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!
Tornadoes are a frightening and deadly force of nature, so it’s not surprising that the people who made up the five nations of the Iroquois League once viewed them as a cruel and powerful spirit.
Tornado Mythology and Lore
According to Iroquois mythology, tornadoes were actually Dagwanoenyent, the daughter of the wind spirit. She was said to take the form of a whirlwind. The Seneca Tribe considered her to be a dangerous witch, and believed she could not be killed. Anyone who angered her would be picked up and thrown many miles away.
In other legends, she was still seen as fearsome, but could be called upon for aid in battle by anyone who knew the right song to sing to her. She was even rumored to have given a pair of brothers three hairs from her head, which allowed them to draw rain from the sky whenever they needed it.
Another popular tale concerns her destruction at the hands of a man who was once her lover. After Dagwanoenyent attacked the man and his nephew several times, they burned her with fire and ground her bones to a fine powder. To prevent her from returning to life, they separated the powder into three bags and vowed to always keep them separate.
Dagwanoenyent must have outsmarted them, though, because she still visits us today. Each year, an average of 800 tornadoes sweep across the United States, killing dozens of people, and injuring thousands.
Legend Aside, What Really Causes Tornadoes…
Today, of course, we know that tornadoes are caused by giant thunderstorms known as “supercells.” They form when warm, moist air rises from the ground and collides with cooler, drier air above it. The rising warm air cools, causing the moisture it carries to condense and form a massive thundercloud. These supercell clouds can reach heights of up to 70,000 feet!
At the same time the cloud is forming, the cooler air begins to sink, sending the warmer air spinning upward. This is what creates a tornado’s characteristic funnel shape. This spinning column of air picks up momentum as it goes, reaching speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Once it gets going, a tornado can smash buildings into splinters, pick up automobiles, strip the bark from trees, and worse.
It’s hard to believe air alone could be so destructive, so it’s not a far leap to imagine such a deadly weather phenomenon to be the evil spirit of Dagwanoenyent, daughter of the wind.