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Oct 12, 2004
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(4)

[For background on this discussion, see the url's listed below.]

To uncover the secret of the thunder-weapon in world mythology we must trace the theme back to its early expressions in ancient Mesopotamia. When the Babylonians, the world's first astronomers, looked back to the age of the gods, they spoke incessantly of disaster. In their Akitu festival, a prototype of ancient New Year's celebrations, the astronomer priests recounted the events of a former time, when the dragon Tiamat assaulted the world and it appeared that heaven itself would fall into chaos. (See the above image of  the seven-headed dragon, Tiamat, taken from a Babylonian cylinder seal.) The "resplendent dragon" spawned a horde of dark powers with "irresistible weapons"--"monster serpents, sharp-toothed, with fang unsparing", their bodies filled with poison for blood.  "Fierce dragons she has draped with terror, crowned with flame and made like gods", the storytellers recounted, "so that whoever looks upon them shall perish with fear". This was not a disaster on a local scale, but a universal disaster--a catastrophe so great that the gods themselves were immobilized by fear, and even Anu, the sovereign of the sky, fled the scene in terror.

The protagonist in this narrative is the god Marduk. When all else had failed, it was Marduk  who rose to confront Tiamat and her companions.  The god took possession of his "matchless weapons" and--

    "In front of him he set the lightning,
    With a blazing flame he filled his body"

Mounted on his storm-chariot and turbaned with a "fearsome halo," Marduk set his course toward the raging Tiamat. In the encounter that followed,

    "Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him,
    He drove in the Evil Wind that she close not her lips.
    As the fierce winds charged her belly,
    Her body was distended and her mouth was wide open.
    He released the arrow, it tore her belly,
    It cut through her insides, splitting the heart".

Cuneiform specialists confirm that the arrow of Marduk was the thunderbolt, a weapon frequently displayed throughout the ancient Near East and beyond. We have already noted that the Sumerian warrior Ninurta defeated the monster Anzu with his thunderbolt, just as the Greek Zeus subdued Typhon with the thunderbolt. But the early traditions of earthshaking battles in the heavens were not limited to any particular culture. At the temple of Ra in Heliopolis the priests ritually trod underfoot images of the great dragon Apep to represent his defeat at the hands of the supreme god. At the temple of Edfu, a series of reliefs depict the warrior Horus and his followers vanquishing Apep or his counterpart Set, cutting to pieces the monster's companions, the "fiends of darkness". According to W. M. Muller, the spear or harpoon of Horus was a metaphor for the thunderbolt. "Lightning is the spear of Horus, and thunder the voice of his wounded antagonist, roaring in his pain", Muller reports.

The Hebrews, too, preserved an enduring memory of Yahweh's battle against a dragon of the deep, marked by lightning on a cosmic scale. "The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook". Here the adversary was alternately named Rahab, Leviathan, Tannin, or Behemoth--dragon-like forms representing both the waters of chaos and the rebellion of the "evil land" vanquished by Yahweh in primeval times.

The battle is echoed in Job 26: "The pillars of heaven shook and were astounded at his roar. By his power he stilled the sea, and by his understanding he smote Rahab". It is also well established that the Hebrew accounts reflect a connection to early Canaanite traditions in which the thunderbolt-wielding god Baal defeated the monster Lotan.

Comparison of the cross-cultural traditions suggests a human memory reaching far beyond any tribal or regional influence. Yet similarities abound, and unexplained similarities are the key to discovery. What ancient event provoked the human memory of a dragon attacking the world?  Who was the warrior-god who confronted the monster? And what was the invincible "thunderbolt" that defeated the beast?  The questions can be answered if we allow the ancient witnesses to speak--and to mean what they say.

See also:
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(1)
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(2)
Mystery of the Cosmic Thunderbolt(3)


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane,   Walter Radtke, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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