True Blue

Kingfishers are the stuff of legend

Bronwen Scott

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Sacred Kingfisher, Atherton Tablelands, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott

In the middle of the day when the sky was bleached white, a Sacred Kingfisher came down wrapped in blue.

Kingfishers are made of myths

In Metamorphoses, Ovid relates the tale of King Ceyx and Queen Halcyone of Trachis. On a sea voyage to consult the Oracle at Delphi, Ceyx’s ship encounters a violent storm. The ship founders and Ceyx is drowned. Iris, goddess of the rainbow, sends Morpheus to tell Halcyone of her husband’s death. In her grief, Halcyone throws herself into the sea to be with Ceyx. But the gods intervene.

A mole [breakwater], made by the craft of man, adjoins
the sea and breaks the shoreward rush of waves.
To this she leaped — it seemed impossible —
and then, while beating the light air with wings
that instant formed upon her, she flew on,
a mourning bird, and skimmed above the waves.
And while she lightly flew across the sea
her clacking mouth with its long slender bill,
full of complaining, uttered moaning sounds:
but when she touched the still and pallied form,
embracing his dear limbs with her new wings,
she gave cold kisses with her hardened bill.

Taking pity on them both, the gods resurrect Ceyx and transform him into a bird. Together again, Halcyone and Ceyx build their nest on the water. Aeolus stills the winds around the winter solstice — the Halcyon Days — for them to raise their chicks.

Each winter during seven full days of calm
Halcyone broods on her floating nest —
her nest that sails upon a halcyon sea:
the passage of the deep is free from storms,
throughout those seven full days; and Aeolus
restraining harmful winds, within their cave,
for his descendants’ sake gives halcyon seas.

Halcyon[e] and Ceyx have been transformed into kingfishers in the taxonomic literature too. All kingfishers were once placed in the genus Alcedo, named by Linnaeus with the Latin word, itself derived from the Greek Halcyone. In 1799, Bernard Germain de Lacépède recognised some kingfishers as different from the rest and placed them in a separate genus Ceyx. But it wasn’t until 1821 that Ceyx was joined again by Halcyon, when Swainson applied the name to a group of kingfishers from Africa and Asia.

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com