Many years ago, I visited Lipari, one of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. It’s a lovely place, except that for a day or so while I was there, the sirocco blew. This is a hot wind that comes up from the Sahara Desert carrying on it tiny grains of sand. They must rub together to form an electric charge. Certainly the combination of heat, grit and positive ions is thoroughly unpleasant.
There’s a very good archaeological museum on Lipari, with lots of objects such as amphorae recovered from ancient shipwrecks, but what I particularly remember were the Neolithic remains from the region, in almost perfect condition, because they are buried under layer upon layer of fine Sahara sand. Because the sirocco blows so regularly every year, they can estimate their age from the depth of the sand they are deposited in.
At the moment, I am on holiday in the Rhône Valley in France and I’ve just been introduced to another famous wind: the Mistral. The Mistral is a cold wind that blows south down the valley of the Rhône. The Rhône flows down from the Alps, so its water, and the air above it, is cold. At Lyon it meets the warm water, and air, of the Saône river. Under the right (or wrong!) conditions, when the two rivers meet the cold air of the Rhône warms (just a little) and expands. Trapped between the Alps and the Massif Centrale, it has nowhere to go but south wards down the valley in a fierce blast of cold air.
I have been told that in Provence, the Mistral used to be a mitigating factor in legal cases. If the Mistral blows for 9 days, then a murder committed on the 9th day was treated as a crime of passion, not as a cold blooded murder. Having lived through just 3 days of the Mistral, I can believe it!
Except for the wind, this trip through southern France has been glorious – but I’ve been remiss at writing blog posts as a result. The Mistral, though, has got me thinking about some of the less obvious causes of human behaviour – those that we historians tend to ignore, because they are missing from the written records. Good and bad weather and its irritations, local weather lore and how it feeds into the way people act – these are questions I want to think about some more.
Above all, why is it that we give names to particular winds? I can understand why sailors do so, but landlubbers do it too. My favourite gentle name for a wind is the Fremantle Doctor, the sea breeze that reaches Perth in Western Australia in the late afternoon, bringing cool winds from Fremantle in the south, and improving people’s disposition and general health.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that I first thought about the names of winds on the Aeolian Islands – where King Aeolus gave Odysseus a bag of wind to blow him safely home to Ithaca. Odysseus foolishly opened the bag too soon and was blown off course around the Mediterranean. I guess winds have been blowing us off course ever since.