Meteorological Beings

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METEOROLOGICAL BEINGS . Religious people of very different times and cultures have tended to "humanize" meteorological phenomena by telling stories about the displays of celestial power and fruitfulness they witnessed, converting those events into elements of a sacred narrative intended to explain how the world and humankind have come to be the way they are. The experience of life in a properly religious world differs radically from our experience of life today. For one thing, it makes no distinction between the natural and human realms. Whereas for us a storm is invariably an "it," the storm has been much more a "thou" for the better part of human history. It is not the storm that religious people have worshiped but the sacred power, will, and qualities that are somehow revealed there, although it would be quite incorrect to speak of the "personification" of inanimate nature or, for that matter, to invoke some sort of animistic theory to explain why meteorological phenomena play the important roles in religious life that they do. For religious people, storms are everywhere manifestations of the sacred. As such they engage the whole human personmeaning his or her emotional, imaginative, and intellectual faculties taken togetherin a vital relationship.

Moreover, the various qualities of storm and rain have suggested, both to our religious forebears and to our contemporaries living in the so-called traditional societies, countless analogies that have enabled them to expressperhaps even to discovercertain important truths about their experience of life and their religious aspirations. For example, by analogy with atmospheric lightning, Iglulik Inuit shamans refer to a mystical experience called qaumaneq ("lightning" or "illumination") that confers clairvoyance. Indeed, lightning, or dreams about it, typically figures in shamanic initiations or callings; and by the same token the rapidity or suddenness of spiritual "illumination" has been compared to lightning in many of the religions of history.

Storms have both a benign, life-sustaining aspect, because they bring rain, and a dark, chaotic one, owing to their potential for destruction. The high winds and distant roll of thunder that in one instance may announce an imminent end to prolonged drought may in another have inspired an apocalyptic vision, or a collective memory preserved in myth, of the world's complete destruction by flood. The storm gods, for their part, often garner trust as senders of the moisture upon which living things depend, but just as often they are feared as agents of divine punishment, retribution, or simply inexplicable malevolence. Symbols derived from the phenomena of storm thus express quite effectively humankind's deeply rooted ambivalence toward the sacred. Or, put another way, they express the profound anxiety that men and women have felt about the sacred powers that sustain the world, powers over which human beings have little if any control.

Finally, and what is most important, storm symbols function the way other religious symbols do in making it possible for the human situation to be translated into cosmological terms and vice versa. They reveal a fundamental oneness between human life and the structure of the world and so have led people out of their isolation in subjectivity, beyond the human condition as it were, toward a stance vis-à-vis their own experience of life that one could easily describe as a kind of transcendence. That much, at least, accounts for the essentially religious character of these symbols.

In this article I propose to continue the morphological description of sky symbols begun elsewhere, concentrating now on the divine figures connected with dramatic meteorological events, chiefly thunder, lightning, and rain. No single explanation can account for the uniformity and variety of the storm gods in history. Some are also supreme beings, some appear in animal guise. All of them display in varying proportions what I have chosen to call "two kinds of sovereignty," the one more "spiritual" and derived from the ideas and values associated with the sky and sky gods, the other more "physical" and connected with the earth and its fertility.

Storm Deities and Their Forms

If all the sky gods were arranged on a line according to their dominant powers and attributes, the result would be a broad array with, at one end, deities who display most fully the characteristics that make them creators, sovereigns, lords of the universe, law givers, and moral overseers. To the second half of the array would belong a collection of progressively more varied and colorful deities whose chief traits describe a generative, vitalizing mission in the world. These latter are typically male deities, often spouses of the Great Mother, and givers of rain, hence prone to develop into more specialized storm gods and fecundators. All are epiphanies of force and violence, those necessary sources of energy on which biological life and civil order in the world depend; and, over a broad geographical expanse throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, many have a connection with the bull. (The bull and the thunderbolt appear historically very early in connection with the storm gods. The Kannada word ko, which means "ox, sky, or lightning, ray of light, water, horn, mountain," preserves intact the full semantic range of this complex of symbols.)

