There is a Greek myth that tells there were fourteen “halcyon days” in every year, seven of which fell before the winter solstice, seven after; peaceful days when the sea was smooth as a pond and the hen-halcyon built a floating nest and hatched out for her young.
The halcyon is also known as the kingfisher. The kingfisher is associated in Greek myth with the Winter Solstice. She also had another habit, that of carrying her dead mate on her back over the sea and mourning him with a plaintive cry. Pliny reported that the halcyon was rarely seen and then only at the winter and summer solstices and at the setting of the Pleiades. She was therefore, a manifestation of the Moon-Goddess who was worshipped at the two solstices as the Goddess of Life in Death and Death in Life and, when the Pleiades set, she sent the sacred king his summons for death.
Kingfishers are typically stocky, short-legged birds with large heads and large, heron-like beaks. They feed primarily on fish, hovering over the water, or watching intently from perches and then plunging headlong into the water to catch their prey. Their name, Alcedinidae, stems from classical Greek mythology. Alcyone or Alkyone was a Pleiad-nymph of Mount Kithairon in Central Greece and was loved by Poseidon. Her name means “srong-helper” from the Greek words alké and oneo or “kingfisher” from alkyon.
References to birds are also found in the name Peleiades “doves” and Merope (Greek merrops) the “bee-eater.” Alcyone, Daughter of the Wind, was so distraught when her husband perished in a shipwreck that she threw herself into the sea. Both were then transformed into kingfishers and roamed the waves together. When they nested on the open sea, the winds remained calm and the weather balmy.
Still another Alcyone, Queen of Sailing, was the mystical leader of the seven Pleiades. The heliacal rising of the Pleiades in May marked the beginning of the navigational year and their setting marked the end. Alcyone, as Sea Goddess protected sailors from rocks and rough weather.
The bird, halcyon, continued for centuries to be credited with the magical power of allaying storms. Shakespeare refers to this legend in this passage from Hamlet:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
Hamlet, I, i 157
When I was young and my children were little, we lived in a house that had a creek in the back yard. There were small trees along the far bank of the creek and every day a kingfisher would sit in the branches overlooking the creek. Sometimes he sat there very quietly for a very long time. Suddenly he would dive from his perch straight into the creek. Every time he did he came out and up into the air with a fish. It gave me great pleasure to watch him from my kitchen window.
I love birds. I love learning about their habits because it teaches me ways of being that are closer to nature. I love drawing birds as well. When I was young and more able, I was an avid bird watcher, out with my friends, hoping for a sighting never seen before.
I love the story of the kingfisher and her connection to the Halcyon Days of the Winter Solstice. It is for most of us the busiest time of year. Whether it is for the Solstice or Christmas (often both) we are in a frenzy to get things done, making sure everything is just right and perfect.
I celebrate the Winter Solstice. As a priestess, my days right now are very busy with ritual. It is at the Solstice that many passage rites are happening with the women I mentor. And of course, I celebrate with my family, decorating and burning our magical Yule Log. It is a family tradition, now carried through four generations. But I try to honor the seven days before and the seven days after by trying to have the frantic moments covered and done with before the Halcyon Days begin and then, even when I am busy, I try to hold the peace and calm of that beautiful smooth sea in my mind. Peace and love and joy surrounding the Winter Solstice make it perfect.
May the Peace of a Halcyon Sea be yours in this Solstice Season. Do hold the image of the little hen- kingfisher floating in her nest on the calm and balmy sea in your mind!
*Art by Deanne Quarrie
Deanne Quarrie. D. Min. is a Priestess of the Goddess. She is the author of five books. She is the founder of the Apple Branch where she teaches courses in Feminist Dianic Witchcraft, Northern European Witchcraft and Druidism. She mentors those who wish to serve others as priestesses in their communities. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Ocean Seminary College and is the founder of Global Goddess, a worldwide organization open to all women who honor some form of the divine feminine.