Provence claims thirty-two different winds, but the mistral, that strong, cold wind that roars down the Rhone Valley from Lyon to Marseille, is master of them all. The very name “mistral” means masterly in the Provençal language, and according to local expressions, it can blow the tail off a donkey, or the horns off a bull.
Hold on to your hat
And this powerful wind doesn’t just carry away donkey tails and bull horns: it will also take roof tiles, patio furniture, shallow-rooted trees… basically anything that isn’t firmly tied down. It might even have a psychological effect on those living in its path.
When it’s howling outside, pets are said to misbehave more, and people blame the unrelenting roar for causing headaches, making them cranky, and leaving them sleepless. It’s even said to drive people mad – le vent qui rend fou.
It also has its good points
With all these negative effects, you might be surprised to find that the people of Provence are actually rather fond of their Master Wind. Even though it might carry away their possessions and drive them crazy, it’s actually quite beneficial to Provençal life.
It’s thanks, in great part, to this wind that the area sees so much sunshine. It blows away the clouds, leaving bright blue skies and fresh air behind. It also dries up any mildew-creating moisture and is a contributing factor in keeping the grapes healthy for producing those Provencal wines.
The Mistral in Legend
An ancient legend explains the love/hate relationship that the people of Provence have with their mistral. According to the story, the mistral comes from the center of the marsh of Vivarais, to the north of the Ardèche, where it rushes through an arched opening in a giant rock.
Many years ago, the people of the windblown cities and towns in the mistral’s path were tired of having the roofs tiles ripped off their houses, their trees uprooted, and their laundry scattered across the countryside.
Trapping the wind
They had had enough and decided to do something about it. They sent a delegation of brave, young men up to the source of the terrible wind to stop it. In preparation for their journey, they had built a huge door to cover the arch where the wind was thought to originate. They built it of the strongest wood and reinforced it with iron beams. It would surely hold back the wind.
When they arrived, one man sneaked up to the arch and peeked around. All was quiet, as the wind was taking his afternoon nap. The men moved the huge door over the archway quick as a wink and started to hammer it into place. They each had a hammer so they could hammer all the way around the door at the same time. When the wind realized what was happening, it was too late. He was a prisoner.
He howled and rumbled and tried to blow his way through the door, but it was too strong. Then he started to yell at the men on the other side of the door, “When I get out of here, I’m going to blow away everything. I’ll make your life miserable!”
“That’s what you have been doing,” the men replied, “and that’s exactly why you are not getting out.”
The wind threatened, “You’ll be sorry, I’ll curse you and all the people of your towns. I’ll curse your crops, and I’ll curse your animals.”
The men nervously checked the beams across the door one more time and left, satisfied that they had done their job well. The people of the Rhone Valley enjoyed a wonderfully calm winter without that troublesome wind.
Life without the wind
But when summer rolled around, it brought some unexpected problems. The area was naturally marshy and humid, and without the wind to dry it out, things began to mold, and stagnant water became a breeding ground for insects. The environment became unhealthy, people started to get sick, and the sun was unbearably hot without the mistral’s cooling breeze.
Life grew intolerable and something had to be done. The mayors of the towns in the path of the mistral had a meeting to find a solution to their problem. After much discussion, they all agreed that there was only one option – they had to release the mistral. It had been more beneficial than they had realized, and living without it was worse than living with it.
Freeing the wind
The mayors drew lots to see who would take up the task of freeing the mighty mistral. A town close to the sealed-up arch drew the short straw and a delegation was sent to open the door. When they arrived, the mistral, who had already gotten wind of the meeting, was waiting for them.
“We want to let you out,” the men started, “but we want you to give us your word not to cause all the havoc that you did before.”
In a calm voice, the wind said, “I’ve learned my lesson. If you let me out, I promise to behave, I won’t uproot your trees or tear down your fences or blow your roofs off. I’m truly sorry for any problems I caused you. I just didn’t know my own strength. You have my word of honor as Master of the Winds that I’ll behave from now on.”
The men were relieved and started to take off the door. When they had removed about half the nails, the mistral broke through with a mighty gust. He zoomed past the startled men, blowing their hats off, then circled back in a rage with a rumbling, roaring noise.
One brave soul found his voice and shouted up at the violent wind, “but you gave us your word – are you a wind whose word means nothing?”
When the mistral heard this, he felt ashamed of himself and calmed down. He swirled gently around the trees, rustling their leaves, blew the dead leaves off the roofs, softly brushed across the lavender fields, and promised again to tame his infamous temper. The men were satisfied and went home to give the others the happy news.
As the mistral moved south along the valley in his new milder manner, he realized he had only promised the people from the near towns to be calm. So the further he went, the harder he blew. He felt free and happy to be able to blow things over and show off his power.
Still today, the mistral causes his mischief and makes life difficult for the people of Provence, but, like a friend, they have learned to accept the winds faults along with his benefits and to be thankful for what he does for them.
It’s said that this legend was so ingrained in the local culture that as recently as 100 years or so ago, the people from the southern villages, actually sent a delegation to Viviers where the mistral is said to originate. They asked the mayor to please open the door for the mistral a bit less often.
*More about Provence – You can find even more about Provence in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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