These Are the Halcyon Days

By , December 15, 2009

To my surprise, these are the Halcyon Days! This term, which we now use to describe a more peaceful, idyllic past or calm period, comes to us from the Greeks. It describes the time of year when the sea is flat and calm, allowing the Halcyon Bird to build a nest on the surface of the ocean in which to lay and hatch its eggs.

The modern usage of the term halcyon led me to associate it with summertime, but apparently the Greeks experienced a period of calm sea conditions around the Winter Solstice. They associate the period with December 15th, the feast day of the goddess Alcyon, whose symbol is the Halcyon Bird. The Halcyon Days are the seven days before and after the Winter Solstice. This time period in our part of the world is anything but halcyon—it is typically a time of high winds and stormy seas.

The Halcyon Bird is familiar to many of us as the kingfisher. This bird does not, contrary to the Greeks’ beliefs, nest on water. They actually dig burrows in the ground for their nests. North America has two kingfishers, the green kingfisher of Texas and Mexico, and the belted kingfisher, which is found everywhere except the most northern extremes of the continent. Europe has a different kingfisher, the common or European kingfisher, which is the one known to the Greeks. It lays eggs underground in April and July. The Greeks apparently weren’t that skilled at observing Nature! But what would you expect when one of their greatest philosophers (and a key shaper of Western thought, incidentally) felt one could learn more about nature sitting inside thinking about it than one could by getting out in it?

I’ve always had great affection for the kingfisher. It sits on high perches, watching for food in the water, then hovers and plunges down below the surface to catch its prey, usually small fish. In flight it makes scooping flaps, then shoots through the air with its wings close to its sides, looking like a dart. It’s a brave, cocky little creature, eager to defend its territory in and out of breeding season. One summer my brother and I watched a kingfisher outrun a raven that wanted the smaller bird’s catch. The raven, weighing probably five times its prey and possessed with a heavy, head-splitting bill and amazing intelligence, attacked the kingfisher repeatedly as they flew. The little kingfisher outmaneuvered the raven, and weathered its attacks until it made it to safety with its meal. My brother and I cheered.

We don’t see kingfishers quite as much at this time of year, which is ironic in that our culture has inherited the Greeks’ term in reference to it. Even so, these are the Halcyon Days about which we’ve so often heard.

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