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Lightning: From Ancient Gods to Movie Heroes

Updated on December 2, 2015

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Have you ever wondered what a caveman thought when trapped in a thunderstorm as bolts of lightning struck all around him? Sorry, we can only guess about that. But we can trace how human beings interpreted lightning for the last 5000 to 6000 years.

Spider Lightning

CONTENTS:

  • Out of the Blue…..
  • Ancient Civilizations
  • Gods of Thunder, Lightning and Storms
  • The Gods Mutate - Zeus, Indra, Thor, Lei Gong & Set
  • A Creature of Thunder ond Lightning - The Thunderbird
  • Impact of Monotheism
  • Shift to Christianity and Islam

PART II

  • Lightning and Modern Science
  • A Role for Folklore
  • Today’s Remnants From the Myths About Lightning
  • Lightning in ihe Comics
  • Lightning in the Movies
  • Conclusion

Lightning Statistics

  • Every year lightning kills about 10 thousand people worldwide.
  • Half of USA forest fires are are caused by lightning.
  • The energy in a lightning bolt ranges from 0.1 to 1 billion volts.
  • Lightning's temperature is about 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun.
  • There are 1,800 thunderstorms occurring somewhere on earth at this moment.
  • There are 100 lightning strikes every second.
  • Florida, the lightning capital of the USA, has about 1.5 million lightning strikes per year

Tree Destroyed by Lightning

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Out of the Blue...

Thunder and lightning are awesome, frightening, beautiful and somehow ominous. Lightning bolts zig-zag through the sky, thunder cracks, booms and rumbles, giant trees break and burn, and people die. And we human beings have been blessed and cursed with the need to explain things that grab our attention.

Our intention here is to emphasize the strong relationship between a society’s worldview and how that society explains thunderstorms. Worldview provides the core elements of the explanation, and the explanation, in turn, sheds light on worldview. In the past 6000 years or so, the prevalent worldview in many places has shifted from polytheistic to monotheistic to scientific. These changes elicit new explanations of lightning and thunder. Nonetheless, powerful remnants of older explanations remain to this day..

Amazingly, our current understanding of lightning and thunder did not emerge until the 18th century. We didn’t even know with confidence that lightning involved electricity until Benjamin Franklin’s experiments fewer than 300 years ago. Just imagine how you might have explained lightning without this knowledge. The human brain, in a “hardware” sense, has changed little in the past 5 or 6 thousand years. What keeps changing, of course, is the information (data) and paradigms (operating system and software) loaded into these brains – worldview, if you will.

Ancient Civilizations

So, how did our ancestors deal with lightning and thunder? Thunderstorms were inexplicable without recourse to the supernatural. Most early civilizations held polytheistic beliefs that included a variety of anthropomorphic or non-anthropomorphic gods, goddesses, demons and other supernatural beings. People used these beings to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Bolts of lightning were often attributed to a particularly powerful god, who used them to win battles, keep worshippers in line, or express anger. Beliefs like these often originated from a society’s most revered sages, teachers and prophets, and were essential components of its culture. We now tend to refer these beliefs as myths. In her book, Mythology- Timeless Tales of Gods and Hero, Edith Hamilton described a myth as …”an explanation of something in nature: how, for instance, anything and everything came into existence: men, animals, this or that tree or flower. Myths are early science, the result of men's first trying to explain what they saw around them…”

Gods of Thunder, Lightning and Storms

Many ancient cultures included distinctive pantheons of major and minor gods and goddesses. Since the thunder gods were usually considered major, their followers created many artifacts devoted to them, usually in the form of writings, paintings, sculptures, pottery and/or jewelry. These items attest to the importance of these gods and emphasize the need people had for them.

The early thunder gods were created in the image of man and frequently displayed the human traits of love, hate, seduction, lust, and greed. Little or no attention was devoted to ethical conduct. People did not worship these gods in an abstract manner, but rather as role models whose guidance came in the form of “what would my thunder god want me to do when this or that happens?”. These gods, some of whom also ruled rain, storm, sky, and/or war, often rode in chariots and could throw thunderbolts against their enemies and anyone else who displeased them. Each god was distinctive and linked to specific stories that passed from generation to generation. The meaning of these stories was taken as more important than their literal truth or detail, and many such stories of the gods’ exploits, loves and victories still exist.

