”, a stark juxtaposition that dates the action to exactly a century ago, when the French town and Iraqi city were simultaneously making headlines.
The Battle of Verdun had begun in February, with the stated German aim of bleeding France to death. It didn’t do that, quite. But it had claimed almost a million casualties on both sides by the time it ended, 100 years ago this week, in the (purely chronological) Halcyon Days of 1916.