California is in a third year of drought, and it's getting worse. Much of the state had record lows for precipitation in 2013; Fresno had just three inches of rain, compared with a normal of 11 inches.
Reservoirs are low and getting lower. The snowpack is at record low levels. The wildfire season has begun — many months early. Valley farmers face a potentially disastrous year. And Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency.
What can be done? Citizens are trying to conserve at home. Religious leaders are calling for special prayers for rain. Politicians want more water storage — but that's for the long term.
So, maybe this is a good time to look at alternative rainmaking rituals that other societies have used over the years. They may or may not be helpful, but they certainly are interesting.
For example, in south Asia, one of the roles of the king or chieftain was to invoke the rain when needed. A leader who failed could be replaced (by a potentially more successful rainmaker) or even killed, because a lack of rain threatened the safety of the society.
In Namibia, a chief's rainmaking power was thought to be concentrated in the marrow of his shoulder bone and shinbone. After his death, the marrow was extracted from those bones, mixed with butter, and used to anoint the body of his successor — to pass on the rainmaking power.
In one tribe in South Africa, a "rain queen" was responsible for the rain. She would serve until the age of 60 — when her powers would have waned — and then be replaced by her oldest daughter. At that point, she was supposed to commit suicide by poison.
Bulgarian villages had a more peaceful rainmaking tradition. A girl wearing a skirt of fresh green vines and small branches would sing and dance through the streets, stopping at every house so that the residents could pour water on her.
Many traditional cultures held their rainmaking ceremonies at a sacred tree, which was the home of a supernatural being who could bring the rain.
In western Galilee (now Israel), villagers would parade from a saint's shrine, carrying flags and musical instruments. They would place the flags at the sacred tree and circle the saint's grave seven times. After repeating this procedure at another sacred tree, they would climb a nearby mountain and pray for rain.
Romanians had a rainmaking tradition in which young girls would make clay dolls and place them in tiny coffins. A funeral procession of children would carry the coffins past fields and wells. They would bury the coffins and leave them for three days, then dig them up and throw them into a river or lake.
In ancient Chinese culture, dragons were held responsible for bringing the rain, and a sleepy dragon could cause a drought. If the drought was bad, a dragon's image would be taken out of the temple and paraded around to show him how dry it was — and to convince him to bring back the rains.
In southern Africa, a rainmaking shaman would climb to the top of a sacred hill and burn animal remains. Fatty animals (like rhinoceroses) were favored, because fat had a higher concentration of supernatural power.
Australian Aborigines believed that a snake spirit was responsible for the rain. In an effort to please the snake, people would place a piece of cooked meat on the edge of its sacred pool.
And finally, in certain parts of Kenya, people believed that a drought would occur if a stranger arrived in the area and displeased the ancestral spirits.
To end the drought, a large group of married women would escort the stranger away, playing drums and singing and dancing. When they reached the appropriate boundary, the women would strangle a rooster, throw it at the stranger and tell him to never return.
Pat Dodds is a resident of Fresno.