You may be familiar with the phrase halcyon days, for ‘calm and happy times’. But what exactly is a halcyon? It turns out that halcyon days comes from a funny fact about Greek winter, combined with a story about a mythical bird…
Sounds like: HAL-see-un (IPA: /’hælsiən/)
The Birds and the Warm Spells
If you ever spend a winter in central Greece, you’ll likely experience one of the pleasures of the Greek climate: in the middle of every winter season, Greeks get an uninterrupted week—sometimes two—of warm, sunny, calm, weather. This has been happening regularly for thousands of years.
According to Greek legend, these warm-spells are caused by the breeding-habits of a mythical bird: the halcyon (halkuōn or alkuōn in Ancient Greek). Halcyons are similar to kingfishers, except that they have some mythical properties:
- First, they breed (kuōn=conceiving) only in winter, at the time of the winter solstice; and
- Second, they lay their eggs either near the shore, or (depending on which version of the story you hear) in nests that float at sea (hals=sea).
The gods, for complex mythological reasons (see below), take a special interest in halcyon breeding. So, to ensure that the halcyon eggs survive in winter, the gods always cause two weeks of calm weather at (roughly) the winter solstice. Because of this legend, the Greeks call their winter warm-spells halcyon days (alkyonides hemerai, or alkyonides meres).
English speakers borrowed and adapted the phrase in the middle ages. But since, historically, England doesn’t have those periods of warm and sunny days in the winter, English speakers generalized the meaning: we just use it for any particularly calm or happy period.
Let’s Get Real
Halcyon is also the modern scientific name for a whole genus of real-life birds—kingfishers.
Real life is not like legend, though: while undeniably beautiful, real kingfishers do not breed at sea, and they do not make the seas go calm. The cold truth is: they dig burrows in muddy banks, line them with fish bones, and produce a rank-smelling foul midden in which they mate. Ew.
The Legend Behind the Legend
The ancient Greeks had a rich mythological world, so naturally halcyon has a whole complicated back-story. There are several versions—even the ancient Greeks had trouble keeping the story straight—but one telling of the legend goes like this:
- Alkyone (whose name just happens to sound like halcyon) was the daughter of Aiolos, a minor god who worked as the keeper of the winds.
- Alkyone fell in love with Keux, the son of Heosphorus (the morning star), and they married.
- Like many annoyingly loving couples, Alkyone and Keux gave each other cute little pet names. In their case, the cute pet names they chose were the actual names of two high-powered gods: Alkyone called him ‘Zeus’, and Keux called her ‘Hera’.
- Turns out they should have stuck to ‘hunny-bunny’—because when the real Zeus and Hera heard about what was going on, they got very angry, and turned the couple into mythical seabirds as punishment.
- Zeus had some regrets afterwards, though, and agreed to calm the water every year to protect Alkyone’s eggs.
In some versions Keux dies in a shipwreck, Alkyone drowns herself in grief, and they get resurrected as birds; other versions have a whole bunch of goddesses turned into halcyons. Whatever way you tell it, the story always ends with the same deal: mythical lovebirds mating, calm seas, and sunny skies—right in the middle of winter. Nice.
- “Hard, Robin. Handbook of Greek Mythology. Taylor & Francis, 2003.
- “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
- “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
- Online Etymology Dictionary
Flying kingfisher image is of a Ceryle alcyon Belted kingfisher (US NPS National Park Service staff photo, [Public domain] via Wikimedia commons
Mating tortoises are Aldabra tortoises, image by Szilas [Public domain ty Szlias] via Wikimedia commons
Images labelled Sunny Greek days, Calm and happy times, and Kingfishers are from morguefile.com
Drawing of Halycon as a young woman is from A book of myths (1915) New York : G. P. Putnam’s sons; London, T. C. & E. C. Jack. Copy at New York Public Library, scanned by nicole_deyo, obtained from http://www.archive.org/details/bookofmyths00lang [Public domain] via Wikimedia commons
Zeus stature is Zeus bust of Otricoli (Rome, Vatican), By http://www.pdimages.com [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shorebird sounds in pronunciation audio are by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons