Wind Rose

The wind rose and the classical winds

Before the compass rose (the compass itself only became known to the west during the 13th century), maps included what was called a wind rose to help orient the reader.  North is traditionally indicated with a "fleur de lis" symbol, while East (with its religious and cosmological significance, the direction of Jerusalem) is often marked with a Maltese cross, as it is seen in the graphic below.

In the classical world, no distinction was made between the directions and the named winds emanating from them. Wind names were not standardized (not every region in the classical world experienced the same wind coming from the same direction) and vary by the literary source (though names are relatively more standardized for the four cardinal directions).

The following is a simple composite table using names from Greek, Latin, and finally the eight so-called rhumbs known to Mediterranean sailors in modern Italian (notice that these latter names match the initials around the wind rose itself, except for the Levant to the East, which is indicated by a cross):






Corus (Skirion, Aparctias?)





Caecias (Thracias)







windrose.gif (8993 bytes)


Eurus (Burus)



Libs (Lips)

Africus (Vulturnus)




Phoenix (Euronotus)







The Tower of the Winds, built in Athens about 100 BC and remaining intact to this day, provides a firm record of the names of these eight winds (literally written in stone). It was an ancient clock tower (with a water clock--a technology developed by Archimedes or his teachers in Alexandria) and probably also an observatory. This was brought to my attention in a television documentary on the Antikythera mechanism (part of the Modern Marvels series on the History Channel). The remains of this mechanism are the earliest known geared mechanism. They may be an example of a sophisticated orrery, calendar or analog astronomical computer, dating to this same time period. The small island of Antikythera is located northwest of Crete in the Aegean Sea, about halfway to the larger Kythera (Kithira). Aphrodite is said to have sprung from the sea foam and blown to Kythera by the Zephyrs, so this island was where Paris built a monument to Aphrodite and is considered a refuge for lovers.

Homer is credited with naming the four principle winds, provides a set of personifications, their genealogy and accompanying stories about the them. Thirty-two winds are ascribed various characteristics in classical literature, but by all accounts only eight winds were ever recognized practically for the purposes of navigation. The modern compass is divided into thirty-two divisions.

For an example of stories about the winds, I read that the brothers Boreas (the North wind) and Zephyrus (West wind) were known as the Etesian winds, and are the most often personified. Zephyrus fell in love with Chloris (Flora in Latin, a Nymph associated with Spring flowers). Their loving relationship (or perhaps it was Zephyrus' relations with Podarge, I got a bit confused) begat two offspring. Somehow these "children" turned out to be horses: Xantus and Balius, who later belonged to Achilles--I suppose DNA testing might resolve this confusion but would clearly reduce its mythological charm. Boreas, in contrast, raped Oreithyia, who bore Calais and Zethes among others. I originally wanted to provide a summary story here for each of the winds, but to summarize thirty-two (or even eight) such active personages requires more interest in or knowledge of mythology than I can claim.  Beyond that, there are many inconsistently applied alternate names in several different languages, causing much confusion to the casual reader like me. I did find that the Newman's (2003) chart is a useful way to sort it out.


Moreland, Carl and David Bannister. 1989 [First paperback edition 1993]. Antique Maps: A collector's handbook. 3d ed. (Christie's collectors library). Chapter 10, "Myths and legends on old maps." (See especially under the heading The story of the windrose). London: Phaidon.

Newman, Harold and Jon O. Newman. 2003. A genealogical chart of Greek mythology: comprising 3,673 named figures of Greek mythology, all related to each other with a single family of 20 generations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0807827908 (cloth: alk. paper).

Taylor, E. G. R. (Eva Germaine Rimington). 1956. The haven-finding art; a history of navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. London, Hollis & Carter.

For more on the Antikythera mechanism:

Edmunds, Mike and Philip Morgan. 2000. "The Antikythera Mechanism: Still a mystery of Greek astronomy?" Astronomy & Geophysics 41 (6):6.10-6.17.

Phillips, Tony. 2000 "The Antikythera Mechanism I with Java animations by Bill Casselman" and "The Antikythera Mechanism II with Java animations by Bill Casselman." Published April 1 and May 1, 2000 by the American Mathematical Society, available online at: and (Viewed Jan. 3, 2005).

Price, Derek J. de Solla (Derek John de Solla). 1975. Gears from the Greeks: the Antikythera mechanism: a calendar computer from ca. 80 B.C. New York: Science History Publications, c1974. ["Materials included herein originally appeared in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, volume 64, part 7."] ISBN: 0882020196.

Wright, Michael T. 2002. "A planetarium display for the Antikythera mechanism." Horological Journal 144(5):169-173.

N.B. The above image of the wind rose is taken from the 1598 Tabvla geograregni Congo.


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© Copyright 1995-2005. Dan Reboussin, Africana Collection, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida . Last modified: January 14, 2005 . All hyperlinks verified as of May 28, 2004.