The Madness of the March Wind
“The shift in perspective, from the March Wind as a mad but familiar ally to alphabetically named storms viewed as entirely dangerous and oppositional, reflects climate change and our changing attitudes toward the weather”
I. The March Wind
blowing trick snow,
from a good laugh.
across our painted faces
streaking the clouds.
Sad winter cannot last.
On Blackpool Pier
I saw a man
like an umbrella
blown inside out,
across a pink sky at dusk.
I know you are only
but this has gone too far.
I wish you would stop.
Yet the secret word is lost.
I should never have let you
out of your box.*
II. Winds as Persons
Across the world there are many long-standing traditions of winds being represented as persons. From a modern psychological perspective this might be seen as a result of the human tendency to personify the forces of nature. As an animist and polytheist I would argue that the winds personify themselves, blowing into the minds of artists, sculptors, poets, and storytellers, taking shape and form.
In Greek mythology there is a rich body of lore surrounding the anemoi ‘winds’. Each is a deity, a distinguishable person depicted in human form whose blustery characteristics have given birth to stories.
Boreas, the North Wind, is an old man with a shaggy ice-tipped beard and hair, wings, and winged feet. He is well known for his amorousness. In the form of a stallion he fathered twelve colts to the mares of Erichtonius. He abducted Orithyia by wrapping her up in a cloud and fathered the Boreads and Chione, goddess of snow. The Athenians called upon him to sink the ships of the Persians in war.
The other winds are similarly depicted as winged figures, often bearing gifts. Zephyrus, the West Wind, is a gentler character associated with spring and generation. With Chloris, to whom he gave the domain of flowers, he fathered Karpos ‘Fruit’. Notus, the South Wind, bringer of storms in midsummer, hot, desiccating, is feared as a destroyer of crops. There is less lore about Eurus, the East Wind.
Aelous is king of the floating island of Aiolia and the Keeper of the Winds. He keeps the storm-winds locked away in a cavern or stable, or in a wind-bag, and only releases them on command of the gods.
The Eight Winds, Boreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Apeliotes (E), Eurus (SE), Notus (S), Lips (SW), Zephyrus (W), and Skiron (NW) are carved on the Tower of the Winds in Athens. This twelve metre high octagonal marble clock tower was purportedly built by Andronicus Cyrrhus around 50BCE. Featuring sun dials, a water clock, and wind vane it is the world’s first known meteorological station.
The winds, by various names and in various positions, are also marked on the Classical Compass, the Wind Rose, which over the years has included numbers of six, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty-four winds. The Vatican Table, an anemoscope ‘weather vane’ is inscribed with the names of twelve winds.
These inventions demonstrate the tendency of the Greco-Roman world to divide and departmentalise the divinities of the winds, to assign to each a proper place and function. Meteorology seems to have been born from this desire to predict and control the unpredictable winds.
III. The Song of the Wind
As far as I am aware very little is known about how the ancient Britons perceived the winds before the Romans invaded and brought with them their deities of the winds – Aquilo, Favonius, Auster, and Volturnus.
However, in ‘The Song of the Wind’ in The Book of Taliesin, the legendary bard presents the wind as a wild, untameable, paradoxical creature. In The Story of Taliesin he summons it to free his patron, Elphin, from imprisonment in a thick silver chain in the tower of Maelgwn Gwynedd, King of Deganwy.
Discover thou what is
The strong creature from before the flood,
Without flesh, without bone,
Without vein, without blood,
Without head, without feet;
It will neither be older nor younger
Than at the beginning…
It neither sees, nor is seen.
Its course is devious,
And will not come when desired;
On land and on sea,
It is indispensable…
It is silent, it is vocal,
It is clamorous,
It is the most noisy
On the face of the earth.
It is good, it is bad,
It is extremely injurious.
It is concealed,
Because sight cannot perceive it…
By a tremendous blast,
To wreak vengeance
On Maelgwn Gwynedd
This poem presents the wind as an ambivalent and contrary person who is not subject to human whims, but may be courted by a bard whose voice is one with the awelon ‘breezes’ of awen ‘inspiration’.
Only after ‘a mighty storm of wind’ has terrified Maelgwn and his nobles, who fear the castle will fall down, does the king release Elphin from the tower and speak the words that release his silver chain.
IV. A Troublesome Character
Much of our lore about the winds is imported from Greco-Roman mythology. Yet one wind stands alone as an innately British character – the March Wind. It has inspired a number of sayings and poems. ‘In like a lion out like a lamb’ describes the March Wind roaring down our chimneys at the month’s beginning, rattling in the trees, shaking our scaffolding to the core, before its dies to a bleat at its end.
