As a young man, I lived for a short while in the arid countryside of New Mexico, in the American Southwest. From that glorious summer:
Molly and I didn’t plan to stay the winter, so we didn’t build a house. Instead, we built a bed out on the very lip of the mesa, with a hundred foot drop right at the head of the bed. We suspended a clear plastic sheet over it to keep out the rain. At night, we’d lie in bed and look over the edge of the mesa. The thunderstorms would walk right up to us in the night. From our bed we could see them coming for miles. They’d get closer and closer, with the lightning fizzling and snarling, then break over us in a great crashing wave of sound and rain and light. We’d lie in bed under the clear plastic and drink in the fury of the storm.
Ahhh, the madness and sweet folly of youth … Molly, wherever your life may have led you, you have my profound thanks. But I digress.
Today I stumbled across a most amazing and insightful Twitter thread from someone yclept “oldeuropeanculture”. The thread is a charming explication of the intersection between animals, humans, and the climate in the American Southwest. The website of the thread’s author is here, well worth a visit. The original thread, reproduced below, is here. Other than a bit of minor editing and fixing of typos, this is all his work.
Thread: Horned Serpent petroglyph, Barrier Canyon, Utah, USA…Pic by Brian C. Lee.
In this thread, I will explain why the “mythological” horned serpent of the Indian tribes of the South West of the USA isn’t mythological at all. It is actually real … a complex animal calendar marker.
The horned serpent is an animal hybrid, with a body of a rattlesnake and horns of the desert bighorn sheep…
So what’s it all about? Well, let’s first have a look at the mythology of the horned serpent.
The horned serpent is believed to be the guardian of water and is associated with rain, thunder, and lightning. Its wavy curves symbolize flowing water…and its depictions are most often found on river canyon walls…Pic by udink.
Sooo … Rattlesnake-Bighorn sheep hybrid guarding water…Why? What does it mean? Well, to understand this, we need to have a look at the climate in the Southwest of the USA and the annual lifecycle of rattlesnakes and bighorn sheep…
This is a climate chart for Arizona…That spike you see in Jul/Aug/Sep is the monsoon…Only the most important annual event, the one that makes corn agriculture (and life) possible in Arizona…And the rest of the Southwest…
In this post about the Hopi Indian “god of agriculture and rain”, I explained that he had bighorn sheep horns…because the mating season of these wild sheep, characterized by violent ram fights, coincides with the Southwestern Monsoon season…
And so the bighorn sheep became an animal calendar marker for the Southwestern Monsoon season:
When are the rains going to arrive father?
When bighorn sheep start banging their heads my son…Now shut up and go to sleep…🙂
Eventually, this animal calendar marker became deified. And we ended up with the Rain God with bighorn sheep horns…To whom people could pray for rain…It’s kind of hard to pray to a sheep.
So this solves the horn part of the horned snake, the mythological being associated with rain, thunder, and lightning, the protector of flowing water … BTW, a lot of the canyons where horned snake petroglyphs were found are dry, except during monsoon season.
So let’s have a look at the reproduction lifecycle of rattlesnakes … cause animal calendar markers most often mark the mating and birthing period of the depicted animal.
In the Southwest of the USA, rattlesnakes are active between Mar/Apr and Oct/Nov.
But they are most active during the monsoon season (Jul/Aug/Sep). In just a few short months, they need to shed their skin (at least once), give birth, find mates, mate…
Which makes Jul/Aug/Sep the most likely time to be bitten by a rattlesnake…
I don’t think that this would have gone unnoticed by the local hunters/gatherers/corn farmers…
Soooo…The monsoon thunderstorms arrive when bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes start mating/giving birth. What do you think? Is this why in Southwestern USA we find the “horned serpent” as the guardian of water associated with rain, thunder, and lightning?
I think so…
BTW, the horned snake from the original tweet is just a part of a larger petroglyph panel, depicting a “spirit” (???) with a horned snake (guardian, bringer of water) on one side and the sun on the other. As opposing forces??? Pic by flickr.com/photos/rlngstr…
This petroglyph is one of many made during the archaic period (6000 BC – 100 BC)…Here is another one from that period. I love the horned snake with hands spewing water…
Oh, and there is another “spirit” (???) there too…
Apparently, no one knows what these “ghost” like creatures with “tails” could be. Well, the monsoon rains, which arrive with the “horned snake”, look like this … hmmm … “ghost” like creatures with “tails”???
Consider this petroglyph panel, also from the archaic period (from Thompson, Utah). Compare this image to the above pic of monsoon clouds spewing water onto the dry ground…
In the middle of this panel is this horned dude, with what looks like Bighorn sheep horns. Just like our Hopi friend Alósaka, the Bighorn sheep god of grain and rain, whom I mentioned earlier…
The Utah horned dude also has no legs and looks like one of those monsoon downpours…
Which apparently have a name: microbursts…or…rain bombs…Like this spectacular one…
As I said, a most insightful thread. It’s relationships, concepts, and images like this that are the reason that I truly love studying the climate.
