Long before modern science began to understand the processes that create our weather, people made up their own explanations. Many of these accounts were fantastic in nature, with evil or benevolent gods, monsters, and spirits controlling the elements. In this series, we’ll explore some of these ancient myths and share the science behind them. Weather + mythology = weather-ology!
The Myth of the Anemoi
To our early ancestors, the wind must have been a real mystery. One moment, the air would be still and stifling, and in the next, a refreshing breeze could move through. Later, a gale might blow in, destroying massive trees or even buildings. The wind came in from different directions and had different temperaments. Sometimes it was helpful, and other times it seemed almost vengeful in its fury. What was going on?
To the ancient Greeks, this split personality was easily explained. They believed there were four wind gods — one representing each cardinal direction — each with a personality of his own. Like the other gods of Olympus, the wind gods, known collectively as the Anemoi, came complete with very human flaws and could be benevolent or cruel, as the mood struck them.
These gods were Boreas, god of the north wind, Notus, god of the south wind, Zephyrus god of the west wind, and Eurus, god of the east wind. In addition to each representing his own direction, each of the Anemoi was associated with a specific type of wind. Boreas brought biting cold winter winds. Notus was in charge of the raging storms of late summer and autumn. And Zephyrus brought light breezes during the spring and early summer. Eurus was associated with bad luck. His wind was often accompanied by warm rain.
The Anemoi were most often depicted as winged men. As men, they often got up to mischief, including abducting women for their own pleasure (a common pastime among the gods). They could also become invisible, taking the form of gusts of wind, or become horses.
When a storm or other wind-related occurrence worked to the benefit of a person or people — as when the Persian army was prevented from attacking Athens due to a powerful storm at sea — it was said to be a sign of the gods’ favor.
Today, we know that the wind is simply a part of nature, with no will of its own. Though it can be beneficial or devastating, it blows without regard for its effect on humans.
Wind occurs when there is a difference in air pressure between one area of the Earth’s surface and another. Air naturally moves from areas of higher pressure into areas of lower pressure. Sometimes the difference in pressure is minor, resulting in a gentle breeze. At other times, the difference is greater, resulting in violent winds that move faster than 250 miles per hour (the fastest wind ever recorded was clocked at 253 miles per hour on April 10, 1996, on Barrow Island, Australia).
Because of the Earth’s rotation, however, the air does not move in a straight line from the point of highest pressure to the point of lowest pressure. The Earth’s rotation pushes the air to the right. This phenomenon, called the Coriolis Effect, causes air to flow clockwise around high-pressure areas in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise around low-pressure areas. The reverse happens in the Southern Hemisphere.
Before we knew about air pressure, though, the ancient Greeks had no explanation for wind other than the whims of a capricious group of supernatural beings. And so, the four winds were born.