Water is essential to all forms of life, including plants. Thus, agriculture is dependent on water. Settlements began on the banks of lakes and rivers where water was readily available so crops could flourish. There is a fine balance between the amount of water needed in a particular place at a particular time and having too much or too little. Water patterns are cyclical, changing with the seasons, and in times of extreme and less predictable weather, severe droughts and floods may impinge upon harvests. People have used magic and rituals to attempt to summon the rains for thousands of years. With rainforest destruction and global warming threatening to turn ever larger areas of our planet into a barren wasteland, perhaps it is time to take a look at some of the ancient traditions of rainmaking.
The earliest people’s view of the world was influenced by what they dealt with: weather and abrupt changes in their immediate environment. To them, everything was alive with a soul. People believed that angels and spirits lived about the land – gods of rivers, caves, forests and all wild places. Some were quite humanlike in nature, others fantastic mythical beasts. These supernatural beliefs naturally led to the development of myths to explain why the rains arrived or failed. It was thought that with prayers and sacrifices to the right entity they could gain control over nature, including the power of the storm.
Perhaps when one mentions rainmaking rituals the picture that most commonly springs to mind is of a Native American Indian wearing a headdress. In times of drought native American tribes would perform the Rain Dance, which is still very much alive in their culture today. Men and women would stand in lines stepping in zigzagging patterns, wearing headdresses and clothing embroidered with jewels and goat hair, all of which had special significance.
In ancient China it was believed that dragons were the fearsome guardians of rivers, clouds, and even heaven itself. These spirited wind wanderers were thought to fly high into the clouds and bring the rains, thus determining the fate of the crops. Storms were battling dragons, floods vexed dragons, and droughts sleepy ones. In times of little rain, people attempted to awaken the dragons through ritual – images of the creatures were taken from the temples and paraded in public. Ceremonies were conducted on the tops of mountains, close to the clouds, where kettle gongs would be clanged like claps of thunder. Even the Chinese new year dragon dance originated as a rain inspiring ritual.
In both Buddhist and Indian tradition, invoking the rains was the divine right of a king. A king’s authority depended on his ability to produce the rain. A worthy king produced rain in good measure, but if the rains failed it was he who was blamed.
Aboriginal Australians believed that snake spirits or rainbow serpents were responsible for maintaining a healthy water balance. The omnipotent snake serpent, or Woggal, was also a healer and guardian spirit. These scaled, feathered, or even horned creatures dwelled in water holes such as springs, pools and gorges. Sacred sites were revered to appease the Woggal who, when angered, would mete out sickness in retribution. In times of drought the ancient tribes would gather together and summon the Woggal with rain songs and dances believed to have been passed down to their ancestors through dreams. Special body designs were worn and mud was thrown to attract the rain.
African San shamans would ascend the top of rocky kopjes and burn animal remains on a fire as part of their rainmaking rituals. These sacred sites were strictly taboo to anyone other than the shaman or ritual specialist as outside interference was believed to anger the gods. The shamans believed that animal fat contained a supernatural potency and that the sacrifice of a sacred Eland would provide the immense power to call upon their ancestors for rain.
As you can probably tell, I have always had a strange fascination with rainmaking. When I was younger I would dream of a device creating a giant waterspout rising from the ocean forming thunderclouds and bringing rain to desert areas which would replenish the crops. For me this was childish fantasy, but some people really are working on fantastic projects to help make the rain.
Science has now replaced most of the ancient beliefs about rainfall. We now know that rain clouds are formed when the air absorbs moisture as it passes over a body of water, such as a lake or ocean. The air then rises, expands, and cools, causing the moisture to fall as rain. Academics are concerned that conditions for humans and other complex life on Earth could become very difficult with even a small increase in global temperature. The art of rainmaking is still very much alive in the dreams of modern day scientists, as they attempt to control our ever changing climate.
The most common form of climate modification is cloud seeding. This process involves adding chemicals, usually tiny particles of silver iodide, dry ice, or salt, to water vapour in the cloud. This causes the water droplets to become super cooled. Small crystals are then formed which then attract more liquid droplets until they become heavy enough to fall as rain. Rain making research has expanded rapidly in recent years as induced rainfall can reduce air pollution, tackle drought, and prevent fires and floods. There are claims that rain is being produced in the Abu Dhabi desert by projecting negatively charged ions into clouds. These streams of ions are generated by 10m high electric towers when ground humidity is 30% or more. The negatively charged particles from condensation nuclei in the clouds giving the water droplets a greater time to grow and when the drops are heavy enough they fall as rain. In China, weather manipulations have released over 480 billion tonnes of rain reputedly saving the country over 10 billion dollars. However, manipulating the weather comes at a potential cost. Rain seeding may have given the world a pollution and rain free China games, but the crops readily failed in a neighbouring state due to the fact all the moisture had already been removed from the air.
Professor Stephen Salter of Edinburgh University claims that his invention could finally give humans control over the weather so that crops could grow in deserts and ocean sea levels be controlled. His machine is a 200 ft turbine, powered by the wind. The turbine blades form vertical arcs which spin about a vertical axis like a giant egg beater. Inside these blades are water pipes which have openings just below the surface of the sea. Water is sucked up from the sea by the centrifugal force of the spinning blades and drawn 200 feet up the pipes. It is then forced through nozzles creating a spray which turns into water vapour, forming clouds in the atmosphere. The idea is to place Professor Salter’s rainmakers on catamarans off the coast of deserts. According to Salter, rain produced this way would be very cheap. He also maintains that hundreds of thousands of them used over many years could remove so much water from the sea that its level would drop significantly enough to counteract the threat of global warming.
Perhaps the closest the world has come to a real stormchaser machine was Victor Schauberger’s air turbine machine. This invention had a similar design to his flying saucer and was destroyed likewise by the Germans during the war. It reputedly produced an artificial thunderstorm operating on the same principle as the tornado. The only other way I’ve heard of producing this kind of effect is from air pressure differences caused by placing pulsejets upside down around the edge of a circular wall.
Modern science may now have replaced many of the old rainmaking beliefs, but the magic lives on in the creativity and visions of inventors. Ancient rain rituals and concern with the amount of rainfall are still very much alive in the modern world’s consciousness.
Joe recently helped develop the British Woodlands food webs educational simulation for Newbyte and is donating his share of The Last Tiger (available Amazon kindle) children’s fantasy novel profits to the Animals on the Edge conservation project.