Contained in one of Nietzsche's favorite words is the name of a seabird that flits back and forth across the landscapes and seascapes of Mediterranean reality, classical myth, and Nietzsche's imagination. Lexical authorities credit Nietzsche with reintroducing the word "halcyon [halkyonisch]" into the German language. That word will recall the "halcyon days," part of the metamorphic complex in the story of Alcyone, who lost her husband Ceyx at sea but was transformed along with him into a pair of seabirds, the female having the extraordinary characteristic of building a floating nest, in which she hatched her eggs during the weeks following the winter solstice, the halcyon days of calm winds and waters arranged by the gods. The story of the nest is generally accepted in the classical world, for example, by such sober authorities as Aristotle and Plutarch. At least three times, Nietzsche emphasizes that the book he regards as the "greatest gift to mankind"--to modern humans, who, in his view, are in need of deeper contact with the wild animal world-will fall on deaf ears unless one hears a certain tone for which this bird is famed. As he says about Zarathustra in Ecce Homo:
Here no "prophet" is speaking, none of those gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions. Above all, one must hear aright the tone that comes from this mouth, the halcyon tone, lest one should do wretched injustice to the meaning of its wisdom.
Nietzsche the musician, the lover of song and opera, with their deployment of the female (human) voice, imagines himself becoming a bird, one renowned for its song throughout the ancient world. The cry of the halcyon (or kingfisher) was said to be remarkably haunting, plaintive, and melancholy, while the halcyon days are bright, calm, and peaceful; Nietzsche writes of "that which is really noble in a work or human being, the moment when their sea is smooth and they have found halcyon self-sufficiency". His frequent evocations of the halcyon are most obviously associated with the latter, but we may assume that both senses are relevant and that the very interplay of the two, as in the myth, is typically at work. The songs of Zarathustra include laments and are often tinged with melancholy. The halcyon has both a spatial/visual aspect and an auditory one. The play between these is evident in several texts where Nietzsche writes of the halcyon element in the music of Mendelssohn and its absence in Wagner.
Copyright © 2004 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. This book chapter first appeared in A Nietzschean Bestiary: Becoming Animal Beyond Docile and Brutal.
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Shapiro, Gary. "The Halcyon Tone as Birdsong." In A Nietzschean Bestiary: Becoming Animal Beyond Docile and Brutal, by Christa Davis Acampora and Ralph R. Acampora, 83-88. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.