Another famous saying is ‘March winds and April showers bring forth spring flowers’. This shows that the March wind and the showers of April ultimately have a generative function, birthing life in spring.
The March Wind is also a trickster, as shown in this traditional poem, by an anonymous author, of unknown date:
I come to work as well as play;
I’ll tell you what I do;
I whistle all the live-long day,
I toss the branches up and down
And shake them to and fro,
I whirl the leaves in flocks of brown,
And send them high and low.
I strew the twigs upon the ground,
The frozen earth I sweep;
I blow the children round and round
And wake the flowers from sleep.
The children’s writer, Enid Blyton, cites a tradition rhyme in The Enid Blyton Poetry Book, referring to the March Wind’s madness: ‘I’m the mad March wind, and I’m fierce and strong, / Whoo-oo!’
Socialist poet William Morris draws on its power to overturn social norms in the industrial period in ‘The Message of the March Wind’. He gives voice to its call to for the poor to rise against the rich:
So the hope of the people now buddeth and groweth,
Rest fadeth before it, and blindness and fear;
It biddeth us learn all the wisdom it knoweth;
It hath found us and held us, and biddeth us hear:
For it beareth the message: “Rise up on the morrow
And go on your ways toward the doubt and the strife;
Join hope to our hope and blend sorrow with sorrow,
And seek for men's love in the short days of life."
In ‘The Mist’, by medieval bard Dafydd ap Gwilym, we find a suggestion the winds are kept by the Brythonic god, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’, and his family. Tyrau uchel eu helynt / Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y Gwynt ‘Troublesome high towers belonging / to the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’.
Gwyn’s father, Nudd ‘Mist’/Nodens ‘The Catcher’ or ‘The Cloud-Maker’, is depicted with winged wind-spirits along with water-horses and water-spirits on a mural crown from Lydney. Gwyn’s people, Y Tylwyth Teg ‘The Fair Family’ or ‘Fairies’, are renowned for trouble-making.
If the March Wind is born from the troublesome towers of the family of Gwyn this may explain its nature. Its associations with our Winter King, who constantly battles Gwythyr, our Summer King, seem linked to its love of flinging snow, inside-outing umbrellas, bringing traffic to a standstill, and inciting revolutions.
V. From March Wind to Storm X
According to the scientific explanation the extremes of weather associated with the March Wind are caused by cold air masses of high pressure in the north meeting warm masses of low pressure arriving from the south. As the days lengthen and the amount of sunshine increases so does the difference in pressure. As warm air is lighter than cold air, it pushes it upwards, bringing about storm winds. This effect is growing more and more pronounced as a consequence of global warming.
Over the past few years talk of the madness of the March Wind has been replaced by a new language – that of storms named by the Met Office in an attempt to raise awareness and ensure public safety.
From the 1st to the 4th of March Storm Freya hit Britain with 80mph winds. When I was walking in its aftermath in the Yarrow Valley, the greyish mild sky turned dark and sheets of hail poured down, whitening the woodland. Immediately afterwards blinding sunshine broke through, glittering off and melting freshly-fallen ice, illuminating the vale with an otherworldly incandescence.
From the 11th to the 13th of March Storm Gareth delivered 70mph winds and snowstorms. On a deceptively sunny and bright day hail ‘the size of mint imperials’ struck the Pennines, closing the Snake Pass. Rostherne, Cheshire, was the rainiest and sunniest place in North West England over 24 hours.
Just two days afterwards, from the 15th to the 16th of March, Storm Hannah brought high winds and torrential rain, causing widespread flooding. Near me, on Avenham Park, the river Ribble burst its banks. Today, as I finish writing this article on the 17th of March, it is once again gloriously sunny.
The shift in perspective, from the March Wind as a mad but familiar ally to alphabetically named storms viewed as entirely dangerous and oppositional, reflects climate change and our changing attitudes toward the weather. As we move further and further away from our traditional lore, from the revelations of the winds as persons, toward artificially attempting to predict and name them, we stand less chance of understanding their messages and living through the changes they bring. It is our task as modern Pagans to redress this imbalance, to learn again to hear and give voice to the winds.
*First published in The Dawntreader , Issue 42, (Spring 2018)
Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, Brythonic polytheist, and devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls. She is a co-founder of Awen ac Awenydd and writes and has edited for Gods & Radicals. Based in Penwortham in North West England she gives talks and workshops, performs poetry at local events, and is learning Welsh.