Alcyone and Ceyx

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Alcyone and Ceyx transformed into Halcyons

In Greek mythology, Alcyone or Halcyone[1] (/ælˈsəˌni, hælˈsəˌni/; Ancient Greek: Ἀλκυόνη, romanizedAlkyónē derived from ἀλκυών, alkyṓn, 'kingfisher') and Ceyx (/ˈsɪks/; Ancient Greek: Κήϋξ, romanizedKḗÿx) were a wife and husband who incurred the wrath of the god Zeus.


Herbert James Draper, Halcyone, 1915.

Alcyone was the daughter of King Aeolus of Aeolia, either by Enarete[2] or Aegiale.[3] She was a Thessalian princess and later queen of Trachis. Ceyx was the son of Eosphorus (often translated as Lucifer).[4]

Alcyone and Ceyx married and were very happy together in Trachis. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus's account, they often sacrilegiously called each other "Zeus" and "Hera".[5][6] This angered Zeus, so while Ceyx was at sea (going to consult an oracle, according to Ovid), the god threw a thunderbolt at his ship. Soon after, Morpheus, the god of dreams, disguised as Ceyx, appeared to Alcyone as an apparition to tell her of his fate, and she threw herself into the sea in her grief. Out of compassion, the gods changed them both into common kingfishers, or "halcyon birds", named after her.

Ovid[7] and Hyginus[8] both also recount the metamorphosis of the pair in and after Ceyx's loss in a terrible storm, though they both omit Ceyx and Alcyone calling each other Zeus and Hera (and Zeus's resulting anger) as a reason for it. On the contrary, it is mentioned that being unaware of Ceyx's death in the shipwreck, Alcyone continued to pray at the altar of Hera for his safe return.[9] Ovid also adds the detail of her seeing his body washed up onshore before her attempted suicide.

The myth is also briefly referred to by Virgil, again without reference to Zeus's anger.[10]

Halcyon days[edit]

Ovid and Hyginus both also make the metamorphosis the origin of the etymology for "halcyon days", the seven days in winter when storms never occur. They state that these were originally the 14 days each year (seven days on either side of the shortest day of the year[11]) during which Alcyone (as a kingfisher) laid her eggs and made her nest on the beach and during which her father Aeolus, god of the winds, restrained the winds and calmed the waves so she could do so in safety. Aeolus controls the wind and the bird couple can nurture their young nestlings.[9] The phrase has since come to refer to any peaceful time. Its proper meaning, however, is that of a lucky break, or a bright interval set in the midst of adversity; just as the days of calm and mild weather are set in the height of winter for the sake of the kingfishers' egglaying according to the myth. Kingfishers however do not live by the sea, so Ovid's tale is not based on any actual observations of the species and in fact refers to a mythical bird only later identified with the kingfisher.


The English poet Robert Graves, in his The Greek Myths, explained the origin of Alcyone's myth as follows:

