‘the disappearance of “the hedge of mist, and the magic and enchantment”… symbolises the banishing of the gods of the mist and practitioners of weather magic from Britain’
From Lorna Smithers
This is the second of a three part series exploring the roots of the coercive technology of cloud seeding. The first part can be read HERE.
IV. Banishing the Mists
After the Roman Empire collapsed in 476 the Roman Catholic Church retained its power. Throughout the early Middle Ages Christians worked to bring about the conversion of the Western world. People were converted and pagan shrines and temples reconsecrated in the name of Christian God.
Many stories passed down orally from this period and penned by Christian scribes contain scenes where Christian saints and warriors battled directly against pagan gods and spirits identified with devils and with wizards and witches who served them as prophets and weather workers.
In Adomnan’s The Life of Columba (640), Broichan the wizard threatened to impede Columba’s voyage with his ‘power to produce an adverse wind and to bring down a thick mist’. When Columba and his people headed to Loch Ness it was covered by ‘a great mist’ and ‘a stormy wind was blowing against them’.
The narrator relates this to ‘the art of devils’, ‘legions of evil spirits’ who attacked St Germanus when he was sailing from Gaul to Britain ‘stirring storms and blotting out the daylight sky with a mist of darkness’. This was ended by Germanus’ prayer. Similarly Columba called on Christ, set off directly into the wind at ‘marvellous speed’, turned the wind, and reached his destination.
The ancient British god of death, Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’, is a ruler of Annwn who contains the fury of its ‘devils’. He hunts for souls travelling ar wybir ‘on the clouds’ and wears a cloak of nuden which ‘claws at one’s vitals’. It seems possible he was associated with these dark mists.
In two saints’ lives Gwyn and his ‘devils’ were supposedly banished from their sacred site on Glastonbury Tor. Glastonbury derives its name from Ynys Witrin ‘The Glass Isle’ and was also known as Avalon ‘The Island of Apples’. In The Charter of St Patrick (13th century), Patrick discovered an ‘old oratory’ which may have been the remains of a Romano-British temple dedicated to Vindos/Gwyn, and spent three months fasting against and dominating ‘devils and beasts of many forms’. In The Life of St Collen (14th century) Collen threw holy water over Gwyn and his ‘devils’. Their ‘fairest castle’ and sumptuous feast disappeared, leaving nothing but ‘green hillocks’.
Several medieval Welsh stories depict Arthur battling against Gwyn and his family and slaughtering witches. Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to mist as ‘the ointment of the witches of Annwn’. These witches were likely to have been prophets and weather-workers who venerated Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn.
In Culhwch and Olwen (1190) Arthur sided with Gwyn against his rival, Gwythyr, and slaughtered Orddu ‘Very Black’, a witch who lived in a cave in ‘the Valley of Grief’ ‘in the uplands of Hell’, cutting her in twain so she was ‘like two vats’, and bottling her blood. Peredur slew one of the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw with a blow ‘on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two’, then Arthur and his warband killed the rest.
A noteworthy exception to these massacres of magical women can be found in a tradition recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini (1150). He speaks of ‘nine sisters’ who ruled the ‘island of apples’ (Avalon). Amongst them was Morgen, a healer who could ‘change her shape’, ‘cleave the air on new wings’ and slip ‘down from the air onto your shores’. After Arthur was wounded at the battle of Camlan he was taken to the island and Morgen offered to restore his health.
Morgen re-appears as Morgan in male guise in Geraint son of Erbin (1250) serving Arthur as a healer. He healed Edern ap Nudd (Gwyn’s brother) after a fatal wound. Geraint ‘struck the knight on the top of his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls on his knees.’ The repeated image of head-splitting may be based in the belief the skull was the seat of the soul, which could live on in the head of a pagan enemy unless it was split.
Morgan’s miraculous healing of Edern may have a basis in a pagan cult wherein nine priestesses resurrected a slaughtered god. It’s my intuition that the story of Arthur being taken to Avalon to be healed by Morgen may have replaced a myth in which she healed Gwyn after his annual battle with Gwythyr.
Geraint won Enid, the daughter of Earl Niwl (niwl means mist) and defeated Owain, who owned a fortress surrounded by a hedge of mist, which contained ‘a great many stakes’ with men’s heads on them. The story ends with the disappearance of ‘the hedge of mist, and the magic and enchantment’. This symbolises the banishing of the gods of the mist and practitioners of weather magic from Britain.
