Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/May 1888/Primitive Worship of Atmospheric Phenomena



ATMOSPHERICAL manifestations, or the aggregate of the phenomena whose theatre is the atmosphere, present a mysterious appearance to primitive man, which, whether it seem beneficent or fearful, is always of a nature vividly to impress the imagination. Hence man very early regarded these phenomena as individualities endowed with body and soul, or as superhuman personalities, which he was afterward led to make an object of worship. This is easily shown to be the fact in the case of the dawn and twilight, wind, rain, clouds, whirlwinds, and water-spouts, lightning and thunder, echoes, the rainbow, the aurora borealis, the mirage, etc. Rain has at times been represented as honey or seed which fell from the sky to fertilize the earth, as in the myth of Danæ; the peoples of India have personified the waters of the sky as the milkings of cows; a step further, and we have the goddess of rain. The Khonds of central India fabled that these waters were poured upon the earth through a sieve by a nymph who was called Pizou Pennou.

The clouds have been personified under the form of serpents, dragons, birds, or wolves; in the mythology of peoples who suffer from drought these personifications take the shape of thieves and receivers, which carry off the waters and keep them captive. Such assimilations may appear strange at first sight; it is hard for us to imagine that man could have compared the clouds to such objects. The philological school supposes that man began by giving the clouds the names of animals whose forms they most frequently affected; but at last these appellations lost their character, which was in its origin simply metaphorical, and thus arose the idea of assimilating the clouds to the animals whose names they bore. This theory is not without some foundation, but it is not in general indispensable to look to changes in language. Man, especially childish, primitive man, is naturally disposed to substitute a relation of identity for a simple relation of analogy. On this subject M. de Gubernatis relates, in his "Zoologie mythologique," a personal recollection of the most significant character. When he was four years old, his brother having called his attention to a curious-looking group of clouds by saying, "See that wolf chasing the sheep!" he was so fully convinced that the cloud was really a hungry wolf running over the mountains, that he ran into the house, for fear that the wolf, not finding sheep, would take him.

Dawn and twilight are only rarely made divinities among untutored peoples. But they are personified in a curious Esthonian myth among the Finns. It is related in this story that the sun is a torch lit up every morning by Koi, the dawn, and put out every evening by Œmmerik, the twilight. Their father, Ukko, the sky, desiring to unite them, they consented to come together for a few days every year at the time of the summer solstice, at which time there is in Finland no night between the twilight and the dawn. On these days, the legend continues, Œmmerik passed the torch directly to his affianced, and she blew it alive with her breath before it had time to go out.

While both the twilight and the dawn were deified among the Aryans, the more special importance was given to Aurora, the dawn. She it was among the Greeks who daily with her rosy fingers opened the eastern gates, and brought back the light, which was equivalent to a new creation and the dispersion of the demons of night. In the Greek mythology, Aurora precedes the chariot of the sun; and on an Apuleian cup the decorator has depicted an ingenious allegory, showing Selene (the moon) mounted upon a chariot, and driving away, with her face veiled; Aurora preceding the solar team as it courses through the air; while around the chariot infants, representing the stars, are disappearing in the depths of the sky. This representation is very like a description that may be found in the Vedas, where it is sung: "The stars fly like thieves, in company with the night, before the radiance of the dawn, which, like a herald, precedes the course of the sun." "Hail, ruddy Ushas," says another hymn, "golden goddess, borne on thy bright chariot! Thou advancest like a solitary virgin, discovering to our admiring eyes all thy hidden graces, or like a spouse unveiling to her lord beauties which appear to him every morning more fresh and brilliant! Although thou countest years upon years, thou art always young. Thou art the breath and the life of all that lives and breathes, wakening every day myriads of prostrate sleepers, causing birds to fly out of their nests, and guiding the busy steps of mortals in the occupations which they pursue in the search for riches, pleasure, or fame." The Vedic Ushas, like the Eos sung by the poets of Greece, are deities conceived as under a human form, but still imperfectly isolated from the phenomena which they personify. If, as Max Müller thinks, Aditi, of the Vedic mythology, is likewise a name for the dawn, we see clearly that the worship is addressed at first to the personified phenomenon, or to the spirit of the dawn conceived as inseparable from the phenomenon itself. A passage in the Vedas calls the dawn the face of Aditi. Moreover, if Pallas Athene was also the dawn with the Greeks, does not the fact that she was born issuing from the brain of Zeus—that is, of the sky—indicate that the worship was originally addressed to the personification, even before it was carried over to the goddess regent, of the phenomenon?

