In 1977 farmer Robin Page, frustrated that “as the weather forecasting service has grown in size and expense, so its predictions seem to have become more inaccurate”, published Weather Forecasting The Country Way. The book, complete with its pleasant little wood engravings, provides ways of predicting the weather by observing natural changes in atmosphere, bird and animal behaviour, flowers, trees and insects. Probably the most widely known of these is:
Red sky at night, shepherd’s/sailor’s* delight;
red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning
*In this rhyme, shepherds tend to be favoured in the UK, sailors in the US.
By publishing this book, Page was connecting with a predictive tradition that stems far back in to the ancient world.
My research has looked at the history of these ‘weather signs’ in antiquity, how they came to be placed in formalised list structures, and how these lists may have been used. One of the main sources for their ancient existence and organisation is a 4th century BC Greek text called the De Signis, ‘On Signs’, which lists around 300 weather signs, arranged according to the weather they indicate: rain – wind – storms – fair weather. Another significant text is Aratus’ Phaenomena, a poem about astronomy and the weather from the 3rd century BC. Lists of these signs, however, crop up in a whole host of texts including Virgil’s Georgics, Lucan’s Civil War, Pliny’s Natural History, and Aelian’s On Animals.
The variety of signs they contain is impressive. Like Page, they predominantly cite birds and animals, some of which are certainly still around today. One such example is cows sniffing the air indicating rain. This is a sign the existence of which we can trace, through its appearances in texts, right back to our ancient sources:
(1) It appears in Page in 1977…
(2) In Richard Inward’s 1864 Weather Lore…
(3) In Digges’ A Prognostication Euerlasting of Ryght Good Effecte in 1555: “bestes…brethyng up to the ayre with open nostrels, rayne folowyth”…
(4) In the 10th century Byzantine farming text Geoponica…
(5) In Pliny’s Natural History…
(6) In Aratus’ Phaenomena.
Other signs are completely lost to us now, such as the advice given in the De Signis to place a mole (or maybe a wood-cock, the Greek is troublesome) into a cask with some earth and listen to the sound it makes. If anybody knows of any tradition/practice similar to this, I’d love to hear about it!
Despite their volume and prevalence in texts, it is actually not clear how, or indeed whether, these signs were used on a day-to-day basis to make predictions. In the texts, we often find hesitation and caveats associated with them: some signs are known to be better than others; a single weather sign is rarely good enough – two or three are needed; signs can indicate a weather change at an unknown time in the future; spotting many of the signs is accepted as a matter of chance. These issues cast doubt over the possibility of weather signs acting as a stand-alone predictive method. Instead, it is likely that they had a ‘working relationship’ with another method of weather prediction, astrometeorology, which uses the movement of the stars to indicate forthcoming weather. The relationship between these methods has been a fundamental part of my research and it appears that predictions made through weather signs may have been compared against those made by astrometeorology to produce a more rigorous and adaptable system.
Texts that deal with ancient weather prediction (and, indeed, meteorological topics more generally) tend not to be widely-read and as a result there is still plenty of work to be done to try to understand how ancient civilizations predicted, used, and explained the weather.
– Michael Beardmore, PhD, University of St. Andrews