Gwenddolau, the last British pagan warlord, fought his Christian enemies in a battle-fog. He is named as one of ‘Three Bull Protectors of the Island of Britain’. ‘Protector’ is translated from caduc, ‘fog, gloom, darkness, covering, armour’. This suggests he conjured a defensive fog, perhaps with aid from Gwyn, who gathered his soul after his death in the Battle of Arfderydd in 573.
After the rulers of Britain lost their relationship with their deities they were soon defeated by the Anglo-Saxons. The Germanic peoples and then the Norse brought their own gods, including the thunder-god Thunor/Thor who gave his name to several landmarks, but were eventually converted.
V. How They Raise and Stir Up Hailstorms
Once Christianity was firmly established as the dominant religion across Europe attitudes towards magic amongst the ecclesiastical elite became sceptical. The Canon Episcopi, which originated in the 9th century and became the canon law until the 13th century, condemned the very belief in witchcraft.
In ‘Of Hail and Thunder’ (815), Agobard of Lyons wrote of the ‘foolishness’ of beliefs that ‘storm makers’ produced thunder and lightning. He also mocked the idea they were in cahoots with ‘aerial sailors’ from the realm of Magonia who arrived in ships from the clouds to collect the damaged crops.
However, as witchcraft was assimilated with heresy during the Inquisition and demonical aspects came to the forefront there was a turnaround which re-established the reality of maleficent magic. The Papal Bull of 1448 condemned those who have ‘abandoned themselves to devils… slain infants yet in the mother’s womb, as also the offspring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruits of the trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burthen, herd-beasts, as well as animals of other kinds, vineyards, orchards, meadows, pasture-land, corn, wheat, and all other cereals.’
Weather magic was notably included amongst the maleficia. In The Malleus Malleficarum (1478), in a chapter called ‘How they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightning to Blast both Men and Beasts’, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger gave the practice a theological basis in collusion with ‘devils’. Devils have ‘their place… in the clouds of the air… and around the fiery sphere’ because they are not allowed to dwell in heaven or on earth. Having ‘power from God’, ‘with God’s permission’, they ‘disturb the air, raise up winds, and make the fire fall from heaven.’
Kramer and Sprenger cited a number of examples. In the Formicarius (1436 – 1438) a man able to ‘easily cause hailstorms’ confessed: ‘first we use certain words in the fields to implore the chief of the devils to send one of his servants to strike the man whom we name. Then, when the devil has come, we sacrifice to him a black cock at two cross-roads, throwing it up into the air; and when the devil has received this, he performs our wish and stirs up the air, but not always in the places which we have named, and, according to the permission of the living God, sends down hailstorms and lightnings.’
Within their experience, in the diocese of Constance, ‘a violent hailstorm destroyed all the fruit, crops and vineyards in a belt one mile wide, so that the vines hardly bore fruit for three years.’ Two women, Agnes, a bath-woman, and Anna von Mindelheim, were examined by the Inquisition. ‘In the torture chamber’ Agnes admitted ‘a familiar came to me and told me to go with a little water to the field… he said that he wanted to make it rain. So I went out at the town gate, and found the devil standing under a tree… The devil told me to dig a hole and pour the water into it… I stirred it with my finger, and called on the name of the devil himself and all the other devils.’ The hailstorm occurred after ‘just sufficient interval of time to allow me to get back to my house.’
In Waldshut, also in Constance, ‘there was a certain witch who was so detested by the townsfolk that she was not invited to the celebration of a wedding… Being indignant because of this, and wishing to be revenged, she summoned a devil and, telling him the cause of her vexation, asked him to raise a hailstorm and drive all the wedding guests from their dancing; and the devil agreed, and raising her up, carried her through the air to a hill near the town, in the sight of some shepherds.’ She afterwards confessed that as ‘she had no water… she made a small trench and filled it with her urine instead… and stirred it with her finger, after their custom, with the devil standing by. Then the devil suddenly raised that liquid up and sent a violent storm of hailstones which fell only on the dancers and townsfolk.’
To what extent these confessions reflect genuine magical practices with a basis in relationships with demonised weather spirits is impossible to ascertain because they were made under torture. It is impossible to know whether the victims confessed full or partial truths or simply repeated what they thought their interrogators would want to hear based upon prevalent superstitions.
