Despite the winter weather and the troubles of the world, this is, nonetheless, the mythic season of halcyon days.
By Paul Hicks
Despite the winter weather and the troubles of the world, this is, nonetheless, the mythic season of halcyon days. I was reminded of this phenomenon by the recent sighting of a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) as it perched on a branch overhanging the Mamaroneck River.
The origin of the word alcyon in the kingfisher’s scientific name, lies in an ancient Greek myth. Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, married Ceyx, king of Thessaly and son of the morning star. The couple enjoyed pretending that they were Zeus and Hera, but their sacrilegious behavior angered Zeus, so he sent a lightning bolt that sunk a ship with Ceyx on board. When Alcyone learned of her husband’s drowning, in her grief she threw herself into the sea.
Out of compassion, the gods turned both Alcyone and Ceyx into halcyon birds (kingfishers), which they named in honor of Alcyone. The Roman poet Ovid recounted the myth in his “Book of Metamorphoses,” but he enhanced it with a legend of their everlasting love: each year at the winter solstice, Aeolus imprisons the winds and calms the sea for seven days (some say 14 days), allowing the kingfishers to nest and brood their young on the water, thereby perpetuating their line in these halcyon days.
Although there are more than 90 species of kingfishers found around the world, it is likely that the bird that the ancient Greeks and Ovid wrote about is the Eurasian kingfisher (Alcedo atthis). It is a small bird with an enormous range that stretches from Ireland in the west across Europe and much of Asia.
Most species of kingfishers are water birds that are not only hard to find but build their nests in tunnels along river banks and cliffs, which may have given rise to the idea of the halcyons nesting out of sight and at sea. Unlike many birds, the Eurasian kingfisher is not migratory, but nesting in winter was one of Ovid’s many uses of poetic license.
Over the centuries, a variation of the legend moved the halcyon nesting time to the period known as “Saint Martin’s summer,” which often occurred around November 11, the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. In Europe, that period has the same meaning as “Indian summer” in America and refers to a spell of hot dry weather in October or November, a somewhat more plausible time for kingfishers to nest. From that change in the legend, the name for a kingfisher became martin pecheur in French, martin pescatore in Italian, and martim-pescador in Portuguese.
Their connection to Aeolus and the winds led to a belief in the Middle Ages that kingfishers were omens of a change in the winds. In George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” there is a fateful moment when the wind finally turns favorable for Joan of Arc and her troops:
Dunois: What is it? The kingfisher? [he looks eagerly for it up the river]
Joan: Oh, a kingfisher! Where?
The Page: No. The wind, the wind [pointing to the flag].
Connection to the Ovidian legend disappeared in Northern Europe, where the small but stalwart kingfisher is admired for staying through the cold winter months, as long as it can still find its favorite meals of fish. In several languages it is called the ice bird eEisvogel in German, Ijsvogel in Dutch, isfugl in Danish). Along with its English name, other languages recognize its kingly position in the avian world (kungsfiskare in Swedish and kuningaskalastaja in Finnish).
Shakespeare combined the kingfisher references in another scene before a battle in “Henry VI, Part 1”:
Assign’d am I to be the English scourge
This night the siege assuredly I’ll raise:
Expect St. Martin’s summer, halcyon days
Since I have entered into these wars.
The belted kingfisher species that lives in this area is found all over the U.S. and Canada. They are stocky birds that have large heads and shaggy crests with thick, pointed bills. Their color is light blue on top and white on their underparts, with a blue band across the breast. Females also have a broad rusty band on their bellies.
They spend much of their time perched along streams and estuaries or flying rapidly over water and along shorelines, giving loud rattling calls. Frequently, when they see a fish, they will hover over the spot before plunging into the water to make the catch. Their spirited flights and calls are a delight to behold and can make you understand their symbolic role in the myth of recreation at the winter solstice and as an omen of halcyon days yet to come.