The Gods Mutate

Over time, a society’s worldview evolves. This change might be elicited by new teachings from sages and philosophers, by influential secular or religious leaders, by exposure to different societies and cultures, by foreign occupation, or because of dramatic events of nature. Put another way, the brains of members of this or that society were loaded with new software and data. Such changes often occurred gradually, and the societal structure, order, and meaning was maintained, often with the help of the reconfigured gods themselves. Sometimes the changes were more abrupt, and chaos ensued. In these cases, gods were sometimes seen as failures, and were demoted or abandoned accordingly. The Greek supreme god Zeus, the Hindu god Indra, the Norse god Thor, the Chinese god Lei Gong, and the Egyptian god Set provide us with examples of the scope of these types of transitions.

These brief snapshots of five well known gods reveals both their power and their mutability. Their standing, their persistence and their character changed as their society, its rulers, culture and worldview evolved.

Throwing Lightning Bolts

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Zeus

Zeus was a major god in Greece for more than fifteen hundred years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Roman Occupation. Early on, Zeus was an unpredictable and unfaithful sky god who removed his father from the throne, battled the Titans and Giants, and fathered many other gods and demigods. Later he became a chaste, benevolent, supreme god on Mt Olympus, the ruler, advisor, helper, and protector of the Olympians and humans alike. Although we cannot ascribe a direct cause-effect relationship, it is interesting to note the ever-increasing attention the Greek philosophers gave to defining the good life. The reign of Zeus ended only upon the Greek conversion to Christianity.

Indra and Airavata

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Indra

Indra was the reigning god during Hinduism’s Vedic period, which began about 1,500 BCE and lasted about one millennium. Indra was the supreme warrior god, who used thunderbolts to defeat human and supernatural enemies and ended the world drought. During this time the Indo-Aryan people were settling Northern India and the basic features of traditional Indian civilization were emerging. Later, during the post Vedic period, a more complex social organization evolved, and Hinduism itself underwent significant changes. The Aryan deities, like Indra, lost much of their significance to Vishnu, the preserver, Shiva, the destroyer, and Brahma, the creator. Indra came to be considered a lesser and cowardly god.

Thor with His Hammer Mjölnir

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Thor

Thor was the son of the supreme god Odin. He was the strongest of the Norse gods and the protector of both gods and people. Archeological evidence shows that Thor was venerated as the warrior god as far back as the Bronze age, but he became the most important and popular Norse god in the Viking era. His hammer, Mjöllnir, was not only a weapon and the symbol of the destructive power of the storm, but it was also a blessing tool used to hallow marriages, homes, people, and events. Because of his great popularity, Thor was a significant challenge to the conversion of Scandinavians to Christianity. Parents long continued to baptize their children in the name of Thor and wore replicas of Mjöllnir, a custom which continues today.

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Lei Gong

Lei Gong was a traditional religious and Taoist deity, more specifically a thunder god. There are many contradictory stories on how he became a god, but once a god, he had his ups and downs depending on the agenda of the sitting Emperor. Lei Gong produced thunder with a mallet and drum and his wife made lightning with flashing mirrors. Lei Gong’s role was to punish both human and supernatural evildoers. When the First Emperor Shi Huangdi of the Qin Dynasty was in power, around 212 BCE, he ordered the burning or banning of all books except those about farming, prophecy and medicine. Twenty years later, and after the Emperor’s death, this order was reversed with the demand that the literature had to be rewritten to support the current royal emperor, and the pantheon of gods had to take on the form of the government’s hierarchy. This produced a pantheon of gods mirroring the Chinese empire. Lei Gong was the Duke of Thunder in the Ministry of Thunder and Storm and his assistants included his wife, Lei Zhi (the Mother of Lightning), Yun Tong (the Cloud Youth), Feng Po (the Earl of Wind) and Yu Zi, (the Master of Rain).

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Set

Set was one of the oldest Egyptian gods and existed before the unification of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. He was a non-anthropomorphic god, and there is no consensus as to what animal formed his head, so it became known as the Set-animal.

In addition to being the god of thunder and lightning, Set was also the god of chaos, confusion, wind, the desert and foreign lands. Initially he was seen as a beneficial god and had many followers who prayed to him to give them the strength from storms. Later on, for unknown reasons, Set was demonized and lost most of his followers. Suggestions have been made that Set fell into disfavor because the state religion was favored over him, or that the pharaoh fell out of favor with the people and they rebelled against him by turning against Set. Regardless of the reason, Set lost most of his followers and his place in the Egyptian pantheon became questionable.

Why Do Native American Tribes Have Totem Poles?

