“Recovering our pagan traditions we could learn again to swim in the skies, return with cloud seeds to sow new myths, new rites, to recite and paint the poetry of clouds”
From Lorna Smithers
VI. AERIAL SPIRITS
The science of meteorology (from the Greek metéōron ‘thing up high’) has ancient roots. In his Meteorology 350BCE Aristotle developed explanations of the weather based on the relationships between the four elements: ‘fire, air, water, earth’. He provided an early theory of cloud formation: ‘The exhalation of water is vapour: air condensing into water is cloud. Mist is what is left over when a cloud condenses into water, and is therefore rather a sign of fine weather than of rain; for mist might be called a barren cloud… From the latter there fall three bodies condensed by cold, namely rain, snow, hail.’ His work was developed by his successor, Theophrastrus, in ‘On Weather Signs’.
Naturalistic explanations of the weather sat reasonably comfortably alongside polytheism. Once Christianity became the dominant religion, scientific principles were replaced by the doctrine of the Bible. Aristotle’s ideas were kept alive by Muslim scholars and revived in Europe in the 12th century.
During the Renaissance the four elements became central to philosophers and occultists. For Cornelius Agrippa, in his Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1531 – 1533), the elements were the basis of magic: ‘As therefore the Fire is to the Aire, so Aire is to the Water, and Water to the Earth; and again, as the Earth is to the Water, so is the Water to the Aire, and the Aire to the Fire… he which shall know these qualities of the Elements… shall be perfect in Magick.’
In the Liber de Nymphis in the Philosophia Magna (1556) Paracelsus introduced spirits associated with the four elements: salamanders (fire), sylphs (air), undines (water), and gnomes (earth). ‘As a fish lives in the water, it being its element, so each being lives in its own element.’ ‘The sylphs/sylvestres ‘are the nearest related to us, for they live in the air like ourselves; they would be drowned if they were under water, and they would suffocate in the earth and be burned in the fire.’
Once again agency was attributed to spirits who shaped the weather. In a remarkable passage in Of Spectres (1593) Randall Hutchins spoke of ‘aerial spirits, who, straying here and there in the air, tread nearer us. Such can descend to lower regions quicker than thought and, having taken on bodies from the denser air, appear visibly at times.’ He claimed they appeared to his father as ‘men of the air’. ‘These spirits often disturb the air, stir up tempests and thunders. They do not retain one form, but take on various forms, and change these according to the manifold variety of attitudes they encounter.’
Robert Burton also wrote of ‘aerial spirits’ in his ‘Digression of the Nature of Spirits’ (1621), saying they ‘are such as keep quarter most part in the aire, cause many tempests, thunder, and lightnings, tear Oakes.’ Both Hutchins and Burton believed these spirits could be invoked by witches and magicians.
The paradigmatic example of an aerial spirit is Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (or The Enchanted Island) (1611). Ariel was bound to serve the magician, Prospero, who rescued from him a tree, where he was imprisoned by the witch, Sycorax. It is he who caused the tempest which destroyed the ship of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, the usurper of Prospero’s position as Duke of Milan.
At the beginning of the play Ariel boasts of his abilities ‘to fly, to swim, to shoot into the fire, to ride on the the curl’d Clouds’. It is slowly revealed he is a being of immense power with the ability to charm, bind, and imprison mortals ‘with Walls of Adamant, / Invisible as air.’ In one night he flies across the earth collecting herbs then to the planet that ruled each to increase their power to cure Hippolito
Although the name Ariel, with its –el (god) suffix seems related to the names of the angels, he is clearly an elemental spirit. He speaks of his origins in ‘the lightsome Regions of the Air’ and says ‘we Airy Spirits are not of temper / So malicious as the Earthy, / But of a Nature more approaching good. / For which we meet in swarms, and often combat / Betwixt the Confines of the Air and Earth.’
Through Ariel Shakespeare gave voice to an occult philosophy wherein aerial spirits occupied the sublunar regions between the celestial spirits (angels) and earth spirits and controlled the weather. His representation contrasts with Biblical doctrines in which spirits of the air were identified with devils.
The relationship between Ariel and his ‘master’ Prospero is complex and quite moving. At some points Ariel is willing to serve, ‘All hail great Master, grave Sir, hail, I come to answer thy best pleasure’, whilst at others he rails against his servitude, ‘Why shou’d a mortal by Enchantments hold / In chains a spirit of ætherial mould?’ At the end he is finally freed and the ‘Enchanted Isle’ flourishes.
