The Cloud-Capped Myths of Mt. Rainier

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Mt. Rainier (Image: Flickr)

Mount Rainier (Tuwaukw / Takobed, her native names) used to be 2,000 feet higher than now.  About 6,000 years ago a massive lateral eruption such as Mt. St. Helen’s experienced in 1980—a specialty of Cascade volcanoes—collapsed the summit and sent the largest avalanche that we know of coursing down the White River valley to Puget Sound filling deep inlets with rubble and ash.  

Human beings witnessed this cataclysmic event.  Those on her east side had front row seats to the spectacle, and myth/legends describing it are horrific: a giant horned serpent descending, roaring and seething, a boiling cloud covering the earth.  West of the mountains the event changed the landscape as battling monsters drove out the sea.  Women gave birth to stones; people turned to stone.  In one myth the Mountain is struck by fire, burning off her head, shoulders and spine.

For the last two years I have been piecing these stories together.  With study they organized themselves into an extraordinarily grand biography of the Mountain. 

She was born in a place called Tiswauk, “barely discernable at a great distance,” one of five sisters who became great volcanoes.  She married a wealthy man to the west who already had wives.  She bore him a son, but the wives fought each other so violently that she left with her child and returned to her original home.  The wives continued to fight, bellowing and hurling fire at one another until she became an immense, towering ogress, killing all she encountered.  

Eventually the wives beheaded her, but she continued to wreak havoc on her surroundings until a demigod, The Changer, defeated her and transformed her, once again, to the beautiful bride who became a nurturing mother.  It is a saga worthy of the great peak and to me, a newcomer like 98 percent of the rest of us who live here, heretofore unknown.  

But as spectacular as the Mountain is by herself, she is even more magnificent when conditions are right and great clouds appear in echelon over her summit. This is especially so at sunset when they turn cream, yellow, pink, ruddy, and then ghostly blue.  Those above or concealing her summit are called cap clouds, created when moist west or south winds blow in and are deflected upward by the mountain to colder atmospheres where the water vapor in them condenses into cloud.  Subsequent wind surges can form several layers of lenticular clouds looking like a many-leveled parasol evoking the seven heavens, angling back from the summit.  As the cooled air rides over to the mountain’s lee, it may oscillate, rising and falling, forming a train of lee wind clouds reaching for miles.  

But in searching the extensive corpus of myth and legend I have collected, I did not (at first) find anything that described these extraordinary cloud displays.  Only one myth mentioned the cap cloud, a story about a great flood when the Creator had a man shoot arrows to the cloud, each fixing on the back of the proceeding, producing an arrow chain reaching to earth.  The Creator bade the man and his family use that ladder it to climb to the cloud.  

They were followed by good animals, but when Creator saw poisonous snakes and insects climbing upward, he broke the chain sending them tumbling down to be swallowed by the flood. Thus, there are no poisonous animals on the Mountain.  After that, Creator directed the saved to climb the remnant chain to the Mountain’s summit and then descend to the lowlands where the man and his family recreated humanity, a la Noah.  

Does this legend show the influence of Christianity? Possibly, but it is more likely that the native and biblical stories derive from much older myths and legends that have been carried by our ancient ancestors throughout the world, a legacy of our long and roving human experience.

But that one myth seemed a poor showing for so impressive a display that the cap and lee wind clouds present.  Yet, if you study hard enough, travel far enough and plumb deep enough, you will inevitably encounter beautiful, many-faceted reality.   That is when it occurred to me that I had the myths all along; I simply had not fully recognized their referents.  

The clouds recall the beheading.  The cap cloud rising thousands of feet above the summit recalls the Mountain’s earlier elevation, estimated by the angles of high lava flows to have been around 16,000 feet.  As the clouds divide and slip to the Mountain’s lee, her monstrous head is severed and thrown, as if in aggregate motion. Coming from south or west the winds send the head north or east to its mythical destination.  Flaming sunset colors recall the eruption, the Plinian cloud at day’s end, streams of blood and finally night and the color of death.

But why should many myths recall this in such detail?  (Relatedly, why do the Gospels focus on Jesus’s crucifixion and death?)  Until the mountain monster is beheaded and ultimately subdued, the Mountain cannot resume her earlier mythic roles of beautiful maiden or nurturing mother.  Out of the immense crater left by the eruption–think of Mount St. Helens–a new cone arose, symmetrical and unscarred by glacial erosion.  The Mountain reassumed the form of a bride on her wedding day, wrapped in magnificent white blankets of mountain goat wool.  From her many breasts—think of the many-breasted statues of the Goddess Diana—flow innumerable streams, milky from glacial rock flour, that feed the area’s fecund rivers.  

Native people knew that such cloud displays also forewarned stormy and rainy weather accompanied by thunder, lightning and cloudbursts. Those rainstorms evoked the whole spectrum of weather-related phenomena that give the Mountain her evocative myth name, Tuwa’hkw (too-WAHK-w),  “The display of light.” Without death there can be no life.  

Presumably at such displays, the myths of the Mountain’s death and rebirth were recited.  Many myths are time-specific — at solstice when the road to the land of the dead was open, myths of origin were told to rapt audiences by speakers with tears streaming from their eyes.  The stories had the power to bring about the very actions they described: the deeds of heroes, the slaying of monsters and the change of worlds. 

As winter thawed, stories of Mink, a lascivious bumbler, were told in graphic detail, for how could the earth be made fertile without lust and copulation?  Young maidens married sea beings and mated with waves washing back and forth on the beach.  

And a young woman left home to marry a stranger, suffer, bear children and be exiled.  But when she reappears wrapped in beauty and new robes, heavy breasted and crowned with redemption, life will flower.

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