Friday, May 18, 2018

The Latest Word: Halcyon
Ever wondered what the word 'halcyon' meant? Read on and discover the ancient myth that gave birth to this word.

The adjective halcyon


a) calm, peaceful, tranquil 
b) prosperous, wealthy, rich
c) joyful, carefree

The noun halcyon
A genus of the kingfisher birds.

The mythology behind the name and meaning

The word is derived from Middle English "alceon", dating back to the Latin "halcyon", which in turn stems from the Greek "alkyon".  

In Greek mythology, Alcyone (Ἁλκυόνη) was the daughter of Aeolus (god of the winds) and was married to Ceyx (Κήϋξ). 

Zeus's wrath fell upon them when the king of the gods of Olympus discovered that the happy couple would often refer to each other as 'Zeus' and 'Hera'. They were punished for this blasphemous comparison by Zeus himself who destroyed Ceyx's ship in a hurricane provoked by a thunderbolt as Ceyx was on his way to consult the oracle of Apollo in the aftermath of his brother's death. Alcyone had warned him not to go since her own father was often unable to control the winds, and, unable to convince him, pleaded with him to let her come along, which he naturally refused.

Antonio Tempesta's Morpheus as Ceyx, Appearing to Alcyone
Days went by and there was no sign of Ceyx. Alcyone prayed to the gods, and especially Hera, to bring him home safe and sound. Hera took pity on her and told Hypnos, the god of sleep, to break the news gently to her. Hypnos sent his son Morpheus, master of apparitions and the god of dreams, in his stead. Morpheus therefore appeared in the guise of Ceyx before Alcyone and told her of her beloved husband's tragic death. She rushed to the shore and sees her husband's corpse washed up. Unable to bear life without him, Alcyone performs the last rites and throws herself into the sea. 
William Woollett's 1769 engraving Ceyx and Alcyone

In an act of mercy or by way of atonement at the couple's tragic fate, the gods on Olympus transformed both husband and wife into halcyon birds and named them after her. Around the winter solstice, the birds lay their eggs on a floating nest on the sea according to one legend, or on the beach according to another. During this time, the weather is mild and the sea winds are calm (Alcyone's father, Aeolus, sees to this) so the nest is protected from storms and raging waves.

The phrase "halcyon days" thus refers to a calm time interval in the face of adversity, a period of joy and prosperity. To this day, Greek meteorologists make mention of halcyon days in weather forecasts with reference to temperate, sunny days usually in January, but more broadly between mid-December to mid-February.

Thomas Banks' marble bas-relief, Alcyone and Ceyx (1774)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Hot Off The Press

Book Review (Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice)

Few books have the ability to astound readers with their portrayal of austere social conventions and ludicrous mores as Jane Austen’s master...

And Now For Something Completely Different ...