April Showers, Napa Valley by Jules Tavernier (c.1800)
April Showers, Napa Valley by Jules Tavernier (c.1800)

From myths to meteorology: ancient civilisations’ perceptions of rain

Now that September is here, so is the onset of rainy days. Following the warmer days of summer, the cooler and cloudy weather of autumn is a welcome change to some and a source of gloom for others.

I quite enjoy the colder days, but I am not particularly fond of the rain, especially whenever I have to leave the house. And, whilst it may feel great to get into a warm bed at night, it is a completely different story the following morning.

This got me thinking about how our ancestors, and different cultures and civilisations, perceived rainy days. To them, rain was more than just a meteorological occurrence, it was perhaps a profound mystery, akin to a divine gift or a potential curse from the gods.

Their beliefs and interpretations of rain were woven deeply into the fabric of their societies, shaping their rituals, myths, and way of life. This thought fuelled my curiosity and led me to delve deeper into the captivating stories of how each of them interpreted rainfall.

Ever since the Agricultural Revolution, humans have relied on rain to grow crops. Yet, despite its paramount importance, mankind’s understanding of meteorology remained limited for most of history.

Tlaloc (16th century illustration in the Codex Laud)
Tlaloc (16th century illustration in the Codex Laud)

Most ancient civilisations tied the weather to the gods and constructed grand temples and offered elaborate sacrifices to appease them, hoping for bountiful harvests and prosperity. In addition, many cultures had fascinating and unique rituals to try and bring forth the rain.

The Ancient Mayans had “rain-makers”, priests that were thought to have special knowledge of the way of the god of rain, Chaac. The ceremonies included banquets, prayers and offerings, with some rituals involving croaking sounds. The Mayans believed that frogs were associated with rain and would mimic their sounds and movements during their rain dances and rituals.

The Aztecs believed that the god Tlaloc controlled rain and, therefore, held elaborate ceremonies and festivals, including human sacrifices, to appease him and ensure rain for their crops. During the festivals, children were chosen by the community to be sacrificed and adorned to resemble the rain god. They were then carried to Mount Tlaloc, surrounded by dancers, for a special ritual. If the children cried on their way to the shrine, it was seen as a positive sign of abundant rains.

Finally, the Guajiro people of South America were also known for shooting arrows up into the sky in an attempt to pierce the clouds and bring forth rain to nourish their land.

Whilst many ancient cultures prayed for rain, they also faced the threat of excessive rain leading to destructive floods that could wash away their homes and crops. For that reason, appeasing the rain gods was a major concern for them as well.

The Myan Rain God, Chaac
The Myan Rain God, Chaac

Yinglong was a legendary dragon in Chinese mythology, associated with rain and whose name translates to “Responding Dragon”. He was said to be just, however he also had the power to cause floods or withhold rain if people did not honour him properly. Besides controlling rain, it is believed that he also drew lines in the earth with his tail, thus creating rivers when it rained – which were important for rice cultivation.

Similarly, in Norse mythology, rain was often linked to the destructive power of the thunder god, Thor. His mighty hammer, Mjölnir, caused thunderstorms, and subsequent excessive rains were seen as a testament to his divine wrath.

Today, rain has transitioned from myths and mysticism to the precise science of meteorology. We now know that rain is the result of a natural process called the water cycle. The sun heats the earth’s surface, causing water to evaporate and rise into the atmosphere. There, it condenses into droplets or ice crystals, forming clouds. When these grow large enough, gravity pulls them to the ground as precipitation.

It was during the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment that numerous crucial advancements reshaped our understanding of rain and meteorology. Fast forward a few centuries and today, with our advanced technology, meteorologists can accurately predict the weather.

Whilst our ability to predict and adapt to the rain has improved over time, the fundamental importance of rain for sustaining life and the environment remains as vital today as it was for ancient civilisations.

Weather, including rainfall, exerts a profound influence on our lives, often in ways we may not immediately recognise. It impacts where we choose to live, it can influence election results by affecting voter turnout, and even sway the outcomes of conflicts and wars by shaping battlefield conditions and strategies. Famously, the invasion of Russia by Napoleon and later by Hitler both encountered disastrous weather conditions that lost them the battle.

In these ways and more, the presence or absence of rain continues to be a powerful force that not only nourishes the earth but also shapes the course of human history. Understanding its significance is a reminder that, even in our technologically advanced age, we remain deeply connected to the natural world.

By Jay Costa Owen

|| [email protected]
Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures