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!
While myths explaining the cause of winter, and the attendant loss of daylight, are common across a wide cross-section of cultures, myths about the origin of snow are actually somewhat rare. Among the native people who lived in much of what is now Canada and Alaska, ice and snow were seen as a normal state of affairs. They saved their stories for explaining warmth and light. Even the Norse, bound up in frigid northern Europe, pretty much left the question alone. They imagined a few frost giants to personify the cold weather, but didn’t provide much by way of insight into their beliefs about why snow exists.
One notable exception is the Maori people of New Zealand. Their legend tells how the goddess of cold winds, Huru-te-arangi, and the god of rain, Te Ihorangi, married and bore 12 children, each of whose names represented a different kind of snow. These were Huka-puhi, Huka-puwhenua, Huka-rere, Huka-punehunehu, Huka-papa, Huka-pawhati, Huka-taraapunga, Huka-rangaranga, Huka-waitara, Huka-koropuku, Huka-waitao, and Huka-teremoana.
The family were said to have lived on the summit of Mahutonga, a great mountain in the frozen land of Paraweranui, at the south end of the world, and to sweep up to visit their northern kin when Pipiri, a southern winter star, was high in the sky during the winter solstice.
What’s interesting about this myth is that, unlike many other origin stories about natural phenomena, the Maori understanding of how snow forms is actually pretty spot-on. Just like rain, snow starts in our atmosphere as tiny particles of water vapor. These tiny particles condense and join together to form droplets. If the atmosphere is above freezing, these drops eventually get so heavy that they fall as rain. When the atmosphere is below freezing, however, the droplets freeze into tiny ice crystals and fall as snow. So, in a poetic sense, snow really is the offspring of rain and a cold wind. Without possessing sophisticated weather instrument, microscopes, or other modern technology, the Maori showed an astute understanding of the natural world.