The phrase “halcyon days” has always meant nothing more to me than general nostalgia. Since moving to Crete, and more particularly since spending winter here, I’ve learned its original, much more specific meaning.
Winters here are very mild compared to what I’m used to from London and New York. It’s around 15°C most days, although it rains quite a bit and is damp because we’re close to the sea. It also gets chilly inside because the apartment is built for summer – the wall facing the sea is all glass sliding doors, and you can’t keep any heat in. Anyway, I know I won’t get any sympathy from those of you in more northern climes, so I’ll press on…
Over the past couple of weeks, we had a bout of warm, sunny weather, more like 20°C and with no wind. The sea was completely calm. We ate lunch outside on the balcony. It felt like spring. People tell me it happens every year around this time, and they call it the “halcyon days”.
The original story of the halcyon days comes from Greek mythology. Alcyone, or Halcyon, was someone who, like many other gods and goddesses, got on the wrong side of Zeus.
In his anger, Zeus transformed Alcyone into a kingfisher and condemned her to lay her eggs during the winter. But then Zeus, moved by Alcyone’s grief, granted her a few days of good weather in the middle of winter to lay her eggs and see her baby birds live.
Those few days of good weather are the halcyon days I just experienced. I didn’t see any kingfishers, but apparently they do winter here. The modern Greek term for “kingfisher” is alkyona.
The term “halcyon days” was used by sailors to describe the unusual spell of calm weather, and eventually passed into modern English usage with its connotations of kingfishers and calm seas completely lost, and only the general nostalgia remaining. To compensate for the loss, we tend to add the cheesy term “of yore” to the end of it.
I can see why we do use the phrase to describe happier days, though. The halcyon days have only just ended, but already I miss them. Today was grey and cloudy, and I had to switch on the heater, and still shivered because all the warmth flowed out through those big glass doors. Oh for the halcyon days of yore…