How Dangerous Is Lightning?

How Dangerous Is Lightning?

by Christian Bouquegneau, Vladimir Rakov

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Lightning strikes somewhere on the surface of the earth about 100 times every second, and current observations indicate a significant increase in activity in the coming years. This illustrated survey explores the history of lightning, from ancient to modern times.
Mythology and observations of lightning damage constituted the extent of lightning history until the


Lightning strikes somewhere on the surface of the earth about 100 times every second, and current observations indicate a significant increase in activity in the coming years. This illustrated survey explores the history of lightning, from ancient to modern times.
Mythology and observations of lightning damage constituted the extent of lightning history until the Enlightenment period, when Benjamin Franklin, Thomas-François Dalibard, and others began applying a scientific approach. Detailed studies began at the dawn of the twentieth century, with the advent of modern instrumentation. This volume presents up-to-date views of thunderstorm clouds, lightning phenomenology and parameters, spatial distribution of lightning activity, and the global electric circuit. It explores the physical effects of lightning as well as secondary effects, lightning protection, and new frontiers in the understanding of lightning. An information-based study, this book is appropriate for classroom use as well as for popular science readers of all ages.

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How Dangerous is Lightning?

By Christian Bouquegneau, Vladimir Rakov, William Beasley

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Christian Bouquegneau and Vladimir Rakov
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13884-8


Mythology of Lightning

Beneficial or Harmful?

It is reasonable to speculate that in prehistoric times, lightning ignited dry tree branches, providing light and heat to the first humans, probably well before they learned to light a fire by themselves. According to numerous myths, only gods possessed fire. It is probable that the first tales and myths created by humans were inspired by natural phenomena, the meaning of which they could not grasp but wanted to interpret in order to allay their fears. If myths are similar regardless of the civilization that produced them, it is not likely because of communication among ancient civilizations, but because ancient man's thoughts originated from images of the world that are similar. People believed that lightning was a supernatural force. Everywhere in the world mythological stories appeared, taking into account the power of gods: punitive lightning, rumbling and terrifying thunder, lightning related to life-giving rain, or tamed lightning as a source of energy.

Ancient Mythology

In Asia Minor, Anatolian pantheons were led by a god of thunderstorms coming from the mountain, symbolized by a bull, and a goddess of fertility. The oldest representations of lightning gods are found on a cylindrical Akkadian seal in the Louvre from the first Babylonian period (2200 B.C.): a god who governs meteors, holding a whip, his cart is pulled by a mythical animal, and a female divinity holds the sky's fire.

In Hittite Anatolia, the thunder god is the great warrior Tarhunda-of-the-Sky, standing on a bull, armed with a mace. This commemorates the victory of the god of thunderstorms against the blind powers of the irrational. He corresponds to Adad in Semitic Mesopotamia, Ishkur in Sumer, Martu of the nomads of western Sumerians, Amurru of the Semites, the Hadad and Reshef of the western Semites, and Baal of the Canaanites (Syria) where he occupies the first rank in Ougarit Mythology. Baal is often represented as a young archer, armed with a mace and holding a young bull in leading strings. The bull is his fetish animal. All of these gods have the same origin and the same attributes as the Hurrit god Teshub: bull, lightning, mace, or mallet. As king of gods, Teshub has nothing left that is cosmic. He is the symbol of the human kingdom, the first paternal and patrician god, surrounded by a court and servants.

In Pharaonic Egypt, the Universe works by the contradictory actions of Osiris, who maintains the force of renewal in nature (vegetation, the Nile, the moon, and the sun) and Seth, his brother, malevolent power, violent and murderous, who destroys and manifests himself as god of rain and of thunderstorms, but also of desert and sterility. Each god is doubled with a feminine figure who, according to her companion's character, symbolizes maternity (Isis, sister and wife of Osiris) or sterility (Nephtys, sister and wife of Seth). Seth was considered to be identical to the Greek god Typhon, while Zeus' role was taken by Amon. Later, in Ptolemaic Egypt, Serapis combined the characteristics from both Osiris and Zeus returning to the supreme power of the latter.