Wind and thunder have also been personified, or made objects in which was seen the action of a personal being having a sensible form appropriate to its office. To the savage the wind is produced by a blowing being, thunder by a thundering being. The Lapps imagine a living existence, who soars in the air, carefully listening to the words of men, and always ready to strike down any one whom he condemns. The Bushmen believe that the wind is a person. One of them met him one day in the country of the Boers, and threw a stone at him, when the wind fled to the mountain. In the "Iliad" Homer represents the winds as seated at the table of Zephyr, when Iris solicits their intervention to kindle the flames on the funeral pyre of Patroclus. In our own times, even in Europe, according to Mr. Tylor, the Carinthian peasant places on a tree in front of his house various foods to appease the hunger of the wind. In the Palatinate, when a storm is raging furiously, the peasant throws a handful of meal in the direction opposite to the wind, and calls out: "Stop, wind, here is food for your child; go away!" In South America, the Payaguas, when the wind shakes their huts, rush against the storm, waving fire-brands; while other tribes, under like circumstances, offer it tobacco. The forms given to the personification of the wind are extremely various. In Central America, it is often a bird; on the Congo, a horse; the American Indians make it a hare; the Botocudos represent it by a dog with clipped ears; the Germans gave it the figure of coursing dogs; and the Greeks represented it by cherubim's heads with swelled cheeks.

The idea of a distinction between the manifestations of the wind and thunder, and the being which produces or controls them, seems to have been gradually developed. The Dakotas attribute thunder to a great bird and its progeny. The male produces the isolated claps by the beating of its wings, and the reverberations are due to the beatings of the wings of the younger ones. To the Navajos, the winds are produced by four swans. which., placed at the four points of the compass, beat their-wings in alternation. The Assiniboins have a supreme deity, the manitou-bird, who lives in the upper skies; his eyes shoot out lightning, the beatings of his wings produce thunder, and his beak causes the falling rain. Belief in a thunder-bird is also found among the Brazilians, the Hervey-Islanders, the Caffres, and the Karens of Burmah. Thor, who strikes men with his hammer, is well known. In the Vedas, Par j ana is depicted as the god with resounding song who beats down the forests and makes the earth tremble; who frightens the innocent, while he strikes down the guilty; who diffuses life, and at whose approach vegetation springs up again. The Yorubas of western Africa fancy that thunder is produced by the god Zaconta throwing stones. The Slavs attribute the noise of thunder to the rolling of Elijah's chariot in the skies. The legend of the celestial father playing at ninepins with the porter of paradise is of common lore. The classical Æolus is matched by a similar conception among the Iroquois and the Polynesians, by whom the winds are supposed to be controlled by a divinity who holds them shut up in a cavern, whence he lets them out at his will. A legend current in New Zealand has it that each wind is assigned to its cavern, where the god Maui lets them out, or shuts them up by rolling a great stone in front of the mouth. But the west wind is excepted from this rule; the god can not reach it or find its cave, and it therefore blows during the largest part of the year. The red Indians all believed in the spirit of the wind as the supreme god, or the Great Spirit. In the Vedas, we find in turn Vâya, the breath, Vâta, the breather, and Roudra, the howler. The Esthonians direct their prayers to the mother of the winds, and exclaim on the approach of a tempest: "The mother of the winds is groaning; who knows how many other mothers are going to groan in their turn?" Sometimes the god of the wind becomes a mythological personage so distinct that we find it hard to discover his natural character; and it is still under discussion whether Hermes or Mercury personified the wind or the twilight.

