Episode 25 - A Face Full of Holy Horse Wind (The North Week)
Updated: Apr 18
Sam's Episode Notes: What the Ancient Greek's thought lay beyond the grumpy horse who makes the north wind blow.
Welcome to the North – at least the North as it was to the ancient Greeks. Who were amazing at Maths, but absolutely appalling at filling in the blanks when it came to geography.
And my story today starts with wind, Tom. Quite literally. Now the Greeks had a god for everything, and the God of the wind was a chap called Aeolus. There's two Aeolus or Aeoli in Greek mythology, one is the son of Posiedon, and then there's this chap, who keeps the winds and lives in Sicily. And like most Sicilians has a somewhat unpredictable temprament and is also the God of storms.
Now, Aeolus had four sometimes horses, sometimes winged people, sometimes gusts called the Anemoi, and they are minor gods who represent the great winds. Incidentally, they are the children of the Gods of dawn and dusk, which kind of makes sense because that's when the winds tend to be highest.
Eurus was the East wind, also sometimes mixed in with another easterly windy God called Apeliotes, because fuck it, why not, the Greeks. He's a friendly chap that brings the refreshing morning rains and is usually seen smiling and carrying lots of fruit.
Then there's Notus, the God of the South Wind, bringer of summer droughts and Autumn storms, a bit of a dick and destroyer of crops. Southern Europe gets incredible Saharan late storms called Scirocco which are really incredible to see, so he's the God of those.
Zephyrus is the Western wind, he's pretty friendly and is the bringer of spring, he's also a bit of a ladies man, which in Greek mythology means he's a kidnapper and a rapist. He's married to Iris, goddess of rainbows, but also kidnapped Chloris and made her the Goddess of flowers. Between them they shagged and created fruit. Bear in mind this guy was a horse, so, try and work out the physics of a horse man god kidnapping and having kids with a flower so that she gives birth to some apples and, er, yeah.
And finally we have Boreas, the Northern Wind. And oh Tom, he doesn't half live up to the sterotypes. He's a grumpy, curmudgeonly old fart with a scraggly beard and hair and a violent temper. He has a giant conch shell horn and wears a big scraggly cloak and is a bit of a twat to everyone he meets as he sweeps winter down through the land.
Interestingly and for no obvious reason he's sometimes shown as having snakes instead of feet, like a terrible child's drawing. Or maybe he just liked a colourful sock. You know, how sometimes you get really grumpy academics or people in tech support or archives who just wear brown and grey and are really grumpy and hate people but always wear a jaunty sock or a funny tie.
He's also, lets not forget, a horse, or part horse, and was said to be the father of some of Greek mythologies great studs and stables. It's also believed that if mares stood with their arses facing the north wind they'd miraculously get pregnant by him, so if you ever go to greece and you happen to be facing into the north wind, do wear a face mask to avoid a spray of bad-tempered deitic equine jizz.
Like his brother he was a ladies man ie a kidnapper, stealing an unfortunate Athenian princess called Orithyia in a cloud when she refused his advances and marrying her anyway. They had four kids, two sons and two daughters – the sons became the Boriads, who were two of the crew of the Argo in Jason and the Argonauts, and the daughters were the goddess of Snow, and some bird named Cleopatra who could be anyone, really.
Despite the slightly unconsenting nature of the relationship, the Athnians did view him as a relative by marriage, though, and therefore a patron of the city. Which makes sense, I guess he'd be the step-dad? And they credit him with destroying two of the great Persian King Xerxes' invasion fleet.
Now, Tom. This grumpy old man lived in Thrace, which is modern day Bulgaria. But what lay beyond? Well, this is where the Greeks go from being great engineers and mathematicians to appalling mapmakers and holiday reps. Because above Thrace, which is only a few hundred miles north of Greece, is apparently Hyperborea, the land above the North winds.
And it's a paradise, Tom. A land where the sun shines for 24 hours a day, where everyone sings and dances all the time, and they don't have to work, and they never fight. Ah, Yorkshire.
Everyone was a giant as well, there was also that. Everyone's three metres tall.
Now, this being a mythical land, you couldn't actually go there – obviously. The Greeks knew that.After all, it was situated beyond the Riphean Mountains, which couldn't possibly be crossed by mortal men because they were entirely made up.
But that didn't stop them from writing about it in enormous detail. The first proper work we have that survives is Herodotus's Histories from about 450BC, which is a really important book in the classical pantheon. And he says that Homer was writing about it in a lost work far earlier than that.
And according to many Greek writers, this land of milk and honey was what we would call today a little slice of heaven called Romania, Tom. That's certainly what Homer thought. Some others thought the land was in modern day Ukraine, and interestingly, one historian in the 4th Century BC, a chap called Hecataeus of Abdera, thought it might be in Britain.
A scrap of Hecateus writing survives preserved in a quote in another ancient source, and it says:
In the regions beyond the land of the Celts there lies in the ocean an island no smaller than Sicily. This island, the account continues, is situated in the north and is inhabited by the Hyperboreans, who are called by that name because their home is beyond the point whence the north wind (Boreas) blows; and the island is both fertile and productive of every crop, and has an unusually temperate climate.
Which sounds about right, doesn't it. Britain. A land where it's never dark and we hate fighting and everyone is a giant who sings happy songs. I think he probably got close, but it sounds very much like he overshot a little and actually meant to put the pin on the map in Sweden.
Interestingly, actually in the 17th century when everyone was trying to claim some great Greek or Roman heritage for themselves in the renaissance, The Swedes decided yup, it's us, we're the happy mythical giants. Despite no-one every saying it was Sweden.