In the Wonders and Fontanalbe Valleys (Mercantour Park) in Southern France, close to Nice and the Italian border, stands Mount Bego, the sacred mountain in the part of France, which is most often struck by lightning. Among numerous rupestral engravings with representations of lightning flashes, dating around two millennia B.C., there is a particular one called "the sorcerer": an anthropomorphic body holding a triangular dagger in each hand (see color insert). This sorcerer is a god of lightning brandishing his flashes, as Enlil-Bel in Mesopotamia at the same period (circa 2150 B.C.).

Classical Mythology

In ancient Greece, lightning was Zeus' weapon. The locations struck by lightning were dedicated to him. In Rome, like other celestial gods, Jupiter (see figure 1) punished people with lightning.

In one of the myths of the sovereignty, Prometheus, the Titan, holds Zeus' power in check. Since the first men lived in nocturnal darkness and in the cold, Prometheus took pity on them. He stole the celestial fire and offered it to our ancestors who learned how to master nature's forces. He made them stronger, more intelligent, and more skillful.

Zeus, Master of the Universe, didn't appreciate this and decided to punish Prometheus cruelly: he tied him up to a rock on top of a mountain. Each day a giant eagle lacerated his belly with its claws, and each night the wounds healed. And to punish men, Zeus sent them a dangerous trap, which nobody could escape—Pandora. She opened up the box in which all ills and diseases were locked. From then on, mankind has been condemned to aging and death. The lightning-fertility association, negative among the Greeks, is on the contrary positive in some other mythologies.

The lightning bolt, divine scepter, celestial super-weapon, manifestation of the divine wrath of an anthropomorphic deity with a powerful hand, bears various names: thunderbolt in ancient Greece, forged for Zeus by Hephaistos, the sky-dwelling blacksmith; bundle of lightning flashes; vajra (lightning flash or thunderbolt), belonging to Indra in the Indian subcontinent, or its analog dordje in Tibet, with a diamond's purity, symbol of stability in Buddhism; mjöllnir, the famous hammer of Thor in Scandinavia or of Donar among the Germans; an axe or even a double axe of Shango in Central Africa, among the Yorubas; thunderstone, mace (Tarhunda-of-the-Sky), bludgeon, mallet; sling; Categuil (or Illapa) among the Incas roamed the heavens with his sling and his mace shining with lightning flashes, creating so much damage on Earth that children were sacrificed in order to calm his wrath.

Vedic Mythology

From the top of his white elephant, or of a tricephalic elephant, Indra, the lightning striker, the Hindu god of storms, king of the heaven, used to strike the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent with his dangerous weapon, the vajra. He was a benevolent and rough deity, bellicose but compassionate. He dealt with human affairs and was the deus ex machina who recognized heroes of talent deserving rewards.

In Indra's prophecies, one finds cosmogony, recipes for happiness and the science of predicting. Indra penetrated the Hindu pantheon by killing Vritra, snake of dryness, which had drunk the cosmic waters and then rested wrapped around mountains. Indra's vajra opened the snake's stomach and the waters that escaped gave birth to life and freed the day's dawn. Lightning at the origin of life, it is more than just a myth!

In the fifth century B.C., the role of Indra, offering life on Earth, was taken by Vishnu. Indra was put out of favor because the devotees of Shiva and Devi dominated in the cities destroyed by the adherents of Indra's worship.

From Vikings to Gallic Mythology

Among the Vikings, the super-weapon was called mjöllnir, the famous hammer of Thor (see figure 2) or of Donar, then of Wodan, among the Germans. In other civilizations, one also finds the mallet (of the good god Sucellus in Gaul), the mace and the bludgeon (the god Tarhunda-of-the-Sky of the Hittites and the druid-god Dagda in Ireland).

Thor (god of Thunder), holding his hammer mjöllnir, had supernatural strength. He was also a benevolent god, a favorite of Scandinavians, because he protected men against evil, dispensed the rain and ruled over fertility.

A dangerous warrior, he exterminated giants without fear. His red beard is plaited, he had a frightening voice, and his eyes would throw lightning flashes. Like a boomerang, his hammer had the power of coming back into his hand after striking. When thunder roams, it is Thor's chariot, pulled by he-goats, that rolls on the vault of heaven.

