Age Of Fable Or Beauties Of Mythology
Author: Bulfinch, Thomas

Chapter IX: Ceyx And Halcyone; Or, The Halcyon Birds.

Ceyx was king of Thessaly, where he reigned in peace, without violence or
wrong. He was son of Hesperus, the Day-star, and the glow of his beauty
reminded one of his father. Halcyone the daughter of Aeolus was his wife, and
devotedly attached to him. Now Ceyx was in deep affliction for the loss of
his brother, and direful prodigies following his brother's death made him feel
as if the gods were hostile to him. He thought best therefore to make a
voyage to Claros in Ionia, to consult the oracle of Apollo. But as soon as he
disclosed his intention to his wife Halcyone, a shudder ran through her frame,
and her face grew deadly pale. "What fault of mine, dearest husband, has
turned your affection from me? Where is that love of me that used to be
uppermost in your thoughts? Have you learned to feel easy in the absence of
Halcyone? Would you rather have me away?" She also endeavored to discourage
him, by describing the violence of the winds, which she had known familiarly
when she lived at home in her father's house, Aeolus being the god of the
winds, and having as much as he could do to restrain them. "They rush
together," said she, "with such fury that fire flashes from the conflict. But
if you must go," she added, "dear husband, let me go with you, otherwise I
shall suffer, not only the real evils which you must encounter, but those also
which my fears suggest."

These words weighed heavily on the mind of King Ceyx, and it was no less
his own wish than hers to take her with him, but he could not bear to expose
her to the dangers of the sea. He answered therefore consoling her as well as
he could, and finished with these words: "I promise, 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." When he had thus spoken he ordered the vessel to be
drawn out of the shiphouse, and the oars and sails to be put aboard. When
Halcyone saw these preparations she shuddered, as if with a presentiment of
evil. With tears and sobs she said farewell, and then fell senseless to the

Ceyx would still have lingered, but now the young men grasped their oars
and pulled vigorously through the waves, with long and measured strokes.
Halcyone raised her streaming eyes, and saw her husband standing on the deck,
waving his hand to her. She answered his signal till the vessel had receded
so far that she could no longer distinguish his form from the rest. When the
vessel itself could no more be seen, she strained her eyes to catch the last
glimmer of the sail, till that too disappeared. Then, retiring to her
chamber, she threw herself on her solitary couch. Meanwhile they glide out of
the harbor, and the breeze plays among the ropes. The seamen draw in their
oars, and hoist their sails. When half or less of their course was passed, as
night drew on, the sea began to whiten with swelling waves, and the east wind
to blow a gale. The master gave the word to take in sail, but the storm
forbade obedience, for such is the roar of the winds and waves his orders are
unheard. The men, of their own accord, busy themselves to secure the oars, to
strengthen the ship, to reef the sail. While they thus do what to each one
seems best, the storm increases. The shouting of the men, the rattling of the
shrouds, and the dashing of the waves, mingle with the roar of the thunder.
The swelling sea seems lifted up to the heavens, to scatter its foam among the
clouds; then sinking away to the bottom assumes the color of the shoal, - a
Stygian blackness.

The vessel shares all these changes. It seems like a wild beast that
rushes on the spears of the hunters. Rain falls in torrents, as if the skies
were coming down to unite with the sea. When the lightning ceases for a
moment, the night seems to add its own darkness to that of the storm; then
comes the flash, rending the darkness asunder, and lighting up all with a
glare. Skill fails, courage sinks, and death seems to come on every wave. The
men are stupefied with terror. The thought of parents, and kindred, and
pledges left at home, comes over their minds Ceyx thinks of Halcyone. No name
but hers is on his lips, and while he yearns for her, he yet rejoices in her
absence. Presently the mast is shattered by a stroke of lightning, the rudder
broken, and the triumphant surge curling over looks down upon the wreck, then
falls, and crushes it to fragments. Some of the seamen, stunned by the
stroke, sink, and rise no more; others cling to fragments of the wreck. Ceyx,
with the hand that used to grasp the sceptre, holds fast to a plank, calling
for help, - alas, in vain, - upon his father and his father- in-law. But
oftenest on his lips was the name of Halcyone. To her his thoughts cling. He
prays that the waves may bear his body to her sight, and that it may receive
burial at her hands. At length the waters overwhelm him, and he sinks. The
Day-star looked dim that night. Since it could not leave the heavens, it
shrouded its face with clouds.