In England Henry VIII passed the Witchcraft Act of 1542, making witchcraft punishable by death, and the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 made both witchcraft and consulting with witches capital offences.
During the 1560s, in Germany, at the beginning of the Little Ice Age, links between witchcraft and bad weather were reiterated. The Witch Trials of Trier, which resulted in the persecution of 368 witches, were connected with crop failures. The letter that initiated the Shongau Inquisition in 1589 reads: ‘inclement weather, showers and hail spoiled these dear people’s fruits of the field… the Almighty has allowed them to be so sorely afflicted by the devil and his damnable agents, and we order that you should secretly pay close attention to evil persons and witches.’
A peasant named Christopher Gostner accused of causing a storm in Tyrol in 1595 claimed ‘he pushed the weather back to the highest mountains, where no cock crows, nether hay is mown, no ox lives and no flower blooms, so it could do no harm, and so the storm became just a weak rain.’ Of course, he was then asked why he didn’t stop a another storm, and resorted to claiming he was too drunk.
In 1589, in North Berwick, in Scotland, between 70 and 200 witches were tried, tortured and executed on suspicion of causing a storm which prevented King James VI of Scotland from collecting his new bride, Anne, from Denmark. Their persecution was based on superstitions about covens meeting and dancing with the devil at St Andrew’s Kirk, which overlooked the seafront, and a rumour about a witch sailing ‘into the Firth of Forth on a sieve to summon the storm’.
Under duress of horrible tortures (implements included the scold’s bridle and a ‘breast ripper’) Agnes Sampson, a midwife, and Gellie Duncan, a healer, confessed to digging corpses from graveyards, dismembering them, tying the limbs to dead cats, and throwing the body parts into the sea to summon a storm to kill King James. In this case it is clear the confessions resulted purely from torture.
In 1597 King James published his Daemonologie, which backed the persecution of witches with Biblical teachings. After his accession to the English throne, he passed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, extending the death penalty to anyone who invoked familiar spirits. This laid the ground for the persecution of hundreds of witches across Britain including the Pendle Witches (1612) and the victims of the East Anglia Witch Hunts (1645-47) led by the Witch Finder General, Matthew Hopkins.
It has been estimated that around 60,00 witches were killed in Europe during the witch hunts. Scholars such as Wolfgang Behringer and Emily Oster have linked this period with the revival of superstitions about unnatural bad weather during the Little Ice Age. Oster’s graphs demonstrate an overlap between the coldest segments of the Little Ice Age and the heights of persecution.
There is a horrible in the irony in the fact that, deluded by the church, the peoples in places blighted by cold weather and storms turned against the weather-workers who may have been able to help them.
The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science, put an end to the irrational thinking that lay behind the witch hunts and to the persecution of witches. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 made witchcraft an impossible crime and punishments were instead issued for the pretence of witchcraft. The cost of the ending of the witch hunts was the end of beliefs in spirits, witchcraft, and weather magic.
*Part three will look at the origins of meterology, how the agency of aerial spirits was replaced after the Renaissance by mechanistic principles, and the development of the technology of cloud seeding.
Adomnan of Iona, Richard Sharpe (transl.), Life of St Columba, (Penguin Classics, 1995)
Agobard of Lyon, W. J. Lewis (transl), ‘Of Hail and Thunder’, Internet Medieval Source Book (Fordham University, 2001)
David Bressen, ‘Medieval Witch Hunts Influenced by Climate Change’, Scientific American, (2014)
Emily Oster, ‘Witchcraft, Weather and Economic Growth in Renaissance Europe’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 1, (2004)
Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Montague Summers (transl.), The Malleus Malleficarum, (Dover Occult, 1971)
J. Gwenogbryn Evans, The Black Book of Carmarthen, (Boughton Press, 2008)
King James I, Daemonologie, (Project Gutenburg E-Book, 2008)
Rhiannon Anderson, ‘The Systematic Demonization of Medieval Witchcraft’, Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, (2007)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Terry Stewart, ‘North Berwick Witch Trials, Historic UK
Wolfgang Behringer, ‘Weather, Hunger and Fear: Origins of the European Witch Hunts’, The Witchcraft Reader, (Routledge, 2008)
Yuri Leitch, Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and key to the Glastonbury Zodiac, (The Temple Publications, 2007)
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.
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