Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds. She was so happy in her marriage with Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, that they called themselves Zeus and Hera (surely not the couple that comes to mind when searching Greek mythology for an example of a happy marriage).
At any rate, this made Zeus mad and he struck down the ship on which Ceyx was sailing with a thunderbolt. When her husband’s ghost appeared before her, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.
The legend goes that every winter during the Halcyon Days, seven days before the Winter Solstice and seven days after, the female kingfisher carries her dead mate to his burial, then builds a nest, launches it onto the sea, lays her eggs, and hatches her chicks. While she is brooding over them, the sea is unusually calm since Aeolus sees to it that no winds blow.
Aristotle refers to a poem about this time written by Simonides of Ceos: “When in the winter month Zeus brings calm to fourteen days that earthlings call the time when the wind is forgotten, the holy breeding-season of the many-colored alcyon.”
Actually, kingfishers do not nest on water, but lay eggs in tunnels built in banks by water. But the Mediterranean is typically calm around the time of the Winter Solstice. Robert Graves believes Alcyone’s name means Queen Who Wards Off Evil [Storms] and that she protected sailors from storms at sea.
Shakespeare refers to this time period in this passage from Hamlet:
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 dare stir 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
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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