Sunday, December 27, 2009

The days of the kingfishers

Not from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

From Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

The unseasonably warm weather continues here as Britain freezes. These are halcyon days - a phrase, like so many, whose origins lie in Ancient Greek mythology.

They are named after Alcyone, who was the daughter of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. She fell in love and married Ceyx, King of Trachis and son of the evening star. Greek gods were not benign, all-merciful beings, they were arbitrary and capricious tyrants. Alcyone and Ceyx had angered Zeus by comparing themselves to Hera and Zeus himself and so, in a fit of temper, he drowned Ceyx at sea by throwing a thunderbolt at his ship as he was travelling to consult an oracle. His body was washed ashore and discovered by Alcyone who, overcome by grief, first performed the rites of burial and then threw herself into the sea to join her beloved in death. Deeply moved, the gods relented and turned Alcyone and Ceyx into kingfishers. Every December, around the winter solstice, the winds are supposed to cease and still, calm weather prevails as the kingfishers lay their eggs - Αλκυονίδες ημέρες, kingfisher days.

The soft winter warmth gives a sense of calm and peace, but Whitman got his seasons wrong. Halcyon days are not autumnal. They are not a moment of self-satisfied reflection at the end of life. They are a time of rebirth in the depths of winter, of a new life being forged and a reminder of the glories of summer to come - a cause for celebration. And today, for me, they are also a time of gratitude, for feeling incredibly lucky, as well as insufferably smug, about the fact that I am not shivering in a bitterly cold Manchester, even if I have to return there in around a week's time.

1 comment:

Taylorakis said...

Halcyon days too here on Crete. I knew the word derived from Greek, but didn't know the story. So many thanks. Although my effort this morning in the bakery to display my new found understanding fell on closed ears! The consensus was that I should head for the nearest asylum. Need to pursue this more as I thought Myths and Legends was still a staple of the Greek curriculum.

On a different tack later today I'm meeting for the first time a bloke, who describes himself as the founder and sole member of the Rethymno Rugby League Appreciation Society.Perhaps I can persuade a few other folk to play tick and pass on the beach!

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