The so-called specialization of the sky gods either in the direction of dei otiosi or into the gods of storm and rain derives from the ambivalent structure of the sky symbols generally and has led scholars to speak of the "passive," transcendent nature of the sky gods and, conversely, of their tendency to give way to more active, vital divine forms. Of course nowhere in history does one find either specialized type, the far-off ruler whose celestial attributes predominate, or the storm god-fecundator, in isolation; invariably there are mixtures of the two. Sometimes both functions belong to a single deity's sphere of activity; elsewhere a rather clear division of labor prevails, with the storm god usually subordinate to a celestial ruler who is often the storm god's father. In certain cases the storm deity represents the exercise of legitimate force on behalf of some higher authority; in other cases his link with agriculture is more important.

Specialization usually brings with it a radical change of form: that is, the storm gods can be said to have abandoned absolute transcendence in favor of powers and attributes that did not belong to their original celestial make-up. For that reason they are apt to betray foreign influences too. For example, Parjanya, the Indian god of hurricanes and son of Dyaus, the ancient Indo-Aryan sky god, was said to rule the waters and all living things. He made the whole universe tremble with his storms. His specialization, though, rendered him no longer omniscient like his father (with whom the authors of the gveda sometimes confused him) nor a sovereign like Varua. As a result, in Vedic times he yielded his place to Indra, a warrior king, also god of rain and easily the chief god of the gveda. Indra, for his part, is always compared to a bull or a ram, two animals associated with Rudra, a non-Aryan divinity, many of whose attributes Indra would absorb over the course of time. In fact Indra's connection with bulls, soma, and the Maruts (to the degree they personified the wandering souls of the dead) would suggest that he also acquired certain lunar prerogatives: that is, Indra qua symbol expanded in the direction of a larger integrated expression of life's power and sacrality, one that included even elements belonging to the symbolism of the moon.

The point is that storm gods, no matter how early in time they appear and no matter what type of culture they belong to, always show evidence of long and complicated histories. Thus, in using the term specialization here to account for the forms the storm gods take, I do not mean to imply that storm, rain, and fertility gods are necessarily late developments, for we have no reason to doubt the antiquity of dramatic, stormy elements in the sky god's make-up. There is a unity of structure to the sky symbolism that we can only assume has been present from the very beginning, and that unified structure includes both distant supreme soverignty and active, even violent, involvement with life processes in the human world.

Meteorological Phenomena as Attributes of a Supreme Being

Some religious people have seen none other than the supreme sky deity behind the stormy atmospheric displays that, for them, attest to his all-knowing presence, will, and power. The Andaman Islanders know such a deity in Puluga, whose breath is the wind and whose voice is thunder. Hurricanes signal his anger, and lightning bolts are the punishment he executes against those who violate his laws.

The tribes of Southeast Australia report that Baiame created all things out of nothing, but Baiame is creative in another sense, for in causing the rain to fall he makes the whole earth new and green. Natives can discern his voice in thunder. On the east coast of Australia other tribes worship Daramulun, who also speaks in thunder and sends them rain. Daramulun is said to have created the first ancestor during his stay on earth, giving him the laws and customs that have passed from one generation to the next ever since. Most importantly, Daramulun left behind the initation ceremony, which entails, among other things, a solemn display of the bull-roarer, said to make a noise like thunder and to represent the supreme being's continued presence among his people. Indeed, almost all the Australian sky gods communicate their presence in thunder, lightning, the wind and the rainbow, which is to say that meteorological traits belong inseparably to their supreme, celestial modes of being.

The Ambivalence of the Storm Deities: Creativity and Chaos

Stormy attributes help to express the dual nature of supreme beings, who on account of their power over life and death are apt to inspire both trust and fear in equal measure. For example, the Maasai of Kenya pray to a supreme being named Ngai ("sky" or "rain") who lives high above our world where the winds circulate through his nostrils. Lightning is the dreadful glance of his eye, thunder a cry of joy at something he has seen, and raindrops are the joyful tears he sheds at the sight of fat beehives during the rainy season when cattle grow sleek. By analogy with the sky's polychrome appearance, the Maasai refer to a black, red, gray, and white Ngai, but they ultimately reduce those four to the black and red Ngai alone, two opposed and complementary forms of deity. The black Ngai is good because, like the black, cloudy sky, he brings rain; whereas the red Ngai, like the red, hot sky, withholds it. (In Babylonian mythology it is the gigantic bird Imdugud that rescued human beings from drought. It covered the sky with the black storm clouds of its wings and consumed the Bull of Heaven, whose hot breath had scorched the crops down below.)