Shakespeare’s artistic representation of a relationship between a magician and an aerial spirit with power and personhood at a time when witches and magicians who interacted with spirits were being persecuted was quite radical. Although learned magicians (usually men) were targeted less than uneducated witches (usually women) persecutions still took place. Giordano Bruno was tried in Rome on account of seven charges including ‘dealings in magic and divination’. In 1600 with ‘his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words’ he was hung upside down naked then burnt at the stake.
The Enlightenment, which ended the witch hunts by ending the belief in spirits and magic, also culled the Renaissance occult tradition. The scientific revolution replaced theories about aerial spirits with scientific laws. The potential for re-establishing our relationships with the spirits of the skies was snuffed out and would not gain popularity again until the occult revival of the mid-19th century.
VI. THE CLOUD CHAMBER
During the scientific revolution nature was subjected to the mechanical principles of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). With thermometer, barometer, anemometer, hydrometer, hygrometer, rain and wind gauges the skies were weighed and measured. Even the ever-changing clouds were classified and systematised.
In ‘The Modifications of Clouds’ (1803) Luke Howard established seven modifications based on Latin words: cirrus ‘curl’, cumulus ‘heap’, stratus ‘layer’, nimbus ‘rain’. 1. Cirrus 2. Cumulus 3. Stratus 4. Cirro-cumulus 5. Cirro-stratus 6. Cumulo-stratus 7. Cumulo-cirro-stratus vel Nimbus.
These replaced the older poetic names of which, sadly, only a few remain in living memory. In English: sheep’s backs, buttermilk, mackerel skies. In Welsh: cwmylau blew geifr ‘goat’s hair clouds’, cwmwl boliog ‘pregant clouds’, cwmwl cawn ‘reed-grass clouds’, cwmwl caws a llaeth ‘cheese and milk clouds’, cwmwl psygod awr ‘fish of the air clouds’, cwmwl torgoch ‘red-bellied clouds’.
The science of cloud seeding was discovered by the French pharmacist Paul-Jean Coulier and Scottish meterologist John Aitken. In papers published in 1875 and 1880 they conducted experiments with similar results supporting the explanation: ‘vapours condense on solid airborne nuclei’. Together they validated the ‘condensation nuclei hypothesis.’
In 1911 the Scottish physicist Charles Wilson perfected the cloud chamber – a sealed device containing air supersaturated with water vapour which detected charged particles by their condensation trails. Experimenting with a cloud chamber the American meteorologist Vincent Shaefer discovered that clouds can be seeded from dry ice in 1946. His colleague, Bernard Vonnegut, learnt that silver iodide, which has a similar crystalline structure to ice, works the same way.
Soon afterwards governments across the world began experimenting with cloud seeding to modify the weather and for military purposes. In the early 1950s the British military conducted an experiment into rainmaking called Operation Cumulus. Its aims were clearing airfields of fog, ‘bogging down enemy movement’, and ‘incrementing the water flow in rivers and streams to hinder or stop enemy crossings’. There was also talk of exploding ‘an atomic weapon in a seeded storm system or cloud’.
Pilots poured salt, dry ice, or silver iodide, into the tops of clouds. A pilot called Alan Yates expressed his elation at bringing about a heavy downpour over Staines in Middlesex. On the 15th of August 1952 disaster followed. A terrible flash flood hit Lynmouth in Devon, destroying buildings and bridges and killing 35 people. Operation Cumulus was put on hold. The UK government has still not admitted to responsibility for causing this tragedy. The US military notoriously seeded clouds during the Vietnam War on the Ho Chi Minh trail to increase the monsoon season.
Across Europe cloud seeding is used to prevent hail storms from damaging crops and vineyards. When hail cloud formation is detected silver iodide is either dropped from planes or fired by hail cannons, seeding smaller hailstones higher in the atmosphere which melt before hitting the ground.
In drier places cloud seeding is being utilised to create rain. The most ambitious project is taking place in China on the Tibetan plateau where tens of thousands of fuel burning chambers are being built to produce silver iodide which will be swept into the clouds by the wind. This will result in an increase of rainfall by up to 10 billion cubic metres a year across an area of 620,000 square miles.