My best to everyone, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, humans, and all creatures great and small.
“We’d lie in bed under the clear plastic and drink in the fury of the storm”
I think you might have missed a comma there…for me it would have been:
We’d lie in bed under the clear plastic and drink, in the fury of the storm
That’s the trouble with English degrees, they have a narrow perspective.
From Merriam Webster:
“Drink in the fury of the storm” is to fully appreciate and absorb the entire storm spectacle, including odors, wind, lightning, thunder, rainfall, splashes, wildlife, etc. etc.
Especially enjoyable as the storms weaken towards nightfall, with intense clod to cloud lightning displays across the entire sky while one’s senses are flushed with ozone, humidity, lightning displays, distant thunder and everywhere, the sound of water.
Probably something else was happening with Molly under that sheet.
This comma business reminds me of the Benny Hill joke, when coaching the buxom blonde singer,
“No,no,no. It’s not what is this thing called,Love?
It’s “What is this Thing called Love.”
“Are you in love”
“Are you in, love”
Pat, funny story. When the storm broke over us and the wind got strong enough, occasionally it would get under the bedcovers and very neatly roll the covers in a perfect roll right down to the bottom of the bed … I can assure you, the first time it happened in the midst of the rain, thunder, and lighning, I ’bout lost the plot.
…and drink, and drink in the fury of the storm.
How to have bighorn sheep and rattlesnakes as spirits of rain.
And how to pass down important knowledge from generation to generation when you don’t yet have books or scrolls or writing, Tom.
Remember those Super-8 home movies that you never got transferred to VHS? But then you were OK because you bought a VHS camera for home movies… but never got the videos transferred to DVD. Yeah, that all kind of failed and the kids only vaguely remember family vacations.
Sometimes, there are simple, effective, low-tech solutions to thorny problems.
If you’ve been butted by one and bitten by the other during different rainstorms, you might just appreciate the life-giving rain offerings by a jokester god and scratch out some offerings to him.
I also feel energized by sitting through a strong thunderstorm. Ok, maybe the chips and dip and beer is part of the ritual.
I wasn’t “energized” by sitting in a half-full rice paddy all night during the monsoons while on ambush operations.
Saw many of those ghost like creatures in the Colorado sky yesterday, and they delivered rain through the night.
Wonderful article, thanks very much!
Sorry to but in with this just released:
I’m sure that you are all frying as life gets destroyed from the minuscule amount of warming we’ve had(-:
I found Arizona was certainly a reprieve after Nevada.
In my younger years I drove from Las Vegas, via Grand Canyon to Albuquerque, and onto Lubbock, Texas (where an eager policemen in a rather shabby uniform nearly pulled his gun on me).
That drive took as far as I recall about four days, and as regarding sleeping arrangements, I think it was two nights in a rented Cadillac.
During over a month long trip it was one or two nights motels, following one or two nights rented car and so on.
These rock wall “paintings” are eerily similar to those found in North Western Australia.
Especially the tall skinny ones.
It’s intriguing how the ancient indigenes from literally half a world apart managed to apply almost the same depiction styles in their primitive artworks.
(Mind you, every ancient tribe originated somewhere else from where they are now designated to have habitated.)
You mean like this one, painted by an aborigine from Manchester, UK.
Oh, the ancient tribe from Manchester?
As I recall, they evolved from the primieval peoples of Eire.
Or was it Jamaica?
Art is so – diversified these days!
This was a great read, thanks…
Had 3 days of rain here in the high desert, 5000 ft, of Wyoming. Been here 26 years and don’t recall many such long rain periods here. Was raised just south of Lake Erie and like the Great Lakes the Big Horn mountains make their own weather, mostly dry. Less than 100 days of sunshine back there and over 250 days per year here. So this abnormally cloudy and windy weather this spring is a significant change in climate. La Nina, maybe? Friends who have lived here all their lives agree. At 75 years of age one gets some perspective on climate and how it changes. Models? Don’t need no stinkin models. There are draws east of town that were animal/cow trails as little as 100 or so years ago. Have pictures that show it. Things change slowly.
“Ahhh, the madness and sweet folly of youth “
Now indoctrinated and bombarded with alarmist propaganda
Love reading your stuff, Willis. Sort of a modern day Henry David Thoreau.
Thanks, Wayne, appreciated.
