Snow for the ancient Greeks
|February 16, 2019||Filled under Featured, Topic for Discussion||
And if one were to tell of the wintry-cold [kheimōn], past all enduring, when Ida’s snow [khiōn] slew the birds;  or of the heat, when upon his waveless noonday couch, windless the sea [pontos] sank to sleep—but why should we bewail all this?
Aeschylus Agamemnon 563–567, adapted from Sourcebook
Many areas in the northern hemisphere are currently experiencing heavy snow and freezing temperatures. So we are sharing some passages on the subject from the ancient Greek texts.
As so often, we start with the Homeric epics. Snow features in a number of similes—here are a couple. This first scene captures the thick of battle when the two Ajaxes are urging the men on to defend the Achaeans’ wall and ships from the onslaught by Hector and the Trojan forces:
Thus did the two go about shouting and cheering the Achaeans on. As the flakes [niphades] of snow [khiōn] that fall thick upon a wintry [kheimerios] day, when Zeus is minded  to snow [niphō] and to display these his arrows to humankind—he lulls the wind to rest, and snows [kheō] hour after hour till he has buried the tops of the high mountains, the headlands that jut into the sea, the grassy plains, and the tilled fields of men; it has snowed [kheō] deep upon the forelands, and havens of the gray sea,  but the waves as they come rolling in stay it that it can come no further, though all else is wrapped as with a mantle so heavy are the skies with the storm [ombros] of Zeus— even thus thickly did the stones fall on one side and on the other, some thrown at the Trojans, and some by the Trojans at the Achaeans; and the whole wall was in an uproar.
Iliad 12.277–289, adapted from Sourcebook
And in this beautiful passage we have a vivid picture of the snow melting:
Penelope wept as she listened, for her heart was melted [tēkō]. As the snow [khiōn] melts away [katatēkō] upon the mountain tops when the winds from South, East, and West have breathed upon it and thawed [tēkō] it till the rivers run bank full with water, even so did her cheeks overflow with tears for the husband who was all the time sitting by her side.
Odyssey 19.204–209, adapted from Sourcebook
There is no snow for those blessed in the afterlife of the Elysian plain, according to Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, when he tells Menelaos:
As for your own end, Menelaos, fostered son of Zeus, you shall not die in horse-pasturing Argos, but the gods will take you to the Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world. There fair-haired Rhadamanthus  reigns, and men lead an easier life than any where else in the world, for in Elysium there is not snow [niphetos], nor is there heavy winter-storm [kheimōn], nor rain [ombros], 567 but the Okeanos sends up the gusts of shrill-blowing Zephyros 568 at all times, so as to reanimate men. This will happen to you because you have married Helen, and are Zeus’ son-in-law.’
Odyssey 4 adapted from Sourcebook
By contrast, we hear a vivid description of wintry conditions in one of Odysseus’ lies, when he hopes Eumaios will give him a cloak and recounts how “he-the-beggar” was helped by “the real Odysseus” to get a cloak during their time on campaign:
Would that I still had youth and strength [biē] as when we got up an ambuscade at Troy.  Atreus’s son, Menelaos, and Odysseus were the leaders, but I was in command also, for the other two would have it so. When we had come up to the wall of the city we crouched down beneath our armor and lay there under cover of the reeds and thick brush-wood that grew about the swamp.  There came icy cold [pēgulis] with a North wind blowing; the snow [khiōn] fell small and fine like hoar frost [pakhnē], bitter cold [psukhros], and our shields were coated thick with clear-ice [krustallos].  The others had all got cloaks and khitons, and slept comfortably enough with their shields about their shoulders, but I had carelessly left my cloak behind me, not thinking that I should be too cold [rhigoō], and had gone off in nothing but my khiton and shield. When the night was two-thirds through and the stars had shifted their places,  I nudged Odysseus who was close to me with my elbow, and he at once gave me his ear.
