Mythology is an ancient method of describing the phenomena of the world through legend and lore. Animals are often the heroes of these stories, taking on human qualities. Each story and creature carries with it meaningful symbolism passed down through ancient channels to give meaning to ritual and history. The kingfisher is often described as the “ice bird,” which represents reincarnation and devotion in some cultures and farce in others.
Kingfisher in Mythology
The kingfisher is called “Eisvogel” in German and “ijsvogel” in Dutch: literally, “ice bird.” Kingfishers live where fish are plentiful, along lakes, streams and rivers, and they winter on the coasts. The pigeon-sized bird can be seen hovering above the surface of the water before plunging headfirst to capture its prey. Its loud cry sounds like high-pitched laughter, a trait that likely gave the kingfisher its place in Native American legend. The kingfisher was called “Halcyon” by the Greeks, who celebrated the Alcyo’nides (Halycon days), a period in the winter of calm seas when the kingfisher lays its eggs. The eggs are protected during this nesting period from wind and waves.
In Greek mythology, the story of the ice birds represents love and commitment. The Alcyo’nides (or Alkyonides) were the seven nymph daughters of Alkyoneus, king of the giants. The daughters were named Phosthonia, Anthe, Methone, Alkippa, Pallene, Drimo and Asterie. When their father was slain by Heralces (or Hercules), the daughters flung themselves into the sea. Amphitrite, sea-goddess and wife of Poseidon, transformed them into ice birds, or kingfishers. The Alcyo’nides signifies prosperity, joy, liberation and tranquility.
Halcyon and Ceyx
There is another Greek myth of the Halcyon. The goddess Halcyon was married to the mortal king Ceyx. One day, Ceyx had to travel by sea to Delphi, despite the protests of his wife, who was afraid of the sea. A huge storm swept Ceyx’s ship into the sea, and he asked Poseidon to return his body to his wife’s arms. Meanwhile, not knowing her husband’s fate, Halcyon appealed to the goddess Hera to protect her husband. It was too late, and Hera sent Morpheus, god of dreams, to Halycon to inform her of the tragedy. Halcyon went to the coast where she found Ceyx’s body and cast herself into the sea. Moved by her devotion, the gods transformed her into a seabird and Ceyx into a kingfisher so they could be together.
Kingfisher's War Bonnet
The kingfisher symbol also occurs in Native American folklore. Old Man and Wolf were hunting in the winter. They had traveled a long way and had no meat to eat. They came upon a river covered with ice where four fat otters were playing. Old Man warned the Wolf not to chase the otters over the ice, because he could fall into the river and die. Old Man did not want to be left alone without a companion. The Wolf did not heed his warning and chased the otters until he fell into a hole in the ice and was swept under. Old Man cried and wailed at the loss of his companion when a nearby kingfisher began to laugh at him. Angered, Old Man swung his war club at the bird, grazing the feathers of its head and making them stand upright. As punishment for laughing at Old Man, the kingfisher’s feathers would always stand up like a war bonnet.
All About Birds: Belted Kingfisher
Theoi Greek Mythology: Alkyonides
Greek Myths & Greek Mythology: The Myth of Halcyon—The Halcyon Days
First People: Why Kingfisher Wears a War Bonnet