The Cloud Seeders: Part One
The shooting of aerosols into the skies with hail cannons or dropping them from planes like bombs provides a disturbing image of war with the sky gods that runs contrary to the pagan principle of respectful relationship.”
‘To you alone it is given to know the gods
And spirits of the sky, or perhaps not at all’
I. The Seeding of the Skies
Cloud seeding is a magical art worked by the land, the sea, the sky, the gods and spirits, humans too.
Clouds form when water vapour condenses on cloud seeds – tiny particles of dust. This happens when the land is heated by the sun, when air is forced to rise over hills and mountains, at weather fronts, and over rainforests and peat bogs where water evaporates from leaves and mosses seeding clouds. When the air cools and the tiny droplets of water vapour become larger and heavier drops they fall as rain, hail, or snow. Thunder and lightning are generated by the electric charges in storm clouds.
Since the earth’s birth as a cloud of dust and gas 4.5 billion years ago clouds have played an essential role regulating her temperature and bringing the rain that is a necessary condition for life. The existence of all beings is dependent on the climate and extreme changes have been the main cause of the mass extinctions that have come close to wiping all living things from the face of the planet.
For many thousands of years humans understood themselves to be part of an animate earth governed by gods and spirits some of whom brought about the seeding of the skies. They recognised their survival and the survival of the plants and animals they eat is dependent on external forces. Their spirit-workers were skilled in divining the weather. Rites existed through which communities participated in shaping the weather, calling on the gods to bring rain and to avert storms (amongst indigenous people in North America, Africa, Thailand, Romania, and elsewhere they still exist).
It was not until two thousand years ago, when Christianity began establishing its authority, that humanity’s link with the weather-gods was severed and the widespread persecution of witches began. The demonisation and rationalistic dismissal of animistic and polytheistic worldviews laid the ground for the hegemony of modern science and new mechanistic ways of controlling the weather.
The artificial seeding of clouds with salt, dry ice, or silver iodide is used across the world to create rain and prevent hail storms, for the purposes of war, and to defend capitalist interests. The shooting of aerosols into the skies with hail cannons or dropping them from planes like bombs provides a disturbing image of war with the sky gods that runs contrary to the pagan principle of respectful relationship.
In this three part essay, as an awenydd and Brythonic polytheist based in North West England, I will trace the history of the eradication of pagan beliefs and weather magic in Britain and Europe and show how this laid the grounds for the development of the technology of cloud seeding. I will argue that we need to relearn to listen to the gods and spirits who seed the skies to live in tune with the changing climate rather than developing coercive technologies which can only bring about further disasters.
II. Invoking the Weather Gods
From archaeological evidence and medieval Welsh literature we know the people of Britain venerated a number of weather gods: Taranis/Taran ‘the Thunderer’, Meldos/Mellt ‘Lightning’, Nodens/Nudd ‘the CloudMaker/Mist’, and Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’.
Roman writers recorded Britain was ‘spell bound’ by magic. Vates or seers were ‘greatly respected’ and used ‘auguries or sacrifices to predict the future’. Druids claimed ‘to know the size of the earth and cosmos, the movements of the heavens and the stars, and the will of the gods’ and taught ‘in caves or hidden groves’, instructing ‘by riddles, urging worship of the gods’.
As the Gaulish Druids were trained in Britain we can assume they shared similar rites. In his Natural History (77-79) Pliny referred to a ritual in Gaul, which took place in an oak grove and involved the cutting of mistletoe with a golden sickle then the sacrifice of two white bulls with prayers to the gods for prosperity. Humans were also sacrificed. In his epic poem, Pharsalia (begun 61), Lucan spoke of ‘those who pacify with blood accursed… Taranis’ altars.’ This suggests sacrifices were made to Taranis. It’s unclear whether accounts of human sacrifices to the gods by the Druids were regular occurrences, made only in times of desperation and war, or Roman exaggerations. Archaeological evidence such as the Lindow Man shows human sacrifices definitely took place.
Because most Roman writers focused on extremes to vilify their enemies we have few records of benign rituals and none of weather magic. However, the identification of Taranis with Jupiter may suggest their rites were similar. Rituals for rain were offered to Jupiter in the Capitol. The Satyricon (1st century) depicted ‘robed matrons’ going ‘barefoot up the hill, with loose hair and pure minds to beg rain from Jupiter.’
Jupiter was also equated with Zeus and Pausanias (2nd century) recorded a striking example of cloud-seeding magic performed by a priest of Zeus from ancient Greece: ‘If a drought persists for a long time, and the seeds in the earth and the trees wither, then the priest of Lycaean Zeus, praying to the water and making the customary sacrifices, dips an oak branch in the surface of the spring, not deep. When the water has been stirred up there rises a vapor, like mist; after a time it becomes a cloud, and gathers other clouds to itself, and makes rain fall on the land of the Arcadians.’ One wonders whether a similar rite may have been offered to Taranis or the other weather-gods to bring rain.
From ancient Greece and Rome we also have records of magic used to avert hail, snow, and storms. A bronze phylactery from a vineyard in Avignon invoked Oamoutha and Abrasax for protection against bad weather read: ‘Thosouderkyo vinyard oumixonthei, divert from this property all hail and all snow, and whatever might injure the land. The god, Oamoutha, orders it, and you Abrasax, assist! Iae Iao.’
Offerings of chickens, sheep, and blood from one’s finger were made to appease the weather-gods. Menstrual blood was known to drive away hail and whirlwinds and was used by the hail-wardens of Cleonae. It seems likely the Britons used similar kinds of magic to avert bad weather from their crops.
