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Outside/Inbox: How do tornadoes feature in indigenous myths?

A tornado in a cloudy sky.
Credit: OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) via [pingnews].
A tornado forming near Oklahoma City.

Every other week on NHPR's Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a listener question about the natural world.

This week’s question comes from Jeannie and friends in Vermont:

Where else in the world besides the Midwestern United States do tornadoes occur and are they featured in any mythologies or traditions of indigenous peoples from other areas? Or from this area! And we're curious if they are represented.

Tornadoes have occurred in every U.S. state since 1950, and in every continent except Antarctica.

If you superimpose a map of tornado locations over a map of the world, you’ll find that most tornadoes happen in agricultural areas. Crops need seasonal rains to grow and they need the varied temperatures of changing seasons. And tornadoes need much the same thing: moisture and that instability in the atmosphere caused by spring and summer warming.

Outside the U.S., we see tornadoes on the plains of Eastern and southern Europe. Ukraine, as we’ve learned lately, grows a lot of the world's wheat. Tornadoes also favor an agricultural area by the Yellow River in the northern part of China, as well as India and Pakistan.

But despite the fact that tornadoes form all over the world, it can be difficult to recognize them in the myths and legends they inspire.

Nani Pybus, a researcher of global tornado myths at Oklahoma State University, says “in Slavic traditions, Russia, Ukraine, you have Baba Yaga. The witch with the long nose and the mortar and pestle flying through the forest, destroying the forest. And even leaving concentric circles on the ground.”

“You have the same sort of character in Australia and Finland,” she adds. “In China, the tornado literally is translated as the wind whirled by the dragon.”

The Bantu people and the Bantu language In sub-Saharan Africa are traditionally associated with the spread of farming across Africa, and they also have myths about tornadoes.

“One of them I always loved was the One-Legged Light God,” says Pybus.”These were the giant’s legs coming down to earth. You have the same concept in Australia, the one legged male water god. Think about it, what does a tornado look like? The giant leg up in the clouds.”

And Nani says you’ll find similar imagery in indigenous cultures here in America.

Sequoyah Quinton, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, is a photographer and tornado chaser. He says some tribal elders would refer to tornadoes, in their language, as "Dead Man Walking," referring to two simultaneous tornadoes spawned from one thunderstorm.

Pybus says there is one thing these myths have in common: Tornadoes are always treated with respect and reverence. And while the myths may not always be written down, they may actually be present as symbols. We just don't realize that's what we're looking at.

”Look at a witch," says Pybus. “Anything with long, crooked things. Snake elements, the snake iconography. Flying, rolling heads or serpents; the snakes rising up out of the water; long tails dipping down from the clouds, things like this. Spirals, spirals, spirals, spirals everywhere.”

If you’ve got a question about the natural world, send it as a voice memo to, leave a voicemail on our hotline at 1-844-GO-OTTER, or share it with us on Twitter or Instagram.

Outside/In is a podcast! Listen and subscribe on the streaming platform of your choice.

Jessica previously worked as a producer for NHPR's The Exchange, wedging in as many discussions as possible about the environment, wildlife, and the outdoors. You can hear her occasionally as a substitute host on NHPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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