Medieval Irish and Colorful Winds

Caitlin Dempsey


A series of 150 early Middle Irish religious cantos, title Saltair na Rann “Psalter of Quatrains” written in the 10th century outlined a belief that the wind had a different color for each of the cardinal and ordinal directions.

P.W. Joyce published “A Social History of Ancient Ireland” in 1906 and quote from Saltair na Rann:

In some old Irish descriptions of the universe, a curious belief is recorded, that the wind blowing from each quarter has a special colour. God made “four chief winds and four subordinate winds, and four other subordinate winds, so that there are twelve winds.” The four chief winds blow from north, south, east, and west, and between each two points of these there are two subordinate winds.

“God also made the colours of the winds, so that the colours of all those winds are different from each other.”

The colours of the twelve winds constructed from the description in the Saltair na Rann. From: A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1906.
The colours of the twelve winds constructed from the description in the Saltair na Rann. From: A Social History of Ancient Ireland, 1906.

Winds blowing in from the North were considered absent of color and harsh and were designated as  black in color.

Translation of: Creation of the winds with their colors from Saltair na Rann

from: Hull, E. (Ed.). (1913). The Poem-book of the Gael: Translations from Irish Gaelic Poetry Into English Prose and Verse. Chatto & Windus.

King who ordained the eight winds
advancing without uncertainty, full of beauty,
the four prime winds He holds back,
the four fierce under-winds.

There are four other under-winds,
as learned authors say,
this should be the number, without any error,
of the winds, twelve winds.

King who fashioned the colours of the winds,
who fixed them in safe courses,
after their manner, in well-ordered disposition,
with the varieties of each manifold hue.

The white, the clear purple,
the blue, the very strong green,
the yellow, the red, sure the knowledge,
in their gentle meetings wrath did not seize them.

The black, the grey, the speckled,
the dark and the deep brown^
the dun, darksome hues,
they are not light, easily controlled.

King who ordained them over every void,
the eight wild under-winds ;
who laid down without defect
the bounds of the four prime winds.

From the East, the smiling purple,
from the South, the pure white, wondrous,
from the North, the black blustering moaning wind,
from the West, the babbling dun breeze.

The red, and the yellow along with it,
both white and purple ;
the green, the blue, it is brave,
both dun and the pure white.

The grey, the dark brown, hateful their harshness,
both dun and deep black ;
the dark, the speckled easterly wind
both black and purple.

Rightly ordered their form,
their disposition was ordained ;
with wise adjustments, openly,
according to their position and their fixed places.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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