In his Description of the World (44) Pompomius Mela wrote of nine virgin priestesses who served the Gallic deity of the island of Sena. They had the power to ‘stir up the seas and the winds by their magic charms’, ‘turn into whatever animals they want,’ ‘cure what is incurable’, and ‘predict the future’. The existence of landmarks like the Nine Maidens suggests similar cults of priestesses who prophesied, shifted shape, healed, and controlled the weather existed in ancient Britain.
It seems possible the brand-waving ‘furies’ and Druids ‘lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations’ during the attack of the Romans on Anglesey were calling on the weather gods for aid.
After the Romans slaughtered the Druids and Vates they incorporated the British gods into the state religion via interpretatio Romana, equating them with their own deities and building altars, statues, and temples.
A Romano-British temple at Lydney was dedicated to Nodens (who was equated with Mars). On a mural crown worn by a Roman priest Nodens was depicted on a chariot pulled by four water horses flanked by winged wind spirits and icthyocentaurs showing his connections with water and the weather.
On an altar from Chester Taranis (spelt ‘Tanarus’) was identified with Jupiter. Taranis was pictured with a wheel, evoking the chariot wheels of the Thunderer riding the skies. An altar now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle dedicated to the Great God Jupiter was decorated with a wheel. An altar from Castlesteads was similarly decorated and a mould for a wheel-god was found at Corbridge.
This demonstrates Mars-Nodens and Jupiter-Taranis were worshipped during the Romano-British period and suggests they and other weather gods were invoked in rituals to seed clouds and ward off storms.
III. Struck Down with the Avenging Sword
The roots of persecution for pagan worship and magic are found in the Bible, which condemns all magic practiced outside the cult of Jahweh and labels its practitioners as witches. In Exodus 22. 18 we find the law: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ The Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity in 312 and, in 324, passed a law issuing the death penalty for pagan sacrifice.
Since the establishment of the code of law in the Twelve Tables in 450BCE malevolent magic was viewed as punishable by death, but more benevolent rites such as weather magic were widely accepted. Between 321 and 324 Constantine passed a law stating: ‘no implication of crime is to be attached… to the magic rites which are innocently employed in rural districts to provide against the fear of rain storms on the mature grape harvests their being battered by hailstorms.’ This suggests weather magic remained acceptable so long as it did not involve sacrifices to the pagan gods.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Constantius held the maxim: ‘Superstition shall cease; the madness of sacrifices shall be abolished’. In 354 he issued laws ordering the closure of temples ‘in all places and cities’ and that anyone who sacrificed should ‘be struck down with the avenging sword.’ The death penalty was extended to the worship of images in 356 and to consulting a seer in 357.
In 380 Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire: ‘we shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity’. In 391 Theodosius re-instated the laws against sacrifice, visiting temples, and revering images ‘lest he become guilty by divine and human laws’. He even prohibited domestic cult saying no-one may ‘venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths from them.’
The destruction of the pagan temples began with Constantine. He targeted sanctuaries dedicated to Aphrodite, Hapy, and Isis, which were served by transgender priests, reflecting his transphobia. During the reign of Theodosius in 386 Marcellus laid waste to the temple of Zeus in Apamea. In 388 Cynegius destroyed the temple of Zeus Belos in Apomae along with temples to Sin and Dea Syria.
The Serapeum of Alexandria was devastated by Roman soldiers and Christian mobs rallied by Theodosius in 391. The statue of Serapis, crafted from wood, metals, and precious stones such as sapphire, hematite, emerald, and topaz was brutally smashed with an axe, its jewels purloined by the church.
In 394 Theodosius extinguished the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta and disbanded the Vestal Virgins. Temples to Tanit, Cybele, Baal, and countless other gods were torn down, closed, or converted.
This trend spread throughout the Empire and beyond as Christianity replaced paganism. Here, in Britain, whilst some temples such as the temple to Nodens at Lydney were closed without destruction, others such as the temple to Jupiter Dolichenus at Vindolanda were destroyed and burnt. Pagan traditions with ancient roots were struck down within a few centuries by the avenging sword.
Part two will cover the medieval lore depicting the banishing of the gods of the mist and those who served them from Britain during the ‘Dark Age’ and the persecution of witches for weather magic as witch hunts spread across Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Britta K. Ager, Roman Agricultural Magic, (The University of Michigan, 2010)
Clyde Pharr, ‘The Interdiction of Magic in Roman Law’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, (Vol. 63), (1932)
Michael Routery, ‘The First Missionary War: The Church Take Over of the Roman Empire’, Vinland.org, (1998)
Philip Tilden, ‘Religious Intolerance in the Later Roman Empire’, (University of Exeter, 2006)
R. Kotansky, ‘Greek magical amulets: the inscribed gold, silver, copper, and bronze lamellae’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 116, (1996)
Scott Bradbury, ‘Constantine and the Problem of Anti-Pagan Legislation in the Fourth Century’, Classical Philology, Vol. 98, No. 2, (1994)
Sheila McGrath, ‘Taranis: Celtic Thunder’, Earth and Starry Heaven, (2017)
Stephan Harding, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, (Green Books, 2009)
Lorna Smithers is a poet, author, awenydd, and Brythonic polytheist. She is currently exploring how our ancient British myths relate to our environmental and political crises and dreaming new stories. As a devotee of Gwyn ap Nudd, a ruler of Annwn, she seeks to reweave the ways between the worlds. She has published three books: Enchanting the Shadowlands, The Broken Cauldron, and Gatherer of Souls and edited A Beautiful Resistance. She blogs at Signposts in the Mist.