Dec 142017
 

Today marks the beginning of the Halcyon Days in classical Greek culture: 14 days around the winter solstice of calm winds and pleasant weather. In Greek legend, the name “Halcyon” was associated with Alcyone or Alkyone (Ἁλκυόνη, (Halkyónē), derived from ʼαλκυων (alkyon) “kingfisher”) the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. In classical Greek poetry there is an origin tale answering the question, “Where do kingfishers come from, and why is there calm weather around the winter solstice?” I don’t believe that ancient Greeks actually accepted the answer at face value, but it’s a good story. Ovid’s recounting of the tale in Metamorphoses Book XI ll. 410 – 795 (in translation) can be found here, https://web.archive.org/web/20050419213419/http://www.tkline.freeserve.co.uk/Metamorph11.htm#_Toc64105704  There are multiple versions of the tale, but Ovid’s is the fullest.

Alcyone and Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, and king of Trachis are ecstatically happily married, and according to Pseudo-Apollodorus’s account, often sacrilegiously call each other “Zeus” and “Hera.” This angers Zeus, so while Ceyx is at sea (going to consult an oracle according to Ovid’s account), Zeus throws a thunderbolt at his ship. Soon after, Morpheus (god of dreams), disguised as Ceyx, appears to Alcyone as an apparition to tell her of his fate, and she throws herself into the sea in her grief. Out of compassion, the gods change them both into halcyon birds (kingfishers), named after her. Ovid and Hyginus both recount the metamorphosis of the pair 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 the storm. Ovid also adds the detail of her seeing his body washed up on shore before her attempted suicide.

Ovid and Hyginus both make the metamorphosis the origin of the etymology for “halcyon days” the period 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) during which Alcyone (as a kingfisher) lays her eggs and makes her nest on the sea. Her father Aeolus, god of the winds, restrains the winds and calms the waves so she can hatch her chicks in safety. The phrase has since come to refer to any peaceful time (usually in hindsight). At one time “halcyon days” also referred to 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. Think of the halcyon days as parallel with Indian summer.

Halcyon is now used as a genus name for certain types of kingfisher. There are 11 species in the genus. It is far from clear what bird the classical Greek word ʼαλκυων is referring to, but modern translators normally equate it with the kingfisher. Hence English naturalist and artist William John Swainson coined the name for a genus in 1821 for the purpose of assigned a scientific name to a species of woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis).

Let’s see what we can do to recreate a classical Greek dish. The ancient Greeks were, at one time, opposed to sumptuous dining, but, instead, believed that simple fare was healthiest. This philosophy was famously Spartan, but was practiced by all Greeks at one time. Pythagoras was reputed to be a strict vegetarian, as were his followers, and the classic Greek diet was based on the triad of wheat, olives, and wine. Ancient Greeks had three to four meals a day. Breakfast (ἀκρατισμός akratismos) consisted of barley bread dipped in wine (ἄκρατος akratos), sometimes complemented by figs or olives. They also ate pancakes called τηγανίτης (tēganitēs), ταγηνίτης(tagēnitēs) or ταγηνίας (tagēnias), all words deriving from τάγηνον (tagēnon), “frying pan.” The earliest attested references to tagenias are in the works of the 5th century BCE poets Cratinus and Magnes. Modern Greek tiganites are a far cry from the ancient ones. Cooks use eggs, yoghurt and rising agents in their pancakes, but the ancient Greeks probably just used flour, oil, and water for the dough which they fried and served with honey for breakfast (or perhaps some sweet wine to dip them in). This would have been more like a flatbread than a pancake without the eggs.  Have a go at this:

Teganites

Ingredients

1 cup flour
1 cup water
⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt
olive oil for frying
honey

Instructions

Whisk the flour and water in a mixing bowl to form a thick paste. Add the extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste, and whisk again.  Let rest for about 30 minutes.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat and add a small amount of olive oil. Pour in 2 tablespoonsful of batter at a time to form small cakes. They will spread at the outset, so do not crowd them. When they are cooked and mottled brown on the underside, turn them with a spatula and cook them on the other side. When cooked keep them warm while you make more.

Serve warm with honey. You could also sprinkle them with chopped figs.