Anyway, Hecateus also mentions a great circular temple to Apollo, which some scholars believe may be Stonehenge or a similar monument. I personally suspect that's bollocks. The Brits lived in round houses. It could literally have been anything. People are just trying to find a use for stonehenge because it's archaeologically actually really boring.
But what I found very interesting is that Hecateus shows is that the Ancient Greeks were familiar with the concept of Ancient Britain hundreds and hundreds of years before the Romans arrived, a country a very, very long way away through what was, at the time, a huge number of disparate tribes and kingdoms or an incredibly treacherous boat ride. In fact, it was about this time that the first known Greek, a chap called Pytheas, visited Britain.
Also notably, Ptolemy the great Roman/Egyptian scholar also thought Hyperboria was Britain.
Anyway, as time went on, people found more and more exotic, and by exotic I mean very not exotic, locations for these imaginary people. About 100 years on, and the writer Simmias of Rhodes was placing Hyperboria in modern day Kazakhstan, which again is a HUGE distance from Greece for them to even be familiar with.
Finally, in around AD 43, one of the first professional Geographers, a Roman chap called Pomponius Mela, placed Hyperboria in the Arctic circle. Which explains the 24 hour daylight thing, but very much not the whole land of milk and honey idea.
So there we go Tom. To the ancient Greeks, the North was a cold grumpy wind, beyond which lay the Paradise of Romania. Or Britain. Or possibly Kazakhstan. Or maybe Sweden.
And I'd like to finish with an honourable mention. I did a lot of reading into obscure Gods for this week, and I stumbled across a lady called Cardea.
Now she's a Roman Goddess and she's got probably the least glamorous remit or portfolio of any deity. Can you guess what she's the god of, Tom?
Door hinges. Yes she is the goddess of not of winged beasts but of hinged doors, and safe passage into buildings.
So there you go. The worst gig in Godding. That's definitely the work experience God's job isn't it.
Just make sure it opens and closes. Very good. Do that for two weeks.
Tom's notes: The North
· Sudan and Egypt
· Lower and upper Egypt
· After reading BBC article about pyramids
o More in Sudan than Egypt
o Flooding in lower Nile delta?
Polishing up my general knowledge of Ancient Egypt
· Reminded of the Late Bronze Age Collapse
· Knew a bit about this but have always wanted to know more
· Fitted in with ‘The North’
The Late Bronze Age Collapse
· Between 1200BC to 1150BC there was a tumultuous change geo-politics in the Eastern Mediterranean
· Prior to 1200BC, there were a few very successful and powerful kingdoms
o The Hittites in modern day Turkey and down into Syria, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon (the Western coastal area of the Middle East)
o The Egyptians along the Nile delta and up into the same areas
o Mycenaean Greece in modern day Greece
o Babylonians in the Tigris and the Euphrates deltas
o Assyrian Empire; North West Iraq
· These empires/kingdoms had been growing in the Fertile crescent for close to 2000 years
o Babylonians date back to around 1900BC
o Hittites date back to around 1500BC
o Egyptian Old Kingdom dates back to 2700BC (great Pyramids)
o Mycenaean Kingdoms around 1600BC
o Assyria, 2500BC
· After the 50 year period, we get a couple of hundred years of Dark Age out of which emerge much smaller states
o Egypt and Assyria are the only Empires to survive
o Almost every major city was destroyed
§ Many never inhabited again
§ Hattusas, Troy, Miletus
o Trade routes disrupted
o Literacy dropped
o Mass depopulation in areas
· A term coined by French Egyptologists in the second half of the 19th Century
· The Temple of Medinet Habu; mortuary temple of Ramasese III of Egypt
o Inscriptions of Ramases III’s defeat of an army of ‘Sea Peoples’
o Bizarrely, this temple complex has a couple of rather odd relief sculptures
§ One is a pile of hands; to account for the dead after battles
§ Another; a pile of genitals, apparently for the same reason.
· I can think of better jobs
o Cock counter
o Todger tallier
o Poller of plonkers
· A number of other Egyptian sources refer to ‘Sea Peoples’
· During the reign of Rameses II, the Egyptians fought a group of ‘Sea Peoples’ at Sherdan in the Nile Delta. After defeating them, the prisoners were made to fight for the Egyptians against the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh
· During the reign of Merneptah (Mern-e-tah), the Egyptians fought a confederation of peoples called ‘The Nine Bows’ led by a Libyan
o Interestingly, there were women and children present in this army
o Reinforced by the Rameses III narrative
§ ‘The Nine Bows’ mentioned again closely connected to the Sea People
· 3 times Rameses defeated the Sea Peoples
o Sounds like a mass movement of people
· The exact origins of the Sea Peoples is hotly disputed, but we can make generalisations
o Probably a mix of peoples from the areas surrounding the major empires of the time
§ Including Greeks, Philistines, Sardinians, people from Sicily etc
What caused the Late Bronze Age Collapse? Was it the Sea Peoples
· There is an argument that sounds believable to me, that the Sea Peoples were a small part of a bigger series of events and possibly even the result of a series of events.
· Here are some of the proposed factors…
o Structural fragility of the large empires
o Environmental pressures; such as droughts
o Technological advancements; the beginning of the iron age
§ Easier mineral to find and easier to make weapons
§ Could overwhelm chariot-based armies of the wealthy
o Possible volcanic eruptions
o Soil degradation
Peoples with names that have entered common parlance as common nouns:
· Philistines; Greek origin, settled in modern day Palestine
· Vandals; Germanic tribe
· Goths; Germanic tribe
· Troglodytes; Ancient Greek/Roman word
· Huns; Central Asian
· Hooligan? Late 19th Century; from a rowdy Irish family
· Barbarians; Roman word for uncivilised people