The Inca of pre-Columbian times worshiped Illapa (whom the Aymara knew as Thunupa). Both dreaded as a storm god and adored as a bringer of rain, Illapa was pictured as a man with club and sling who draws water from a heavenly stream (the Milky Way) using pitchers that he leaves in the safekeeping of his sister until he breaks them with his thunder club.

By some early accounts the Aztec rain god Tlaloc has four pitchers, and according to the one he uses, the result will be a good maize crop or a harvest spoiled by vermin and frost. No Aztec deity enjoyed a more active or widespread cult than he. Tlaloc, the giver of rain, but also the wrathful deity of lightning, was conceived in multiple form as tlaloques (lesser, sometimes dwarflike, storm deities) assigned to the four directions, or as the leader of a group of tlaloques, who were said to dwell on mountaintops in caves, where storm clouds brew. Descriptions of Tlaloc's heavenly paradise supply further clues about his ambiguous nature. It is a place of infinite abundance and perpetual verdure where those who had died by drowning or had been struck by lightning or were suffering from such afflictions as leprosy, venereal disease, skin ailments, gout, and dropsy enjoyed eternal happiness. They were the only dead whom the Aztec did not bury; all others were cremated.

According to Juan Ignacio Molina and other writers of the second half of the eighteenth century, the Mapuche knew a supreme being with many forms of address. One of his epithets, "two faces" (black and white), apparently referred to the rain and sunshine prayed for in public rites but also to the deity's ambivalent attitudeboth indulgent and severetoward his worshipers. Older sources dating back to the seventeenth century call this deity Pillán; he was said to produce thunder and lightning and all manner of violent and destructive weather phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, river floods, tidal waves, and epidemics. On the other hand, Pillán was considered a protector of the crops and hence a beneficent weather god as well.

Two Kinds of Sovereignty

It is not uncommon for storm gods to display this dual character, especially in parts of the world where sudden, unpredictable shows of meteorological force dominate the landscape and must surely have compelled people to theological reflection. For example, by contrast with the reassuring periodicity of the Egyptian cosmos, the environment in which Mesopotamian civilization grew and flourished could only have led men and women to conclude that order was not a given but rather something to be achieved through the continual integration of many different competing wills, each one powerful and frightening. As a result, the Mesopotamians envisioned a huge cosmic state that included human beings, animals, inanimate objects, natural phenomena, and even such abstractions as justice, righteousness, and the form of a circle. An assembly of gods presided over this "state," led by Anu (An), the god of heaven, and next to him in rank, Enlil his son, the god of storm. So far as the Mesopotamians were concerned, Enlil had revealed himself both in nature and in history. The violence that fills a storm and is expressed there was Enlil.

But a meteorological analogy also made it possible to interpret such catastrophic events as the destruction of Ur by the Elamite hordes sweeping down from the eastern highlands as Enlil's handiwork too: that is, in some deeper, truer sense those barbarians were also a storm, Enlil's storm, in and through which the god himself had executed a verdict passed on Ur and its people by the divine assembly. In keeping with the Mesopotamian vision of a cosmic bureaucracy, Enlil's specialized juridical role was distinguished from that of another diety, Enki, known as "lord of the earth," who administered the waters, specifically, rivers, canals, irrigation, and the organization of all productive forces. Enki's ministerial role derived from the sovereignty exercised by Anu and Enlil. Anu and, later, Marduk represent the magical or "spiritual" component of that sovereignty, whereas Enlil's sovereignty is of a more physical kind; and the latter's stormy attributes, though in this case they have little to do directly with fertility, have everything to do with the problem of legitimate force, especially the legitimate force that must have been an important concernand a deep source of anxietyfor the citizens of such a highly regulated cosmos.

