Ceyx And Halcyone
: A Book Of Myths
“St. Martin’s summer, halcyon days.”
King Henry VI, i. 2, 131.
“Halcyon days”—how often is the expression made use of, how seldom do its users realise from whence they have borrowed it.
“These were halcyon days,” says the old man, and his memory wanders back to a time when for him
“All the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swa
And every lass a queen.”
Yet the story of Halcyone is one best to be understood by the heavy-hearted woman who wanders along the bleak sea-beach and strains her weary eyes for the brown sail of the fishing-boat that will never more return.
Over the kingdom of Thessaly, in the days of long ago, there reigned a king whose name was Ceyx, son of Hesperus, the Day Star, and almost as radiant in grace and beauty as was his father. His wife was the fair Halcyone, daughter of Æolus, ruler of the winds, and most perfectly did this king and queen love one another. Their happiness was unmarred until there came a day when Ceyx had to mourn for the loss of a brother. Following close on the heels of this disaster came direful prodigies which led Ceyx to fear that in some way he must have incurred the hostility of the gods. To him there was no way in which to discover wherein lay his fault, and to make atonement for it, but by going to consult the oracle of Apollo at Claros, in Ionia. When he told Halcyone what he must do, she knew well that she must not try to turn him from his solemn purpose, yet there hung over her heart a black shadow of fear and of evil foreboding that no loving words of assurance could drive away. Most piteously she begged him to take her with him, but the king knew too well the dangers of the treacherous Ægean Sea to risk on it the life of the woman that he loved so well.
“I promise,” he said, “by the rays of my Father the Day Star, that if fate permits I will return before the moon shall have twice rounded her orb.”
Down by the shore the sailors of King Ceyx awaited his coming, and when with passionately tender love he and Halcyone had taken farewell of each other, the rowers sat down on the benches and dipped their long oars into the water.
With rhythmic swing they drove the great ship over the grey sea, while Ceyx stood on deck and gazed back at his wife until his eyes could no longer distinguish her from the rocks on the shore, nor could she any longer see the white sails of the ship as it crested the restless waves. Heavier still was her heart when she turned away from the shore, and yet more heavy it grew as the day wore on and dark night descended. For the air was full of the clamorous wailings of the fierce winds whose joy it is to lash the waves into rage and to strew with dead men and broken timber the angry, surf-beaten shore.
“My King,” she sighed to herself. “My King! my Own!” And through the weary hours she prayed to the gods to bring him safely back to her, and many times she offered fragrant incense to Juno, protectress of women, that she might have pity on a woman whose husband and true lover was out in the storm, a plaything for ruthless winds and waves.
A helpless plaything was the king of Thessaly. Long ere the dim evening light had made of the shore of his own land a faint, grey line, the white-maned horses of Poseidon, king of the seas, began to rear their heads, and as night fell, a black curtain, blotting out every landmark, and all home-like things, the East Wind rushed across the Ægean Sea, smiting the sea-horses into madness, seizing the sails with cruel grasp and casting them in tatters before it, snapping the mast as though it were but a dry reed by the river. Before so mighty a tempest no oars could be of any avail, and for a little time only the winds and waves gambolled like a half-sated wolf-pack over their helpless prey. With hungry roar the great weight of black water stove in the deck and swept the sailors out of the ship to choke them in its icy depths; and ever it would lift the wounded thing high up on its foaming white crests, as though to toss it to the dark sky, and ever again would suck it down into the blackness, while the shrieking winds drove it onward with howling taunts and mocking laughter. While life stayed in him, Ceyx thought only of Halcyone. He had no fear, only the fear of the grief his death must bring to her who loved him as he loved her, his peerless queen, his Halcyone. His prayers to the gods were prayers for her. For himself he asked one thing only—that the waves might bear his body to her sight, so that her gentle hands might lay him in his tomb. With shout of triumph that they had slain a king, winds and waves seized him even as he prayed, and the Day Star that was hidden behind the black pall of the sky knew that his son, a brave king and a faithful lover, had gone down to the Shades.
