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Weather Almanac for August 2002
GODS OF THUNDER, THROWERS OF LIGHTNING
A distant booming drew my attention away from the engaging novel I was reading. My ears would have perked and swivelled -- were they able -- trying to pinpoint the source of the ruckus. My first thoughts drew in the day's weather forecast: "Chance of thundershowers," a rare event for weather watchers on southeastern Vancouver Island. Could tonight be the night?
The second report came several seconds after my peripheral vision caught an expanding blue chrysanthemum rising in the southern sky. My initial hopes of a thunderstorm dashed, my second guess was confirmed by a succeeding, higher red starburst. Fireworks over the Inner Harbour climaxed Victoria's annual "Symphony Splash" concert.
Although the firework concussions were easily audible, the music they embellished was not, so I imagined a weather-related piece such as Wagner's "Ride of the Valkeries." My choice was likely not correct, but I was in the mood for a good natural concert of thunder and lightning, and Wagner's piece always reminds me of a rapidly advancing line of wild thunderstorms, punctuating the dark sky with storm fury.
My thoughts then wandered away from my novel, reattaching themselves to the spine of a volume on my shelf: Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth. Metaphors, allusions, perceptions, visions, legends, ancient beliefs all coalesced within my imagination into one common theme: The Gods of Thunder, The Throwers of Lightning.
I followed my thoughts:
We cannot say which peoples were the first to honour thunder and lightning as the work of a named deity. Nor can we know what that deity was named. We do know that the elevation of thunder and lightning to god, or near-god status was global in appearance even among peoples who were rarely accorded its presence. To primitive humans, lightning was the magic fire from the sky which if captured could keep them warm and protect against savage animals. Seeking understanding and causation in the natural world, humans brought lightning into their superstitions, myths and religions. Venerated and worshipped through the ages, the names of the thunder and lightning gods spread first by oral traditions as sacred stories, then written as holy texts.
At this moment, 1,000 to 2,000 thunderstorms are raging simultaneously over the surface of Earth. Some are gentle, sounding to those beneath like the rumbling of a sky giant's empty tummy. Others are violent beyond belief, the harrowing precursors of a judgement day spawned from the temper of an angry god. In between sits a spectrum of storms that move with the rhythm of a herd of sky cattle whose hooves spark on the ground below.
The task of thunderwork falls to many deities. Some names still remain common to us today: Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, Donar. Others are mostly forgotten or know only to a small population: Vayu, Summanus, Umpundulo, Adad, Wakinyan Tanka. They reign over Africa, Asia, Australia, the Americas and remote Pacific Ocean islands. I bow to their power but will save their stories for another day. My focus this day will be narrowed to those thundergods who emerge in European skies, the cultures of my ancestors.
I begin with the two great ancient European cultures, the Mediterranean nations of Greece and Rome. Their supreme gods Zeus and Jupiter ruled the sky, the rain, and particularly the power of thunder and lightning.
Greek mythology tells us that Zeus received his thunderbolt weapons from the Cyclopes, gigantic one-eyed monsters born to Gaea and Uranus, as were Zeus and the other Titans. When Cronus came to power among the Titans, he imprisoned the Cyclopes in Tartarus. When Zeus freed them from their imprisonment, they became his allies against the Titans for supreme power. As a reward for securing their release, the Cyclopes gave Zeus the mighty weapons of lighting and thunder which he used to assume celestial sovereignty among the Titans. Afterward, the Cyclopes continued serving as his smiths, forging his thunderbolts on Mount Olympus. Three -- Arges (thunderbolt), Steropes (lightning), and Brontes (thunder) -- were storm gods.
Zeus had control over all the heavens, and thus governed the sudden changes of weather and power of storms. Zeus the Thunderbolt wielded his power from Mount Olympus; Zeus the Descender came down to earth in each flash from heaven, consecrating spots on the ground with his fiery touch. Although his thunderbolt would kill, they permitted the gods to confer immortality on the victim. The Greeks feared his random lightning strikes but worshipped him because the rain he also controlled was critical for agriculture. To him went Greek prayers during periods of drought: "Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, on the cornlands and on the plains."
Athena was goddess of wisdom and war, and Zeus' favourite child. He allowed her to use his weapons including the thunderbolts which she hurled in the heavenly battles. Thus, she was also considered a goddess of storms.
The Etruscans, a pre-Roman Italian civilization, had several deities who had powers over thunder and lightning. Tinia, The Thunderer and Sky-Father was lord of all weather and climate manifestations. Aplu and Summanus (or Summamus) also wielded the powers of thunder and lightning. Summanus was particularly responsible for lightning at night.
For the Scandinavian and Germanic tribes, Thor or Thunar or Donar ruled the might of thunder and lightning. We are reminded of his elevated status each week when Thursday -- Thor's day or Thunar's day -- comes around and, obviously, by the English word thunder -- even the word evokes the sound
Although Thor tossed lightning bolts at his enemies, particularly the demons, the giants/jotuns and evil sorcerers, he was not a true god of war. The most popular of the northern European gods, Thor, the son of Odin and Erda, the Earth, was god of the common man. Thor in his role as the god of the storms, thunder and lightning could destroy, but he could also create through the sending of life-giving rains. . He is also a fertility god because of the strong link between weather and the harvest ( there is an old Scandinavian superstition that summer lightning ripens crops). Thor's palace was called Bilskirnir (lightning). Thor wielded Mjollnir, the mighty hammer weapon of the lightning and thunder, to protecting Asgard, the abode of the Norse gods and Midgard, the home of humans. (Asgard was connected to Midgard by the Bifrost (rainbow) Bridge.)
For the Slavs, Perun, God of Thunder, Rain and Strength, stood with a thunderbolt in hand. Perun was the maker of lightning, and he traversed the sky with great commotion in a fiery, goat-drawn chariot. Perun's weapons are the axe and hammer, which both symbolize thunder and lightning, and certain stones and thunderer arrows that represent even more powerful thunder and lightning.
The counterparts of Perun and the German's Donar are the Finn's Ukko Pitkänen, the Byelorussian's Pjarun, the Pole's Piorun, and the Serbian's Dunder. To Lithuanians, his name was Perkuns or Perkunas. For many, the prime Celtic thunder god is Taranis. (Taran means "thunder" in both the Welsh and Breton languages.)
With the waning of the pagan gods, the "new" God of Christianity and Judaism was often perceived with a thunderous appearance. For example, when he spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, the summit "billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder."
For centuries throughout Europe, church bell ringers made as much noise as possible when storms approached, hoping to scare away the lightning from these holy dwellings. Unfortunately, the practice afforded little actual protection as their spires and bell towers were frequently struck, which lead to a high mortality rate among the bell ringers.
Here I drawn this discussion to an end. This piece was not intended to touch the science of lightning and thunder, and in no way exhausts the list of gods or spirits who have sprung from the human imagination at the flash of a nocturnal spark of electric energy and the trailing basso-acoustic reports of exploding, cracking, rumbling sky. Thunder and Lightning, Donner and Blitzen. The fires of heaven scrape earth, scaring us on one hand, thrilling us on the other.
Finally, some of my best memories of youth are rooted in late night thunderstorms rumbling through the northern Illinois summer sky. One in particular I later captured in a poem. Here is that work:
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