Odyssey 14.469–485, adapted from Sourcebook
Another description of the cold—and useful advice about keeping warm—is provided by Hesiod, who refers to the period at the end of January and beginning of February:
As for the month of Lenaion, bad days, all of them bad enough to take the hide off an ox,
505 make sure you take measures against it, along with its frosts [pēgas, pl.],
which are wretched when the wind Boreas blows over the land,
The beasts shudder, putting their tails under their genitals,
even those that have fur covering their skin. Even for them
the cold [psukhros] one [Boreas] blows right through them, shaggy-chested though they are.
515 He [Boreas] goes right through even the hide of an ox; even that will not stop it.
He blows through the fine hair of a goat. But not at all through the fleeces of sheep,
because their wool is thick:
the force of the wind Boreas does not blow through them. But it makes the old man all curved over.
Then it is that the creatures of the forest, horned and unhorned alike,
530 gnash their teeth pitifully as they flee through the woods of the glens.
For all of them there is one thing in their phrenes:
how to find some cover in cozy nooks
in a hollow rock. Then, like a three-legged one,
whose back is broken down and whose head looks down upon the ground,
535 like such a one they range about, trying to escape the white snow [nipha].
At that time wear, as I bid you, something that will shield your skin,
a soft cloak and a tunic that reaches to the feet.
You must weave thick woof on a thin warp.
Wear this, and the hairs will not bristle,
540 standing on end all over your body.
As for your feet, fasten onto them tight-fitting boots made from the hide of a slaughtered ox.
Make them snug with felt on the inside.
When the frost [kruos] comes around in due season, stitch together the skins of first-born goats
with the sinew of an ox. This way, you will have on your back
545 something to keep off the rain. And on your head
wear a shaped hat made of felt. This way, your ears will not get wet.
Hesiodic Works and Days 504–546 adapted from Sourcebook
In an historical account, Xenophon tells how he and the other Greek troops have an arduous journey home through the territory of sometimes hostile peoples, and through hazardous country. High in the mountains near the source of the Euphrates, the conditions become terrible—and they were not in an ideal situation to take advantage of the type of clothing suggested by Hesiod:
 While they were in camp there, there was a heavy fall of snow [khiōn] during the night, and in the morning they decided to quarter the several divisions of the army, with their commanders, in the different villages; for there was no enemy within sight, and the plan seemed to be a safe one by reason of the great quantity of snow [khiōn].  … But some men who straggled away from their quarters reported that they saw in the night the gleam of a great many fires.  The generals accordingly decided that it was unsafe to have their divisions in separate quarters, and that they must bring all the troops together again; so they came together, especially as the storm seemed to be clearing up.  But there came such a tremendous fall of snow [khiōn] while they were bivouacked there that it completely covered both the arms and the men as they slept, besides hampering the baggage animals; and everybody was very reluctant to get up, for as the men lay there the snow [khiōn] that had fallen upon them—in case it did not slip off—was a source of warmth.
… From there they marched over a plain and through deep snow [khiōn] three stages, thirteen parasangs. The third stage proved a hard one, with the north wind, which blew full in their faces, absolutely blasting [apokaiō] everything and freezing [pēgnumi] the men.  Then it was that one of the soothsayers bade them offer sacrifice to the wind, and sacrifice was offered; and it seemed quite clear to everybody that the violence of the wind abated. But the depth of the snow [khiōn] was a fathom, so that many of the baggage animals and slaves perished, and about thirty of the soldiers.  They got through that night by keeping up fires, for there was wood in abundance at the halting-place; those who came up late, however, had none, and consequently the men who had arrived early and were keeping a fire would not allow the late comers to get near it unless they gave them a share of their wheat or anything else they had that was edible.  So then they shared with one another what they severally possessed. Now where the fire was kindled the snow [khiōn] melted [diatēkō], and the result was great holes clear down to the ground; and there, of course, one could measure the depth of the snow [khiōn].  From there they marched all the following day through snow [khiōn], and many of the men fell ill with hunger-faintness. …
As the army went on, Cheirisophus reached a village about dusk, …  So it was that Cheirisophus and all the troops who could muster strength enough to reach the village, went into quarters there, but such of the others as were unable to complete the journey spent the night in the open without food or fire; and in this way some of the soldiers perished. 