I’m convinced! First, in dry climates rain is much needed and anticipated, so certainly an ancient culture would have a strong spiritual central place for this critical commodity. Second, that it should arrive in such a dramatic fashion marching across the sky, accompanied by ear shattering explosions, blinding forks of light that can destroy things and cause flash floods. And third, that it is followed by observations of altered animal behavior, things growing, streams flowing… makes the monsoon the number one happening in their world. The petroglyph shows only a little circle – the sun – which represents the silent, hot, dry quiet rest of the year standing alone to one side of the tower of rainfall and the mythical creature on the other side.
Gee, why can’t climateers convince me of their mythology.
[H.R. scratches head] How could they possibly do this without computers and models?
They didn’t have computers, so they went outside and observed. for some reason I bet they could count on the fly and remember directions without out a cell phone too.
OMG! I forgot that they didn’t have cell phones, Matt. And no Uber, either. How did they get to the hunting grounds without Uber? How did they get their wooly mammoth back to camp without UPS Ground? And no Door Dash!
I tell ya, it’s a wonder the human race survived into the 21st Century without those basic necessities.
According to the World Meteorological Organization, Yuma (Arizona) is the sunniest place on earth. It has a total of 11 hours of sunlight in winter and up to 13 in summer. This means Yuma experiences an average of 4,015 hours of sunshine per year.
The other four making the world’s top five are:
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Costa del Sol, Spain
Which raises the question with me – why are those locations so spread out? I doubt the sun actually differentiates enough to explain it, so it is probably local geography / geology. Location next to a desert, but why is the desert there, and not everywhere? Next to the ocean for some, but not others. Strange – could someone enlighten this simple Engineer? Incidentally, thanks Willis. Does me good to depart from the rantings of the delusional alarmists occasionally!
As a water based planet I would say most places on earth experience a good amount of clouds, so you need a specific geography and terrain to have lots of cloudless days.
I don’t know about the other locations, Mike, but Fresno is where God provides light on the tip of a colonoscopy tube.
Mike, the great desert bands are at ~ 25° – 30° north and south of the equator.
The energy hits the earth mostly around the equator. Thunderstorms form, moving air vertically. The water is stripped out of the air. This dry air then descends around 25°-30°, where we find the great deserts—Sonoran (US Southwest), Atacama, Gobi, Sahara, Rub Al Khali, and the like.
Are those the just the sunniest cities (ex: minimum population)?
And are you telling me the Coast of the Sun in Spain is sunny? I find it hard to believe.
Look at it again
Google says: (not me)
“It has a total of 11 hours of sunlight in winter and up to 13 in summer. This means Yuma experiences an average of 4,015 hours of sunshine per year.”
So that must mean they get 3991 hours of sunshine in spring and autumn(fall) 🙂
The use of the word “sunlight” is not quite right. A simple check of sunrise and sunset times for Yuma does not equate to 11 hours in winter and 13 hours in summer. If you are using twilight time, winter may get to 11 hours but summer will be well over 14 hours. So further explanation of what is meant by the word “sunlight” is needed.
“Apparently, no one knows what these “ghost” like creatures with “tails” could be.”
Seriously? What else do you do on a rainy day, stuck indoors?
What a totally random but completely fascinating post.
If you really think this was folly of youth, you owe the woman an apology rather than thanks.
Camping on top of a mesa during thunderstorms will do me for folly.
So will having the head of the bed adjacent to a drop-off.
Molly, however, surely wasn’t folly.
This particular one seems to show the raingod (left), the sun (right) and a plume of water vapor rising between them, condensing into a cloud and then raining down.
That’s a pretty good climate model, and rather more descriptive than the current crop of CMIP6 closet monsters that stuff everything into a CO₂ box.
Living close to nature seems to have made the ancients more insightful than our boatload of indoor academics.
Deep convection is the reason water remains liquid over 70%t of the globe. With the present atmospheric mass, open ocean surface cannot exceed 32C because the sky remains perpetually dark at that temperature and the ocean surface temperature does not exceed 30C for more than a few days because that is the temperature where incoming surface heat balances outgoing surface heat..
Deep convection (or monsoon as observed) is the reason all past and present life forms are able to survive. There would be no liquid water on the surface if deep convection did not regulate energy input to oceans. All the water would evaporate.
No climate model is able to replicate this atmospheric process. Look at the measured temperature of the Nino4 region of the Pacific and compare with any climate model and they are all WRONG.
Now I know the real reason why Willis bought a RAM truck. 😉
Does he have snakeskin boots?
Why did it have to be snakes?
This was an enormously interesting tangent, Willis. Great find.
I have lived in and traveled extensively in the Southwest, and have even seen the petroglyphs at Thompson Creek, Utah. I have also investigated petroglyphs in Wyoming, and they don’t have the distinctive spirits with vanishing lower half, but instead focus on game animals and horned spirit like figures — especially those out near White Mountain not far from Rock Springs.