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Autumn may be a strange time to be watching towering cumulus clouds for most North Americans, but here on Vancouver Island, it is the prime season. The now relatively warm sea waters and the dominance of storm systems venturing out of the Gulf of Alaska provide the perfect conditions for such formations, particularly when the moist air is also forced over the mountains surrounding Victoria. Thus, we get most of our large cumulus development this time of year. My cloud-watching this day, however, had an added purpose: I was hunting for cloud men.
This quest had its origin a number of months ago when I was researching another article and found a web page on Dr Kathleen Jenks' vibrant and informative site Mything Links concerning the Green Man. Dr Jenks describes the Green Man as:
"The Green Man is that spirit, energy, presence, inherent in every cell of the vegetative realm, and transmitted to the animal/human realms through the foods we eat, the flowers we smell, the trees we hug."
His face is found in thousands of portrayals around the world, frequently as ornamentation carved in the stone or wood on edifices such as the churches and cathedrals of Europe (such as the one depicted from the Parrish Church in Sutton Benger, UK). He is usually portrayed as a face composed of leaves with foliage sprouting from his nose, eyes, ears and/or mouth. These representations have their roots in myths about roaming wild men in the deep woods but rarely seen for more than an instant.
If you have ever walked through thick forests, you likely have caught a glimpse of him looking back at you. You stop, look again, then realize it was likely only the random pattern of foliage seen through eyes connected to a pattern-seeking brain. But was it just an illusion? Perhaps what you saw was indeed a forest spirit who quickly disappeared rather than be caught again.
I have seen the Green Man many times in my hikes through the mixed forests of the Great Lakes region and along the edges of the great Pacific Coast rainforests. But I am, by nature, more a watcher of sky, and I have often seen faces in the bubbling cumulus clouds and all appear to be men sporting bushy beards. If you haven't seen them in the sky, then you may have seen them at the supermarket check-out on the cover of some tabloid paper whose headlines scream: "Devil Present At Weather Disaster!"
Do Cloud Men have a similar mythology to the Green Man? I asked Dr Jenks this question. Her response was not as definitive as with the lore of the Green Man, but she remarked that there was a connection between clouds and the centaurs, and she suggested some resources.
Here was an interesting connection. The Centaurs are a race of mythical creatures with the body of a horse linked to a human upper torso where you would expect the horse's neck and head. Although Disney has re-imaged the look of the centaur to be a complete race, true Greek centaurs were all men, and most representations from ancient Greek art show them with the same curly bearded faces as my cloud men -- and often with their gaze tilted skyward.
Now the plot thickens. From where did the centaurs spring? According to Greek mythology, they were born of the clouds! Here in a nutshell is the history of the Centaur race.
The human Ixion had the audacity to attempt to seduce Hera, the Queen of heaven and wife of Zeus. When Zeus learned of this attempted rape, he set a trap for Ixion. Zeus fashioned a cloud in Hera's image and laid it next to Ixion as he slept. When Zeus caught Ixion boasting that he had enjoyed the pleasures of Hera, he tied Ixion to a wheel and sent it whirling on the winds through the underworld.
The union of Ixion and "Cloud-Hera" brought forth the monster Centaurus, the first of the race of Centaurs. Ovid, in his book Metamorphoses, reported: the Centaurs were a "cloud-begotten race, half men, half beast," associated with wild drunkenness and physical violence. The Centaurs are said to inhabit the mountains of Thessaly in northern Greece.
[An aside to the Centaur story, Hera was also once known as the goddess of fertility and growth. This title was later bestowed on a goddess named Nephele. For fertility and growth to abound in the world, rain is required, which is, of course, issued from clouds. The Greek root nephos means cloud, and is found in Nephele and a variety of meteorological terms such as nephology, the study of clouds; and the nephoscope, an instrument used to detect cloud motions.]
When I watch a line of well-developed cumulus race across the sky on gusty, wild winds, it is easy to envision them as half man/half horse creatures. And when the thunder rolls and lightning jumps from their base, the words of the classic western song Ghost Riders in the Sky strengthens my image of wild Centaurs and Cloud Men.
In my visual study of Cloud Men, I have noticed that they first appear in the short, cauliflower cumulus lying on their backs gazing lazily heavenward. But as the cumulus grow into castellanus, congestus and cumulonimbus varieties, the faces of the Cloud Men become more vertical. And often when their vehicle has grown into mature, anvil-topped, violent storms, the Cloud Men focus their gaze earthward.
An Angry Cloud Man from German Cloud Atlas:
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