The Ancient History of Weathervanes 2000 BC to 1600 AD by David Ferro
Since the beginning of Earth, the weather has affected evolution of the planet itself and the life that inhabits it. It was millions of years after that first spark, of which the winds were born, that the intelligence and creativity of man first looked upon their environment and decide to study it.
Man discovered that the weight of air above the earth’s surface exerts a force called pressure. Different types of geographic climates create different pressures, which lead to the development of winds, and in turn influence, our daily weather. Once we realized that the winds brought changing weather, we needed a wind direction indicator. The simplest of which and oldest of known meteorological instruments is a cloth pennant mounted on a pole as a wind vane. The difference between wind and weather vanes, although the terms are used synonymously, is that we added a compass indicator when the geographic origin of the wind was important and not just its direction. A pilot will use a wind vane for wind direction but a farmer will use a weathervane to predict oncoming weather.
Until recently, the oldest known wind vanes, namely those of the Chinese and Greeks, dated back to the first and second centuries B. C., i.e., to a period about 2000 years ago. Evidence has been discovered predating these vanes by an additional two thousand years. A search of the Sumerian and Akkadian literature for indications of the possible existence of wind vanes in the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations resulted in two discoveries. First, in one Akkadian fable, originally written between about 1800 and 1600 B. C. mention was made of a wind vane. It follows from the context of the fable that the vane was made of wood, while the name of the vane suggests that it was in the shape of a bird. The passage clearly reads “They look at the weathervane for the direction of the wind.” The partially legible line before it reads “Like a crown, the temple is adorned with…” Second, Three Sumerian-Akkadian vocabularies of this period give three different Sumerian names for the single Akkadian name for vane. The Sumerian names appear to be genuine Sumerian terms and not translations of the Akkadian term. All three Sumerian names suggest that the vanes were made of wood; one of the three may possibly indicate that the vane was made in the form of either a fish (shark?) or a mythological water monster. Since the Sumerian culture flourished before about 2000 B. C., it seems clear that there were wind vanes in the ancient Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago.
Nearby, ancient Egyptians were measuring environmental conditions to foretell coming weather events. Art on the temple of Luxor shows tall poles with long cloth streamers mounted on or alongside buildings. The temple’s construction began under Amenhotep III, about 1400 B. C. The Egyptian Abydos Temple of Seti I has a base relief depicting soldiers with banners blowing in the wind to show archers the wind’s direction. At about the same time in Chinese history, pole mounted streamers also appeared.
The most famous weather vane of ancient history is the ancient Greek Triton, which stands out due to the ancient text that exists describing it in detail. The images we see today of this vane depict interpretations of the ancient text but no one knows exactly what the weathervane looked like. Triton, Half man and half fish, in Greek mythology, was a minor sea deity and the son of Poseidon.
The ancient Greek Triton vane has been lost for centuries, but the building it rotated above still stands and is now popularly known as the Tower of the Winds. The octagonal marble tower, over forty feet high, is a Horologium (hour recorder) built about 48 B. C. by Andronicus of Cyrrhus at the northwest foot of the Acropolis in Athens. It measured time by means of a clepsydra (water clock) housed within and had a sundial incised on the outside walls. Its octagonal shape presented a wall to each of the eight principal wind directions. On each of the sides, above the sundial’s lines, a figure was sculpted in relief representing one of the eight winds. These served as cardinals for the weather vane which once turned above the marble roof. [Triton is considered the first “weather” vane due to the presence of the compass.]
The Roman Vitruvius first recorded this information about 25 B. C. Vitruvius’s treatise De Architectura, the only book on architecture to survive from antiquity, contains a description of the weathervane.
…On the several sides of the octagon he (Andronicus) executed relief’s representing the several winds, each facing the point from which it blows; and on top of the tower he set a conical shaped piece of marble and on this a bronze Triton with a rod outstretched in his right hand. It was so contrived as to go around with the wind, always stopping to face the breeze and holding its rod as a pointer directly over the representation of the wind that was blowing.
Weathervanes were also used throughout Rome on the roofs of wealthy villas at the dawn of the first millennium. M. Terentius Varro, “most learned of the Romans” had on his farm a vane that could be read indoors by means of a connected dial. Centuries later Thomas Jefferson, a renowned classicist, used the same idea for his home at Monticello. In China there is evidence of a bronze wind gnomon in the shape of a bird about 101 B. C.