… Some of the soldiers likewise were falling behind—those whose eyes had been blinded by the snow [khiōn], or whose toes had rotted off [aposēpomai ] by reason of the cold [psukhos].  It was a protection to the eyes against the snow [khiōn] if a man marched with something black in front of them, and a protection to the feet if one kept moving and never quiet, and if he took off his shoes for the night;  but in all cases where men slept with their shoes on, the straps sunk into their flesh and the shoes froze [peripēgnumi] on their feet; for what they were wearing, since their old shoes had given out, were brogues made of freshly flayed ox-hides.
Xenophon Anabasis 4.4.8–4.4.11, selections from 4.5.3–4.5.13, adapted from translation by Carlton L. Brownson
Polybius provides an account of Hannibal’s dangerous expedition across the Alps—not only with the difficulties of keeping his men safe, but famously also the elephants!
But by this time, it being nearly the period of the setting of the Pleiads, the snow was beginning to be thick on the heights; and seeing his men in low spirits, owing both to the fatigue they had gone through, and that which still lay before them, Hannibal called them together and tried to cheer them by dwelling on the one possible topic of consolation in his power, namely the view of Italy: which lay stretched out in both directions below those mountains, giving the Alps the appearance of a citadel to the whole of Italy. By pointing therefore to the plains of the Padus, and reminding them of the friendly welcome which awaited them from the Gauls who lived there, and at the same time indicating the direction of Rome itself, he did somewhat to raise the drooping spirits of his men.
Next day he began the descent, in which he no longer met with any enemies, except some few secret pillagers; but from the dangerous ground and the snow he lost almost as many men as on the ascent. For the path down was narrow and precipitous, and the snow made it impossible for the men to see where they were treading, while to step aside from the path, or to stumble, meant being hurled down the precipices.
Polybius Histories, adapted from translation by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh
We hear a poetic description of Etna from Pindar. The volcano erupted in 479 BCE, so although the poet is unlikely to have seen it for himself, he must therefore have been aware of it, and in this brief passage we can visualize from his verse the contrast between the snow-capped summit and the fire flowing from it:
Snowy [niphoeis] Aetna, year-round nurse of bitter snow [khiōn],
from whose inmost caves belch forth the purest streams of unapproachable fire.
Pindar Pythian 1.20–22, adapted from translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien
And in the other direction, geographically, Herodotus describes how the Scythians perceive snow which also seems almost poetic:
But regarding the feathers of which the Scythians say that the air is full, so thickly that no one can see or traverse the land beyond, I have this opinion. North of that country snow falls continually, though less in summer than in winter, as is to be expected.  Whoever has seen snow falling thickly near him knows himself my meaning; for snow is like feathers; and because of the winter, which is as I have said, the regions to the north of this continent are uninhabited. I think therefore that in this story of feathers the Scythians and their neighbors only speak of snow figuratively. So, then, I have spoken of those parts that are said to be most distant.
Herodotus The Histories 4.31, adapted from translation by A.D. Godley
Plutarch attempts a more accurate analysis of snow:
Moreover, freezing, which is the most extreme and violent effect of cold in bodies, is a condition of water, but a function of air. For water of itself is fluid, uncongealed and not cohesive; but when it is compressed by air because of its cold state, it becomes taut and compact. This is the reason for the saying
If Southwind challenges North, instantly snow will appear.
For after the Southwind has collected the moisture as raw material, the Boreal air takes over and congeals it. This is particularly evident in snowfields: when they have discharged a preliminary exhalation of air that is thin and cold, they melt. Aristotle also declares that whetstones of lead will melt and become fluid in the wintertime through excess of cold when no water is anywhere near them; it seems probable that the air with its coldness forces the bodies together until it crushes and breaks them.
Plutarch De primo frigido 1.11, adapted from translation by William C. Hembold
These are just a few examples of Greek texts that talk about snow—and ice, and freezing weather—whether as simile, or as an account of what it was like to experience such conditions, or as a scientific or geographical description. Please join us in the forum to share other passages!
