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The Tower of the Winds

"With that he [Poseidon] rammed the clouds together—both hands clutching his trident—churned the waves into chaos, whipping all the gales from every quarter, shrouding over in thunderheads the earth and sea at once—and night swept down from the sky—East and South Winds clashed and the raging West and North, sprung from the heavens, roiled heaving breakers up—and Odysseus' knees quaked, his spirit too."

Homer, The Odyssey (V.321-327)

In the similes of Homer, each of the Winds (Anemoi) had its own characteristics. Boreas, the North Wind which blew from its home in the mountains of Thrace, was clear and strong. Notus, the South Wind, was wet and stormy. Zephyrus, the West Wind, had two guises. There were the gentle breezes that wafted over the Elysian fields, where "no snow, no winter onslaught, never a downpour there night and day the Ocean River sends up breezes, singing winds of the West refreshing all mankind" (Odyssey, IV.637-639) but also churned the ocean waves. "As crosswinds chop the sea where the fish swarm, the North Wind and the West Wind blasting out of Thrace in sudden, lightning attack, wave on blacker wave, cresting, heaving in a tangled mass of seaweed out along the surf" (Iliad, IX.4-6). For Ovid, too, "once the winds have been let out and have gained the open deep, no power can check them, and every land and every sea is abandoned to their will. Nay, they harry the very clouds of heaven and rouse the red lightnings with their fierce collisions" (Metamorphoses, IX.431ff). Eurus, the East Wind, was warm and melted the heavy snow on the high mountain ridges, piled there by Zephryus (Odyssey, XIX.237-239). But it has no characteristic epithet associated with it nor is mentioned by Hesiod,

Often the winds were paired together. Just as Boreas and Zephryus blackened the cresting wave, so Eurus and Notus drove the surging waters before them. "And the whole assembly surged like big waves at sea, the Icarian Sea when East and South Winds drive it on, blasting down in force from the clouds of Father Zeus, or when the West wind shakes the deep standing grain with hurricane gusts that flatten down the stalks" (Iliad, II.168-172).

Each wind, too, was associated with its respective season. Boreas was the harbinger of winter, just as Zephryus brought spring breezes and Notus, the storms of late summer and early autumn. Eurus seems not to have been associated with a particular time of year. Later, this early notion of the winds was replaced by a more elaborate nomenclature for the quarters from which they blew.

There also were four minor wind gods: Caecias, which blew from the northeast; Apeliotes, from the southeast; Argestes, from the northwest; and Lips, from the southwest. All are personified on the frieze of the Tower of the Winds in Athens and later depicted in the eighteenth century by Stuart and Revett (below).

"Do not wait till the time of the new wine and autumn rain and oncoming storms with the fierce gales of Notus who accompanies the heavy autumn rain of Zeus and stirs up the sea and makes the deep dangerous."

Hesiod, Works and Days (670ff)

These three sides of the tower depict Notus, the bearer of rain, personified here as beardless young man pouring water from his hydria; Eurus, a stern old man, the bringer of storms, warmly wrapped in his mantle; and Apeliotes, a young man holding a cloak filled with fruit and grain.

"By heaven’s law Jove had drawn the Pleiads’ stormy constellation down from the firmament as he rolled the earth upon its everlasting course, and straightway rain streams everywhere [the setting of the Pleiades early in November marked the beginning of stormy weather]....At no other season of the year does fiercer fear sway men’s hearts; for then does Astraea [Justice] urge her plea, then does she implore Jove’s anger against the nations, and leaving the earth importunes Saturn’s star with her complaint. Then follows the darkling South-west wind [Eurus], and with his strong brethren thunders upon the Aegean main, and all the sea strains shoreward."

Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica (II.357ff)

Kaikias is personified as tipping hailstones from his shield; Boreas, as an old man wearing a billowing cloak and blowing through a conch shell, which may represent the howling of the wind; and Sciron, a warmly clad man associated with the onset of winter (but also with the heat and lightning of summer), carrying a brazier full of hot ashes and coals.

"And from Typhoeus come boisterous winds which blow damply, except Notus and Boreas and clear Zephyr. These are a god-sent kind, and a great blessing to men; but the others blow fitfully upon the seas. Some rush upon the misty sea and work great havoc among men with their evil, raging blasts; for varying with the season they blow, scattering ships and destroying sailors. And men who meet these upon the sea have no help against the mischief. Others again over the boundless, flowering earth spoil the fair fields of men who dwell below, filling them with dust and cruel uproar."

Hesiod, Theogony (II.869-880)

Zephyrus is depicted as a naked youth covered only by a light mantle filled with flowers and fruit, heralding the arrival of spring; Lips, a bare-footed boy pushing the stern (aplustre) of a ship, promising a good sailing wind, which was especially favored by ships coming into the port at Piraeus. Conversely, the figure may personify the destroyer of ships. Herodotus writes that a west wind drove the wrecked Persian ships onto Cape Colias after the Battle of Salamis and a statue holding the beak of a ship being set up at Delphi to commemorate the event (Histories, VIII.96,121). Finally, Notus is presented again, bringing the frieze full circle.

The winds and their relationship to the seasons obviously were important to the ancients. Aristotle, in the Meteorology, arranges the winds symmetrically around a circle representing the horizon much like a wind rose. And, "since those things are locally contrary which are most distant from one another in space, and points diametrically opposite are most distant from one another, those winds must necessarily be contrary to one another that blow from opposite ends of a diameter" (II.6). In this scheme, Zephyrus blows from the west, where the sun sets at the equinox and Apeliotes from the East, where the sun rises. Aparctias is the true north wind (rather than Boreas) and its contrary is Notus, which blows from the south. Caecias blows from the northeast, where the sun rises at the summer solstice, and its contrary Lips from where the sun sets in the southwest at the winter solstice. Eurus, in turn, blows from the southeast, where the sun rises at the winter solstice, and its contrary is Argestes, from where the sun sets at the summer solstice in the northwest.

Pliny in the Natural History, says much the same thing, although chastizing Homer for recognizing only four winds. Two blow from each quarter of the heavens, named by the Greeks Apeliotes and Eurus from the east, Notus and Lips from the south, Zephyrus and Argestes from the west, and Aparctias and Boreas from the north (II.46).

The painting "Greeks Fetching Water from the Well at the Tower of the Winds in Athens" is by the Danish painter Martinus Rørbye (1803-1848) and is in the Ny Carlsberg Glytotek (Copenhagen).

References: The Iliad (1998) translated by Robert Fagles; The Odyssey (1996) translated by Robert Fagles; Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica (1914) translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (Loeb Classical Library); The Antiquities of Athens (1762/1968) by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett; Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica (1934) translated by J. H. Mozley (Loeb Classical Library). One of the most useful sources on the winds is the appendix to Theophrastus of Eresus on Winds and on Weather Signs (1894) translated by Jas. G. Wood.

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