Saturday, 17 December 2011

Halcyon days are here again

'The Gods their shapes to winter-birds translate,
But both obnoxious to their former fate.
Their conjugal affection still is ty'd,
And still the mournful race is multiply'd:
They bill, they tread; Alcyone compress'd,
Sev'n days sits brooding on her floating nest:
A wintry queen: her sire at length is kind,
Calms ev'ry storm, and hushes ev'ry wind;
Prepares his empire for his daughter's ease,
And for his hatching nephews smooths the seas.'

from the Metamorphoses of Ovid translated by John Dryden et al

The storms of the past few weeks have blown themselves out for now, and in their place is the pellucid stillness of the approaching shortest day. The Halcyon Days are here, the name given to the weeks either side of the winter solstice when the wind dies and the sea flattens.

The Greeks of antiquity told a tale of a bird of light that made a floating nest on the sea each midwinter. The tale survives in Ovid's great poem Metamorphoses. He relates how, out of grief for her drowned husband, Alcyone threw herself into the sea but was lifted up and turned into a bird by the gods. Husband and wife, both now birds, are reunited and each winter build a nest on the sea to lay a clutch of eggs. It is fortunate that Alcyone's father, Aeolus, is the keeper of the winds and they are held in check for the seven days it takes for the eggs to hatch.

The bird of light is most usually identified as a kingfisher and this is recalled in its generic name Alcedo, a latinised form of the Greek Halcyon. It is perhaps a strange coincidence that midwinter is the time of year when kingfishers are most likely to be seen at our coasts, when the inland rivers where they usually fish may be frozen. And whatever the truth of Ovid's tale, it is certainly the case that the solstices, the pivots of our solar year, are more often than not periods of welcome tranquility in our generally unstable weather.

Halcyon Days: winter calm on the Dundee waterfront


  1. Happy 2012 Anhrefn.
    I look forward to more posts.
    Have a lovely year :-)

  2. Hello Anhrefn. Just re-reading your Halcyon Days. Lovely :-)