When lightning strikes the ground, it is Thor who threw his weapon. Thor's hammer is the most common symbol found engraved on stones bearing runic inscriptions, or melted in beautiful current Nordic jewels. Thor died heroically in Ragnarök (the paradise), after a great fight against his hereditary enemy, the cosmic snake Jormungand, who threatened Earth by embracing it. Thor broke its head with one fatal blow then was drowned by the torrent of venom, which came out of the beast's open jaws.

Is the legend of Thor and Jormungand much different from the one of Indra and Vritra? Why should it be? Indo-European mythologies, like Indo-European languages and cultures in general, follow the same schemes.

In Anglo-Scandinavian languages, Thor gave his name to Thursday. It is torsdag in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, torsdai in Finnish, like Donar (his German analog coming from Donner) gave donnerstag in German and donderdag in Dutch, like Jupiter (Jovis in Latin) gave jeudi in French, jueves in Spanish, giovedi in Italian and joï in Romanian, the same Indo-European origin. Thursday is dedicated to the god of lightning.

In Scandinavia and among the Slavic people, Perun is worshipped and earns the same attributes as Thor. The Russian word for lightning, molniya, is apparently derived from the Vikings' mjöllnir. In Baltic countries, Perkunas (in Lithuania) or Perkons (in Latvia) would be the anthropomorphization of a tree, which embodies the fertile life, and thus the benefits of a particular worship.

Zeus in Greece, Jupiter in Rome, Indra in India, Thor and Perun in northern, central and eastern Europe have similar characteristics and attributes. They are gods who create and organize. Their resemblances are striking: they all brandish a throwable weapon, they possess a violent and mysterious strength which leads them to heroic acts, they fulminate, punish, reward and hold the secrets of wisdom. They also share the same weaknesses: they cheat and procreate everywhere. Both Zeus and Jupiter had numerous mistresses, both goddesses and mortals.

But the hierarchical idea remains preponderant: the world's reign belongs by right to the gods of Heaven, never to Earth or sea deities, even in the maritime nations like the Greeks or the Vikings.

Lightning is a weapon of the gods! In Judeo-Christian mythology, isn't it with lightning's complicity that Yahve came down to Mount Sinai to dictate the Ten Commandments to Moses, another Prometheus, herald, mediator, fire bearer? In the Apocalypse accounts, at the great Last Judgement, lightning frequently appears as symbol of God's punishment.

Gallic ancestors worshipped Taranis (thunder in Gallic), personification of the luminous sky and thunderstorms, assimilated with the Roman Jupiter. His emblem is the wheel symbolizing the rolling of thunder, similar to the sound of the wheel on Roman roads. He is holding S-shaped hooks, symbols of the winding trail of thunderbolts, and is often displayed on top of or vanquishing a monster, victory of the sky over the Earth, of light over dark, of good over evil, and, why not, of civilization over barbarism. Traces of his cult can be found not only in Gaul but also in Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, and Croatia. Statues of Taranis are lodged at the top of pillars or columns that can be found in Romanized Gaul.

Protecting Saints

In western Europe, during a thunderstorm, an old custom encouraged the peasants to have in their pocket a thunderstone while reciting: "Peter, Peter, protect me from thunder." But many saints other than Peter were worshipped. There are more than twenty of them. Prayers were seen as actions that can appease a god's wrath.

There are seventy-six different Saint Donats, among whom Saint Donat, the bishop of Numidia in the fourth century, said to be from Münstereifel (Germany), is portrayed holding a bundle of fire in one hand and in the other a few ears of grain, which remind of his power in protecting the harvest against hail.

In 1652, the relics of Saint Donat taken from Saint Agnes's catacombs in Rome arrived in Euskirchen, three leagues away from Bad Münstereifel, their final destination, under unusually intense rain. The day after, on the day of Transfiguration, a miracle happened. During the mass celebrated by the Jesuit Father Herde, sent from Münstereifel to Euskirchen to prepare the pilgrimage, a terrible thunderstorm occurred. Thunder rumbled during the elevation and the communion and, before the last gospel, a thunderbolt penetrated into the church and struck the Jesuit father who was invoking Saint Donat (see figure 3). Against all odds (but this is a scientifically explainable fact), he survived and the same day managed to lead the triumphal entrance of the relics into Münstereifel. The invocation to Saint Donat was consecrated and he has been prayed to as saint protector against lightning ever since.