Selected Greek terms relating to snow and freezing weather
Greek terms retrieved from texts on Perseus, and definitions summarized from LSJ:
apokaiō [ἀποκαίω] “to burn off…of intense cold, to shrivel up…be frozen off”
aposēpomai [ἀποσήπομαι] “lose by rotting or mortification, or frost-bite”
diatēkō [διατήκω] “to melt, soften by heat; melt away, thaw”
katatēkō [κατατήκω] “to melt or thaw away”
kheimōn “winter; wintry weather, winter-storm, storm”
kheimerios [χειμέριος] adjective “wintry, stormy, cold”
kheō [χέω] “to pour, shed…abs. it snows; passive become liquid, melt”
khiōn [χιών] “snow, fallen snow (Homer); falling snow; snow-water, ice coldwater”
kruos [κρύος] “icy cold, frost”
krustallos [κρύσταλλος] “clear ice, ice; rock-crystal”
nipha [νίφα] “snow”
niphas, niphades [νιφάς, νιφάδες] “snow-flake, snow, mostly plural”
niphetos [νιφετός] “falling snow, snowstorm”
niphoeis [νιφόεις] adjective “snowy, snowclad”
niphō [νίφω] “to snow”
ombros [ὄμβρος] “storm of rain, thunder-storm, heavy rain” and Autenrieth adds “also [used] of a heavy fall of snow”
pakhnē [πάχνη] “hoar-frost, rime (frozen rain)”
pēgas [πηγάς] “hoar-frost, rime; earth hardened after rain”
pēgnumi [πήγνυμι] “… III. to make solid or stiff, esp. of liquids, freeze”
pēgulis [πηγυλίς] adjective “frozen, icy-cold; as noun hoar-frost, rime”
peripēgnumi [περιπήγνυμι] “fix round, make to congeal round; passive, be frozen round”
psukhros [ψυχρός] adjective “cold…(orig. ‘cooled by blowing’ from ψύχω ‘blow’)”
psukhos [ψῦχος] “cold, winter-time; pl. frosts, cold weather”
rhigoō [ῥιγόω] “to be cold, shiver”
tēkō [τήκω] “to melt, melt down, dissolve; passive melt away, thaw”
 Sourcebook The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor. 2018.12.12. Available online on the Kosmos Society Text Library and at CHS.
Aeschylus Agamemnon Translated by Herbert Weir Smyth, Revised by Gregory Crane and Graeme Bird, Further Revised by Gregory Nagy
Greek text: Aeschylus, Herbert Weir Smyth. 1926. Cambridge. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd.
 Sourcebook Iliad:
Homeric Iliad Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power
Greek text: Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. 1920. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
 Sourcebook Odyssey
Homeric Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power
Greek text: Homer. The Odyssey A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. 1919. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd.
 Sourcebook Works and Days
Hesiodic Works and Days, translated by Gregory Nagy
Greek text: Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. 1914. Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.
 Xenophon Anabasis:
English text: Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 3. Carleton L. Brownson. 1922. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. Online at Perseus:
Greek text: Xenophon. Xenophontis opera omnia, vol. 3. 1904 (repr. 1961). Oxford, Clarendon Press.
 Pindar. Pythian 1
English text: Odes. Pindar. Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990. Online at Perseus:
Greek text: The Odes of Pindar including the Principal Fragments with an Introduction and an English Translation by Sir John Sandys, Litt.D., FBA. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1937
 Herodotus. Histories:
Greek and English texts:
Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. 1920. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. on Perseus
 Plutarch Moralia, “De primo frigido”
English text: Translation by William C. Hembold, Cambridge MA; London. Date not given. Online at
Greek text: Plutarch. Moralia. Gregorius N. Bernardakis. 1893. Leipzig. Teubner.
 LSJ: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. Online at Perseus:
Texts accessed February 2019.
Joseph Mallord William Turner Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps 1812. Tate. N00490.
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Images accessed February 2019.
Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott are members of the Kosmos Society.