Boreas – God of the Cold North Wind

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In Greek mythology, Boreas was the personification of the north wind. He was also the god of winter and the bringer of cold air with his ice-cold breath. Boreas was a strong deity with a ferocious temper. He’s mostly known for abducting Oreithyia, the beautiful daughter of the King of Athens.

Boreas’ Origins

Boreas was born to Astraeus, the Titan god of the planets and stars, and Eos, the goddess of dawn. Astraeus had two sets of sons including the five Astra Planeta and the four Anemoi. The Astra Planeta were the five Greek gods of the wandering stars and the Anemoi were four seasonal wind gods:

  • Zephyrus was the god of the west wind
  • Notus god of the south wind
  • Eurus god of the east wind
  • Boreas god of the north wind

Boreas’ home was in the northern region of Thessaly, commonly known as Thrace. It’s said that he lived in a mountain cave or according to some sources, a grand palace on the Balkan Mountains. In newer renditions of the tale, Boreas and his brothers resided on the island of Aeolia.

Representation of Boreas

Boreas is often depicted as an old man with a billowing cloak and hair covered in icicles. He’s shown having shaggy hair and an equally shaggy beard. Sometimes, Boreas is depicted holding a conch shell.

According to the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, he had snakes for feet. However, in art, Boreas is typically portrayed with normal human feet, but with wings on them. He’s also sometimes shown wearing a cloak, a pleated, short tunic and holding a conch shell in his hand.

Just like his brothers, the other Anemoi, Boreas was also sometimes depicted in the form of a speedy horse, racing ahead of the wind.

Boreas Abducts Oreithyia

The story goes that Boreas was very taken with Oreithyia, the Athenian princess, who was very beautiful. He tried his hardest to win her heart but she kept spurning his advances. After being rejected several times, Boreas’ temper flared and one day he abducted her in a rage, while she was dancing on the banks of the River Ilissus. She had wandered too far off from her attendants who tried to save her, but they were too late because the wind god had already flown off with their princess.

Boreas and Oreithyia’s Offspring

Boreas married Oreithyia and she became immortal although it’s not exactly clear how this happened. Together, they had two sons, Calais and Zetes, and two daughters, Cleopatra and Chione.

Boreas’ sons became famous in Greek mythology, known as the Boreads. They traveled with Jason and the Argonauts on the famous quest for the Golden Fleece.  His daughters Chione, the goddess of snow, and Cleopatra, who became the wife of Phineus, were also mentioned in the ancient sources.

Boreas’ Equine Offspring

Boreas had many other children aside from the ones he fathered with Oreithyia. These children weren’t always human figures. According to the many tales surrounding the north wind god, he also fathered several horses.

Once, Boreas flew over several of King Erichthonius’ horses and twelve horses were born subsequently. These horses were immortal and they became famous for their speed and strength. They were so swift, that they could cross a wheat field without breaking a single ear of wheat. The horses came into the possession of the Trojan King Laomedon and they were later claimed by the hero Heracles (better known as Hercules) as payment for work that he had done for the King.

Boreas had four more equine offspring with one of the Erinyes. These horses belonged to Ares, the god of war. They were known as Konabos, Phlogios, Aithon and Phobos and they pulled the Olympian god’s chariot.

The immortal horses, Podarces and Xanthos, that belonged to the Athenian king Erechtheus were also said to have been the children of Boreas and one of the Harpies. Boreas gifted them to the king to compensate for abducting his daughter, Oreithyia.  

The Hyperboreans

The god of the north wind is often linked with the land of Hyperborea and its inhabitants. Hyperborea was a beautiful perfect land, known as the ‘Paradise State’ in Greek mythology. It was quite similar to the fictional Shangri-La. In Hyperborea the sun was always shining and all the people lived to an advanced age in complete happiness. It’s said that Apollo spent most of his winters in the land of Hyperborea.

Because the land lay far beyond, in the north of Boreas’ realm, the wind god couldn’t reach it. The inhabitants of the Paradise State were said to be Boreas’ descendants and according to numerous ancient texts, they were considered to be giants.

Boreas Saves the Athenians

The Athenians were threated by the Persian king Xerxes and they prayed to Boreas, asking him to save them. Boreas brought about storm winds that wrecked the four hundred advancing Persian ships and finally sunk them. The Athenians praised Boreas and worshipped him, thanking him for intervening and saving their lives.

Boreas continued to help the Athenians. Herodotus refers to a similar event, where Boreas was credited for saving the Athenians again.

Herodotus writes thus:

“Now I cannot say if this was really why the Persians were caught at anchor by the stormwind, but the Athenians are quite positive that, just as Boreas helped them before, so Boreas was responsible for what happened on this occasion also. And when they went home they built the god a shrine by the River Ilissus.”

The Cult of Boreas

In Athens, after the destruction of the Persian ships, a cult was established around 480 BCE as a way of showing gratitude to the wind god for saving the Athenians from the Persian fleet.

The cult of Boreas and his three brothers dates far back to the Mycenean times according to ancient sources. The people often performed rituals on hilltops, to either keep the stormy winds or summon favorable ones and they made sacrifical offerings to the wind god.

Boreas and Helios – A Modern Short Story

There are several short stories surrounding Boreas and one of them is the  story of the contest between the wind god and Helios, the god of the sun. They wanted to find out which of them was the more powerful by seeing which one would be able to remove a traveler’s clothes while he was on his journey.

Boreas tried to force the traveler’s clothes off by blowing harsh winds but this only made the man pull his clothes tighter around him. Helios, on the other hand, made the traveler feel so hot, so that the man stopped and took off his clothes. Thus, Helios won the contest, much to Boreas’ disappointment.

Facts About Boreas

1- What is Boreas the god of?

Boreas is the god of the north wind.

2- What does Boreas look like?

Boreas is shown as an old shaggy man with a billowing cloak. He’s typically depicted flying. In some accounts, he’s said to have snakes for feet, although he’s often shown with winged feet rather than snakes.

3- Is Boreas the god of the cold?

Yes because Boreas brings winter, he’s also known a the god of the cold.

4- Who are Boreas’ brothers?

Boreas’ brothers are the Anemoi, Notus, Zephyros and Eurus, and together with Boreas are known as the four wind gods.

5- Who are Boreas’ parents?

Boreas is the offspring of Eos, goddess of dawn, and Astraeus.

In Brief

Boreas wasn’t very famous in Greek mythology but he did play an important role even as a minor god, who was responsible for bringing the winds from one of the cardinal directions. Whenever the cold wind blows in Thrace, making the people shiver, they say it’s the work of Boreas who still swoops down from the mountain of Thrace to chill the air with his icy breath.