Weather Gods and Ancient Meteorology

The first meteorologists were the priests and shamans of early civilisations. They were tasked with appeasing the gods who, it was believed, controlled the climate and all natural phenomena. This was no mean feat as you can imagine, and sometimes their very lives depended upon favourable weather.

By 3500 BC Egyptian communities were well established along the Nile where the weather was warm and sunny, and water was abundant. However as this early cradle of civilisation was totally dependent on the Nile for its prosperity the Egyptians tried to use the movement of the stars as a guide to the annual rise and fall of the Nile and to the extent of its flooding.

This dependence on the Nile led to the belief in two powerful gods. Osiris and Ra (or Re). Osiris was considered the ruler of the dead and the source of fertility to the living, controlling the sprouting of vegetation and the flooding of the river Nile. Ra was the sun god who controlled the movement of heavenly bodies, travelling across the sky each day in his solar boat.

Other early civilisations emerging at that time also depended on the weather. The flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley were key for the survival and prosperity of the local communities. The chief god of the Babylonians was Marduk. Marduk was originally the god of thunderstorms but eventually became the god of the atmosphere. One of the most important gods of the Vedic religion of ancient India was Indra, the god of rain and storms.

In Northern Europe the Norse god Thor, whose name originates from the Germanic word for thunder, was considered to be all powerful, and was represented carrying a hammer which symbolised a thunderbolt. People would appeal to Thor for protection and he became a symbol of Norse paganism. Over time the growing influence of Christian missionaries demonized Thor and drove his believers underground, where belief remained until modern times.

Ancient Greek mythology included many climatic controlling gods. Zeus, the ruler of the heavens, controlled the clouds, rain and thunder. The brother of Zeus was Poseidon, and he was the god of the sea and shores. And yet another brother, Hades (aka Pluto) ruled the underworld. The sun god was Helios, and wind god was Aeolus. The Greeks had a more casual approach to religion and this allowed the Greek philosophers, who sought more rational explanations for natural phenomena, to flourish.

Thales of Miletus (624-547 BC) collected records from Babylonian astronomers and successfully predicted a solar eclipse in 585BC. Empedocles (495-435 BC) theorised that all matter was composed from four elements: Fire, air, water and earth.

Although these scholars made very few significant physical discoveries their work did initiate a practice of investigation and analysis for all natural phenomena, including, of course, the climate.