There is an old Greek myth about ‘halcyon days’. The idea springs from a story about the halcyon (from the kingfisher family), about which Aristotle has this to say:
‘The halcyon breeds at the season of the winter solstice. Accordingly, when this season is marked with calm weather, the name of “halcyon days” is given to the seven days preceding, as to as many following, the solstice … The halcyon is said to take seven days for building her nest, and the other seven for laying and hatching her eggs.’
In this land I inhabit there are no halcyons to brighten our winter solstice; instead, the bird of the season is the grey heron. We live by the side of a river which harbours succulent trout; it is no surprise that we share our space with the heron. But they have been especially active recently, and early each morning when I come back from my long dawn walk with the dogs, a heron rises up from the side of the tiny bridge across the river which leads to our house and flies off over the hill behind us.
The heron, or crane, is one of the most frequently mentioned birds in Irish mythology, and it has many associations, but at this time of year for me the most relevant is its connection with the Cailleach – the old hag of winter. The two are linked in part because of the heron’s harsh, wailing cry, but also because of a number of stories which bring the two together. And so it is a bird of old age and longevity, and like many birds that are associated with water, it is a guide to the Otherworld. In Welsh mythology, three cranes protect the entrance to Annwn, the Underworld. It is said that cranes dance in circles, and so their dance is associated both with the movement of the sun around the sky, and the circle of life, death, and rebirth through which they guide us.
I love the idea of halcyon days, but halcyons form no part of the traditions that spring from my land. Herons, on the other hand, do, and their mythical associations are relevant to this season of the long dark. I do not celebrate Christmas; it has no meaning for me. But I celebrate solstice and the other cycles of the year, for the solstices and equinoxes are real astronomical events, and the quarter-day festivals between them are grounded in the seasonal realities of the land on which I live. We know relatively little about the ways in which our ancestors marked these cycles and seasons, and besides, our lives are different now. It seems to me that we might create our own traditions, equally grounded in the places we inhabit and the lives and stories of the creatures who share it with us. Such traditions can become acts of re-enchantment: creating both wonder, and a sense of connection to the land. And so the new tradition I have created for myself for this season, and which I offer to you as a gift here, is that of Grey Heron Nights. For this and the next thirteen days, seven to solstice (this year, on Sunday December 21 at 23.03 UTC/ GMT) and the seven beyond, I’ll share something short here, some reflection on the land and the season, some story, some act of connection. Like the mythical halcyon, for seven days I’ll build my nest and for another seven I’ll lay and hatch my eggs – but they will be the eggs of the grey heron, of Crane, companion of the Cailleach. And so in this act of deep reflection, this season – which has been so effectively subverted into a season of crass commercialism, consumerism, and consumption – becomes, for me, both re-enchanted and firmly rooted in the real, visceral beauty of the long dark.
The first instalment of Grey Heron Nights will be posted later today.