In the meanwhile Halcyone, ignorant of all these horrors, counted the
days till her husband's promised return. Now she gets ready the garments
which he shall put on, and now what she shall wear when he arrives. To all
the gods she offers frequent incense, but more than all to Juno. For her
husband, who was no more, she prayed incessantly; that he might be safe; that
he might come home; that he might not, in his absence, see any one that he
would love better than her. But of all these prayers, the last was the only
one destined to be granted. The goddess, at length, could not bear any longer
to be pleaded with for one already dead, and to have hands raised to her
altars, that ought rather to be offering funeral rites. So, calling Iris, she
said, "Iris, my faithful messenger, go to the drowsy dwelling of Somnus, and
tell him to send a vision to Halcyone, in the form of Ceyx, to make known to
her the event."

Iris puts on her robe of many colors, and tinging the sky with her bow,
seeks the palace of the King of Sleep Near the Cimmerian country, a mountain
cave is the abode of the dull god, Somnus. Here Phoebus dares not come,
either rising, at midday or setting. Clouds and shadows are exhaled from the
ground, and the light glimmers faintly. The bird of dawning, with crested
head, never there calls aloud to Aurora, nor watchful dog, nor more sagacious
goose disturbs the silence. No wild beast, nor cattle, nor branch moved with
the wind, nor sound of human conversation, breaks the stillness. Silence
reigns there; but from the bottom of the rock the River Lethe flows, and by
its murmur invites to sleep. Poppies grow abundantly before the door of the
cave, and other herbs, from whose juices Night collects slumbers, which she
scatters over the darkened earth. There is no gate to the mansion, to creak
on its hinges, nor any watchman; but in the midst, a couch of black ebony,
adorned with black plumes and black curtains. There the god reclines, his
limbs relaxed with sleep. Around him lie dreams, resembling all various
forms, as many as the harvest bears stalks, or the forest leaves, or the
seashore sandgrains.

As soon as the goddess entered and brushed away the dreams that hovered
around her, her brightness lit up all the cave. The god, scarce opening his
eyes, and ever and anon dropping his beard upon his breast, at last shook
himself free from himself, and leaning on his arm, enquired her errand, - for
he knew who she was. She answered, "Somnus, gentlest of the gods,
tranquillizer of minds and soother of care-worn 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."

Having delivered her message, Iris hasted away, for she could not longer
endure the stagnant air, and as she felt drowsiness creeping over her, she
made her escape, and returned by her bow the way she came. Then Somnus called
one of his numerous sons, - Morpheus, - the most expert in counterfeiting
forms, and in imitating the walk, the countenance, and mode of speaking, even
the clothes and attitudes most characteristic of each. But he only imitates
men, leaving it to another to personate birds, beasts, and serpents. Him they
call Icelos; and Phantasos is a third, who turns himself into rocks, waters,
woods, and other things without life. These wait upon kings and great
personages in their sleeping hours, while others move among the common people.
Somnus chose, from all the brothers, Morpheus, to perform the command of Iris;
then laid his head on his pillow and yielded himself to grateful repose.

Morpheus flew, making no noise with his wings, and soon came to the
Haemonian city, where, laying aside his wings, he assumed the form of Ceyx.
Under that form, but pale like a dead man, naked, he stood before the couch of
the wretched wife. His beard seemed soaked with water, and water trickled
from his drowned locks. Leaning over the bed, tears streaming from his eyes,
he said, "Do you recognize your Ceyx, unhappy wife, or has death too much
changed my visage? Behold me, know me, your husband's shade, instead of
himself. Your prayers, Halcyone, availed me nothing. I am dead. No more
deceive yourself with vain hopes of my return. The stormy winds sunk my ship
in the Aegean Sea, waves filled my mouth while it called aloud on you. No
uncertain messenger tells you this, no vague rumor brings it to your ears. I
come in person, a shipwrecked man, to tell you my fate Arise! give me tears,
give me lamentations, let me not go down to Tartarus unwept." To these words
Morpheus added the voice which seemed to be that of her husband he seemed to
pour forth genuine tears; his hands had the gestures of Ceyx.

