In winter many areas of Greece are plagued by frost, snow and violent storms. A country that consists of seventy percent mountains and thousands of islands has to deal with quite a few problems in winter. Because of temperatures up to twenty degrees below zero and meters high snowfall many mountain villages are closed off from the outside world. And if this lasts long enough, the people of these villages will be without the necessities of life. Helicopters with rescue workers rush out every year to supply food or pick up sick people from areas that have become completely unreachable by road. No wonder that since ancient times the Halcyon days have enjoyed great popularity among the Greeks and that every effort has been made to explain them.

God of the winds
Almost every year, in the middle of winter, it suddenly becomes spring for around two weeks. It stops freezing and snowing, the temperature rises and the sky is as blue as the Aegean sea in August. But above all, the wind stops blowing and the sea becomes smooth.

According to the ancient Greeks, the god of the winds, Aeolus, eased the storms by temporarily locking them up in his cave. This decision was made in consultation with supreme god Zeus in order for Aeolus’ daughter, Alcyone, to comfortably hatch her eggs in her floating nest at sea. The warm Halcyon days are named after Alcyone.

Today’s meteorologists have a scientific explanation for the Halcyon days. But the ancient Greeks sought explanations for phenomena that they did not understand in the acts of the gods. And so the Halcyon days were explained by the problems of a harmonious and loving couple that was helped by the gods. A myth beautifully described by the Roman Ovid in his book Metamorphoses, was written somewhere between 1 AD and 8 AD. But the myth is much older, because even Homer already references to it in his book the Iliad (8 BC).

Loving royal couple
The loving royal couple King Ceyx and Queen Alcyone ruled thousands of years ago over a city called Trachis in the Greek province of Thessaly. Even the Olympian gods envied the couple for their love for each other and the dedication to their kingdom. But fate strikes when King Ceyx’s brother commits suicide. Everything changes. King Ceyx’s brother’s beautiful, fourteen-year-old daughter Chione had made love, whether or not voluntarily, with both god Hermes and god Apollo and gave birth to twins. Chione felt superior because she had two children of gods. Besides, no less than two Olympic gods had chosen her because of her beauty. She becomes so arrogant that she even puts herself above Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and teases her saying to be more beautiful and important. Artemis shoots Chione an arrow through the tongue and Chione bleeds to death. With grief for the loss of his daughter, the brother of King Ceyx jumps from the highest peak of Mount Parnassos.

King Ceyx becomes very depressed after the death of his brother and niece and craves to find relief. He wants to go to the oracle of Apollo. He thinks that only she can help him. But it’s impossible to reach the oracle in the temple of Apollo in Delphi, because the access to Delphi is closed. So he decides to sail to Asia Minor (the current west coast of Turkey) to see another oracle.

Alcyone begs him not to go. As a daughter of the god of the winds she knows better than anyone else what the storms at sea are capable of. Moreover, she foreboded a disaster. But Ceyx sees no other way out than to go and he drowns at sea in a violent storm.

Τhe queen turns into a kingfisher
When Alcyone is informed that her beloved Ceyx is dead, she rushes to the coast. Desperate of sorrow, she stares over the sea for hours. When she sees a body floating in the water and realizes it is her husband she plunges into the wild waves to be with him. At that moment she is turned into a kingfisher by the gods who have a great compassion for her. She flies over the waves to her husband, embraces him with her wings and kisses him with her beak. Immediately Ceyx also changes into a kingfisher. And so they are together again.

The Alcyone bird belongs to the kingfisher family (Alcedinidae) and its Latin name comes from the mythical Queen Alcyone. In ancient times it was thought that they laid and hatched their eggs in the winter. They would build a floating nest at sea. And that’s how Alcyone was sitting in her floating nest in the winter. But every winter her nest and eggs were destroyed by the harsh waves of the rugged winter sea. So Alcyone remained childless and became depressed. According to the ancient Greeks, supreme god Zeus decided that Alcyone’s father had to lock the winds in his cave for a period of about fourteen days during the winter. In that way the sea would be calm and Alkione could hatch her eggs in peace. And so it happened, and therefore these days are called the Halcyon days.

As soon as Alcyone hatched her eggs, winter continued. The temperatures would drop again, and the winds would start blowing. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to predict when the Halcyon days will come. You will find different opinions on this in Greek and Roman literature.

The truth about the kingfisher
By now it’s known that kingfishers do not make floating nests at sea. They build nests on high sandy banks and prefer to dig them with their beaks. Also, the Alcyone, just like any other bird hatches her eggs in spring. The claim by Aristotle and others that she hatches her eggs during the Halcyon days in winter was incorrect.

In Greece only the species Alcedo atthis occur. It’s a perky bird of about sixteen to eighteen centimeters height with a short tail, a turquoise blue back, a red-orange breast and a long, crooked, sloping beak. In relation to the body it has a big head and it lives on the banks of rivers and lakes and on rocky or vegetated seashores. It mainly hibernates in Greece.

Talisman and prophet
For a long time the fishermen in Greece regarded the Alcyone as a bird that protected them from the unfavorable winds at sea, besides the Alcyone was attributed prophetic qualities. Fishermen would wear the carcass of a dried Alcyone as a talisman around their necks to appease the sea. In the book “Argonautica” (250 BC) of Apollonius Rhodius you can read about the Alcyone as a prophet. In the story Jason and the Argonauts are sailing with their ship the Argos from Iolkus (now Volos) to Kolchis (present-day Georgia) to return the Golden Fleece. They experience many adventures. It tells about a twelve days-long storm during which Jason and his crew sleep on the mainland until the storm stops so they can continue their journey. Suddenly a crew member sees a loud screaming kingfisher circling over Jason’s head. The crew member is mad with joy and wakes everyone to tell the good news. The wind will lie down! The appearance of the Alcyone is taken very seriously and everyone goes to work immediately to be able to sail off. And indeed, at sunrise the winds have settled and Jason and the Argonauts continue their long journey.

Epiphany
With the arrival of Christianity a new explanation was found for the Halcyon days. Of course this explanation had no relation with the ‘pagan’ Olympic gods or ancient Greek mythology. According to the Christian faith these beautiful warm days with a calm sea in the middle of winter would be the logical consequence of the blessing of the waters by the priests during the Epiphany on January 6.

Sources:

  • Metamorphoses, Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics, 2004.
  • Αργοναύτικα, Απολλώνιος Ρόδιος. Κάκτος, Αθήνα, 1992.
  • The history of animals, Aristotle. Translated by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. The Internet Classics Archive.
  • The ancient sailing season, James Beresford. Brill Academic Publishers, 2012.
  • Indications of stability of occurrence of Halcyon Days in the ancient Greek drama, C. Chronopoulou & A. Mavrakis.
  • Βασική παγκόσμιος εγκυκλοπαίδεια, 2ος τόμος. Εκδόσεις Χάρη Πάτση Α.Ε., 1976/77.
  • Fabulae, Hyginus.
  • Wikipedia

Featured image of kingfisher, creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by Richard Giddins.

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