When Dawn, the rosy-fingered, had come to Thessaly, Halcyone, white-faced and tired-eyed, anxiously watched the sea, that still was tossing in half-savage mood. Eagerly she gazed at the place where last the white sail had been seen. Was it not possible that Ceyx, having weathered the gale, might for the present have foregone his voyage to Ionia, and was returning to her to bring peace to her heart? But the sea-beach was strewn with wrack and the winds still blew bits of tattered surf along the shore, and for her there was only the heavy labour of waiting, of waiting and of watching for the ship that never came. The incense from her altars blew out, in heavy sweetness, to meet the bitter-sweet tang of the seaweed that was carried in by the tide, for Halcyone prayed on, fearful, yet hoping that her prayers might still keep safe her man—her king—her lover. She busied herself in laying out the garments he would wear on his return, and in choosing the clothes in which she might be fairest in his eyes. This robe, as blue as the sky in spring—silver-bordered, as the sea in kind mood is bordered with a feathery silver fringe. She could recall just how Ceyx looked when first he saw her wear it. She could hear his very tones as he told her that of all queens she was the peeress, of all women the most beautiful, of all wives the most dear. Almost she forgot the horrors of the night, so certain did it seem that his dear voice must soon again tell her the words that have been love’s litany since ever time began.
In the ears of Juno those petitions for him whose dead body was even then being tossed hither and thither by the restless waves, his murderers, came at last to be more than even she could bear. She gave command to her handmaiden Iris to go to the palace of Somnus, god of Sleep and brother of Death, and to bid him send to Halcyone a vision, in the form of Ceyx, to tell her that all her weary waiting was in vain.
In a valley among the black Cimmerian mountains the death-god Somnus had his abode. In her rainbow-hued robes, Iris darted through the sky at her mistress’s bidding, tingeing, as she sped through them, the clouds that she passed. It was a silent valley that she reached at last. Here the sun never came, nor was there ever any sound to break the silence. From the ground the noiseless grey clouds, whose work it is to hide the sun and moon, rose softly and rolled away up to the mountain tops and down to the lowest valleys, to work the will of the gods. All around the cave lurked the long dark shadows that bring fear to the heart of children, and that, at nightfall, hasten the steps of the timid wayfarer. No noise was there, but from far down the valley there came a murmur so faint and so infinitely soothing that it was less a sound than of a lullaby remembered in dreams. For past the valley of Sleep flow the waters of Lethe, the river of Forgetfulness. Close up to the door of the cave where dwelt the twin brothers, Sleep and Death, blood-red poppies grew, and at the door itself stood shadowy forms, their fingers on their lips, enjoining silence on all those who would enter in, amaranth-crowned, and softly waving sheaves of poppies that bring dreams from which there is no awakening. There was there no gate with hinges to creak or bars to clang, and into the stilly darkness Iris walked unhindered. From outer cave to inner cave she went, and each cave she left behind was less dark than the one that she entered. In the innermost room of all, on an ebony couch draped with sable curtains, the god of sleep lay drowsing. His garments were black, strewn with golden stars. A wreath of half-opened poppies crowned his sleepy head, and he leaned on the strong shoulder of Morpheus, his favourite son. All round his bed hovered pleasant dreams, gently stooping over him to whisper their messages, like a field of wheat swayed by the breeze, or willows that bow their silver heads and murmur to each other the secrets that no one ever knows. Brushing the idle dreams aside, as a ray of sunshine brushes away the grey wisps of mist that hang to the hillside, Iris walked up to the couch where Somnus lay. The light from her rainbow-hued robe lit up the darkness of the cave, yet Somnus lazily only half-opened his eyes, moved his head so that it rested more easily, and in a sleepy voice asked of her what might be her errand. “Somnus,” she said, “gentlest of gods, tranquilliser of minds and soother of careworn hearts, Juno sends you her commands that you despatch a dream to Halcyone in the city of Trachine, representing her lost husband and all the events of the wreck.”
Her message delivered, Iris hastened away, for it seemed to her that already her eyelids grew heavy, and that there were creeping upon her limbs, throwing silver dust in her eyes, lulling into peaceful slumber her mind, those sprites born of the blood-red poppies that bring to weary mortals rest and sweet forgetfulness.
Only rousing himself sufficiently to give his orders, Somnus entrusted to Morpheus the task imposed upon him by Juno, and then, with a yawn, turned over on his downy pillow, and gave himself up to exquisite slumber.
