Alycone, whose name means Queen Who Wards Off Evil [Storms], was the daughter of Aeolus, the god of winds. She was so happy in her marriage with Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, that they called themselves Zeus and Hera (surely not the couple that comes to mind when searching Greek mythology for an example of a happy marriage). At any rate, this made Zeus mad and he struck down the ship on which Ceyx was sailing with a thunderbolt. When her husband’s ghost appeared before her, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned. Some pitying god transformed them both into kingfishers.
The legend goes that every winter during the Halcyon Days, seven days before the Winter Solstice and seven days after, the female kingfisher carries her dead mate to his burial, then builds a nest, launches it onto the sea, lays her eggs and hatches her chicks. While she is brooding over them, the sea is unusually calm since Aeolus sees to it that no winds blow. Aristotle refers to a poem about this time written by Simonides of Ceos: “when in the winter month Zeus brings calm to fourteen days that earthlings call the time when the wind is forgotten, the holy breeding-season of the many-colored alcyon.”
Actually kingfishers do not nest on water, but lay eggs in holes by the waterside. Robert Graves in The Greek Myths suggests that the myth refers to the birth of the new sacred king at winter solstice, after the Queen, who represents his mother, has conveyed the old king’s corpse to a sepulchral island. The Mediterranean is typically calm around the time of the Winter Solstice.
There was another Alcyone in Greek myth, the daughter of Pleione (“sailing queen”) and leader of the seven Pleiades. The rising of the Pleiades in May signalled the beginning of the navigational year, which ended when they set. Thus the legend seems to speak of a goddess who protects sailors from storms. The dried body of a kingfisher is used as a talisman against lightning.
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
For more ideas on the significance of this time period, see my article on Time out of Time.