What could be more whimsical and imagination-stirring than a cloud? These transient puffs of air laced with water particles take on mysterious shapes we naturally recognize as children. In recent months alone I've watched in awe as clouds morphed into giraffes, turtles, Coke bottles and top hats. With their infinite changeability and frustratingly untouchable height, it's no wonder clouds have been imbued with mythological and folkloric qualities by many cultures, for hundreds of years.
We'll start in Ancient Greece. According to myth, clouds were not clouds at all but a group of young nymphs called Nephelai, the daughters of two titans, Oceanus and Tethys. These cloud spirits, depicted as beautiful and transparent, spent their days collecting water from the rivers in cloudy pitchers, then floating up to the heavens. When these pitchers were full, they poured water down from the sky, nourishing the earth and feeding the streams of their brothers, the Potamoi (river gods). Nephelai were thought to sail through the sky in billowing white robes, much like the way that clouds drift across the heavens.
An ancient Hindu tradition said that elephants brought the rain, and that clouds themselves were the celestial relatives of the white elephants that roamed the earth. An elephant's body was thought to be representative of a cloud, and they would use their trunks to shower the earth with rain.
Native Americans also created myths and folklore around clouds. According to the Skidi Pawnee tribe, who lived in Nebraska, clouds were the clothing of the gods of heaven. A god spreading its arms would cause the clouds to stretch across the entire sky. And the early Navajo people believed that clouds were formed when a great white swan flapped its wings.
Even today, cloud myths endure. The Pueblo of Southwest America worship the Cloud People, supernatural beings from the Underworld who bring rain and moisture to the earth. These Cloud People are the spirits of the deceased who lived a good life, thereby taking on the form of clouds in the afterlife. By properly honoring the dead, the Pueblo - an agricultural people - believe that the Cloud People will grant them rain, thereby nourishing their land.
Since we're into etymology (and when I see 'we', I mean 'me') - 'cloud' comes from the old English 'clud' or 'clod,' meaning a hill or a mass of rock. In the beginning of the 13th century, the word came to be used to refer to clouds in the sky. And in other news, the official scientific definition of a cloud is 'a visible accumulation of water droplets or solid ice crystals that floats in the Earth's troposphere'.
There's no doubt about it - there's just something about clouds that is utterly magical. And it's not just you and I that have that feeling - it's a universal phenomenon throughout history. In fact, a Cloud Appreciation Society formed in 2005 now has more than 35,000 members worldwide. The society quite romantically calls clouds 'Nature's poetry' in its manifesto.
Now, time to get your head out of the clouds. ;-)