With its heat waves and hurricanes, summer has always been a season for extreme weather, and this summer is shaping up to be one of the most extreme yet. A historic drought persists across the Western United States, and parts of the Northeast were deluged with more than a foot of rain in July, to say nothing of historic and devastating floods in Germany, wildfires in Greece, and global-warming-induced famine in Madagascar.
Meanwhile, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, itself exacerbated by this summer’s drought and heat waves, is so severe that it is generating towering clouds and so-called fire tornadoes.
However destructive, such weather events can take on an almost mythical quality. In fact, extreme weather and the stories we tell to make sense of it are as old as humanity, born of our dependence on and fear of nature and our need for control.
Folklore and myth personify gods who hold sway over human fortunes by sending droughts that ruin crops and storms that blow ships off course — or sink them. Weather gods exist in almost every culture and often share characteristics. Centuries before he was featured in the Marvel Universe, the Norse god Thor was believed to bring thunder with a swing of his hammer, Mjölnir. Ruler of the Greek pantheon, Zeus was also the god of storms and wielder of the thunderbolt, while his Roman counterpart, Jupiter, was most often associated with lightning. The Egyptian god Set, a trickster who delighted in causing chaos, was known to cause floods, thunderstorms, and sandstorms.
While humans dread flood and storm, we depend on rain, and so weather gods have often been seen as both malevolent and benevolent, or at least useful. Like Zeus, the Hindu god Indra wields a thunderbolt and is responsible for bringing rain. He is also the hero who kills the snake demon Vitra, which uses its body to hold back the waters and cause terrible droughts. The fearsome Raijin, the Japanese god of thunder and lightning, is important in both the Shinto and Buddhist religions. He creates the sound of thunder by pounding on a drum, but he also brings needed rain and is thus a figure of respect. Raijin is often depicted in conflict with his brother Fujin, god of the winds, and yet representations of both deities can also be found at the entrance of Buddhist temples, set there as guardians.
Guabancex, known to the indigenous Taino people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, is the often angry goddess of wind and storm. She travels with her male companions Guatabá, the spirit of lightning and thunder, and Coatrisquie, the spirit of flood. Together, these deities shape the juracan or huraca’an, the powerful storm known in the Western Hemisphere — by way of the Spanish — as the hurricane, so much a part of late summer in the Americas.
This conception of weather as alive and potentially out to get us has existed at least as long as stories of Zeus and Thor and Indra. It encourages humans to see ourselves as both at odds with the elements and at their mercy, surrendering all agency to the ungovernable forces of nature.
Yet when it comes to the weather, human agency may prove as destructive as any mythical creature. That climate change is human-induced is the consensus of working climate scientists, scientific organizations, and official government bodies the world over, and this may prompt us to look at these stories of monstrous gods and sentient storms in a different way: We have more control than we think. In recognizing our own agency, we might recognize our responsibility as well, rather than pretend the planet is in the hands of the gods.
Regina Hansen is the author of the young adult fantasy novel “The Coming Storm.” She teaches at Boston University.