In Greek myth, the North wind had a home: a cave on Mount Haemus in Thrace. From there he sent the cold winds, and to emphasize this artists painted him with his hair and beard spiky with ice. As its name suggests, the land of Hyperborea lay beyond Boreas’ realm, where cold, along with old age and want, was unknown.
Of the four winds, he had the clearest identity, perhaps because in the 5th century BCE artists and writers took up the story of how he carried off his bride. Painted on vases and other pottery, the hairy, bearded wind-god and the lightly clad maiden made a piquant contrast.
Hesiod’s Works and Days has a heartfelt description of Boreas’ powers:
Avoid the month Lenaeon [late January, early February], wretched days, all of them fit to skin an ox, and the frosts which are cruel when Boreas (the North Wind) blows over the earth. He blows across horse-breeding Thrake (Thrace) upon the wide sea and stirs it up, while earth and the forest howl. On many a high-leafed oak and thick pine he falls and brings them to the bounteous earth in mountain glens: then all the immense wood roars and the beasts shudder and put their tails between their legs, even those whose hide is covered with fur; for with his bitter blast he blows even through them although they are shaggy-breasted. He goes even through an ox’s hide; it does not stop him…
(Works and Days 504-16, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
Boreas had a minor role in ancient Greek history as well. He was credited with destroying the enemy’s ships during the Persian War, and aided the Megalopolitans against the Spartans. Both the Athenians and the Megalopolitans honoured him with festivals and offerings in grateful memory. (Since his wife, Oreithyia, was Athenian, he was called the “brother-in-law” of Athens.)
This paradisiacal land gained its name from its location: beyond the north wind. Ancient Greeks imagined that beyond the Thracian stronghold of Boreas and his turbulent winds lay a temperate place whose inhabitants led long, blissful lives. Apollo was said to spend his winters there.
Like the Norse Jotunheim or Giant-Home, the actual location of Hyperborea moved as the Greeks explored more of the world, but its essential features remained the same:
Next come the Ripaean Mountains and the region called Pterophoros because of the continuous fall of feather-like snow, a part of the world condemned by Nature, steeped in dense gloom and occupied only by frost and the freezing lair of the north wind.
Behind these mountains, and beyond the northern wind (if we are to believe this) lives a happy race, known as the Hyperboreans who survive to a ripe old age, and are famous for marvellous things handed down in stories. It is believed that here are the hinges on which the world turns, and the extreme limits of the circuits of the stars.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4.26.88 (trans. Healey)
Father of Horses
While the four winds were often shown as human, they could also be imagined as horses, an animal who was “swift as the wind”. Boreas and Zephyrus, the West Wind, were often thought of as horses, or horse-like.
In some legends, instead of living in a Thracian cavern, the four winds were said to be four horses belonging to Aiolos Hippotades (Roman Aeolus), who pastured them on Oceanus’ shores. (This is the Aeolus who gave Odysseus a bag of winds to steer himself home, and was a son of Poseidon or Hippotes, both associated with horses.)
These swift stallions produced foals with a group of Harpies, who assumed horse form as well. (The Harpies had names like Celaeno “storm cloud,” Aello “storm-wind,” Ocypete “swift flier,” and Podarge “swift-foot,” and they often overlapped with the Aellia, or wind-demons.) They had less friendly relations with the winds in the story of the Argonauts: they were tormenting the Thracian king Phineus by snatching his food away until the sons of Boreas came to his rescue.
Boreas was also the father of many legendary horses, noted for their swiftness and power. The war-god Ares, the amazon Penthesilea, and Erichthonius who founded Athens, all had horses that he sired. The horse-breeders of Thrace no doubt made a great deal of this mythology, as Boreas and his brothers lived nearby.
This became such a commonplace that even writers of natural history, like Aelian, mention it:
Horse-keepers frequently testify to mares being impregnated by the Wind, and to their galloping against Notos (Notus, the South Wind) or Borras (Boreas, the North). And the same poet [Homer] knew this when he said ‘Of them was Boreas enamoured as they pastured.’ Aristotle too, borrowing (as I think) from him, said that they rush away in frenzy straight in the face of the aforesaid Autai (Winds) [Anemoi].
(Aelian, On Animals 4. 6 trans. Scholfield)
The story he is referring to is in the Iliad, and tells how the king of Troy, Erikhthonios, had 3 000 mares in his pasture. Boreas saw them there and fell for them, and went among them as a stallion. He sired 12 foals, who showed their divine parentage:
Those, when they would play along the grain-giving tilled land would pass along the tassels of corn and not break the divine yield, but again, when they played across the sea’s wide ridges they would run the edge of the wave where it breaks on the grey salt water.”
A more naturalistic explanation was that mares were impregnated by the winds, perhaps a compliment to the speed of horses.
Boreas’ parents were the dawn-goddess Eos and Astraios, the god of the stars and planets, as well as astrology. (Their daughter Astraea was immortalized in the constellation Virgo.) His brothers were Pallas and Perses. The latter was Hecate’s father, making them first cousins, while Asteria, another deity of night oracles, was her mother.
The Four Winds
Boreas was one of the three, later four, winds in Greek thought. Hesiod, writing in the 7th century BCE, mentions only Boreas, Zephyrus the west wind and Notus the south wind. Homer adds an east wind, Euros. As mentioned above, they could be seen as personified beings with their own dwellings, or else as forces controlled by someone else, like Aeolus or Zeus.
Their cult dates back to Mycenean times, as a tablet from Knossos mentions a anemon hiereia, a priestess of the winds. Later there were Anemokoitai, Windbedders, and Heudanamoi, Windlullers. Rituals often took place on hilltops, either to summon favourable winds or to keep off the stormy ones. (This included the Lips, or south-west wind, which could blight the budding vines. The sacrifice of a white cock kept it at bay.)
The four winds, expanded again to the eight winds of the compass rose, were all given special functions, especially for farming and shipping. Against them were the stormy winds born from the corpse of the demon Typhon. Apart from the natural damage done by storm winds, these were said to bring disease in their wake. (Unlike the fertilizing powers of Boreas and Zephyrus.)
On a more scientific note, the Athenians had a Tower of the Winds, with a frieze of the eight winds on the outside, along with sundials, and a weathervane on top. Inside was a water clock, for cloudy days.
Boreas’ myths are interesting because on the one hand he is part of the celestial family, a god of the upper air, and yet he is sometimes controlled by a descendant of the sea-god, and descends to earth to father horses. I suppose that is in the nature of wind, unseen and yet affecting everything. As Christina Rosetti put it:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
Healey, John F., Natural History, a Selection, Penguin Books, 1991.
Carlier, Jeannie (trans. Gerald Honigsblum) 1992: “The Winds” in Greek and Egyptian Mythologies, compiled Yves Bonnefoy, trans. Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago Press.
Price, Simon and Emily Kearns 2003: The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, OUP.