Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Weather Lore from Olaus Magnus the Goth

When the trees flip their leaves, it's about to rain. If the dandelions' balls of seeds are contracted and bunched up in the evening, it will rain the next day. Red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. If the bees fly out and do not return to their hive, rain is coming.

Weather superstitions like these are found around the world, especially in temperate zones, and have a long and venerable history. Lately I've been reading through Olaus Magnus' "Description of the Northern Peoples" (1555) and it offers quite a lot of examples from sixteenth-century Scandinavia, both of things the weather foretells (hailstones the size of a calf's head are supposedly an omen of impending death; I assume he means more so than just death by being struck with a colossal ball of ice falling out of the sky on you) and of superstitions for predicting the weather. I haven't yet made it to the books which deal with fauna, so I haven't even read what their behavior has to say about meterological phenomena (but apparently there's a fair bit of that), and I confess when Olaus talks about "circles" and "semblances of the sun" in the sky he is not describing anything familiar to me either by other description or by personal experience, so when he tells us what kind of weather they imply, I have no idea what he is actually talking about. But even if these are ignored, Olaus Magnus is a wealth of information on early modern Scandinavian weather lore.

Aside from the wealth of information I can't quite make sense of about circles in the sky, the most informative chapter on the subject of weather forecasting is 1:7, which among other things tells us how to read the sun at dawn and dusk to foretell the weather:

Thus, the sun rising unclouded but not glowing hot heralds a fine day, but if it is pale in color it forecasts hail. If however it has set the day before in a clear sky, and rises so, one may be all the more confident of fair weather. If it rises saffron-coloured, this signifies rain, and similarly wind when the clouds are reddened just before sunrise. But, if it comes up among clouds that glow red, this is also a sign that rain will appear. When the clouds round the setting sun turn pink, they guarantee fine weather for the day to come. Yet if at its rising they are scattered, some to the south, others to the north, even if the sky round the sun is fair and unclouded, these are, nevertheless, indications of rain and wind; and if it rains at the sun's setting, or its rays draw clouds towards themselves, this means there will be rough, stormy weather the next day. If, on the other hand, its beams do not project distinctly at sunrise, even though they are not encompassed by cloud they foretell rain. If the clouds are massed together before the sun rises, they give warning of violent rainfall; but if they are driven from the east and depart towards the west, you can expect good weather. If the clouds hem in the sun on all sides, but it is itself left unclouded, consisting of a single bright disk, the weather will then be very much wilder; but if in addition the disk is double, it will be even more terrible. Should this happen either at its rising or its setting, in such a way that the clouds are reddened, a gigantic storm will arise. If the clouds do not encircle but settle over the sun, from whatever quarter the wind may blow, they presage the same thing; and if they come from the south, rain also.

If the rising sun is enclosed in a halo, look for the wind from whatever quarter the sun breaks out of it. If the ring floats away whole and uniform, there will be fine weather. If its rays appear before the sun's rising, they forecast rain and wind; if there is a white ring round the setting sun, expect a mild storm that night; if there is fog, rather boistrous weather will follow, and if this forms when the sun is on the point of setting, wind.

Olaus also tells us that thunder can be a potent omen, but its significance varies depending on the month. The following list is taken from chapter 1:35, and oddly mixes predictions of things directly related to meterology with omens about the behavior of men.

In January thunders mean higher winds than usual and a taller growth of the earth's crops.
In February, that death will come to a great many, particularly to those who live luxuriously.
In March, that strong winds are ready to burst out, that there will be a fruitful season, and noisy legal disputes.
In April, that rain will fall, which will be good for the crops, and the fields will wear a cheerful face all the year long.
In May they signify everything adverse: a dearth of crops and every commodity frighteningly expensive.
In June they forecast a more plentiful fertility, but sickness is much to be feared.
In July too an abundant supply of corn, but ruin for peas, beans, and fruit.
In August, that men shall live together at peace, yet there will be terrifying illness.
In September, that a fruitful season is at hand, together with wars, civil discord, and carnage.
In October any thunder is reckoned to be ominous, showing that tempests are threatening on land and sea.
In November, though they happen in very infrequent years, they promise fruitfulness in the coming year.
In December thunders are a sign of general plenty and that men shall live agreeably together.

It's not clear how much of this is current folkloric content in Olaus's Sweden. Both of these passages, though uncited, include material mostly taken from Vincent of Beauvais's "Speculum Naturale," which in turn borrows liberally from Pliny the Elder. The ability to refer to a standard "correct" earlier text is perhaps one of the most definitive signs that something is no longer being transmitted in the form of folklore, but Olaus' inclusion of it in a book on the peoples of Scandinavia may very well imply that most of these superstitions were present in the oral culture of northern Europe in his own day. It's also clear from other passages wherein Olaus adapts earlier writers' content in ways that involve no direct quotation that he has no qualms about editing things to fit the Swedish oral lore to which he is accustomed.

Presumably some of these signs ought to actually be adapted to the climate of the place where they are applied. Where I live, brief but intense summer thunderstorms are common (and most often signify very late nights, since I'm a soccer fan and lightning can delay a game for hours sometimes), but despite frequent July storms, the soybean farmers seem to be doing well. Nor can I recall any "noisy legal disputes" I've gotten into following a March storm. But the old wives' tales are memorable, and presumably at least where weather forecasting is concerned they have enough truth behind them to have been fruitfully propagated from one generation of farmers and sailors to the next. In some cases these pieces of lore persist even to the present day - consider, for example, the "red sky at night" rhyme and its direct parallel in Olaus 1:7, content which indirectly goes back all the way to Pliny - despite the rise of more scientifically robust forecasting.


  1. The "circles" and "semblances of the sun" refer to phenomena nowadays known as "halos". These circles and pillars in the sky, around the sun, are caused by ice crystals reflecting sunlight and are rather commonly observed in Scandinavia. The illustrations of "Description of the Northern Peoples" show these phenomena with almost scientific accuracy.

    1. Thanks! I'm an armchair folklorist and no meteorologist whatsoever, and have never seen the phenomena personally, so the drawings look very alien to my eye - but it's cool to know what they're really describing.