While it is true that in many cases the sky god withdrew in favor of storm gods and other divinities with more specific and concrete functions, in other instances the sky god assumed a new role. That is certainly what happened in the Greek and Roman traditions, where Zeus and Jupiter stood for both kinds of sovereignty, being at once divine guarantors of cosmic order, supreme rulers, moral arbiters, even personifications of law, as well as gods of rain and fertility. Zeus preserves in his name the Sankrit root div ("shine" or "day"), leaving no doubt as to his celestial nature and shared heritage with the ancient Indo-European sky god Dyaus. However, scholars in the past were so quick to seize upon the etymology of Zeus's name as the key to his religious significance that they usually inquired no further into Zeus's unique and complicated mode of being, much of it vividly expressed in his meteorological attributes.

The many epithets for Zeus in Homer explain why he came to be equated with weather deities elsewhere in Asia Minor: he is called at various times Ombrios and Hyetios ("the rainy one"), Ourios ("he who sends favorable winds"), Astrapios ("sender of lightning"), and Bronton ("thunderer"). Other epithets tell of an affinity with crops and the dark earth: Georgos ("the farmer"), Chthonios ("earth-dweller"), and even Zeus Katachthonios ("the underground Zeus"). Zeus's theriomorphic aspecthe is sometimes a bull, as in the myth of Europa, or a wolf to whom sacrifice was performed in time of drought or stormis further evidence of his link to agriculture and rain.

The transforming quality of lightning that accounts for its role in shamanic initiations may help to explain yet another of Zeus's prerogatives, for whatever was used to purify from sin and much of what pertained to rites of initiation fell directly or indirectly under his control. Lightning marked his direct epiphany, and wherever it struck, a sanctuary was raised to Zeus Descending.

The whole complex of ideas, powers, and attributes belonging to Zeus's stormy aspect reappears on a different level of symbolic expression in the divine twins. The Dioscuri, or "Zeus's sons," like many other pairs of mythic twins, issued from the union of a god and a human mother and thus represented in a peculiar way the sacrality of the sky god on earth. In the Indo-European tradition, the twins are usually sons of the sky god, warriors, magic healers, saviors, and fertility gods; as gods of light, they are often associated with the dawn, the morning and evening stars, and the pair, thunder and lightning. The Dioscuri, for example, became popular as rescuers from personal distress, especially from danger at sea. Saint Elmo's fire, the electric discharge from the ship's mast during a thunderstorm, was widely regarded as their corporeal epiphany. Also, like Herakles, they were said to have been initiated at Eleusis. The various pairs of divine twins in the Indo-European traditionthe Germanic Freyr and Ñord, the Vedic Asvins, and the Dioscuri, to name threewere invoked to witness the swearing of oaths. Likewise, at Olympia a statue of Zeus Horkios ("Zeus of the oath"), before which competitors took their oaths, had in either hand thunderbolts with which to punish false swearers; and according to the Homeric formulas of oaths, Zeus was always the first deity called upon to guarantee an oath and punish any violation that might occur.

In ancient Rome when a building was struck by lightning, fulgural ritual prescribed that an opening be made in the roof over the spot so that the god could always have free access to the place he had chosen for his sanctuary. The most solemn oath was that sworn in the name of Iuppiter Lapis ("Jupiter present in the thunderstone"). The sacred stone was used when the fetiales took an oath and made sacrifices upon allying themselves with a foreign power. We know from Vergil that such an alliance received its highest sanction from the storm god himself. The priest, pronouncing a curse on the contractor who should first violate the sacred compact, hurled the stone at the sacrificial swine saying, "Jupiter, strike down the Romans as I now strike this pig, and strike them more heavily, for your power is greater than mine." This action represented in ritual form the stroke of lighting, and it has survived in the practice of Masurian (East Prussian) peasants who hurl a stone ax in a ritually designated manner against the door to protect their homes from lightning. Comparable practices are documented for other traditions.

Yahveh developed along lines that in some ways parallel the development of Zeus and Jupiter. Throughout the history of Israel, he shows himself a god of sky and storm, omnipotent creator, absolute sovereign, author of the norms and laws that make human life possible and good. By contrast Indra's exaggeratedly "physical" sovereignty develops into a personification of cosmic and biological energy. Indra is not a creator; instead the creative function is specialized in Indra's case into a generative, vitalizing one. Of course the gveda does feature a sky father called Dyaus Pit, a cognate form of Zeus Pater and Jupiter, but by Vedic times Indra had already assumed the role of celestial sovereign in India, and storms are the supreme manifestations of his creative force. He wields the thunderbolt, frees the waters, absorbs fabulous amounts of soma, fertilizes the fields and bestows fertility on human women, displays fantastic sexual powers himself, and leads an army of lesser storm gods, the Maruts, to victory for the Indo-Aryan invaders.

