In many parts of the world, winter is the season that brings snow. Although this type of weather is less common in Greece than in northern Europe, it does occur, primarily in the mountains. The ancient Greeks were certainly no strangers to snow.
Homer used it as the basis for several metaphors and similes in his epic poems. So what did the Greeks actually think of it? As it happens, there are a variety of myths related to snow, such as its origin and causes. There are also comments from ancient Greek scientists about the subject.
Did the Greeks like snow?
Homer’s references to snow in his epic poems reveal how the Greeks generally viewed it. In the Odyssey, there is a description of the Elysian Plain, which is an afterlife in Greek mythology reserved for those who have the gods’ approval. It was meant to be a kind of paradise. Homer describes it as being “where life is easiest for men. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor rain.”
According to this, it seems that snow was viewed as a burden in life rather than something to be enjoyed. It was seen as an inconvenience to daily living much like a storm or rain. Whether Homer’s comments reflect the views of most Greeks living in that era, we cannot say.
However, it is clear that anyone involved in a military campaign would think poorly of snow. Various ancient accounts of troops marching through snowy terrain highlight the dangers that it brings. Troops and their animals would often get stuck in it and die from the cold.
Snow in Greek mythology
Greek mythology features several stories that focus on how snow came to be or what its role in the world is. One simple belief was that it was caused by Zeus. In the Iliad, Homer refers to Zeus bringing snow on mankind by means of his arrows. Hence, it seems that his arrows were believed to be responsible for certain weather phenomena, including snowfall.
A different myth attributes snow to a nymph (a type of lesser deity) named Chione. This name comes directly from the ancient Greek word for ‘snow.’ She was the daughter of Boreas, the god of the north wind. It seems that there are few, if any, surviving myths about this nymph bringing the snow, but her name strongly implies that this is what the Greeks believed.
However, she was not the only character in Greek mythology with this name. Another Chione was the consort of Boreas. Given the name and, again, the connection to the god of the north wind, it may well be that the Greeks viewed her as having a connection to the snow in some way.
To be sure, the Greeks also strongly associated Boreas himself with snowy weather. As the god of the north wind, he was said to have blown the cold air down towards Greece from the north—from Thrace in particular.
The early poet Pindar describes Boreas as being ‘of bleak and frozen breath.’ Therefore, it is very likely that some Greeks viewed Boreas as being directly responsible for the snow.
A third woman named Chione was the daughter of Callirhoe, one of the Oceanids—a group of nymphs—and Nilus, the god of the River Nile in Egypt. It was said that Zeus transported her to the clouds, and snow fell from her upon the desert.
Scientific and philosophical views
The Greeks not only wrote about snow in their mythology. Ancient Greek scientists and philosophers also discussed it on occasion.
One philosopher who had an interesting perspective of snow was Anaxagoras. He lived in the fifth century BCE. Anaxagoras claimed that despite snow appearing white to us, it was actually dark. His reasoning was that snow is merely frozen water, and water is, according to Anaxagoras, dark.
The word he used to describe the true color of snow, ‘melaina,’ is usually translated as ‘black’ in quotations of his statement. However, in actuality, it generally really means ‘dark.’ Sometimes it was used to describe the color of the wine or/and the dark color of the ocean. Perhaps Anaxagoras had the dark color of the sea in mind.
While claiming that snow is actually dark seems strange to us, Anaxagoras believed that our senses, such as sight, do not truly perceive reality as it is. Rather, we can discern what must actually be real through reason—even if it contradicts direct observation.
Despite of his unusual perception in relation to the color of snow, this statement tells us something important. At least as early as the fifth century BCE, the Greeks understood that snow came from water.
Another interesting perspective comes from Seneca the Younger, a philosopher of the first century CE. Although he was a Roman, his views are of interest because he was a Stoic philosopher.
This was a form of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the third century BCE. He stated that snow contains more air than water. Modern science has shown that this is absolutely true. In fact, snow is made up of about ninety percent air.