RAINMAKERS AND THUNDER PEOPLE

The Mesolithic era was probably the apex of cultivating observational excellence. We watched everything from the cosmic mystery to the natural world making our ancestors, in my opinion, the definitive experts of all time. They were scientists by any definition. Yet I revere them because they never failed to include mysticism, spirit, intuition, and ritual within the context of the science they embraced. Studying hunter-gatherer herbal magic as I have done most of my life, showed me not only their astute wisdom but a great deal about the priorities of their everyday lives. This quote seems to sum it up for me:

“The first ritual pertained to hunting, the center of our existence. We hunted plants and animals for food and medicine, never easy in the winter. We stalked the paths to the stars and the Ancient Ones. We preyed upon knowledge to transcend ourselves. And we prayed for lovers and the Dreamtime. We hunted remedies to disasters and solutions for the unsolvable. We were hunters.”

Even in the 21st century weather and climate change, whether natural or manmade, has extraordinary impact on our lives. Drought eradicates our food supply, floods sweep away our homes and gardens. Beyond the challenge of cold itself snow paralyzes communities and often kills. Wind frequently devastates while lightning incinerates forests and lives. I wanted to understand how our ancestors lived in such harmony with these fierce elements and was delighted to learn some of it through the study of the plants they handled. That study led me eventually to compose this piece about weather.

My ethnobotanical research was always organized by habitat, which I viewed as more holistic than organizing the information by purpose or application. Hunter-gatherers viewed their world holistically making our need for compartmentalized knowledge problematic. The arrangement of species by property is at its best loose, illogical, and often repetitive for the construct of modern thinking. But I will do my best.

Choices were managed for the purposes of conjuring favorable outcomes, establishing protection against unfavorable events, or placating the spirits believed responsible. Not the usual weather forecast we watch every night on television. These circumstances could be handled simultaneously but the option for simply moving beyond their influence was always a major consideration. Ancient people often consider that these elemental things might actually need the privacy to conduct ceremonies of their own. Many groups used yarrow stalks (Achillea) to divine seasonal weather to both prepare and be aware. And lets not forget that even with all this foreknowledge, wisdom and protection put in place human enlightenment was held as a consequence or attribute of the illumination of lightning. For reasons that elude me this wisdom was safeguarded by skewerwood (Euonymus). One interesting anecdote I don’t know where to mention is the old belief that the bark from a lightning struck linden (Tilia) could be chewed up and spit on a snake bite as an anti-venom or wound remedy.

Although scant, several references made me realize that ancient people not only revered winter they didn’t fear the cold. Rosebay (Rhododendron) was offered to fires around which people danced in order to bring winter weather. Pine needles (Pinus) were attached to prayer sticks to bring the cold. But even with this spiritual awareness they weren’t lacking in pharmaceutical remedy to deal effectively with its power. Perhaps less magic but real medicine hunter-gatherers balanced their love for winter with the knowledge that the cold could take its toll. Decoctions from beech leaves (Fagus), fiddlewood leaves (Scrophularia), poplar buds (Populus), or tansy mustard (Descurania) were brewed up into lotions and salves for frostbite. A steam bath of wild parsnip (Angelica) doctored not only frostbite but also the effects of severe exposure. Snow blindness was treated with eye washes, infusions, poultices, and steam with things like wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), the fruit or pith of dogwood (Cornus), crabapple bark (Malus), lady’s seal root (Polygonatum), blackthorn bark (Prunus) and mountain everlasting leaves (Antennaria).

As a footnote to thriving in the cold I thought it appropriate to mention snowshoes here even if a bit off subject. Hunter-gatherers made them from an entire array of species. Pine slabs (Pinus) made one type while birch (Betula), mountain ash (Sorbus), alder (Alnus), beech (Fagus), hazelnut (Corylus), ash (Fraxinus), yew (Taxus) and maple (Acer) made up into snowshoe frames. These frames required mesh or netting and it could be made from nettle (Urtica), flax (Linum), linden (Tilia), or the boiled bark of elm (Ulmus).

I didn’t find a great deal about wind but found enough to be worthy of note. Bundles of willow (Salix) could be pounded on a hot day to make the wind blow. The northwest wind seemed frequently desirable, called in with a charm of sword fern (Polystichum), while dandelion (Taraxacum) could be buried in the northwest corner of a ritual space to insure that the wind would be favorable. I found an extremely interesting reference to spirits who returned from the dead for a specific reason. They cloaked themselves in the leafy branches of birch (Betula) to protect and conceal themselves from the wind that could detect their presence and thwart their mission. I will leave you to ponder this on your own. Not only is it clearly mystical, the story has an amazing way of suggesting that not only do ancestral spirits come and go with purpose and intent, they remain quite capable of managing their journeys with tools from the corporeal world.

Generalizations about storms can be found. Moon daisy (Chrysanthemum) was believed to protect fields from both storm damage and malevolent spirits. Similarly mountain ash (Sorbus) was planted near fields and homes for the same reason. Juniper (Juniperus) smudged afforded protection against storms and bladderpod smudge ((Lobelia) was burned to ward them off. Alder (Alnus) was entreated to dry up flooded fields.