Seafaring Viking warriors appropriated a metal banner as a wind vane. They bedecked their tall-masted ships with richly gilded, quadrant shaped vanes, which, unlike those used on land, did not give the wind’s true direction; they simply indicated a combination of the vessel’s and the wind’s directions. It was this combination that aided Viking navigators in deducing true wind direction and gave them the courage to venture as far as they did. Probably the oldest documentation of this is to be found on the picture stone of Stenkyra on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. The representation from 725 A.D. shows a wind vane at the top of the mast of a long ship. This type of vane made its way from ships to the steeples of Scandinavian churches in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Some can still be seen in Norway and Sweden. Engraved with pagan motifs, The copper and bronze vanes are thought by some historians to have denoted the owners rank. Others believe they were just another costly, albeit brilliant, embellishment on warships dressed for battle.
Bird motifs are the oldest known design used as wind vane pointers. As previously mentioned the Sumerian vane was described as a bird in 2000 B. C. and then we have the Chinese bird of 101 B. C.. It’s not known if the “bird’ in each case was a rooster but it is quite possible due to the importance of roosters in each culture. It would further the fact that roosters have been the most popular motif throughout history.
The first mention of a rooftop rooster figure is from the mausoleum of the Flavier in North African Cilium about 200 A. D.. The oldest Rooster vane in existence is the cock of Brescia, Italy from 820 A. D.. It is believed that around this time, the pope decreed each catholic church would bear a cock as a reminder of Peter on the Cavalry: “In this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times” (Matthew 26, 34). English writer Albert Needham was the first to write this claim, but evidence of the Papal decree has never been found. Two artifacts exist from the 11th century also depicting roosters. There is an 11th century drawing in the library in Rouen, France and the Bayeaux tapestry contains a depiction of a weathercock’s installation or repair. This tapestry was made in England after the battle of Hastings in 1066 and depicts many episodes in the life of William the Conqueror. The English were the first to coin the term Weathercock that means wind-blown cock.
Roosters are used as a vane for several reasons least of, which is the fact its tail acts as a perfect wind catcher. The rooster, who because of its elevated position, is the first to catch the sun’s rays. He is the proclaimer of the day, a symbol of watchfulness and to ward off evil, a symbol of resurrection and the promise of the return of Christ on Judgment Day. It also represents the victory of light over darkness, and it calls to Morning Prayer.
Roosters enjoyed a long-standing rein as the predominant and important figure of choice for weathervanes appearing in art and literature continually up until the middle Ages. As the Normans swept through England and Ireland they planted the seeds of their own culture. From this, heraldry began to form during the 12th century. In a world of courageous knights and kingly grants, one’s coat of arms embellished upon a flag or pennant was the sign of honor and nobility. So important was flying such a flag that it required a royal license. Knights rode to war carrying their heraldic pennants and upon a victory their captain was granted the right to fly his crest high above the conquered castle’s towers. Throughout Medieval Europe, the privileged flew their coat of arms proudly. In France there was a clear distinction between the pennant (pennon) and the banneret (banniere). Pennants were for knights and nobleman with the full square banneret’s saved for the aristocrats and Lord’s. This system actually sustained until 1659 when the parliament in Grenoble rescinded the rule and allowed everyone to raise a weathervane. These cloth and leather flags and pennants would not last in the open elements and would eventually be destroyed so iron replicas were forged and raised to place. These first non-rotating ornaments were sensitive to headwinds and would break suddenly and fall. This was often interpreted as a bad omen and many fires, lost battles and deaths were blamed on the fall of the coat of arms. The iron bannerets and pennants were improved to allow them to turn with the wind and leave a slender profile and therefore minimum resistance.
The subjects and styles of weathervanes remained virtually unchanged through the middle ages. With the settlement of a new world, American facilitated widespread use of weathervanes by making them fashionable. There, an entire other historic story is told. Today, weathervanes are being rediscovered as an opportunity to express individuality, regardless of the “direction” in which it may lie.
--Yankee weathervannes, Myrna Kaye
--Wvanes & whirligigs, Bishop
--Vanes of the wind, Leah Gordon
--Neumann/Parpola. Am Meteor..Society
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