The issue of how tribes all across North America believed in Thunderbird has never been fully resolved. What is known is that all of these tribes came from one ancestral Asian population which migrated from Asia to Alaska around 12,000-14,000 BCE and then spread out across America. Also, fossil bones of giant birds found in Oregon and Washington date back to 10,000 BCE. These giant birds, known as Teratornis, had wing spans of 14 to 20 feet. Some have questioned whether the “new Americans” may have seen these birds prior to going their separate ways.

Totem Pole in Thunderbird Park,Victoria, BC

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A Creature Of Thunder And Lightning - The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird does not quite fit the mold of the aforementioned gods since it is considered to be a supernatural or mythical creature and not a god. It does support, however, the universal need that people have to explain the chaotic and destructive power of thunder and lightning. We do not know when belief in the Thunderbird started, but when settlers moved west in the 19th century, they found that many native tribes across the North American continent shared a common belief in a giant supernatural bird(s), which could create thunder by beating its wings and send out flashes of lightning by blinking its eyes. The rest of the stories associated with these Thunderbirds varied from tribe to tribe. The Thunderbird was seen variably as a creator or a destroyer, as the bringer life or death, as the protector or the offender, as the supreme Nature Spirit, or as the portent of chaos. Most stories about Thunderbird emphasized that change was inevitable and that Thunderbird itself could be an agent of change.

Fortunately, samples of the Thunderbird appearance still exist today in the totem poles of the Native Americans especially in the Pacific Northwest. They can also be found in jewelry and weavings, and in Native American dance performances.

Impact of Monotheism

The time period we have been considering started around 3,500 BCE, the time of the Egyptian god Set, and ends, at least in Indo-Europe around 800 AD. This interval encompasses Abraham, the Israelites, and the emergence of monotheism. Monotheistic belief does not allow a specific god of thunder or lightning, only the one god of all things. Nonetheless, lightning and thunder remained in monotheistic teaching as a weapon and a means of calling human beings to attention. The Bible tells us that God used it as a weapon in the 7th plague in Egypt and also to announce God’s presence on Mt. Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt.

Spread of Christianity

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Spread of Islam

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Christianity and Islam

The conversion from polytheism to monotheism associated with the Roman Occupation and with the conquests of Mohammad and the Caliphs was neither quick nor usually by choice. Some societies may have been more ready for it than others because their worldviews had been broadened by trade, travel and warfare. In Greece, for example, people were starting to have trouble aligning their personal beliefs and experiences, and even their evolving worldviews, with the stories of their unethical gods. This was not enough to cause them to abandon their traditional beliefs, but it was enough to render their worldview mutable and more or less receptive to Christianity. Eventually, Christianity was introduced during the Roman Occupation to most of the Indo-European area, and a monotheistic God replaced the polytheistic gods. The Norse polytheistic worldview gave way particularly slowly to Christianity. To the south, Mohammad, and later the Caliphs, through occupation and conversion to Islam, caused a similar shift from polytheism to monotheism.

We do know that this shift often involved blending some of the ancient deities and their associated rituals with the new Christian saints and ceremonies. Unlike today, the saints for the first millennium of Christianity were not chosen by the Church. They were chosen by “popular demand” of the people. One such example is Saint Elijah the Thunderer who replaced Perun, the Slavic supreme god of thunder and lighting. Another example was bringing Barbara of Heliopolis and Agrippina of Mineo into the early Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as St. Barbara and St. Agrippina, respectively. Believers would invoke these saints to help protect them from lightning. There are many other saints who replaced other ancient gods during early Christianity, but some gods, like Zeus and Thor, were too prominent to be handled in the same way.

The migration of European conquerors and missionaries to other continents, such as the Americas, Australia and Africa continued the shift toward monotheism. Many vibrant polytheistic societies remain, and some are even within predominantly Christian or Islamic countries. For practical reasons, we have barely touched upon Asia and its rich and stimulating relationships between worldviews and explanations of lightning and thunder.

PART II

Lightning and Modern Science

Like so many other things in nature, our current, science-based understanding of lightning and thunder, or even of electricity itself, only began to unfold in the 17th – 19th centuries, thanks to the works of William Gilbert, Otto von Guericke, Charles du Fay, Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, Charles Augustin de Coulomb, Alessandro Volta, Georg Ohm and others. Indeed, the fact that lightning is an electrical phenomenon was not established until studies by Franklin and Thomas-Francois Dalibard in the latter half of the 18th century. Interestingly, the term “electricity” was coined by William Gilbert presumably to honor the observations of Greek philosopher Thales of Melitos, who noticed about two millennia earlier that substances tended to stick to amber after it was rubbed with fur; the Greek and Latin words for amber are the roots for electricity.