The Germanic deities Óðinn (Odin) and Þórr (Thor) offer a clear example of a storm god's specialized function and the two kinds of sovereignty implicit in this cosmic division of labor. Óðinn belongs primarily to a category of divine sovereigns that includes the Chinese Tian, the Indian Varua, and Ahura Mazdā of Zoroastrian belief, although in the course of his development, he took on certain attributes of agricultural and fertility gods as well, becoming in the process a chthonian master of the souls of dead heroes. Óðinn typifies what the great Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil has called "the magical sovereign" because, like Varua, he employs the power to bind and discerns the future. Þórr, on the other hand, god of tempests and combat, represents a second, more physical and less spiritual, kind of sovereignty, and his "physicality" takes in more than his martial qualities. Modern Scandinavian folklore studies, the remnants of old agrarian cults, and archaeological findings have all tended to prove that Þórr was originally much more than a warrior. Through rain, the happy side-effect of his atmospheric battles and the exploits of his hammer, he assisted the growth of crops; and Swedish peasant names for him recall the Saami (Lapp) cult dedicated to a fertility god who gives rain or sun according to the needs of the soil and sees to it that growing things mature and bear fruit.

Storm Animals

The world's mythology and folklore describe a whole host of animals associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. The goat, the ram, or horses, for example, frequently accompany the storm god or pull his thundering vehicle across the sky. But the most common and widespread of the storm animals are probably the thunderbird or woodpecker, the dragon, and the bull.

North American Indians worship various supernatural beings in avian guise who produce thunder by the whir of their wings and lightning with flashesa winking or twinklingof their eyes (Cree, Hare, Tlingit, and other tribes). The distribution of this thunderbird belief is very wide, but the kind of bird in question ranges from a crane (Pawnee), jackpine partridge (Beaver), or humming bird (Lilloet) to a gigantic eagle (Sauk, Hare, and others). In eastern North America, the thunderbirds are typically four in number, one for each of the cardinal directions; and over the same region, they are considered to be locked in a cosmic struggle with evil water spirits, panthers, or horned serpents. This antagonism on the level of myth finds cultic expression in the division into sacred moieties characteristic of the eastern tribes who rely on agriculture for their subsistence. However, it may also reflect a dualism known elsewhere in world mythology that usually pits the thunder god against a reptilian water monster (the way Indra opposes Vtra or the way Marduk battles Tiamat). The same sort of struggle recurs, for example, in northern Siberia and among the Buriats around Lake Baikal, this time between the ruler of birds (a great eagle) and a many-headed water snake. The thunderbird motif also appears in the Gran Chaco, in Ecuador, and among the Carib-speaking peoples on the northern coast of South America. In fact the thunderbird's range would seem to indicate it was a much more vital presence in the minds and hearts of religious people in earlier times than now.

Across Europe, around the Mediterranean, and in parts of Inner Asia, at least, the woodpecker was believed to have supernatural powers because of its association with thunder, rain, and fertility. There is much evidence to suggest that the belief arose in Neolithic times with the spread of cultivation by means of the hoe and, later, the plow. In many places the woodpecker also has a connection with divine twins and, like the storm gods, with war and agriculture. For example, according to Roman legend Romulus and Remus were cared for not only by the she-wolf but also by the woodpecker; and Mars, god of war and at one time a god of agriculture, was said to have fathered the two by the vestal virgin Rhea Silvia. In other words the woodpecker has a dual nature corresponding to the storm's ambivalent values: destructive power and fertility.

Among the classes of dragons in China, there is first the dragon (jiao ), originally an evil, snakelike creature that lived and always stayed in water. Then there is a river-god dragon, the long-wang, a form strongly influenced by the Indian nāga, originally a snake and, in fact, a version of the jiao that spread to India along with other elements of coastal culture. Under Indian influence the jiao dragon became a long-wang, or river god, with cults in many places along major waterways in China.

