Halcyon Days

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Halcyon Days : Phrases


Calm, peaceful days.



Halcyon is a name for a bird of Greek legend which is commonly associated with the kingfisher. The phrase comes from the ancient belief that fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected around the winter solstice - usually 21st or 22nd of December in the Northern Hemisphere. as that was when the halcyon calmed the surface of the sea in order to brood her eggs on a floating nest. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.

Halcyon means calm and tranquil, or 'happy or carefree'. It is rarely used now apart from in the expression halcyon days. The name of the legendary bird was actually alcyon, the 'h' was added in regard to the supposed association with the sea ('hals' in Greek).

The source of the belief in the bird's power to calm the sea originated in a myth recorded by Ovid. The story goes that Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, had a daughter named Alcyone, who was married to Ceyx, the king of Thessaly. Ceyx was drowned at sea and Alcyone threw herself into the sea in grief. Instead of drowning, she was carried to her husband by the wind. The rest of the story is, in a translation of Ovid:

The Gods their shapes to winter-birds translate,
But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugal affection still is ty'd,
And still the mournful race is multiply'd:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compress'd,
Sev'n days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm, and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.

The legendary bird is usually identified with the kingfisher. That was also said to nest on the sea and was believed to be able to calm the sea for the seven days before and seven days after the winter solstice.

In 1398, John Trevisa translated Bartholomew de Glanville's De proprietatibus rerum into Middle English:

"In the cliffe of a ponde of occean, Alcion, a see foule, in wynter maketh her neste and layeth egges in vii days and sittyth on brood ... seuen dayes."

In Henry VI, 1599, Shakespeare refers to halcyon days:


Assign'd am I to be the English scourge.
This night the siege assuredly I'll raise:
Expect Saint Martin's summer, halcyon days,
Since I have entered into these wars.

Note: Saint Marin's summer is what we now know as an Indian summer.

The kingfisher is associated with other powers relating to the weather. In mediaeval times it was thought that if the dried carcase of a kingfisher was hung up it would always point its beak in the direction of the wind [don't try this at home]. Shakespeare also refers to this in King Lear, 1605:

Bring oil to fire, snow to their colder moods;
Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters

Our current use of halcyon days tends to be nostalgic and recalling of the seemingly endless sunny days of youth.

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