Unit 5: Love and Metamorphosis

Story: Halcyone and Ceyx

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A kingfisher, aka Ceyx azureus, couple. Photo by lukasbieri on Pixabay, \cczero

Halcyone and Ceyx

Adapted from Stories of Old Greece by Emma M. Firth, \ccbysa

The kingdom of Thessaly was well-known for its peace and prosperity during the reign of Ceyx and his beautiful queen, Halcyone. People across the sea spoke of mountain-walled Thessaly as the country which all of the gods loved, and they praised King Ceyx for his wisdom and justice. But it was not always summer in Thessaly.

King Ceyx heard of the death of a well-beloved brother, and after this sad news came famine and plagues among his people. Ceyx believed that he had offended the gods, and so to appease them, he planned a journey to distant Ionia. There he would go and offer sacrifice to the gods, and so win back their favor. He told his plans to Halcyone, but she begged him to sacrifice in his own country. “It’s too dangerous, my husband. Surely the gods are grateful for honors wherever they are paid. Stay at home and look after your unhappy people.” “Ah, Halcyone, you know that the gods are best pleased by courage and daring. I will go, so please take care of our people in my stead. Won’t you be brave, Halcyone, and prove yourself worthy of your great father, Aeolus, the god of wind?”

So Ceyx determined to go, and calling together his most heroic soldiers and his most trusted sailors, they prepared to depart. Halcyone had great reason to be anxious, for being the daughter of the wind-god, Aeolus, she knew at what season the winds were hazardous, and when they were apt to rush together and strike the fair blue sea into fury. Sadly she stood on the shore and watched the boat until it became a white speck upon the horizon.

Then it vanished altogether, and Halcyone returned to her lonely palace. For a while, Ceyx and his brave followers sailed peacefully on. The sailors rowed and sang, keeping time with the rushing of the waves and the flapping of the sails. They reached the Ionian land in safely and Ceyx did the sacrifice in the temple of Apollo, and learned that he was favored by the gods, although the oracle gave him a strange message which he hardly understood. Half of the journey home had been made.

The wind began to change suddenly, and the waves ran higher and higher. The ship tossed about, and the sailors swung their oars, and rolled up the sails. The sky grew angry. Wilder and wilder screamed the wind, until with an angry blast it shattered the mast of the shaky boat. Higher and angrier grew the waves. They lifted the boat upon their huge shoulders, tossing it into dark hollows with a force and suddenness that was horrifying. The sailors thought of their dear ones at home; while the sweet face of Halcyone, tearful and sad, came like a vision to Ceyx, as he sat silent and fearful.

The storm Furies were with the little ship, and, tired at last of so small a plaything, they crushed it, and ran on and on, to voice their wrath against the rocky coast. Day after day, Halcyone went down to the seashore, straining her eyes for a glimpse of the returning sail. Each day she offered prayers, and never stopped praying for the safe return of her husband. At last, Hera took pity upon her and told her the truth in a vision.

Hera sent Iris, her swift messenger, to the far Cimmerian country, where lived Somnus, the god of sleep. Iris started on her long journey, after clothing herself in her rainbow-colored dress, which was so beautiful that it left a path of brilliant colors in the sky after she had passed. She traveled so quickly that before Helios started his daily journey, she had arrived at the palace of Somnus. The palace was large and silent, for no song of bird or bee, or sound of human voice, was ever heard there. Between the dark columns creeped the darkest shadows; for no light, except the light of the moon, ever entered.

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Night and Sleep carrying poppies, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1878, \ccpd

In front of the door grew poppies, pink, and white and red, exhaling a sleep-giving perfume. Whole fields of them stretched away for miles and miles; while on the silvery, peaceful surface of a lake from which flowed the river Lethe, grew dark purple lilies which caused a strange but wonderful sleep to overwhelm the senses of all who breathed their perfume. Iris touched the great door of the palace, and it opened silently, as if by magic.  All around him were strange and beautiful dream forms, some of them as delicate as the transparent wings of the dragonfly. There were the tiny baby dreams, which bring a smile to the lips of the sleeping infant; and there were the strong, terrible nightmares which make the bravest of men shake. Many beautiful dreams floated around Iris when she entered.

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Morpheus and Iris, by René-Antoine Houasse, 1690, \ccpd

She waved them aside, however, and walking to the couch of Somnus, touched him softly with a flower which Hera had given her. Somnus raised his sleepy eyelids, and after hearing Hera’s command, sent a vision to Halcyone, in which she saw the tossing waves, the raging storm and in danger, Ceyx, whom she knew that she would never see again.

Sadly, Halcyone had her maidens prepare the funeral rites. She went to the seashore, to the spot where she had told him goodbye. “I shall see him no more,” she cried. She gazed across the water; and far out, the calm waves were carrying a glowing object toward the shore. It came nearer and nearer, until Halcyone saw that it was the spirit of Ceyx, which the waves were bringing to her feet. She raised her arms and jumped toward it, no longer the beautiful Halcyone, but a graceful bird, singing strange cries. She tried to lift him on her wings. Then two birds arose from the water and flew away together. So Halcyone and Ceyx were united at last, and ever since then the halcyon birds have warned sailors of the coming storm. In the peaceful days of winter, they build their floating nests and skim the surface of the waves. Then the sailors say, “The halcyon days are here. Let us be glad. There is nothing to fear.”

Vocabulary from the Story

Read the definition of “halcyon” below from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. image

  1. We get the phrase “Halcyon days” from this story. When would you say was your “halcyon days”? Explain why you chose this time period of your life.
  2. We also get quite a few prefixes from the god of sleep, Somnus, who was mentioned in this story. The Greek name of the god of sleep was Hypnos, and his son, Morpheus, was the god of dreams, who also changed forms in people’s dreams. Fill in the chart with the definitions of the vocabulary words. How are they related to the character from the story?

character/prefix

vocabulary

definitions

somni-

insomnia

somniferous

somnambulism

hypno-

hypnosis

hypnotic

morph-

morph

morphine

metamorphosis

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions according to the reading.

  1. Why did Ceyx leave his kingdom?
  2. What happened to Ceyx’s boat?
  3. Who feels sorry for Halcyone, and what does she do?
  4. What does Halcyone do after learning of this news?
  5. In the end, what happens to Halcyone and Ceyx?

CEFR Level: CEF Level B2

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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