Even though scientists were and are making progress in explaining lightning and thunder, it does not follow that most peoples turned quickly to science-based explanations. Why? Two reasons stand out: old beliefs and customs do not die easily and many people do not have sufficient access to science or the education to understand it. Transitions from one worldview to another, for example, from polytheism to monotheism and from a monotheistic to a scientific interpretation of the natural world, are very difficult and emotional. The current friction between creationism and evolution is a powerful example of this war between worldviews.

A Role for Folklore

Folklore, like myth, has been around for thousands of years and the distinction between folklore and myth can be vague because both are deeply imbedded in culture and can have religious and mythic qualities. Folklore passes on traditions, practices, tales and beliefs, but avoids many of the passions associated with worldview. Various messages we get from the folklore of lightning and thunder have been at times harmful, harmless and even useful.

A common belief in Europe in the 1700’s held that lightning was a sign of God’s wrath, and that God could be appeased by saying special prayers and ringing church bells during thunderstorms. Some church bells were even inscribed with “Fulgura frango" which means “breaking lightning”. A review of church records revealed that over a 33 year period more than 110 bell ringers were electrocuted and 383 churches steeples were set on fire during thunderstorms. It took this revelation for churches to begin to install Ben Franklin’s lightning rods for protection of the churches and ultimately the town.

Some of the more benign folklore beliefs are that homes can be protected from lightning strikes by hanging herbs or mistletoe cut from an oak tree, by covering all the mirrors, or by putting an acorn on a windowsill. Finally, some still believe that lightning can sour milk and spoil eggs. A web search reveals that people are still asking about these beliefs.

Sometimes folklore is validated. Japanese folklore holds that a lightning strike in a mushroom field could double the harvest. Although the scientific community initially rejected this claim because ground lightning had little effect on plant or fungal growth. In 2010, however, scientists decided to test this folklore by electrifying the fields with 50,000 to 100,000 volts of electricity. Lo and behold, the mushroom yield increased dramatically.

Today's Remnants from the Myths about Lightning

Our beliefs in thunder gods have vanished, but our attachment to the magical and mythical power of thunder and lightning remains deeply embedded in our consciousness. None other than Snoopy himself regularly proclaims, “It was a dark and stormy night, …” before embarking on his literary quest. And did you know that the last two of Santa’s reindeer, Donner and Blitzen mean thunder and lightning, respectively in German, with like sounding names in the original Dutch? American football enthusiasts are well acquainted with the label attached to a pair of running backs, one stronger and slower (Thunder) and one very fast with frequent shifts in direction (Lightning). And how about the San Diego Chargers, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Tampa Bay Lightning? And a plant with purported healing power (for rheumatoid arthritis and heavy menses) bears the name Lei Gong Teng (aka Thunder God Vine) The song Thunderstruck is often played at sporting events to arouse the crowd. Even our language itself is replete with examples: “He bolted out the door as his father thundered orders, lightning flashing from his eyes”. Even Harry Potter bore a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.

Lightning in the Comics

Many comics and movies use lightning and thunder, often as a life-giving force, a harbinger of evil to come, a powerful weapon, a gift in a time of need, or simply a way to deepen our anxiety and involvement. The first popular superhero, Captain Marvel, used lightning that came from the power of Zeus. Lightning turned 12 year old Billy into Captain Marvel when he said “Shazam”, and gave him superhuman strength, speed, stamina, near invulnerability, flight, and genius-level mentality. Another popular superhero, The Flash, got his superpowers after being bathed by chemicals that had been struck by lightning. On the distaff side, there is Wonder Woman, who was revealed to be Zeus’ daughter. Wonder Woman can access and control Zeus’ divine powers through her bracelets, which were made from Athena’s shield, the Aegis. And we can’t forget the Norse god, Thor, who before becoming a movie star, had been introduced in Marvel comics. True to form, Thor wielded the power of lightning through his trusty hammer, Mjöllnir.

Lightning in the Movies

Lightning has been used in the movies as soon as the technology permitted. Here are some of our favorite examples.

In the original 1931 version of “Frankenstein”, Dr. Frankenstein harnessed and used lightning to bring his creature to life. Here Dr. Frankenstein established himself as a “god” by using the lightning given to him by nature for his personal agenda - to resurrect the dead. [film clip] The analogy to Zeus, who used lightning bolts given to him by the Cyclops for his personal agenda is striking. [image]

The 1984 movie The Natural is awash in mythical symbolism. Lightning is used to show that Hobbs, the main character, can hit a baseball so hard with his Wonderboy bat (a bat made from a tree that had been struck by lightning) that it creates a lightning bolt that lights up the sky (1:10). Was this bat the equivalent of Zeus’s thunderbolt weapon?

