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Credit: Upper: Eugène Delacroix. "Apollo Slays Python", 1851; Lower: J. M. W, Turner, Apollo and Python, 1811


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Oct 08, 2004
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt (3)

It is fascinating to follow the historic evolution of the cosmic thunderbolt, as the divine weapon of the gods passed into the sword, spear, arrow, or club of the most famous heroes of later times. Of course mythologists will not normally think of the arrow of Apollo, the sword of Perseus, or the club of Heracles as electric in nature. One reason for this is that, as the early gods of the thunderbolt evolved over the centuries, the chroniclers gradually reduced them to human dimensions. A celestial warrior bearing the thunderbolt in battle later lost his cosmic attributes to become a great man, the best of heroes, the esteemed ancestor of the tribe or nation telling the story.

In such cases the original identity of the magical weapon had already slipped into the background, though only rarely could it be hidden entirely. Often, what we get is just a shadow of the cosmic missile so vividly described in early Near Eastern narratives of primeval order and chaos.

As a bridge between the more archaic world and the fragmented and diluted myths of later times, Greek accounts offer many clues pointing to the evolution of the symbolism. The Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo describes the hero's confrontation with the chaos serpent Python, whom the chroniclers identified alternately as a form of the dragon Typhon or as the nurse of Typhon. The Homeric and other accounts refer to the invincible "arrow" launched by Apollo, causing the monster to shudder violently and to give up its life in a torrent of blood.

The ambiguity as to the setting of the mythic accounts is emphasized in the two paintings above, depicting Apollo's defeat of Python. The upper painting by Eugène Delacroix has preserved many touches of the original celestial context, while the lower by J. M. W, Turner is much more terrestrial in its setting.

Did the "arrow" of Apollo really mean the cosmic thunderbolt, the weapon that so often, in the earlier Near Eastern accounts, took the form of an arrow? The most respected experts on Greek mythology and symbolism assure us that arrows or swords wielded by the revered gods of Greece cannot be separated from the language of the thunderbolt. The connection is apparent in the Greek keraunós, "thunderbolt," most commonly used for Zeus' weapon and said to stem from a Proto-Indo-European root *ker The same root appears to lie behind the Sanskrit _áru-, 'arrow' and the Gothic haírus, 'sword.' This should not surprise us, since the most familiar representations of the "eagle" of Zeus (as, of course, the eagle of the Latin Jupiter) depict the god's lightning as arrows held in the talons of the bird--a representation well preserved into modern times by the symbol of the eagle and its lightning-arrows on the U.S. one dollar bill.

The same association holds true for the sword of Apollo. The god's epithet was chrysáoros or chrysáor--meaning "of the Golden Sword" (áor). According to  the distinguished authority, W. H. Roscher, the Golden Sword is a Greek hieroglyph for the thunderbolt. Indeed Zeus himself, the most famous wielder of the thunderbolt, was Chrysaoreús or Chrysaórios, "He of the Golden Sword".

In much the same way, the poet Pindar speaks of Zeus "whose spear is lightning", while Aristophanes invokes lighting as "the immortal fiery spear of Zeus". In the words of the poet Nonnus, Zeus is "the javelin-thrower of the thunderbolt". "The spear he shook [in the battle with Typhon] was lightning." "Do thou in battle lift thy lightning-flash, Olympus' luminous spear".

The question is worth pursuing, therefore: have historians and mythologists missed the true identity of the far-famed hero and his weapon?

See also:
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(1)

Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(2)


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
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