Friday, 14 January 2011

Winter sun

When in summer the sky is bright blue and temperatures warm, there is no reason to cheer about it because we have that kind of weather for months here in Greece. But as soon as summer is over every blue sky day is cherished as if it were the last.

There are some real differences between nice days in summer and those in autumn, winter and spring. In colder months the landscape is quite different and the light seems warmer. In fact, even at the end of August there’s a bit of moisture in the air that gives the light its rosy tinge and affects nature’s autumnal colours..

In contrast, during the winter the island is bright green and on sunny days it’s quite a sight. I assume it’s the angle of the sun as it’s lower in the sky that makes the light seem warmer. This is why you can’t get enough of the way winter sun brings out the island’s green colours and the blue of the sea.

The prime times are the Alkyonides days: the warm period in January, when the sky is clear and there is no wind. These are best winter days in Greece. They feel like summer, or spring, and even bring wild flowers into bloom.

I thought the Alkyonides Days were named after the myth of Alcyone, daughter of the wind god Aeolus (see: Alkyonides Days). But there is another legend to explain them: Alcyoneus was one of the Titans of Thrace, mythical men-gods who tried to revolt against the gods of Olympos. They were led by Alcyoneus who would be an immortal only as long as he stayed in his own country of Pallene. The tenth labour set for Heracles was to steal the cattle of another giant, Geryonos. To defend him Alcyoneus fought with Heracles who wounded him, then secreted him out of his home country, which is why he died. His seven daughters - the Alcyonides - were so saddened they threw themselves into the sea and drowned. However, Amphitrite the wife of Poseidon took pity and changed them into kingfishers.

So we have two nice stories to explain these lovely annual Alkyonides days (it’s rare but in some years we don’t get them). People also know such days after an old name for kingfisher - halcyon days. Halcyon is the family name of the kingfisher strain which includes Halcyon albiventris (brown-hooded kingfisher), the Halcyon coromanda (ruddy kingfisher) and even a Halcyon Smyrnensis (white-throated kingfisher).

I have not found a mythological story to explain eclipses of the sun -although fighting armies are thought to have ceased hostilities during an eclipse because they thought it was a sign of a god. Herodotus wrote that the long running war between the Lydians and Medes was ended in 585 BC because of an eclipse. But that is actual history and no myth.

A partial eclipse occurred a few days ago. This was before the cloudless Alkyonides days had arrived, so spectators couldn’t get a good clear view of it. Jan went on the road really early - even before the sun was up - but was lucky. He drove to Sarakina (the region around Palios) and there the clouds parted enough for him to take some beautiful pictures of the sun being eaten by the moon.

According to Theophrastus (371–287 BC) in his lifetime the astronomer Matriketas had an observatory on Mt Lepetymnos where he studied the sun. Not much is known about him but I can imagine during the Alkyonides Days he would have been glued to his telescope. Normally, there are a few clouds up there, but these days the tops reach into a clear blue sky.

Last Thursday - January 6th - most Greeks were able to enjoy some really beautiful Alkyonides weather because it was the holiday of Epiphany, the day on which it is believed Christ was revealed to be the son of God. It is the day the three wise men (or kings) from the east arrived to honour the baby Jesus (in other countries they celebrate it as Three Kings day).

But why is it in Greece that water is blessed at Epiphany? Perhaps because the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan is also celebrated at this time. Everywhere in Greece on this day there will be extended church celebrations followed by processions through the villages to anywhere there is water. The priests lead the way, then the officials with power, then the ordinary folk. And if there is no water to go to, they will visit a baptistry. The priests bless the water and everything floating on it. They then throw a cross into it - which is supposed to be retrieved by a brave diver who is not afraid of the cold. I do not know if a cross is ever thrown into the baptistry, but I guess if it is, the priest can easily fish it out for himself.

So, you can see it’s a busy time for photographers: the beautiful light of the Alkyonides days, the solar eclipse and Greeks parading through the streets in their very best clothes. We are on our way to summer, but even though it might seem like spring, it’s really still winter.

No comments:

Post a Comment