for 14 December 2022
Here is a phrase that seems to have forgotten its roots entirely. In our times, “halcyon days” refers to a golden past, a time when everything was wonderful. Sometimes it just means “youth” with overtones of innocence and insouciance. But this name has nothing to do with nostalgia. In fact, it’s an allusion to a very sad tale from Greek myth, a classical just-so stories explaining fair weather around the solstice.
In the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, both are transformed by their undying love into kingfishers. Alcyone is the daughter of the winds. Every year, her father calms the winds over the Mediterranean while Alcyone sits on her nest. But this isn’t a happy tale. She is a bird because she committed suicide after losing her dear husband to shipwreck.
This rather dark story with the marginally happy ending does describe Mediterranean weather around the solstice. Midwinter is a time of slack. The changes in temperature and pressure that drove autumn storms have subsided, and they don’t pick up again until the days are noticeably lengthened. The occasional winter storm finds its way from the North over the mountains, but most days the weather is monotonously still, sunny, and cool. Good for nesting birds, but not much else. No wind means no sailing, for one thing.
If they thought the becalmed sea was a “golden” time, the story they chose sure doesn’t reflect that belief. There isn’t anything happy about Alcyone except that she gets to be undisturbed — as a bird, not as a woman. So I don’t really understand how we slather her name on our rose-colored memories.
But then, we also name those who go seeking adventure and working great feats in the service of mankind “heroes” — after the goddess of matrimony, child-birth and home-life, Hera. So we clearly have translation issues…
In any case, the ten or twelve or fourteen days around the solstice are named the Halcyon Days. The Old Farmer’s Almanac says that golden period of slack begins today. It seems perfectly in accord with the day and the weather to curl up with a good book and nest for the next two weeks or so.
Magic in the Middle Ages Richard Kieckhefer Cambridge University Press, 1989
I don’t know what prompted me to pick this up at the library book sale. Maybe it was the cover illustration of an illuminated capital with a red-headed mage and this adorable little monkey demon (credits say the capital is from Jacobus’s Omne bonum, a heavily illustrated 14th century encyclopedia). I also don’t know what prompted me to start reading it out of all the books on my to-be-read shelf. But I think many of you would enjoy this as much as I am, so I’m sharing.
This is a fascinating lens on Medieval Europe, with deep forays into the east and south. This slim book packs in over a thousand years of history and sociology and yet remains readable to a lay-person and engaging for anyone mildly interested in our past.
Kieckhefer calls magic a “crossroads”, the liminal space where cultures, stories, and peoples interact. The place of edge effects. He divides magic into two main categories — folk magic and necromancy or demon magic — and then he goes on to say that only rarely would any medieval practitioner of magic ever call it that.
Folk magic was merely medicine and healing, household management, finding and mending all manner of things, blessings, prayers. These were the small rituals that people enacted each day. These days, we draw lines between religion, mundane chores, and magic, but those in the Middle Ages made no such distinctions. (And really, we don’t either… how many times have you said “goodbye” or “dear heavens” today, just as one example of all the ways we still practice folk magic in our daily lives.)
Similarly, necromancy, in a milieu that did not strictly separate the natural from the supernatural, was just one more way to gain power. It was no more magical to bind a demon than to petition saints and angels for aid. Nor was there any division between these unseen entities and the powers of nature. Magic was an extension of science, and indeed much of our science (or all?) has its roots in the experiments of necromancers.
If you love the edges and corners of history and want to hear the tales nobody tells, this is a great book. Not only is it a wonderful tale, but there are footnotes to even more fun obscurity. I am trying to resist racking up a pile of inter-library loans. I already have this shelf of reading backlog, you see.
A story for the Halcyon Days…
I wrote this over twenty years ago. It goes with my Midwinter story collection… There were publishing aspirations once upon a time, but I think I’d rather just share them. Though if someone wants to illustrate them… Anyway, here is my story of Ceyx and Alcyone.
Ceyx and Alcyone
Ceyx was the son of Lucifer, the Morning Star, and he was king in Thessaly. He was married to Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, King of the Winds. They loved each other above all else and could not bear seperation. But on a time Ceyx was obliged to travel over the seas to consult the oracle. Alcyone was distraught, daughter of the winds that she was. She knew the destructive power that the winds could unleash upon the waves. She begged Ceyx to send others in his place, or at least take her with him on the voyage.
Ceyx, then, was also moved to tears, for he returned her great love in equal measure. But Ceyx could not entrust his duty as king to his noblemen. Nor would he willingly cause Alcyone to face the perils of the high seas. So he boarded ship alone and set sail. Alcyone watched from the beach with a leaden heart as her love drifted out of the harbor. She remained there, cold on the sands, long after the ship was beyond mortal sight.
That very night Alcyone’s fears were proven true. A raging storm broke over the ship. The red lightening set fire to the masts; the wind tore the sails and set the waves pounding; the rain came down in rivers, overwhelming Ceyx’s ship. Every man aboard was mad with terror, every man but one. Ceyx was at peace, calmly facing his own death knowing that he had saved his beloved Alcyone from such a fate. He uttered her name as a final prayer as the waves crashed down and smashed his ship into oblivion.
Alcyone waited with as much patience as she could summon for Ceyx to return. As the days passed she sighed often and prayed unceasingly, to Hera most of all, patroness of all devoted wives. Hera heard her prayers, but the great Lady also beheld the destruction of Ceyx and knew Alcyone’s prayers were futile. Nothing would bring him back from the realm of Hera’s dark brother. So she thought to gently bring grave tidings to Alcyone in a dream.
Hera sent Hermes to Hypnos with the request that he wash Alcyone in sweet sleep and then send his children to relate the tale. Hypnos’s son, Morpheus, could assume the shapes of men in dreams. He was sent by his father to Alcyone in the shape of Ceyx, robed in seaweeds and dripping salt water on the floor.
“My dear wife,” said the shadow of Alcyone’s dearest. “My dear wife, await my return no more. I am gone forever under the seas. Await me no more, but shed salt tears in my memory. Never will I return. There is no hope. Now is the time to grieve. Farewell, my love.”
Alcyone, in her sleep, moaned and reached out her arms to embrace her husband, but he was gone. She woke with tears already coursing down her fair cheeks, knowing that her dream spoke the truth. Her dear Ceyx was dead. She no longer cared for life, so much did she long to be near him once more.
Before the dawn, she rose and made for the same strand where she had watched Ceyx sail away. Dully she gazed on the grey waters as the sky turned from slate to gold. As the sun rose, the waters were made into rippling light. All but one small patch far out on the harbor.
Alcyone watched this blot of darkness, and it seemed that it was drifting toward her. When it was still far out she realized it was a dead body, its face hanging down into the sparkling waters. With wide eyes she gazed transfixed as it came closer and closer, till finally it came to rest on the sand. A great wave pushed on a sudden strong wind turned the body; and there she beheld the face of her dead love.
She cried out in anguish. But the great wave carried both her and her husband’s body away from the beach. And suddenly she found that she was above the waters, riding on the winds. She looked to her hands and saw bright feathers. She looked to the terrible body and saw that it was gone. Instead, she found her lover’s eyes set in the body of a noble kingfisher. They flew to a perch of seaweed, tossed by the waves; and great was the joy that they shared at being reunited. Never would they part again.
For the Gods took pity on Ceyx and Alcyone because of their pure devotion and turned the both of them into kingfishers. They live together happily on the seas to this day. And each year at Midwinter there are seven days when the winds are restrained by Alcyone’s father and the seas are smooth as glass. For on those days, Alcyone sits on her brood, and her father will not disturb her watery nest until her children take wing.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022