No matter where you live or where you’ve traveled, a weathervane adorned with a rooster, also known as a weathercock, is a common sight — on barns, cupolas, steeples, and rooftops. In fact, our own Farmers’ Almanac headquarters in Lewiston, Maine, proudly displays a rooster weathervane atop our building’s rotunda.
But why a rooster? The answer to that question dates back more than a thousand years, perhaps even longer.
Ancient Origins of Weathervanes
Originally, people tied strings or cloth to the tops of buildings so that they could see which way the wind was blowing. Later, banners became a popular ornament, and that’s where we get the “vane” in weathervane; an Old English word that meant “banner” or “flag.”
One of the earliest examples of an actual weathervane — not simply a piece of cloth or a banner — was atop the Tower of the Winds, a First Century B.C. octagonal tower in Athens, Greece that was topped by a bronze wind vane in the shape of Triton, the sea god. This vane was designed so that Triton, who was holding a rod in his hand, would turn so that the rod pointed in the direction of the blowing wind.
Before too long, weathervanes, like the one atop the Tower of the Winds, spread throughout Europe, featuring prominently on top of towers and church steeples. They had a variety of different adornments — often a cross or an image of a patron saint, if the weathervane was on a church or cathedral — but they all served the same purpose, which was to turn and point in the direction of the wind.
St. Peter and the Rooster
To understand how the rooster took over as the favorite weathervane topper, it is important to tell the story of St. Peter after the Last Supper. In the biblical passages describing these events, it was said that Peter would deny Jesus three times “before the rooster crowed.” Because of this, the rooster became known to Christians as the symbol of St. Peter.
Sometime between 590 and 604 A.D., Pope Gregory I took this a step farther, declaring that the rooster, emblem of St. Peter, was the most suitable symbol for Christianity. It is thought that this declaration led to the first roosters appearing on top of weathervanes.
The Rooster Becomes Law
In the 9th century, Pope Nicholas made the rooster official. His decree was that all churches must display the rooster on their steeples or domes as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus. In accordance with the decree, churches started using weathervanes with the rooster.
As centuries went by, the rule about placing roosters atop churches went by the wayside, but roosters stayed on weathervanes. European settlers brought weathervanes wherever they traveled, including to the New World. Nowadays, you’ll find weathervanes — mostly with roosters, but sometimes with other symbols — topping buildings throughout the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
One of the most famous weathervanes in the world also happens to be the oldest weathervane in existence. This would be the Gallo di Ramperto, which is currently housed in Brescia, Italy’s Museo di Santa Giulia. This copper rooster dates back to between 820 and 830 A.D. It once sat atop the San Faustino Church bell tower in Brescia.
So while today weathervanes are mostly ornamental, and we usually rely on our evening meteorologists to tell us the direction of the wind, the iconic weathervane is a true symbol of Americana.
How Do You Read A Weathervane?
The components of a weathervane are the vane, the mast, and the directionals, which display the four points of the compass — North, South, East and West. The vane usually resembles an arrow shape (with the rooster on top), which rotates freely and points in the direction the wind is coming from while the directionals remain stationary. So if the rooster and arrow are pointing north, that means the winds are coming from the north, and would be referred to as “a North wind.”