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!
by Walt Whitman
We are, most of us familiar with the phrase “Halcyon Days,” a term that was seemingly coined to take us back to half remembered Summer days of our youths and to recall gauze covered memories of games played noisily upon the green. Like many things we accept without examination, however; once we begin to peek beneath the surface we start to see a much different and more complex picture.
The first thing to note is that in the traditions of the Mediterranean, from whence we derive the term, we learn that it refers not to summer, but rather to a fortnight which is said to lie just before the winter’s solstice, the longest night of the year. In the maritime traditions of Greece and the Near East, it was believed that the nesting season of the Kingfisher, or Halcyon bird, brought a time of peace to the sea.
Gregory Nagy, professor of classics at Harvard, says of the name Halcyon or Alkyone (Ἁλκυόνη, Halkyónē) that it is
“a name derived from the word for a bird, the halcyon bird, which in ancient Mediterranean traditions was understood to be a bird that sings laments, sings songs of laments.”
He goes on to elaborate that
“in other traditions, we know that halcyons are imagined as eyewitnesses to terrible scenes of mass slaughter. There’s a famous example of folk tradition concerning the destruction of the city of Corinth by Roman armies in the second century BCE. And in this folk tradition, there’s a visualization of halcyon birds flying overhead and seeing the mass destruction of the Greek population by the Roman army. And so they’re the only survivors who then tell the sorrowful song, or shall I say sing the sorrowful song. And so any lament that happens is triggered by what the birds saw and then the birds sing.”
|Halcyone, by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920). Oil on canvas, private collection. 61 × 85 inches. Halcyone is seeking her husband Ceyx; kingfishers – the Halcyone birds –
are painted over her head.