Tempestarii

 

It can’t possibly be taught this way in schools today, but I remember at primary school having ‘Dance and Movement’ lessons. The smell of those heavily varnished floors in the school hall can still be recovered in memory: even the feel of them, slightly gritty under bare feet. Curl up into a ball like a little seed in the ground, slooowly uncurl, be like a plant coming to life, imagine now being a big strong tree… and even at five-years-old I was cringingly embarrassed about the whole business. Yet, by the end of this post I am going to be relating doing pretty much exactly that. To start at the beginning, though, this is a post about experiments in weather magic.

The Tempestarii of the title of this post was the name given in early medieval times to magicians who worked with the weather. We have to piece together what we know about them from an awful lot of fragmentary bits of evidence including confessional manuals, legal texts and theological treatises but specifically they seem to have been credited with the ability to create, or to prevent storms. In a period where there was no arable surplus to speak of, the ability to direct a storm and destroy a crop was a power of life and death.  Likewise, the power to prevent that, would be worth paying for.

The best-known source of information about these people is from a book by Agobard of Lyons in the 10th century called ‘On Hail and Thunder’. He was the Archbishop of Lyon and in his text he admits that almost everyone in his neck of the woods knows about these Tempestarii and he suggests that belief in their powers is widespread. He also mentions that people are very ready to pay for them. In fact, sometimes they spent so much money paying the Tempestarii, they had nothing left to pay their tithes to the church.

Agobard doesn’t tell us anything specific about the methods employed by the Tempestarii, but he does tell a story, a myth if you like, that he says is widely believed, and which suggests something important about the metaphysics of weather magic. If you are thinking that this 10th century cleric and his writing on weather is sounding vaguely familiar, it may be because it is from here that Jaques Valleé drew for the title of his seminal book on UFO phenomena Passport to Magonia. In that book Valleé surveys folkloric tales of ‘sorcerers from the clouds’ and puts them alongside modern day eye-witness accounts of UFOs. Magonia is the legendary place in the clouds which Agobard describes in his treatise:

“…they believe and say that there is a certain region, which is called Magonia, from which ships come in the clouds. In these ships the crops that fell because of hail and were lost in storms are carried back into that region; evidently these aerial sailors make a payment to the storm-makers [tempestarii], and take the grain and other crops.”

So we have sky creatures in league with Frankish weather magicians. Looking at that from a magically operant perspective and dodging around the polemics of Christianity vs Folk Magic, it begins to look a lot like spirit contact.

The witch trials of the 16th and 17th century often document accusations of witchcraft performed to influence the weather. What is noticeable is how bodily the descriptions are. Three naked witches get into the river and bathe to create rain, a witch-boy smacks a river surface over and over with a stick until he conjures rain, a man ‘fends off’ and ‘pushes back’ bad weather when he sees it coming across the mountains. These are acts which take the body of the witch, it’s immersion in the elements, its exertion and its movement and use that intimacy to influence elemental spirits. This is not a magic that can be done from an armchair or a desk. This is a magic that requires bare feet – at the very least – planted firmly on the ground. It requires intimacy, alertness and bodily knowledge. It requires a sense of the grammar of natural magic. My interest in weather magic has so far focussed on the winds. Two years ago I was standing at night on a high moor in Cornwall, the head of an abandoned tin mine was behind me, black bricks against black night, and I was on an rocky outcrop as something like a gale blew. It was astonishing to feel the reach of the winds but I noticed that as the gale buffeted me, pushed my chest around and I had to stand firm to stand at all; at the same time the wind around my bare hands was soft, feather-like, caressing. The sense of there being hundreds of spirits in the winds, grew stronger. The longer this meditation went on the more the sense of communication and immersion grew. It was a first lesson which I brought home to Hampshire and developed.

 

So we return to an outdoor version of the primary school dance and drama lesson. This is how to move the wind. Go to a place you are known. Make it a place where you are trusted by the local spirit ecosystem not to cause harm. A forest is particularly good because it makes hearing the wind at a distance easier: a hill top or cliff edge might also work. Stand naked if possible. Plant your feet on the earth. Use your ears, your skin, your eyes, your whole body to become aware of the movement of the wind. Feel it right next to you and hear it approaching through the canopy. Sense the smallest eddies and the hardest gusts.

And then move with it. Raise your arms into the air and dance with the wind. As it approaches, learn what it feels like to pull it in. Twist with its rushing past you. Dip, jump, bend, haul, and fend off. This is a dance which soon becomes all-consuming and time begins to loose its meaning. I have found an hour passed at times in what felt like minutes. Humility is also required. Eventually you will be asking these spirits to respond to you rather than the other way around. I don’t believe the women who bathed naked in the stream in 16th century Germany and called the rain would have been able to do that except that they already had a relationship with the spirits of rain and wind there. When a spell looks simple, it usually draws on the magician’s ongoing relationships. Dancing with the wind, for hours, turns slowly, inexorably, from response to conversation, to command. It might take hours of dance in the woods before connections begin to form between the movement of air and the movement of the body. Look for movements or gestures that you find yourself repeating as air and wind move in particular ways, you are trying to create, or learn, a symbolic visual language which both you and the spirits in the wind can ‘understand’. Of course, breath must also be important. Inhaling and exhaling becomes a joining with the spirits of the wind, quite literally you are taking them into your body. That simple realisation, when it is realised by the sensations of the body and not just intellectually is an enormous step towards commanding the winds.

This is an ongoing experiment. The motive today is not to destroy my neighbour’s barley, and questioning the motive for this kind of thing today is a worthwhile thing to do. It is one of the most wordless forms of magic I have experimented with. It is an ecstatic practice and for some this may be enough. I have found that elemental spirits, are not like that part of the spirit ecosystem which relates to us as individuals, with names and personalities. Elementals are multifarious, their identity, if they have such a thing opening up to meld with, swallow and pull away from others in a constant churn. The boundary of their ‘personhood’ seems extraordinarily fluid. Directionality is another element of this magic I have yet to fully get to grips with. On the one hand we often conceive of winds as fixed to compass points, and personality has often been given to the East, West, North and South winds. It would seem a kind of magic in which directionality would be very important. But having said that, the experience of it makes one realise just what a omnidirectional shambles the winds can be at any one point, around any one person. These are all things to work on.

Despite my primary school experience I can’t commend dancing in the woods enough. And if you want to do it as a part of some weather magic, well, that’s fun too.

 

External links: 

On Hail and Thunder by Agobard of Lyons

Weather Magic from German Witch Trials

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