Examples of priests and faithful people struck by lightning are common. This fact suggested to Camille Flammarion to treat lightning, if not unbeliever or anti-religious, at least not respecting sacred places. So many superstitions!

Around the world, the most invoked saint in the Catholic Church is Saint Barbara, virgin and martyr. Daughter of the Syrian satrap Dioscore, Barbara was born approximately in the year 306. She was converted to Christianity against her father's will and was thrown in jail in a tower and submitted to the most atrocious tortures. Since she refused to renounce her faith,

Dioscore ran out of patience and brought her in front of Judge Marcien who condemned her to death. Her father beheaded her himself. While coming down the mountain where he killed her, the father died of a violent lightning strike.

This is why Saint Barbara is associated with noise and fire. Removed from the Catholic calendar since 1969, she is still celebrated on December 4 as patroness of miners, artillerymen, artisans, and technicians!

She is represented holding a tower and is often accompanied by Saint Claire, both associated with the same prayer.

American Mythology

In the southwestern deserts of North America, the great show of a sky sparkling with repeated lightning strikes seems extraterrestrial. Under such a sky, the Native Americans changed their fear into a myth, the one of a spirit such as Ahayuta, god of lightning and god of war, among the Zunis in New Mexico, or the myth of a winged god, a thunderbird, such as Amoncas among the Kwakiutls on the Canadian Pacific Coast. This thunderbird (see color insert) is an eagle carved on totem poles. The flutter of wings produces thunder, which rumbles and rolls in the sky. The thunderbolts spring up out of sparkling eyes, as they sprang out of the only sparkling eye of each of the three Cyclops. The eagle is so strong that it can lift a whale in its terrifying claws. Nevertheless the thunderbird has no maleficent spirit, because, though its influence covers lightning and storms, it brings water, which gives birth to forests and plains.

The thunderbird is also found in ancient Mesopotamia (Zu), Siberia, Peru, and Mexico, as well as among the contemporary Zulu and Baziza people in South Africa where "to be struck by lightning" means "to be lacerated by the thunderbird's claws." The fierce eagle eats fish greedily and dies immediately, and its corpse is used to obtain ingredients for local medicine.

According to the mythology of the Dakota Sioux of North America, four thunderbirds fought the Earth god for the control of water. The big bird from the west, gifted with a holy supernatural power, Wakan Tanka, called its brothers. The sky had to be their realm. They won over the Earth god and reigned over water and fire, over thunder and wind, over life and death.

In the Amerindians, in pre-Columbian times, lightning was personified by a mythical being dressed with splendor and wearing a multicolored feather headdress. Tlaloc (Aztecs), Cocijo (Zapotecs), Aktsin (Totonacs), Tzahui (Mixtecs), Illapa (Incas), and Chac (Mayas) are all gods of lightning, rain, and fertility.

Peruvian farmers were aware of Illapa's activities; they beseeched him to provide enough water and they offered him big human immolations in case of long-lasting drought. There, lightning is also bound to divination, since Inca diviners held their gift because they had been struck by lightning.

Chac raises up lightning with stone axes and produces rain by throwing down calabashes full of water. After a long-lasting drought, Mayas set themselves far from their camp and prayed, fasted, and practiced sexual abstinence.

Thunder and flash of light are associated with the same lightning phenomenon. It is thus not surprising to find sparkling eyes, screams and wing fluttering of the thunderbird. Thunder, acoustic signature of lightning, is the ensemble of acoustical refractions, from the nearby blast wave to the muffled hum coming from a faraway strike. Sometimes, thunder resembles the terrifying roar of the jaguar or the celestial puma.

Among the Desanas (or wind's sons) from the deep and humid forests in Colombia (Amazonia), the thunder crash is attributed to the hoot of the owl, a nocturnal predator with silent wing flutters, messenger of death. Here, lightning is not a weapon held by gods, but an essential part of a big energy cycle, the raw material of life and magic, fertility materialized in palpable light, a seed coming from the sun, the semen that brings life to Earth!


Excerpted from How Dangerous is Lightning? by Christian Bouquegneau, Vladimir Rakov, William Beasley. Copyright © 2010 Christian Bouquegneau and Vladimir Rakov. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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