Bill Casselman

An Ancient Greek Wind God

Among Grecian and Roman deities of yore, Aeolus was blustery regent of the winds, superintendent of tempests, justly weather-vain, Caesar of the sirocco, the rex in the storm, monarch of the mistral, whistling conductor of whirlwinds, in short: the pomposity of ventosity (ventus Latin ‘wind’). Think of that spritz of urinary sagacity embodied in the Latin proverb: vir prudens non contra ventum mingit ‘a wise man does not piss into the wind.’

The Greek Aiolos (or Aeolus in his Roman form) was a mortal king, ruler of the island of Aeolia, a real isle, and, so Homer tells us, one visited by Odysseus and the setting of an episode of the Odyssey (see below). No divine, deifying ichor flowed purple in his human veins and yet Aiolos controlled the winds. His name may be Greek, from their adjective aiolos ‘changeable, quick-moving, rapid.’ But Aiolos could have been borrowed earlier than classical Greek from a Semitic language like Phoenician, where aol means ‘whirlwind.’

Ulysses Gets Bagged
Homer tells my favorite story about Aeolos in The Odyssey. On his return voyage, Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) lolled pleasantly on the Aeolian isle for weeks, bloviating amiably with the wind god. “Hey, Aeolus, flip me a mermaid on the half-shell!” So charmed by his visitor was Aeolus that he gave Odysseus a going-away present: a plump, capacious bag of mighty winds to help blow his ships home to Ithaca. But, once outbound for home, the scurvy crew of sailors and unsavory layabouts accompanying the Greek hero were full of discontent and bloated with nautical bitchiness built up after years at sea, and these ocean scum grew more and more curious to see what perhaps golden or silver treasure lurked in that vast swollen leather bag they had loaded aboard when embarking from Aeolia.

Of course, the crew ripped open the bag; all the stored winds rushed out and blew with force. Odysseus’ ships were blown back to the isle of Aeolia by those escaping winds. But, as the sailors clambered bedraggled and besalted up the beach to his palace, the king of the winds showed the revenant miscreants no sympathy. Thus came the gift of Aeolus to naught. Curiosity, like other human traits, must be kept in check.

                  Stormy chaos bursts forth upon the seas and Odysseus'

                      embosomed ships, after the bag of winds is loosed.

These wind words and names are ones whose ventose sonority appeals to me. Simoom is as slippery a toxic wind as ever sanded a camel’s hump. The engulfing simoom withers and desiccates all it passes, hauling sandy dust over most of the Middle East, blowing across the Sahara, gliding over Israel and Palestine, grit-whipping Jordan and Syria and the Allah-loving, woman-hating deserts of Araby. Over dune-strewn wastes both African and Asian, simooms waft and squall in lethal wheeze.

Simooms can boil at 54°C (129°F) or parch a throat at 10% humidity. In his 1968 book Climatology, G. R. Rumney wrote: “The sirocco is known as the khamsin in Egypt, leveche in southeastern Spain, where it is usually quite dry, garbi in the Aegean, samoon in Algeria, sahat in Morocco, and ghibli in Libya. There are many foreign versions of the word: samoom, samum, semoom, simúm, samoon, samun, semoun, simoon, and simoun, among others.

Etymology of Simoom
Simoom — the very word summons up Death in a billowy burnoose of ebon velvet, opening skeletal arms to enfold and suffocate you in its smothering shroud of gasps. Simoom is the poison wind. In Arabic سموم ‎ samūm ‘the poisoner’ from the verbal root سم s-m-m ‘to poison.’

One of the best weather adjectives pops up in northern British regional English, namely wuthering. In the best Emily Brontë novel, it inhabits her title: Wuthering Heights. Her definition in Chapter One is tasty too:
“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.”

Was inclemency ever better limned? The etymology can be explained as a mere vowel gradation of weathering. Withering exists. But the word is thonged with Viking leather too. In Old Norse, proto-Scandinavian language of the Vikings raiders of northern Britain, are stout terms like hviða ‘high wind, squall’ to which may be compared a modern Norwegian verb kvidra ‘to dart back and forth, to stop and start,’ perhaps cognate with Old English words for ‘glowing light’ or ‘aura,’ hwiþa and hwiþu.

               Emily Brontë looked severe in all her portraits.

Two little technical terms from meteorology are fun to know. Katabatic is said of winds, like Canada’s Chinook, that blow down a declivity or hill or Alp, cold air flowing downward by gravity. Cold air of course weighs more than hot air, to which any trip to London, Washington or Ottawa bears witness. Greek καταβατός katabatos = κατά kata ‘down’ + βατός batos ‘able to go.’


Anabatic wind flows upward like all warmed air. Greek ἀναβατικός anabatikos = Greek ανά ana ‘up’ + βατός batos ‘able to go.

This cold, dry northerly of France gusts down through the Rhone valley, across the south of France, always affecting the weather in Provence, finally to dissipate far out over Mediterranean midwaters. The word is ancient, from Old Occitan, a southern dialect of French where it had forms like maestral and maistral, clearly showing its classical Latin etymon, magistralis ‘masterly.’ For it is the master wind, in the sense that the mistral influences all weather on the Levantine littoral whenever on a winter’s day it gales stiff breezes to the south.

More than one writer has borrowed the wind’s name, most prominent being Chilean poet Lucila Alcayaga whose nom de plume was Gabriela Mistral. The pioneering writer of the first comprehensive Occitan dictionary was Frédéric Mistral. A famous French train that ran between Paris and Nice was the Mistral. Between 1993 and 2006 Nissan made a Mistral automobile.

Even ancient Greeks recognized that this dangerous warm wind, the mistral, could make humans do strange things. Greeks called the mistral κακόσχολαι πνοάι kakoscholai pnoai “bad-leisure winds.”

What a roistering, sea-salt-soaked word! At first a williwaw was a blustering squall at sea, like those common in the Straits of Magellan, a phenomenon of northern latitudes, a whaler’s nightmare wind-roar, a cold wind blowing offshore and descending onto waves and men in ships from coastal mountains. No one knows the word’s root, although it sounds as if it might stem from a northern aboriginal language of North America.

There is a Scottish dialect word, whilly-wha which means lip-flap, idle speech, deceptive blather etc. But the semantics of the two words seem distant and rapprochement unpromising.

Well, blow me down, wind-mates, the captain’s coffer yawns void. She be empty as a harlot’s promise, me hearties. And yet, the ship nears port; the gangplank sways; the dock creaks. Sure now, we’ll return to wind words eftsoons, ye scurvy sea-dogs. And we’ll do so before a pelican can dance a jig on a dead man’s collarbone

               Audubon's Noble Pelican

Bill Casselman, April 08, 2018

Copyright 2018 by William Gordon Casselman

Increase your English vocabulary by learning the origins of the names of winds.

At the Wording Desk