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The Halcyon Birds

Tales beyond belief

The Myth of the Halcyon Birds
The kingdom of Thessaly was far-famed for its peace and prosperity during the reign of Ceyx and his beautiful queen, Alcyone. People across the sea spoke of mountain-walled Thessaly as the country which all of the gods loved; and they praised King Ceyx for his wisdom and justice. But it was not always summer in Thessaly.

King Ceyx heard of the death of a well-beloved brother; and after this sad news came famine and dire diseases among his people. Ceyx believed that he had offended the gods; and to appease them, he planned a journey to distant Ionia. Thither he would go and offer sacrifice to the gods, and so win back their favor. He told his plans to Alcyone, but she begged him to sacrifice in his own country. " Brave not the dangers of the deep, my husband. Surely the gods are grateful for honors wherever paid. Stay, then, at home, and look after the wants of thy unhappy people." " Ah, Alcyone, thou art a woman, and dost not know that the gods are best pleased by courage and daring. I will go, and thou shalt stay and rule in my stead. Thou wilt be brave, Alcyone, and prove thyself worthy thy great father, Aeolus?"

So Ceyx determined to go, and calling together his most valiant soldiers and his most trusted sailors, they made ready to depart. Alcyone had great cause for anxiety, for being the daughter of the wind-god, Aeolus, she knew at what season the winds were treacherous, and when they were apt to rush together and lash the fair blue sea into fury. Sadly she stood on the shore and watched the boat until it became a white speck upon the horizon.

Then it vanished altogether, and Alcyone returned to her lonely palace. For a while, Ceyx and his brave followers sailed peacefully on. The sailors rowed and sang, keeping time with the pulsing of the waves and the flapping of the sails. They reached the Ionian land in safety; and Ceyx did sacrifice in the temple of the Pythian Apollo, and learned that he was yet favored, although the oracle gave him a strange message which he scarcely understood. Half of the homeward journey had been made.

The wind began to change suddenly, and the waves ran higher and higher, crowned with crests of foam. The ship tossed about uneasily; and the sailors lashed their oars, and furled the sails. The sky grew angry. Wilder and wilder screamed the wind, until with an angry blast it shattered the mast of the trembling O boat. Higher and more angry grew the waves. They lifted the boat upon their huge shoulders, tossing it into dark hollows with a force and suddenness that was appalling. The sailors thought of their dear ones at home; while the sweet face of Alcyone, tearful and sad, came like a vision to Ceyx, as he sat silent and fearful in one end of the boat, where he had lashed himself to a spar.

The storm Furies were sporting with the little vessel, and, weary at last of so small a plaything, they crushed it, and ran on and on, to vent their wrath against the rock-bound coast. Day after day the fond Alcyone went down to the seashore, straining her eyes for a glimpse of the returning sail. Each day she offered prayers, and ceased not to beg for the safe return of her husband. At last Hera took pity upon her, and told her the truth in a vision.

Hera sent Iris, her swift messenger, to the far Cimmerian country, where lived Somnus, the god of sleep. Iris started on her long journey, after clothing herself in her rainbow-colored dress, which was so beautiful that it left a path of brilliant colors in the sky after she had passed. She travelled swiftly, and before Helios had started upon his daily journey, she arrived at the palace of Somnus. The palace was large and silent, for no song of bird or bee, or sound of human voice, was ever heard there. Between the ebony columns lurked the darkest shadows; for no light, save the light of the moon, ever entered.

Before the door grew poppies, pink, and white, and red, exhaling a sleep-giving perfume. Whole fields of them stretched away for miles and miles; while on the silvery, placid surface of a lake from which flowed the river Lethe, grew dark purple lilies which caused a strange arid wonderful sleep to steal over the senses of all who breathed their perfume. Iris touched the great door of the palace, and it opened silently, as if by unseen hands. She glided through a shadowy court, where fountains played, and where the branches of tall palm-trees waved gently in the soft night air. In the great hall, Somnus lay sleeping upon an ebony couch. All around him were strange and beautiful dream forms, some of them as delicate as the gossamer wings of the dragon-fly. There were the tiny baby dreams, which bring a smile to the rosebud lips of the sleeping infant; and there were the strong, terrible dreams which make the bravest of men tremble. Many beautiful dreams hovered about Iris when she entered.

She waved them aside, however, and walking to the couch of Somnus, touched him softly with a flower which Hera had given her. Somnus raised his drooping eyelids, and after hearing Hera's command, sent a vision to Alcyone, in which she saw the tossing waves, the raging storm, and the peril of Ceyx, whom she knew that she would not greet again. Sadly Alcyone bade her maidens prepare the funeral rites. She went to the seashore, to the spot where she had bidden him farewell. "I shall see him no more," she cried, weeping bitterly. She gazed across the water; and far out, the dimpling, happy waves were bearing a gleaming object toward the shore. It came nearer and nearer, until Alcyone saw that it was the form of Cevx, which the waves were bringing to her feet. She raised her arms and sprang toward it, no longer the beautiful Alcyone, but a graceful bird, uttering strange cries. She sought to lift him on her wings. Then two birds arose from the water, and flew away together. So Alcyone and Ceyx were united at last, and ever since then the halcyon birds have warned sailors of the coming storm. In the placid days of winter they brood on their floating nests, and skim the surface of the waves. Then the sailors say, "The halcyon days are here. Let us be glad. There is nothing to fear." 

The Legend and Myth about the Halcyon Birds

The Myth of the Halcyon Birds
The story of the Halcyon Birds is featured in the book entitled Stories of Old Greece by Emma M. Firth first published 1895.

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