Like pretty much everyone else in the UK (except those caught by flash floods) I’ve been enjoying this year’s vintage summer. I’m not sure if the weather was really like this in my 1950s childhood but it’s how I remember it.
The phrase “halcyon days” came to mind yesterday to describe this summery perfection. I recalled that Halcyon (Alcyone) is the Greek word for kingfisher and I guessed that there would be a story about it’s origin somewhere in the lesser-known regions of Greek mythology. It didn’t take long to find it in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a beautiful story it is too.
Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus the God of the Winds, was married to Ceyx the King of Thessaly. Their marriage was blissful and the depth of their love for each other was a wonder, even to the Olympian gods who occasionally peeped into their palace to see for themselves. But hubris, even in the act of love itself, is always dangerous and when they were overheard calling out “O, my Zeus,” and “O, my Hera,” the rulers of Olympus were furious.
One day, Ceyx decided to visit the oracle at Delphi. Alcyone, brought up in the Palace of the Winds, knew how fickle they could be and begged her husband to travel overland. But Ceyx refused, telling her that the journey by sea would be much quicker and that he could not bear to be parted from her longer than necessary: “I swear to you by the light of the morning star, to return to you as long as the fates allow it, before the moon has twice completed her circle.”
The captain and crew prepared the royal ship for its voyage. Alcyone came to the harbour and saw Ceyx off, watching until the mainsail dipped below the horizon before she retired to the palace to await her husband’s return. But Zeus – from whom nothing is hidden – chose that night to punish their blasphemous ways.
He caused a tremendous storm to rise up at sea, with thunderbolts and crashing waves that broke the ship in two and cast all aboard into the water. Ceyx himself died with Alcyone’s name on his lips, clinging to a piece of wreckage, praying that the waves would bring his body into her sight so that she might bury him with her own hands.
Meanwhile, Alcyone went about her business unaware of what had befallen her husband. Each day she prayed to Hera that he would return still preferring her to all other women. Her loving devotion stirred the goddess’s heart; that at least she could grant. Hera sent Morpheus to her in a dream, in the likeness of drowned Ceyx, to reveal his fate.
When she awoke, Alcyone knew her beloved Ceyx was dead. She screamed and pulled out her hair in grief; she went down to the shore where they had said farewell and peered out to sea. Some distance out, she saw his body bobbing on the waves. Desperate to be reunited with her husband she ran along a breakwater and leapt off the end. Ovid tells us what happened next:
Though it was amazing that she could do so… she flew, and, beating the soft air on new-found wings, a sorrowing bird, she skimmed the surface of the waves. As she flew, her plaintive voice came from a slender beak, like someone grieving and full of sorrows. When she reached the mute and bloodless corpse, she clasped the dear limbs with her new wings and kissed the cold lips in vain with her hard beak.
Well, perhaps not entirely in vain. Because Ceyx had – after all – returned to her still preferring her to all other women and the gods, taking pity on their plight, changed him into a bird as well. Their love remained and the bond between them was not weakened. As kingfishers, each year they mate and rear their young and each year, as Alcyone broods on her nest, her father Aeolus calms the waves and imprisons the winds to give us all “halcyon days.”
[Photo credit: Andreas Trepte, www.photo-natur.de]