Long before modern science began to understand the processes that create our weather, people made up their own explanations. Many of these accounts were fantastic in nature, with evil or benevolent gods, monsters, and spirits controlling the elements. In this series, we’ll explore some of these ancient myths and share the science behind them. Weather + mythology = weather-ology!
It can be a lot of fun to lie on your back, look up at the clouds and pick out interesting shapes. Early humans must have been truly puzzled by what, exactly, those puffy, wispy blobs were so high up there in the sky.
Different cultures have had many different stories about the origin and purpose of clouds. Many saw them as the domain for gods, spirits, or dragons, and believed they served as a means of divine communication.
The ancient Norse had one of the more interesting, and graphic, myths to explain the origin of clouds. They believed the heavens and earth were formed from the body of a great giant named Ymir. The soil, they said, was his flesh, the oceans and rivers were his blood, rocks and mountains were his bones, and the trees were his hair. All of this lay beneath the dome of the sky, formed from Ymir’s massive skull. And the clouds? They were the giant’s brains, strewn across the inside of his skull.
Today, of course, we know that those fluffy shapes aren’t a giant’s brains, but aggregations of water vapor. The air contains countless microscopic water molecules formed when water — from lakes, rives, oceans, ponds, etc. — evaporates into the air. These molecules rise into the sky, where they eventually cool and condense into droplets. The droplets clump together as clouds. When the droplets become heavy enough, they fall as rain, replenishing bodies of water below so that the entire cycle can start over again.
Knowing that it’s the clouds, themselves, that fall on us when it rains, aren’t you glad they aren’t made of brains?