The United Arab Emirates recently launched its £3.6 million UAE Research Programme for Rain Enhancement last year. Last year, in the first three months, 101 cloud seeding operations took place. This resulted in two months of ‘unusually wet weather’ and record rainfall was recorded in Dubai and Al Ain.
On the downside cloud seeding has resulted in a sudden temperature drop closing roads in Beijing, 600 accidents caused by rain in Dubai, and the flooding and floods that killed 100 people in Jeddah. Scientists have voiced concerns about unpredictable effects and the possibility it might change the climate.
Seeding clouds to prevent crop damage and create rain for the purposes of human survival is, perhaps, ethically viable. It seems less so when used purely for the defence of capitalist interests. It also used by car manufacturers based in North America to stop hail storms damaging the cars. People near the Nissan plant in Mississippi have voiced complaints about the noise of the hail cannons and farmers in Mexico have accused Volkswagen of ruining their crops by causing a drought.
Cloud seeding has also been used to create snow at ski resorts – the weather manipulated to provide pleasure for the rich. In a jaw-dropping example of ultra-capitalism, UK company Oliver’s Travels charge £100,000 to use cloud seeding to clear the skies in advance of weddings at select venues in France.
The most disturbing thing about cloud seeding technologies is they have the potential to be abused in wars for water. When they are in the hands of capitalists it will always be certain the poorest people will suffer along with the earth’s non-human inhabitants who are rarely given consideration.
Disasters such as Lynmouth and Jeddah provide just a taste of what might happen if we continue to treat the skies like a cloud chamber without consulting the sky gods or considering the global impact.
VIII. TO SWIM IN THE SKIES
In the paintings of Eugene Boudin (1824 -1898) awesome cloudscapes dwarf les parasites dorés ‘the golden parasites’ (the upper classes) and place humans within nature rather than above it.
In his diary Boudin wrote: ‘To swim in the open sky. To achieve the tenderness of clouds. To suspend these masses in the distance, very far away in the grey mist, make the blue explode. I feel all this coming, dawning in my intentions. What joy and what torment! If the bottom were still, perhaps I would never reach these depths. Did they do better in the past? Did the Dutch achieve the poetry of clouds I seek? That tenderness of the sky which even extends to admiration, to worship: it is no exaggeration.’
It is the loss of this kind of worshipful attitude toward the sky and its gods and spirits that has resulted in cloud seeding. I believe this is something we need to win back as artists and pagans if we are to live in tune with the changing climate rather than working against it and causing further disasters.
Recovering our pagan traditions we could learn again to swim in the skies, return with cloud seeds to sow new myths, new rites, to recite and paint the poetry of clouds. To seed a new world based on respectful relationship with the gods and spirits of the skies, the animate earth and all her inhabitants.
Andrew Griffin, ‘Rain-free Weddings’, Belfast Telegraph, (2015)
Britta K. Ager, Roman Agricultural Magic, (The University of Michigan, 2010)
Boudin, ‘Skies’, Muma Le Havre, http://www.muma-lehavre.fr/en/collections/artworks-in-context/eugene-boudin/boudin-skies
Detlev Möller, ‘On the History of the Scientific Exploration of Fog, Dew, Rain and Other Atmospheric Water’, Die Erde, 139, (2008)
Franz Hartmann (transl), The Life and the Substance of the Teachings of Paracelsus, (Philalethians, 2018)
Jessica Brown, ‘Cloud Seeding: Should we be playing god and controlling the weather?’, The Independent, (2018)
John Vidal and Helen Weinstein, ‘RAF rainmakers ‘caused 1952 flood’’, The Guardian, (2001)
Luke Howard, ‘The Modifications of Clouds’, (John and Churchill, 1803)
Olivia Solon, ‘Rain Dancing 2.0: Should humans be using tech to control the weather?’, The Guardian, (2018)
Randall Hutchins, Virgil B. Heltzel and Clyde Murley (transl.) ‘Of Spectres’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, (1948)
Shakespeare, The Tempest, https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/Tempest.pdf
Stephan Harding, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia, (Green Books, 2009)
Stephen Chen, ‘China needs more water. So it’s building a rain making network the size of Spain’, South China Morning Post, (2018)
W. Stacy Johnson, ‘The Genesis of Ariel’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, (1951)
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.