Storm Callers: The Art of Weather Magic
"Many tales were bruited about the power of witches and wizards over storms, weapons, spirits, love, and death. I have been assured that at this day the country folk, some of them at least, tremble at the sight of one of these gifted persons, or persons of such repute, lest by some chance the sorcerers eye lighting on them should kindle in him a dislike."
– Rev Oswald Cockayne, 1864
The weather is nothing if unpredictable. For those living off the land, in particular, efforts have been made throughout the ages to predict and even control the sun, wind, and rain. Good weather would ensure a plentiful harvest and safe travels, whilst a wet summer or particularly harsh drought would doom a community to starvation and suffering. Even today, extreme weather events affect us profoundly, claiming lives each year. So it is no wonder that throughout the ages, man has tried to influence the elements around him.
Tales of magical manipulation of the weather appear all over Europe, and they appear in the Sagas as well as Saxon records. Even today, we utter charms to ensure good weather.
Rain, rain, go away.
Come again another day.— Traditional English proverb, charm for good weather
Appeasing the Sea
It would seem that some of Britain's earliest superstitions around the sea and weather came to our shores with the Norsemen.
The goddess Rán, one of the deities who ruled the domain of the sea, would catch any who fell overboard with her net. The Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar Edda describes how she receives those drowned at sea, luring men into the water and sinking ships with her daughters, the waves. As a result, many Norsemen would carry gold with them on a voyage, to appease Rán in the unfortunate event they drowned.
This superstition was carried through right up to the present day; it is believed placing a gold coin under the mast will bring good luck and works as a talisman against stormy weather.
Taming the Tempests
The goddess Rán was the least of their worries though. With the sea being the main transport route of the time, the Norse were vulnerable to the elements, and many accounts speak of how magical forces were at work as a weapon against those sailing the seas. Snorri Sturluson wrote, in Heimskringla:
"King Hakon lay in the Southern Isles, the Hebrides, St Michaels mass fell on a Saturday and on the Monday night, that is, the night before Monday, came a mickle storm with wild fury, and drove a cock boat and a long ship upon the coast of Scotland. On Monday the storm was so fierce that some cut away their masts and some ships drove. The kings ship drove also into the sound, and there were seven anchors out, and at last the eighth, which was the biggest, but she drove notwithstanding. A little later the anchor held fast. So mickle was this storm that the men said it was the work of enchantment, and one made upon it these skaldic verses:
There met the much scarching
Maintainer of war
The sorcerers arts
Of Scotlands warlocks.
Roaring the raging sea
Drove with its fair sails
Many a proud ship
Of the beah giver
Broken on land.
Blew with its loud blasts
On the brine skimmers
Full fraught with warriors
Fiercely the sea storm
Stirred up by the wizards.
Up on to Scotland
Scattered and tossed
Broad barking billows
Threw brave men of battle
With shields and war gear
Shivered and torn."
The weather magic of the warlocks of Scotland was at play, denying many a brave warrior his place in Valhalla.
Pitchpine: A Norse Folktale
Another instance of Scottish magic being used against the Norse can be found in the folktale, "Pitchpine: The Norse King's Sorcerous Daughter":
"As they reached the shores, the women of Lochaber used incantations of their own to destroy the vessel. The boat was wrecked at the entrance to Loch Eil, and all souls lost. More ships were sent, and met the same fate.
Finally, the Norse King sent out his most powerful fleet; an armada of sea stallions filled with his best warriors and most experienced sailing men. Their first mission was to weaken the magic of the Scottish folk before moving inland to recover the Norse King's daughter's remains.
They headed to the island of Iona, where it is said that magic was drawn from the fairy wells upon the hill there. The waters of these wells held a power that could call a wind from any direction when needed. In peaceful times this would help the fishermen sail out to the herring shoals, but in times such as these, they could be used to whip up a tempest wherever it was wanted. The islanders just needed to draw water from the wells and empty it in the direction that the wind was needed. The Norsemen knew of this place and its magical waters, and the likeliness that they had been used to ruin their kinsmen before them. If these wells were dried up, then safe passage would be secured, not just for their fleet, but for invaders thereafter.
When the islanders saw the viking ships approaching, they hurried to the fairy wells and began to draw up the water. Nearly emptying the wells themselves, the storm that was called up was so violent that Norse fleet was tossed about and ripped to pieces. The ships were torn apart and hurled onto the shores beneath Fairy Hill on Iona. The power and might of the Norsemen was broken."
The Finns made in the night violent weather with their cunning sorcery and a storm at sea.— Saga of Saint Olaf
From Ancient Rites to Contemporary Superstitions
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many of the old observations and rites changed to become superstitions. Evil magic could be found everywhere, and the newly converted Norse, fearful of the ire of the shunned Gods, would not dare set sail on a Friday for fear that they would be easy pickings.
