Memories of Endless Summers

Image: Sidney Nolan

Is Greece the only country in the world with „Halcyon Days“?, someone asked me on Quora, where I spend a lot of time in these Days of the Virus. I sort of knew the answer, because I once read „Also sprach Zarathustra“, and I have a fair smattering of familiarity with most of Shakespeare’s plays. But I still needed to research the origins of the term, and here is what I found out.

The Halcyon is a bird of Greek legend and the name is now commonly given to the European Kingfisher. The ancients believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting – around the winter solstice, usually 21st or 22nd of December. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.

According to Ovid, Alycon ( Ἀλκυόνη, Latin Alcyone) was the daughter of Aeolus and wife of Ceyx. When her husband died in a shipwreck, Alcyone threw herself into the sea whereupon the gods transformed them both into 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.

The word entered the English language in the 14th century, gradually losing its association with the nesting time of the bird and taking on the figurative meaning of ‚calm days‘. Shakespeare used the expression that way in Henry VI, Part I (1592): “Expect Saint Martin’s summer, halcyon days…”

Today, the term is used to denote a past period that remembered for being happy and/or successful. Notwithstanding that they originally were in deep winter, the term halycon days tends to conjure up nostalgic memories of the seemingly endless sunny days of youth.

It can be found in other languages as well. Friedrich Nietzsche used the expression “halkyonische Tage” in Also sprach Zarathustra to describe a short break after survived and before coming storms.

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