When he had winged his way to Trachine, Morpheus took upon himself the form of Ceyx and sought the room where Halcyone slept. She had watched the far horizon many hours that day. For many an hour had she vainly burned incense to the gods. Tired in heart and soul, in body and in mind, she laid herself down on her couch at last, hoping for the gift of sleep. Not long had she slept, in the dead-still sleep that weariness and a stricken heart bring with them, when Morpheus came and stood by her side. He was only a dream, yet his face was the face of Ceyx. Not the radiant, beautiful son of the Day Star was the Ceyx who stood by her now and gazed on her with piteous, pitying dead eyes. His clothing dripped sea-water; in his hair was tangled the weed of the sea, uprooted by the storm. Pale, pale was his face, and his white hands gripped the stones and sand that had failed him in his dying agony.
Halcyone whimpered in her sleep as she looked on him, and Morpheus stooped over her and spoke the words that he had been told to say.
“I am thy husband, Ceyx, Halcyone. No more do prayers and the blue-curling smoke of incense avail me. Dead am I, slain by the storm and the waves. On my dead, white face the skies look down and the restless sea tosses my chill body that still seeks thee, seeking a haven in thy dear arms, seeking rest on thy warm, loving heart.”
With a cry Halcyone started up, but Morpheus had fled, and there were no wet footprints nor drops of sea-water on the floor, marking, as she had hoped, the way that her lord had taken. Not again did Sleep visit her that night.
A grey, cold morning dawned and found her on the seashore. As ever, her eyes sought the far horizon, but no white sail, a messenger of hope, was there to greet her. Yet surely she saw something—a black speck, like a ship driven on by the long oars of mariners who knew well the path to home through the watery ways. From far away in the grey it hasted towards her, and then there came to Halcyone the knowledge that no ship was this thing, but a lifeless body, swept onwards by the hurrying waves. Nearer and nearer it came, until at length she could recognise the form of this flotsam and jetsam of the sea. With heart that broke as she uttered the words, she stretched out her arms and cried aloud: “O Ceyx! my Beloved! is it thus that thou returnest to me?”
To break the fierce assaults of sea and of storm there had been built out from the shore a mole, and on to this barrier leapt the distraught Halcyone. She ran along it, and when the dead, white body of the man she loved was still out of reach, she prayed her last prayer—a wordless prayer of anguish to the gods.
“Only let me get near him,” she breathed. “Grant only that I nestle close against his dear breast. Let me show him that, living or dead, I am his, and he mine forever.”
And to Halcyone a great miracle was then vouchsafed, for from out of her snowy shoulders grew snow-white pinions, and with them she skimmed over the waves until she reached the rigid body of Ceyx, drifting, a helpless burden for the conquering waves, in with the swift-flowing tide. As she flew, she uttered cries of love and of longing, but only strange raucous cries came from the throat that had once only made music. And when she reached the body of Ceyx and would fain have kissed his marble lips, Halcyone found that no longer were her own lips like the petals of a fair red rose warmed by the sun. For the gods had heard her prayer, and her horny beak seemed to the watchers on the shore to be fiercely tearing at the face of him who had been king of Thessaly.
A GREY COLD MORNING FOUND HER ON THE SEASHORE
Yet the gods were not merciless—or, perhaps, the love of Halcyone was an all-conquering love. For as the soul of Halcyone had passed into the body of a white-winged sea-bird, so also passed the soul of her husband the king. And for evermore Halcyone and her mate, known as the Halcyon birds, defied the storm and tempest, and proudly breasted, side by side, the angriest waves of the raging seas.
To them, too, did the gods grant a boon: that, for seven days before the shortest day of the year, and for seven days after it, there should reign over the sea a great calm in which Halcyone, in her floating nest, should hatch her young. And to those days of calm and sunshine, the name of the Halcyon Days was given.
And still, as a storm approaches, the white-winged birds come flying inland with shrill cries of warning to the mariners whose ships they pass in their flight.
“Ceyx!” they cry. “Remember Ceyx!”
And hastily the fishermen fill their sails, and the smacks drive homeward to the haven where the blue smoke curls upwards from the chimneys of their homesteads, and where the red poppies are nodding sleepily amongst the yellow corn.
Note.—The kingfisher is commonly known as the real “Halcyon” bird. Of it Socrates says: “The bird is not great, but it has received great honour from the gods because of its lovingness; for while it is making its nest, all the world has the happy days which it calls halcyonidæ, excelling all others in their calmness.”