To the editor: In the recent piece on the origins of nautical terms (Compass points to fathom Issue 130, May/June 2003) Larry McKenna made a reference to the Tower of the Winds in Athens. The building got its name many centuries after it was built and long after its original purpose had been forgotten. The name was associated with the series of reliefs of wind gods around its top. In fact, these sculptures do not represent the sole purpose of the building.
In 1751, two British gentlemen, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, who were both trained artists and architects, went to Athens to study and record the remains of classical buildings. The tower was one of the four they studied in detail.
They made drawings and took measurements in order to make renderings of the buildings’ original appearances. The result of their work was a book in four volumes, the first, on the tower, was published in 1762.
The detailed examination of the building by Stuart and Revett revealed that it was once called the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes. In Greek, horologion means clock. At one time, the tower contained a large water clock. On the back of the building, Stuart and Revett found the water tank that powered the clock. The clock mechanism had long since disappeared. In addition to the water clock, there was once a wind vane on the roof. The eight reliefs of the winds around the top of the tower were to identify the wind direction to passersby.
Mr. McKenna is entirely correct that the early Greeks identified eight primary directions based on characteristics they associated with each wind. Boreas, the north wind; Notos, the south wind; Zephyros, the west wind; and Euros, the southeast wind, were the beneficial winds that dominated the weather on the lands and seas known to the Greeks. They were believed to bring good to humanity.
As believers in a balanced universe, the four beneficial winds needed four adverse winds as a counterweight. These were Kaikias, the northeast wind; Apeliotes, the east wind; Lips, the southwest; and Skiron, the northwest wind.
Long after the water clock and wind vane had disappeared and been forgotten, the building still stood. Seeing only the reliefs of the wind gods, people later thought it had been a temple to the winds, hence the name Tower of the Winds.
Jeff Markell is the author of The Sailor’s Weather Guide, second edition, published by Sheridan House.