Before there were satellites, computers and highly scientific devices to measure weather patterns, there was one thing people depended on. Weathervanes have a long history of use that began in ancient times and spread across the globe. Although today’s copper roof toppers may be considered more decorative than functional, weathervanes are still useful and reminiscent of early technology.
The ancient Mesopotamians mentioned the use of weathervanes in their writings of over 3500 years ago. And in the second century B.C., Chinese were using strings and flags in a similar way to predict wind and weather patterns.
But when thinking about a “true” weathervane, the first use is most often attributed to a Greek astrologer named Andronicus. His bronze sculpture of the god Triton could be seen in Athens on the tip of the Tower of the Winds around 48 B.C. It was somewhere between 4 and 8 feet long. The Tower itself had eight faces (being built in an octagon shape) and one of the eight wind deities were pictured on each face. When Triton pointed from his perch, it indicated which deity was controlling the wind that day.
Archeological digs have uncovered the use of weathervanes on wealthy homes across the Roman and Greek world, as well as a copper horse and rider weathervane used in Syria and one shaped as a bronze man found in Constantinople.
On the Seas
The Vikings are the adventurous peoples that likely spread the common use of weathervanes around the western world. About the 9th century A.D. the Vikings began using metal flags on their ships (most often bronze) instead of the average cloth flag. These adornments were shaped as a quadrant and used to predict the wind patterns while on board and in port. Still found in the northern countries of Norway and Sweden, Viking weathervanes often held the image of an animal or a Norse deity.
Call From the Church
During the same century the Pope decreed that every church in the Christian Kingdom needed to place a “cockerel” or rooster its highest peak as a way to remember Peter’s betrayal of Jesus Christ. Since churches were most often at the center of town and stood the tallest of any building, it made sense to combine this rooster symbol with the weathervanes already mounted on most church buildings.
Cloth Flags Replaced By Metal Weathervanes
In medieval castles across Germany, Normandy and Britain the flags and banners of the nobility may not have been installed for this use, but archers and soldiers used the cloth to read the wind direction. Over time, cloth was replaced by more permanent and impressive metal sculpture.
Peasant infantry soldiers carried long, thin flags called bannerets into battle, which were very likely the origin of the still used windsock. As weathervanes evolved through the years the long, thin tails of bannerets began to show up in popular designs.
American Evolution After the Revolution
European emigrants arriving in the New World brought the common use of weathervanes to North America. But it wasn’t until George Washington himself adopted the technology in a very public way that weathervanes became part of American folklore.
After the Revolutionary War, Washington commissioned a large weathervane to be built on the tip of his Mount Vernon home. In the shape of a “Peace Dove” this weathervane attached a certain patriotic pride to this European import. Thomas Jefferson also had a cleverly constructed weathervane on his Monticello home that allowed him to read the wind direction from inside the house.
From this point on weathervanes were solidified into American culture as well as found across Europe. Built from wood, wrought iron (which became popular during Victorian times) and copper, weathervanes entered a “Golden Age” during the 19th century.
Sculpted into creative, sometimes shocking shapes, they were still used to predict weather and adorn churches, public buildings and wealthy mansions, as well as the modest homes of the average person.
The rooster is an enduring design, as is the Federal Eagle in the U.S. and nautical symbols in nearly every coastal region. Outdora carries a vast selection of weathervanes made from copper, cast aluminum and even with stained glass accents. Find a design that suits your taste and personality and marvel at the popularity of classic designs over the centuries.
The world’s largest weathervane can be found in Michigan proudly mounted on the shore on White Lake. It was built by Whitehall Products and looms 48 feet tall with a 26 foot arrow to indicate wind direction. An impressive example of an enduring product, the ancients would be sure to recognize the vital and long standing fixture that has been in use for thousands of years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Dart was born into the patio design business. Working in her family contracting business for years, she’s now part owner and loves spending her time helping homeowners create an oasis in their backyards. She’s also published countless articles about gardening, curb appeal and landscaping online and in various print publications.