The dictionary defines the term “halcyon” as a period of time in the past that was happy and tranquil. Halcyon is also a genus that contains 12 species of tree kingfishers. So how did these kingfishers come to be named so?
The word halcyon itself finds its origin in Greek mythology and is derived from Alcyone who was the daughter of King Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. Alcyone was happily married to Ceyx and the two formed a most endearing couple. Once, during a journey by sea, the ship carrying Ceyx was caught in a thunderstorm and got wrecked, resulting in his death. When Alcyone heard the news, she rushed to the shore and came upon the dead body of her husband. Overcome with grief Alcyone threw herself into the sea wanting to drown. The Gods, moved by the couple’s love for each other, transformed Alcyone and Ceyx into halcyon birds or kingfishers, who could ride on the winds and fly over the waters.
In winter, when Alcyone tried to build a nest floating on the seas, the waves turned menacing. So King Aeolus restrained the winds to keep the seas calm for seven days before the solstice, so that Alcyone could build her nest, and for seven days after the solstice so that she could hatch the eggs. Thus these 15 days of winter came to be known as the “halcyon days” when there would be no storms.
Though the mythical fable has no validation in nature – firstly, the kingfisher does not build nests on the seas but rather is a cavity nester, mostly nesting in holes dug in the earth by water bodies; and secondly, the eggs take about three weeks to hatch – yet, it makes for an interesting tale, a conversation filler and a recall for the Greek origin name.
Which leaves me with just these two niggling doubts:
1) Will these “tree” kingfishers need rechristening soon? And,
2) Will the “halcyon” come to be just that?
[In pictures: the white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)]
– Narendra Nayak © 2019