Probably the most tense scene in the 1985 movie Back to the Future was when Doc Brown sent Marty McFly, then stuck in 1955, back to the future (1985) by conveying the power of a lightning bolt into his time traveling DeLorean.

The 2000 movie X-Men I includes the mutant Storm, who had the power to control of thunderstorms. She could throw thunderbolts, just like the gods, whenever she wanted, such as when she confronted the Toad. After being hit, Toad was last seen flying through the air and plunging into a river. His future is unknown.

The 2012 movie Marvel: The Avengers further embellished the Norse god Thor’s control of lightning. Thor would power-up his hammer [film clip] and then use this hammer to vanquish his evil adopted brother Loki and the army from the Tesseract in a supercharged battle.

The 2010 movie Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief incorporated many aspects of Greek mythology and updated them for today’s kids. Percy is half god and half human (a demi-god) and his father is the Greek god Poseidon, meaning Zeus is Percy’s uncle. Percy is accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning master bolt and has to return it to prevent an Olympian war

This small sampling of movies emphasizes the depth to which our society continues to embrace several aspects of the mythology of lightning, usually to entertain us and activate our imagination. Many of these movies had spinoff products, which perpetuate the myths. Kids can pretend that they are Dr. Frankenstein in his lab creating the creature, or driving the supercharged DeLorean through time, or battling villains with the lightning hammer of Thor, or having adventures as a demi-god like Percy.

Conclusion

We are driven as a species to explain, especially in terms of cause and effect, all things external and internal that grab our attention. The explanations we come up with depend very much on the worldview of the society and culture in which we live, both in time and space. In turn, the prevailing worldview reflects the cumulative knowledge and beliefs of our society, its collective fears and ambitions, and the powerful residues of earlier explanations. In this blog, we have surveyed briefly the way human beings have explained lightning and thunder over the past five millennia. Those explanations generally evolved slowly, along with worldviews, with occasional bumps and jumps such as the impact of conquests and forced conversions, and the emergence of “modern” science. As older explanations fade and wither, once-deeply-held beliefs morph into myths and folklore. As our worldview transcends, we do retain many of the older, now mythic, components of older belief systems in the form of powerful stories and superstitions.

It seems foolish to expect today’s worldview to remain forevermore. Modernity is being challenged in many ways. And with rapid global communication and ever-expanding social media now in place, the evolution of worldview seems likely to become more rapid and more globally inclusive – and resisted with more vitriol and global consequence.

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    • Al-Lyn profile image
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      Allen Neims and Lynn Raynor 3 years ago

      Hi Chefsref,

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, we agree about the important link between lightning, religion and worldview. Some people still talk about Zeus and Thor being somehow similar to Jesus. Of course this is not a popular view, but it shows that the ancient gods are not gone, nor are they forgotten. Fantastically, news from Iceland states that a temple is being built to honor the Norse gods Thor, Odin and Frigg, and if this happens, it will be the first temple built in a 1000 years. Only time will tell if this is a joke or not.

      Thanks for visiting our first Hub!

    • Al-Lyn profile image
      Author

      Allen Neims and Lynn Raynor 3 years ago

      Hello Susie,

      We are glad that you enjoyed our first Hub, and thanks for the comment. The use of lightning in Powder did give the movie a dramatic and ambiguous ending. We should have remembered how the Ghostbuster's gun demonstrated its power by shooting out lightning bolts to catch the ghosts.

      When power and drama is needed in movies, lightning bolts fit the bill.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 3 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Al Lynn

      Welcome to HubPages, you're off to a good start.

      This Hub seems to be as much or more about the evolution of religion as it is about lightning;

      "Over time, a society’s worldview evolves".

      I would have to say our own society is lagging in this worldview "evolution". We are plagued by science deniers, vaccine refusers and climate change disbelievers all in the name of religion. Are we really so different from believing that Zeus is throwing lightning bolts at us?

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      Susie 3 years ago

      very interesting. Another lightning related movie is "Powder". A pregnant woman is struck by lightning - her son is born albino with extreme intelligence and certain powers but is bullied and ostracized. Touched on some of the lightning myths you discuss but also a sad commentary on society. Not the best movie but entertaining with some good special effects for its time (1990's).

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