Credit: LEFT: Heracles Battling Achelous,
Of all the ancient heroes, none achieved greater popularity than the Greek Heracles, (Roman Hercules), son of Zeus. The sculpture on the left above depicts Hercules' defeat of the serpent-monster Achelous, and the archaic Greek vase painting on the right portrays the hero's defeat of the three-headed monster Geryon.
We have already noted that, across the centuries, former celestial gods were brought down to earth through storytelling, presenting an enigma for the chroniclers. How would later poets and historians describe the thunderbolt with which, in the more archaic tales, the warrior-god vanquished heaven-spanning serpents, dragons, or chaos monsters?
In some cases the electrical character of the weapon simply disappeared. But in an astonishing number of instances, the lightning connection was preserved either through metaphor, or etymologies. Just as the spear of Achilles retained the connection to the thunderbolt of Zeus (it "flashed lightning round"), the poet Hesiod describes Heracles leaping into battle "like the lightning of his father Zeus".
The hero's connection to the "thunderbolts of the gods" was no accident, a fact confirmed by cross-cultural comparison. In the Grail cycle of myths, lightning receives the name Lanceor, or "Golden Lance", an archaic name of Lancelot. Lightning is also linked to the sword Excalibur, which Geoffrey of Monmouth called Caliburn, from the Welsh Caledvwich, Irish Caladbolg: old names for the "lightning".
The most famous Celtic hero, Cúchulainn, victor over chaos powers, held a weapon granted him by the lightning-god Bolga, "the inventor of the missile spear". The words Gaé Bolga signify Bolga's spear, an acknowledged "lightning weapon" forged by the divine smith (like the thunderbolt of Zeus) in the Otherworld. So too, the warrior Fergus, when wielding his sword In Caladbolg, could single-handedly slay hundreds on the battle field. The sword's name means "a two-handed lightning sword".
Again and again, Germanic tribes placed the thunderbolt in the hands of their celebrated heroes. Here, according to H. Bächtold- Stäubli, the forms of the thunderbolt ranged from "the rough stone and the club of primitive times through hammer, axe, and spear to the golden sword wielded by the Hero". (We take up the most famous Germanic thundergod Thor in pictures to follow.)
Gertrude Jobes, a diligent investigator of symbolic themes, affirms that, among the Altaic Tatars, lightning was the "arrow of a mighty hero". A common Slavic name for the weapon of the celestial warrior Perun is strela, "arrow". The Finnish warrior-hero Jumala, is said to have "wielded thunderbolts in the shape of jagged lightning-spears".
For the Hindus, it was the great warrior Indra who defeated the dragon Vritra with his thunderbolt. Among the Tibetans and Mongols lightning was the arrow of a dragon-riding god, and thunder was the voice of the dragon. In the same way, the warrior Raiden, in Japanese myth, wielded "fire-arrows"--identified as the thunderbolt--in his battle against the chaos power, Raiju, the "Thunder-beast".
Numerous equations of hero's weapon and thunderbolts occur in the Americas as well. Iroquois account tells of a warrior Hé-no, whose name means "thunder". "A monstrous serpent dwelt under the village, and made his annual repast upon the bodies of the dead which were buried by its side. He went forth once a year, and poisoned the waters of the Niagara, and also of the Cayuga creek, whereby the pestilence was created. Hé-no discharged upon the monster a terrific thunderbolt which inflicted a mortal wound."
Similarly, the Navaho say that long ago the arrows that defeated the devouring powers of chaos were the lightning. The Pawnee and their neighbors recall the great warrior, named Black Lightning Arrow. Thus, Von del Chamberain, who ranks among the most informed authorities on Plains Indian mythology, tells us that "the flint- tipped arrows of the Indian correspond to the lightning arrows shot to earth by higher powers".
EDITORS' NOTE: Thanks to the linguist Rens van der Sluijs for several of the references in the present discussion.
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