Whirlwinds or water-spouts have been personified under the form of giants, of gigantic serpents, and of sea-dragons, as they said in the middle ages. "The sea was troubled before them," relates a character in the "Thousand and One Nights"; "from its bosom rose a black column toward the sky; I looked, and it was a Jinn of gigantic stature." This belief is common with all the Mussulman peoples. The columns of sand in the desert pass, in the eyes of the Arabs, for wicked genii. In China they believe that these formations are dragons; the Zulus make great serpents of them.

It is hard to conceive in temperate latitudes of the splendor of the light-pictures formed by the aurora borealis of the polar countries; and it is not surprising that the Greenlanders see in them a dance of spirits. Even in countries farther south, where the intensity of the phenomenon is greatly reduced, the aurora borealis has given rise to the most fantastic legends. An English writer of the sixteenth century represented the phenomenon as an "aggregation of brilliant arches whence issue fortified cities, swords, and warriors in order of battle; then jets of radiations in every direction, clouds and combats, in which the victors pursue the vanquished, while others fly around in a surprising fashion."

Echo passes nearly everywhere as the voice of a superhuman power. Lander relates that on the Niger his boatmen offered libations to an echo. When the traveler asked them the reason for it, they answered: "Do you not hear the fetich?" It is also conceivable that the existence of a voice should cause a belief in some one who speaks. The fact that this mysterious voice limits itself to repeating the words that are sent to it, has induced the fancy that the spirit has particular reasons for acting in this way, and it is in support of such reasons that myths, like that of Echo and others, have been given form.

The rainbow is one of the atmospheric phenomena that have been most generally personified. Peoples of almost every part of the world have made of it a living and terrible monster whose most venial offense is that of drinking up the waters of springs and ponds. This belief is found among the Burmese, Zulus, Indians of Washington Territory, ancient Mexicans, and Finns, and exists among the popular fancies of the Slavs and Germans, and some of the French populations. The Zulus and the Karens of Burmah imagine that the rainbow spreads sickness and death. The Karens, when they see one, say to their children: "The rainbow has come down to drink; do not play, for fear that harm may come to you!" Very singularly, too, the street boys in Volhynia run away, crying, "Run, it will drink you up!" In Dahomey, the rainbow is regarded as a heavenly serpent, Danh, which insures happiness. The modern Greeks hold it to be a beneficent but just and severe hero; they say that any one who jumps over a rainbow will change sex at once; but this saying, which is also current in Alsace, is only a picturesque way of indicating the impossibility of transforming a man into a woman, or a woman into a man. The Delians offered cakes to the rainbow, and the Peruvians put its image on the walls of their temples. The Caribs considered its appearance on the sea a favorable presage; but on the earth its influence was pernicious, and they hid from its view. It was personified by a viper.

A considerable number of peoples give the personified a coexistence with, the depersonified rainbow, or reduce it to the state of a thing, but even then invest it with a marvelous function. Some have made of it a celestial bow, which they place in the hands of a god; with the Lapps, it was the bow of the god of the thunder, by means of which he shot off his arrows of fire; with the Australians, it was the phallus of the god of the sky, which grazed the earth as it passed; with the Samoyeds and the Kamtchatdales, it was the hem of the clothing of Billoukai, the god of the thundering sky; and among the classic ancients, it was the scarf of Iris, the fair messenger of the gods. In Polynesia and with the Germans, Hindoos, Persians, and Arabs, the rainbow was regarded as a bridge uniting the abode of the gods with that of men; the road over which souls traveled; with the Jews, it symbolized the alliance of God and man; with the Greeks and Romans, it was a sign of war or of storms.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ciel et Terre.