Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
Hamlet, I, i 157
Many many years ago, before the advent of advertising and the shopping mall, the seven days before and after the winter solstice were considered a time of calm and tranquility, and were known as Halcyon Days.
It was during this time that the Hellenic1
Goddess Halcyone (Alcyone) was honored.
Most people would leave mention of Halcyone at that. But not me.
Halcyone's story is a beautiful and tragic tale. She was married to the just and handsome Ceyx, King of Thessaly, son of Hesperus.
Their love for each other was immeasurable. Some sources even say that they called themselves "Zeus" and "Hera"2
, and that it was Zeus's anger at this that caused their tragedy. But that sounds like tabloid-talk to me, so I'd take it with a grain of salt.
Ceyx had something of a persecution complex, believing that the gods conspired against him. So he decided to visit the oracle at Apollo in Ionia, which was waaay across the sea from where he and Halcyone lived in Trachinae. When he told Halcyone of his travel plans, she shuddered and visibly paled. She knew the terrors of the see all too well, being the daughter of Æolus, god of the winds (he's the one who granted Ulysses safe passage by putting the winds into a sack way-back-when). She tried reasoning with him, she tried guilting him, she even asked to go along with him, but to no avail.
Ceyx promised to return within two months. Halcyone, knowing good foreshadowing when she saw it, instantly fell into a dead faint upon his leaving.
He, of course, ran into a storm and died a terrible and tragic death shortly thereafter.
Halcyone didn't know this, (telecommunications being somewhat less speedy and accurate than they are today), and prayed incessantly to Juno for his safe return. Juno couldn't take all this useless praying and sent Iris, her messenger, (who incidentally had a very nifty robe of many colors) to Somnus, The King of Sleep.
Somnus had numerous
sons (would you expect any less from a god who lies in bed all day and night?), and of these, it was Morpheous who was best at impersonating men in dreams. Oh, other sons had their niches too... Icelos was best at imitating animals of all kinds, while Phantasos was the undisputed king of mimicking inanimate objects (it's not easy being a rock, I tell you). Somnus sent Morpheous to show Halcyone in a dream that her husband had died.
Morpheous flew to Halcyon (with nifty wings that made no sound!), and appeared by Halcyone's couch in Ceyx's form, pale, naked and wet, and told her to lament, for he was dead.
Not one to ignore a good subliminal message, she awoke and she ripped at her clothes and tore at her hair.
Poor Halcyone. She went to the spot where they had last kissed, by the water. She was daydreaming about their last moments together when a body floated by.
The Mediterranean is not particularly well-known for its floating bodies, but Halcyone took it in stride. Until, that is, she realized it was her husband (you didn't see that coming, did you?). She leaped atop the barrier that had been constructed as a wave break, and ran along it; then, striking the air with new wings, she flew across the surface as a bird.3
Flying to Ceyx's lifeless body, she enveloped him in her wings, and kissed him with her beak. (I'm not entirely sure how one kisses another with a beak, but this is how the story goes, and whom am I to question it?)
The gods, touched by this, brought Ceyx back to life as a bird, too.
Every year at about this time, they mate and Halcyone broods over her nest, which floats atop the smooth sea made calm by the proud Æolus.4
Thus, the smooth, calm, Halcyon days.
O magic sleep! O comfortable bird May your Halcyon Days be sweet and calm. :)1 "Greeks" was a name given by the Romans to those who called themselves "Hellens."
That broodest o’er the troubled sea of the mind
Till it is hushed and smooth.
2 You think maybe they could have picked a better example of matrimonial bliss?
3 The type of bird represented by the Halcyon is generally believed to be the kingfisher. In fact, there are three species of kingfisher-- Alcedinidae, Cerylidae, and, the largest group of all, Halcyonidae.
4 The Mediterranian is actually calmer at this time of year. This is also the time of the year that kingfisher lays its eggs near the water-- perhaps because the water is calm enough to do so.
It is also interesting to note that there is "another" Alcyone in Hellenic mythology... and that she is the daughter of Pleione and Atlas, granddaughter of Oceanos, and directly related to Neptune and Poseidon. This Alcyone is the leader of the seven Pleiades. The rising of the Pleiades in May signals the beginning of the navigational year, which ends when they set. I have heard that, in many languages, the Pleiades are called by bird names, and that the Pleiades would have been almost directly overhead at the apex of their cycle during Halcyon days. Just... interesting.