|Other names:||Alcedo, Alcion, Alcyon, Altion|
A bird that calms sea storms
At mid-winter, when the sea storms are strongest, the kingfisher lays its eggs in the sand on the shore. For seven days the kingfisher hatches the eggs, and for an additional seven days it nourishes them. During those fourteen days the sea remains calm, unnaturally for the season. Sailors know that during this time they will not be threatened by storms, and call this the "halcyon days" after the Latin name of the kingfisher, "halcyon".
The illustrations of the kingfisher vary wildly, from fairly realistic depictions to strange long beaked birds. Medieval artists seemed unsure of which bird the halcyon was.
From ancient Greek mythology: Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. When Alcyone's husband died in a shipwreck, Alcyone threw herself into the sea whereupon the gods transformed them both into halcyon birds (kingfishers). When Alcyone made her nest on the beach, waves threatened to destroy it. Aeolus restrained his winds and kept them calm during seven days in each year, so she could lay her eggs. These became known as the "halcyon days," when storms do not occur.
Aristotle [ca. 350 BCE] (De animalibus Book 5, chapter 8.2-3): [The halcyon] hatches its young about the time of the winter solstice. Whereupon fine days occurring at this season are called halcyon days, seven before the solstice and seven after it. As Simonides also writes in his poems, "as when in the winter months Jupiter prepares fourteen days, which mortals call the windless season, the sacred nurse of the variegated halcyon." These fine days take place wherever it happens that the solstice turns to the south, when the pleiades set in the north. The bird is said to occupy seven days in building its nest, and the other seven in bringing out and nursing its young. The halcyon days are not always met with in this country at the time of the solstice, but they always occur in the Sicilian Sea. The halcyon produces five eggs. [Book 9, chapter 15] The halcyon is not much larger than a sparrow; its colour is blue and green, and somewhat purple; its whole body is composed of these colours as well as the wings and neck, nor is any part without every one of these colours. Its bill is somewhat yellow, long, and slight; this is its external form. [A reasonable description of the kingfisher] - [Cresswell translation, 1887]
Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 47): Kingfishers are rarely seen except at the setting of the Pleiades and around midsummer and midwinter. The time at which they breed is called the 'halcyon days' (dies halcyonides); at this time the sea is calm and navigable, particularly so around the island of Sicily. The build their nests seven days before the shortest day, and lay their eggs seven days after it.
Aelianus [170-230 CE] (On the Characteristics of Animals, Book 1, chapter 36): While the Halcyon is sitting, the sea is still and the winds are at peace and amity. It lays its eggs about mid-winter; nevertheless, the sky is calm and brings fine weather, and it is at this season of the year that we enjoy 'halcyon days'. - [Scholfield translation]
Saint Ambrose [4th century CE] (Hexameron, Book 5, chapter 13.40): [The halcyon] is a sea bird that is to be found bringing up her young on the shore, depositing her eggs in the sand about mid-winter. This is the time allotted for the hatching, when the sea is at its stormiest and the waves make their most destructive inroads on the shore. Wherefore the graciousness of this bird should appear all the more evident because of the periodic and unexpected recurrence of calm weather, because atmospheric conditions suddenly take on a milder tinge at the moment when the eggs are laid, when the sea is still stormy. The stormy blasts and violent winds subside while the halcyon broods over her eggs, when the sea was at peace and still. The eggs are hatched in seven days. At the end of that period the young brood leaves the protecting shell. At this point there is another period of seven days, during which the fledglings are nourished until they grow to maturity. Do not wonder at the fact that such a slight amount of time is needed for their growth, because very few days are necessary for the completion of the brooding stage. So much significance has been accorded by divine power to this tiny bird that sailors keep on the lookout for these fourteen days, which they call 'halycon days,' during which they expect calm weather and dread no more the tumult of the raging tempest. - [Savage translation, 1961]Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:25): The kingfisher (halcyon) is a sea bird that is named as it were alcyanea (sea foam). It makes its nest in the winter during the calm of the ocean; while it is on its nest the sea grows calm and the winds silent for seven days, so that the very nature of things assists with the production of its young.
The modern association of the Latin name halcyon or alcyon with the kingfisher is probably based on the bird's family name Alcedinidae and subfamily name Halcyoninae. It is not clear whether the medieval "halcyon" is actually the modern "kingfisher".
The story of the kingfisher and its Greek sources are the orgin if the term "halcyon days", usually referring to days in the past that were calm and happy.