You turn to the weather channel and hear the meteorologist talking about a storm brewing at sea. He makes a point about “the eye of the storm” and you wonder how storms suddenly have human features. What gives?
“The eye of the storm” is one example of the personification of weather. Humans have personified natural phenomena for millennia. It may have originally allowed people to understand the causes and features of things like forest fires and thunderstorms. Over time, natural events took on human-like personas in a number of polytheistic religions. Storm gods could be benevolent or malicious, much like humans. From the earliest times to the present day, storm gods have occupied a place at the heart of religious traditions across the globe.
1. Chaac/Tlaloc: The Mesoamerican Storm God of Many Names
Pre-modern Mesoamerica featured a multitude of cultures and societies, all of which had their own deities. However, overarching similarities did exist among these cultures’ worldviews. Although they may have gone by different names, multiple Mesoamerican civilizations revered a powerful storm god among others in their own pantheons. For the Mayas, this god was Chaac.
Chaac’s power over rain and storms was vital to the Mayan peoples’ sense of themselves and their survival. Given the importance of agriculture to the Mayas, this makes sense. According to tradition, Chaac existed in four parts, one for each direction. Each of his aspects covered a natural element (earth, wind, fire, or water) and had its own associated color. Some Mayan cities even worshipped the aspects of Chaac as their own gods.
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Depictions of Chaac tended to portray him as wielding an axe, adorned with jade blades. When he chopped the clouds with his weapon, rain would fall. Most surviving artworks of Chaac shows him as a humanoid figure with some reptilian features like scales.
Due to the shared importance of rain gods across Mesoamerica, the Aztecs later had their own counterpart to Chaac, named Tlaloc. Like his Mayan predecessor, Tlaloc’s appearance combined the human and the animalistic. He also controlled the rains and agriculture. Additionally, Tlaloc had a sister, Chalchiuhtlicue, who governed rivers and oceans. Both the Mayas and the Aztecs are known today for their practice of human sacrifice. To these Mesoamerican cultures, the storm god required sacrifices to ensure the arrival of much-needed rain.
2. Zeus/Jupiter: King of the Greco-Roman Pantheon
Whether it’s through the Percy Jackson book series or the actual Greek myths themselves, Zeus has garnered more modern attention than any other storm god. As the king of the Olympian gods, he would definitely be pleased to hear this.
In Greek mythology, Zeus was born as the youngest child of the Titans Kronos and Rhea. Kronos was a fearful deity; having killed his own father, Ouranos, he feared his own children would do the same to him. The Titan infamously ate all of his children to prevent this from happening — all except Zeus, who Rhea sent away. When he reached maturity, Zeus returned and overthrew his father, fulfilling the prophecy. Zeus and his siblings won their war against the Titans, and Zeus became the undisputed king of Mount Olympus.
Modern people might find Zeus rather distasteful. His hedonistic affairs with other gods and mortals alike litter the pages of Greek mythology. He could also be jealous and vindictive, frequently opting to murder his enemies. The ancient Romans would later adopt Zeus as their own, naming him Jupiter and upholding much of the same mythos as their Greek predecessors.
3. Indra: The Bringer of Storms on a White Elephant
Indra, the storm god of ancient Hinduism, is a fascinating figure. He is one of India’s oldest continually worshipped gods and figures prominently in many important religious texts, such as the Rigveda. He also rides a white elephant named Airavata (in some depictions, Airavata has multiple heads). While he may not be as important to contemporary Hinduism as he was thousands of years ago, Indra remains a vital character in the development of Hindu traditions.
Indra was an early deity in Hindu mythology. With his power over storms, Indra could bring rain to end droughts and he protected ancient Indian rulers and warriors. Much like Zeus, however, Indra was sexually promiscuous. He was unfaithful to his wife, Indrāni, which sometimes got him into major trouble. As Hindu traditions developed, Indra’s prominence diminished, while the fortunes of Shiva and Vishnu rose.
One of Indra’s greatest feats involved his battle with the snake Vritra. Vritra blocked rivers with his coils and hurt farmers, causing great hardship. This led Indra, who was intoxicated by an alcoholic elixir called soma, to confront him. Using his lightning bolt, Indra defeated Vritra, saving the farmers and freeing the rivers.
4. Raijin: The Drum-Beating Kami of Thunder
Not many people outside of Japan have heard of the kami of the Shinto religion. While it is difficult to define kami in any single word in English, at their core they are divine spirits linked to natural phenomena. And in Japan, a country hit frequently by typhoons, storm gods have played a vital role in local traditions for centuries.
One of the Shinto pantheon’s oldest kami is Raijin. A ferocious-looking being who controls lightning, Raijin was a son of the creator gods, Izanami and Izanagi. His mother, Izanami, died when she gave birth to his brother Kagutsuchi, the fire god. Izanagi went looking for his wife in the underworld, but he abandoned her when he saw her rotting body. Angered by her husband’s dismissal of her, Izanami sent Raijin to follow him back to the living world.