The long dragon associated with storms is neither the dragon jiao nor the long-wang. It too lives in water but has the unique ability to ascend to Heaven in the springtime and to summer there as the rain dragon. The long can frequently be seen in the sky during thunderstorms and is basically a benevolent animal that produces rain and ensures fertility. In the Chinese classics it sometimes corresponds to Heaven itself and therefore also to the emperor. (Later Chinese myths describe a thunder god whose characteristics derive from the wild boar, the promoter of wet-field agriculture.)

The mythologies of India, Africa, Europe, and Asia regularly associate a divine bull with the gods of the atmosphere and fertility, Indra and Rudra being two such examples. In pre-Aryan India the cults of Mohenjo-Daro and Baluchistan included important bull cults, and temples dedicated to Śiva are full of his bovine images. At Ur in the third millennium, the god of the atmosphere was a bull; in ancient Assyria men swore by a god in the form of a bull; and the supremacy achieved by such storm gods as Teshub, Hadad, and Baal in the religions of the Near East is notable for their connections with bulls. What is venerated in these and other bull gods of lightning who are married to the great earth goddess is both their transcendence, expressed in violent weather phenomena, and their physical potential as fecundators. In other words the interdependence of the "celestial" and "generative" functions in the figure of the bull seems abundantly clear. The same could be said of storm gods and of every storm hierophany.

See Also

Hierophany; Rain; Sky.


I do not know of a monograph devoted to the storm gods or to the symbolism of meteorological phenomena. One general source, however, is Mircea Eliade's "The Sky and Sky Gods," chapter 2 of his Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), pp. 38123. A bibliography devoted specifically to storm gods in the Near East and their relation to the bull can be found on page 120. Other general sources are James G. Frazer's The Worship of Nature, vol. 1 (New York, 1926), Raffaele Pettazzoni's The All Knowing God, translated by H. J. Rose (London, 1956), and C. Blinkenberg's The Thunderweapon in Religion and Folklore (1911; New York, 1977).

Literature on the divine twins is quite extensive. Two old but still fascinating studies are Rendel Harris's The Cult of the Heavenly Twins (Cambridge, 1906) and Boanerges (Cambridge, U.K., 1913). For excellent bibliographies on the subject, see Donald J. Ward's The Divine Twins: An Indo-European Myth in Germanic Tradition (Berkeley, 1968) and Raymond Kuntzmann's Le symbolisme des jumeaux au Proche-Orient ancien: Naissance, fonction, et évolution d'un symbole (Paris, 1983).

On the range of the thunderbird belief, see Trumen Michelson's Contributions to Fox Ethnology II, United States Bureau of American Ethnology (Washington, D.C., 1930), pp. 5156. For its religious meanings, a reliable source is Åke Hultkrantz's Religions of the American Indians, translated by Monica Setterwall (Berkeley, 1979).

On the woodpecker as a thunderbird, see "The Thunderbird," chapter 6 of Edward A. Armstrong's The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin and Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (New York, 1970), pp. 94112. See also Rendel Harris's Picus Who Is Also Zeus (Cambridge, U.K., 1916).

The standard work on the dragon in China and Japan is still M. W. de Visser's The Dragon in China and Japan (Amsterdam, 1913). A more recent and probably more useful source is Wolfram Eberhard's The Local Cultures of South and East China, translated by Alide Eberhard (Leiden, 1968), pp. 238250.

New Sources

Deighton, Hilary J. The 'Weather-God' in Hittite Anatolia: An Examination of the Archaeological and Textual Sources. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

Dijkstra, Meindert. "The Weather-God on Two Mountains." Ugarit-Forschungen 23 (1992): 127140.

Reed, M. "Weather God of the Hittites." Weatherwise 44, no. 2 (April 1991): 3840.

Sayers, William. "Weather Gods, Syncretism, and the Eastern Baltic." Temenos 26 (1990): 105114.

Schwemer, Daniel. Die Wettergottgestalten Mesopotamiens und Nordsyriens im Zeitalter der Keilschriftkulturen: Materialien und Studien nach den schriftlichen Quellen. Wiesbaden, 2001.

Peter C. Chemery (1987)

Revised Bibliography