The legend of the halcyon’s, or kingfisher’s, nest (which has no foundation in natural history, since the halcyon does not build any kind of nest, but lays eggs in holes by the waterside) can refer only to the birth of the new sacred king at the winter solstice—after the queen who represents his mother, the Moon-goddess, has conveyed the old king’s corpse to a sepulchral island. But because the winter solstice does not always coincide with the same phase of the moon, ‘every year’ must be understood as ‘every Great Year’, of one hundred lunations, in the last of which solar and lunar time were roughly synchronized, and the sacred king’s term ended.
Homer connects the halcyon with Alcyone, a title of Meleager’s wife Cleopatra (Iliad), and with a daughter of Aeolus, guardian of the winds. Halcyon cannot therefore mean halcyon, ‘sea-hound’, as is usually supposed, but must stand for alcy-one, ‘the queen who wards off evil’. This derivation is confirmed by the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx, and the manner of their punishment by Zeus and Hera. The seamew part of the legend need not be pressed, although this bird, which has a plaintive cry, was sacred to the Sea-goddess Aphrodite, or Leucothea, like the halcyon of Cyprus. It seems that late in the second millennium BC the sea-faring Aeolians, who had agreed to worship the pre-Hellenic Moon-goddess as their divine ancestress and protectress, became tributary to the Zeus-worshiping Achaeans, and were forced to accept the Olympian religion. ‘Zeus’, which according to Johannes Tzetzes, hitherto been a title born by petty kings, was henceforth reserved for the Father of Heaven alone. But in Crete, the ancient mystical tradition that Zeus was born and died annually lingered on into Christian times, and tombs of Zeus were shown at Cnossus, on Mount Ida, and on Mount Dicte, each a different cult-centre. Callimachus was scandalized, and in his Hymn to Zeus wrote: ‘The Cretans are always liars. They have even built thy tomb, O Lord! But thou art not dead, for thou livest for ever.’ This is quoted in Titus.
Pliny, who describes the halcyon’s alleged nest in detail—apparently the zoophyte called halcyoneum by Linnaeus—reports that the halcyon is rarely seen, and then only at the two solstices and at the setting of the Pleiades. This proves her to have originally been a manifestation of the Moon-goddess, who was alternately the Goddess of Life-in-Death at the winter solstice, and of Death-in-Life at the summer solstice; and who, every Great Year, early in November, when the Pleiades set, sent the sacred king his death summons.
Still another Alcyone, daughter of Pleione (‘sailing queen’) by Atlas, was the leader of the seven Pleiades. The Pleiades’ heliacal rising in May began the navigational year; their setting marked its end, when (as Pliny notes in a passage about the halcyon) a remarkably cold north wind blows. The circumstances of Ceyx’s death show that the Aeolians, who were famous sailors, worshipped the goddess as ‘Alcyone’ because she protected them from rocks and rough weather: Zeus wrecked Ceyx’s ship, in defiance of her powers, by hurling a thunderbolt at it. Yet the halcyon was still credited with the magical power of allaying storms; and its body, when dried, was used as a talisman against Zeus’s lightning—presumably on the ground that where once it strikes it will not strike again. The Mediterranean is inclined to be calm about the time of the winter solstice.[12]

Although one of the mythological Pleiades was indeed called Alcyone, Graves does not cite any sources to support his claim that she was their leader - or even to support the idea that they had a leader. This claim is also made in Graves's The White Goddess, but again no quotations from myths or scholiasts are given to support it.


  • Various kinds of kingfishers are named after the couple, in reference to the metamorphosis myth:
  • Their story features in The Book of the Duchess.
  • Their story is the basis for the opera Alcyone by the French composer Marin Marais and the cantata Alcyone by Maurice Ravel
  • A collection of Canada's celebrated nature poet, Archibald Lampman, Alcyone, his final set of poetry published posthumously in 1899, highlights both Lampman's apocalyptic and utopian visions of the future.
  • TS Eliot draws from this myth in The Dry Salvages: "And the ragged rock in the restless waters,/Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;/On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,/In navigable weather it is always a seamark/To lay a course by: but in the sombre season/Or the sudden fury, is what it always was."
  • Rick Riordan's The Demigod Files had a part called "The Diary of Luke Castellan" which mentions a similar character named Halcyon Green who is the son of Apollo and is currently under "house arrest" for revealing to a woman her fate.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca, 1.7.3
  3. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 65
  4. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 11.271
  5. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca, 1.7.4
  6. ^ Hesiod, Catalogue of Women fr. 15
  7. ^ Ovid Metamorphoses XI, 410ff.-748 (also here Archived 2005-04-19 at the Wayback Machine)
  8. ^ Hyginus Fabulae 65
  9. ^ a b Roman, L., & Roman, M. (2010). Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman mythology., p. 55, at Google Books
  10. ^ Virgil Georgics i. 399 - "[At that time] not to the sun's warmth then upon the shore / Do halcyons dear to Thetis ope their wings"
  11. ^ William Smith, ed. (1867). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. Volume 1. p. 108. It was fabled, that during the seven days before, and as many after, the shortest day of the year, while the bird ἀλκυών, was breeding, there always prevailed calms at sea.
  12. ^ Robert Graves (1960). The Greek Myths. Harmondsworth, London, England: Penguin Books. pp. s.v. Alcyone & Ceyx. ISBN 978-0143106715.


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