As the kami of lightning and thunder, Raijin is a turbulent deity. He beats his drums to summon storms. However, he is not merely feared in Shinto mythology, but also revered. Raijin’s storms have the power to end droughts and bring about good harvests. One myth even claims he repelled the Mongols from invading Japan in the late thirteenth century. In sculptures and paintings, he is usually depicted opposite his brother Fujin, the green kami of wind.
5. Shango: The Deified Ancestor in Africa and the Americas
So far, we have covered storm gods who were very much involved with humans, yet they didn’t understand what their lives were like. Shango, the orisha of thunder and fire for West Africa’s Yoruba people, breaks this mold. Unlike the other storm gods listed so far, Shango began his life as a mortal man.
Yoruba mythology names Shango as an early king of the medieval state of Oyo, in modern Nigeria. As king, he was a no-nonsense leader who conquered many lands — symbolized by the axes he wields. He also experimented with magic, leading to the creation of lightning and thunder. Unfortunately for Shango, one of his experiments destroyed the royal palace, killing his family. The distraught Shango committed suicide while in self-imposed exile.
After his earthly death, however, Shango was elevated to the status of an orisha. Yoruba kings and warriors invoked his name in battle, and Shango was said to strike down Oyo’s enemies with his lightning. His elemental colors are white and red, and he is also revered by Black communities in Brazil and the Caribbean.
6. Thor: A Marvel of a God
It’s safe to say that Thor is the most recognizable storm god aside from Zeus, yet most people know little of the actual Norse mythology surrounding him. Recognizable by his hammer, Mjölnir, Thor frequently battled giants and monsters to defend both his home of Asgard and the human world of Midgard. His wife was Sif, the Norse goddess of fertility, and he had multiple children.
Thor’s nemesis was the massive snake Jörmungandr, who wrapped itself around the entirety of Midgard. According to prophecy, the storm god and his serpentine enemy would battle each other during the apocalyptic Ragnarök. During this enormous conflict between order and chaos, Thor and Jörmungandr stuck each other down. The surviving gods, including Thor’s children, rebuilt the world afterward.
During the Viking era, Thor was the most popular member of the Norse pantheon. Archaeological discoveries from the early medieval era attest to the storm god’s widespread appeal. However, the arrival of Christianity would eventually push Thor to the margins of religious devotion in northern Europe.
Comic book fans may find themselves disappointed to know that Marvel took significant liberties when writing their version of Thor. In the annals of Norse mythology, Thor and the trickster god Loki were never brothers. Instead, Loki was the half-giant, half-god father of Jörmungandr, Thor’s mortal enemy. Additionally, myths did not always depict Loki as evil; he was more of an opportunist than anything else. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have broadened Thor’s appeal immensely, but it strays from its Norse inspiration in major ways.
7. Set: The Demonized Desert Storm
To put things bluntly, Set gets a bad rap. The canid-headed storm god of Egyptian mythology rules over the desert and war, and ancient Egyptians linked him with foreign lands. He fluctuated between being a beloved deity invoked by the oldest pharaohs to a traitorous villain who murdered his own brother. Set’s complex personality and devotional status thus reflect major changes in Egyptian society and history over the course of centuries.
Set had three siblings: Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys (who was also his wife). Unfortunately, Set and his older brother Osiris did not get along. After all, Osiris ruled the Egyptian world. Some myths also state that Nephthys and Osiris had an affair, further angering Set. The desert god then concocted a plan to dispose of his brother and take his place as lord of Egypt.
Set created a casket specifically for Osiris. He made two attempts to kill his brother, succeeding on the second try. However, Isis used her magic to briefly resurrect her brother-husband, with whom she conceived the falcon-headed sky god, Horus. Osiris then passed into the underworld, where he became the god of the dead. His son Horus would violently clash with Set for eons, eventually avenging his father’s death by becoming ruler of Egypt. In some versions of the Osiris myth, Horus even showed mercy to Set, reflecting the ancient Egyptians’ belief in the cosmic balance of power. In the Egyptian worldview, chaos and order were mutually engaged forces. If unbalanced, the universe would be in danger.
During earlier dynasties, pharaohs claimed Set as their own. He also protected desert-traveling merchants and even resisted the vicious snake Apep to defend the sun. By the time of the New Kingdom, however, his murder of Osiris had eclipsed his previously benevolent reputation. New Kingdom Egyptians sadly associated Set with chaos, foreign invasions, and destruction.
8. Perun: Storm God and Slavic Patron of War
The final god on our list is Perun, the storm god of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europe. He is also one of the more mysterious gods listed here. Due to the Christianization of the medieval Slavs and the fact that they largely passed down their mythology orally, we don’t know too much about Perun with certainty. What we do know, however, is that Perun was one of the most powerful gods in the Slavic pantheon — perhaps even the supreme god.
Like Set and Shango, Perun was a great warrior. Like Thor, he was often depicted wearing a helmet and carrying an axe or a hammer. The most famous Perun myth delves into his conflict with Veles, the god of harvests and the underworld. Veles, who transformed into a large serpent, caused a huge drought, leading Perun to fight and kill him. Every time a drought occurred, Veles would return to battle Perun again. The cycle of conflict between the storm god and the god of the underworld illustrated the conflict between the Slavic elements of nature.