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!
Some weather myths are full-blown stories with a cast of characters and packed with drama. Consider, for instance, the kidnapping of Persephone, or the slaying of Baldur. Other myths are sparser on detail, but no less rich for it. One of the most common mythical tropes is to personify weather phenomena.
One such personification is Lupercus, the wolf of winter, who was popular in pre-Christian Europe, particularly during the Roman Empire. According to the ancient lore, the wolf of winter is born each year on the winter solstice, and matures six weeks later, at the halfway point of the season — right around February 2, a day we today dedicate to a very different animal, the groundhog.
Though conceived of as male, Lupercus is probably closely related to the Luperca, a she-wolf said to have suckled the human twin boys, Romulus and Remus, mythological founders of the Roman Empire. Because of this myth, wolves were a sacred symbol to the Romans. The ancient Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a festival in honor of wolves and wildness, from February 13th through the 15th. This festival, which incorporated many fertility rites, was a precursor to the modern tradition of Valentine’s Day.
It’s certainly easy to see how ancient people could have personified winter as a wolf, with its fierce bite and howling winds. Wolves were greatly feared by country people. An encroaching pack of wolves could kill livestock, or even unwary humans. The same was true for winter. Even today, with good shelter and advanced technology, winter still claims lives each year.
For all of its wolflike characteristics, though, winter is not a literal wolf. The cause of the cycle of seasons is the tilt in the Earth’s axis. As the planet revolves around the Sun, its northern and southern hemispheres take turns soaking in the majority of the Sun’s light and heat. During the part of the year when the northern hemisphere is inclined toward the Sun, that part of the Earth enjoys summer weather. The days grow longer, and the temperatures grow warmer. As time goes on, and the Earth continues its journey around the Sun, the southern hemisphere gets its proverbial day in the Sun. Things warm up down there, while temperatures grow colder and days get shorter in the northern hemisphere. Snow and brutal winds follow.
When the Romans ruled, however, most people believed in a geocentric, or Earth-centered, universe. Without understanding the relationship between the Earth’s hemispheres and the Sun, ancient people were at a loss to explain why the weather turned so unfriendly for part of each year. Imagining a great wolf marauding the land was as good an explanation as any.