Red Sky Mythology

It is interesting that many of the well-known weather adages rhyme and scan in the same way that nursery rhymes do. There are other parallels. Both are rooted in myth. We don’t know who made them up and we don’t always know quite what they would have meant originally. Many of them can be traced to a particular time, such as ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ which is about Mary Queen of Scots. ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’ is supposed to be related to the Black Death, though this is contested. These examples don’t just speak about events, they use symbology, symbology that we have trouble deciphering today.

Some weather lore has some truth in it, but of a tenuous nature. Some of them are baldly inaccurate as predictors of weather (eg ‘ash before oak, you’re sure to get a soak’ etc). Even when they do have a grain of truth, are more likely to have a more important symbolic or allegorical meaning as well.

The saying:

‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s (or sailor’s) delight,

Rred sky at dawning, shepherd’s warning’

in it’s current form emerged from a pastoral and maritime Britain, long before electricity, meteorological instruments or the internal combustion engine. People were deeply interested in the weather and the changing of the seasons. Their year was punctuated by a religious calendar of events in which they tried to influence these things. People were deeply superstitious, placed importance on love potions and talismans.

The grain of truth of the saying rests in the climate. Britain’s prevailing wind runs from the south west to the north east. This means that if you have a red sky at night, it is travelling away from you, a red sky at dawn, it is coming towards you.

So far so good, but in reality, red skies occur for lots of different reasons, only occasionally to do with storms. And a lot of storms come in when the wind has veered to the north west, and with no red sky. Early morning cloud cover, causing a red dawn, often gives way to sunshine. The myth is not very often borne out by reality. It could be argued that when it was first said, climatic conditions may have been such that it was true, but it has certainly not been true for all the hundreds of years that people have been repeating it. People say it all over the world, even when there can be no basis in reality for it.

The truth is that there is something in the symbological connection of red skies and storms which goes so far back into our history that, although we no longer remember its origins, is deeply rooted in our consciousness. Red, in western culture, is almost universally a symbol for danger. In fact, the saying goes back much further than maritime Britain.

In Matthew Chapter 16 the Sadducees and Pharisees have come to Jesus to tempt him into giving them a sign. He says: When it is evening, ye say: “It will be fair weather: for the sky is red”. And in the morning, “It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring”. O ye hypocrites..’

The prevailing wind was the same, weather systems coming in from the east and going out to the west, but it is sure that Jesus, the master parablist, meant more than that. The Pharisees wilfully refuse to see the danger, the red sky, as it approaches, wilfully refuse to see the ways to make the danger recede.

We can go still further back into the mists of western myth with this analogy. In Ancient Greek mythology the giant Typhoeus challenged the gods and laid waste to the heavens, the seas and the earth in the form of catastrophic storms, giving us the word typhoon. Eventually he was defeated by Zeus and imprisoned in the pit of Tartarus. From there he became a volcano demon and continued to issue devastating storms of wind and fire, turning the sky red. Thus the symbols of a red sky, danger and storms is linked to a misguided and disastrous attempt to overcome the gods. This context gives Jesus’ gibe to the Pharisees even deeper meaning.

In contrast, Ancient Chinese culture has a very different attitude to red skies.

According to Gavin Prettor-Pinney in ‘A Cloud-Spotters Guide’, clouds in general were symbols of peace and tranquillity, and red clouds particularly so.

Amongst Tibetan Buddhists, red is one of the sacred colours and gives protection. (ReligionFacts)

More examples could be cited from cultures which do not associate red with danger or storms. This analysis does not absolutely give the lie to the red sky saying, which obviously has some truth. The point is that this, and other snippets of old lore, have a lot more meaning than it first seems and they can give us insights into a shared history and consciousness.