Specific illnesses were associated with some of these elements. I found references to thunder sickness and lightning sickness, which I mention later in the context of those elements. But fevers, chills and eye disorders were believed by some to be caused by mist and called mist sickness. Teas of bur marigold (Bidens), juniper needles (Juniperus) or willow cambium (Salix) ingested, used as lotions, or in which someone bathed were thought to remedy mist sickness.

Thunder was not an element that seemed to require too much doctoring or intervention. It was believed that birch trees were never struck by lightning and provided safe haven during storms (believe that at your own peril, I might add). Gromwell leaf (Lithospermum) was a charm used to stop thunderstorms and birch bark (Betula) was burned to discourage thunder spirits. Calamint (Acinos) was combined with marjoram (Origanum) then placed near cows and milk buckets to prevent milk from being turned by thunder (please note that this practice couldn’t be Mesolithic but at the earliest, Neolithic, the era of agriculture and domestication of animals). Juniper smudge (Juniperus) combated the fear of thunder while an infusion of its needles remedied thunder sickness (fever, dizziness, headache, and diarrhea). Willow bark (Salix) was used for the same illness.

Making rain and protecting against lightning took the lion’s share of weather related plant magic by far. So I will continue first with lightning.

The following species were believed capable of protecting against lightning: hawthorn (Crataegus), holly (Ilex), goosefoot (Chenopodium), horehound (Marrubium), and plantain (Plantago). Wild vine (Bryonia) was woven into wreathes and worn during storms but it is a virulent skin irritant so I imagine only medicine people knew how to handle it effectively. Elder berries (Sambucus) gathered on Summer Solstice were thought to protect against lightning strikes and unexpected danger. Elder, like the birch previously mentioned, along with pine (Pinus) were also believed trees that were never struck by lightning and therefore provided safe shelter (again believe this at your own peril). Birch boughs (Betula) and those of oak (Quercus) were placed on the roofs of homes and ceremonial dwellings. Milk thistle (Silybum) was tossed into fires. Valerian (Valeriana) and vervain (Verbena) was hung in homes, as were mats woven from reedmace (Typha). All of these things were thought to protect against lightning.

Lightning sickness, the symptoms of which are unknown by me, was a serious concern. Elder (Sambucus), shavegrass (Equisetum), horehound (Marrubium), and plantain (Plantago) figured into remedies. Fleabane (Erigeron) as either smudge or rendered into a wash was another one. A willow stem (Salix) with painted nodes was believed a remedy for infants suspected of being afflicted with lightning sickness.

Rainmaking naturally was and remains a very big deal. Cranesbill (Geranium) was interesting. Blossoms were intermittently dipped in shells; one contained seawater and the other an unspecified aquatic plant. Spirit handlers to insure productive rain chewed Thornapple root (Datura), and wormseed (Erysimum) insured that rain would come. Gromwell leaves (Lithospermum) formed a charm to make it rain. Green branches of pine (Pinus) were smoldered and pine as wood floated in a watertight basket was used for the same reason (good luck finding a watertight basket in this day and age). Bladderpod flowers (Lobelia) were worn in rain dances. Ash seed (Fraxinus) and wormwood foliage (Artemisia absinthium) were both tied to prayer sticks for making rain. Ripe cattails (Typha) were tied up into prayer bundles and mats woven from cattail leaves were hung in dwellings to produce rain.

I found one reference to stopping rain: burning pinecones. Note to all of you high, dry, cold desert dwellers in New Mexico. Please quit burning pinecones! I also witnessed on quite a few occasions during Sundances medicine men chasing off the rain. Sundancers later told me that after fasting without either food or water for days rain striking their skin was in fact excruciatingly painful. I don’t know for a fact that that was the reason the rain was chased off.

A final note of warning. Every year people are killed trying to replicate rain dances because they lack the details of traditions that have perfected this over many millennia. Please leave rain dancing to the experts.

I don’t pretend to know that any of these things are true. And even though I believe in them, you know as well that they can’t be proven. That said including this knowledge in the everyday ritual expression of our lives at the very least honors our ancestors, hones our intent, and sharpens our awareness of the infinite and divinely created mystical world around us.

You can find a lengthy bibliography on my website at the bottom of the essays section but I want to specifically thank Daniel Moerman for his splendid work Native American Ethnobotany. The entire North Temperate Zone shares many of the same species.




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Responses to “RAINMAKERS AND THUNDER PEOPLE”

  1. Wow, you are such a wealth of information, Verda! And now you are dispensing your vast treasure, we are much the richer for it.
    I am grateful our paths have crossed.
    I only wish you could be at a pedestal somewhere, giving lectures and slide shows, and having them taped for posterity along with your books.
    Every time I dip into your writing, whether it is the books or the blog, I feel this expansion in my awareness, as my world opens up to encompass the richness of yours. What a gift you are giving us all!
    Thank you ~
    Nancy

    • Thank you, Nancy!!! Your words make my heart soar considering the depth of your own incredible work with books, blogs, and radio shows. Maybe someday we can take turns standing at the podium for each other.

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