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A bronze statuette of Zeus wielding the lightning. Sanctuary of Dodona, Greece.
Courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece


Is Lightning the Strongest Creative Force?
Jan 14, 2009

To have stories about the creation of the world is probably one of the "universals" in human culture worldwide. How are such stories to be interpreted?

Modern stories of creation, generally called "theories," tend to spring from the imaginative power of the intellect and include such varied concepts as the Big Bang and the evolution of life. As science progresses through a succession of competing paradigms, some of these theories will be thrown out, while others will continue to prove viable.

The principal difference between such modern theories and mythical accounts of creation is that the latter base their authority not on reasoning, but on a close adherence to tradition. Creation myths are passed on as eyewitness accounts, not as speculative discourses. Their highest merit is not logic, but adherence to the original versions.

A detailed comparative analysis of creation myths highlights a remarkable degree of agreement about the most salient aspects of this "creation." Clearly, the referent of these traditions was something that was once obvious and relevant to the whole of mankind. So what exactly is it that is remembered in these global reports?

An attractive possibility is that creation myths tell the story of a turbulent episode in prehistory, when a combination of atmospheric and geological forces drastically altered the appearance of the familiar landscape. Provided that this is done with sufficient scholarly rigour, the treasure trove of the world’s creation myths can be mined for useful information about the nature, the development, and the scope of that environmental crisis.

Lightning plays a decisive instrumental role in a large number of creation myths. In some cases, an extraordinary flash of lightning is said to have enabled the lifting up of the "sky," which had originally been far too close to the earth for comfort. One tradition from the Pueblos, of New Mexico, relates that the deity, whom they called Sun Father, “sent the lightning to make an opening between the two worlds. The earth shook and trembled.” It was only then that the earth could dry up and the familiar luminaries could first be discerned in the firmament.

Ka-Ka-Pit´ka, or "Two Crows," was a priest of the Arikara, Dakota, who reported that the lightning was the device by which the first living creatures were transported to the earth: “Atíuch seems to have made men and the animals up above in the sky where he lives, and when he was satisfied with what he had made, he resolved to place them upon the earth. So he called the lightning to put them on the earth, and the lightning caused a cloud to come, and the cloud received what Atíuch had made. But the lightning, acting as he always does, set them down on the earth with a crash, and as the ground was still wet with the water that had covered it, they all sank into the soft earth.”

On the island of Borneo, the Ngayu Dayak held that the clouds, the vault of heaven, mountains and cliffs, sun and moon, and various sacred creatures were all produced from the lightning that resulted from the clashing together of a primordial pair of deities.

In Kiribati, one of the archipelagoes of Micronesia, a professional storyteller, Taakeuta of Marakei, described the formative work of Naareau, the creator, as a memorable type of lightning, operating when the sky had just been elevated and needed to be attached to the "horizon": “He ran, he leapt, he flew, he was seen and gone again like the lightnings in the sides of heaven; and where he stayed, there he pulled down the side of the sky, so that it was shaped like a bowl.”

This impression is reminiscent of the contention that "God" made all things “like lightning,” a phrase the Abaluyia people, of western Kenya, used to describe the god’s great power and the speed of accomplishing his intentions. Their neighbours, the Vusugu, likewise narrate that "God" formed the sky and its supporting pillars, as his abode, “without assistance and ‘like lightning.’” “They say that its substance is a mystery, that heaven is always bright by day and night, and that it is ‘a place of scintillation.'”

While the differences between such story-lines deserve careful consideration, it is fair to conclude that various societies on earth associated the events of cosmic creation with conspicuous forms of lightning. To the same genre arguably belongs the Indo-European motif of a celestial being that employs a "thunderbolt" as a club or spear in his endeavours.

In Vedic mythology, the creative power of Indra’s vajra or "lightning sceptre" is enunciated beyond doubt. In the Hellenic world, Zeus’ keraunós or "thunderbolt" dominates the scene, but figures less clearly as the instrument of creation. Nevertheless, the philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (±535-475 BCE), must have had Zeus’ fiery implement in mind when he declared that “a thunderbolt steers all things.” His aim may have been to "upgrade" the hoary myth of Zeus’ lightning weapon, using terms of natural history that were acceptable to intellectuals in his own time.

In the future, the twentieth century will almost certainly be looked upon as a scientific Dark Age, during which the pervasive role of electromagnetic activity in space was systematically suppressed by the scientific orthodoxy. As the spectre of this period begins to recede and scientists make great headway in unravelling the complexities of the geomagnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind, a window is opened for a promising, new exploration of traditional creation mythology. Traditions such as the sample given above underscore the possibility that energetic plasmas in the inner solar system played a prominent role in the not too distant past, at a time of cosmic instability, and may even have appeared to sculpt the surface of the earth.

Contributed by Rens Van Der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong,
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Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs,
Ian Tresman, Tom Wilson
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