This is observed by some sailors even today, and the superstition is thought to have its origins with the Norse Goddess, Frigga. Friday is thought to have been her day, and as the Old Gods were viewed as being evil, a theory has been put forward that priests in Scandinavia preached that Frigga was an evil hag, and she and her witches would whip up storms on Friday. Friday became branded as an unlucky day, so any ship due to sail would be doomed.
In Elizabethan England, Sir Francis Drake was said to have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for success as skilled seaman. He later earned victory in 1588 against the Spanish Armada heading towards England, with great luck on his side.
A terrible storm swept through the English Channel, which hampered Spanish warships. It is said that the Drake had the help of the Devil and witches in the sea battle, who called the storm to aid the English fleet. Folklore tells how the spirits of these witches still haunt the coast around Devonport, at a spot known as Devil's Point.
Weather Manipulation as Evil
By the time that Queen Elizabeth was on the throne, magical ways were deemed dangerous and evil, and steps were taken to hunt out witches and warlocks by the Church. What would once have been a useful skill was now seen as a tool of the devil.
This account of weather manipulation was recorded by a "witch hunter" in Swabia, which is now modern-day southern Germany.
"A strange thing lately happened, as has been ascertained in Swabia: a little girl, eight years old, was led by her father, who was a bailiff, to visit the fields, and when he complained of the extreme drouth*, she said she would soon get up some rain if there were need of it. Her father, in wonder, asked whether she knew how to do it; she declared she could get rain, or even hail if she chose. When asked where she had learn this, she said from her mother, and that instructors in these matters were at hand when required. To learn therefore by trial whether the child told the truth, he bid her call for rain upon his farm. For that purpose the daughter said she should want a little water; when then he had brought her to a small stream just by, the child, in pursuance of her mothers instructions, stirred the water with her finger in the devils name; hereupon the air was agitated and the rain descended as she had predicted. Her father told her to fetch some hail upon another field, and when she had done it the man denounced his wife to the authorities. She was burnt alive, and the child was reconciled to the church and made a nun." 
A Magical Battle
Witchcraft also made an appearance during World War II. Whilst Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks is a work of fantasy, there is truth in the account that witches in England and Scotland were working against the powers of the enemy to prevent invasion.
Operation Mistletoe was a magical strike, organised by a lady named Dion Fortune. Gathering some of Britain's more prominent magicians including Dennis Wheatley, Aleister Crowley, and Ian Fleming (yes, the author behind James Bond!), a Cone of Power was directed against Germany.
During the rite, spirits of ancient heroes of the British Isles such as King Arthur, St. George, and Merlin were called upon to protect the UK's shores. A cabal of magic workers gathered in the New Forest under Gerald Gardner, and some accounts tell how witches gathered directly on the Cliffs of Dover to stop a Nazi invasion and assist the British airmen during the Battle of Britain.
Bad weather caused a much smaller Luftwaffe force to take to the skies, and with the skill of British airmen, the enemy was turned away. Victory in the skies was granted to the RAF on 31 October 1940. It is worth noting that this date coincides with Halloween, or the ancient festival of Samhain; a day of power for many witches, where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest.
Of course, we live in an age of reason and logic. The weather is produced through varying factors such as sea currents, air pressure, and many other variables. Whilst our technology allows us to track weather fronts, it is still very difficult to predict the weather seven days from now, let alone control it.
We now have technology such as cloud seeding, which enables us to encourage clouds to drop rain in areas of drought, and there are many conspiracy theories about how technologies exist to create more severe weather events.
None of this could be described as being magic though. For this we need to look at our customs and superstitions. A handful of these from England include:
- "When you've eaten a boiled egg, always smash a hole through the bottom of the shell. If you don't a witch will ride it out to sea and cause a storm."
Sea hags could often stir up a storm. Best not to help them by leaving your eggshells intact!
- "Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day."
Our best-known charm for improving the weather.
- "If you pull a face in the wind, it'll stick!"
The demons that ride with strong winds were thought to have disfiguring powers.
- "If you sing badly, it'll rain."
Enchantment has its origins with "enchante", or "singing". Witches and sorceresses would use magical songs and chants to perform certain spells. Some of these would no doubt have been used to call the rains.
- "Tread on an ant, you'll make it rain."
Ants tend to come out in good weather, on the hunt for foods to take back before the weather turns.
- "To end a drought, dip an effigy of a saint in water."
This may have also been done as a punishment to the saint for ignoring the community's prayers! Possibly originating with the custom of leaving holy pre-Christian effigies in springs or lakes, i.e. Nerthus' wain.
- "Ring bells during a gale, to scare the demons away."
Church bells were often rung during a storm to frighten evil forces.
- "Gales come to take a great spirit away."
Some people believe this is the Devil come to claim a soul, but this superstition is likely to have its origins in legends of the Wild Hunt.
So do any of these hold any truth?
See for yourself. Let me know if you have any results to prove or disprove any of the superstitions above!
Are you superstitious about the weather?
 Rev Oswald Cockayne - Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, 1864 - ISBN 978-1298592057
 Caesalpinus Daemonum Investigatio, 1593
© 2016 Pollyanna Jones