Halcyone, weeping, groaned, and stretched out her arms in her sleep,
striving to embrace his body, but grasping only the air. "Stay!" she cried;
"whither do you fly? let us go together." Her own voice awakened her Starting
up, she gazed eagerly around, to see if he was still present, for the
servants, alarmed by her cries, had brought a light. When she found him not,
she smote her breast and rent her garments. She cares not to unbind her hair,
but tears it wildly. Her nurse asks what is the cause of her grief. "Halcyone
is no more," she answers, "she perished with her Ceyx. Utter not words of
comfort, he is shipwrecked and dead. I have seen him, I have recognized him.
I stretched out my hands to seize him and detain him. His shade vanished, but
it was the true shade of my husband. Not with the accustomed features, not
with the beauty that was his, but pale, naked, and with his hair wet with
sea-water, he appeared to wretched me. Here, in this very spot, the sad
vision stood," - and she looked to find the mark of his footsteps. "This it
was, this that my presaging mind foreboded, when I implored him not to leave
me, to trust himself to the waves. O, how I wish, since thou wouldst go, thou
hadst taken me with thee! It would have been far better. Then I should have
had no remnant of life to spend without thee, nor a separate death to die. If
I could bear to live and struggle to endure, I should be more cruel to myself
than the sea has been to me. But I will not struggle, I will not be separated
from thee, unhappy husband. This time, at least, I will keep thee company.
In death, if one tomb may not include us, one epitaph shall; if I may not lay
my ashes with thine, my name, at least, shall not be separated." Her grief
forbade more words, and these were broken with tears and sobs.

It was now morning. She went to the sea shore, and sought the spot where
she last saw him, on his departure. "While he lingered here, and cast off his
tacklings, he gave me his last kiss." While she reviews every object, and
strives to recall every incident, looking out over the sea, she descries an
indistinct object floating in the water. At first she was in doubt what it
was, but by degrees the waves bore it nearer, and it was plainly the body of a
man. Though unknowing of whom, yet, as it was of some ship-wrecked one, she
was deeply moved, and gave it her tears, saying, "Alas! unhappy one, and
unhappy, if such there be, thy wife!" Borne by the waves, it came nearer. As
she more and more nearly views it, she trembles more and more. Now, now it
approaches the shore. Now marks that she recognizes appear. It is her
husband! Stretching out her trembling hands towards it, she exclaims, "O,
dearest husband, is it thus you return to me?"

There was built out from the shore a mole, constructed to break the
assaults of the sea, and stem its violent ingress. She leaped upon this
barrier and (it was wonderful she could do so,) she flew, and striking the air
with wings produced on the instant, skimmed along the surface of the water, an
unhappy bird. As she flew, her throat poured forth sounds full of grief, and
like the voice of one lamenting. When she touched the mute and bloodless
body, she enfolded its beloved limbs with her new-formed wings, and tried to
give kisses with her horny beak. Whether Ceyx felt it, or whether it was only
the action of the waves, those who looked on doubted, but the body seemed to
raise its head. But indeed he did feel it, and by the pitying gods both of
them were changed into birds. They mate and have their young ones. For seven
placid days, in winter time, Halcyone broods over her nest, which floats upon
the sea. Then the way is safe to seamen. Aeolus guards the winds and keeps
them from disturbing the deep. The sea is given up, for the time, to his

The following lines from Byron's Bride of Abydos might seem borrowed from
the concluding part of this description, if it were not stated that the author
derived the suggestion from observing the motion of a floating corpse.

"As shaken on his restless pillow,
His head heaves with the heaving billow;
That hand, whose motion is nor life,
Yet feebly seems to menace strife,
Flung by the tossing tide on high,
Then levelled with the wave - "

Milton in his Hymn to the Nativity thus alludes to the fable of the
Halcyon: -

"But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of light
His reign of peace upon the earth began;
The winds with wonder whist
Smoothly the waters kist
Whispering new joys to the mild ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave

Keats also in Endymion says, -

'O magic sleep! O comfortable bird
That broodest o'er the troubled sea of the mind
Till it is hushed and smooth."